“Wait a minute. You look at your window here, you look at those hills, those mountains, all that green, that blue sky and gem-clear sea. It sure looks like paradise to me.”– Anthony Bourdain in “Hawaiʻi” from Parts Unknown
There are moments in life often reflected upon with eagerness. As I wrote in A Brief Hawaii Moment, my time living in Hawaiʻi was one of the most significant experiences of my life. I got married, earned a Ph.D., lived according to Aloha, and met incredible people. In that post, I explored my life in Hawaiʻi, but I purposely left out some travel narratives that deserve closer attention. One such trip was a sojourn to the Big Island of Hawaiʻi. This trip included snorkeling, a luxury resort, volcanoes, and an encounter with sleeping sea turtles. I most remember the time spent with my wife Corinne and two of our closest friends, who accompanied us on this journey. Someone said, “A good friend knows all your stories. A best friend helped you create them.” Colleen and Don are two best friends who helped us forge memories through travel. Join me as I explore a friendship born with Aloha, board a plane from Oahu, the gathering place, to the Big Island, and observe its beauty, coast to coast.
Friendship Nourished with Aloha & Background to Trip
“Those of us who were not born in Hawaiʻi, who do not live there, can be forgiven, I hope, for imagining it a paradise… Hawaiʻi is actually much, much cooler than we know. MUCH cooler.”– Anthony Bourdain in “Hawaiʻi” from Parts Unknown
Moving to Hawaiʻi, halfway around the world, to pursue a Ph.D. in History was not easy. Sure, I moved to paradise, but it required hard work to complete my studies, which meant not enough trips back home to see friends and family. As I discussed in a previous post, my wife and I quickly made Hawaiʻi home, and Honolulu proved accepting. When I wasn’t studying and my wife wasn’t working, we did fun things, but making friends was a slow burn. Sure, I had classmates, and my wife had coworkers. But it wasn’t until we ventured to the Hawaiʻi International Film Festival at Regal Dole Cannery in October of 2011 that we met a couple of people who became lifelong friends.
My wife and I have attended a couple of film festivals in the past. We attended the Rhode Island International Film Festival many years ago and watched a 2006 horror movie called Black Sheep. In Hawaiʻi, we did not see a horror movie but a documentary film titled ReGeneration, written and directed by Philip Montgomery. It was a fine film, but the best part was the question/answer session at the end of the screening. That was when my wife asked a thought-provoking question, which followed with a question from another woman seated nearby. After the session, my wife introduced herself to the woman and her husband, and I did the same. We spent the next thirty minutes, possibly more, chatting. Come to find out, we had a ton in common, not solely our enjoyment of film festivals.
Over the next three years in Honolulu, Don, and Colleen became our closest friends. Eatery visits in Chinatown, a rainy and firework-filled July 4th picnic at Turtle Bay Resort, a Jimmy Buffet Concert at Waikiki Shell, and a Thanksgiving Day celebration helped build our friendship. We celebrated birthdays together, stayed at Aulani, A Disney Resort & Spa, had an emotional visit together at Byodo-In Buddhist Temple, a ukulele festival at Kapiʻolani Regional Park, and enjoyed countless dinners and celebratory events together during our time on Oahu. I think fondly of that time in Hawaiʻi.
Since moving to Massachusetts, we hosted them at our home and recently met up for breakfast, where we shared an emotional hug. This visit together inspired me to reflect on our trip to the Big Island from nearly ten years ago. In so doing, I recalled the sights we gazed upon, the crashing waterfalls we observed, the activity of Kīlauea we were in awe of, and some mishaps that made the trip remarkable. As I have said on this blog, traveling is an incredible opportunity to explore the depths of what makes the world unique. For the most part, my wife and I often travel together, alone. Sometimes, like our visit to Ireland or Nashville, we have company, and the adventure gained new meaning.
