Honeymoon in Hawai'i - Day 6: Hilo (The Big Island)

Monday, February 6, 2012

I forgot to mention in my last post that we finally got the banana bread we ordered from Julia's Banana Bread! We ordered five loaves (three for us and two to give to T.J.'s boss and co-worker) and a container of coconut candy nuggets, mainly because she requires a $25 minimum purchase to ship and the loaves are $5 each. The loaves are very small, so we ate one the day we got them and then froze our other two.

I have to say, the bread was very good, but the best banana bread I've ever had? Not sure about that. This could be because we weren't eating it fresh out of the oven, but it still tasted fresh, and we heated it in the microwave for ten or fifteen seconds. We tried it with cream cheese and butter as well, and I thought it was best with a little butter. The cream cheese overpowered the bread too much. We were also a little disappointed that we couldn't taste any nuts in the bread. The banana flavor was very strong (which I didn't mind because I love bananas), but I guess we were expecting a little more...diversity in the flavor. Still, it was very good bread, just not sure that I would call it the best I've ever had. We had Bananas Supreme at Bahama Breeze last night, and I think I liked that banana bread better than Julia's, as sad as that sounds. (Caramel sauce and candied almonds were involved, so I'm sure that helped.)

Okay, now that I've depressed you all with that update, on to Hilo! (Which, by the way, is pronounced "hee-lo," not "hi-lo," like I wanted to pronounce it the whole time.)

On day 6 of our Grand Hawaiian Adventure, we woke to gray skies and rain. Disappointing, but since we were there during Hawaii's rainy season, I was expecting it to rain at some point. We'd been very fortunate up until then, and as long as our helicopter tour of Kauai didn't get rained out, I didn't mind a little rain in Hilo. I checked the forecast for the day and saw that the rain was supposed to move out by early afternoon, so we quickly adjusted our plans for the day. Initially, we'd planned to drive to Akaka Falls, maybe hit Rainbow Falls, then drive down to Volcanoes National Park, and, if we had time, stop by Richardson's black sand beach on the way back to Thrifty. I wasn't too eager to hike to Akaka in the rain, though, so we decided to head for the volcano first and save Akaka for last.

We were a little late getting off the ship again (about twenty minutes), so we had to wait for a shuttle. Once the shuttle finally came and we were seated on board, I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach and realized that we had forgotten to bring the most important thing--our GPS! T.J. was ready to jump back off the shuttle and go get it, but I knew that would put us behind at least another half hour, and since it was already after 8:30, I suggested we try to rent one from Thrifty, and if we couldn't do that I thought I could at least get us to the park with the map in Thrifty's drive guide.

Where you pick up your Thrifty car in Hilo and drop it off are two different places, so when the shuttle driver points out the drop off lot, pay attention! We noticed it and promptly forgot about it, which caused some added stress later in the day.

When we got to the Thrifty window at the airport, the first thing we asked was if we could switch to a different car. Of all days, I had reserved a soft-top Jeep Wrangler for Hilo, and I wasn't looking forward to the prospect of being rained on all day. We were able to downgrade to a Chevy Malibu (though still had to pay the Jeep price, which T.J. was a bit annoyed about). I will say that even though we had to switch cars that day and that put us a bit behind time wise, I'm still glad I didn't play the car lottery like some other folks did. A couple that took the shuttle over with us (and who we ran into three or four times throughout the day) told us that they'd decided to risk it and hadn't signed up for any specific cars with Thrifty, and each time they'd been given a Crown Victoria or the equivalent. This became particularly frustrating when they had to drive such a huge car on the Road to Hana.

We were able to rent a GPS without problem (a Garmin Nuvi for $12.95, I think), but when we got to our car and turned on the GPS, it was all in Japanese! We could not figure out how to change the language for the life of us, so T took the GPS back to the Thrifty window. He was back five minutes later with a new, all-English GPS, and the lady at the counter had comped it for our trouble! (Have I mentioned how much I loved working with Thrifty in Hawai'i?)

