The Big Island of Hawaii

Published: June 29th 2014
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Big Island Road Trip

House and CarHouse and CarHouse and Car

Baller Status
For the first part of this trip see "3 Days on Kauai."

After an incredible start to our vacation on Kauai we hop on the plane early Sunday morning to head to Hilo, the largest city on the Big Island of Hawaii. After changing planes in Honolulu we are off towards one of the only land masses in the world that is constantly getting bigger. Ponder that for a while if you don't already know. It's a cloudy day but as we're flying above the clouds I see a huge mountain peak sticking up above the clouds. It's red and barren and has numerous patches of snow. This is Mount Kea. At 13,796 feet in elevation, it is the tallest mountain in Hawaii and one of the tallest in the US not in Alaska, Colorado, or California. It's hard to believe that such a small island can have such a big mountain. And not just one, but two! Mount Loa is only a few hundred feet shorter. Kea is considered the tallest mountain from base to peak in the world, over 30,000 feet! It helps that most of is underwater, but if the Pacific were to drain it would be quite the daunting task to reach the summit!

We'll be exploring Kea in depth tomorrow, but today we have other plans. We have rented a car here as well and what do you know: free upgrade! This time we drive off in a new Mustang. I like renting cars in Hawaii. We have rented a house on Airbnb in the southeastern corner of the island, about 45 minutes from Hilo. This place looks awesome in pictures, and when we get there we are not disappointed. We are in the middle of nowhere and turn off onto an unmarked dirt road. After about a half mile on the road we find our place on the left. An older couple has a large property and has built a small self-sustaining rental house on the property. It's in the shape of an oval, just one room, but it's fairly big. There are guava trees everywhere and two horses in the front yard. The couple comes out to greet us and show us the house. It's built from lava rock and runs off of solar power. There is even an outdoor shower! It's definitely one of the neatest places I have ever seen and will probably not stay in something like this again any time soon.

We want to stay and enjoy our house for a while but know our time will be better spent exploring volcanoes. For that, we head off to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, one of two national parks in the Aloha State. Hawaii Volcanoes is known for being one of the only places in the world you can often see molten lava flowing. This comes from the Kilauea volcano, which is one of the most active volcanoes in the world. Basically it is constantly erupting. Whether or not you get to see lava flowing from it just depends on where the lava is flowing at the time. Most of the time, you can only see it by doing an air tour, as most of the park is inaccessible by ground transportation. But flows have happened in the accessible part of the park plenty of times. You just gotta get lucky!

Of course we do not get lucky. There are no flows that we can see today unless we want to do an expensive helicopter tour, which we pass on. The park ranger tells us that even though we can't see lava flowing, if we come back to the Kilauea Crater after dark we will be able to see the orange glow of the lava beneath the surface, which is supposed to be pretty cool. This gives us a few hours to explore the park before dark. From the visitors center we head down Chain of Craters Road, which bisects the park and goes all the way to the ocean on the south side of the island. We first stop and walk through a lava tube, which I would describe as a natural tunnel created by years of flowing lava. At some point in history, this tunnel was full of flowing molten lava. Crazy.

Back on the road we are not driving long before the landscape changes. And I mean drastically changes. We were in a rain forest climate before. But now... it's all black. Lava rock is everywhere! I've seen volcanic rocks before but never anything like this. The lava just displaced the forest and destroyed the trees. It took over, and now it's everywhere. We stop on the side of the road near a sign that tells us that this lava bed is from only 1973. So in geological terms, this literally just happened. We get out of the car and start playing on the lava rocks, careful not to fall as they are sharp and will mess you up. All the lava rocks I've seen in the past are smooth - they are old. These are jagged and fresh and more colorful. Different shades of blacks and grays and silvers dominate the lava field. What a fascinating place.

Back in the car we continue towards the sea, passing older lava fields. We can tell they are older because the color isn't as sharp and the surface is smoother. We continue down the road as it drops rapidly in elevation. Eventually we are down to almost sea level, looking back up at Mount Loa above us. We drive right down the coast. But this is no ordinary coast. The coast of this side of Hawaii features a huge lava rock cliff. The cliff is about 30-40 feet and drops straight down to the raging water below. The waves here are vicious. Some crash hard enough to shoot water up right to the top of the cliff. If you fell into the ocean here you would never get out. I keep that in mind as I carefully approach the edge.

