Having decided that we really needed to go somewhere for a length of time that would be difficult to measure in 6 minute increments, Christine and I decided to take a big vacation this year. As it happens, we have friends in Hawaii. I used to work with "Sled" Kutch at Gateway, and last year, his wife, Pattie, who's in the Coast Guard, was stationed on Oahu (a step up from Suffolk, VA, in terms of scenic locations). We figured that if we didn't go when we had friends there, we never would, so we decided that our big 2002 vacation would be a week-long trip to Hawaii.
The first thing we noticed is that flying to Hawaii is a long and complicated affair. Did I mention it's a long way away? 2 hours to O'Hare. 4+ hours to L.A. 5+ hours to Honolulu. And after all that, plus layover time, it was only 4 PM!
Sled & Pattie gave us a traditional Hawaiian lei greeting at the Honolulu airport, took us for something other than airline food, and then drove us to their home on the windward side of Oahu. As you can see, their porch has a decent view, which we took advantage of for this photo of us.
Believe it or not, we actually lasted through the evening before going to bed, only to wake up at 4 AM. We had breakfast, discovering two downsides of living in a tropical paradise along the way (milk costs $6 a gallon, and you have to put your cereal in plastic bags immediately after opening it to keep the bugs from getting it). After breakfast, we learned that the NFL was on at 7 AM. Our hosts were gracious enough to agree to hang out and play tourist with us. This turned out to be a necessity once we found out that they have cars with a stick shift (something akin to green kryptonite for Christine and me).
Our first and most important stop on Oahu was Pearl Harbor and the U.S.S. Arizona memorial. During the short wait before our tour time, we enjoyed the view, including the U.S.S. Bowfin submarine and the U.S.S. Missouri battleship, both of which also offer tours. Sled & Pattie took the opportunity to up the rating on this web site and demonstrate their constant cuteness.
Things got serious in a hurry when we began our tour. The National Park Service does an outstanding job, starting you out with a short historical movie and a brief talk from a veteran. Even after he talked to us, I can't even imagine what it must have been like to be 17 years old and serving on the U.S.S. Pennsylvania on that December Sunday sixty years ago. From the theater, we boarded the boat that took us out to the memorial. If you're not familiar with it, the memorial straddles the resting place of the Arizona, as seen in this model, found in the museum. Going to and coming back from the memorial is a perfect time to get a picture of the architecturally striking structure, which seems to sag in the middle and features an open roof.
In any other setting, it would be tempting to enjoy a sunny day in the middle of the Pacific, but the Arizona is far too close for that, sitting just underneath the surface and the cement under your feet. A few pieces even break the surface, including one of the ship's massive gun turrets and the remains of the mast (which illustrates the contrast between the history and the beautiful surroundings in this photo). The memorial overwhelms in its simplicity, inspiring contemplation in all. After visiting the wall of names and looking back on a stunning patriotic visual, you have more than a little to think about.
After lunch at Sled & Pattie's, it was time to continue the day in a lighter fashion, enjoying the beauty of Lanikai Beach (rated one of the top 10 in Hawaii by the Travel Channel) and making a first, clumsy attempt at snorkeling and underwater photography. (Try Webshots, this site, or a web search for photos of Lanikai.) Sled & Pattie introduced us to Hawaiian shaved ice (think sno cones, only cooler and with a choice of a number of tropical syrups). That night featured dinner on the North Shore at Haleiwa Joe's, a good seafood restaurant.
Monday morning, Sled graciously volunteered to act as chaffeur for a tour by several sites on Oahu. We saw random scenic points like this lighthouse; a rock formation that's one of nature's beautiful quirks, the Blowhole (pictured starting and finishing); the incredibly picturesque scenery around Hanauma Bay, a renowned snorkeling spot; and even some man-made wonders, like Iolani Palace (America's only royal residence) and this statue of King Kamehameha in Honolulu. Sled even did a Vanna White impersonation (albeit cloaked in shadow) in front of Kamehameha and the capital.