It was around 9:00 by this time, and I was eager to get on the road, but we still had one more stop to make--Wal-Mart. I had the shell of my Columbia coat to protect me from the rain, but T.J. didn't have anything, so we wanted to stop and get him a poncho or slicker. We saw the shuttle couple on the way in and they'd just come from buying the same thing, so they directed us to where the ponchos were located. We also decided to see if we could pick up some more lunch items while we were already stopped, but the Hilo Wal-Mart didn't have a deli, and when we asked an employee if they sold any pre-made sandwiches or anything like that, she said they didn't.

***Side note for future cruisers: There isn't anywhere to eat within Volcanoes National Park, so if you are planning on spending a considerable part of the day there, you need to pack a lunch. A lot of people on the Cruise Critic boards said they made sandwiches at the breakfast buffet. We decided the night before to just order sandwiches through room service, and then I put them in plastic baggies in the fridge over night. We waited until morning to put the mayonnaise and mustard on so they wouldn't be too soggy. If you don't mind a rather bland turkey sandwich for lunch, this might be a smart way to go. I'm not much of a sandwich person, though, so even though we did this and T.J. ate half of his, I never got quite hungry enough to force myself to eat it. We'd bought lots of Maui Chips, crackers, and trail mix at the Honolulu Wal-Mart, so I just snacked on them until we got back to civilization (a.k.a. McDonald's) around 3:00.***

Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park is a straight shot from Hilo, so we headed south for the quick 30-45 minute drive. Along the way, we discovered something amazing about our rented GPS--it was also a tour guide! As we drove, Nuvi directed us to other sites along the way and explained the history behind places like the Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Mill. We didn't stop there because we'd already bought enough macadamias in Oahu, but we did stop at the Akatsuka Orchid Gardens.

Orchids are my favorite flowers (and green cymbidium orchids in particular), so much so that I kind of themed my wedding around them.

Beautiful green cymbidium orchids that were not at Akatsuka. :-(
I love them so much that when I got married I wore them in my hair and used them in my bouquet...

(Photograph courtesy of our amazing photographer, Jason Angelini.)
...and even used them on our wedding invitations...

Obviously, this is just the example one, not the one with our information on it, but how appropriate is it that the sample has the couple getting married in Hawaii?!
Unfortunately, there were no green cymbidium orchids at Akatsuka, but fortunately, I'm not a complete orchid snob, and I love all kinds of orchids! T.J. and I spent a happy half hour running around photographing them, and afterwards I bought a few postcards and a pair of orange and blue glass earrings in the gift shop. (War Eagle!) I really bought the earrings to go with the strapless orange dress I planned to wear to dinner at Lazy J, but it helped that they were in my team colors. :-)

Here are a few of my favorite orchids we saw that morning:

On the way out, T.J. decided that since we love orchids so much, maybe we should buy a couple for the house, so we picked out two we really love and bought the packages for replanting them. The sales associate recommended we wait until late spring to transplant them (and they won't bloom until then), so for now they are still sitting in their boxes on the sofa table in our dining room.

After Akatsuka, we headed for Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, which was just a few minutes away. It was still drizzling off and on, and the sky was looking just as sad and gray as it had all morning, so I started to reevaluate our plan to hike one of the crater loops. After paying our $10 entrance fee, we turned right (the road forks just past the entrance) and drove up to the visitor's center. We looked around a little bit but didn't find anything particularly gripping to hold us there. I went ahead and bought the trail guide for the Kilauea Iki hike just in case the rain decided to let up, but we decided to drive up to the Jagger Museum and Kilauea overlook in the meantime. We didn't actually go into the museum (it was already getting so late and I knew that if we were going to drive the whole Chain of Craters Road, we needed to budget our time more carefully), but we went out to the overlook so we could get a few pics of the Kilauea caldera and steam rising from Halema'uma'u Crater.

We backtracked from there to the park entrance (stopping to photograph some steam vents along the way)...

...and then took the left-hand branch in the road. The left fork takes you past Thurston Lava Tube, to most of the trail heads, and to the Chain of Craters. We decided to wait until the end of the day to do Thurston Lava Tube, thanks to Cruise Critic recommendations. The lava tube has very limited parking which tends to fill up with big buses early in the day, so we bypassed it and headed for Chain of Craters Road.

