Hawai’i is for Nature Lovers

There was an afternoon this past December, a day when it was 37 degrees and raining sideways, when my husband and I looked at each other and said, “What about Hawai’i?”

Suddenly, we were figuring out how to use several years’ worth of accumulated airline miles and booking an Airbnb.

As you can probably imagine, mega resorts aren’t exactly our style. Instead, we stayed at an organic farm and focused our adventures on getting outside as often as possible. We came home with sand in our suitcases, new plant books, a primer on the Hawaiian language, multiple jars of honey, and a renewed appreciation for the cultures and ecosystems that make up Hawai’i.

Here’s our take on the Big Island.

Captain Cook/Kailua Kona (-ish)

Our goal on this trip–in addition to replenishing our stores of vitamin D–was a balance between the pleasures of the familiar and the thrill of the unknown.

We stayed near Captain Cook, with plans to revisit our favorite haunts from a previous trip, some five years ago. As it turns out, we should have been a bit more specific with our notes, as “Korean poke lady on the mountain side of the Mamalahoa Highway” wasn’t exactly helpful.

We again snorkeled near the Captain Cook Monument in Kealakekua Bay, choosing to kayak in rather than hike. (If you hike, park near the top of Napo’opo’o Road and start early. It’s very doable if you’re accustomed to hiking, but be aware that it is steep and without tree cover in some places, which means it can be hot.)

Because the Captain Cook Monument is one of the better-known snorkeling areas on this part of the island, it’s worth it to get there early. There’s a better chance of seeing spinner dolphins, as well as missing out on the booze cruises that come later in the morning from other parts of the island.

Note: Kayaks and other craft aren’t allowed to land at the monument, so you’ll be snorkeling with the kayak tethered to you.

We also checked out other area snorkeling spots, including Kahalu’u in Kailua itself and the ever-popular Two Step. Two Step, also called Honaunau, is near the Pu’uhonua o Honaunau or Place of Refuge, which is a monument worth checking out in its own right. The fish at Kahalu’u are quite used to humans and the entire sheltered bay is fairly shallow. The entrance and exit were a bit rocky, but it’s a great spot and easily accessible.

We also explored Kehaha Kai State Park, out toward the airport. Apparently, there are a string of beaches in this area, some with snorkeling. We were worried about taking the rental car all the way to the parking lot–although it would have been fine–and so walked a portion of the road. We ended up at the beach closest to the parking lot, which was great for swimming. Although it wasn’t a spot for snorkeling, we did see turtles feeding on the bottom. Of all the beaches we found, this area is the one I’d most like to come back to, primarily because we got just a taste of what the area offers.

We visited a local honey farm to get the lowdown on island beekeeping, which offered fascinating insights into tropical beekeeping as well as the relationship between nature and culture on the Big Island–a topic that merits its own future post.

We managed two trips to Teshima’s, a local institution. They had on their menu fried black cod, which is as absurdly rich and delicious as it sounds. In Hawai’i, black cod goes by the name “butter fish,” which is apt, as is its other common name, “sable fish.” (My non-Hawaiian hook-up for black cod is here.)

Although we didn’t find our beloved poke lady from the previous trip, we did find Sun Dried Specialties. At Ke’ei Café, the food was good and the service was weird, at least on the night we visited. The live entertainment, though, was priceless.

Breakfast at Big Rob’s Bakery came with a hearty side dish of entertaining stories, and my veggie sandwich at Caffé Florian was delicious. ‘Iwa Arts and Café felt a bit like a tropical take on the PNW. Menehune’s had good coffee and smoothies.

My husband was so enthusiastic about the ono fish and chips at Keoki’s that he had to order a second round, and our return for Super J’s lau lau was as good as we’d remembered, although they were out of poi that day. We spent time chatting with the elderly proprietor about his innovations in lau lau cooking technique and poi production, his advice on teaching children the value of honesty, and his management theories. It was beautiful.

In a nod to the usual tourist routes, we did attempt this spot as a fun option for dinner, but there was a two-hour wait, so no go. Teshima’s it was.

We also ate a lot of peanut butter and honey on rolls from Punalu’u Bake Shop.

If you like Captain Cook, here’s where we stayed–quite happily–on our previous trip.

