Big Island (Kona), Hawai'i

We feel the travel itch again, and off we go to the Big Island of Hawai'i for 10 days of exploration and relaxation above and under water. The Hawaiian Islands have earned their reputation of paradise for a reason, and the variety of activities caters to every interest and desire. After stationing ourselves in Kailua-Kona, we venture out on our first underwater exploration: a night dive with manta rays. Well known with scuba aficionados, diving with manta rays is a special treat not to be missed. As the mantas feed at night, divers with their lights gather on the ocean floor at about 20' depth and admire the elegant, giant creatures as they swoop in birdlike over our heads to gobble up the tons of plankton attracted by the light. Imagine a giant bird, with a wingspan of 16' and a mouth that could easily fit your head and shoulders (but no teeth!), cruise by so closely that its belly almost touches your head. Hair standing up? Well, it is truly a fascinating experience!

Back on land, we decide to scout out the higher elevations and visit Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park. For the first part of the day, we concentrate on the summit area. There are many things to discover here: first, we follow the Crater Rim Drive with all its overlooks to get an idea of the enormous powers at hand. The Jagger museum offers valuable information on past eruptions, different lava types, and the beauty and danger of volcanoes. For a more in-depth feel we hike through Kilauea Iki crater, a 4-mile loop that takes us through lush rainforest into and across the caldera and then back up on the other side where we return along the rim.
Now we are ready for the highlight of the park - fresh, molten lava flows! To get to the active area, we follow the Chain of Craters Road to the temporary visitor center which has been put on wheels to flexibly bend to nature's directives. Of course, glowing lava is best seen by night, and so we start our hike late in the afternoon - well prepared with a new flash light and spare batteries. Don't even think about hiking in the dark without a flashlight! We have to leave our car here and continue on foot along this paved road for about half a mile until we start to get a sense of what we're dealing with: the lava has flown over the road, all but covering it. From here on, the hike is very strenuous and only for the sure-footed. There is no trail, no signage, and we have to make our way over jagged rocks up and down, and up and down, and up and down. The hike is very tiring, and temperatures keep rising as we get closer.

When we finally reach the lava flow after 1.5 hours, we are rewarded with the most breathtaking view: red lava oozing down the hills, right past our feet, into the ocean. For safety reason, hikers can't get close to the cliff where the lava drops down into the Pacific, but the orange plume speaks for itself. The lava has already cooled off to a mere 1700 degrees F or so and is flowing somewhat slowly. The heat is immense, and all our senses are engulfed in the entire experience: the stench of sulfur; the crackling of the crushing rocks; the roar of the churning ocean. It's hard to put all this in words, but let us say one thing: standing there at the lava flow, you feel as insignificant as it gets!

The return hike is tiring and tedious, and we are utterly exhausted when we finally reach our car. A piece of advice: if your schedule allows, plan to spend two days in the park and dedicate one to exploration of the crater, and another to the lava flow.

As we awake the next day, we come to a sudden and crushing realization: what in the world could top the last 2 days of diving with manta rays and seeing molten lava? To our amazement, the island just keeps overwhelming us with its beauty and diversity. Here's a quick glance at what else we enjoyed:

Cultural sites: The early Polynesian settlers had a refined cultural and religious life and left several sites for us to admire. Amongst all these heiaus the most stunning one is Pu'uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park, about an hour south of Kailua-Kona. Known as the Place of Refuge, these grounds were separated into a sacred area for the chiefs (ali'i), and into a walled-in sanctuary where defeated soldiers, the old, sick and very young could wait out a battle. Here's an interesting concept: during a war, any defeated soldiers would wait out the outcome in a safe spot. They pledged allegiance to the winner and were spared their lives. Something to think about?

The Place of Refuge was also a second chance for many offenders of the sacred law, kapu. If anyone violated the kapu, for example by letting their shadow fall onto the sacred grounds, they were punished with death. If they made it behind the protecting walls of the refuge, they were not only spared, but cleansed in a ritual and given a second chance at an obedient life.

