Hawaii - 2010

From Snorkeling to Snowmageddon
Journey to the Big Island of Hawaii -- and Back

Shovel Shovel, Toil and Trouble . . .
to paraphrase Shakespeare's immortal lines from Macbeth.

Who could have predicted that what began as a carefree sun-filled snorkeling vacation in Hawaii would end in the back-breaking nightmare of digging myself out from the worst blizzard to hit the East coast in over a century.

But that’s getting ahead of my story!

In early January, I had no intention of traveling anywhere in the foreseeable future. However, my Oregon son Steve came up with an offer I couldn’t refuse---even though at first I tried. He and Christina had just picked up cheap tickets from Portland to Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii. For the past several winters they had camped in this nature lover’s paradise and wanted me to join them.
I don’t camp, I said, turning them down. But I did agree to check out ticket prices to the Big Island, assured that the result would be too costly. It was: $1034, round trip from Dulles to Hilo.
But my son was persistent. Still certain I would fail, I agreed to check out FREE frequent flyer possibilities.  Everyone knows you have to start months in advance to snag a free frequent flyer ticket from the airlines! You can guess the outcome. With just one short week before flight time, I actually got a free ticket---and even more astounding, a reserved seat on their flights to Honolulu and Hilo. Obviously, it was destiny, so I said yes.


I’ve been to Hawaii just once, many years ago, and only to Oahu. If I had realized what possibilities exist for good times at this vacation paradise, I would have jumped at the chance sooner!
The world’s most active volcano, stark lava rock cliffs overlooking an emerald sea, huge macadamia nut plantations, lush tropical rain forests, four hundred-foot waterfalls plummeting down into swirling pools below. That’s just a quick check list of some spectacular places I visited during our first few ambitious days of sightseeing. I’ll try not to inundate you with a moment by moment account of what Steve liked to call his planned mystery “adventure” for each day. But I can’t resist sharing a few highlights of almost two weeks that included several days of poking around the wet eastern side of the island followed by a beautiful drive around to Kailua-Kona on the dry west side.

High on a hill just south of Kona I had rented a secluded house surrounded by a lush flower garden bordered by avocado, banana, coconut, and lemon trees. Gentle breezes wafted through the sliding glass doors on three sides of the airy house, and I wanted mostly to hang out on the lanai. There I could swing quietly in the huge hammock, absorbing the indescribable beauty of sunsets that filled the sky with scarlet and turned the ocean to silver at dusk. Which is exactly what I did to recuperate from energetic days of snorkeling and exploring all that Steve and Christina wanted to share with me.
Before Kona, our stay at a convenient hotel in Hilo was more luxurious than we had imagined it would be. Our room on the fifth floor overlooked Hilo’s scenic bay. We enjoyed people watching from a broad balcony that looked down onto a jewel of a public island park where we picnicked and a beautiful Japanese garden where Steve and Christina walked each morning at dawn. As we lounged there the first evening, we were treated to the sight of a luxury liner passing by so close we could almost shout aloha to the waving passengers.

Which didn’t mean we wanted to encounter them in town. Getting an early start the next morning, we headed for Volcano National Park, our destination, the Kilauea Caldera and Crater Rim Scenic Drive. Hiking to several crater lookouts, we observed steam vents spewing out toxic sulfur fumes into the atmosphere, and I learned a new climate-related word, “vog.” This volcanic fog sometimes permeates the atmosphere over parts of the island, leaving an overcast veil of fog that partially blocks out the sun’s rays.  This gloomy pall has been creeping over more regions during the past two years and is of great concern to the islanders.

One must-see stop at the park is the Visitor’s Center. There we immersed ourselves in the geology and ancient history of the islands.  Comfortably viewing a great documentary, we viewed dramatic shots of Kilauea eruptions with molten lava creeping over towns, burying everything in its path.
I could understand why Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire, is such a central character in the folklore of this volcanic island.