Volcano (-ish)

Somehow we’d managed to visit the island previously without making it to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, an error we rectified on this trip. It has forests, fresh lava fields, and an active crater that you can gaze upon from afar. This last sight is especially impressive after dark, when the glow from the molten rock colors the undersides of the clouds orange. We hiked and dorked out on plants and birds, including the endangered nene and several species of honeycreepers.

Although we tried our best to follow the trails on the map, we kept taking random turns and finding portals, as we are wont to do. It was one of the best parts of our trip.

In the future, we’d like to spend time backpacking, whether in the lowlands or on the slopes of Mauna Loa. There is also lodging in the area, and we heard from several friends that it’s worth a stay, not only for the ease of nighttime crater viewing but to appreciate all that the area has to offer. We did have a very good lunch at the lodge, and I fell in love with this artist’s work.

Sadly, we also observed the effects of Rapid Ohi’a Death, a fungus that attacks one of Hawai’i’s keystone species, with far-reaching effects for plant, animal, insect, and human communities.

As we looped around the Kipukapuaulu Trail (on the road to Mauna Loa, outside the park), we heard birds singing and caught glimpses of them flitting through the canopy. The area–also called “Bird Park”–is an old-growth stand of ohi’a and koa trees known as a “kipuka,” an area of older vegetation surrounded by more recent lava flows. Along with the abundant bird life and native plant communities, there were many once-stately ohi’a trees now reduced to skeletal remains.

The gray limbs stood in stark contrast to the surrounding canopy, a sight I could not help but read as a comment on the vulnerability of ecosystems in a rapidly changing world.

If you’re heading to or from Volcano National Park from Captain Cook, it makes sense to work in a trip to South Point and the nearby green sands beach, Papakolea, or to Punalu’u Black Sands Beach Park. The black sand beach in particular is a great place to see hawksbill and green sea turtles. Expect a long drive on a windy road in both directions.

Bird nerd alert: There is a 90-mile birding trail that crosses the island. It’s a birding corridor that links a series of 18 public trails, giving bird enthusiasts of all levels a way to experience the multiple ecological regions that are home to many of the island’s unique species. I am of course curious about the feasibility of turning it into a multi-day excursion by camping along the way.

Hilo

Hilo was the surprise find of the trip, proving once again that the beauty of travel lies in the unexpected.

Previously, we’d pooh-poohed the city because we go to the Big Island to get away from rain, after all. But one afternoon, after a long day of touristing, we needed a change of pace, so we picked a beach park out of the guide book and plugged it in to Google. It turned out to be just what the doctor ordered.

Sitting in a public park, watching kids and families playing in the water, the snow-capped peak of Mauna Kea visible across Hilo’s bay and above its skyline–it felt like heaven. We tried not to contaminate the scene with our touristy selves.

Although we got just a quick taste of Hilo itself, what we saw made us want to come back.

After all, who cares if the average rainfall is THREE times what it is in Bellingham? All that rain produces some gorgeous vegetation, which was of course the siren call that initially drew us in. We’d gone to the Hawai’i Tropical Botanical Gardens and the ‘Akaka Falls, both of which were amazing but so full of people that we left exhausted, despite immersion into a lush green world.

After an early dinner at Pond’s–kitschy and fun in all the best ways–we hauled back over the island to our little cabin in Captain Cook, with a new appreciation for the Big Island’s wet side.

Kohala/Hawi

On our last trip, we’d just scratched the surface of the northern parts of the island, around the Waipi’o Valley. We didn’t make it back there this time, but there are backpacking options up that way that we’d definitely like to explore (more here, along with options for well-known hikes on Kaua’i and Maui).

Any trip to that part of the island, for me, necessitates a visit to Sushi Rock.

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Tourism in general presents sticky ethical dilemmas, and especially so when it’s based on access to fragile ecosystems such as coral reefs or endemic plant communities that are home to endangered species–hence all the signs that warn drivers of the dangers their cars pose to nene.

Hawai’i is a special place, abundant in natural beauty and the gracious spirit of aloha. The very fragility of the place–its isolated nature, its close connection to the natural world–suggests the necessity of thinking about development in ways that benefit people and planet.

Of course, the same could be said about pretty much any part of our world, which is kind of the point.

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