The symphony of the four classical elements – Fire, Air, Earth and Water at Hawaii felt surreal. I had always pictured Hawaii as something very calm, peaceful with beautiful green hills and beaches but my experiences were something more than that. It was like any other adventure trip for me. I chose to visit Big Island mainly because it gave the opportunity to see the lava and 3 others joined me. It was a crazy trip – we went from sea level to 13.5k+ feet in a single day, got close to hot lava, snorkeled above the beautiful reefs and sea life and a sensational encounter with whale shark which swam right below our boat. The rest of it was the usual Hawaii stuff which I had always imagined and heard of – beautiful green hills, beaches and sea side high mountains. So I didn’t feel that bad about not visiting Hawaii with a partner and kinda smiled away whenever asked why I chose to visit with friends.
After browsing through our calendars and based on the availability, we chose to make the trip on the Memorial day long weekend and bore the high expenses for flights and stay. We came up with a rough 4 day itinerary and it wasn’t until the last 5 days, things were finalized. I started making the bookings and at the same time was introduced to a common Hawaiian word, Aloha which is frequently used to greet people. I gave one final touch to the itinerary a day before leaving Seattle and was excited for the trip.I wanted to book a convertible car, but others felt it was too small for 4. So I ended up booking a standard SUV from Costco Rentals – apparently, Costco gave me the best rental prices. Ramanan and I flew from Seattle and Sai and Smitha from San Francisco. I would have loved if we had a day time ariel view, but it was dark by the time we reached Hawaii. The airport’s open roof architecture was quite interesting and I had already started loving the tropical weather. Also, I saw a guy wearing a cap reading ‘Make America Native Again’ which was quite funny but deep. Since we didn’t have car rental for the night, we took a taxi to the hotel and slept for the night. We stayed at Uncle Billy’s at Kona which was a decent place.
Day 1: Sea level to 13.5k+ feet
Due to jet lag, our body woke us up quite early in the morning and we got out for the day pretty early after having a basic breakfast at the hotel. Only rental cars from Harper were allowed to be taken on Mauna Kea summit, so we had booked a 4WD for first day from them. It was Toyota 4 Runner and an employee made a complete video of the car for proof before handing it over. The coverage had a deductible of $2500. So I ended up declining coverage for the very first time that too when I was supposed to take it on a gravel road at 10k+ feet altitude. The car itself was huge and it felt like sitting in a cockpit with many knobs. After shopping for essentials from Walmart, we started with our drive and saw volcanic rocks beside the road. Our first stop was at Hapuna beach – which lived upto its name of being one of the best beaches in Big Island. Clear waters, clean sand, green hills in the backdrop and subtle waves made the beach perfect for playing. Since it was morning and the beach was facing west we didn’t have Sun hitting our eyes. There was less crowd too. I wasn’t exactly prepared for getting into the water. So I came out after some time and started exploring the beach from the cliffs on the side. The whole beach looked stunning from the cliff and waves looked like curling jewels. We also flaunted our Hawaiian shirts for the entire day which we had bough from Walmart.
We then drove along the serene coast with green tall hills on one side and turquoise waters on the other to reach Polulu Valley Lookout. En route we had our lunch at a small town and got a taste of local food. I didn’t enjoy much mine since it was just sticky rice, Tofu and Coconut sauce. From the lookout, we took a short hike to the beach. I was extremely happy at the sight of high cliffs rising from the shore since that was what a typical Hawaii was for me. More cliffs were visible as we descended and the view kept getting better. The beach was filled with stones and it was dangerous to get in but the surrounding was a tranquil site. There were ropes tied on trees for swings and we had some fun playing.