As the temperature began to climb, we headed away from the caldera toward the Chain of Craters Road.  This narrow, two-lane road lined with bleak lava rock fields winds its way down from 3700 feet to an abrupt dead end at the ocean twenty miles away. Molten lava flows oozing over the land have closed the road at times, and you see much evidence of how these sudden disastrous lava flows have been instrumental in stripping bare wide swaths of land around the island over the years. Climbing over the lava rocks overlooking the sea, we could see striking vistas of black lava cliffs and a huge arch of rock descending hundreds of feet into the rough seas below. Signs warned people to stay clear of the dangerous cracks and crevices, so I didn’t push my luck. Searching for a filament of volcanic glass, called Pele’s hair, in a crevice sounded like a challenge---but not worth falling off a cliff for.

As the temperature began to climb, we headed away from the caldera toward the Chain of Craters Road.  This narrow, two-lane road lined with bleak lava rock fields winds its way down from 3700 feet to an abrupt dead end at the ocean twenty miles away. Molten lava flows oozing over the land have closed the road at times, and you see much evidence of how these sudden disastrous lava flows have been instrumental in stripping bare wide swaths of land around the island over the years. Climbing over the lava rocks overlooking the sea, we could see striking vistas of black lava cliffs and a huge arch of rock descending hundreds of feet into the rough seas below. Signs warned people to stay clear of the dangerous cracks and crevices, so I didn’t push my luck. Searching for a filament of volcanic glass, called Pele’s hair, in a crevice sounded like a challenge---but not worth falling off a cliff for.

On the other hand, a hike through the tropical rain forest in Volcanoes National Park turned out to be my favorite excursion that day. Native koa and ohi’a trees, bird of paradise, anthurium, hibiscus and wild orchid plants, dense foliage, and climbing vines can be exotic sights--but I have to admit one weakness when I’m outdoors:  I love taking digital photos of ferns---and that day I found myself in fern heaven!

Hiking along a trail bordered by an abundance of the brilliant green plants, I could hardly tear myself away from taking yet another shot of the primordial display of beautiful ferns. Steve and Christina actually began to worry and started hunting for me when I deliberately “got lost.”  I had wandered off while shooting closeup after closeup of my favorite plant in the solitude of the rain forest and had lost track of time.


Giant green sea turtles near the Kapoho Tide Pools were the first creatures of the sea we came across when we arrived at the tide pools to snorkel. But I could concentrate only on the major obstacle that faced me—how to step over the slippery black lava rocks into the water without breaking a leg. For that reason, my snorkeling career on the Big Island started out less than stellar. I recalled what one Hawaiian guidebook had said: “Snorkeling is simple and can be enjoyable to anyone who can swim.” That may be true, but it didn’t make it any easier for me to negotiate those sometimes slick as ice rocks.

I welcomed a quick tutorial from Steve. He gave me careful instructions that would, hopefully, keep me from taking an embarrassing fall. It was a simple matter of balancing on the rocks (which wasn’t as easy at it sounded), and entering the water by first curling up and then moving slowly into a floating position to avoid scraping my legs on the jagged rocks covering the ocean floor below. His tutorial saved the day! (Full disclosure, I twisted my ankle just once that day. My foot slipped between two rocks as I climbed out of the water.)

We snorkeled several times at the popular Two-Step beach in Kona. I was still worried I’d loose my balance and take a ridiculous fall on the slick rock ledges leading down into the sea. But with a little practice, I began to relax--- and snorkeling was fun!  My snorkel mask didn’t leak, I didn’t inhale any water, and I could float effortlessly on the surface, watching for any brilliant fish that might be lurking on the rocky bottom. But I do have to admit that, wary of ocean currents, I didn’t venture far out to the reefs and lagoons that my kids favored. I was content to hover face down in the turquoise waters closer to shore and found that snorkeling experience just right for me.