Alas, it was time to say good-bye to our friends, but the vastness and splendor of the Hilton Hawaiian Village resort (5 hotel towers, dozens of shops and restaurants, a lagoon, the beach, a super pool, animals, musical performances, and more) in Waikiki insured that we'd still find ourselves in enjoyable surroundings. From the sign in front of the hotel to tropical birds (including penguins!) to Tiffany's (overpriced but very sparkly wherever you visit it), the Hilton Hawaiian Village had plenty of sights to see.
Not wanting to waste the afternoon of our last day on Oahu, we headed out via taxi to the Bishop Museum, a few miles from downtown Honolulu. Christine and I believe that it's foolish to visit exotic locations without trying to learn a little bit about the history and culture of the place, so we enjoyed the museum's exhibits and information. The Bishop Museum didn't disappoint, offering a hula show that mixed ancient traditions and modern family humor, a huge sperm whale, royal biographies and headresses, a look at cultures throughout other Polynesian islands, and a planetarium for help enjoying Hawaii's spectacular sky. The odd juxtaposition (yes, I had to use that word) of ancient artifacts against the backdrop of the city of Honolulu may have been one of the most interesting aspects of visiting the Bishop Museum (exterior pictured here).
After a trip back to the resort, we took the opportunity to relax and enjoy the decent view from our hotel room. Fearing that European influences might result in weird food and that the fancy environment might be too much, Christine required some persuasion before she accompanied me to dinner at Bali-by-the-Sea (a 5 star restaurant in the resort with a view of Waikiki beach and outstanding cuisine). It came as no surprise to me that some wonderful scallops changed her mind, but after being treated to a chocolate Diamond Head with truffles (that came on a platter with a smoking base of dry ice), she even readily agreed that it was a great, not just good, idea. They even gave us a second chocolate Diamond Head for the road, pictured here just before we devoured it with our room service breakfast the next morning. (Diamond Head is an extinct volcano on Oahu.) A post-sunset walk on Waikiki beach and a visit to Tiffany's (to look, not buy) made the night complete.
The next day, we took a walk through the resort, meeting animals both adorable and ornery. This swan barely tolerated Christine's presence, living up to the bird's reputation. From the resort, we headed off to the International Marketplace, a collection of shops in Waikiki that provided a perfect place to pick up some souvenir gifts for friends and the obligatory Hawaiian shirt for Josh (pictured later in this story). On the way back, we passed the Army museum, where I persuaded Christine to pose for this photo. (Hey, she looks more natural near a tank than Michael Dukakis did...) Speaking of natural, I felt well on the way to becoming a pirate when we met a local with some wonderfully docile birds. All I need is an eye patch and sailor's clothes!
Tuesday afternoon brought our island-hopping flight from Oahu to the Big Island (Hawaii), which you wouldn't think would be an important topic of discussion, but I'd be remiss if I didn't pause to comment on THE INCREDIBLY BAD EXCUSE FOR AN AIRLINE KNOWN AS ALOHA AIRLINES. Those of you that think the mainstream U.S. carriers leave something to be desired need to experience Aloha. If having airport employees run our film through the new, ultra-powerful, post-/11 x-ray machines wasn't enough (thanks Osama!), Aloha was determined to make this OUR WORST FLYING EXPERIENCE EVER. There was the mysterious way in which our flight left 1.5 hours late from the same gate as another flight to the same destination (but no, our flight wasn't cancelled). There was the experience of flying on an original Boeing 737 (think no TVs, no lighted signs, a literal 4-6 inches of legroom between rows, the certainty that everything on the plane is older than you, the nagging suspicion that there's no way that everything on this plane could pass a rigorous safety inspection... need I go on?).
The Big Island
We arrived at Kona's freakish outdoor airport (no terminal building) only to be told that one of our bags had taken a slight detour to Maui. For a moment, we thought that was pretty bad, until we realized that the old woman in a wheelchair next to us was supposed to be on Maui. An airport employee had wheeled her on the wrong plane! We never did find out whether Aloha managed to notify her waiting family and get her to Maui that night (they had to send her back to Oahu first). We've heard of losing bags before, but losing a person is something new.
The day started looking up when Hertz told us we'd have to settle for a sports car (this snazzy Ford Mustang). It got even better when we arrived at Kona Village Resort, where we got another lei greeting and some rum punch. Interestingly, when we told the hostess to expect a bag from Aloha late that night, she said that type of thing seemed to happen more frequently on Aloha than on other airlines.
