By Zachary Moses
I love Hawaii. It was the first place I ever visited that required a big flight over the ocean. Years ago I went with a boyfriend who thought it was acceptable to put himself in first class and me in coach. He thought it was funny to come back and tell me all about the qualities of first class, which I was missing out on. At least he got me a window seat…although when I arrived at my seat, I found an oval-shaped plastic impression with no window. By the time we arrived in Hawaii, I was newly single and had a dinner date with the person sitting next to me.
Flash forward to August 2013 for a whirlwind research and business trip hopping across three islands; window seats and friendly seatmate included.
Day 1: Arrival
We landed in Kona at sunset on a runway built on a lava field. This area was once home to King Kamehameha’s favorite fishery, until lava covered it up. We found out that Pele (the goddess of the volcano) has a temper and covers a lot of stuff with lava. I hate to think what she would have done if a man put HER in coach.
We checked into the Sheraton Kona, which has a lovely restaurant on a big lanai overlooking a bay where giant manta rays come to feed at night. We had some mai tais under the tiki torches, then headed down to stand on the black rocks overlooking the ocean. Local kids had donned their snorkels and fins and were out swimming casually with the mantas. I didn’t have any snorkel gear, and I was jetlagged, so I vowed to swim with the manta rays in the future, definitely before I left the Big Island.
Day 2: Ziplining Adventure
I woke up 4:30 am due to a 6 hour difference in time zones from my home in Florida. My body felt like it was already afternoon, so I took an early walk around the grounds and decided to join the guided yoga session at 8. How have I neglected stretching for the last ten years? This really made my hips hurt. Wow!
After yoga, I headed in for breakfast, where I learned that Hawaiian breakfast buffets always include miso soup and things to sprinkle in it. Delicious! I sat by the window, but I couldn’t enjoy the breeze because of a high-pitched whistle that no one else could hear, apparently. Outside the window was a small speaker. I followed the cord and unplugged it from the wall. Within minutes the restaurant filled up with birds looking for waffle crumbs and bacon bits. Oops. They were adorable and fearless, so I left the headache-generator unplugged.
I went to Hawaii this time to attend a National Tour Association (NTA) conference, and this morning was the first scheduled activity of the multi-day event. About 30 travel agents from all over the world arrived three days early, in order to tour the Big Island and get a feel for the sights and culture of this, the youngest, Hawaiian island. We could choose ziplining, kayaking, or shopping in town. About 10 of us hopped on a small bus and headed up the mountainside to ride a thrilling zipline course. We drove into a misty forest of tall trees in the middle of a cattle ranch. One of our young guides, a cute Hawaiian boy, told us the romantic legend of the Ohi’a Lehua trees. The story was bittersweet, and was a lovely introduction to the rich tradition of oral history common throughout Hawaii.
Our little group bonded quickly and had so much fun goading each other into jumping off the platforms backwards, ziplining with no hands, and dangling upside down during the fastest descents.
Once back to the hotel, the kayaking group tried to tell us that they had more fun because they saw a pod of dolphins, but I think those are mythical creatures and don’t believe in them anyway.
On the way back to my room, I spotted a waterslide towering over the pool. Of course I stripped down to my bathing suit (yes, I do always have one under my clothes) and went for a slide with my go pro camera!
After a fabulous dinner of tapas on the lanai, a few of us clambered down the rocks in the dark with our snorkel gear, prepared to swim with the mantas. The sea was pounding relentlessly on the craggy lava escarpment and no local kids were braving the beating, so we decided that it was not safe, and found some other members of the group to entertain us.
We got together on the giant lanai of one of the luxury rooms and played Shotzee, which is a drinking game where you have to try and roll a yahtzee (five dice of the same number) then you take a drink of peach schnapps. Nobody could tell us for sure if we were supposed to drink the peach liquor as a punishment or a reward.
Day 3: A long drive around a Big Island
As travel agents, we all know the importance of punctuality and keeping the group together and getting on the bus in a timely manner, but man, once we donned our leis and flowered shirts, we acclimated to island time fast, and it was a struggle to wrangle anybody to do anything.
When we were finally all aboard, a lovely Hawaiian woman sang for us a blessing for the goddess Pele. What a lovely send-off. We had a jovial local man from the Big Island driving our bus and slowing down for points of interest. He began each story with “My Family, I want to tell you something” or “Ohana, I tell you…” (Ohana is family in Hawaiian). His retelling of the legends of the gods and goddesses, as well as his tales of life growing up on the Big Island, had everyone in stitches.
