(March 31 - April 8, 2008)
PART 1 - High Rises on the Beach & Waikiki Honolulu (Oahu, HI)
I can hardly imagine a more perfect paradise than the volcanically driven Hawaiian Islands. I loved this place before I set eyes on it and every time I walk into the tropical heat I love it a little more. This vacation is my ultimate volcanic experience to date. But before I get to the flowing lava and gas spewing craters there is food, sun, and sleep & the most important elements of any vacation.
My Hawaiian adventure has the added bonus of traveling with my best friend Lisa. I arrived at the Honolulu airport the morning of March 31st exhausted and dazed. As I wandered away from the gate to find Lisa, I felt like I was walking through a foggy dream. Once we arrived at our Waikiki hotel, our first order of business was food. We plunked down in the first beachside restaurant we stumbled upon and ordered Mai Tais and Ahi Tuna appetizers. I was instantly in heaven as I sipped my umbrella drink and watched chiseled surfers stroll down the white sand beach. Lisa and I caught up under belt-driven woven fans before stumbling back to the hotel for a mid-afternoon nap. By the time we awoke the sun was setting so we headed to dinner at one of my favorite restaurants, the Cheesecake Factory. Since Lisa had never experienced the 30 page menu and heavenly tamale cakes, overflowing pasta plates, fish tacos from heaven, and cheesecake galore there seemed to be no other choice. We ordered drinks at the bar and waited amidst hoards of other tourists. Once we got a table we covered it with food and wine and ate until standing seemed impossible. I tried to warn Lisa that a couple dishes would do us in, but we ordered four dishes and paid the price in overextended bellies.
Hours later we waddled out of the restaurant trying to walk off the excess. We headed for a roof top bar for digestives and an incredible view of the Waikiki skyline and beach. The ride up to the roof was a glass elevator on the exterior of the building. We rode it to the top, and then the bottom, and back to the top again. We could not help ourselves, and neither could other thrill seeking tourists. The night ended with a karaoke moment on the beach. The crowd was light to begin with but I am pretty sure the bar emptied out during our debut, and final, performance. We did manage to ensnare one fan – a Hawaiian guy built like a suma wrestler. Our second day continued the constant cycle of food, drinks, and sleep with a few highlights. We tried abalone sushi for the first time at an incredible Japanese restaurant and spent an evening in a bar that boasted 130 beers on tap. It was a perfect end to a perfect Waikiki experience, but our adventure truly began the next day as we explored the more sparsely populated parts of the island.
PART 2 - Hawaii with the Top Down (Oahu, Hawaii)
Hawaii time is akin to Italian time – you learn to expect everything to take several times longer than it should and know that it, whatever it may be, will eventually happen. Our ride to the airport from the hotel was only twenty minutes, after waiting for over an hour and a half for the concierge to find us an alternative to the absent airport shuttle. Two women in a limo graciously shared their luxury with us. We were soon dropped off in front of Enterprise rent-a-car and in no time flat were driving to the ocean in our convertible on our way up the coast in search of beautiful beaches. As we headed North the jungle grew thicker, the towns smaller, and signs of tourism all but disappeared. We ate the best spicy shrimp in the world from a roadside van and sampled the beaches on our way to Kailua, where we had luckily secured a bed and breakfast for the night. Our temporary home was quaint and close to the beach. We stumbled upon a great bar to watch the sunset from and on our way home we stopped at a market for pasta fixings. We were surprised to discover no stove in our kitchen – how we were there for more than 2 hours and didn’t notice this obvious fact is beyond us, but we managed an edible meal with a warming pad and microwave. Just as we began to relax with full bellies, the cockroaches began to emerge. At first there were only a few but their numbers multiplied so we zipped our bags in defense, pulled the bed away from the wall, and tossed and turned through a night of bug infested dreams.
We woke shockingly early and high tailed it out of the roach B&B. This early rising turned out to be fortuitous. As we sat in the car with coffee and tea, attempting to reach a state of alertness, Lisa noticed the headline of the daily newspaper: “ATA cancels all flights”. We were supposed to fly on ATA to San Francisco, so our reaction was linguistically colorful, but we kept our cool and found an internet café as soon as our scheduled massages were over. The flight search wasn’t easy but we managed to get reasonably priced tickets on American Airlines before all the seats were reserved. Refunds are a future worry, but I did have to buy a San Francisco – Honolulu round trip ticket at one-third of the price of a one-way ticket back to San Francisco. Oh well, I guess I’ll have to return to Hawaii in the near future.