This part of the island is solid lava rock. Not too long ago, geologically speaking, where I am standing was not part of solid land. Lava flows throughout the years have built this land, making the island of Hawaii one of the only land masses in the world that is currently getting bigger. As you should know, most land is very slowly getting smaller thanks to melting polar ice caps and whatnot. But here the nearly constant flow of lava into the ocean creates new land every day. Who knows how big this island will be in a million years...

We play around on the rocks for a while before hopping back into the car and driving to the end of the road. But it's not exactly the end of the road. There is a small parking area and some small huts on the asphalt marking the end of vehicular traffic. But the road keeps going. We see people walking down it so decide to follow. We pass an oasis of palm trees by the shore and after a few minutes we can see something blocking the road in the distance. As we get closer the reason the road is closed becomes clear: It's covered in lava rock! In April of 2004, exactly 10 years ago, a lava flow came down from the mountain and spilled over this section of road, just a few feet from where some huts were at the time. This is the freshest lava rock we've seen, so black and shiny, just sitting on the road. A "Road Closed" sign encapsulated by lava provides some comic relief for onlookers. Oh what I would have given to see the lava flow over this road 10 years ago!

We hop around the rocks for a while observing the different patters in the surfaces. It's more fascinating than it sounds. The lava rock piles up in some places like little mounds. I find great excitement in jumping from rock to rock, like a kid on a playground. But the sun has set now so it's starting to get dark. Being in the middle of a lava field of sharp black rocks in total darkness does not sound like a brilliant idea so we have to get a move on. Back in the car we head up to the caldera. It's pitch black now and we can see the orange glow of the underground lava coming from the depths of the crater. Now this is neat. I've definitely never seen anything like this before. It's not much, but it is definitely a fiery glow. Molten lava is right underneath the surface. Unfortunately we can't get any closer, so after a few bad pictures we hit the road.

We decide to go into Hilo and get a real dinner. It's a bit out of the way and we arrive in town around 8:30. If only we would have known Hilo is the most dead place ever we might have just gone to the grocery store. We drive around downtown for a few minutes to see what looks good. Unfortuantely we don't have a choice, as we only see one restaurant in 5 minutes of driving downtown. We park and go in only to be told that the kitchen is closed. "Seriously?" I say. "It's 8:30!" Apparently everything in Hilo closes early. Fed up, we are about to head back to the house when we pass another restaurant on the way out. We ask them if they are still open and they say they don't close the kitchen until 9. Woo! We get some damn good pizzas and close the place down. As far as I know there are only two restaurants in Hilo, a town of 40,000 people. I guess everyone just eats at Burger King. Definitely won't be coming back here any time soon (other than to fly back to Honolulu)... So long Hilo.

Monday morning. A full week of work I don't have to go to. I will celebrate this by doing something that a lot of people probably don't do when they go to Hawaii: playing in the snow. Yes, that's right, it snows in Hawaii. Mount Kea and Mount Loa are some pretty serious mountains, and you can find snow on them almost year round. It's late April, so there won't be too much snow left, but we saw it from the plane yesterday and we know it's there. We wake up semi-early and hit the road. We stop for breakfast at a little bakery in Pahoa where rumor has it there is free wifi, something we don't have at our house. There certainly is free wifi, and every hippie in southern Hawaii is here to take advantage of it. It's like we walked through a portal to 1968. I haven't seen this many hippies since... well I don't think I've ever seen this many hippies before. The place serves some damn good pancakes though. As we're leaving some old hippie says to us: "I admire couples. I don't know how you do it." Crazy ole hippies!

After our interesting breakfast we are on the road to Mount Kea. The Saddle Road Highway cuts across the island from Hilo to Kona. By the time we reach the turn off for the Mount Kea access road we have gained about 6000 feet in elevation. It is noticeable colder here when we get out of the car to take a few pictures of the mountain before us. Back in the car, jackets on, we head up the road. After gaining about another 3000 feet of elevation we arrive at the Mount Kea Visitor Information Center. This visitors center is basically dedicated to stargazing. The top of Mount Kea is said to be the best spot in the entire world for seeing the cosmos. This is why 11 different countries have observatories at the peak. At the visitors center you can learn all about stargazing and astronomy.

It's quite cold up here but we have come prepared. The wind is whipping a bit stronger than we expected, though. Where are we, Wellington? Even at 9200 feet above sea level we're a long ways from the summit, over 4500 vertical feet above us. There are two ways to get to the top. You can hike or you can drive on the 4WD road. Our little mustang isn't going to make it up that dirt road so it won't be going any further than the visitors center. I'd love to do the hike but it's already nearly noon and we haven't had any time to properly acclimate to the altitude. By the time we reach the summit we'd have to run back down the mountain before dark. Hiking to the top doesn't seem like a viable option. But hope is not lost.