During a brief conversation with Don in 2012, he offered the prospect of a trip to the Big Island. At the time, I had completed my comprehensive exams and was solely writing. Although time-consuming, this offered me some “time” flexibility. Something studying for exams never seemed to allow, both physically or emotionally. Once Don suggested the trip, Corinne and I chatted about it, and after examining the accommodations Don proposed, we agreed. We wanted to see the other islands, and this seemed an excellent opportunity to start. It helped that two experienced travelers, who had visited the Big Island several times, would guide us on our trip. With the journey a month away, we booked our hotel accommodations and flights. All we had to was wait and buy hiking boots!
As I wrote in a post about “glamping,” I like the outdoors, to an extent. I mean, I love the ocean, beach, palm trees, pretty much everything Hawaiʻi or Cape Cod has to offer. But being in the woods, albeit sleeping or hiking, is not for me. Sure, I enjoyed hiking Koko Crater Railway Trailhead, but it’s not so much a hike as it is a steep trail “up an abandoned railroad track on Koko Crater, with dramatic ocean & city views.” It’s incredible! Therefore, when Don suggested getting hiking boots because we would do some “rugged walks,” I had no clue what to expect. Within a few days of booking our trip, Corinne and I purchased North Face hiking boots. If we were going to hike, we would do so in style.
The day of our inter-island flight was a little gray, slightly humid. Our flight from Honolulu International Airport was early in the morning, but merely a 45-minute flight, so no reason to arrive early, mainly since we lived 8 miles away. With no traffic, a rare occurrence on Hawaiʻi roads, we made it to the airport, parked the car, shuffled through security, and found our gate thirty minutes before boarding. We flew with Hawaiian Airlines, which is regularly voted the best airline in the United States, and for valid reasons. But this flight seemingly required no comfort. Soon after we boarded the plane, we departed, and it seemed as soon as we leveled off, it was time for us to descend.
Day ONE: Luxury Resort in Waikoloa Village
“It’s… deliriously, deliciously, not American at all: its spine, its DNA, its soul, the descendants of warrior watermen—the original people who navigated their way across the Pacific and settled the islands.– Anthony Bourdain in “Hawaiʻi” from Parts Unknown
Upon landing, we exited the plane on the tarmac, took some photos, and walked into the terminal to get our bags. Kona International Airport is a tiny but unique airport. Very different than what is now called the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in Honolulu, where we departed. After getting our bags, we picked up our rental car, which was surprisingly inexpensive. The drive to Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort & Spa from KOA is 25 minutes, going north/northeast on HI-19 most of the way. Driving with the ocean and beaches to our left and the Hawaii landscape of Mountains and forests to our right was stunning. Along the way, we went by Makalawena Beach, Kekaha Kai State Park, Kiholo Bay, and Kīholo State Park Reserve.
It was too early to check-in, so Don and Colleen took us to see some remote sites as we headed toward the resort. Remember, we had hiking boots and planned to use them. Our friends directed us to a couple of beautiful areas, some more touristy than others, but all keying in on the island’s waterfalls, Kona side! One was difficult to get to because the weather was terrible, but we observed others. They were well worth the mud, rain, and cold. Once we had our fill of hiking and waterfalls, we headed to the Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort & Spa. I stood in awe after setting eyes on the resort. It was spectacular.
As I mentioned in a previous post, Voyage to Nantucket, I love resorts. Sure, maybe I am a diva when it comes to where I stay, but I have had exceptional accommodations, like Nantucket and even Shanghai/Beijing, but have had terrible lodging, looking at you Brussels! The Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort & Spa is, by far, one of my favorite hotels ever. Situated alongside The Nantucket Hotel, I often vacillate between the two for my top spot. Waikoloa Village is impressive, located steps to the ocean, and is breathtakingly gorgeous. Well-designed rooms with ocean views, access to Waikōloa Beach and ʻAnaehoʻomalu Beach, walkable to Waikōloa Anchialine Pond Preservation Area, and inside a complex with restaurants, a grocery store, gas, and more.