Once the crisis was over we continued our excursion up the coast toward North Beach – home to some of the best surfing beaches in the world and the destination of many surfers. We hadn’t been able to find a place to stay yet but it was worth the chance. We spent the day venturing into a state park with botanical gardens, peacocks and waterfalls, and spent time sitting on the windy beautiful beaches. We found a great restaurant for dinner and still were without accommodations for the night. After a satisfying meal we drank Kona Pipeline Coffee Porter out of coffee cups at sunset on the pipeline beach. We then had to accept that we were going to have to sleep in the car – at least we didn’t need to worry about freezing! We drove up a windy road into an affluent area where we cruised the neighborhood looking for a suitable place to park for the night – preferably not too close to houses so the neighborhood watch didn’t call the cops on us. After an hour we found a great place with ocean views and proceeded to get comfy. We slept amazing well and woke at 6:30am, in time to leave before we were discovered. We drove straight to the beach to get freshened up before continuing our northward drive. This was our last day in Oahu so we took our time as we made our way back to Honolulu on the inland highway. We stopped by the Dole pineapple plantation to partake in fresh fruit. Soon after, we said goodbye to our convertible and checked into the airport to begin part two of our Hawaii adventure on the volcanically active Big Island.
PART 3 - Ocean Occasions Amid the Savannah (Kona, HI)
As Lisa and I waited in the Honolulu airport for our flight to Hilo, we discovered that the world’s largest Hula festival was happening in Hilo – which explained why people laughed when we asked if they had a room available for the night or weekend. We decided to re-route our plans and head to the Kona side of the island first. When we arrived in Hilo we rented a Chevy trailblazer and drove around the North side of the island. The Eastern Hilo side is lush green and tropically humid with periodic torrents of rain. As we approached the Northern shore the scenery changed to rolling grassy hills like those of Ireland. The massive shield volcanoes that make-up the island loomed above the clouds as we quickly climbed their slopes to more than two thousand feet. Our timing could not have been more perfect as we approached the Western shore to see the sun set over the ocean and the land change into Savannah.
We arrived in Kona amid the scrub-brush covered lava fields and this time found a beautiful room overlooking the ocean and local bar scene. After dinner we found a great ocean-side bar with sand-covered floors a view of the stars. A live band entertained a full bar and we relaxed into the local scene for awhile before jumping into luxurious beds, well luxurious compared to the convertible. We were so comfortable that we called and reserved the room for the next night so that we didn’t have to get up and re-pack in the morning. After a very long sleep we headed to the local market and weaved through booths of exotic fruit, local arts, and island clothes. We stocked up on snacks and headed to the Northern beaches. The beaches were sparse but gorgeous with fine white sand and slow waves. We spent sunset on a secluded beach amid groves of lanky trees with exposed roots. Back in town we went to the Kona Brewery for beers and pizza before returning to the Kona beach nightlife.
The next morning was an early wake-up. We were on the road by 7am and headed toward a snorkeling adventure. Our tour was four hours in a large rubber raft speeding down the Kona coast to Captain Cook’s Bay and the Place of Refuge. We zoomed past coffee plantations and sharp craggy coastlines. Our first snorkeling stop was the Place of Refuge, an ancient and sacred native Hawaiian village. Before the white men arrived on the island the Place of Refuge was the hopeful sanctuary of criminals. People who broke the rules were dropped off far down the coast and had to attempt to survive the journey back to the Place of Refuge over a’a lava as sharp as glass shards, swim across bays with rough waves, and make it back to land without being shredded on razor sharp coral reefs. Many never made it. Today the Place of Refuge is a beautiful tourist and cultural attraction. Our boat dropped us off and let us snorkel among brightly colored fish and graceful sea turtles.
We swam until near exhaustion before re-boarding the boat for snacks and the trip to Captain Cooks’ bay, the sight of Captain Cook’s death. After traveling the world more extensively than any before him, Captain Cook met his end at the hands of the Hawaiians after kidnapping their King as ransom for a borrowed boat. The Hawaiians had no concept of ownership, so they considered the kidnapping an unprovoked offense and killed the Captain. The bay is one of the most beautiful places I have ever snorkeled. The water was clear and the drop off from the shallow warm water with coral and fish to the dark cold depths was dizzying. Bright blue and yellow fish swam among slithering eels. Remnants of old buildings lay on the floor of the bay covered with coral and algae. After wearing ourselves out we climbed back on board and our Captain leisurely took us back toward port. He drove our rubber raft into sharp lava caves, past blowholes that sprayed us with saltwater as the waves crashed against the shore, and introduced us to the God of Death – the face in the basalt rock that looks inherently evil.
