We landed in Kona shortly before 5pm on Friday Feb 2. Even flying in, it looked totally different than Kauai. Just black rocks everywhere.
The rental car situation on the Big Island is a kind of nuts. You have to take a shuttle from the airport to get to the area where all the rental cars are. The shuttle area was crowded and not organized, and we couldn’t all get on a shuttle together, so Nick and Dennis got on first so they could get in line and Michelle and I got on one of the next ones with most of our luggage.
We ended up waiting in the line at Budget for over 4 hours to rent our car, which we had made a reservation for months ahead of time. Apparently this is kind of common. People were returning the rental cars and within 10 minutes they were being sent out again with new people. We rented a SUV since we had 4 people plus all of our luggage, but of course they didn’t have any SUVs available when we got to the counter. They said they could get one from another location, across the street, but that ended up taking over an hour. It was really frustrating and we felt stuck - we had to rent a car, so, we didn’t really have any choice but to wait. We ended up with a BMW SUV, which had lots of scratches and marks on the outside of it (which we had to inspect with a flashlight because by the time we got it, it was 10pm).
Since the car took forever, we didn’t do much else Friday night - grabbed some pizza and checked into our airbnb, which was a condo within walking distance to downtown Kona. It was clean, and nice.
Sat Feb 3
We heard there was a big farmer’s market in Kona so we went to check that out, but it was pretty disappointing. More of a flea market than a farmer’s market. Really cramped booths, lots of junk, lots of things that were made in China.
We went to Safeway to get groceries for the week and went back to the condo to figure out our plans. We had booked a guided tour to go up to the summit of Mauna Kea, a large dormant volcano that has a big observatory at the top. It ended up getting cancelled though, because the road to the summit was closed due to ice and snow.
Mauna Kea was one thing that we all had really wanted to do. After doing some research online, we found that there was a visitor center at 9,000 feet that you could still get to. The road from the visitor center up to the observatory, at the summit (which is at 14,000 feet) was the part that was closed. Also upon further research, we realized that the tour we had signed up for, which was a couple hundred dollars per person, was probably really overpriced and not worth it -- so it kind of worked out well that it got cancelled.
We quickly gathered all the warm clothes we had and piled into the car, since it was over an hour drive to get to Mauna Kea. We arrived at the visitor center in the late afternoon, and did a short hike. The views were really nice. 9,000 feet is really high -- and we weren’t even at the summit. To put it in perspective for New Yorkers, all the high peaks in the Adirondacks are a bit over 4,000 feet.
We couldn’t see the summit due to clouds, but it was crazy to think that there was still another 5,000 feet above us! Also crazy that up at the summit there was snow, ice, and 60mph winds...in Hawaii!
Another epiphany I had while in Hawaii - volcanoes don’t look like what you picture as a kid. We were standing on the side of a volcano and it just looked like a mountain. I pictured volcanoes being all black rock, but there was vegetation growing on it, and craters. I mean, this volcano has been dormant for a long time, but, it just wasn’t what I expected.
We were committed to staying until dark, as there was a free guided “star tour” that night and the star gazing was supposed to be great. As I mentioned, there is a big observatory at the summit - like, big time, researchers from all over the world collaborate to work here with huge telescopes. It would have been cool to see it, but you can’t go in them or look at them closely, just see them from the outside.
Nick and I went to a free seminar at the visitor center while we waited for darkness. The speaker was a man who was studying how humans migrated around the earth. To recreate how humans first began to migrate, he and a small crew canoed around the world with no modern navigation! It was a pretty wild story. They used the stars and their hands (hold your hand up, estimate angles with your fingers using stars to figure out what direction you are going) to guide them. They have some modern technology on the boat that they could use if they got into an emergency situation, like if someone went overboard or something, but I don’t think they used it. His story was really interesting.
After the talk we ate our PB&J we packed and watched as it got darker and more and more stars became visible. It was really beautiful. Nick took a lot of star photos. It was really cold at this elevation, with the sun down, and we all had all the warm clothes we had with us. They had a few telescopes out that you could stand in line to look through.