Once we found our rooms, checked out the pool, and relaxed at the beach for a minute, we cleaned up, meet back in the lobby, and drove to get dinner. Don and Colleen suggested a Thai cuisine eatery tucked away from the main road and town center of Kailua-Kona, situated around Kailua Bay. The food was delicious! After dinner, we walked around the Kailua-Kona center, enjoyed the ocean air and a beautiful sunset. With our energy dwindling, we traveled back to the resort for some evening relaxation, along the way enjoying the “moon” like terrain blanketing the Hawaiian landscape. We enjoyed cookies and delicious evening Kona coffee on the resort’s patio under the beautiful moonlight.
Day TWO: Hilo & Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park
“I was treated with enormous kindness and generosity everywhere I went… My ignorance and naive preconceptions tolerated with patience and good grace. This is one haole who feels very, very honored, and grateful for the many kindnesses shown me.”– Anthony Bourdain in “Hawai’i” from Parts Unknown
It was a glorious night’s sleep. Incredible; the sliding doors allowed for the sound of the waves hitting the shore to echo into the room. Luxury is certainly a term I am not using liberally today. With the sun shining and our need for Kona coffee at a fever pitch, Corinne and I visited the on-site restaurant and had an excellent breakfast. We are early risers, so waking our friends at this point seemed cruel. Therefore, we ate, grabbed some to-go coffee, and walked along the beach, eventually making our way to the Hilton Waikoloa Village adjacent to our resort. From there, we walked towards the Waikoloa shops and found ourselves at the “Kings Hwy Foot Trail,” which runs south of Waikoloa for several miles.
At the mouth of the trail, we found the Waikoloa Petroglyph Preserve, one of the best-preserved petroglyph sites in Hawaiʻi. You can walk around and inspect the Petroglyphs, but don’t touch them as they offer a beautiful cultural view of Hawaiʻi indigenous history, with many dating to the 16th century. It was stunning walking along a culturally significant path and historically impressive imagery carved into the volcanic rocks. Those Petroglyphs found on the trail are “scattered… everywhere you look. Some are graphic (humans, birds, canoes) and others cryptic (dots, lines).” Soon after this enjoyable walk, we went back to the resort and towards the infinity pool and waited for Colleen and Don.
We got ready for our departure for Hilo and Volcanoes National Park upon connecting with our friends. On the northeastern side of the Big Island, Hilo is known for “Wailuku River State Park, featuring Waianuenue, or Rainbow Falls, with its colorful mist effects. The bubbling basalt-lava rock pools known as the Boiling Pots are nearby.” Our goal was to stop in Hilo twice, once on our way to Volcanoes National Park, “home to rainforests and the active Kīlauea and Mauna Loa volcanoes,” and the second time, on our way back. A direct drive to the National Park was roughly two hours, ninety-four miles. Stopping in Hilo and seeing a few landmark locations was an excellent way to break up the trip across the island on what is considered a mountainous scenic route. We could have stopped numerous times, but our destination did not let us get distracted by the journey.
The drive to Hilo was breathtaking and smooth in the daylight and went fast, although over seventy miles away. We arrived in Hilo around lunchtime, so we ate before adventuring to our first stop of the day, Pe’epe’e Falls and then Rainbow Falls, an “80 ft tall and almost 100 ft in diameter” waterfall. The Wailuku River rushes into a large pool below. It is “part of the Hawaiʻi State Parks” and an incredible sight. Strolling around the Wailuku River State Park, we observed the banyan trees and “lush, dense nonnative tropical rainforest and the turquoise-colored pool.” After over an hour at Rainbow Falls Lookout, we traveled to Volcanoes National Park and did so as the grey misting skies dispersed and the sun took control. Our trip to Kīlauea, the mass of hardened lava flows, lava fields, and lava rocks, was supported by fabulous weather.
When we arrived at Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park, we visited the Visitor Center. There we learned all about the area’s history and, as expected, information about current lava flows. The site “protects some of the most unique geological, biological, and cultural landscapes in the world… the park encompasses the summits of two of the world’s most active volcanoes – Kīlauea and Mauna Loa.” The Visitor Center was fantastic, with experienced Park Rangers offering fascinating details and pointing us in the right direction. Although wanting to experience everything, our time was limited, so we hiked the Kīlauea Iki Trail, which began from Kīlauea Visitor Center and required a 5.4-mile hike loop. The trial took us to the lush rainforest and then descended to the “solidified lava lake” on the floor of the Kīlauea Iki crater. Along the route, we visited Nāhuku, or the Thurston Lava Tube, which is a “500-year-old lava tube” where a river of hot lava once flowed.