Beaches: It's a no-brainer that Hawaiian Islands sport some of the most fabulous beaches in the world. On the Big Island, several beaches are not quite that easy to find, but with insight from locals, some research, and enough curiosity to try an uninviting rugged road (or take a short hike), we are rewarded with many treats. The variety is there: black sand beaches; white sand beaches; beaches made of tiny shell-pieces; black lava rock; steep cliffs; and even a green sand beach (ground lava colored by minerals). Most beaches offer shade under the palm trees, and the water is so clear and warm that we spend hours swimming and bodysurfing.

Snorkeling: There probably isn't a place on Hawai'i where snorkeling isn't fantastic, but we find these two places particularly rewarding:
The Beach at Honokohau Harbor. There are two beaches right by the Harbor. The one on the left is a beautiful little cove and offers an easy sandy entrance. The one on the right is part of the Kaloko-Honokau National Historic Park and we see many sea turtles. Sometimes they crawl out of the water to bask in the sand.

Kealakekua Bay has another great snorkeling spot close to the Captain Cook Monument. We rent a kayak for the day and paddle across the bay to the little peninsula that houses the white obelisk in memory of Captain Cook's questionable achievement of bringing devastation to paradise. We secure our kayak on the shore and explore the reef. As on our previous snorkeling and diving experiences, we see lots of yellow tang, parrot fish, moray eels, wrasses, sea urchins, and dozens of other species of fish. Finally we pack up our kayak and take our time exploring the bay. What a treat when we are visited by a big school of dolphins who approach our kayak to about 10-12'. A small spinner dolphin in their group performs all kinds of amazing acrobatics.

Island exploration: Not all of Big Island is black lava and lush rainforest. There are many cattle farms and lots of grassland; the coast is rugged in places and soft in others. At times you'd think you're in Ireland. The peaks of the two highest volcanoes, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, form an interesting backdrop, though they are often shrouded in clouds. We drive the Saddle Road to Hilo on the opposite side of the island, which takes us between the volcanoes through some truly scenic areas. It's hard to believe that Mauna Kea is the tallest single mountain on this planet, if measured from the ocean floor to the summit. While Mount Everest tops this mountain in height above the surface (Mauna Kea is 13,796' high), this volcano rises to a total height of over 56,000' if mass both under and above water is combined. Quite a feat.

The Hilo area offers some incredibly beautiful waterfalls, a 4-mile scenic drive along the coast through lush rainforest and the best smoothie stand on the island. We return on Highway 19 along the coast and detour to the Waipi'o Valley Lookout. Before we get there, the clouds tear open and it starts pouring down, so we can't see a thing from the lookout - nothing unusual in these parts of the island. We return another day and are luckier this time. After all: "If you don't like the weather on Hawai'i, just wait a little." The view over the valley surrounded by steep mountain walls on three sides and greeted by the Pacific in the north is amazing! Waterfalls roar down the sides of the mountains; their walls are covered in thick rainforest; and the bottom of the valley is full of green pastures. The road into Waipi'o Valley is steep and slick when wet. Signs unmistakably alert you that without 4wheel drive you're on your way to certain death, an exaggeration we find amusing, but rental car companies definitely wouldn't let you down there!

We return to Highway 19 and take the scenic road # 250 to the northern end of the valley. This side trip is well worth it for two reasons: the drive is absolutely spectacular with good views of the west coast of Hawai'i; also, this road leads to Pololu Valley Lookout, another gash in the steep cliffs of the northern coast. On our return back to Kailua-Kona there are several beaches and heiaus to explore and enjoy.

Over the last 10 days, we have enjoyed the best the ocean and land have to offer, from vistas, natural wonders, culture, plants and animals; to fresh pineapple and fish every day. We're on Island Time, and wonder how we will adapt to the buzz of LA. As a bumper sticker reads: "Slow down, this ain't the mainland."

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