A student from a nearby university gave a 30 minute “star tour” with this high-powered laser pointer that he used to point at the stars and constellations he was telling us about. That was really interesting. There were so many stars visible, I don’t know how he could find all the constellations. You could also see the Milky Way, but I guess in Hawaii it’s not as visible in the winter compared to the summer, but it was still cool. Also, there was a red spot on the horizon glowing -- our guide pointed to it and said that was the caldera of the active volcano in Volcanoes National Park, sixty miles away. So cool!
We were at the visitor center for many hours. I highly recommend going here if you are on the Big Island, especially at night!!
Sunday Feb 4
We drove pretty far south trying to find some good beaches or places to snorkel. Lots of the beaches we
re too rough for us. We went to one spot where a lot of people were snorkeling, but it was rocky with big waves and all of them looked a lot more serious than we were. So instead we went to Pu'uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park which was next to this beach, and walked around there.
Eventually we ended up at a beach that was within walking distance to our condo (go figure, we drove around all day then ended up next door to our condo). There was nothing to see snorkeling here, but we sat on the beach and went swimming. Dennis really wanted to watch the Superbowl, so we went back to the condo early in the afternoon.
I didn’t care about the Superbowl so I booked myself a massage. I walked around downtown Kona for a bit (there’s tons of shops, bars, restaurants - very toursity, kind of like a board walk) then got a massage. It was great! The place was right above all these shops downtown, but somehow it was really quiet in the masasge rooms. There was a big window that was wide open so the whole time there was a breeze coming in, and you could hear the ocean and waves, but couldn’t hear any people. The massage was really good quality too. Was very relaxing, super glad I did this.
After the Super Bowl we walked to Kona Brewing for dinner. I like Kona Beer so I was really excited to do this. We sat outside, and the food was really good, and Nick and I each got a flight of beers.
Mon Feb 5
Our friend Brian told us about this huge waterfall he saw when he was in Hawaii, so we set out to find it. It’s called Hiilawe waterfall and it’s 1,450 feet tall. For reference, Taughannock is 215 feet tall.
The waterfall is on private property, so you can’t hike right to it. It’s also at the bottom of a crazy steep road. There are guards at the top of the road making sure no one goes down it without 4 wheel drive. We decided to just walk down the road. You can take a tour down to see the waterfall too - so there were large vans full of people driving by us. Kind of crazy.
The waterfall was huge, as expected. Some people live at the bottom of this super steep road -- hard to imagine having this 1450 foot waterfall in your backyard. There’s also a black sand beach at the bottom of this road, so we hung out there for a bit.
The walk back up was, as expected, pretty steep. In some parts the grade is 45%, with an average for the mile long road being 25%.
After we finished the “hike” we went to a place called Tex Drive-In for lunch. They are known for their malasadas, which are kind of like a fried donut with various cream fillings, served warm. They were good.
Afterwards we went to Hapuna Beach State Park. This beach was really nice. It was windy and started to rain, so we didn’t swim, but hung out on the beach and threw a ball around. We sat under a nice little pavillion for a while once it started to rain.
In the evening, we had a tour booked for a Manta Ray Dive. I was kind of nervous about this - I thought we were going to be going out into the ocean for it. Our tour time was 8pm.
Our meeting spot was just a truck parked at a dock. Once we got there I relaxed a little bit, when I found out that we were only going about 50 feet offshore, in a cove, not out in the ocean. We had to take a boat but it would be about a sixty second boat ride.
They were running behind so we just hung out on this dock for a while. Besides the four of us, there was a father and daughter from Australia who were on the tour as well. Kind of funny, their travel time was shorter to get to Hawaii than ours from New York. Never really realized how far away Hawaii is from us, I guess - it’s really a long ways out there in the Pacific!
We were given wet suits to wear since we would be floating in the water, not moving around, for quite a while. We got on our boat and took our short little drive over to where the manta rays are (manta rays look just like sting rays, but they don’t have stingers). We were told that they would swim very close to us, but we weren’t supposed to touch them. They told us “it looks like they’re going to run into you, but they won’t, they will turn at the last second. They are between 6-20 feet across.” Oh great, just what I want to almost run into me!