I have read about people catching rides to the top with strangers. I am very adamant against hitchhiking, as in the US it is an easy way to get stabbed in the face. But this is different. It's a one way road to a mountain summit and all the sketchy people are 9200 feet below us, probably in Hilo. I ask the first guy I see with a Jeep and he offers to take us to the top. He and his wife are on a cruise and have just rented the car for the day to go to the top. Score! We tell them that we don't have any mountains as big as this in New Zealand and they are surprised. Yes, it's true, this mountain is almost 1500 feet higher than the tallest peak in New Zealand. Pretty amazing to think about. The ride to the top is bumpy and takes about 20 minutes. We bid our new friends farewell once we get to the top and take in the sounds and sights of the tallest mountain in Hawaii. But we're not exactly at the top. I can see the peak to the right. Looks like we have a little hiking to do after all!

It's not far, but it's so windy that moving up the peak is slow and difficult. But we reach the summit and get rewarded with a 360 degree view of the island of Hawaii. It's red and white up here. Red for the red-rock soil of the earth and white for the snow. I pick up some snow and make a snowball. I never thought I'd be playing with snow in Hawaii but here I am, freezing my hands off! Up here it's easy to see why this is such a great place for stargazing. It's actually a cloudy day on the island, but we are above the main layer of clouds. Above us is mostly clear. From sea level you wouldn't be able to see any blue in the sky today. But up here is a different story. We enjoy our time above the clouds before we have to head back down.

We make the decision to walk the trail back down to the visitors center and set out on our way. Over the course of the next six miles we will drop nearly 5000 feet in elevation. This is going to be a steep trail and going down that means it will be tough on the knees. The first mile winds along with the road and from there we set out down a rocky path. It's barren out here - absolutely no sign of life other than the humans passing in their cars. Not one spec of green. Not one tree, plant, or shrub. I don't even see any insects. And it goes on for hours like this. As we start to see signs of approaching the visitors center I see the first signs of life: a small green shrub growing out of the rock. I wonder how this thing can grow here. There's no soil, it's just rock. Once again I think about Jurassic Park. Life finds a way. Back at the visitors center we are thrilled to be off our feet. We head down the mountain and park near a little hill off the highway. After a short climb we are alone atop a small hill with a great view of the sunset to the west. One more day in Hawaii under our belt.

Tuesday morning, out last day on the Big Island. We have to get to Kona by noon for a snorkel adventure so we are up early to get on the road. We take the southern route that wraps along the shore all the way to Kona. On the way we pass the southernmost point in the United States. There's no time to stop though, so we breeze on by. The road loops back north and we are heading towards Kona. Our snorkeling adventure is actually just south of Kona in Captain Cook, named after none other than the great British explorer James Cook. Captain Cook is huge in New Zealand, as he was the first white man to step foot on the land. Half the things in New Zealand are named after him. But he also holds a special places in Hawaiian history. After over 10 years of sailing the globe, Cook was killed right here on the Kona Coast of Hawaii by the natives. So this town is named after him and there is a monument on the actual spot of his death. Coincidentally, the monument is also located at the best snorkeling spot in the state. So that's where we are going!

We meet up with our group and load onto the boat. There are about 8 of us in the group not including the captain and another staff member. They tell stories of Captain Cook's days as we motor towards the Monument. It's a neat ride past lava cliffs and rocky shores until we reach Kealakekua Bay, the location of James Cook's death. I'm especially intrigued by snorkeling here since my biggest project at work is the James Cook Hotel in Wellington. Unfortunately we are not allowed to actually go ashore though - some sort of bureaucratic law, who knows. So we'll have to check out the monument from the sea. It's a cool monument, but it's not the main reason we are here. We're here for what is not above the water, but underneath.

We are on top of a huge coral reef right now. Life blossoms below us. The water is almost as clear as can be and we jump in excited to check out the sea life. We've been given about an hour to explore so we swim around searching for turtles and manta rays. Unfortunately we see neither, but the fish are abundant. My favorite are the neon blue and orange ones that look like they're dressed to go to EDC in Vegas. There are thousands of yellow and black fish, Steelers fish as I call them. The spot of the day is a slithery little eel that I follow for a while as he tries to get away from me. After about 5 minutes of trying to elude me with no luck he turns and flashes his sharp teeth to me. Never knew eels had such nasty looking teeth. Better leave this dude alone.