It was raining pretty heavily by this point, so we stuck to the car pretty closely. No hiking on the lava fields for us! :-(

One of our first stops was Puhimau Crater.

Bottom of the crater
These obviously aren't the best pictures, but a) it would be impossible to get the entire crater in one picture without a fisheye lens or a much more distant vantage point (such as from the air) than the overlook provides, and 2) it was raining and I was trying to protect the lens from rogue droplets rather than worrying about the artistic quality of the shots. So these pics only offer a rough estimation of what Puhimau is like. Although there are craters all along the road (hence the name Chain of Craters), we only stopped at a few of them because fighting the rain just got to be too much of a burden.

Along the drive, we passed many old lava flows, which I mostly photographed from the safety and warmth of the car.

Nov. 1979 flow

Eventually, we reached the Kealakomo Overlook...

...and T.J. said, "Hey, isn't that the ocean?" And I scoffed, "Of course not." But, um, no, that's the shoreline, just like he thought. (Did you hear that, T? You were right! Now let's hope I don't have to say that again for a very long time.) ;-) That's how gray and rainy it was--the shoreline was so gray and cloudy it blended right in with the sky, at least to my less-than-discerning eye.

The drive weaves down to the coast from there, and the closer we got to the water, the more the sky brightened and the rain dissipated. This was probably my favorite part of the drive because it's so open; you can see so far in every direction and really admire the destruction of the lava flows. The landscape is scarred by hardened rivers of black lava, such as you can see in the picture above.

When we finally reached the "end of the road," we joined the long line of cars parked alongside the dead end (we were at the end of at least a forty car line) and walked the rest of the way down to the rest area. From there you could continue on foot to one of two places--Holei Sea Arch or the true "end of the road," where the 2003 lava flows swallowed the rest of Chain of Craters Road. The rain was starting back up again, so we decided to walk down to the sea arch first, just in case it really started to pour and we couldn't make it down there later.

The sea arch is just a short walk from the rest area over some rocks. 

Sea cliffs facing away from the arch

There's a reason pretty much every picture of the sea arch on the internet looks the same (other than the fact this one suffers from rain and gray skies). There is really no other angle to view the sea arch from. This is absolutely as close to it as you can get (at least legally from the trail), and even this small overlook requires you to lean out over a wall to really see the arch.

After snapping a few pics, we headed for the end of the road. The rain finally decided to stop, which we were thankful for because the walk from the rest area to the lava flow is much longer than it looks! Unfortunately, the sun also decided to come out, albeit briefly, which just made the wet pavement hot and steamy. 

Stand of palm trees growing in a lava field.
In 2003 travel past the rest area was ended when the road was completely covered by one of the rivers of lava, which, when it hardened, created a vast field of black rock hills, nooks, and crevices to explore. There were families out on the lava picnicking, climbing, and hiking, but we didn't venture far because we were getting short on time.

My "I'm about to conquer this lava, biotch" pose. Really, I just wanted to give some perspective on how high the flow  is.

The lava looks sooty black from a distance, but up close it's really pretty,  interlaced with shiny metallic blues and purples. And when it splits open, you can see all the layers of colors inside, almost like rock that's millions of years old.

After a hot, steamy walk back to the car, I decided to take some pics as we drove back up the road, so the next shots are a bit blurry...

...but I think they do a good job of showing the devastation while also showing how beautiful the landscape is. And how impossible it is keep Mother Nature down. No matter what you do to her, she will eventually come back, as all the grass, shrubs, and new trees on these slopes attest to.

I wish we'd had more time to spend exploring the Chain of Craters (and I really wish it hadn't been raining), but we still enjoyed what we got to see of the park. It's a 36-mile round trip drive down the road, mostly with very low speed limits, so it can be quite time consuming and would probably best be done when you are staying on the island and truly have a full day to make the drive and explore all the stops. I think to fully understand the park, though, you'd need to do at least a couple of hikes around the craters and on the lava fields, so I hope that one day we will get to go back (preferably when there is active lava to see!). 

