Finding My Way on the Big Island
A week on the Big Island of Hawai’i sounds like a lot of time but it hardly scratches the surface. If you thoroughly research the possibilities and schedule your time carefully, you might leave with the satisfaction of having done all that you planned. For those who, like me, show up on the island with only vague ideas about what to do the week goes by quickly with many options quickly considered but not fulfilled.
My trip to the Big Island was more of a windfall than a plan. Friends rented a house in Kona and invited others to join them. The dates were about one month into my retirement so Maggie and I quickly accepted the invitation. She was interested in snorkeling. I had my sights set on visiting the Mauna Kea Observatory. Anything else was left to chance, interest and the dynamics of the group with whom we were sharing the house.
In the end our activities were a combination of group and individual efforts. At the house we talked, laughed and enjoyed the leisure of comfortable and pleasant accommodations. We ate at the Ba Le Vietnamese Sandwich Shop and Bakery in the strip mall next to the grocery store that we frequented and also lunched at the Kona Brewery. My first attempt at snorkeling was part of a group excursion to Kalalu’u Bay, probably the most accessible public beach in the Kona-Kailua area. It did not go well. I had a mask and snorkel from the rental house but it did not seal well over to my mustache. The equipment rental place on the beach gave me some petroleum jelly but that was only limited help. Surf was rough and the area crowded. I got a small glimpse of snorkeling’s attractions—I saw tropical fish and coral—but I was mostly concerned with keeping water out of my mask and not sucking it in through my snorkel. I did not last long in the water. Once out of the water, I wanted out of the mid-day sun. We retreated to the Vietnamese restaurant for lunch.
Later that day, four of us took off for Mauna Kea Observatory. Once we were north of Kailua, we had the Mamaloha Highway largely to ourselves on a clear afternoon. The white observatory domes were visible along Mauna Kea’s ridge not long after leaving town. The Saddle Road leading across the island was equally uncrowded and nicely paved. The saddle between the island’s two great volcanos, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, was covered by a cloud bank that turned the clear day into overcast and occasional drizzle. We turned off the Saddle Road on John A. Burns Way, a narrow, curvy two lane and climbed out of the cloud bank up to the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Center which sits at 9,200 feet. We did not attempt the far more primitive road to the peak at 14,000 feet. We arrived around 5:30 which gave us a time to hike to a nearby saddle to view the sunset before the stargazing party began around 7:00 pm.
The evening was clear but with a waxing gibbous moon much of the visible star field was washed out. Still, plenty of stars were visible. Volunteers set up a variety of telescopes. The party began with volunteers describing the night sky above—what we could see and what we could not see and other items of astronomical interest. They had pointer lights that beamed into the sky to point out stars and constellations. After their talk, we could look through the telescopes where a volunteer would explain the image and make any needed adjustment to the instrument. Most of the scopes were barrel-like Cassegrain reflecting scopes but one was a refractor. I got a nice view of a binary star (a larger yellow star paired with a smaller but much hotter blue star), saw the star-forming nebula in Orion, viewed Jupiter and three of its moons, and had a dramatic close-up view of the moon. My binoculars also gave me some nice views, especially of the Pleiades which were otherwise small to my eye. The night was cold and brought back memories of many winter nights looking through my cheap refractor. The ride back to Kailua was very dark.
One of my favorite things to do when I visit someplace new is to learn its history. Guidebooks at the hous provided some history but I learned even more when Maggie and I drove south to Pu’uhone O Hoananu National Historic Park, the Place of Refuge. This was a site reserved for royals but part of it also served as a place where one could obtain absolution for violating a taboo. In Old Hawai’i, laws or kapu (taboos) governed every aspect of society. The penalty for breaking these laws was certain death. The only option was to elude your pursuers and reach the nearest puuhonua, or place of refuge. The site has preserved or restored the great walls of dark volcanic stone, the same stone that lines this entire portion of Hawaiian coast. The park map provides an informative self-guided tour of restored structures and cultural artifacts. Along the way we watched a sea turtle feeding in the shallows. Away from the historic area is a very nice picnic area that faces a rocky shore where waves crash over lava formations that turn into immense waterfalls as the waves recede. Tidepools provided a nice foreground for a dramatic sunset. On the ride back to Kailua, we spotted a narrow, primitive looking road with a hand painted sign for the Old Hawaiian Coffee Company. We did not take that road, opting instead to look for food which we found farther along on a side street in Kealakekua.
While we were at the Place of Refuge we saw people snorkeling in the adjacent Honaunau Bay. It was less crowded than Kahalu’u Bay in town so we decided to try snorkeling there on the following day. I rented a mask with less lip and would fit tighter, I hoped. I was wrong. I did not get a good seal. I might have been able to manage that if my snorkel didn’t draw water when I breathed. I traded snorkels with Maggie which took care of my problem but now she was stuck with it.
This time I was in the water longer and had a chance to look around more. Fish were everywhere. The bottom was coral, sand and lava rock. I also felt uneasy in that environment. Maybe it was my uncertain gear combined with my lack of experience in ocean water. I was cold, too. I pulled out, gave Maggie the good snorkel and watched from the shore as she floated out some distance. For a while I watched a sea turtle feeding on algae in a tidal pool, bobbing about as waves surged back and forth over it. Maggie was out for almost an hour and was the last snorkeler to come out of the water that afternoon. She and reported seeing a wide variety of fish (and vice-versa), much coral and the drop-off into the ocean depths beyond.
We were back on the highway early enough to follow the road into the Old Hawaiian Coffee Company. The road is paved but has been repaired so often that it looks like a patchwork of potholes. About 100 meters from the highway we came upon a house and were met by a young man who gave us a quick tour of the place. He showed us coffee trees that had just flowered and were now producing beans. Inside we saw the processing and roasting equipment. The belt-driven wooden wheels and equipment are original from 1909 when the farm was established. The only modification is the electric motor that replaced the gasoline engine that powered the drive.
History was also on our last day’s itinerary. We visited a heritage site on Kahalu’u Bay where a former hotel/resort complex is being removed to restore a historically significant heiau complex. Students from the Kamehameha Schools, which owns the land and previously leased it for hotels, are restoring some of the sites as part of a long term project. The security guard at the entrance gave us some background on the site and its history. Most notably, a defeated chief was captured and sacrificed here.
The day ended at the Hulihe’e Palace which was a summer residence of the island governors under successive Kamehamehas during the 19th century. As palaces go, it’s a modest affair—only six rooms—but it is well-preserved and staffed by very informative docents, members of the Daughters of Hawai’i. The photographs and artifacts illustrate Hawaiians’ growing fascination with British manners, customs and dress. So much so that I am surprised that Hawai’i ended up as an American territory rather than a British colony. The Brits did manage to get their flag incorporated into the Hawaiian flag, though.
And then our week was done. So much to see and do. So little time.