Hawaii Retrospective

It’s exactly six months since the US presidential elections. It would have been a memorable day for me no matter what, though: while the rest of the world watched Barack Obama inch toward victory, I was watching red molten lava flow into the sea as the sun set over the Pacific Ocean.

I was fortunate enough to be in America for the big occasion – albeit over 4,000 miles from Chicago’s Millennium Park – at the very southern-most point of the country on Big Island, Hawaii. The polls in President Obama’s home state would remain, needlessly, open for three more hours after we tip-toed back in the pitch dark toward the car, arriving just in time to savour his acceptance speech live on radio.

This was a good day. They were mostly good days in Hawaii, really. It wasn’t a destination I’d ever seriously considered until just a few weeks prior. We had two precious weeks of holiday to spend wisely, with California as a starting point. South America was the obvious first choice, although this plan was hampered by long flights (it turns out to be the same distance, and probably easier, to arrive from Europe) and finally scuppered by a complete lack of time to prepare for any vaccinations. Canada was #2 on the list, however, since we mostly wanted to see Toronto and Montreal, Europe again proved a saner theoretical starting point.

Hawaii, the outside candidate, appeared more attractive the more we researched it. Hiking was frequently mentioned on travel websites, as was scuba diving. One of the islands turned out not only had a huge volcano park but to also be famous for its coffee farms. After several holidays spent in major cities, we were both hankering after some serious scenery: after some initial scepticism, it looked  like Hawaii could deliver. Sure, it was rainy season Рbut how could it be any worse than Dublin?

Well, following three weeks of unbroken sunshine in the Bay Area, we arrived to grey, overcast, wet skies in Honolulu.  We had had a mind-bogglingly slow check-in procedure with Hawaiian Airlines at SFO Рslow enough to eliminate any hope of a proper breakfast after an early start with a long flight ahead. Hungry and tired, Honolulu Airport felt like a massive bunker, a determined effort to block natural light with metres of re-inforced concrete and replace it with florescent tubes.

Long after our trip to Hawaii I read “Stephen Fry in America“, companion to the TV series I loosely followed via iPlayer throughout my own USA tour. Stephen completes his American tour in Hawaii and echoes my feelings upon arrival:

What a horrible, what a grotesque, what a shattering disappointment. Of all the unspeakably vile tourist hells I have ever visited, this has to be one of the worst. At least Alicante and the Costa del Sol know what they are: Waikiki seems to be labouring under the delusion that it is still a glamorous and elite paradise. I dare say it once was, but decades of thoughtless hotel construction have destroyed any beauty, charm or individulaity. […] I go to bed cursing myself for the naievty with which I expected anything else.

Like me, however, Stephen quickly warms to Hawaii. There is a wealth of activity in and around Honolulu: the city is actually a fine place to visit itself, too, Waikiki hotels notwithstanding, and we ended up extending our stay for a day. During the two weeks we encounter coral, climb volcanoes, drive through lush green hanging valleys fresh out of “Jurassic Park” and lounge around on black, white and even green sandy beaches. We both end our USA adventure on Hawaii’s Big Island, watching new land form at what feels like the end of the known world and – in our case – listening in the dark to a new world order form on the car radio.

In lieu of an entire book, I thought it might be worthwhile posting – in addition to the photographs I uploaded a few months ago – roughly what we did each day. If you’re ever in the area and have any doubts, here’s what you can pretty easily see in just two weeks:

SUNDAY OCTOBER 26

  • arrival

MONDAY OCTOBER 27

  • attempt diamond head trail
  • waikiki beach

TUESDAY OCTOBER 28

  • pearl harbour

WEDNESDAY OCTOBER 29

THURSDAY OCTOBER 30

FRIDAY OCTOBER 31

  • polynesian cultural center (with george!)
  • hallowe’en at waikiki beach

SATURDAY NOVEMBER 1

SUNDAY NOVEMBER 2

  • tour the north-east coast
  • botanic gardens
  • lunch at the roadside hut
  • beach
  • walmart!

