Hawai`i Travelogue: Part 3

by | Hawai'i

Three Nights in Big Island (Hawai’i)

– Hawai`i is the largest of all islands in the Hawai`ian archipelago. Nicknamed as “Big Island”, this geologically youngest island of Hawai`i befittingly earned the moniker due to its staggering size that can fit nearly twice the combined landmass of rest of the Hawai`ian islands. From artesian springs, magnificent waterfalls and jet-black sand beaches along Hamakua coast to towering dormant volcanoes Maunakea and Maunaloa; from sweeping vistas, elevated lookouts and scenic hiking trails of lush Waipio Valley to snow-capped heights and mars-like arid landscape of Maunakea; from molten magma flowing into the sea from erupting Kīlauea shield volcano to lava tubes, glowing craters, steam vents and sculpted sea arches in Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park – the island of Hawai`i truly manifests nature’s forces of creation and destruction in an unrivaled way. Big Island, therefore, was not to be missed and we chose this island to be our final destination of week-long Hawai`i vacation in July 2017.

Day One

On a bright, sunny morning of July 5th, we landed at Hilo International Airport around 10:10 am, taking a short 40-minute flight on Hawai`ian Airlines from Maui to Big Island. Car rental pick up at Hilo was conveniently located right across the airport gate, so we could start the 75 mile long drive from Hilo to Mauna Kea Beach Hotel (our first stay in Big Island) rather quickly after landing in Big Island. The scenery on our way kaleidoscopically changed from lush greenery to arid scrubland and eventually to broad volcanic terrain on both sides of Saddle Road, dotted with scattered rocks on the lava plateau of Mauna Kea. Driving for close to two hours through the swiftly changing landscape of Big Island, we reached Kohala coast, where sits our lodging property in an exotic oceanfront setting at Kaunaʻoa Bay. The Mauna Kea Beach Drive leading to the resort from HI-19 Hwy was beautifully landscaped with lined-up palm trees, vibrant flowering Plumeria along the side walkways and lush green golf courses. Established in 1965, this Autograph Collection Property of Marriott paved the way of tourism to Hawai`i’s sunny, western Kohala coast and is a historic landmark of Big Island till today. We were greeted warmly at the reception, with signature orchid and kukui nut leis of Hawai`i, refreshing tropical drinks and a free upgrade to ocean-view room. A friendly staff walked us through the spacious property to our room. On the way, we found an impressive collection of antique Pacific and Asian art pieces displayed all over the property in nooks and corners, adding to its unique character.

After checking into our room, we spent the rest of the day in the secluded, pristine white sand crescent-shaped beach of the resort, soaking in the tropical sun and indulging ourselves in pure relaxation. The beachside restaurant Hau Tree was serving delicious tropical drinks and signature seafood delicacies for lunch, so we didn’t have to leave the beach. In the evening, we were invited to a welcome cocktail party arranged by the resort manager for Marriott Platinum members in their signature Manta Restaurant, where we met local residents (mostly elderly elite couples from Kohala coast) who are regular visitors of the restaurants and golf courses in the resort, as well as other guests. While enjoying together the quintessential sunset from the restaurant terrace, we chatted with a few local invitees and got to know about local delicacies and walking trails along the coastal line close by where starfishes and manta rays can be frequently seen. After the welcome party, we came back to our room and were pleasantly surprised by yet another welcome gift of deserts and champagne sent by the resort manager as a gesture of Aloha!

Left: Day 1; Right: Day 2: Sunset view from Mauna Kea Beach Hotel private beach

Day Two

We stayed at Mauna Kea Beach Hotel for two nights, and pretty much spent the entire duration of our stay in the resort property, either hanging out in the beach, relaxing beneath the beach umbrella and sipping tropical drinks or tasting delicious seafood in the signature restaurants around. Out of the four resort restaurants, we checked three – Copper Bar and Manta Restaurant for fine-dining experience and Hau Tree for beach-style lunch. While Copper Bar with live music was delightful, we liked Manta Dinner the most for its wonderful outdoor sitting with stunning view as well as delicious breakfast and dinner dishes. The location of the Manta Restaurant is also iconic, with the view of swimming Manta Rays near the shore from the open terrace being absolutely amazing. We checked out an interesting breakfast place by the name “Under the Bodhi Tree” the second day while roaming around the neighboring Mauna Lani drive and marketplace. Their fresh fruit platter was refreshingly delicious. Spending the rest of the day in the white sand beach, we retired to our room after watching the last sunset of our trip from the seashore, being rejuvenated for setting out for the final adventure of our trip to the volcanoes the next day.

