Day 6 – The East Coast of the Big Island

An enormous banyan tree shading some parked cars in Hilo

A personable, magenta-haired barista at the Waimea Coffee Company made an açaí bowl and blue smoothie for us shortly after checking out of our motel. Açaí bowls were invented in Brazil, but they came into America through Hawai’i. Despite my love of food and the presence of açaí bowls in U.S. cuisine for over a decade, I had managed never to try one. The bowl was really good and really cold. For others who have never tried this dish, an açaí bowl is a fruit smoothie crowned with various healthy toppings like the traditional combination of granola, bananas, peanut butter, blueberries, and a drizzle of honey.

Along the island’s east coast, we stopped at Laupahoehoe Point and watched the sea crash to shore in white spray against jumbles of jagged black rocks. Whoever named the Pacific didn’t do it in this particular spot. Much of the Big Island of Hawai’i’s coastline, in fact, is anything but peaceful. There is a memorial at Laupahoehoe Point for 25 people who were lost in the 1946 tsunami. Three people survived the event there, all dragged out to sea on debris and later rescued. Near the memorial were some kukui (candlenut trees, Aleurites moluccanus), a fascinating tree with husk-covered, fat-laden fruits that look like pear-shaped macadamia nuts when shelled. The candlenut was named the Hawai’i State Tree in 1959 despite being imported from Polynesia, and the nuts are reportedly toxic raw but edible when cooked.

Further down the coast is ‘Akaka Falls State Park. A driving, soaking rain confronted us when we arrived, so we went back down the road to Hilo Shark’s Coffee in Honomu and enjoyed cups of rich coffee made from beans grown and roasted there on the mountain. After visiting Glass from the Past, an interesting little antique shop next door that specialized in vintage bottles, the rain had let up enough that we tried to hike the falls again. The whole park was so beautiful! There were stands of golden bamboo, an incredibly huge, old banyan tree with notches carved in one of the myriad trunks for climbing, and other plants so dense and healthy that it seemed we were in a botanic garden, but this garden had fresh, cool air and no glass walls. First we got a sidelong glance at Kahuna Falls (kahuna means priest in Hawaiian), which were running strong from the rain, then the trail looped around to the main ‘Akaka falls. The falls were swollen from rain, and several other thin but tall falls ran nearby. Three more waterfalls were waiting for us to admire from the trail on the way back to the car. Even though the trail can be crowded, and there is an entrance fee, which was on the honor system when we visited, this trail was more than worth the stop. It’s also more than worth the entrance fee, which we did not hesitate to pay because the revenue helps support the park.

Later in Hilo, we were hankering for a burger, so we stopped at the “Hilo Burger Joint.” It was somewhat busy, even after 2 p.m. We found the food to be good but not great, but unfortunately the service was terrible. It was our server’s first day on the job. We’re usually very forgiving of this, but the poor lady had obviously not been trained, and nobody was helping her. Our order was wrong, and after we received our food, we were totally on our own. Joseph could have used another cup of coffee, for instance, but nobody came by, and it was hard to find anyone. We waited a really long time for our check before we had to get up and ask for it. On the upside, I was able to try a Hilo Breakwall IPA, which was really good. A lot of talented brewmasters live in Hawai’i, especially on the Big Island.

We rented a cabin at Volcano National Park that would be better for locals, who can bring supplies, than for visitors like us, who have been limited to airline baggage. There was only one electrical outlet, no heat, and access to a single bathroom for the whole campground. Linens were provided as advertised, which fortunately included two big comforters that kept us pretty warm but captured a lot of damp condensation by morning. There were no good hiking trails near the cabin, so I followed a game trail for a while into the ohi’a forest on the outside slope of Kilauea. A series of rock hills sounded hollow like drums when I stepped on them. They were actually underground lava tubes! After about half an hour, I turned around and promptly got lost trying to retrace my steps. Not too lost, really, because I could hear the road in the distance, and I had GPS on my phone, but it was a bushwhack back to the cabin. On the way I saw two kalij pheasant hens, one with a chick, and some gorgeous bamboo orchids (Arundina graminifolia).

