One of the first things we noticed after arriving on the big island of Hawaii, other than the fifty-ish degree temperature difference compared to home, was the stars.
“All the constellations are in the wrong places,” Amber’s little brother, Aiden, said as he pointed out Orion’s Belt.
The big dipper, my personal favorite and an easy one to find on a clear night in the northwest, was nowhere to be found from our vantage point.
“Wow, look at the moon!” I pointed at the half moon, which instead of earth’s shadow covering either the left or right side of the moon, it covered the top half of the moon, a scene we never see from home.
That awe-struck conversation took place shortly after Amber’s family picked us up from Kailua-Kona International Airport and we arrived at the resort in the village of Waikoloa. We had hardly gotten our stuff in our room when we decided to go down and see if the pool was still open. It wasn’t, unfortunately, but after leaving sub-freezing temperatures and falling snow on Christmas day in Pasco, with only slightly warmer temperatures at Sea-Tac International Airport, then sitting on a semi-turbulent plane for 7 hours, we welcomed the 65 degree walk to the pool and back at midnight, breathing in the fresh Hawaiian air.
Waikoloa is on the northwestern side of the island of Hawaii, not far from its larger neighbor Kona. This side of the island may not be exactly what most people expect when they picture Hawaii. The dense jungles of eastern Hawaii (and other Hawaiian islands) give way to massive beds of volcanic rock in the west, and large swaths of rolling hills blanketed by prairie grass, getting greener and lusher the closer you get to the monstrous volcanoes on the interior of the island, such as the often snow-capped Mauna Kea.
This western side of Hawaii experiences a far drier climate than eastern Hawaii. They still get rain of course, but oftentimes when rain is dumping on Hilo in the east, Kona is basking in sunshine a mere 75 miles away.
On Amber’s and my first day on the island (Amber’s parents, Jeremy and Rayna, and brother Aiden had arrived a few days earlier), we visited Hapuna Beach, one of the big island’s few white-sand beaches. We learned while there that most of the beaches on the big island are black-sand or rocky beaches. Since Hawaii is the youngest of all the Hawaiian Islands, most of the rock and sand hasn’t broken down nearly as far as it has on the other islands. So in other words, the older the beach, the whiter the sand (I’m sure that’s extremely over-simplified, and anyone with insight on this please feel free to drop some knowledge in the comments!). The majority of the white sand beaches you see in Hawaii are found on other islands like Oahu or Maui.
Nonetheless, at Hapuna Beach, I swam in the Pacific Ocean for the first time in my life.
As I’ve discussed before, I have something of a phobia as it concerns deep water, particularly vast bodies of water, such as the ocean. While I do have a fear of sharks and other creepy water creatures, I wouldn’t say that’s what defines my phobia. My phobia is rooted in the fear of drowning, in the thought of being pulled down underwater, able to look up and see daylight, but with no ability to swim to the top. A fear of having no control over whether I live or die, and watching the light slowly fade.
My hands are shaking a little as I type about it.
Amber has a similar fear, although her fear is more based in the creepy-crawlies that might come to get her while in the water.
Nonetheless, we waded out and tested the waters cautiously for a while, but before long we were venturing out further and further, riding the incoming waves, and trying not to get beaten up too bad by them. Jeremy rented a couple of boogie boards as well, and after watching Jeremy and Aiden successfully ride several waves, Amber and I gave it a try. After trying and failing to ride the first few waves we attempted to catch, we finally figured it out and had a blast riding waves that carried us right up to the shore, much of it being documented on Aiden’s GoPro.
There were without a doubt plenty of times the waves beat us brutally though, and I still have the bruises to prove it.
The next day we went to Waimea, which is not far from Waikoloa, but on the interior of the island, and rented mountain bikes from Mountain Road Bicycles. After getting them loaded up in the rental pickup, we drove out to a gravel country road, parked, and started riding.
The road we were on was 44 miles long, and if we went as far as we could, we would eventually climb Mauna Kea, which stood ahead of us on the ride. The mountain was blanketed by threatening clouds that never dropped a hint of rain on us, but undoubtedly gave the mountain a nice soaking.
Riding up was difficult, as it was a steady climb, with short lulls followed by steeper inclines. The scenery, however, was awe-inspiring. We passed several ranches on the way, and the herds of cattle we came across had seemingly endless rolling hills to graze, carpeted with lush, green grass, reminding me of the Palouse in the late spring and early summer. Only in Hawaii, it’s like that year around.
There were buttes that jutted suddenly from the ground, standing tall above us, coming to a rounded top. I can all but guarantee that as kids, if we’d grown up there, my sister and I would have ran and laughed to the tops of the shorter buttes and back down repeatedly until we were exhausted.