Now, keep in mind that it was after 8pm at this point, so it’s totally dark out. Getting into the ocean at night is kind of creepy. We each had a pool noodle and were instructed to hold it under our armpits and slide off the side of the boat as quietly as we could. We then had a very short swim over to basically a floating surfboard that had a bright light attached to the underside of it. The light attracts plankton, which is what the manta rays eat. All the plankton gathers here, and the manta rays hang out there for hours feeding on it.
There was a rope around the edge of the surfboard that we were supposed to hang on to so we would stay in place. You put the pool noodle under your ankles so that your legs would float, held onto the rope, then just floated there with your face in the water and watched. I was nervous, not knowing how soon I would see a manta, or how close it would get, or how big it would be. Within less than a minute of getting situated, one swam right up to me. Whoa! They are big! They swim really close, then kind of somersault backwards with their mouths open to eat the plankton. It was wild. Pretty much after the first one came within inches of me, I wasn’t as nervous anymore. They didn’t swim super fast, which was kind of nice.
We stayed in the water for maybe 30 minutes, and almost the whole time there was at least one manta ray visible. There were probably 5 or 6 total in the area, swimming around. It was really cool. Nick and I each wore go-pros attached to our snorkel masks, if you want to see some of the footage let me know.
Oh, it was also lightning the whole time we were doing this. There were kind of more storms than normal during our whole trip. I tried not to think about it and knew the people doing the tour would take us out of the water if it was too dangerous or started to storm, but, that added to my nervousness in the beginning. There is a hotel next to where we did this, that has all glass walls for the restaurant that is right next to the water. They closed that part of the hotel because of the threat of a storm and the waves breaking the glass. Yikes.
This hotel is actually how this whole manta ray dive thing started here. The hotel had lights shining down in the water, and they noticed there were always a lot of manta rays hanging around. As soon as people realized they were hanging out by the lights for hours to eat, Bam! Tourist Attraction. But really, it was a pretty cool experieince.
Thurs Feb 6
It was really hot this day. We went to Kahaluu Beach which was AWESOME for snorkeling! As soon as you stepped in the water and started swimming, there were tons of cool fish to see and lots of coral. We swam with a sea turtle! There was also a trailer set up on the beach that was kind of a mobile marine education center. They had info about all the fish you were seeing, and about how most sunscreen is really bad for coral reefs.
After snorkeling for a while, we left to get lunch and then went to Magic Sands Beach. We were hoping to Boogie Board here but the waves were pretty serious, too big for us. We ended up just sitting on the beach. It was really hot, too hot for me, and I felt like I was just burning, and there wasn’t much shade.
When we finally left that beach, we showered quick then Nick and I went to Kona Brewing for a tour. That was pretty cool. Surprisingly, they don’t can any of their beer on the island -- it’s all done on the mainland. They make a lot of beers that are only available in Hawaii though, so it was fun to get to try those. They are expanding into a bigger building next year. They also try to be pretty sustainable and eco-friendly and do a lot of recycling in their beer making process. At the end of the tour, we got to try 4 or 5 beers. We also got a keychain. Not bad for the $10 tour fee.
After the brewery we went back to the awesome snorkeling beach for more snorkeling. It was easy to get pretty far away from shore because there was so much to look at. I loved my full face snorkel mask - it never fogged up or leaked. A few times I looked up and I was kind of far out, and by myself. That is a little scary, even though I’m a fine swimmer...just a little unnerving to be in water that’s too deep for you to touch, with nothing around you, and no people around you (probably making it sound worse than it was, not like I was miles out). Anyways, this place was really cool.
We made burgers at home that night, did some souvenir shopping, and then got some ice cream.
Wed Feb 7
This was our last day in Kona. We did a lot of fun things while we were there, but most of them weren’t actually in Kona. The town of Kona itself isn’t that great - crowded, touristy, lots of drunk people at night. But, it is where the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon is held. I walked by the starting point of it, that was kind of cool. I wanted to swim there one morning, but never got to it. Oh well.
We left Kona fairly early in the day and headed south to check some things out before checking into our next airbnb in Kalapana.