[2011 Note: As you'll see if you follow the link above, Kona Village is at least temporarily no more as a functioning resort, thanks to heavy damage sustained in the tsunami better known for taking out the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan. We love Kona Village and fervently hope that its owners follow through on its resurrection, but in the tremendously depressing economic climate of today, there's room for doubt. All we can say is that nature and man have combined to rob the world of a great vacation destination.]
Guests at Kona Village stay in their own hut (modern on the inside), an interesting contrast from the high-rose hotel room the night before. Our hale (pronounced HA-LAY) was a 2 minute walk from the beach, but we wouldn't have traded it for any of the higher-priced alternatives. The comfortable porch overlooked some typically brilliant Hawaiian flowers and foliage that provided privacy, and the view toward the mountains to the east wasn't bad either.
We quickly discovered that you can't beat a Kona sunset and enjoyed more seafood at one of the resort's two excellent dining rooms.
After breakfast on Wednesday, we headed off toward Hilo, the biggest town on the Big Island, on the opposite side from Kona. While Kona makes the drought-stricken U.S. look positively soggy, Hilo is the wettest place in the United States, averaging between 100 and 200 inches of rain a year. The metamorphasis from lava racks to ranchland to tropical foliage as you drive eastward across the Big Island is truly extraordinary. Hilo is also the departure point for helicopter tours of Volcanoes National Park, where Hawaiians say you can see Madam Pele at home in the eruptions of Kilauea.
Along the way, we stopped to eat lunch at the Hilo public library. Legend says that King Kamehameha lifted the stones in front of the library, showing his incredible strength. We also visited the Lyman Mission House & Museum, a charming little museum that's another great place to go for information on Hawaii's natural resources and culture. Sparkly rocks of all type abound at that place.
From there it was on to the commuter terminal at Hilo airport, where we expected that the nice people at Safari Air would take us to see the volcano. Unfortunately, we discovered that the Hilo rains frequently prevent the tours from taking off. Bitterly disappointed, we decided to head back toward Kona the long way, past Volcanoes National Park around the southern end of the island. (After much debate, we also decided to make the 2 hour car trip back to Hilo the next morning to try again.)
While we wouldn't recommend circumnavigating the Big Island under normal circumstances, we made the best of it, pausing at scenic outlooks, stopping at the Bay View Farms coffee plantation to buy some of the famous Kona coffee for people back home, and seeing some sites off the beaten path.
On the other hand, those of you that watched the first "Amazing Race" TV show on CBS (where teams of 2 people raced to different destinations around the world) may remember their stop at St. Benedict's Painted Church. (You can read a little about the church here.) This church, overlooking the coast but basically in the middle of nowhere, features Hawaii's natural beauty outside and beautiful craftsmanship inside. It's off the beaten path, but it's a beautiful place. One can only hope that the church sustains the funding needed to fight off the effects of weather.
After St. Benedict's, it was back to the resort for a delicious dinner, another chance to see "Chip" the manta ray, and a balmy but clear tropical night for stargazing. Kona Village shines a bright light on the water near the shoreline outside one of their restaurants. This attracts plankton, which in turn attract manta rays. Although Kona veterans say there are actually three manta rays that frequent the resort, most people only ever see "Chip", a manta ray named for the chunk missing out of one of his wings. Although our pictures didn't really turn out, Chip comes in to less than a foot of water, flaps one of his wings on the water and rocks, and is truly a memorable sight. Kona Village respects its wildlife and expects visitors to do the same, as this sign overlooking the manta ray spot makes clear.
We got up bright and early Thursday morning to repeat the lengthy drive to Hilo. This time, the Safari Air guys said we were a go! After a pre-flight safety briefing, we assembled out on the tarmac and were seated aboard the chopper. It didn't take us long to ditch any fear of flying in a helicopter over a volcano. The ride was smooth, and the sights were beautiful.