Jeremy pointed out that many of the buttes were very similar to some we see here on the Palouse, the most famous (and largest) example in the area being Steptoe Butte, located between Pullman and Spokane.
That, combined with the familiarity of the rolling hills and prairie grasses, got me thinking, and I remembered learning that the Palouse’s rolling hills were made up of ancient lava flows long ago, along with the glacial Missoula floods. But much of the landscape of the Palouse is a product of volcanic activity ages ago, and of course, the Hawaiian Islands are more or less a series of volcanoes, and the landscapes of the islands have been shaped by them as well. It was strange and fascinating to realize that although we were thousands of miles away and in a completely different climate and environment, there could be such a geological similarity between Hawaii and the Palouse.
Eventually, about an hour and a half into our exhausting ride, Amber, Aiden and myself threw in the towel while triathlete Jeremy and marathoner Rayna circled us while pointing and laughing at our exhaustion (not actually…).
We stopped and rested for a few minutes before beginning our race to the bottom, which we completed in pretty incredible time, all five of us arriving back at the pickup in exactly 24 minutes (which was Jeremy’s guess before we started, I was way off with my prediction of 36 minutes). The ride up was scenic, beautiful, and arduous, while the ride down was fast, exhilarating, and a little terrifying at the thought of crashing, but mostly a blast and a great way to end a great ride.
After the ride, we drove further east to Kalopa Native Forest State Park, located on the northeastern corner of the island, where things were much wetter. The Park is a small rainforest that was once a much larger rainforest before developers, farmers, and ranchers incrementally clear-cut large parcels of the forest. In the 1960’s a group of local conservationists set about fighting to protect what today stands as the State Park, and they were able to successfully preserve and protect that section of the forest from development, and opened it to the public for recreational and ceremonial use.
While here, Amber and I went on a short hike on one of the many small trails snaking through the forest, while Jeremy, Rayna, and Aiden did some trail riding with the mountain bikes. Aiden also got briefly lost, and was sure he would never find his way out…but luckily, using advanced survival skills, he did make it out safely (it was a harrowing ten minute experience for the poor guy).
After heading back to Waimea and returning our bikes we had some much deserved drinks and food at Big Island Brewhaus, which was located in the same parking lot as Mountain Road Bicycles. Eventually, we returned to the resort and enjoyed the gorgeous saltwater pools and hot tubs.
The next day was a bit of an emotional roller coaster for Amber and I, as Jeremy rented kayaks from a rental shop in Kona called Kona Boys, and we set out for Kealakekua Bay and the Captain James Cook Monument, located near Kona.
We pushed off from Kahauloa Bay, making our way out of its cove, and set our sights across much larger Kealakekua Bay toward Captain Cook. As we made our way out of Kahauloa Bay the waves were quite large and choppy, for us anyways, and we were both on the brink of panicking and turning back. We stuck it out though, and once we made it out of the cove and into Kealakekua Bay, things calmed a bit, but on the journey across the bay I doubt as how my heart rate was out of the “cardio zone”, not solely due to the rowing, which was tiresome, but out of sheer fear.
Once we arrived closer in to Captain Cook, Cook Point provided a break from the waves, and things calmed. Jeremy and Aiden grabbed their snorkeling gear and jumped in the water while Amber, Rayna, and myself remained safely in the kayaks, enjoying the view of the ocean and the rock cliffs jutting above shore, reminding me of the cliffs that rise above the Snake River in places in western Idaho and southeastern Washington.
One thing we learned about Kealakekua Bay was that it is a marine life conservation district, meaning it is heavily regulated in order to protect the reefs and marine life that call it home. A fascinating fact we learned from the gentleman at Kona Boys was that sea turtles have a protective film on their shell and bodies, and if a person touches them, that portion of the protective film is lost forever, making them exponentially more susceptible to disease. Not touching any of the wildlife was just one of the long list of regulations that came with spending time in Kealakekua Bay, and violation of these regulations could cost someone a hefty $10,000 fine.
Due to its designation as a marine life conservation district, it stands to reason that there is a large amount of marine life in Kealakekua Bay. Well, at one point I made the grave error of looking down into the water, and just as I did I saw a dark shadow pass below our kayak. My breath shortened and I started to tell Amber that we were about to get eaten by JAWS, but before I could get the words out an approximately 5-foot dolphin surfaced not more than 10 yards from us, and soon several more started surfacing as well, ranging anywhere from what looked like about 3 to 6 feet in length, some smaller, some larger.
