Steve and Monika’s Hawai’i
Part 1—Welcome and the Big Island
Aloha, SSR colleagues, and welcome to our Hawai’i. We hope you will be as captivated by the strange and unique wonder of this State as we have been since it became our home. We have been asked to write down some of our thoughts and experiences from the seven years we have lived here, so we will try to show you “our Hawaii.” As with any experience, ours will be individually skewed, but maybe you will each find some insights (intended or unintended) that will help you enjoy your visit to these islands. Because we both enjoy different aspects of Hawaii, we have chosen to write individual accounts for each island and have indicated the author of each part. We will present the SSR with four installments, one each for the Big Island, Maui, Oahu, and Kauai. We will do our best to answer any questions before you come, but please remember that these are very personal reflections, and not official travel guides! Our thoughts are meant simply to provide some color to your experience, and not guide it.
Also, please keep in mind that we are just giving our own experiences, and not attempting to write a complete travel guide. There are many places in Hawaii we have not yet seen, and many places and attractions on each island that we missed, or chose to avoid. These stories only reflect those things that affected us in a special way.
Because these are only meant to be personal reflections, we will not attempt to dive into the rich, and complicated, human history of Hawaii, nor will we dwell too much on the amazing flora and fauna. But I cannot help mentioning the story that the peaks of Hawaii tell about its birth and its monumental battle to remain standing in the middle of the ocean.
One of the most interesting aspects of Hawaii is its geological history, a story which can be read from the window of the plane if you are lucky enough to be seated on the right side of the airplane (right, not left, that is). Hawaii is part of a chain of islands that is more than 3,000 miles long and stretches in a curved line from the Big Island all the way to Midway. All of these islands formed at the same place—the current location of the Big Island—by volcanic activity centered near this point far under the sea. As the tectonic plate on which the islands rest moves towards Japan, each newly formed island moves off this active center, and the volcanoes gradually become silent. At this point that island begins to lose its battle with the eroding forces of wind and sea, and the towering peaks created by the volcanic activity start to erode away.
Thus, the Southernmost island, officially named Hawaii but which—because of the obvious confusion—is usually referred to as the Big Island, is also the biggest (and the island where our 2008 SSR meeting will be). The Big Island is also the only one with an active volcano, and it also has the two highest peaks, Mauna Loa (13,679 ft) and Mauna Kea (13,796 ft). Just northwest of the Big Island is a group of four smaller islands: Maui, Lanai, Koholawe, and Molokai. These were at one point joined but have already begun the inevitable erosion into the sea. The highest peak in this group of islands is Haleakala, at 10,023 feet—already far shorter than those of its Big Island neighbor. One hundred miles northwest of Maui lies the most populous Hawaiian isle, and the one that hosts Honolulu, the State capital. Oahu boasts two mountain ranges that climb no higher than 4,040 feet. Kauai’s highest peak is 5,243 feet, and Midway is essentially almost completely at sea level.
If you are flying into Honolulu on your way here, from the right side of the aircraft you can often see Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa, and Haleakala peeking above the clouds. Look for the Big Island peaks about 45 min before landing, and Haleakala appears a little later. As you descend into Honolulu, if the approach is right, you will also see Molokai, which has the highest sea cliffs in the world.
This geological and geographic history has some important consequences for a visitor to Hawaii. Firstly, Hawaii is located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, with no other land mass nearby. The closest non-island land is San Francisco, which is 2,380 miles from Honolulu. It is about the same distance from New York City to San Francisco or Los Angeles as it is from either city to Honolulu. This isolation means that the ocean around Hawaii is very, very deep—about three miles—and the currents that race around the islands are fast and strong. Please heed beach warnings when you come! Secondly, Hawaii is officially in the tropics, below the Tropic of Cancer and above the Equator. This means that sunlight is reaching Hawaii in a straight line from the Sun all the time—you will sunburn very easily. But this is an easy fix—sunscreen with an SPF of 45!
All of these features make Hawaii a most beautiful place. There are green mountains cascading into a blue, warm ocean that is so clear you can see thirty feet down. There are frigate birds and dolphins all around, and songbirds from all over the world that have been brought by various immigrant groups. You will see things you never imagined, and you will go home with a sense of wonder. We hope that you enjoy this experience!
Introduction. The Big Island is shaped roughly like a triangle pointed East. It has two major airports, each receiving flights directly from the mainland. The first is in Hilo, on the Eastern side near the point of the triangle. Hilo is the largest city, and is also near Volcano National Park. Since the winds come largely from the East (as for all the Hawaiian islands) this side also has the most rain. The Eastern side of the island is also characterized by lush green jungles, and two fantastic waterfalls, Akaka Falls, just north of Hilo. The other airport, Kona, is located on the Western side of the island, and is the closest to our meeting site. Kona is not really a town, but the area all along the western coast. This side of the island is very dry, and it is almost always sunny.