Lazing on a golden sand beach of the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel north of Kona one afternoon, we were startled by excited shouts from the beach goers around us. They were pointing to an amazing sight on the horizon—a huge whale sighting! For the next twenty minutes we were “entertained” by a dazzling parade of huge spinner whales presenting their version of an aquatic extravaganza worthy of Sea World. The atmosphere on the beach was as charged as a crowd at a super-bowl football game. With each successive sighting, the spectators shouted in unison, counting out the next number as another whale came in view.

Before the spectacular show ended, we had counted to TEN. Ten enormous 40-ton spinner whales had catapulted entirely up and out of the water one at a time, seemingly trying to outdo each other. Each one soared high into the air head first, the massive tail clearing the water entirely.  Then with an enormous fountain of spray, each reentered the ocean, and we scanned the horizon again. When the show ended,  Steve, Christina and I agreed we will never again witness such an amazing sight as those ten behemoths of the sea putting on an aquatic performance with strength and agility rivaling Olympic athletes competing for the gold. That gave us added desire for more whale sightings, so I chartered a whale watching boat. Captain Tom, a jovial and expert whale sighter, took just the three of us out for half a day in the perfect search for humpback whales. Our job was to keep scanning the horizon looking for telltale signs of a spout. Our luck held out due primarily to his expertise. He spotted a sighting long before I did, but Steve came in a close second. We sighted nine whales that day.


Each day wasn’t simply a feast for the mind and eye. Sampling the pleasures of the palate took the top banana slot on our Hawaiian agenda plate. From the farmers’ markets that Steve knew first hand came all manner of fresh vegetables, succulent fruit, good cheese and freshly baked bread for picnic lunches on beaches. Courtesy of Christina, a great cook, we had amazing Vietnamese, Mexican, and Indian dinners on several occasions.

In Bubba Gumps, an outdoor cafĂ© overlooking the ocean in Kona, I had my first “Lava Blast.”   We didn’t ignore trying mai tais either, but that day we limited ourselves to a two-hour lunch because we had seen an interesting art gallery next door.  I have to admit I was drawn like a magnet to a beautiful granite work of art, named “Yin and Yang.” In fact, I decided to buy it.  I had almost completed my negotiations with the gallery owner when Steve dragged me away kicking and screaming--to “consider” this purchase overnight. Suffice it to say, I never got back. Free samples provided another interesting diversion. After munching more than a few free samples at the huge macadamia nut plantation, the Mauna Loa Nut Farm, we bought twelve cans of “macs”, as Steve called them. They turned out to be a convenient mainstay for snacks. Even better, the search for a specialty brewery, the Mehana Brewery, led to some great samples and an ample supply of beer for the remainder of the vacation.

Heading inland to the funky village of Volcano, we stopped for more free samples and to say hello to Mr. Ed, whom Steve had met on previous trips. Mr. and Mrs. Ed create the most unusual honey products I’ve ever sampled, and they sell their wares all over the world.  I tried only a few free tastes, but these were so unusual I’m thinking of contacting Mrs. Ed before next Christmas gift time comes around.


The reputation of the Big Island as a tropical paradise can hardly be overstated. Everywhere, except in the bleak lava fields which have their own sparse beauty, spectacular displays of myriad flowers, shrubs and bushes, trees of every possible shape, color, and variety assault the senses. For me some of the most enchanting visual moments took place as we strolled through Akatsuka Gardens. This hothouse that produces more orchids than anywhere else in the world presented incredible displays of the delicate flowers. Photos alone don’t do justice to the intensity of color, shape, and scent on display at this rare orchid farm.  We left reluctantly, not having purchased a single plant. Nevertheless, the manager surprised me when she came from behind the counter and presented me with a free bouquet of perfect white orchids. Pinning one personally in my hair, she assured me it was on the “correct side.” I don’t know which is the correct side but I wore the white flower, delighted at her generosity.

