Big Island – Kona

December 22 – 23, 2008

Photo set on Flickr

The Drive to Kona

As my last entry showed, it had been a long day visiting Volcanoes National Park, but the hardest part was yet to come – the drive from the national park to Kona, a good 180 km away.

I had developed a deep distrust of GPS that came with rental car since my Los Angeles trip in August, but driving on a quiet road with dim street lights caused me to put my faith in the idiotic screen – and it backfired. I was led to a forsaken stretch of road with serious bumps and no street light, and a tropical downpour started rained on us. The only thing missing from our own reënaction of the Jurassic Park was some Velociraptors chasing our car.

After half an hour or so, the downpour stopped, and we finally made it back to a well-lit road. I stopped for gas and asked the storekeeper how long would a drive to Kona take.

She had an amused look, an expression usually reserved for the mentally challenged.
“Here to Kona? Tonight? That’s impossible. You better just get a room nearby and continue your drive tomorrow.”

Well, according to my retarded GPS, it would take two and a half hours to get to our hotel in Kona. By the way, it was only nine o’clock.

I ignored her advice and sped my way towards the west coast of the Big Island. The closest route was State Highway 200, a two lane road through some of the island’s main volcanoes, including the largest one in the world – Mauna Loa.

We were the only ones driving along this mountainous stretch of road. Unlike the coast, the air was crisp and cool, and the sky was a clear blanket of darkness. I felt a sense of thrill and romance driving in this middle of nowhere.

We arrived our hotel a tad after eleven. So much for being impossible.

Our room had a balcony facing the ocean. Leaving the sliding door and falling asleep to the sound of ocean wave sounded like a good idea, but in reality the effect was as soothing as hearing an avalanche every five seconds.

South Kona Coast

Recharged from a good night’s sleep (we soon did the sensible thing and closed the balcony door the previous night), I was ready for Big Island’s west coast.

After breakfast at the pool’s side, we walked along the waterfront to Keauhou Beach. We didn’t feel like swimming, so instead we took off our sandals and stepped into the water. Fish swam right by our feet. The sea turtles didn’t move at all even as stood right next to each of the five of them. We had to watch our feet because there were many shells and sea urchins clinging to the rock in the shallow water.

Just getting our feet wet wasn’t satisfying enough – we wanted to get all-the-way out to the ocean. We got to our car and drove to Kealakekua Bay, where we could rent a kayak. None of the rental places were opened for business in the off-season, however, so we moved on to the Painted Church, a twenty-minute drive away.

The church looked like an ordinary white wooden building from the outside, but its interior was an interesting mix of paintings of Christian themes and Hawaiian beaches and palm trees.

As we were at the heart of the Kona coffee growing region, we decided to visit a coffee farm (covered in this entry). After spending two hours at the farm, we drove further south to Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park.

Before the American arrived, this site was the place of refuge for locals who had broken the ancient law, defeated warriors and civilians during time of warfare. Anyone who reached the boundaries of the Pu’uhonua was safe from any physical harm. The source of protection was believed to come from the mana in the bones of the chiefs who were buried in these grounds, but this time-honoured system was completely shattered when the temples were looted by the English admiral George Byron in 1825. What remains at the historical park nowadays are a reconstructed wooden temple and some wooden poles with carved sculptures.

We made it back to our hotel in time to catch the sunset over Keauhou Beach. A young boy was busy catching fish with his net and bucket as we watched the sun slowly dipped into the ocean.

Our search for dinner took us to the nearby town Kailua. Restaurants and souvenir shops lined both sides of Aliʻi Drive, Kailua’s oceanfront downtown street. We went to a Thai restaurant ran by a Kiwi couple because of good reviews from The food was seriously overpriced and everything tasted like dessert – maybe the cook mistook his salt shaker with one that contained sugar.

Waipiʻo Valley

Another morning – another panorama of a clear blue sky and a deep blue ocean from our hotel room’s balcony. My mood dampened a bit when I was reminded by the morning weather forecast the Pacific Northwest was battered by a snow storm and that’s where I would be in less than 24 hours.

Having breakfast under the sun, then a leisure scroll at the nearby beach – it just never gets old. We thought long and hard about spending the rest of the day doing nothing but soaking up the sunlight, but we ultimately decided that was too wasteful of our little time in the Big Island. Waipiʻo Valley at the northern part of the island seemed like a beautiful place, and that’s where we would be heading to.

The traffic along Hwy 11 was staggering – for a moment I thought I was in Los Angeles. Thankfully, the traffic greatly diminished once we left the main drag. During the drive, we passed along different ecosystems, from the seashore to the arid highland and back to the seashore.  We traveled by orchards, pasture, rolling hills and rugged mountain roads. It was captivating to roam through so many different landscapes within two hours of driving, on the youngest of the most remote island chain in the world.

Perhaps since Waipiʻo Valley is not a prime attraction, the signage to the valley was really lacking, especially after the town Honokaa. At the entrance, just before the steep 4WD-only road down to the valley, was an overlook. The vehicle we rented was not a four-wheel drive, so we wouldn’t be able to drive on the steep road down to the valley. There was no parking lot, so we left our car at the side of the road in front of somebody’s front yard.

The Waipiʻo Valley, at sea level, was surrounded by tall hills on three sides and the Pacific Ocean. From the lookout where we were 610 metres above the valley, I could still see the tiny houses and farms and a family having picnic at the beach. Between the grassland, farmland and forest, the valley had several different layers of greenness. Under an overcast sky, the valley gave out a hue of coldness, but when the sun broke through the cloud for a moment, the result of the sun ray shining on the vegetation transformed the valley into a vibrant landscape.

We spent an hour marveling at this secluded part of the Big Island. There was nobody else at the lookout but us. We made a short descent down the steep and winding road to the valley, which turned out to be a long ascend up the same steep road.

Kohala Mountain Road

The time was 2:30 pm. Still a little early to go to the airport for our 8:00 pm flight, but I didn’t want to head back into the traffic along the coast. Seeing that the Kohala Mountain Road, said to be the most beautiful drive on the Big Island, was nearby, we decided there was where we wanted to spend the rest of our afternoon.

The weather on an island was truly unpredictable. The sun was shining brightly in the sun once we left the Waipiʻo Valley, yet a sudden tropical rain pour greeted us at the foot of the Kohala Mountain Road. The rain ended just as suddenly as it started. A rainbow appeared over the mountain in the unbelievably blue sky that was still overcast a minute ago.

What I found out when I stepped outside of the car was a strong gust of wind was blowing feverishly along the mountain road. I could barely breathe in the wind while focusing on not being blown away. Taking photos had become a luxury in this position and I resorted to taking only a few quick snaps. That was really too bad, since the scenery was as good as advertised. The road overlooked a vast coastal area, with dramatic natural light beaming through the cloud and the Pacific Ocean in the background.

Another day had passed us by. Our last memory on the Big Island was being stuck in the traffic on Queen Kaʻahumanu Highway. This road was the major thoroughfare on the island, lined up on both sides with shopping arcades and side roads to resorts, so no wonder the road was always congested.

We arrived the airport at sunset. Our last glimpse of the sun in 2008, because I was certain there would be no sunny days for the rest of the year in the winter hinterland that was Vancouver. I rarely had such feeling at the end of a trip – it might sound like a cliché, but I really wished I could spend a few more days on vacation instead of returning home. Especially a home that will become a memory in another week’s time.


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