We would find out later that these were small spinner dolphins, and they’re very popular in Kealakekua Bay. The guys at Kona Boys told us that typically they’re only about 5 feet in length and very friendly to people and other marine life. While other types of dolphins do enter the bay, these are the most common, and they typically don’t like it when bottlenose dolphins venture into the bay, since they can be a bit aggressive toward the spinner dolphins.
Nonetheless, as we sat in our kayaks it was as if the bay erupted with other spinners, and there were a few different schools of them surfacing. Some of the smaller ones even jumped up out of the water, spinning two or three times in midair before splashing back into the water. Amber and I joked about them putting on a show for all the tourists, because it seemed as if they were “showing off their cool tricks” for all the kayakers and the other dolphins and wildlife in the bay. Of course, it may have also been there way of telling us to get the hell out of their bay too, but it was certainly a magical sight to see up close.
Eventually, the dolphins calmed a bit, Jeremy and Aiden jumped back in their kayak, and the five of us made our way back toward Kahauloa Bay where we had put in. The trip back was just as, if not even more, terrifying than the original trip over to Captain Cook. Since we were coming back in the opposite direction, the waves felt totally different as we were traveling somewhat across the waves now, getting rocked and tilted side to side instead of front and back.
The waves tried to draw you out further into the ocean as well, which you had to fight against, and blips of getting trapped out there, able to see the shore, but slowly sliding away from it, crept into my mind.
Through deep breaths, small screams, and lots of cussing, Amber and I rowed through this more terrifying stretch, and finally made our way back into Kahauloa Bay. By then we had the waves to our backs, pushing us right into shore without much effort.
With this being our final foray into the ocean for the rest of the vacation, I came to the conclusion that for Amber and I, when it came to deep water, fears were not necessarily conquered, but they were challenged and confronted, and for that we should be proud of ourselves.
And I for one can safely say that I’d be okay with never kayaking in an ocean, or large lake for that matter, again.
After kayaking we found a bar where we could get some snacks, drinks, and watch our WSU Cougars take on Michigan State in the Holiday Bowl. Unfortunately, the Cougs got beaten badly, and we only watched about the first half before taking off, heading to downtown Kona.
In Kona, we walked around and checked out some various shops, bought some souvenirs, and later got some dinner at a restaurant called On the Rocks. The dining area was literally on the rocks of the beach, and it had a sand floor. Amber and I ordered and shared a huge drink called the Kilauea, the name of a famous Hawaiian volcano I’ll talk about later. The drink was delicious, and combined with the other drinks we had that day, provided a nice little hangover the next morning.
But it was totally worth it.
On our final full day in Hawaii we made the drive to the opposite side of the island, to Hilo on the east coast. I mentioned earlier the dramatic difference in climate from one side of the island to the other, and this was the most pronounced example of that we got. We traveled through the interior of the island, and as we left Waikoloa heading east, we passed massive volcanic rock beds, more buttes that seemed to randomly jut up from the earth, as well as passing on the southern side of Mauna Kea and getting a closer glimpse at the shiny snow at its top, likely an icy crust that continuously melts and refreezes.
As we got around the halfway point the rock beds began to give way to dry forests, which gradually became wetter, the trees became taller, clouds rolled in, and suddenly, tall and thick rainforest stood on either side of the highway.
Once we got into Hilo, the sun reemerged, for a while, and the plant life on this side of the island was incredible. Trees and vine systems that I’d never seen before filled people’s yards and small forests were scattered in and near town. There were tall trees with bright red and orange flowers, and thousands of other plant varieties with leaves and vines and blooms of all shapes, colors and sizes. It was a truly spectacular sight.
After stopping in Hilo for snacks, we headed out toward Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which features two massive active volcanoes, Kilauea and Mauna Loa. We ended up not driving out too far into the park, so we didn’t see Mauna Loa, which is the largest volcano in Hawaii. But, we explored what we could of Kilauea instead.
Part of the volcano was closed off for the safety of the tourists, but we were able to hike down into a massive crater that was part of Kilauea. Apparently, this particular crater was the product of an eruption that happened fairly recently, in 1959, and it took until the late 1990’s before the lava had finally finished solidifying. However, there’s still plenty going on down there underneath the crust, as steam vents are everywhere.
The hike went out and around the rim of the crater at the edge of the forest, giving a view of the gigantic crater below between the trees, and eventually we switch-backed our way down into the crater. Once we got into the crater we no longer walked on brown soil. Everything was a sea of black and dark brown volcanic rock.