Day Three

After having a sumptuous breakfast, we checked out from the resort and headed for our next destination: Kalapana lava flow at ocean entry. We planned to stay close to Kilauea in Big Island (the most active volcano on earth), so that we can explore volcanic activities until late night. Driving close to 100 miles, we arrived at “Aloha Happy Place”, a homestay off the Old Volcano Road and only couple of miles away from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park around 2:30 pm. After waiting for close to an hour, we got access to our room (no provision of early check-in). It was a bit strange that there was only one single switch in the room to on/off both the lights and the ceiling fan; which means at night the guests cannot use the fan (otherwise the lights will remain on) and the only source of air circulation would be an open window. We initially thought it would be quite uncomfortable in hot and humid Hawaiian summer to sleep at night without air-conditioning or even fan, but the hostess assured us saying that the temperature usually drops drastically at night (all around the year) near Kilauea and we might, in fact, need a blanket even in summer nights! No wonder Big Island is one of the most climatically diverse places on earth, where not only close to a dozen different climatic zones exist within a single island, but also the temperature within a single zone may vary widely from morning to night.

Soon after checking in, we set out for Kalapana lava viewing area near the ocean entry point, close to 60 miles from our homestay. From the end of Chain of Craters Road, the hiking trail to lava ocean entry viewing begins and it’s close to 9.5 miles moderate, round trip hike along a gravel road with slight elevation gain. An alternate option is to rent bikes that makes the journey much quicker. We opted for the second option and reserved a tandem bike online from Kaimu Bike Rentals to be picked up at 5:30 pm. When we arrived on time, the bike was ready for us. Though there are quite a few bike rental agencies there, it is recommended to have a prior reservation, so as to avoid unpredictable delay in getting a bike onsite, especially during the busy time of the year. Along with the bike, we were also provided additional gears, including flashlights, helmets, bike-lock, water and first aid kit for our journey. The environment here is harsh on bikes and though the brakes and gears of our bike were working fine, it was not a very smooth ride. We were extremely cautious while biking up or down the elevation of the unpaved trail, since the surface with loose gravels was rough. In fact, we witnessed a young biker tumbling down-slope while trying to cruise fast and ending up with a profusely bleeding, badly injured knee. The surrounding view along this trail is of lava fields, parts of which are quite brittle. There is absolutely no shade along the entire 9.5-mile stretch; so even tandem biking was strenuous under the scorching heat of summer sun. We stopped a few times on our way to catch breath and drink water to keep ourselves hydrated. Though the 4.5-mile trail is mostly flat, the hiking/biking experience here is very different from other conventional nature trails and it is highly recommended to take it slow. The hot and dry atmosphere added to the rough, arid terrain can easily make hikers and bikers exhausted if pit stops are not taken at regular intervals. It took us close to 45 minutes to reach the end of the trail at an easy pace, where we locked our bike and hiked over the lava rocks for a short distance (close to 15 minutes) to reach the lookout point to observe the 61g lava flow into the Pacific ocean.