Ohi’a forest at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park

After dark, we drove to the crater rim and hiked to an overlook to experience the red glow of liquid lava. Earlier in the week, visitors were allowed to the parking lot below the Jaggar Museum, which now sits a lot closer to the Halema’uma’u Crater than it used to. The museum is part of the Hawaii Volcano Observatory. The museum building was damaged and closed during the 2018 eruption and may never reopen. The Jaggar Museum isn’t the only casualty of Kilauea’s recent eruptions. There was once a road that circled the caldera rim. Aerial views show how sections of this road were obliterated as the caldera’s rim began to shift. Pieces of road can be seen still intact below the rim. Tonight, we were only allowed to go as far as the Kilauea Overlook, one parking lot down from the Jagger Museum, but we could see the red glowing gases well as they rose in the light rain, a sight not soon forgotten. We would find out later that an old friend, Lani Lisa, had come to this same caldera rim during the 2018 eruption. This is where she began to embrace her birth name, Lani, which had previously been only a leading initial L. Even a sideways glance into the goddess, Pele’s, home has the power to change a human life.

The cabins were a ten minute drive from Volcano House, the only place still open where we could get some warm food and hot drinks. The drinks consisted of weak Swiss Miss hot cocoa mix, but the food was pretty good, especially the hot tomato bisque. Everything was terrifically overpriced, as National Park Service vendors tend to be. COVID precautions meant that dinner was served in styrofoam containers in stapled paper bags, which servers delivered to the front counter for us to pick up. Dining at Volcano House in happier, pre-pandemic days may have been more charming, but styrofoam tends to siphon off a lot of charm for me.

Back at the cabin, I walked to the nearby campground. It was closed to campers during the pandemic but open to walkers. I wasn’t sleepy and wanted to catch a glimpse of stars. Even from the campground, Kilauea’s red glow stretched across a slice of the sky. Later in the night, I would wake up from my dreams, imagining the volcano’s enormous magma chamber churning deep below. Pele’s bodily form is understood to be the volcano itself – the lava, the vents, the fumes. All of it is Pele. Magnified by the darkness, the goddess was even more disconcerting from our tiny cabin, perched on her back.

Day 4 – Easter on the Kohala Coast

Panoramic view at Anaeho’omalu Bay

Easter breakfast was macadamia nut cookies, fruit, and coffee. I “McGyvered” a coffee maker out of a sawed-off United Airlines water bottle and paper towels. It worked tolerably well until I found a portable coffee cone at a Starbuck’s later in the trip, which was obviously better. Besides, the water bottle shrunk a bit with each pour, so its days were numbered anyway.

We’d booked a whale watching trip online with Hawaii Nautical, so we drove west from Waimea to Anaeho’omalu Bay (locally known as A-Bay) and waited as instructed by an orange sign, taking in the sights. At various times, depending on the cloud cover, we could see six different volcanoes from A-Bay: the active Mauna Loa and Kilauea, dormant Hualalai, Haleakala, and Mauna Kea, and the extinct Kohala. Haleakala peeks above the ocean from the Island of Maui, and Hualalai looks like a classic cinder cone sprouting from the flanks of Mauna Loa. The tour boat was operated by two women: the captain had been touring for just over 20 years, the same time I’ve been doing contract work for the Department of Energy. There were no humpback whales, not surprising because it was the end of their mating season in Hawai’i. I learned that two thirds of the world’s humpbacks come to Hawai’i (the others go to Baja California), and that dolphins and porpoises tend to avoid this coast until all the whales leave. So, no spinner dolphin or porpoise sightings either, but it was a great boat ride, and we did get to see a bunch of honu (Hawaiian sea turtles [Chelonia mydas])! The water was a gorgeous, turquoise-blue near the shore and deep sapphire beyond. It was a sparkly, sunny day and the sea was choppy with plenty of small white caps. There was a lot of refreshing ocean spray in my face coming back. Joseph had the bulk of it going out, so it was only fair.

The “Lava Lava Beach Club” has a name that is so cliche that we almost didn’t try it, but there was a line forming out front when we returned from our boat ride, and that usually means something.  I’m glad we took the chance because it was a classy, breezy, socially distanced pub with excellent food and local brews on tap. I tried the Maui Big Swell IPA, and Joseph had the Kona Kua Bay IPA. Our server, Wyatt, brought ahi poke for me and fish tacos for Joseph. We also ordered beer-battered onion rings to share. Magnificent!

