We’re half round the Big Island, and just another three days until we return hone to very early nights and frost, and yet we’re just been away from home a week – that’s what happens when you start a new job and move house. We better explore as much as much as possible of this beautiful island, which is possible if you have the right transport – your own car. So, healthy breakfast first, as we tossed half a pineapple and a papaya into the blender, along with “Kona Blend” coffee and bagels and cream cheese, all courtesy of KTA, but then… we couldn’t tear ourselves away from the quiet of Fern Forest. Eventually, equipped with advice on good beaches in Hilo, we drove the ten miles or so to the entrance of Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park , paid up and drove right in. A very useful first stop is the Kilauea Visitor Centre just a kilometre or two in – it has a nice little exhibition, and most importantly, one of the most accessible (and impressive) lava viewing points. Right outside the Vissitor Centre, you can see into the Kilauea Crater, which has the smaller crater of Hale Ma’uma’u right inside it, which at present is a bubbling lake of lava. Nice to view during daytime, pretty spectactular at night – the park is open 24hours day.
When we visited, the Crater Rim Drive was closed, but the Chain of Craters Road leading past sites of previous lava flows and eventually to the sea was open. We left it at that for now, returned to Hilo and Honoli’i Beach, then to Lucy’s Taqueria for lunch, walked more leisurely around Hilo, and then, as the sun went down, returned to the Kilauea Visitor Centre in the evening – it was heaving! There was hardly any parking to get to the lava Open Air gig, but very social it was! Even now, rangers were at hand, and the volcano offered a pretty spectacular show with several spots of glowing lava opening up and spurting about – still very, very impressive to watch even from a kilometre’s distance.
The next morning, we had real trouble again tearing ourselves away from our lovely cabin in the forest – but we were not quite done with the volcano yet. We had a ticket for all National Parks on Big Island, which pays for itself if you visit on more than one day or more than one site, so we could take in this awe-inspiring volcano slowly. This time, we took a turn away from the Visitor Centre, onto bleak the Chain of Craters Road.
At first, we stopped at every historic lava flow and admired the vegetation slowly fighting its way back tot he surface, then we just peered down onto the vast expanse of lava and the sea below – it may take an hour or so one way, and at the end of the road, there may be a tiny stall selling sweets and soft drinks, and that’s it. Better not run out of petrol on this one. Also, if you look across the sea, you see the Holei Sea Arch, and this is the set-off points for hikes to the current lava flow if you feel fit and don’t fancy spending 200-odd dollars on a helicopter or lava boat trip. We didn’t feel up to the 12-mile return hike either, and you absolutely walk at your own risk here – there may be volcanic fumes (“vog”) along the way faster than you can run, and on the day we visited, a ranger who’s stationed there reported some mountain bikers had encountered some vog, and historically, there have been casualties almost annually. You can actually see a huge plume where the lava flows into to water, so we contented ourselves with that and slowly drove back up, stopping here and there to admire the bizarre lava formations.
On onto the round-the-island Highway 11, there came nothing for a while – just the tiny settlement of Pahala and the Kau Forest Reserve, another coffee growing region not nearly as much publicised as Kona, but its coffee considered equal or superior by some – we saw one coffee plantation open to the public from the roadside. But we didn’t stop until Punalu’u, again a famous spot because of its black sand beach and the visiting giant turtles – one did the honour when we walked along the beach, surrounded by quite a few visitors – this is far from an encounter just between you and Mother Nature.
Lured by advertising, we then went on to the “Southernmost bakery of the US”, the Punalu’u Bake Shop. Perhaps we had expected god-know-what, as its famous for its Malasadas, Portugese-style doughnuts, and the hype on its location. And true to the hype, there were a couple of tour buses parked by its front. The food… well, sandwiches looked nothing special, almost no vegetarian choices, and the malasada was okay, but would it warrant a special trip? Hmm. Perhaps not. Besides, there was nothing else around here, so we sort of had to stop to get our afternoon coffee.
And on… round the southern tip of the island – barely inhabited and wildly beautiful and probbaly not much visited away from Highway 11… Macadamia nut plantation took over from coffee, and round the tip of the island, we now had sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean as we climbed higher up and the vegetation changed to shrubbery and bare volcanic stone again. In Keokea we dropped off onto Highway 160, and visited another jewel: a tiny white wooden church set in small tropical gardens, . A huge hit on the web it seemed from previous research, when we were there: zero visitors except us. Story has it the Belgian missionary posted there at the beginning of the last century got a bit bored and painted its inside. It was just open when we arrived there, and it continues to be an active Catholic Church. You can read more about it here.
From there, the Kealakekua Bay is an easy but meandering drive downhill. You cannot access the actual monument that easily unless you walk down some steep path, but across the bay the narrow road took us right down to the water to Kealakekua State Historic Park, again, a rather rocky beach here, we did not see anyone swimming, and only just a few people parked here, but the place seems far away enough from everything, and there is a small shrine called Hikiau Heiau – there is not too much to see there in terms of conventional photo opportunities, but it one of many ancient sites considered sacred, and respected by visitors. There are opportunities to kayak into the bay from this side of the bay, and unfortunately the place is visited by lots of snorkel tours from Kailua during the day, but our visit in the late afternoon was peaceful.
We just sat on the stones and enjoyed the sun that had decided to return over the afternoon, then meandered back through quiet residential road up onto the Mamalahoa Highway and right into our AirBnB for the night – a shared house in a quiet residential neighbourhood in the south of Kailua (our nearest beach was Holualoa Bay) – with a top notch lanai, of course, so observe the sea and to sit and eat pineapples.
We only ventured out because we were hungry and if there is one disadvantage to staying in a residential area, its the lack of restaurants. So, Keauhou Shopping Centre had enough options to discuss: sushi was too expensive for dinner, Hawaiian BBQ was the worst possible choice for quasi-vegetarians, so Thai again it was – at the Royal Thai Cafe! This time, it was actually very good, we managed to stay under the 50 bucks mark, and portions, once more, were truly Texas size. We didn’t find much more to shout about this shopping centre (it didnt help it was pretty dead at 9pm) except that it held a very large KTA (Koichi & Taniyo Taniguchi, and a truly local place only found on the Big Island) supermarket. We by now called it “Kick That Ass” more out of respect that it did sell a lot of food, and more, at rather decent prices. Best pineapples, great Asian foodstuffs one could not find in Europe, plus American classics one can never find in Germany like McCormick Bac’n pieces. Great for souvenir shopping, too, as their choice of and prices for seemingly exotic cosmetics like Hawaiian Tropic sun lotion and Alba Botanica Mango Hair product (the latter company appears New-York-based, but makes very tropical smelling, cruelty-free cosmetics), and lets not forget the very tasty, and rightfully famous macadamia nuts which can be found here at the best prices we encountered in our week on Hawaii.
The evening was spent sitting on the sofa of our temporary living room and chatting with our house mates, and also discovering that the sister of a previous boyfriend had visited just a few days before us. Our host just shrugged his shoulders and said, yes, Hawaii is the place for these kind of things to happen…