Where lava meets ocean: 61g lava flow. Big Island, Hawai’i

The ocean entry point was nearly half a mile away from the lookout point and by the time we reached, the observation area was overly crowded. Climbing down the lava rock hill, we managed to find an empty space to set our tripod with camera gears and settle down for the sunset. The first sight of the active lava meeting the ocean was awe-inspiring. Enormous cloud of smoke was pluming off where the lava was entering the ocean. Below the curtain of the billowing smoke, an orange stream could be seen from a distance when the gust of wind was dispersing the thick plume blanket from time to time. In the daytime, the orange glow of lava was not continuously visible from the lookout point, but the real show came to life as the night fell. With deeming daylight, the wind was carrying the smoke cloud more and more offshore and out-to-the-sea, opening the lava-viewing window through the curtain of thick smoke ‘wider for longer’. At the onset of twilight, the layer of plume close to the flowing lava started glowing reddish, setting a dramatic backdrop to the scene. Far from the pollution of city lights, the lava field immersed into an engulfing, unadulterated darkness as the sun went down the horizon. Beneath the starry night sky, the sight of bright, orange glow reflecting off the smoke from lava was eerily magnificent.
After watching and photographing one of the most spectacular displays of nature’s raw power that we’d ever experience, it was time to come back. The clock was ticking 8 pm and we still had a window of couple of hours for returning to the rental bike. So after contemplating for a while as to whether we should go back to the bike rental shop or head out for an unplanned lava hike for an hour or so, we set out for yet another adventure in the darkness: in search of surface flow on the lava field! Depending on the volcanic activity and viewing conditions (which can change on a daily basis), the active flow on the lava field can be found within a couple of miles to a few miles from the lava ocean-entry observation point. Before setting out, we got to know from a park ranger that it would be close to an hour of hike that day to reach the closest active lava flow on the field. With extra headlights and flashlights, we started walking across the moonlit lava field towards the glowing lava streaming out of the Puʻu ʻŌʻō vent and fissures further down the eastern rift zone that was visible from even a far distance in the darkness of the night. Though taking guided lava viewing tour is not mandatory to hike up to the surface flow (if it is within the national park boundary), we later realized that it’s definitely be a better idea, especially for lava hikes at night. The hiking terrain here is uneven, with deep cracks and crevices all along the field. The lava floor is treacherous with razor-sharp, abrasive lava from older flows as well as brittle, crumbling and unstable lava from the newer flows, which make this hike grueling and not for everyone. What makes this hike even more challenging is the absence of any trail or marked route to the surface flow, which is dynamic and may change anytime. Without professional guidance, it is easy for hikers like us to become disoriented after dark. Soon after, we realized that it might be a difficult attempt to hike for an hour through this unknown, rough terrain. Though we could see small groups of guided hikers (with flashlights and headlights) walking ahead of us across the lava bed, the distance yet to be traversed seemed to be too long after hiking for close to half an hour through the arid field. We also had another 4.5 miles of tandem biking left after the hike to get back to the bike rental place. So we eventually aborted our adventure and returned to where we parked the bike, vouching to come back next time being better prepared and with professional guides who know this tenuous trail intimately. After all, experience does matter!

The final phase when lava meets the ocean water

The return journey was easier, with downslope biking most of the time. Tandem biking beneath the starry sky on a moonlit night was a pleasantly refreshing experience, especially after the exhaustive lava hike. At about 10 pm, we reached the bike rental shop, right on time. The shop was about to close in a few minutes. Returning the bike, we relaxed for a bit in our car and hydrated ourselves before heading out to the last trip of that day. Our final destination was Jaggar Museum in Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park. The fuming vent in Halema`uma`u crater is best viewed from the Jaggar Museum overlook after dark, with an incandescent glow illuminating the venting gas plume. When we reached the overlook parking lot, it was brutally gusty and chilly. The ambient temperature dropped sharply with the nightfall inside the park, a drastic change in mercury level from the blazing hot daytime! Braving that harsh wind and bone-chilling cold, we walked up to the deserted viewing area outside the museum. The moon was in “Waxing Gibbous” phase that night (with 97% illumination and full moon was in two days, on July 9th) and the sweeping view of moonlit Kaū Desert Wilderness vista surrounding Kīlauea Caldera and Halema`uma`u crater was spectacular. Close to full moon, it was not an ideal night to see Milky Way in the backdrop of the glowing crater. Nonetheless, the clearly visible orange, fiery glow emanating from the lava lake inside the Halema`uma`u crater was surreal. Spattering is common in the summit lava lake of Halema`uma`u crater. Viewing active spattering from the Jaggar museum overlook, however, is not an everyday event. The likelihood is intricately dependent on the inflation/deflation of the lava lake level close to the rim that fluctuates unpredictably over time. That night, luckily, we got to witness the sight of multiple active spattering along the east lake margin for hours. It was an unforgettable experience. Past midnight, we called it a day and returned to our homestay. Goes without saying, the night was pleasantly cold.  We ended up sleeping quite comfortably with natural ventilation (open windows), without a fan or A.C. and in fact, under the quilt at late night when temperature dropped further below 40F!

Near full moon brightening up the surroundings of Halema’uma’u crater

Lava splatter at Halema’uma’u crater as viewed at night from Jaggars museum overlook

Day Four

On the last day of our trip, we started a bit late. Our plan was to spend close to 6 hours in driving through the two main scenic drives in Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park, viz. Crater Rim Drive and Chain of Craters Road, and explore volcanic activities in the park before heading to Hilo to catch our return flight. On our way to Kīlauea Visitor Center, we noticed near the entrance of the park (about 1.5 miles inside the park gate) that some events were ongoing in the Kīlauea Military Campground. At the visitor center, we got to know that it was the day for 37th Annual Hawai`ian Cultural Festival & BioBlitz event at the park, where all park visitors are invited to enjoy hula and music, engage in authentic Hawai`ian cultural practices, watch skilled practitioners demonstrate their art and even get to try their own hands at Hawai`ian crafts! Along with the cultural showcase, the festival also offers a unique opportunity called “Bioblitz”, where visitors can join scientists to discover the biodiversity that thrive in the park. It was indeed a nice coincidence to visit the park on the same day of their annual cultural festival. But we didn’t have much time in hand to enjoy the festival before exploring the rest of the park within half-a day, so we had to skip the Bioblitz for the next time.