After lunch, we visited nearby Puako Beach, recommended by our whale tour guide. Here, we saw urchins, anemones (all closed up), and various shorebirds. It was not crowded, and while Joseph soaked up some sun, I walked the length of the beach, finding treasure in the form of a large sea turtle doing acrobatic swimming maneuvers beneath the waves. Growing along the beach were Naupaka shrubs with their beautiful little half-flowers.

North of Puako Beach is a National Historic Site called Pu’ukohola Heiau, where the first king of Hawai’i, Kamehameha I (Kamehameha the Great), oversaw the careful building of a temple, or heiau, which helped Kamehameha unify the Hawaiian Islands into one nation. Pu’ukohola means “hill of the whales,” as they can be seen from the hill when in season. Kamehameha’s heiau is high on the hill and about 200 years old. It’s built above Mailekini Heiau, 300 years older. The audio tour (which you can access via your cell phone) advises that as outsiders or commoners, we would have been executed for coming so close to these sacred sites. There is an underwater heiau (Hale o Kapuni Heiau) in the bay below where human sacrifices were once offered to the shark gods. Evidently, sharks still like to come to Pelekane Bay. We looked for their fins for a while, but alas, we saw none.

The journey back to Waimea first took us north to the end of Highway 270, where we tried to hike down to a cove from the Pololu Valley lookout. However, it was raining, and the trail was slick and steep, so we didn’t get far. It was an amazing place, though, with tall, dark cliffs plunging straight to the shoreline and mist settling in over deep rainforests above.  The drive back to Waimea wound through magical country where little black and white cattle grazed on steep, impossibly green, grassy slopes, surrounded by flocks of white cattle egrets and the occasional, enormous prickly pear cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica). Near the town of Hawi were native, wiliwili trees (Erythrina sandwicensis) that look like they came out of a science fiction landscape. I spotted a white tern (Gygis alba) flying along the north coast. They’re the cutest little birds. Look one up. You’ll see what I mean.

Day 2 – Volcano

Friday, April 2, 2021

We tried to sleep in, but the local time is four hours faster than Mountain Time, so it was a tall order. Before breakfast, we took a short walk around Lili’uokalani Park near the hotel. (Lili’uokalani was the Kingdom of Hawai’i’s last queen. Popular with her people, she instituted programs to give them more power. She ruled from 1891 to 1893, until the United States overthrew the government of Hawai’i and made it into a territory.) There was a nice swimming beach with tan sand and black rock outcrops. In Hawai’i, black or green sand comes from pounded volcanic glass and rock, and white sand comes from sea life, mainly corals and shells. Tan beaches are a mixture. At the edge of an algae-filled tide pool, we admired a pair of kolea (Pacific golden plovers, Pluvialis fula). These small shorebirds are one of Hawai’i’s few migrant species and make a marathon 3000-mile journey between Hawai’i and Alaska each year, with three or four solid days of flying each way.

Steam vents along the crater rim trail at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park

Ken’s House of Pancakes, a Hilo landmark diner, has been “jammin’ since 1971.” For breakfast, I enjoyed my first authentic Hawaiian loco moco (Loco moco is a hamburger patty over a bed of rice, topped with mushroom gravy.), and Joseph had crab cake eggs Benedict. The coffee at Ken’s was weak, and we’re self-confessed coffee snobs, so we tried a nearby kiosk called Just Crusin’ Coffee. Their brew was no stronger, but the dirty chai was tasty. We visited the Hilo Farmers Market, where we bought some longan fruit, apple bananas, and an enormous Hawai’i avocado. Every color of produce filled this classic tropical market. Before leaving town, we stopped by “Two Ladies Mochi,” where I ordered some ginger mochi, only made on Fridays. I also ordered a signature strawberry mochi, crafted with adzuki bean paste, and fresh pear mochi, made with green tea. All were excellent! Photos below, Jammin’ since 1971 and the colorful Hilo Farmers Market

Though we traveled less than thirty miles from Hilo to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, we rose in elevation nearly four thousand feet. The ecological changes were obvious as we climbed the the slopes of Kilauea. Hilo is a true tropical rainforest, but the town of Volcano is more temperate with a mixture of native trees and tree ferns. The Volcano Inn, a bed and breakfast, was a lucky find. We stayed on the second floor of the annex in the “Lava Room,” with big picture windows that overlooked the rainforest. The room was welcoming with fresh anthurium flowers and orchids on the table. 

