Alas, it is a long trek to the United States' fiftieth state; however, the journey is worth every ounce of effort. My mission was to visit only the island of Hawaii, also known as The Big Island, with cameras in pack and photography on the brain. Starting out in Boston I had to fly through Los Angeles and then continue onto Kona. There are only two flights a day from the mainland to the Big Island, one with American Airlines, the other with United and they both leave around 9:00 PM Los Angeles time. I had arrived in LA earlier than expected so I caught an early morning flight to Honolulu and endured the six hours and 15 minutes over the Pacific. I arrived in Honolulu midday and attempted to find a flight for the thirty-minute flight to Kona either on Hawaiian or Aloha Airlines. Both operate at least a flight every hour. Due to recent cutbacks and the economic downturn though, I was to miss a total of 14 flights over the next 5 hours between the two airlines to either Kona or Hilo, and I was beginning to get desperate. I finally managed to make it onto the last flight of the night in the last seat remaining on the airplane. I arrived in Kona around 7:30 PM, which was still two hours earlier than I would have arrived had I taken a flight directly from the mainland. So much for the additional half-day, but at least I was at my destination.
Since I had the opportunity to spend so many hours in the Honolulu airport, I got to really explore the place. The first thing that I noticed upon arrival is that any of the terminals don't have walls. Of course there are pillars holding up the ceilings, but laterally there is only open space. What a wonderful thing that is with an 80-85 degree normal temperature! The flowers were very fragrant and the birds came and went as they pleased. This was probably the most beautiful airport that I have ever been in. I still cannot get over the fact that they just don't have walls. At Kona, the situation was exaggerated in that the security screening stations were under the open sky. The had provisions to put up tent-like roofs in the event of rain, but the TSA employees work in the open every day. How wonderful would that be!It is a long drive from Kona to Hilo, especially in the pouring rain at night. The route climbs some 3000 feet and then descends back down and I hear that the scenery is fantastic during the day. This first night; however, I was tired, after all the day was 31 hours long and I wanted to get into position for tomorrow's adventures. A couple of guys at the local Subway sandwich shop recommended that I spend the night at Uncle Billy's Hilo Bay Hotel as it might be the least expensive option around. The rooms were nothing special and everything was a bit dingy due to the humidity created by being on the water and again, the room was without a back wall. There were glass louvers to offer limited security and privacy, but aside from that the back wall of the hotel room was practically open to the ocean. I slept well with the calming ocean breezes and 70 degree or so temperature.
Due to the 5-hour time change from Boston, I was up and ready to go by 6:30 AM and that felt like sleeping in. My first stop was at Akaka Falls State Park, which actually offers two gigantic waterfalls. The baby is the 100-foot Kahuna Falls, which is entirely dwarfed by the 420-foot Akaka Falls. Since I was there early in the morning on a weekend no less, I had the .8-mile loop viewing these falls to myself during the sunrise. As with all US parks that I have been to there was the obligatory three-foot high fence and countless signs warning of the obvious dangers of stepping over the 400-foot cliff. You cannot get very close to either waterfall but with a tripod and 80-200mm lens I did my best to get a few shots. I also tried out a wide angle lens for a different look, trying to get some small purple flowers in the foreground without catching the fence in the frame. I did set one leg of the tripod over the fence most of the time to get the effect I desired.
As I drove southbound, I was circumnavigating the island in a clockwise fashion, a few short miles from Akaka Falls there is a bypass that touts itself as a scenic route near the Onomea Bay. As I progressed I realized that nearly all the driving on the Big Island is scenic; though, this was an especially beautiful segment with tropical rainforest on one side and the ocean on the other. If for no other reason, you must take this 4-mile detour to visit the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden. Due to my early start this morning, I was the first visitor, and at the door a few minutes before they actually opened. Since I hadn't planned on this stop, it just seemed like the right thing to do on this incredible morning, I was a bit shocked by the $15 admission fee. I paid it, took my map and headed off to the garden. This can be described only as incredible! It is a path through a veritable rain forest. I was completely amazed. Without this swath cut through the dense vegetation you would never be able to get views and close-up views of the flora. The colors were brilliant and the air fragrant beyond a department store perfume counter. There was a small, but spectacular waterfall near the beginning that offered great photo opportunities. As I progressed along the mile or so path, was guided by the ocean side, and more unbelievable growth. The path was short, but sure packed in much of the Hawaiian rain forest for the time.