We flew over the outlying neighborhoods of Hilo (some of which are entirely dependent on rainfall for their water supply) on the way to Kilauea. The landscape is a startling mix of barren black lava rock and green tropical trees. Our pilot told us that not every ride gets close to the vent (some days the sulphur smoke and/or rain make it too dangerous), but for us, it was a clear and breathtaking view of the suppressed fury of the world's most active volcano. Circling the vent gave us a great chance for pictures (see a wider shot here and a closer look here). Although the vent isn't spewing lava like a scene from a Hollywood movie, it's hard to miss the impression of it as a gateway to the inferno. From the vent, we headed out over the lava field toward the sea. Although there aren't really any human enforcement mechanisms on the restrictions as to where you can walk in Volcanoes National Park, looking at the lava field's hot spots and cracks could lead one to conclude that a helicopter tour might actually be the best way to enjoy this natural wonder.
As you approach the sea, you can see the remnants of Highway 130, which used to run continuously around the south side of the Big Island. Now, it's the world's most spectacular dead end road. More than 8 miles of the highway have been overrun by Kilauea, along with an entire town. Looking at the devastation of trees caught in the lava field, it's hard to believe that anything man can do stands a chance in the face of this natural threat. Amazingly enough, however, lava doesn't get hot enough to melt steel, a fact illustrated by the remnants of this small structure near the Kilauea summit. As a matter of fact, if you're crazy enough, there's even an operating bed & breakfast on the side of the summit, although you'll have to brave a helicopter ride to reach it, since that's the only way it's accessible.
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We circled around Hilo on the way back to the airport, giving us a chance to see several of the many waterfalls (north and west of the city). Although we hear that the island of Kauai is really the place to go for waterfalls, we thought the Big Island offered plenty of waterfall scenery, with a couple of examples pictured here and here.After touching down safely at the Hilo airport (like we ever had any doubts ;), we posed for this picture in front of our helicopter. We retraced our path on the way home, stopping in Waimea to shop for souvenirs and gifts.
The rest of Thursday and the majority of the day Friday afforded us an opportunity to indulge in more typical resort activities. Kona Village's black sand beach is an ideal place to relax in a beach chair (with or without a book), sip a drink and munch on some popcorn, take a leisurely stroll, or just bask in the sun like these natives. (Yup, you can see anywhere up to 5 of these sea turtles on any given day at Kona. If you're a sucker for turtles, check out this individual close-up or this look down the beach at dusk.)
Friday night at Kona Village means the luau. Their luau is recognized as one of the best in Hawaii, for good reason. On the way, you can stop and see the ancient Hawaiian petroglyphs, carved in the rocks over the past few hundred years. From writing to wildlife (like this turtle) to drawings of people, it's fascinating to walk around and read about these messages / doodles of those who inhabited Kona before it became a resort paradise. Before dinner, you also have a chance to relax in their garden and lawn, complete with a small waterfall (man-made). (See the picture of Christine and I above.)
Once the festivities begin, the resort offers you a chance to see how the ancient Hawaiians did it (with only minor changes). The Hawaiian "imu" ceremony celebrates the removal of the roast pig from the underground oven. Like peeling an onion, this involves removing leaves, scalding hot rocks (which provide the heat for the cooking), and finally the outer canvas wrapping (now done with coffee bags), revealing the few hundred pounds of barbecue that serves as the main dish. I wouldn't volunteer to do it, but the resort employees managed to come through it unscathed.
The dinner itself is an incredible array of foods. I tried the octopus and a bit of mild sushi, but skipped some other "interesting" items and saved most of my plate for more traditional items like the roast pork, salad, and bread. After dinner, Kona Village's employees present a tour of Polynesia in music and dance, ranging from traditional hula to Samoan fire dancing, among many others. At the end, you can't help but feel full and happy.
Unfortunately, Friday eventually ended. Saturday took us back to the freakish Kona airport (passing the most interesting form of graffiti we've ever seen along the way). If you can believe it, it rained a good bit while we were at the airport, forcing us to walk out to our 777 and up a flight of metal stairs in the rain. Unfortunately for Allen, Allen, Allen & Allen and all the other stellar Richmond personal injury lawyers, I didn't stumble into a cause for action.
Anyway, if you've made it this far, you're either incredibly patient, incredibly bored, or way too interested in us. Whatever your answer is, I hope that this record of our trip has proven informative and interesting. And, of course, if you have the chance to go to Hawaii, we strongly recommend it.