We thought that we covered off everything we needed to see while driving around the Big Island of Hawaii the first time. We were wrong.
After spending over two months staying relatively close to the Kona area, and speaking with dozens upon dozens of travelers coming to the hostel we live at, we have gotten a new take on the Big Island.
Having thought that the first time around driving around the Big Island of Hawaii we saw everything there was to see, we realized that of course we were sorely mistaken. There were a number of sights (not the least of which was the active lava flow which started up again in the last few weeks) that were worth the effort of renting a car and driving around the island. Again.
This post was originally published in 2008. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content.
Green Sand Beach: It’s Green. And Sandy.
Almost nowhere else can you see sand that’s green. No really. It’s actually green. Tiny particles of olivine (a mineral in the rocks, and which in gem form is paradot) actually make up the sand on this beach. It’s actually more of a camo-muddy-brownish-green than the brilliant green you may be imagining, due in part to the fact that the green particles tend to mix with the eroding sandstone thus diluting the brilliance of the olivine.
But nonetheless, we had been advised by many that we were amiss to omit it from our trip last time around. Take two!
The hike in takes about an hour, and on the very south coast of Hawaii the wind kicked up a fierce battle. Four-wheel roads were everywhere, and by the looks of them they would surely give even expert four-wheel drivers a rush or two what with the scenery and deep uneven tracks to drive through.
Upon reaching the famed green sand beach, we were greeted with a deeply set small patch of beach, buried and protected by cliffs on all sides. After scrambling down, we enjoyed sinking our toes into the soft green sand, and Kelly braved the especially cold rough waters just to say he did it.
On our way back and almost to the car, exhausted and hungry, we met a number of travelers who were wearing nothing more than flip flops and carrying towels with obvious intentions of getting in some beach time. We volunteered to them that the hike was about an hour each way, to which they abruptly said it wasn’t news to them and kept marching on without even glancing sideways at us. We weren’t surprised to see them marching back to their car and driving off before we even finished our sandwiches!
Visiting the Hilo Side (an Old Haunt)
After living for two and a half months on the extreme eastern tip of the island (known as the Hilo side), we had to take a stroll down memory lane since we were in the neighbourhood. We visited Papaya Farms Road where some of the freshest and most exotic organic fruit is available, took a dip in the hot ponds, and literally strolled about a mile down the driveway that we hiked oh so many times on our way into town when we stayed at Popai. (We didn’t see fit to go the rest of the way in and say hello as we hadn’t announced our arrival and frankly weren’t prepared for the experience).
This provided a wonderful chance for us to reflect on our experiences, and relive some of the best parts of our time on the eastern tip of the island. We learned something about ourselves in the process: as much as all experiences are filled with both good and bad moments, given time and distance we tend to remember the pleasant ones. And although a healthy dose of perspective is always prudent, we love the fact that good memories are what we retain, not bad. I believe you can learn a lot about a person by the memories they have and the stories they tell.
We have previously written about living on lava, but with Kiluea erupting up a storm again, we had to see the lava that is actually alive. We met travelers who were lucky enough to be there when the lava started flowing and before official viewing stations had been set up. They were literally standing in front of active flows, and were “poke-it-with-a-stick” close. The pictures as you can guess were awe-inspiring.
Shortly after the lava started flowing though, park rangers were quick to set up official viewing areas to protect people from the many hazards of active flows: lava benches collapsing, false ground, glass particles forming in the air as lava hits the ocean, among other scary things.
So unfortunately by the time we got to see the lava it was an official attraction with hundreds if not thousands of people flocking to the scene daily. The roped off area was at closest a quarter of a kilometer away from the nearest flow, and if you managed to elbow your way through the people to a good viewing spot, the view was still mediocre at best.
Kelly had dreams of taking a Barbie and/or GI Joe doll and throwing it into the lava to watch it catch fire and melt. I thought it was a smashing idea and was prepared to get video of such an adventure. But alas, our pictures and video are grainy at best, and only at night could we actually see any lava amidst the clouds of steam.
If I sound a touch bitter and unappreciative of seeing such an amazing event, please forgive me. After the pictures and stories of other travelers though, our experiences paled in comparison. No Barbie doll videos, no poke-it-with-a-stick experiences. We were sadly non-plussed by the living lava adventure.
Staying in Hilo
Spending a night away from our hostel and in a different one was refreshing. It was also nice to visit Hilo, another old haunt of ours. I learned to scuba dive there, it was the first town we visited after landing on the island, and is a place we have come to be quite familiar with. Once again, the opportunity to reflect positively on past experiences was welcome and enjoyed.
Mauna Kea and Saddle Road
“Just don’t drive on unpaved roads please,” was the parting comment the woman at the car rental shop left us with, as we zoomed away in our upgraded rental car.
“Sure thing!” we sang out the window, with every intention of breaking that rule.