After getting our land legs, Lisa and I got back in the car and headed for food. We found a great little Italian place in a shopping center where we also gathered snacks and volcano gear. My excitement grew as we headed toward the erupting volcano, Kilauea. We drove through lush jungle and stopped at a coffee plantation to taste and buy – an unnecessary dose of energy. As we reached the southern part of the island the vegetation changed to macadamia nut trees and young lava flows. It started to rain sporadically and the lava flows became obscured by low clouds and thick vog. We detoured from the highway to the southern most point of the island. The far southern coast, the southern most point of the United States, dropped vertically into the turbulent ocean. The long gentle hills to the coast offered spectacular views of the expansive ocean and miles of steep drop-offs. We soon returned to the main highway and were on our way to the volcano. As soon as I caught sight of the volcanic plume of steam and gas swelling out of the crater my excitement reached a crescendo. I maintained control while we staked out at a campground and then Lisa took over driving so that I could glue myself to the window and watch the volcanic plume bend to the will of the wind.
PART 4 - The Goddess Pele Vents (Kilauea, HI)
I have wanted to be a volcanologist since I was 10 years old. From the first moment I saw the volcanoes of Lassen Volcanic National Park, I had to know more about volcanic eruptions. For years I obsessively viewed pictures and videos of volcanic eruptions and awaited the day I could witness the destruction myself. After receiving my Master’s degree in Volcanology, I still hadn’t fulfilled my goal, and now, as Lisa and I drove toward the summit of Kilauea adjacent to a vast plume of volcanic gases, my excitement about finally achieving my goal 17 years later was unbearable. Kilauea had developed a summit vent above an active magma chamber only weeks before. We drove as close to the plume as we could get the crater overlook station. The sound of the degassing vent was louder than I expected and we could see dark rocks being thrown out of the hole in the Earth. I was mesmerized and shaking with exhilaration, but our growling bellies made us leave the spectacle for dinner.
The only place to eat at the top of the volcano is the Volcano Lodge restaurant, not inexpensive but very good. From the balcony of the restaurant we could see the glowing crater brighten as the sun set. We were so hungry by the time we ordered food that we could barely function. Having snorkeled that morning and then driving hours from Kona we were exhausted and hungry. The meal was exceptional. We ate ridiculous amounts of pasta and enjoyed a bottle of wine before braving the elements. The blowing wind had cooled the night, but that didn’t stop us from layering up and returning to the crater overlook. Crowds of people stood over the rim watching the glowing hole in the ground roar and spit out molten lava. While enjoying the spectacle I met a park ranger, a woman who happened to be hiking out on to the new lava fields the next day. She instructed us how to get the proper permits and where to meet her the next afternoon. Some may call that a stroke of luck, but I think it is patience rewarded and maybe a little help from the volcano goddess Pele. I was actually going to see flowing lava, another part of my dream and a fascination I had yet to experience.
After freezing in the summit winds for a considerable time, Lisa and I piled into the SUV and drove to the campground we had checked out earlier. We parked the car and crawled around as we unrolled fleece sleeping bags and air cushions we had purchased in Hilo. It was much colder than we expected. We both woke up throughout the night as it got colder and just as it seemed to reach a point of too cold to bear the sun started to rise and the temperature began to increase. We crawled around again as we packed up and avoided opening the car and inviting in the cool morning air. The first time we opened the doors to climb out we discovered it was a much warmer outside the vehicle. We were on the road early again as I started calling the government offices who could give us the permits to accompany the rangers out on the lava walks. We drove east to Hilo and were at the government offices by two in the afternoon. I had called several times that morning so no one was surprised to see me. All I had to do was say I was a volcanologist and with no proof they gave both me and Lisa permits with volcanologist titles. You can imagine I was beyond excited now. We went to Target in Hilo and picked up hiking boots and clothes knowing the rocks were rough and the acidic volcanic plume could melt cloth and burn skin.
From Hilo, we drove to the Puna side of the island, toward the town of Pahoa, where family friends had kindly offered to let us camp on their land while we were in the area. We settled into our surroundings, ate lunch and explored the land with banana, papaya, avocado, and mango trees. The thick jungle had grown atop old lava flows and the uneven ground made it almost impossible to explore beyond the clearing. The humid air combined with mosquitoes drove us back into the car and we headed toward the flowing lava, less than 20 miles away.