On the way out of the park, we stopped by Thurston Lava Tube, which by now had plenty of parking. The tube itself is pretty short and nothing too exceptional to see, although the walk through the rain forest to get there is pretty, and I'm sure the tube was much more exciting when you could go all the way to the end through the completely dark portion. 

A few months ago, though, there was a cave-in and visitors aren't allowed into that portion of the tube anymore. I think I would have had a lot of fun exploring that part, though, so maybe it will open again one day. There are also more extensive lava tube systems on the island, such as the Kazamura Lava Tubes, which I think would be really fun to explore. If I had to do it over again, I think I would have made time to go there while we were in Hilo, and I really hope to have the opportunity to visit it one day. One of the tours is described as a "spelunkers' dream," so I know I'd love it. I've always enjoyed going in caverns and caves, especially the ones that are completely dark and feel unexplored. (As a child, that whole Tom Sawyer cave-in thing somehow made me more eager to explore caves instead of less.)

After we left the park, we headed back to Hilo. As I mentioned before, we stopped at McDonald's for a quick snack and then kept driving toward Akaka Falls, which is about half an hour north of Hilo. Since it was already after 3:00, I was getting pretty nervous by this point about whether or not we would make it there and back in time to catch the last Thrifty shuttle. Still, we seemed to be making better time than I had previously thought, so when we saw a sign for a four mile scenic drive, we decided to take it. I'd read another cruiser's report that stated they enjoyed the little detour and it hadn't taken long, so I didn't see any harm in taking it. We were only a few miles from the Falls, after all, or so I thought. 

The drive itself was pretty unremarkable. There were some short sections that were shaded by dense foliage and tall ferns, and there was one nice overlook beside a small ocean inlet...

For some reason I was more interested in this spider than I was in the overlook...
...but the overlook was nice too.
...but other than that it wasn't particularly scenic. Mostly, the road wound through residential areas. And after we left the overlook, that's when things got tricky. We were trusting the GPS to get us to Akaka Falls from the scenic drive, since there were no signs pointing the way, and Nuvi told us to turn down a narrow road that went through some fields. Gradually, the road got worse and worse until we were questioning "where in the h@!& are we?" and THEN Nuvi pointed us down a side road...or I should say, down a muddy dirt lane that   looked eerily like one from the movie Twister. We aren't opposed to off-roading it with a rental, but this "road" looked suspicious at best, suicidal at worse, and all the while the clock was ticking down, so we decided to fight the GPS, turn around, drive back to the scenic road, and continue onward, forcing the GPS to give us an alternate route. The plan worked, and we found our way back to the main road and eventually to the road that dead ends at Akaka Falls, but by this point we were really running out of time.

Everything I could find on my phone about the Falls said it was a .4 mile uphill hike to get to it, so now that it was past 4:00 and we had the prospect of a nearly mile long hike ahead of us (thinking it was .4 miles each way), I was really starting to panic. I was hoping there would be some sort of overlook or some way we could cheat to see the Falls, and fortunately, there was! When we checked the map by the trailhead, we saw that the trail was actually a loop, and that if we walked the loop backward, we'd be at Akaka Falls in no time! Of course, this means we didn't get to see Kahuna Falls, the 100-foot waterfall on the other side of the loop, and we didn't get to see all the breathtaking scenery along the trail (although what we did see was beautiful), but at least we got to see 442-foot Akaka Falls, probably the most famous, most photographed waterfall in all of Hawai'i. 

When we reached the Falls viewing platform, I knew immediately that the trip was worth all the stress and worry. Akaka Falls was absolutely stunning. No photograph could do it justice because you just can't tell from a photo how huge it is. I imagine that during more rainy times the Falls is even more impressive, although usually I prefer long, tranquil, trickling falls to huge, rushing, roaring ones. I loved even more that another trickling stream of water was falling nearby, and I imagine there are even more after a heavy rain.