After talking to a couple of people local to Hilo, I decided to pass up Rainbow Falls and the Boiling Pots. I deduced that the best waterfall to see is Akaka Falls and the Boiling Pots would not outdo those in Yellowstone. In hindsight this was a good move because I ended up seeing a few boiling pools in the National Park later on that day anyway.
Continuing my drive, I stopped at Lava Tree State Park. As with the previous two sights, this is one where the parking lot is practically on top of the attraction. This is only a 10-minute or so loop to walk but extremely bewildering to see what the lava did to some of the trees. Since this is in tropical area, and the trees are laden with water, when the lava flowed though it was unable to ignite the damp wood, but rather crawled up it and slowly incinerated the wood within as the lava hardened. The result is a small area of trees made of lava.
Once back on Highway 130 and near Pahoa I stopped at a sign that screams "Scenic View". There really isn't anything to see here, but following the directions from my Lonely Planet guidebook, I followed the trail back into the brush to end up at several fissures in the rocks that were spewing steam. People have set up small benches in the crevices creating an outdoor sauna. They don't get nearly as hot as those I have enjoyed, err, endured in Michigan's Upper Peninsula so I just wandered around for the scenic view.
Continuing on 130, I followed it to its southern terminus. This road used to connect to the southern portion of the Chain of Craters Road in Volcano National Park; however, due to recent lava flows it has been cut off. I was hoping to get close to the point where the lava oozes into the ocean, but it was a very long walk through fences and ribbons bearing the No Trespassing signage so I decided to forgo this side-hike. This was my first close up view of the hardened lava known as pahoehoe. As a bonus trek, I hike towards the ocean and spent a little time resting in the sun and enjoying watching the waves crash against the rough black sand.
It was early afternoon and I was on my way to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. As I made the ascent to the 3000' park entrance, I witnessed the landscape change from rain forest to barren lava ridden ground. The $5 entrance fee, which is valid for an entire week, is worth every penny. I made a quick stop into the visitor's center, but rapidly gave into my grumbling stomach. The 3 mile drive to Volcano Village just outside the Park lead me to food and much needed gas for the rental car. Within 15 minutes of leaving the visitor's center, I was back inquiring about the best locations, regardless of hiking required, to see the lava. A knowledgeable, outgoing and eager to help volunteer talked to me for over 20 minutes on the history of the park. All I wanted were simple instruction on hiking and as his sole audience I didn't have the heart to stop him mid lecture. I finally did find out some good information from him, and of course much of what he said was in either the park brochure or other guidebooks. This isn't one of the largest National Parks by any means, it does however, include in excess of a hundred miles of hiking trails and some of the most incredible sights I have ever witnessed.
I first drove the road that encircles the Kilauea Caldera taking in the numerous sights along the way. As with most National Parks it is setup so that tourists can drive, stop, get out of their car, with the fewest number of steps possible see the highlight and then get back into their car and motor to the next one. Though this style of seeing our nation is not for me, it seems to be the best way to accomplish it on this 11-mile ring. Of course there are many opportunities for photographs along this route. During my visit to this road over the span of two days I experienced fog, rain, sun, and generally cool temperatures due to the altitude.
After making the rounds along the top of the volcano I began my drive down the Chain of Craters Road. This is an incredible visual timeline of the eruption history. Each major lava flow is marked with a sign and the changing scenery is great to see. There are many points to pull over for in typical US National Park fashion, though well worth the stops. It took me about an hour to make this 20-mile drive including my stops. The best side hike is near the bottom to the Pu'u Loa Petroglyphs. This is a mile hike once you stop the car, which means that though there may be many people on the road, you will be one of the few out here. There is a circular boardwalk at the end of the rough path that allows for excellent up-close viewing of ancient stone carvings. I found that the dark rock was a bit of a challenge to photograph, but with some fill flash to bring out the detail this was another great photo stop.
I completed the drive to the end of the road. Make sure to stop at the Holei Sea Arch Overlook. This is a quick pullout, but worth it to see the massive rock arch that has formed from the edge of the cliffs and juts into the ocean. I ended up here in the late afternoon and with the sun at my back, it made for a few more good shots.