PART 5 - Walking on New Earth (Puna, Hawaii)
Lisa and I learned that the lava flowing into the ocean is most easily approached from the East side of the Big Island. We left our temporary home and drove West on Pahoa Kalapana Road until we came upon lava flows covering the roadway. A rough path was paved over the flow, allowing cars to pass one at a time over the uneven ground with views of black lava rock for miles in every direction. We drove over endless lava fields before reaching the lava viewing parking lot, a wide spot in the road with parking on either shoulder and stands set up by locals offering supplies to the unprepared crowds of tourists. The original parking lot was further down the way and now under over a dozen feet of lava. Lisa and I donned our volcano worthy baggy pants and brown boots, unfashionable but practical, and began to walk over the recently molten sharp rocks. Many other tourists followed the same paths, most in inadequate flip flops and without water, feeling the temperature rise as heat flowed from the black rocks.
We reached the viewing area and saw white towers of steam rising above the ocean’s edge. Every once in awhile, gray explosions of rock filled the air. I was dying to get a closer look. We located the ranger we had met the night before and she, another park employee, Lisa, and I donned work gloves and tightened our shoelaces. The invitation had been extended to the men who helped monitor the crowd, but they were too scared to walk on the new lava fields. As a result, the four of us, all women, crossed the lines amid the jealous murmurs of the spectators.
The lava crunched under our feet as the pristine glassy surface shattered beneath our weight. The temperature rose as we neared the steaming rocks weakened by cracks lined with yellow sulfur. The smell of rotten eggs permeated the air as the guide led us around the newest lava flows so we wouldn’t fall through the thin rock ceilings into the flowing lava below. We began to see glowing cracks, and intermittent skylights with views of the moving rock below our feet. Lisa and I increasingly appreciated our unfashionable outfits as the sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide gases escaping from the lava began to rain down in a dense fog. The sulfur dioxide dripped on our bare arms causing a light stinging sensation. None of this fazed me as I walked over the newest land on Earth. The crunch of the rock was exhilarating and though my years of study had prepared me for the sight, my other senses were overwhelmed by the long anticipated experience. We wandered for over an hour, weaving through the maze of hardened rock, and we headed back toward the road as the sun began to set.
As we climbed from the lava on to the edge of the old road, the temperature dropped. We thanked our guide and walked back to the viewing area to watch the glow brighten as the sky darkened behind the steam clouds. The columns of volcanic gases grew red with incandescence, and we soon walked through the night and peeled off our sulfur saturated clothes at the car. I was ecstatic and appreciative that Lisa had given me this chance. I know this is not everyone’s dream and most would avoid the experience, but Lisa’s enthusiasm exceeded my expectations when she asked what time we were coming back tomorrow. I was sure she was ready for new experiences but she insisted we return. We drove back to Pahoa to seek out dinner, never expecting to arrive at 8pm and have all the restaurants locking their doors for the night. We bought the last of the day’s pizza slices from a hole-in-the-wall, grateful to have any food, and returned to our jungle home. We slept through mosquito music and torrential rains awaking to a humid sunny day. This was our last full day in Hawaii, and we began it in search of a cool dip and mountains of food.
PART 6 - Fire and Water (Puna, Hawaii)
Days of tropical heat and mosquitoes instigated our need for a relaxing soak. Lisa and I had been given directions to a local swimming park and in the morning we decided to track it down. We drove down narrow roads through thickets of trees until the ocean came into view and we were able to follow the shoreline in search of the park. We took numerous branches off the main road during our search and finally found the park, which was a local hangout with a concrete basin perched on the edge of the ocean and filled with warm spring water. The pool was rustic with moss covered walls and a bottom covered in sand and large stones. It felt wonderful until the weather turned and the wind began to gust and dark clouds gathered above. The smell of sulfur filled the air as the wind shifted the volcanic plume toward us and the rain arrived. The deluge was refreshing but cool, so we ran to the car and drove back to Pahoa to find food.
We arrived at a renowned local Mexican restaurant and feasted to make-up for the disappointing dinner the night before. We stuffed ourselves with chips, salsa, enchiladas, burritos, chili rellaños, and margaritas. We ate until we could barely breathe and sat there feeling like we were going to burst. It was scrumptious Mexican food and every minute of pain was worth it. With full bellies, we climbed into the car and drove back to the lava fields. Though one can never repeat a first experience, I felt as if my first lava walk was not quite complete because I had not witnessed lava flowing on the surface, only far below my feet. We knew that the ranger who had guided us across the lava fields previously would not be there the following day, but we took our chances and hoped that another ranger would let us follow along one more time.