Driving along the Crater Rim Drive (close to 11 mile long scenic drive) past the visitor center, we fleetingly stopped at Sulphur Banks (stop 2), Steam Vents and Sulphur Bluffs (stop 3) before reaching the Kīlauea overlook (stop 4). Stops 2 and 3 would surely remind anyone who has been to Yellowstone National Park, of the steam vents oozing SO2 and H2S. One of the differences between Yellowstone and Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park, however, is that there’s no hot spring or geyser near the steam vents here (unlike the ones in Yellowstone) due to deep underground water table. In Hawai`ian mythology, it is believed that Kamapuaa, a half-pig-half-man demigod would stand at Steaming Buff and call his lover Pele, the Goddess of Fire.

Crater

Kīlauea overlook, our next stop, was close to Jaggar museum overlook that we ventured the previous night. This overlook offers an excellent view of the sweeping vista around Kīlauea Caldera. Halema`uma`u crater can be seen at a distance from here, along with Kīlauea Iki Crater and Puu Puai cinder cone. Signs of little vegetation can be seen from the overlook along the Crater wall and bottom surface and we saw few birds (couldn’t ID from the distance) circling around the caldera. From Kīlauea overlook, we headed towards Jaggar museum. This museum is one of the busiest locations in the park and for a good reason. Containing numerous exhibits that explain the history and behavior of Hawai`ian volcanoes, this museum is a gem for volcanology enthusiasts. Among other equipments on display, the most interesting one to us was a working seismograph, which is a “real time” monitor of the volcanoes, providing data of tremors.  The large glass windows on the museum wall also offer a sheltered view of the caldera and the main crater, Halema`uma`u, especially during the days with inclement weather. In scorching summer midday, the view of Kīlauea Caldera from inside the museum was undoubtedly comfortable. While coming out of the museum, we cam across a group of nēnēs (Hawai`ian goose) in the parking lot, the state bird of Hawai`i. Driving further south along the Crater Rim Drive, we passed by a huge fissure called “Southwest Rift” and Halema`uma`u overlook (where we didn’t stop due to lack of time for day-hike) before halting shortly at Keanakakoi overlook. The reddish coloration of the rock here (due to oxidation by escaping gas from a fissure across the street) was interesting. This overlook has a historic importance and hence got the name Keanakakoi means “place of the adze”. Apparently, ancient Hawai`ians used to visit this crater frequently to harvest extremely hard stones formed by dense layer of basalt for making tools! Past this overlook, the drive continues further east, where it enters into the rain forest. This part of the Crater Rim Drive is strikingly verdurous compared to the rest of the park. The next overlook, Puu Puai (means “gushing hill”) provided us a sweeping view of the Kīlauea Iki pit crater and Kīlauea Iki trail. Seemingly, this overlook is one of the windiest spots in the park. The trail walkers along Kīlauea Iki trail were looking microscopically small from this overlook, and gave us a comparative perspective of the massive scale of Kīlauea.
The Devastation trail walk also starts from the parking lot of this outlook, further down the road, but we skipped that trail due to lack of time. Instead, we continued further east through increasingly lush rainforest to reach the trailhead of Nāhuku-Thurston Lava Tube. Being the most popular attraction in the park, getting an empty parking spot near the Thurston Lava Tube trailhead was quite challenging. Also, the lighting inside the lava tube was dysfunctional at that time. So we had to carry additional headlights with us. Cellphone’s flashlights came into rescue for many other visitors who were not carrying headlights or torchlights during the day trip to the park. Taking a short trail through lush vegetation of tropical ferns, we crossed a small bridge and entered into the damp, dark lava tube. The entrance of the lava tube resembled any other cave or cavern entrance, but inside the tube was a very different world. It felt thrilling to imagine while walking through the tube, that several hundred years ago, a stream of red lava rushed through this path. The tube ceiling was quite low at some places and we had to be watchful throughout the walk. The experience walking through the dark lava tube was fascinating, but it ended too quickly! This lava tube was discovered in 1913 by a local newspaper publisher, Lorrin Thurston (after whom the tube was named later). At that time, apparently the ceiling of the tube was covered with lava stalactites! Unfortunately, those delicate lava growths disappeared soon after to souvenir collectors, leaving the lava tube ceiling barren. If were protected before the human intervention, the lava tube would have been much more interesting and exciting to explore today. It took us merely half an hour to explore the lava tube and walk back to the parking lot. From there, we set out for the last marker of the Crater rim Drive, Kīlauea Iki overlook. With Kīlauea Iki Crater in the foreground and Puu Puai cider cone on the opposite rim of the crater, this overlook offered one of the most spectacular views of the volcanic vista. Standing at the overlook, we could see faintly etched trails stretching across the crater floor, dotted sparingly with little specks: which were the hikers walking across the crater floor! The crater floor was spotted with what looked like scattered pebbles from the outlook but in reality, massive piles of lava rocks! It would surely be an amazing experience to hike through this arduous yet extraordinary terrain. Though, we didn’t have enough time to explore this 4-mile trail loop this time, but would definitely be on our bucket-list for our next Big Island trip in the future.