At the bottom of the road there is a blockade prohibiting any further driving, but this is where the real hiking gets underway. The first bit of hiking is on the remaining section of road until you come up to where the lava has flown over the road. Everything that I read suggested copious amounts of water and they were not kidding around. I slung my camera bag on my back loaded with everything including water and my tripod. I made the short hike to an area where the park rangers had set up more barricades prohibiting forward movement. This was a great spot to watch the lava flowing into the ocean and the resulting immense steam cloud. It was about a half mile away from the action and I really wanted to get closer. After talking to a ranger I found out that this indeed was a good spot to view from. It seems that as the lava builds up at the ocean's edge it forms a bench, which slides off into the water from time to time. When this happens scalding water splashes everywhere, lava goes flying and of course the acid laden steam cloud only grows. There is definitely some neat photography to be had from this vantage point. As the sun was setting the red glow of the lava became more apparent and you could see lava shooting off in wild directions as it hit the water.
I spent some more time talking to one of the rangers and he recommended that I make the hike across the already cooled lava to the edge of the mountain where the lava runs down the side and across the plain to the ocean. I eagerly accepted his idea and was on my way. Actually, I had planned a bit for this and brought along the requisite flashlight, as there is no trail across the jagged lava you simply aim towards the red glowing stuff. It was a long hike and I was extremely careful not to fall on the lava crust and glass shards. There were a few times that I thought that this could not be worth the hike and I was concerned about getting back safely but I reassured myself by thinking about Slavomir Rawicz and his book, The Long Walk.
Once I got to the lava I was utterly impressed. First, it was very windy. As this huge field of hot lava releases its heat the resulting rising air makes for very windy conditions. Secondly, it was hot! Near the ocean it had been about 75 degrees, but here it must have been over 90. The wind was felt very hot on my bare legs and reminded me of a wood-fired sauna with a gigantic fan in it. The only difference was that there was no snow to roll around in to cool off. Remember that water that everybody recommending bringing along? I needed all of it and more here.
The photography was incredible at this point. The glowing red contrasted wonderfully against the moonless night sky. I set up for many time exposures and found out for the first time the value of a good tripod. For a couple of years I have been using an old Velbon and put it to the test this evening. I had some difficulty getting everything to work out with the wind blowing, the heat and the darkness. To top it off the batteries in my camera died at this point too. Fortunately I had extras. I spent over 30 minutes photographing and just watching and listening to the lava. It was one of the most spectacular things that I have even experienced. I promised myself that once this trip was over I was going to get a good tripod, one that wouldn't vibrate in the wind and a ball head with quick release plates.
The walk across the lava was long as I was growing quite tired, but the cool air began to feel good and I was anxious to remedy my parched state with more water once I got back to the car. I had planned on spending the night camping in the park; however, was so hungry and wanting a shower that I made the drive back up the Chain of Craters Road to Volcano Village where I found the Thai Thai Restaurant recently closed as it was 9:15 PM; however, the staff made an exception and let me eat as they cleaned up for the night.
Filled with red curry and mango for desert I was exhausted. I decided to find the Volcano Inn as the Lonely Planet guidebook advertised $55 per night rooms. When I arrived the place was dark; however, there was a sign inviting me to ring the bell. I studied my watch and convinced myself that it would not be rude to wake the keeper at a bit before 10:00 PM. I did indeed wake him, but he seemed not to mind so much. There was only one room left and it was more than I needed, but he offered me a 10% discount due to my late arrival and sold me with a tales of a free breakfast in the morning that I would surely love. It was at this time that I realized that I had come across a B&B. I was registered in the Paniolo Room and headed off to my quarters. The room was great included a video on the history of the Hawaiian cowboy, paniolo. I quickly readied for bed and put in the video. The only thing that I recall was waking up at 2:00 and being unable to find the light switch to turn off the light so I just unplugged it and crashed out again. I did make it to the breakfast in the morning probably only due to my body being 5 hours different than the clocks. The owner was right; it was a breakfast not to be missed. Of course there was the usual fare of omelets and such, but I grazed on the fresh tropical fruit and washed it down with excellent Kona coffee. I was a very happy person. I would love to come back just for this B&B, though with a female companion next time.
I was so enamored with the lava last night that I just had to go back and see it in the daytime as well. I spent nearly the entire morning at the lava flow photographing, watching, listening, drinking water and continuously slathering on sunscreen. Oh yes, and more wrestling with the tripod. At one point the wind picked up tiny glass like lava shards and blew them into my camera, camera bag and me. All survived fairly well from this with only one roll of scratched film.