Lava Shock! The Big Island is an amazing combination of many different parts of Hawaii, but what you will see here that you cannot see anywhere else is lava—in all its forms. When you land in Kona (the airport closest to our meeting site) you will see what looks like failed construction sites all along the highway; long black fields of rock that are about 10 to 40 feet high in long lines that run from the base of Mauna Loa, the active volcano, to the sea. These are different lava flows that emerged from the base of the volcano years ago and have not eroded into the ground. What you are seeing was once red-hot lava moving into the sea, destroying everything in its path. The lava now only flows at the Southeastern side of Mauna Loa, but the large tracks of now silent lava were moving not so long ago. Many of them have the dates of the lava flow. Visitors landing for the first time in Kona sometimes wonder where the paradise they have been promised lies. Rest assured; you will see rich jungles and high waterfalls on the Big Island, and we will tell you were to find them. You will also find black and green sand beaches, some of the best snorkeling spots in the world, and dolphins, whales, and sharks (if you want).
But the lava is what defines the Big Island. On all other islands, the lava is covered by a rich growth of vegetation. Here on the Big Island, you are forced to see how the islands were created, and are still being created. The Big Island also has the Southern-most point in the US, South Point. We have seen locals jump from the cliffs at South Point into the deep, clear ocean below—a height of about 30 feet or so—but have never tried it ourselves (and we were not very tempted!). The hotel where our meeting will take place is built on a wall of old lava that meets the ocean at a 20-foot cliff. We walked along this wall for a long time and felt that we were touching the Earth’s core, only recently spewed violently forth to make its contribution to building the mountains to rise out of the three-mile deep ocean from which it rises.
Although my favorite island of the Hawaii archipelago is Kauai, I consider the Big Island the most interesting, mostly because of its active volcano, Mauna Kea. Lush green jungles, beautiful gold sand beaches, turquoise warm water, coral reefs, turtles and waterfalls…these you can find on all major Hawaiian islands. But only on the Big Island will you witness red lava flowing straight into the ocean giving birth to steam spurts several meters high. Only on the Big Island will you be able to smell sulfur and will you experience strange emotions feeling the heat coming from under the earth you walk on. You will feel the planet live!
A popular attraction on the Big Island is Volcano National Park. It is situated on the south part of the island, ~1-hour drive from Hilo and ~2-hour drive from Kona. The park is quite large and offers enough to keep people busy for many hours (Steve: Note that driving on the Big Island is misleading. There are no highways—all roads are two lanes. Thus, Volcano National Park is only about 86 miles from Kona, but it takes a while to get there through very curvy roads). If you do not plan on hiking extensively, and want to focus on sightseeing and lava viewing, an afternoon trip will be sufficient. But be sure to stay when it is dark to see lava flow. Shortly after the entrance to the park, there is a visitor center. It is a good idea to stop at the center to ask the rangers where the lava flows on a given day (it changes!) and where the best viewing is. But it is also wise to ask fellow visitors met in the park as they may offer less formal advice.
From the visitor center you can drive along the park loop road, stopping whenever you see something interesting. There will be sulfur vents, sulfur piles, craters, lava tubes, lava fields everywhere. These last ones are nicely marked with the years when they were formed. A big thrill for kids (and adults as well) is to walk inside lava tubes. It is dark, wet and scary there, and the flashlights are helpful. The “official” lava tube walk is rather short, but those who are more adventurous may want to continue farther, after passing a small blocking gate. After reaching the end of the tunnel you will need to turn back and return to the formal exit. There is a possibility of different walks in the park, shorter and longer. You will probably see people wandering far away and it will be up to you to decide how much time you want to spend on in the park. I always wanted to hike down one of the craters (forgot the name), but there was never enough time.
As evening approaches, the time comes for lava viewing. We have watched lava from various locations. One possibility is to drive down Crater Chain Road towards the ocean. There will be a crowd of people there (and possible car traffic) because this is the most popular spot. After you park your car you can walk on the lava field to get a better view. It is challenging at moments because it is dark and a lava field is not the easiest surface to walk on. The good news is that even if you do not walk far, you should see red lava streaming down from the volcano’s mouth, and you can also see lava entering the ocean. Once we watched lava from a different location (suggested by rangers), and that time we could see the volcano’s mouth spurting flames and lava. It was truly spectacular! We met a group of people who went to see the lava from REALLY close (a few meters!!). They had to hike 12 miles, but said it was well worth it. We had Hubert with us, 9 years old at the time, so a 12-mile hike was out of question. Maybe next time. To finish the lava-watching story–sometimes the best viewing can be done outside of the park. Keep your eyes open when driving the Hona-Hilo road, which is in close proximity to the park. You may notice a side road that will seem to be heading towards the red glowing tip of the volcano. Go ahead and drive as far as you can, and you may be rewarded with an unexpectedly nice view. Finally, for those who plan to spend more time on the Big Island and near the volcano, there is a wonderful place to stay very close to the park–the Kilauea Lodge (which has a very good restaurant offering exotic entrees!).