It was time for the adventure part of the day and we first drove to Mauna Kea visitor center which was located at an altitude of 9k. We also encountered rains for a very short time. It was quite misty and there was a ranger guarding the route to the summit and he kinda looked serious about letting people through. On asking he mentioned that he would allow only AWDs and he gave a glance at the mountain and asked us to be safe. I had initially planned to stay for an hour acclimatizing, but wanted to get pass the ranger before he changed his mind. So we added layers quickly and left for the summit. I had forgotten the steps to engage 4WD and did it once Sai pulled the information from the net. The drive was much safer than expected with wide roads and also it was a very short drive. We reached the summit very quickly. It was a barren terrain without snow and there were huge telescopes all over the place. We had literally gone from sea level to 13.5k+ feet in few hours. The summit is considered to be one of the best place for space observatory. I had prepared for the cold and was quite comfortable. We roamed around the place and decided to wait for the sunset. As the Sun started painting the sky orange more vehicles poured in and the sky got clearer too. We chose a good spot for the car and waited to see the Sun getting drowned in the clouds. It looked like a red bowl was kept in the sea of clouds, somehow Sun didn’t appear to be in the edge of the horizon but amidst the clouds. It was the most surreal sunset I had ever seen. It was well worth the wait.
We then drove to visitor center for Stargazing. There were smaller telescopes setup which were pointed at Jupiter and its moons. I recognized it from the red rings around it – had seen it earlier from the observatory at Cornell University. Then there was Laser guided star tour which was ok wherein I got to know few interesting facts. After drinking hot chocolate at the visitor centre we left for Kona and had dinner at Denny’s.
Day 2: Black Sand Beach and Lava tour
We returned the heavy duty 4WD car and got an AWD car from Alamo. It got quite late by the time we got ready and had breakfast at Ihop. We reached Black Sand Beach and got ready for getting into the water. The beach had black shiny sand and big rocks in the water was making it difficult to move around. There was a turtle close to the shore and unknowingly I got in contact with it once which was scary. We spent some time playing in the water by crawling over the rocks and reaching the deep beach. We saw some turtles on the land while heading back. We then left for Hawaii National Park. We had to get to the lava tour by 3:30 PM so we had time to visit only 1 attraction. I chose crater and glad I did. It was a huge crater and there was a smaller crater inside with fumes coming out of it. It looked like Crater lake without the water. We then left for lava tour.
I had contacted Cheryl, the co-organizer of pokeastick lava tour few days back and initially she said she is not doing the evening tour. Only after asking for the second time, she arranged her friend as a guide for the tour. I am so glad I asked her second time as this tour was the highlight of the trip for me. We got ready with the gear for the tour and the first part was a ride on the back of a pickup truck. The whole area is near a town named Kalapana. Lava has been flowing since 30 years around the area and enters the sea in the form of small falls from a short cliff. There is a access road to the beach and the public can either walk or bike the 4 mile stretch. We didn’t go to the beach but we headed for the hills in the west. We got down from the truck and starting walking. It was funny to see while one of the guy in the tour was all ready with bag with locks, torch holder, knife etc but Ramanan just had a plastic cover. We were making fun of this the entire trip. Our guide, Christine told Ramanan that gear didn’t look realistic and asked to hand over the belongings to others. We were surrounded with solid lava which had flattened the area since 1987. It was basically a combination of sand and glass and we were very careful to avoid rough contact. The previous week I was in the snowfield at Silver peak and here I was at lavafield. The vast expanse and fumes blowing looked otherwordly. Steadily we reached closer to the hills where lava was flowing. It was first time for me and I was psyched at the view of looking at red lava. Christine took us away from the crowd to a different flow location. Not sure if this was good idea since we saw more of surface flow here opposed to vertical flow on the hills. Nonetheless I got high looking at the lava and was jumping all around. We walked over the cracks, got close to the oozing lava and walked on hot surface. Even with the hiking shoes, I could feel the hear in my feet. The lava was close to 700 deg C and we got close to it in bursts to avoid getting roasted. As it got darker, we saw more red lava below and around us which was fantastic. This was one of the best experiences I have ever had in my life.