It took 4 hours to traverse this section of the Kīlauea Iki Trail. We did so at a slow but steady pace. The landscape was breathtakingly beautiful and nothing I had ever seen before. As the National Park mentions, it is vital to carry “water, food, hat, sunscreen and rain gear.” Prepare for “hot, dry, wet, windy weather conditions and steep and rocky terrain.” We came prepared, and there were several moments when such preparation proved essential, health-wise. After our hike, and volcanic observations, were completed, we took a short detour/walk to Crater Rim Trail. This trail traverses the “edge of the Kīlauea summit caldera from Uēkahuna to just past Keanakākoʻi Crater.” Behind the Volcano House, we observed steam vents and lush rainforest. As this was adjacent to the Visitor Center, we got back in our car and continued our expedition south.
Our next goal was to travel on the Chain of Craters Road from the Visitor Center, which brought us to the Puʻuloa Petroglyphs. Here we walked in the “footsteps of the kūpuna (elders) to Puʻuloa (hill of long life), a sacred and awe-inspiring gallery of kiʻi pōhaku (images carved in stone).” The etchings are vital to native Hawaiians. Historically and spiritually, the Petroglyphs connect them to their ancestors. The Puʻuloa Petroglyphs, found along a 550-year-old lava field and include over 23,000 petroglyphs, are the most extensive in Hawai‘i. It was beautiful standing alongside culturally significant markings. The Hawaiian connection to land and sea and their past is something to behold, protected, and respected by all.
After leaving the Puʻuloa Petroglyphs site, our journey continued along the Chain of Craters Road until we came to an area where the road, in 1969, was buried under lava flows. While the National Park and the State of Hawaiʻi reopened the road/area in 1979, it was cut off in 1986 by a lava flow from Kīlauea’s epic eruption. According to the National Park website, during “the eruption of Puʻuʻōʻō, lava repeatedly flowed over Chain of Craters Road/Highway 130,” which has increased the National Park’s acreage by several miles. Even so, “Waha‘ula Visitor Center and…The Kamoamoa village site, heiau, campground, picnic area, and black sand beach were covered by lava in November 1992.” Walking on lava rocks created by former volcanic eruptions, we observed sections where lava flows spared the road, street signs were visible, and life before destruction, easy to imagine.
The Chain of Roads is a top priority for anyone visiting Volcanoes National Park. One of the last sites we saw on the Chain of Roads was on the cliffside, where land met the ocean. We were in awe of Hōlei Sea Arch, a 90-foot-high natural arch created by erosion, where the waves crashed against the coast, creating a spectacular ridge from formerly flowing lava. With the sun slowly retreating on the horizon, we went to the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory adjacent to Thomas A. Jaggar Museum. There we watched as the red/orange glow of Kīlauea lit up the night sky. Even though we visited a lookout area earlier in the day, examining the volcanic steam vents, it was marvelous to see Kīlauea in all its glory at dusk. Unfortunately, this area has since closed down and will not reopen because of the 2018 Kīlauea eruption, which caused significant damage to the site, including building, summit, and cliffside.
Feeling exhausted but emotionally content, we drove into Hilo to get something to eat before beginning our journey back to Kona. We ate at Ken’s House of Pancakes, which had good coffee options. Thankfully, I was not driving since, and this is a warning, it is incredibly dark crossing the Island at night. The road has lots of sharp bending turns; it was very foggy, and only two lanes of traffic for most of the way. My wife drove with her hands clenched on the wheel while everyone in the car slept. She was unamused but got us back to Kona safely. A fulfilling day, albeit a busy one.