In the parking lot we once again donned our stylish protective clothing and walked to the viewing area where we brandished our government passes. The ranger on site was the senior ranger, and he was about to take the park photographer out on to the lava flow when we approached him with our passes. He scrutinized us and inspected the passes, and still unbelieving of their validity he began a barrage of questions about volcanoes and eruptions. Apparently I passed with flying colors because he decided to let us go along. We followed the ranger and photographer across the lines amidst people grumbling about how unfair it was. We walked toward the beach where we could see crabs washed up on shore after being boiled by lava flowing into the water. The ranger noted that the beach sand had only been created from the wave-pulverized lava rock within the last month and the lava bombs scattered about were evidence of the frequent explosions that occur when hot lava comes into contact with cold water and projects incandescent rock into the air.
The volcanic gasses were thicker than the day before and the turbulent winds threatened to blow it over the tourists and us. The sulfur was palpable and the stinging sensation on bare skin was increasingly bothersome. We began to walk away from the ocean toward the flowing lava. The air heated up as we drew closer to the surface furnace and soon spots of incandescent rock dominated our view. Lava flowed down crevasses on its path to the ocean, slowly cooling during its journey. As we came around a small hill we came face to face with melted rock. It was inching its way toward us, hypnotizing me. Nothing could replace that moment in my life, three feet away from molten rock, my face burning from the intense heat, sulfur filling my nose, and speechless with awe. Lisa brought me back to present time and I slowly walked away from the black and red rock and followed the group toward the nearby cliff where lavafalls were frozen in a snapshot of creation. The bleak majesty of the landscape was unlike anywhere else on Earth - black rock, red glowing lava, billowing stacks of poisonous gasses rising into the air and the blue ocean beyond. It was a scene of creation devoid of color, and yet I knew that this is the way all of the land on Earth began. I felt my dream fulfilled as we walked back to the viewing area where we thanked the ranger and then returned to our car and decided which activities would fill our last day on the island.
PART 7 - Pele Reclaims Land and Sky (Puna, Hawaii)
Lisa and I drove away from the plains of molten rock saturated with volcanic fumes and overwhelmed by the radiant heat of the lava. With the newest land on Earth behind us we drove over hills of black basaltic rock surrounding the charred remains of homes. For months the lava flows have been slowly migrating east into the jungle, towards the more populated areas of the island. Islanders live with the knowledge that Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes, may someday reclaim the land and the homes built on it, and the goddess had buried dozens of homes this year. The road east was bounded by thickening jungle as we returned to Pahoa for dinner.
We had barely reached the highway when the downpour began. Torrents of rain darkened the sky and flooded the roads. We escaped the tropical deluge in a renowned Thai restaurant that was colorful and open to the elements but dry and full of savory scents. The food was amazing and we stuffed ourselves knowing we wouldn’t have another full meal until late the next night. We left the restaurant amidst the continuing downpour and returned to our camp where we repacked our bags to prepare for an early morning departure.
The storm raged most of the night and when we awoke in the morning the winds had changed direction, blowing the clouds of poisonous volcanic gases toward Pahoa and Hilo. The pollution hung low over the land and the news reported that Volcano National Park had been closed to the public, as had the lava flow viewing area. People were evacuating to Hilo and hoping the winds would shift again soon. Lisa and I drove into Hilo, checked into the airport, and boarded our plane back to Honolulu. The journey home was a lot more complicated than we had anticipated, since the replacement tickets we bought after ATA cancelled our flight flew us from Honolulu to San Francisco Airport, rather than Oakland Airport where my car was parked. Once we reached San Francisco, shockingly on time, we wove our way through the airport maze and found the BART train to Oakland. The train traveled for an hour through San Francisco and into Oakland, at which point we boarded a shuttle bus to the Oakland Airport, then another shuttle bus to the airport parking lot. We finally reached my car at 8pm, exhausted, hungry and cold, only to find my car battery completely dead.
We asked the airport parking crew for a jump and luckily they had a portable battery charger for just these occasions. We were soon on our way but without tunes. My car automatically locked the radio when the battery went dead, and without the code we had no access. An hour later we arrived at my home and ate a long awaited meal, enjoyed luxurious showers, and slept in beds for the first time in days.Lisa and I continued to act like tourists in San Francisco. We spent a couple days at the Hotel San Francisco, saw Morcheeba in concert, and toured the San Francisco bars. Sadly, I had to bring Lisa back to the airport much too soon and our vacation was over, but there is always the anticipation of our next adventure, wherever it may take us.