After settling in our room, we left to visit Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. First, we stopped at a small store in Volcano Village for some snacks, including peppered tuna jerky (yum), Maui style onion potato chips (yummier), and Kona Brewing Company Castaway IPA (yummiest). The photos below, left to right: fiddlehead from a tree fern in the rainforest, flamingo flower, uluhe (false staghorn fern), and a tiny Brahminy blind snake.

Kilauea has, in my estimation, the second best volcano name in the world (surpassed only by Iceland’s “Grimsvotn.”) Kilauea’s last eruption was 35 years long and manifested mainly as reliable lava flows from the Pu’u O’o Crater on the East Rift Zone. All that ended with a big eruption at the summit crater (Halema’uma’u) in 2018. There was no lava in the park until December 2020, when the Halema’uma’u Crater began to ooze lava. However, the crater had become so deep that no lava was visible from publicly accessible areas when we were there. The National Park Service did not widely advertise this or they may have risked losing visitors until the end of 2021, when the crater’s lava lake is expected to fill up and become visible from the caldera’s rim. The caldera was formed around 500 years ago, and it houses the crater, which rises and collapses, and fills with lava and drains, over time. Though the crater was over 1200 feet deep, and we couldn’t see lava, we could see and smell clouds of volcanic fumes and admire sulfur cliffs, fissures, and steaming vents from the rim trail. Photos of Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, below, left to right: sulfur cliffs, tiny sedges and other plants growing near the summit, the edge of the Halema’uma’u Crater from the caldera rim, and a native ohi’a lehua tree in bloom.

Ohi’a lehua is a native Hawaiian tree with red flowers favored by birds like honeycreepers. It’s an early colonizer of lava flows. Legend says that the volcano goddess, Pele, became infatuated with the warrior, Ohi’a, but he was already pledged to Lehua, his love. Pele angrily turned him into a twisted tree for refusing her. But later, she felt sorry for the grieving Lehua, so she turned her into the tree’s beautiful blossoms. If you pick a blossom, it’s said it will rain that day, symbolizing Lehua’s tears. (I say if you’re near Hilo, rain is a fair bet anyway because it’s said to be the rainiest city in the United States.)

In a light rain, we hiked three or four miles around the edge of the caldera, enjoying the native ohi’a forest. There were several beautiful birds, including a bright red ‘apapane (crimson honeycreeper, Vestiaria coccinea), and we heard the calls of many others. We saw a tiny bird that was possibly a Hawaiian ‘amakihi (common honeycreeper, Hemiagnathus virens) that tumbled onto the trail and flew away in about half a second. The forest near the crater rim was a striking sight with the ohi’a’s bright green leaves, scarlet flowers, and dark bark adorned all over with tufts of light green lichens. Back at the Volcano Inn, we enjoyed our snacks and beer, relaxing in our cozy room until darkness and silence swallowed everything. 

Vapor mixed with volcanic fumes at Kilauea’s caldera

Day 1 – The Trip to Hilo

April 1, 2021

Dawn from our balcony at the Hilo Reed’s Bay Hotel

The journey to Hilo lasted about eighteen hours and included two long layovers. Hilo’s airport had the flavor of a World War II-era military base, even though predates the war by two decades. Apparently, the U.S. military assumed control during the 1940s and named it after General Albert Kuali’i Brickwood Lyman, the first U.S. brigadier general with indigenous Hawaiian blood. It has since been renamed Hilo International Airport. Our flight from Denver to Los Angeles was on an infamous 737 Max (The 737 Max was grounded for nearly two years due to design flaws. The month before our trip, the model was briefly grounded again for possible electrical problems.). I felt more at risk from this aircraft than from the coronavirus, but the flight was thankfully uneventful. Los Angeles International Airport was practically a ghost town. The worst part was being the captive audience of a public address system blaring seventies rock ballads on a loop. When a pub, “Rolling Stone,” eventually opened, we discovered an Angel City IPA on tap, and this mitigated the ballad-induced ear-worm torture a little bit.