It's a fun time snorkeling around the reef but we head back without and major sightings of sea mammals. Oh well. Back on the boat we check out some sea caves in the lava and our guide explains some lava rock geology to us. There is a big house built directly on top of a huge sea cave. Doesn't seem like the best idea. It will most likely collapse into the sea one day. Silly rich guy. Back ashore, we bid our group farewell and chow down on some mangoes we picked ourselves from the mango tree in the parking lot before hopping back in the car.

We reach downtown Kona in no time and we immediately regret ever stepping into Hilo. Kona is a much nicer place. There are shops, restaurants, hotels, and resorts everywhere. It's such a far cry from Hilo that it's hard to believe that the population of Hilo is 5 times more than here. This is more of a tourist town. It's very vibrant and busy. We won't have trouble finding a restaurant here. We do some quick shopping before the places close then head out of town a few miles to check into our rental home. We are staying with another airbnb property. An old dude turned his first floor into a mini-hotel with three separate guest rooms. It's not as cool as our lava rock house but we can't complain. We even have air conditioning for the first time since arriving in the state.

After freshening up we head back into Kona for dinner. But first we stop at Huggo's on the Rocks ( for a mai tai and to watch the sunset. Our book has recommended this place as the best chill place to have a drink in Kona on the beach. There is a fancy fine dining restaurant but there is also a more casual bar/grill area with tables on the sand. This is where we head and we are lucky enough to get the last table on the sand facing west directly into the sunset. I actually opt for a volcano, a drink that I have no idea what is in but it is frikin' delicious. This will not be my last volcano on this trip. The sun sets over our last night on Hawaii and we watch with a melancholy mood. Only two more nights in Oahu and it's back to reality for us. I order a mai tai and down it before we head off to eat somewhere else.

You might have heard of the Kona Brewery before. This is the most famous beer from Hawaii and it was founded right down the road here in Kona. Today, most Kona beer you get is actually brewed in Oregon, but I wasn't about to let that spoil my desire to check out the Kona Brewery. I have read that there's brewpub there and it seems like the perfect place to eat dinner. It's a warm night and we sit outside and order a pizza. It's too late to take a brewery tour, as it's nearly 8:30 so we settle for ordering a few fresh Kona beers with our pizza. Kona makes some damn good beer and I've been drinking it this whole trip, but it just tastes fresher at the actual brewery. The pizza is delicious too. Living in New Zealand I miss good pizza. Pizza is terrible in New Zealand. I savor every bite of this pizza, knowing I probably won't be tasting American pizza for a long time.

After dinner we head back to the rental house, another day in Hawaii in the books. We have to get up early tomorrow to drive back across the island to Hilo to catch our flight back to Honolulu. We have two days in Waikiki before flying back home. It's been a hell of a week hopping around Kauai and the Big Island and we are looking forward to relaxing on the beach for a few days before leaving Hawaii. We arrive in Honolulu and take a shuttle to our hotel, the Outrigger Reef Resort, which I have booked on Priceline because I'm sure the regular price of the room is far more than I want to pay. We casually ask for a free room upgrade when we check in and our request is met. They give us a huge room on the first floor with a patio that connects out to the pool. We won't be using the pool though. This isn't Vegas, the beach is right there!

We spend 2 days and nights soaking in the sun of Waikiki Beach. It's a crowded place, but very beautiful with Diamond Head in the background. We even spot a few turtles in the water. I get to meet up with my old roommate from Vegas, who is in Waikiki all the time for work. Not a bad place to get sent for work every month. He shows us some local joints and I even get to go to The Yardhouse, my favorite beer restaurant from my Vegas days, which has just opened a location in Waikiki. Downtown Honolulu is a bit different than the posh Waikiki. Never before have I had to literally step over bums in the street walking around downtown. But hey, if you're gonna be a bum better to be here than somewhere that gets cold!

We thoroughly enjoy our two nights in Waikiki, even though every other person asks us if we're on our honeymoon. There are no rings on our fingers, dude, pay attention! It's not the reason we came to Hawaii but it's nice to finish our trip here. Tomorrow afternoon we fly into the future, as we lose a day going back across the international dateline. Hawaii has been a magical experience and we hope to come back here one day and check out Maui and more of Oahu. Until then, Mahalo!


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