Having heard stories of driving Saddle Road and in some cases to the very top of Mauna Kea from almost every traveler on the island who rented a car, we were damned if we were going to be the suckers to follow the rules again.
So from Hilo we headed straight for Saddle Road – the partially paved windy hilly road that intersects the two huge volcanoes on the island: Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. Mauna Kea is the higher of the two at almost 14,000ft (and the tallest mountain in the world from the actual base undersea to summit), and although Mauna Loa is only a few hundred feet shorter, it takes the title of largest mountain in the world in terms of sheer mass. Driving between the two is breathtaking to say the least.
We started out the drive on a dim and rainy day, wondering why we were even attempting to get a view on Mauna Kea – there would be no view with all these clouds. The thick old rainforest on either side reminded us more of central Vancouver Island more than it did Hawaii, and so began our kind reminiscing of our times and love for Vancouver Island and the mountains of Canada.
Eventually as we climbed higher and higher towards the middle of the island, the clouds parted and we got our first taste of real sunshine (no haze) in what seemed like months. To our right loomed Mauna Kea with patches of snow at the top, and to our left and further away was the gently sloping goliath of Mauna Loa.
Without hesitation we sped up the mountain towards the Visitor Centre of Mauna Kea at 10,000ft. I had no intentions of going beyond that as four-wheel-drive vehicles are strongly recommended, and I already felt we had pushed our luck by driving on saddle road. A disaster at 14,000ft on a road we’re supposed to be nowhere near wasn’t going to be why I would call the car rental company.
But Kelly had other ideas. He pleaded a great case to me, playing to my adventurous side and asking me if I could live with myself if I got this close to the summit of the highest mountain in the world and turned around. Although it wouldn’t have had quite the dramatic impact of getting to the top on nothing but leg-power (which was a hike we were unprepared for), I caved.
After speaking with the ranger and saying we didn’t want to be “those tourists” who ask stupid questions, ignore advisories, and get into trouble, we were assured that every type of vehicle imaginable has made it to the top. And most of them have made it back down. Yikes!
The real risks are apparently with sudden weather changes and road maintenance machines, neither of which were present dangers today. The only other thing we had to worry about was wearing out the brakes on the steep downgrade on the way down, but by keeping the car in low gear we could probably avert careening off the side of the mountain’s steep switchbacks. Probably.
The view from the top and white-knuckled drive back down was worth every moment, and now Kelly & I have stood at altitudes higher than we have ever been. We picnicked far above huge cloud banks that sat squarely over both Hilo to the east and Kona to the west, harbouring the haze and volcano off-gases each day which have plagued us daily. We even saw the Kiluea caldera kicking up huge plumes of ash, as it had been doing over the last two days in an unprecedented way. To be standing on a dormant volcanic mountain top and seeing the island alive was magical.
There was a fair bit of snow at the top, and even a skier enjoying the novelty of skiing in Hawaii. The temperatures were just above zero, and the fresh air and panoramic views reminded us very much of the foothills in the Canadian Rockies. Again we started to reminisce, and to miss “home” just a bit.
The rest of the drive on Saddle Road was no less inspiring and surprising, as we descended into thick soupy fog the likes of which we had never seen before. The car was shrouded in this dream-like fog, and we could see no more than five feet in any direction. Stupidly sticking my camera out the window to get a picture, my arm returned soaking wet, as did the camera lens. What we do in the name of mediocre photography – I tell ya.
Located on the northern tip of the island, Pulolu Valley is the more well-known Waipio Valley’s sister. It is located on the other side of numerous dramatic valleys and peaks with waterfalls, untouched nature, and flocks of wild horses in between. (Flocks?)
I much preferred Pulolu to Waipio Valley, and after the short hike down to the black sand beach at the bottom, we were rewarded with beautiful campgrounds and natural swings, streams, wild horses and cows and donkeys, and gigantic green cliffs rising on each side of us hugging and holding us in place.
No adventurous day trip is complete for us without a sushi dinner in there somewhere. The popular and highly-recommended establishment of choice was Sushi Rock, located in the cute quaint town of Hawi near Pulolu Valley. For such an unassuming town, and in such a small boutique store cum restaurant with café tables, we didn’t expect to have such sticker shock upon opening the menus up. But there you have it.
That’s okay, we thought; not only is it a special meal and no expense should be spared, but it wasn’t really much more expensive than most of the decent sushi restaurants in Kona. So we began ordering from the huge variety of truly creative sushi rolls.
What we weren’t prepared for were the quantities. When you pay $16 for a sushi roll (and when we have paid this price in the past), you expect one heck of a roll. Not only should the quality knock your socks off, but so too should the quantity. The quality was indeed fantastic, but the quantity…after spending $120 we decided to call it and left…hungry.
Despite the culinary set-back and somewhat disappointing lava experiences, our second adventure around the island was a success overall. We got away from the routine we had settled into in Kona, and saw much of what we missed the first time around. As with so many memories being created on this island, we will choose to retain the good ones.
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