After our few days of wedding festivities in Seattle, we hopped on another plane and continued our journey west, to Hawaii. We flew directly to Kona International Airport on the west side of the easternmost island, Hawaii, AKA the Big Island. A quick walk through the all-outdoor airport, then we picked up our rental silver Altima (which appeared to be the official rental car of the Big Island), and we were off to the resort!
The west side of the Big Island, north of the airport, is mostly black lava rocks and brown grasses punctuated by the occasional oasis of resort complex. We were staying in the Waikoloa Beach Resort complex, at Kings’ Land by Hilton Grand Vacations. This gave us the best price I could find, plus access to the sprawling Hilton Waikoloa Village. Given the size of the Big Island, and the disparate locations of its attractions, there is no ideal place to stay… but this worked wonderfully for us.
Tired from traveling, we opted for a low-key dinner at Tropics Ale House, located on the non-Hilton side of the resort complex. Gina got a fish fry, and I got fish tacos, but the most delicious part was the Jabba Da Sour—a truly unique wild ale with local ginger added to the brew—delicious! The view added to an enjoyable dinner, disturbed only by a hassle to pay the check. I got out of my seat and ran down our waitress to give her my credit card, after several failed attempts to get her attention (including literally waving my arms over my head).
We made a quick stop at a local market to stock up our fridge (I already miss POG), then off to bed. A pre-sunrise wake time was planned for a full Tuesday… easy enough given the time change.
Rising before the sun did indeed prove easy. After breakfast in the room, we headed out to drive across the island to Hilo, where we were meeting a tour guide for our tour of the island’s waterfalls and volcanoes. The drive was fascinating, traversing the island between Mauna Kea and Manua Loa on Saddle Road. The drive ranged from near sea level to about 7,000 feet above, with a temperature drop at the highest altitude of at least a dozen degrees, and a huge range of plant life (or lack thereof). We seemed to start in near desert and end in near rainforest. The drive took less than an hour and a half, and our tour started almost immediately upon arrival in Hilo.
Our guide was a transplanted local named Lee who runs Wild Orchid Tours with his wife Renata. He had worlds of knowledge that ran the gamut of possible subjects—not just Hawaii. And while Gina and I might’ve preferred just a touch less sharing of said knowledge, Lee was excellent at navigating some lesser-known areas, finding the gems, and ensuring we saw everything we wanted to. Most of these tours are a full day, but we opted to squeeze everything it into a half-day tour, and with Lee as our guide, we were sure not to feel cheated. He wound through some narrow Hilo streets and gave us beautiful views of some of the waterfalls in the area. We then made a quick stop at an orchid farm, before driving into Volcanoes National Park. Our first stop there was a small steam vent (and yes, steam comes pouring out of it), before checking out Kilauea crater. We zipped through the Jaggar Museum (with Lee pointing out some key bits), had a nice lunch at the Volcano House, and really just had a great time on a whirlwind tour of the eastern side of the island.
One point of interest we definitely wanted to see was the Thurston Lava Tube, and Lee was sure to deliver… as was the lava tube. It was simply incredible to walk through, roots dangling above, occasional water drips breaking through. I could try to describe it, but there’s this otherworldly sensation to it that defies words. While I hadn’t even heard of this place before we started planning this trip, it was undoubtedly a highlight.
It was basically time to end the tour at that point, though Lee managed to squeeze in a stop at the Mauna Loa macadamia nut visitor’s center (which I just now learned is owned by local chocolate juggernaut Hershey’s… go figure). A short half-day tour, but that was out of necessity: Tuesday night was luau time!
I booked the Legends of Hawaii Luau at the Hilton Waikoloa Village, so we drove back across the island, made a quick stop back at our resort (where we kept seeing cats wandering around, for some unknown reason… so of course I had to take some pictures of them), then took the resort transportation over to the main complex. After getting completely overwhelmed by the resort grounds (seriously, this place is off-the-hook crazy, filled with water features, shops, and more), we finally found our way to the luau check-in area, and were handed a couple of mai tais as we were escorted to our seats at the end of a long table, across from a couple from Minnesota. (Their son is a trombone player with the US Air Force, stationed in Hawaii, though this was their first visit to the Big Island.)
The luau was hosted by our very own Don Ho knockoff, the food was an astounding buffet feast (among other things, I sampled ahi poke, island potato macaroni salad, huli huli chicken, Hawaiian sweet potatoes with coconut glaze, shoyu braised short ribs, and nearly every dessert they had), and the entertainment was good, though it left me a bit underwhelmed. (The fire jugglers dropping their fire sticks no fewer than a half dozen times didn’t help.) I’m honestly not sure what I was expecting, but the whole thing felt a bit like a Disney production, which is possibly what a luau is like. Or maybe I’m bitter that I somehow managed to miss out on the poi and the luau pig.
At any rate, we went to wait for the shuttle back to our resort when things were done, along with a dozen or so others. In a fun twist, after about a ten minute wait, a guy coming off his shift from an airport shuttle decided to randomly bring everyone back. Weird, but enjoyable listening to the driver babble for the short drive (he was a transplanted Jersey City boy, who also gave island tours).
It was then back to bed in advance of another big day!