After getting our fill of pics and taking pics for all of the other couples and families milling around, we ran back to the car and headed for Thrifty. Along the way, Nuvi again tried to get us to drive down a crazy dirt road through a field, which we can only guess was the other end of the road it had first tried to send us down, but we refused, found our way along the main roads, and eventually made it back to the Hilo airport. We'd forgotten that we had to go to an alternate location to drop the car off, though, so after asking around and getting directions from a couple of people, we finally found our way to the proper drop-off location.  When we pulled in, the Thrifty employee asked for our name and crossed it off her list. We were the next to last couple there! It made us feel good, though, that they keep track of who is still out and hasn't brought their cars back, and they held the shuttle (the last one of the day) for five minutes while we waited on the last couple to get back. 

After we got back on the ship and showered and cleaned up, we went to dinner at Skyline for the first time. We'd eaten at East Meets West the first night (Saturday), off ship at Feast of Lele the second night (Sunday-Maui), and at Cadillac Diner the previous night (Monday-Maui), so it was our first time eating any meal in a main dining room. 

When we got to Skyline, there was a short line (about four or five groups) in front of us, so we were expecting a wait, but once they looked up our cabin number, they seated us right away! We still aren't sure why this was. Do they give balcony cabins preference over others? (We had a purple room key and everyone else had other colors.) Did they know it was our honeymoon? It was strange, but we weren't complaining. We really enjoyed the Skyline dining experience too. We liked the atmosphere better than the main dining rooms on the other ships we've been on, and the food was really good. They also had a nice list of "every night" options, so I have no doubt I would always be able to find something appetizing. I wouldn't have minded eating there more often than we did. (That was the only night we ate in one of the main dining rooms.)

After dinner, we got all of our photography gear and headed for the upper decks for the lava sail-by. This was one of the things I was looking forward to most about the trip. A few weeks before, I'd been fully prepared for the fact that no lava had been seen in many, many months, but since the lava had finally started flowing into the ocean again and the last few weeks POA had sailed past it during some pretty awesome displays, I had gotten excited about the lava all over again. I've always been fascinated by lava and volcanoes, so seeing real lava flowing meant I was going to get to check off a bucket list item.

The sail-by said we would be passing the lava around 10 p.m., so we got up to Deck 13 around 9 p.m. to stake out our spot. There were already a lot of people up on the decks, all eager to have the best position, but we used some directions I'd gotten from another cruiser to take us up to one of the highest positions behind the ship controls. It was much quieter and less crowded up there, and, even better, there was a kind of bench to stand and set up our tripod on. We realized as we were walking around the Decks 11 & 12 that the normal railings were higher than our tripod would extend, so we would have had a difficult time getting a clear shot of the lava, but Deck 13 had shorter railings. (I guess because the furthest you could fall would be the ten or so feet to Deck 12, not the water a hundred feet below.) We got the tripod set up, attached the telephoto lens, and I got out our wonderful new binoculars (Nikon Action 7x50) and started scanning the shoreline. I could see waves breaking along the dark coast, but no sign of lava, no sign of a distant red glow we were approaching. It was only 9:20 or so by that point, but I was already getting nervous because I'd read reviews where people said they could already see the glow up to an hour before they were supposed to sail-by. Since I could see the shore with the binoculars and it wasn't particularly foggy out, I took it as a bad sign that we couldn't see any sign of lava yet. Still, I was going to give the lava the benefit of the doubt. They'd seen tons of lava just the week before, right? And there had to be a reason the captain, cruise director, and everyone else on the ship was still acting like the sail-by was going to happen.

Ten o'clock came and went, and with it, my hopes for seeing active lava. Everyone else seemed to still be in good spirits, laughing and joking around me, while I just got more and more certain that seeing lava was not in the cards for me. Eventually, the "lava expert" made an announcement. Everyone else was still chatting and laughing, so I had to go stand directly by the speaker to hear her, but the news wasn't good: They had hoped there would be something to see, there wasn't, they greatly apologized, yada yada yada. Sad and disappointed, we packed up our camera and equipment and headed back to the room. It certainly wasn't a great way to end a day that was already full of gray skies and rain, but at least we had something to look forward to...a sunny day snorkeling in Kona.


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