Day THREE: Kailua-Kona & Travel Injuries
“It’s both the most American place left in America (in the best and worst senses of that word) and the least American place (in only the best sense). It’s “Main Street” America…family-oriented…suspicious of outsiders and shot through with all the usual suspects of American business you’d want, need, and expect from Wasilla to Waco to St. Paul.”– Anthony Bourdain in “Hawaiʻi” from Parts Unknown
Even with our adventurous late night, we woke early and got some coffee, breakfast, put our bathing suits on, and darted to the pool. We had a fun day planned, one that included relaxing time by the pool and a visit to Kealakekua Bay State Historical Park, where we would snorkel and peek at the Captain James Cook Monument. Cook was famously the first European explorer who met the Hawaiian people and did not tell his tale. So, history tells it for him. Before our trip, I had read Anne Salmond’s book, The Trial of the Cannibal Dog: The Remarkable Story of Captain Cook’s Encounters in the South Seas in my Pacific Islands History class, so I was excited to visit this historical location.
Upon meeting up with Colleen and Don, we stayed beachside for an hour, then enjoyed the infinity pool, as well as the hot tub, for another hour. Soon, our eagerness to see more of the sites moved us to go back to our rooms, get ready, and reconvene at the car. We drove to Snorkel Bob’s Mauna Lani, an establishment specializing in renting snorkel gear. Colleen and Don had their stuff, but Corinne and I needed to rent two sets of masks, snorkel, and fins. The shop was charming and staff, accommodating for two snorkel novices. Soon, we were outfitted and on our way to Nāpō’opo’o Pier, located south of Kealakekua Bay State Historical Park but extending into Kealakekua Bay. Our drive down to the parking lot, mere steps to the ocean, was prolonged from the main road. Very rough, steep, and motion-sick-producing. On arriving at the pier, we got our gear, and one by one descended onto the dock and individually jumped into the crystal clear “open water.”
Now, let me say this, I have never snorkeled in “open water.” Sure, I visited Hanauma Bay several times on Oahu. But it is “marine embayment formed within a tuff ring,” so it is very touristy, with tons of lifeguards and services. Like glamping, snorkeling at Hanauma Bay is not roughing it. Yes, it can be dangerous for those unfamiliar with procedures, terrain, or how to use the snorkel gear. Snorkeling in open water, no matter how far off the coast, was another thing entirely. And I am, by nature, an anxious person, or I get nervous when I feel out of my element. Tie those facts together with snorkeling, something I don’t often do, in choppy bay waters and an area with a distinguished history; looking at you, Captain Cook, and the ingredients for trouble are assured.
In a group, we explored the nearby reef and the oceanic wildlife. I maintained my calmness, kept my mask without water, and did all of this as I continued swimming. I got tired fast. Again, snorkeling at Hanauma Bay is breathtaking and life-changing. I did not have that same feeling. I loved what I saw, but I couldn’t get past my anxiousness, at least not at first. After a while, I settled in and enjoyed the adventure. But before long, my legs grew tired, and my mask proved challenging to maintain. Seeking relief, I swam towards shallow water. Don’t worry, my wife came with me, and I let our friends know we were turning back.
Corinne and I sat on the pier with our feet dangling and talked about what we saw in the water. The fish, the colors, everything seemed so vibrant. Although I found snorkeling a little much, I enjoyed experiencing something I had never done and may never do again, at least in this location, on this island, with these friends. Little did I know that once Colleen and Don were back, they suggested going to another area, further south, where we could snorkel at sunset, and the spinner dolphins dazzled those on the beach. We relaxed for a while, dried off, and ate before departing for Ho‘okena Beach Park.
Ho‘okena Beach is beautiful. It has incredible soft gray sand and is known for its perfect conditions for snorkeling, as well as sunsets. Like getting to Nāpō’opo’o Pier, the drive to the beach from the main road was an adventure. But truthfully, this is a fantastic beach, well-liked by locals, and off the beaten path, so not touristy. When we arrived, the sun was shining but getting lower with each passing minute. It had taken us a little longer than expected to get to the beach, so when we finally did, Colleen and Don were eager to jump back in the water. Corinne had had enough, but I felt more confident than I should have, so I decided to join my two friends. Stupidly, instead of entering the water from the sandy beach, I entered from the rocky shore.