We started the return hike before it got too dark but we kept seeing people reaching the hills even in the dark. As it got more dark, we saw the Crescent moon in the sky and more red lava on the mountains. It was a great sight. The hike was around 9+ miles and it took quite some time to reach the truck. We took our car and then drove back to Kona. En route we were hit with heavy rains at Hilo – the wettest place in US (not Seattle you see) and drove in the mist on the saddle road. We had dinner at Denny’s and had a short sleep.
Day 3: Snorkeling, rugged coast ride and whale shark sighting
After a light breakfast, we left early for the snorkeling tour. We got in a small raft boat around 9 AM and started with the ride for snorkel locations. We were around 13 of us and I was surprised to see Jessmine on the boat. I had hiked with her the previous week in PNW and we were on a big hike the coming week. There were few others from Washington too. I didn’t expect this trip to include anything be more than snorkeling but I was so so wrong. The ride to snorkel locations was a rough bumpy ride along the coast. We snorkeled at 3 different spots. At the first one, we were given the basic training and the gear was pretty solid and good. I chose to get into the water with just mask and fins. I was quite comfortable navigating and found some amazing spots where sea-life thrived. I could spot more animals on the reefs at lower depths and yellow fish was abundant. After 45 mins we got back to the boat and I started feeling nauseous. I am unsure if it was due to the bumpy ride or due to elongated mouth breathing. We were taken to sea caves and lava tubes before reaching the remote second spot. I couldn’t enjoy much due to the sickness. I forced burped myself and almost puked once. We rode close to rugged coast and saw amazing arches and beautiful rock formations. I slowly got better but the whale shark incident changed me a lot I guess. While going to the third location, someone radioed saying that there was a whale shark sighting at the bay close to us. Our organizer got very excited with the news and chose to chase it. We couldn’t see it even after minutes of scouting and waiting. Later the organizer decided to take us 3rd spot before the time ran out since it was considered the most beautiful snorkel location in the whole state. This was near Captain Cook monument and I should agree, it was the best spot. I saw more variety of sealife here and it was sensational. I was feeling much better by then and explored the area. On all the three spots, turtles surfaced right after people were done with the snorkel. We were treated with food and Hawaiian stories by the guides once on the boat. The climax awaited us. We were returning to the base while we saw a small boat with people who pointed to us that a whale shark was right near us. We fervently searched for it and something unexpected happened. The 20 foot shark swam right below our boat and I got goosegumps even while writing this. It slowly moved from one side to the other and people started jumping into the water to get a better sight. Its a vegetarian and known not to hurt people. But no one could see from the water as the shark swam away quickly. I couldn’t get into the water since I was not ready with my gear but I saw the shark with its white spotted dots from the boat and was taken aback. The whole thing looked so scripted and we were so fortunate as the guide mentioned that in her 11 years of the job, this was the first time she saw a whale shark. We had to get back as there was another tour scheduled.
We returned to the room and slept the entire evening. It was a much needed sleep after 2 and half days of adventure. We had dinner at an Indian restaurant and walked the downtown area and retired for the day.
Day 4: Waterfalls and high valley
Day 4 was typical Hawaii stuff with visits to waterfalls, valley lookout and beach. Akoka waterfalls looked stunning in the green forest and Waipio valley was breathtaking too. Waipio valley also has the highest waterfalls in the Unites Stated which can be reached after a days hike or through helicopter ride.
We drank coconut water nearby and saw peacock from very close and it shook its feathers frequently in an effort to impress the hens. We drove to Hapuna beach again and I couldn’t comfortably enjoy the beach since Sun was directly hitting the eye. I played with sand for sometime and then left for airport. The evening Sun transformed into Red Circle and it was a soothing end for the trip.
It was a fantastic experience which included adventures and beauty. We experienced hot lava, green hills, turquoise waters and an amazing sunset. I would recommend visiting Big Island if you want to avoid crowd and have a diverse trip.