MONDAY NOVEMBER 3

TUESDAY NOVEMBER 4

  • hike a volcanic crater
  • lava tubes
  • lava flow watching
  • hear the world change, live on radio

WEDNESDAY NOVEMBER 5

  • head for kona
  • black sand beach
  • usa’s most southerly town/restaurant/bakery/everything
  • green sand beach
  • arrive in kona

THURSDAY NOVEMBER 6

  • explore coffee farms south of kona
  • free tangeloes!
  • captain cook monument
  • former royal beach palace
  • painted church

FRIDAY NOVEMBER 7

  • surfing/submarine
  • kona coffee festival parade

SATURDAY NOVEMBER 8

  • fly back to oahu
  • fly back to san francisco

SUNDAY NOVEMBER 9

  • fly home

Kona Coffee Farm Tour

There’s a couple of Irish guys outside, they’ve never seen a tangelo!

He hollers to the household before stepping outside to pick us some tangeloes (a cross between a tangerine and an orange). We’d called here after seeing an unmanned fruit stand advertising limes, grapefruit and tangeloes; we were most interested in whatever a tangelo was, however, and went looking for the owner. A few moments later we’ve seen his coffee plants, learnt he’d just eaten his last mango (damn) and marched off with an enormous bag of tangeloes. We’ve met nice people here.

The rest of the day was similiarly eventful; what started out as a coffee tour and then – when it became clear our tolerance for coffee wasn’t up to it – an aimless sight seeing tour of south Kailua-Kona:

  • First stop is Kona Joe’s coffee farm (where the coffee is grown like wine!); Dr. Joe’s patented process trains the coffee plant to grow along a trellis, maximising exposure to light and freeing more space for coffee “berries”.
  • A stop at Kealakekua Bay, where Captain Cook first landed in Hawaii and where he was later killed, in some sort of misunderstanding that has never really been entirely clarified. A monument to Cook is located a three kilometer hike away; we don’t bother taking it but do take some pictures of the Bay, regarded as one of the most scenic on the Big Island (when it’s not cloudy).
  • A lady at Kona Pacific Farmers Cooperative points us towards Pu’uhonua O Honaunau (Place of Refuge), a former royal garden and place of refuge in times of war. This is a beach garden with royal family-era wooden buildings and tons and tons of coconut trees. Here I pick up Mark Twain’s “Letters from Hawaii”; we’ve seen quotes from this book at every single sight we’ve visited – he even stayed at Volcano House – and I’m keen to read the full thing.


  • Lastly, we stop quickly at the Painted Church. It’s called so for the painted scenes on the wooden interior. Here we see another honour system-based stall, this one selling some nice hand-made souveneirs. It looks fantastic bathed in the evening light.

Black Sand Beach

We leave Volcano House early bound for Kona, our final city of the holiday, where we hope to spend 3 or 4 days before the (long) flight home. Along the way, Highway 11 brings us past a couple of unusual natural features that might make up, in some small way, for the departure from Volcano National Park. First is Punalu’u Beach Park.

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Punalu’u is a black sand beach, well known for its population of sea turtles…and its black sand. This is my first opportunity to experience a non-sandy coloured sandy beach. Before this morning it hadn’t even occurred to me that sand may not always be, well, sandy. It’s a very small beach and very crowded: a stall rents scuba diving gear and a horde of signs implore you not to bother the turtles while they’re “basking” (the turtles are okay – they will return to the sea when they want to!).

Though crowded, hardly anybody is actually here for the day: a line of coconut trees shelter a handful of sunbathers while a coach-load of holiday makers shuffle back onto their bus. We stroll up and down admiring the sight of it all while pondering the meaning of “turtle etiquette” but return before very long to the Highway 11 and what we hope will be the day’s real highlight: a green sand beach.

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An Evening with the Volcanoes

Legend has it that, in anticipation of their flights, the Apollo missions trained in this landscape, the closest to that of the moon on earth. I don’t know if that’s true or not but this is the most unusual landscape I’ve ever seen: a huge crater just a few kilometres in the distance in the ground belches out volcanic gas across a barren rock landscape before it wafts over Mauna Lea mountain/volcano. The air here, at over 3000ft, is the coldest we’ve yet felt on Hawaii; all around us, steam rises from every pore in the ground.