After the park and a drive down Highway 11 I made a stop at the Punalu'u Black Sand Beach. My trips to the lava flow had been devoid of most tourists due to the hike and conditions involved, but here I found a snack shop and other facilities catering to the beachgoer. I passed on the swimming but did enjoy seeing a large sea turtle that had crawled onto the beach to bask in the sun.
The rental car companies on the Big Island prohibit their clients from taking the rental cars to several places across the island as many of the roads are either one lane or even unpaved. I adopted the idea that as long as I didn't tear open the oil pan, what they didn't know wouldn't hurt me. With this in mind I began the drive to South Point. The final 12 miles of this bumpy road is one lane, but paved. If there is an oncoming car, one of you had better pull over to allow the other to pass. Upon arriving at south point you can't help but walk up to and peer over the huge cliff. The water below was a tempting turquoise color and I could see several fish swimming below. I considered jumping for the fun and there was even a ladder to let me get back up. A local Hawaiian told me that many jump and offered to get the coast guard if something went wrong. The last offer is what kept my feet on the high ground. I hiked the short distance to the southernmost point in the United States. Unfortunately there isn't a sign or marker; you just have to believe the locals and guidebooks. This spot, as many on the island is great for photography with the contrasting black cliffs and blue water. I spent a while here just looking out over the ocean and watching some locals bring their fishing catch up the cliff with one of the many pulleys that was setup on the edge for such use. During my entire stay on the island I could not shake the feeling of remoteness. I kept thinking that I was on this tiny island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with the nearest landmass some 2500 miles away.
As the shadows were getting longer I continued the drive towards Kona. As it had been throughout the entire drive, the landscape continued to change as I progressed. Nearing Kona from the south, I spotted a small sign pointing to "Painted Church". I remembered reading something about this in my guidebook so I headed down the side road. Just as the sun was setting I arrived at St. Benedict's Painted Church. There was a picturesque cemetery just in front of the church and inside the small ceiling was painted in a colorful array. I sat on the front steps watching the sun set over the ocean. Very relaxing.
Again, I was tired and hungry and saw the Hotel Manago. It looked like the type of place that would fit my budget well and since I was still about 20 miles south of Kona, I figured that would help keep the price low. The room was perfect and consisted of a bed and bathroom. No television or telephone. After a quick shower and good meal I was again out for the night.
At this point I had seen nearly everything that I came to see. I figured that I could spend some time in the touristy area of Kona. First though, I stopped at Pu'uhonua O Honaunau, which has old wooden statues and a massive brick wall. Known as the Place of Refuge it is a very religious site and has a tremendous history. I spent quite some time wandering, talking to a couple of the rangers, and a man that was carving new statues to replaces those that withered away.
After breakfast I found, with some difficulty, the Daifukuji Soto Mission. This is nothing more than a Buddhist temple open for viewing. I didn't find it that impressive and spent only a few minutes.
Since I was in Hawaii, I figured it was time to take in some beach activities. I stopped at the Kahalu'u Beach Park, rented some snorkel gear and headed out to the water. I have never seen anything so amazing underwater. The warm water made snorkeling a pleasure and the water never got over 6 feet deep. I saw an abundant array of fish, most of which I cannot name. Yellow Tangs, Clownfish and Parrotfish stood out boldly against the coral. Anemones were tucked into the coral offering a great view. To top off this adventure I saw a sea turtle swimming by. Next to the lava flows, this was the second most incredible part of this trip.
After snorkeling I made a stop at the Magic White Sands Beach Park. I wasn't impressed with the beach; however, it was peaceful sitting on the rocks jutting into the water and listening to the waves pass by. I found a small area under a palm tree and ended up taking a short nap. It was one of those perfect naps where you not in such a deep sleep that you are still slightly aware of your surroundings and yet you are asleep. In this state I snoozed with the sounds of the ocean and wild birds in my ears combined with the fragrant wildflowers around. It was terrific.
My last stop before the airport was another popular beach, Hapuna Beach State Park. Here I played in the surf, attempted some bodysurfing in the larger waves and snacked on shaved ice from the 3 Frogs Café. The Big Island is not really known for the beaches and I can see why.
Finally it was getting dark and consequently time to head back to the snow d ice. The flights went smoothly on the way home as I caught one right from Kona to Los Angeles and then the first flight of the morning back to Boston. Not only is it between 10 and 12 hours of flying, but you also loose 5 hours in the day. This makes for a long trip after an exhausting but great time in Hawaii.