Whenever we go to the Big Island, we always drive north of Hilo. The drive is scenic, with lush green instead or black lava fields, and with several attractions on the way. At the end of the road is the beautiful Waimea Valley. It is not accessible by car so if you are not a big hiker, and prefer not to come in close contact with mules, you will have to satisfy yourself with just seeing the mouth of the valley from the lookout at the end of the road.
The Kona and Hilo sides of the island are connected by Saddle Road. Rental car agencies advise you not take a car there but well…it is not that bad (and rules are created to be broken…). I had a lot of fun driving Saddle Road when I visited the Big Island for the first time. Imagine not seeing another car for an hour or so, and being surrounded by vast emptiness and the two volcanoes—Mauna Kea on one side and Mauna Loa on another.
Another thing that always tempts me on the Big Island is to take a drive north from Kona and explore side roads north from Parker Ranch. Parker Ranch is the largest ranch in the USA. When you drive through it, the scenery will be much different from that near Kona (lava desert) or near Hilo (lush jungle). This time, you will experience grassy rolling hills, small meadows, and broad pastures. You will see cattle, ducks, and geese. For those hungry for souvenirs, there is a Parker Ranch Visitor’s Center in the middle of the ranch, where you can find collection of cowboy stuff with a Hawaiian touch. The area north from the ranch is a mixture of grassy fields and woods, and driving the narrow winding roads that dominate there is very pleasant.
Kealakekua Bay is a very beautiful spot that is also quite close to our meeting site. This is the place where Captain Cook was killed in 1779, and is commemorated with a statue on the northern side. Cook was the first European to visit the Hawaiian Islands in 1778. By that time, he had already spent some time in Tahiti and he immediately recognized the similarity between Tahitian and Hawaiian languages when he discovered Hawaii. Knowing the seafaring abilities of the Tahitians, he was awed by the voyage that he knew the Hawaiians must have undertaken in their large canoes to find Hawaii.
Kealakekua Bay has some of the best snorkeling that we have experienced. The corals are like an underwater forest of many different colors, and the fish are amazing. The water also becomes quite deep in the center of the bay, so that you can see the cliffs falling deep into the ocean as you swim just a little off shore. There are also kayak rentals at the bay, and we have enjoyed paddling across to visit Captain Cook and snorkeling on the other side.
Steve forgot to mention that Kealakekua Bay is known for its dolphins. A group of them resides near the bay and they are quite friendly. People usually kayak towards them first to beat the distance (although good swimmers can swim straight from the beach), and then go into the water to experience “swimming with dolphins.” I have seen dolphins in Kealakekua Bay each time I was there, sometimes closer and sometimes farther.]
Mauna Kea is the highest mountain in Hawaii standing 13,796 ft. Because of its height and its proximity to the equator, and its position in the middle of the Pacific, it is one of the most ideal points on the planet for stellar observation, and several international groups have built some of the strongest Earth-based telescopes on its summit. If you are so inclined (as we were, once), it is possible to drive to the summit and see these telescopes, at least from the outside. One, the Keck Telescope, actually allows visitors into one small part of the building that houses the telescope, and you can see the mirror made of a series of small octagons.
Just as impressive is that sometimes you can see snow on this mountain. There will be none next May during the SSR meeting, but it will be cold up there! And, keep in mind that if you are intrepid enough to climb this mountain, you will be traveling from sea level to more than 13,000 feet. There is a small store at about 10,000 feet at which we highly recommend you stop and take some time to acclimatize before going further. Also, remember that small children cannot make this transition in altitude easily. We rented a Jeep specifically to make this trip, but we passed several normal vehicles along the way that seemed to be okay, though at a slower pace—even our Jeep with its gas-guzzling V8 felt the altitude. There are actually tours on the Big Island with specially fitted four-wheel vans that will take you to the summit. But, even if you do not make it to the top, the trip to the 10,000-foot way station is very interesting. You will see many different volcanic cones along the way, and surface that looks like what one imagines the Moon to be. You will not forget this! Once at the summit, however, you will be treated to a very nice view of the peak Haleakala, on Maui—about 40 miles north. You will not believe the difference in temperature, and you will marvel at the technological wonder of over 10 observatories standing on the peak that took you so long to conquer.
Mauna Loa. The other Big Island peak is almost inaccessible! To find its summit, you must be an experienced hiker and, even so, you must have a determined will. A technician who used to work in my lab when I first arrived in 2000, left to go to graduate school in Seattle, and then came back for a visit. While on Hawaii, he had hiked just about all of the trails Oahu had to offer, and he wanted to climb the summit of Mauna Loa on the Big Island. This he did, but with some stories of caution. The cold lava cut his boots to ribbons. He spent two days in this area, and there are shelters with showers for hikers. But it is a serious business. This is something we would like to do someday—but we are not yet prepared for it. If you attempt this, please do your homework!