Much of the surface of the crater, luckily, was a type of lava flow called Pahoehoe (pronounced: paw-hoey-hoey), that dried either smooth or in ripples. However, there were also piles and hills of dried A’a (pronounced: ah-ah) lava flows, which form sharp and jagged shards of volcanic rock. One thing was certain: you do not want to suffer any type of fall or trip while down there, particularly around A’a dried lava. It was pretty incredible how sharp and rough the otherwise lightweight rocks were, and how unforgiving they would be to delicate human skin.
The hike went across the bed of the massive crater, and we explored on some of the giant piles of A’a lava, climbing up to the top of one that had multiple steam vents puffing clouds of smoke from multiple crevices. Eventually, we made our way back toward the exit side of the loop, which would lead us back up and out of the crater.
Just as we were entering the forest to start our ascent out, I looked back and noticed something move at the edge of the forest. Upon closer inspection, it was a small cat. I pointed it out to everyone else, and of course Amber went and tried to save it amid my objections, scaring it down into a small crevice.
Nonetheless, after we made our climb out of the crater through the forest, Amber found a park ranger and told him about the cat. He sighed, and told her that it wasn’t good to see a cat down there. They had apparently had issues with cats in the forest eating a certain type of plant (the name escapes me) which in turn disrupts the ecosystem of the forest. The park had worked hard at eradicating the cats in order to protect the island’s indigenous life, so this cat was likely one of the few remaining in the area.
Apparently, this is a common problem for Hawaii, in terms of non-indigenous species disrupting the island’s natural ecosystem, and harming life on the island. One fascinating fact about Hawaii is that it only has one indigenous mammal to the island, the Hawaiian Hoary Bat.
Since Europeans made first contact with the islands – Captain Cook and his crew of the British Royal Navy – other mammals have been introduced, such as feral pigs, goats, mongoose, cats, rats, and others. These mammals that have been introduced also carried things such as disease-ridden mosquitoes along with them, particularly the feral pigs, which have posed great threats to Hawaii’s natural habitats, and to this day threaten multiple species of indigenous birds.
After finishing our hike inside the crater, we also saw what’s referred to as the “lava tube” in the park, and it’s pretty much exactly what you’d think it would be. It’s a massive tube through the earth caused by the lava flow decades ago, and we were able to walk through it and see the massive tube that the incredibly hot lava cut through and created with ease.
Eventually, our hiking was finished for the day, and after stopping in at the park’s visitor’s center, we hit the road back for Waikoloa. This time the climate change was even more dramatic. As we came out of Hilo up into the higher elevation over the middle of the island, it was pouring rain, and there was a dense fog that reminded me of winters at home. But suddenly, as we reached the top of the pass, the sun burst through the fog and the clouds and we were suddenly being showered with sunlight once again. The remaining half hour or so of the drive we watched the sun set over the Pacific Ocean, amongst the buttes, mountains, and a few scattered clouds.
That evening we enjoyed dinner at the resort and spent quite a bit of time at the pool. And we most certainly did not climb up any water slides and ride them back down after they were already closed…
The next day Amber and I said our thank-you’s and goodbye’s to everyone and boarded the plane going from Kona to Seattle. When we had flown into Kona several days earlier it was night, so there wasn’t much to see, but as we flew out it was right around noon with bright skies, and it was a gorgeous scene as we took off and were able to look back at the island, its beaches, and its snow-capped mountains.
The flight to Seattle was much quicker than it had been coming over, our flight time being over an hour shorter due to a strong tailwind. It was dark in the Puget Sound as we arrived, but Seattle and the surrounding cities lit up the ground quite beautifully. At the airport, I even got to spend a little time with the greatest left tackle of all-time, Walter Jones…
After a three-hour layover at Sea-Tac, we were off for Pasco, a whopping 29 minute flight. While we had both been a bit drowsy on the flight from Kona to Seattle, Amber and I were both wide awake and a little wired on the flight back to Pasco, ready to be back after another long day of travel. The flight was quite beautiful too, as we flew at a lower elevation than we had on the way over, which had been cloudy. The night sky was clear and the moon was full as we flew over the snow-piled Cascade Mountain range, which was breathtaking in its vastness, even at night.
We arrived in Pasco right around midnight with my parents waiting to pick us up and hear about all of our adventures, and we talked their ears off the whole drive back to Eltopia.
At the end of it all, Amber and I both agreed that regardless of everything it has to offer, including a temperate climate, we wouldn’t want to live in Hawaii. We need a spring, summer, fall, and winter, we need the Palouse, and the Rockies and the Cascades.
We need the Pacific Northwest.
But, after such an incredible experience in a place I can only describe as paradise, Hawaii is probably my new second-favorite place, and someday I hope we will be back to explore more of Hawaii and the other islands, learn more about the Hawaiian culture, and soak in some sun when things are cold and frigid back on the mainland.