I’m good at vacationing; sleep a couple hours extra every night, lose all ambition, disconnect from work. Here are some photos from the Big Island, which is a good vacation spot, and remarks on: palm trees, resort maintenance and economics, bad clothing, lava, the size of things, where to buy fish, beer, flying with the kid, weather forecasts, Kailua-Kona and sea turtles.

Palms · I grew up among them, monstrous Mediterranean date palms not these swaying slender Pacific coconut-growers. It dawns on me that a defining adaptation of these island survivors is wind tolerance. It blows here most days of the year, and the trees are moving always, their trunks but especially their fronds, twisting and tossing and still photosynthesizing like mad every day the sun shines, which is pretty well every day.

Palm Frond at Pu’uhonua O Hanaunau (City of Refuge) National Park

That’s a palm frond from Pu’uhonua O Hanaunau (City of Refuge) National Park, for my money the #1 Big Island tourist attraction that’s not an active volcano. Not only is it historically impressive and very beautiful, it has one of the world’s greatest picnic areas, from whence this:

Palms at Pu’uhonua O Hanaunau (City of Refuge) National Park

Resort Maintenance and Economics · The resort we stayed at was lovely, and the first thing that struck my eye was how incredibly well-maintained all the lawns and gardens and buildings and trees were. There’s a downside; during working hours, there’s almost always a powerful noisy machine of some sort in operation, keeping everything spic and span. Can you have one without the other?

We picked up a real-estate magazine for idle entertainment, and were flabbergasted to read that the units like the one we were staying in (OK, with better views) were going for US$2.1M. Not only that, but given the number of staff running powerful noisy machines, the maintenance charges must be fierce. Based on what we were paying, I wouldn’t recommend a high-end Big Island condo as an investment property. Might be a decent place to live though.

Bad Clothing · Fat people on vacation who rent an SUV to drive from the resort to the liquor store, and who wear PGA-branded golf styles at all times... well, maybe they engage in philanthropy on a grand scale and are generally wonderful people. But it’s hard to avoid reflective retching.

Lava · Everyone knows that the islands are volcanoes, ranging from brand-new to nicely worn down. The Big Island is at the brand-new end of things, which means that a lot of the landscapes are covered with lava. It’s actually pretty visually interesting up close.

Big Island lava, close-up
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Big Island lava, close-up

The Size of Things · That lava piles up slowly, but it piles up, and after a few million years you get mountains. The local boosters will tell you that Mauna Kea is the world’s largest, if you measure up from the ocean floor where it starts. That measurement seems a little strained, but it’s big all right. In fact, the above-the-waterline parts of the Hawai’ian volcanoes are, I would say, about the largest things that the human mind can perceive directly. I mean, we all know that there are bigger things: the land-mass of Canada, the Earth, Jupiter, the Sun, the Milky Way, the Local Group of galaxies... but you have to take those things on faith, you can’t stand there and look at them with the naked eye.

Most times, you can’t really see the volcanoes all at once, either; but on the Big Island, you’re always aware of an endless slope in the background, down to the ocean and up, usually, into the clouds; except for the rare days when you see almost the whole thing. Also you can drive up their sides, measure them with your wheels and feet, not just your eyes.

Here are a couple of shots that show what I mean, both taken from the Kipuka (a hill surrounded by a lava flow) at the Kipuka Pu’u Huluhulu nature reserve just off the Saddle Road, which is a very fine picnic spot. See that sloping line in the background? I’m not sure the picture makes it clear enough that it’s miles and miles away. Also check out the layered lava between us and the mountain.

View towards Mauna Loa from a hill on the Big Island Saddle Road
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View towards Mauna Loa from a hill on the Big Island Saddle Road

OK, you want pictures of the whole thing? Here’s a shot from last year’s vacation in Maui, from the top of its big volcano, Haleakala, showing Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa across the water; those clouds casting the little shadows aren’t little clouds at all. You’ll want to enlarge that one for proper effect.

The volcanoes of the Big Island seen from Maui

Fish · Here’s a tiny little traveler’s tip: if you stop in Kawaihae, something you wouldn’t normally do, there’s a little strip mall at the highway intersection, and across the street is the Lauu Fish Market, totally unpretentious, and they sold me something they called “Grey Snapper” that was ultra-tasty fried up after a little garlic-and-oyster-sauce marinade treatment.

Beer · I can unequivocally recommend the Kona Brewing Company, in particularly their Fire Rock pale ale. It’s an excellent beer in the bottle, but if you can find it on draught it’s up there with the world’s finest. I speak as a serious beer snob and former home brewer.

On the way to the airport heading home, we had dinner at the company’s brewpub in Kailua, where the food is quite nice, it’s a pity about the overly-loud leaden-oldies music being played through bad speakers. Anyhow, we chatted up the folk there and found out that bottling on the island is uneconomic, so the “Fire Rock IPA” you buy in bottles is actually brewed and put there by the Widmer brewery in Oregon. Which is one of America’s better breweries, but it seems kind of weird to be selling the draught and bottled product under the same name.

Flying With the Kid · He’ll turn seven this summer, and he’s not afraid of water, so I’m teaching him to snorkel, and he kind of got it this time. We held hands and floated together over some astounding corals and a day-glo fish menagerie; he enjoyed it so much it didn’t bother him that the water, crystal-clear on this part of the South Kohala coast, was twenty feet deep.

Snorkeling in clear water, it’s about as close as you’ll come to flying the way it is in your dreams. It’s a memory I’ll hang onto.

Weather Forecasts · I don’t know why they bother. On any given Big Island day you can get soggy in a Kona hillside downpour, pick up a cancer-downpayment sunburn half an hour downhill at the City of Refuge park, and freeze your butt off on an exposed Saddle Road turnout. On the radio they call it “weather”, but it’s not like anywhere else.

Kailua-Kona · The main city on the west side of the Big Island is called Kailua, the district is Kona, so “Kailua-Kona” is common. Don’t go there. There are nice places in the mountains behind the town, but the town itself is a loveless, greasy, T-shirt-shop-infested waste of space. The area north of town was cruddy and ugly even before they started the construction activities, which aren’t improving things, and the airport fits in just fine; given beauty all around, it’s remarkable how much concentrated ugliness can be created in the ongoing project to make all air travel as unpleasant as possible.

Sea Turtles · Here’s some good news: they’re coming back to land. We found this out on our own hotel beach, we were loafing in the shade at the back and Lauren said “there’s a turtle coming out of the water”. A crowd of human beachgoers gathered pretty quick, but not as quick as the staff member who was there with the orange cones to mark off space around it. The staff guy told me she was female and a regular enough visitor that the ladies had named her “Robin”. She went to sleep and the tourists eventually melted away, then it was just an ordinary holiday beach only with a huge sea turtle snoozing over to one side. Everyone respected the cones except for one kid chasing an overthrown football, but the turtle didn’t seem to mind a squealing ten-year-old zooming through her space.

There were two more pulled out sunbathing on the resort’s boat ramp most days, and a sign at the City of Refuge park noting that the turtles were returning to the beaches there, and asking the visitors to make space for them.

Then, the last day, in one last time with the kid, we’d just taken off our snorkels for a quick dip before the showers, nobody else swimming, and suddenly there was a huge dark shape in the water between us and the beach. A panicky moment later I saw the shell and flippers, and just as the kid turned to see, the head came up and we got a long leathery look before she slipped away to sea.


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April 08, 2006
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