We’ve arrived at Volcano National Park, home to night-time lava flow watching, moon landscapes, observatories and the largest active volcano on earth, Mauna Lea. We stop by the visitor center to discover that the “crater rim trail” (an 11km drive around the smoking crater) is partially closed but that many of the other trails remain open.

On the way up to Jaggar Museum we pause to view the sulphur banks and get up close to the (scaldingly hot) steam emanating from the ground around. At the museum, we’re afforded a better view of the Kilauea Crater while the sun sets. Following that, a friendly park ranger has a telescope setup for some quick astronomy: we gaze at the moon and Saturn’s rings before driving back to the Volcano Lodge and a hearty meal in anticipation of tomorrow’s hikes.

Arrival on Big Island

We took an early afternoon flight from Honolulu to Hilo, on the “big island”; here, we’re promised scenic coastal roads, Kona coffee plantations and – most importantly – volcanoes, at Volcano National Park. If we’re very lucky, we’ll get some astronomy time in at Mauna Lea, too.

Once we’re landed, it’s amazing how quiet Hilo is: the airport (an international airport, allegedly) is deserted; our fellow ~40 passengers have quickly evaporated in the Big Island air, leaving us alone to travel out to Banyan Drive and our hotel.

The hotel, although in the midst of renovations (detailed on the front cover of the local paper), is very nice: a huge and bright open air reception area welcomes us before we check out the room and its “partial ocean view”. Outside the hotel, we can see all of Hilo Bay and that wedding preparations are underway. Later in the afternoon we spot an altar outside and witness a real-life Pacific island wedding. Not a bad way to go.

Before the evening is out we inspect “Uncle Billy’s General Store” next door to the hotel and an apparent one-off shop with an unlikely amount of own-brand goods, including t-shirts, bread and ice-cream. Afterwards, Uncle Billy’s Restaurant (he must own this town) provides local music to accompany an excellent seafood meal. On the way home, we notice the town is so quiet you can hear the local bird life singing at night – and it’s wonderful.

We’re not in Waikiki anymore!

E Noa Tour

Fresh from a roasting at the beach yesterday, we considered taking it easy on a guided tour would be a good idea. We took E Noa’s “Deluxe Little Circle Island Tour”, incorporating:

  • Slopes of Diamond Head
  • Kahala
  • Hanauma Bay
  • Halona “Blow Hole” Lookout
  • The beach from “From Here to Eternity”
  • Sandy Beach
  • Nu’uanu Pali Lookout & Valley

Though we had attempted Diamond Head earlier in the week and spent the previous day at Hanauma Bay, this still left more than enough sights to keep us happy for the afternoon. Our bus collects us at 2pm sharp and off we go, taking in the scenic route out past Diamond Head through to Hanauma Bay.

Our tour guide is something of a character, to say the least; detailed histories of the sights, the islands and people of the islands combine with some unexpected one-liners:

Together, everyone…Koko Head is Kohe-lepe-lepe.

Everyone, the ancient Hawaiian parcel service – U-HA-UL!

Even though the final stop, Pali Lookout (described by Mark Twain as the most beautiful view in the world), has a cloud sitting on top of it, we’ve seen plenty: a working blowhole, the beach in “From Here to Eternity” and a volcanic and coral beach.

We’ve also seen some other totally random things pointed out by our tourguide, most notably local election candidates perched at the side of the freeway waving to passing motorists. A local tradition without which, apparently, election is but a dream, rain or shine. There’s the current mayor…there’s a descendant of the Hawaiian royal family!

Highly recommended.

Koko Head Crater

We really hadn’t intended to climb anything like this, especially so late in the day. We had been planning on a hike, though, and when we did stumble upon the track up Koko Head Crater it was so clearly marked (looking like an abandoned mine cart rail) that we eventually made it up to the top. Dozens of locals were timing themselves running up the 1200ft crater; some people even lapped us. At the top we heard a very colourful story about the crater’s formation and, at the bottom, we finagled a free lift back into town with a Hanauma Bay worker.