Initially, as I was snorkeling, everything was splendid. I observed some colorful fish, saw spinner dolphins off in the distance. But as soon as I felt things were going well, my mask filled with water, and I panicked, probably the worst thing to do. I started swimming, but it was towards the rocky section, and I was pelted by crashing waves. As soon as I got close enough to the rocky ledge, another wave struck me, and I put my hand forward to brace myself. When I touched the rock, I felt a pinch. I gained my footing, with a couple of cuts and scrapes, but otherwise fine, at least I thought. Walking away from the water, wounded and dizzy, I felt a horrible pain in my right pinky. Yup, I had braced myself against the rock by plunging my hand into a sea urchin, and it left a black spike.
I removed the lone spike, splinter-like, from my finger, although it took time. After a few hours, Tylenol and a hot compress, the pain subsided, and the injection site never turned red or felt as if I needed medical attention. A side point: about 30 days later, while writing my dissertation, my finger felt odd. A couple of hours later, the pinky swelled up but lacked pain. Internet medical detective work, which one should never do, informed me that if the sea urchin stung something, like a joint, it could cause long-term arthritis or swelling within a month. Whether that is true or not, not sure, but swell up it did some 30 days after the encounter. Incredibly, after placing a “hot rice sock” on the finger, drinking ginger tea, and taking Tylenol, the swelling retreated, and the pain went away, never to return. The rest of that evening after my sea urchin sting was a bit of a blur, not because I was delirious, but instead, I was anxious about whether I needed medical attention. In the end, I was fine, but I didn’t see the sunset that night. Still, I had one more partial day left. Nothing a beach day and an infinity pool couldn’t fix, right?
The End? No, the Beginning
“We have a hard time seeing anything but gin-clear water, green mountains…Perhaps drifting off in a hammock, maybe with the sound of ukuleles in the distance… And it is those things, surely; a place where a gentleman such as myself might spend the rest of his years, padding about in a sarong, smoking…, eating pig in many delicious, delicious forms.”– Anthony Bourdain in “Hawaiʻi” from Parts Unknown
I awoke ready to make the best of the last day. Of course, this meant coffee, breakfast, and much-desired pool time. Our checkout time was 11, but the resort had courtesy suites where we could shower and rest for an hour or two because of our evening flight. That was a fantastic accommodation that made our day easy to plan. We spent hours at the pool but ultimately decided to venture to the beach and spent most of the afternoon there. We swam, dug our feet in the sand, and took a pleasant stroll along the coast, taking in the ocean breezes. To our excitement, we stumbled upon a horde of sleeping sea turtles. To see them as they were was thrilling, and yes, I took a bunch of photos from a safe but distant position.
After our chance encounter, we used the complimentary rooms to nap, shower, and prepare for our flight. Resting filled up over two hours, but once utilized, we officially departed the resort. We returned our snorkel gear and went to Kailua-Kona to explore the shops and get Kona coffee. At sunset in Kona, we headed to the airport. Though we filled our time before the flight, no room was left for error. While I am the type of traveler who gets to the airport early, Don is not. He was adamant that all would be fine. We nearly missed our flight upon getting stuck in a long line outside the airport terminal and my wife, Corinne, getting selected for a random security check. Of course, we did make our flight. I use this incident to joke with Don whenever I see him. Well, that and Don’s love of complimentary cookies from DoubleTree by Hilton, though he is rarely a guest.
Hey, I am from the Northeast; that’s what friends do, right? They joke, they are there for you in good times and bad, and they help form wonderful travel memories. Our trip to the Big Island is a journey that brings me joy every time I recall it. Even the long drives and encounter with a sea urchin, observing a Kona sunset, snorkeling above colorful fish, and exploring an active Volcano and the devastation it left behind, made this trip precious. I can’t wait to travel with Don and Colleen again, and seeing them recently after such a terrible year has made this wish grow. Not an end, more so a beginning. But always travel with aloha everywhere you visit.