We stopped first at Ka’u Coffee and macadamia plantation for a quick tour of their orchard, processing facility, and state-of-the art roasting room. Apparently this is, like, the best coffee on the planet, so I was pretty excited and went a little overboard at the tasting. At home I’ve got a new espresso machine that is nothing less than a fully automated coffee robot. I spent $30 for a tiny little bag of this precious, dark, and delicious coffee. Now we were a bus full of hopped-up tourists bouncing in our seats at every new change in scenery (the Big Island boasts that their island comprises all but one or two of the world’s climate zones).
It seems that we rounded a bend in the road, and all of a sudden we were on the windward side of the island, where all the trees grew sideways and the chartreuse grass shimmered and waved endlessly. We had arrived at the southernmost point in the United States, Naalehu, where the water was endlessly blue and deep. (No, fellow Key Westers, we are NOT actually the southernmost city, at least not since Hawaii became a state).
The terrain and climate changed rapidly again as we approached Volcanoes National Park. We drove into a forest of primordial-looking ferns and eerie mist. We had a bento lunch near at the Volcano House overlooking the Halemaumau crater. Aside from the steaming, smoking crater looming in the distance outside the windows, the tasty Kalua pork made the biggest impression. After lunch and more fantastic coffee, we visited the Jagger Museum, where I learned that not all lava is the same, and then we took a short hike through a cave, actually a solidified tube created by flowing lava ages ago. Ferns were invading the cracks in the walls underneath the mounted lights.
When we got out of the cave, someone said “Look how nice. So many local people enjoying their National Park…all the cars in this lot have Hawaii license plates.” It took approximately 12 seconds for her to turn beet red and realize her mistake. Of course ALL the cars in Hawaii have Hawaii plates. I’m still giggling over this one.
We stopped ever so briefly at a gorgeous botanical garden and rang a huge bell to tell everyone to hop back onto the bus!
We drove on to our destination for the night, the picturesque bayside town of Hilo. From my window I could see a little island where kids were jumping off platforms into the bay. Folks from Hilo, much like those from Seattle, are quick to tell you how it doesn’t rain nearly as much as you think! “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” Even so, Hilo is my favorite town in Hawaii, and if I ever move from my Caribbean paradise to Pacific Paradise, it will be to that lovely and authentic little city.
We all headed to the Imiloa Planetarium for a great star show about the early navigators who settled the Hawaiian islands as early as 800 BC and the legends of the goddess Pele who still lives on the Big Island and builds her territory to this day. We learned about the collection of observatories built high atop Mauna Kea. We had hula lessons alongside a live band and fantastic appetizers and drinks. The mayor of the Big Island came to meet our group and talked about the Aloha spirit of his island home (and the surfing he had done that day, of course).
Tonight I slept with my balcony doors open to enjoy the breeze and the call of the Coqui (pron: KO-kee) frogs. I love the sounds they make, and slept with my balcony doors open. Hawaiians hate the invasive amphibians, a native of Puerto Rico (where they are loved). Funny how one place can treasure a species, while another wishes it had never arrived. Click here to enjoy (or abhor) the sounds of the coquis.
Day 4: From Farmers Market to 5 Star Resort
We started our day at the Hilo farmers market. Oh! The tropical fruits…the honey…the passionfruit smoothies…the anthurium blossoms … and Chinese vegetables! When traveling, my favorite souvenir is honey. I bring home as many varieties as I can find; the flavors unique to the local vegetation. Ka’u Coffee sweetened with macadamia nut blossom honey is a treat that continues to remind me of my adventure!
Hilo’s downtown was absolutely charming. I can’t resist Japanese kitchen supply stores, or charming little stationary shops with a side of hand-tailored shirts. If I didn’t love Key West and my job so much, I would be packing a crate and shipping it to Hilo.
We continued on our counter-clockwise tour of the island and visited Akaka Falls. Just a quick stop along the way… No big deal… just a skyscraper-sized waterfall!
We stopped for an amazing lunch in the garden of the Hawaiian Vanilla Company, high in the hills of the Hamakua coast. At this family-run plantation, they hand-pollinate every orchid blossom and make all kinds of fragrant home, body, and kitchen products from the resulting vanilla beans.
This was our final afternoon touring the Big Island before joining the larger group for the conference portion of the event. Dawn convinced the driver to hand over his ukulele, and she plucked and sang as we rolled through the hills of the verdant cattle ranchland. Some of us even sang along. Our group of 30 felt like “Ohana.”
The surroundings changed again, now that we had come to the sunny side of the island. We entered the huge Hilton Waikaloa resort, an oasis built in a sea of black lava and cactus fields, and tried to adjust to the large hotel experience, after 3 days of intimate group travel and “talking story.”
(To Read Part 2 Click Here!…. more about my time on the Big Island, as well as a hop over to Kauai).