Before any passengers could leave the terminal in Hilo, we had to wait in line for more COVID-19 testing, but we were happily surprised at the end to find we could bypass the test because of our vaccines. It was also nice to discover our rental car waiting, even though it was late at night and well past the advertised hours. The rental car agent said, “of course we’ll take care of you!” There would be other experiences like this on our trip. Despite profiteers who long ago made “Aloha” into an adage, Aloha is a real thing. In Hawai’i, being considerate of others seems to be more important than rigid rules, and Hawaiians seem reluctant to tell others that they’re on their own unless there is no other way.

We found our hotel easily despite an array of “No Trespassing” signs lined up like security guards across the entrance. Some even sported a handwritten, “THIS MEANS YOU!” When he saw our gestures of confusion, one of the owners came out to the parking lot and explained that they had reopened that day for business after the pandemic shutdown. He seemed surprised by our confusion. When we pointed to the “No Trespassing” signs, he vaguely said,“Yeah, I guess it’d probably be a good idea to take those down now,” but the signs were still up the next day when we checked out, waiting for the next guests.

The Hilo Reeds Bay Hotel takes a visitor back in time. It was nicely vintage, with real keys, and the rooms had no phones. The hotel was clean and quiet except for the peeping of coqui frogs outside at night. Native to Puerto Rico, these tree frogs apparently arrived in the late 1980s as hitchhikers on nursery plants, and they came to stay. We didn’t see the tiny critters, but we surely heard their loud little voices. In between waves of frog-song, we could hear ocean waves outside through the room’s jalousie windows. In the morning, we saw the waves swirling around jagged black rocks not far below our window. Surrounded by colorful tropical vegetation, the hotel was in a nice little spot on Banyan Drive. Banyan Drive was named for huge banyan trees planted by celebrities since the 1930s, many with commemorative plaques. The trees were covered in all manner of epiphytes that created little ecosystems and frog homes on the branches. The oldest banyans survived several tsunamis, the largest from earthquakes in the Aleutian Islands in 1946, the coast of Chile in 1960, and a quake off the coast of Hawai’i in 1975.

Banyan tree outside the Hilo Reeds Bay Hotel

The Land of Rainbows and Volcanic Glow

Prologue

Native Hawaiian ohi’a lehua forest along the Kilauea caldera on the Big Island of Hawai’i

At the northern edge of the Pacific Ocean are the Aleutian Islands. They sparkle like jewels under mist in a slate-colored sea. Shallow and turbulent is the ocean that surrounds them. The Aleutian archipelago arches down toward the southwest from the Alaskan mainland like a strand of black basalt beads adorned with low, deep-green plants and tall white waterfalls. Far to the south are their counterparts, the Hawaiian Islands. They spread to the northwest from the middle of the Pacific Plate, where a rip in the earth’s crust spews lava from the core, making land. Far from any mainland, Hawai’i is surrounded by some of the deepest waters on the planet. A chain of ancient, underwater seamounts complete Hawai’i’s long, arched archipelago, with the oldest Hawaiian seamount not far from the most distant Aleutian island. Hawai’i, too, is crafted of black, green, and white. It is the yin to Alaska’s yang.

We visited the Big Island of Hawai’i in April 2021. Vaccinated against the SARS-CoV-2 virus, we’d become adept at masking for over a year, and we’ve always been naturals at social distancing, so we didn’t pose much of a risk to ourselves or others. The State of Hawai’i was taking public health precautions more seriously than anyone at home, requiring a negative COVID-19 test before we even boarded the plane. So we navigated the constantly changing web of state requirements and planned our visit with a confusing array of online options and outdated websites. It was challenging to find a State-of-Hawai’i-approved lab in Western Colorado that could promise results back in time, but it all worked out, and we were soon off to the land of rainbows and volcanic glow.