Holei Sea Arch viewpoint and surrounding area

With about 2 hours left before heading out for Hilo, we drove back from the Kīlauea Iki overlook to the parking lot of Devastation trail, to take a left turn and get into the Chain of Craters Road. Stretching close to 18 miles with an elevation range from 4000 ft. down to sea level, this unique scenic drive in the park is pockmarked with lava flow, petroglyphs, craters of varying dimensions and hiking trails with breathtaking views of vistas and Pacific Ocean. Passing by several marked craters, we took a pit stop at Devil’s Throat. The walking path to this overlook led to the edge of a sheer cliff that abruptly dropped off into an abyss aka a massive deep crater called “Devil’s Throat”. The crumbling edges of the pit were dangerous without any guardrails. Driving further down, we passed by a few more crater overlooks without stopping. The road took a dramatic hairpin bend after traversing nearly 11 miles and the elevation started dropping sharply as we approached towards the coast. There were various lookouts along the way and we pulled over at one (Holei Pali) to take lunch break. The surrounding terrain here demonstrates how the lava poured in waves in the past, forming gigantic swaths down the hill. Finally, after driving for close to an hour, we reached the end of the Chain of Craters Road, with a turnaround indicating the end of access to motor vehicles. Passing a barricade that marked the no-entry sign for vehicles, we took a short trail to the Holei Sea Arch viewpoint. Nature’s untamed forces unite into sculpt arches here, where the lava meets the ocean within a few miles. Surf is extremely powerful here; forming the sea arches by continuously pounding the lava and undercutting the flow. It’s amazing how plethora of succulents thrive on these lava rocks! Patches of lush green succulents spring out here and there and add a vibrant contrast amidst the field of pitch-black lava. The surrounding terrain here is a mixture of jagged “a’a” and smooth “pahoehoe” lava. The overlook was very windy and we were literally struggling to hold the camera steady while taking pictures. Finally, it was time to go back. The clock was striking almost 2 o’clock when we started our return journey. It took us another couple of hours to reach Hilo town from the park. Though we planned to visit the famous farmer’s market at Hilo, it was closed by the time we reached. Instead, we roamed around Bayfront Beach Park in Hilo for a while, soaking in Hawai`ian sun one last time before bidding final good-bye to this majestic island.

Aloha Hawai’i

 

Trip summary at a glance:

  • Flight: OGG to ITO with Hawaiian Airlines Economy, booked via United Airlines with 6.5K points pp. We returned using 45K pp United Airlines points which was expensive due to 4th of July Holidays.
  • Hotel: 2 nights at Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, Autograph collection, Waimea (Marriott Category 9, 90K points), one night at Aloha Happy Place, Volcano ($175 paid stay).
  • Places of interest visited in this trip: Mauna Kea, Kalapana, Volcanoes National Park, Holei Sea Arch.

Few suggestions based on our experience:

  • Check-in luggage fee: We paid $15 for one check-in luggage in Hawaiian just by being a member (for free) of the airline. For non-members, the fee is $25.
  • It is better to tour Volcanoes National Park first and then relax so that one can have time to rejuvenate.

Note: 

  • Recently, severe volcanic activities have been reported in Big Island and many things have changed. Situation in the places, described above, may have changed significantly and several places may not be accessible any more. We suggest readers to take precaution and check current conditions before planning to travel to Big Island to visit Volcanoes National Park. 
  • Although we can not do much from here, our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Big Island and those who are affected by the recent volcanic activities. 

Gallery of Big Island

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