Then there was the special Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park and Marine Life Conservation District (Try saying that tongue twister in one breath.) Fronting on Honaunau Bay, this is the very spot near Kailua-Kona where the original landing of Polynesians took place.  It’s also the birthplace of King Kamehameha I.

Of huge historical significance, this site is called the “place of refuge” referring to its historical value to native Hawaiians. We walked the 19 point path over finely ground lava pebbles one hot afternoon, reading the markers that detail facts about the ancient beliefs and kapu (taboo) system of the native islanders. In ancient Hawaii the taboo system regulated every waking hour of the people. The penalty for breaking kapu was death, and the gods rained down volcanic eruptions, tidal waves, famine and earthquakes if the system was violated. The only way to beat the system was for a violator to make it safely into this sanctuary. The history, culture, and life of the ancient island dwellers come alive here through displays of statues, temples, bones, sea going vessels, walls, idols, and games situated along the path overlooking the rocky cove.


Our final afternoon on the island Steve thought I should get a glimpse of “how the other half lives” on THEIR vacations.

We drove along the coast to the Waikoloa Resort. I didn’t realize how “upscale” this excursion would be, but luckily I had insisted on our changing out of sarong, old jeans, wrinkled shorts, and swim suits before we passed the gatehouse guard. Steve dropped us at the hotel lobby entrance, and I was somewhat surprised that the public can enter this glitzy enclave freely. The Waikoloa Resort complex is anchored by the Hilton Waikoloa Village Hotel on one side and the Waikoloa Beach Marriott on the other, with condos and private oceanfront estates in between. I can only describe it as a five-star 62-acre fantasyland resort complex that comes close to being “over the top.”

We wandered around the grounds, hopping on one of the free speedboats that travel along a winding aquamarine waterway.  You can be dropped off at any of a dozen boat docks or board a free sleek monorail if you don’t like speedboat rides. Or you can simply jog around the park-like setting if you are more exercise inclined. Whichever way you choose, you pass camera ready views of perfect rock lined paths, neatly clipped tropical plantings, beautifully lighted marble sculptures, scenic pathways leading to quaint Japanese bridges, and coi ponds and swimming pools surrounded by chez lounges just right for reclining, sunbathing, or dozing in the shade.

It’s the good life…almost too good to be true!

And for almost anyone, it is totally out of reach—or totally undesirable! But for us, it was a convenient choice for leisurely drinks and a final supper. At dusk we took advantage of a surprisingly inexpensive outdoor bar and grill. Plopping ourselves down overlooking an enormous dolphin pond, we dined while we watched the several leaping inhabitants put on their own special mini-whale type show.  What an unexpected grand (?) finale to our far simpler and more active Hawaiian vacation.

But wait.

You should always expect the unexpected when/after you travel. I have learned that through bitter experience.

What did I encounter my first night home?  Six inches of snow piled up in my driveway!
I shoveled, fully expecting the fluffy white stuff to represent a beautiful last blast of Arctic cold of the winter. Of course, I was wrong! This was a precursor of much worse to come. What happened over the next ten days was all too accurately described by media worldwide as SNOWMAGEDDON.

The worst blizzard in the past 126 years immobilized the entire eastern seaboard. The ton of snow blocking my driveway completely marooned me in my house, and I knew I couldn’t escape unless I shoveled it out myself.  So I did--with great pain and sore muscles! But who’s complaining! I had just returned from a perfect journey to a tropical paradise.  My only regret?  I should have remained two weeks longer!

Then there were free coffee samples---more than a few, but especially at the Kona Coffee Plantation where we took the tour. Kona Coffee is everywhere on the island.  Thirty percent of the world’s Kona Coffee is produced at that specific site. One family has owned that plantation since the 1840s, and a family member walked us through the process showing us how their workers move from hand picking the ripe red “cherries” through to the final milling. Never a coffee aficionado, I was almost convinced to become a regular drinker after sipping from among the 12 aromatic choices.

coffee plant
Mom with Orchid
pink orchid
Wood God