This album is a pretty comprehensive look at the amazing times had in November, especially banging around Hawai’i in a Westy. I’ll be posting Amber’s trip log up here as soon as that is complete. Check out HappyCampersHawaii.com if you are interested in the Westy route. It was a great fit for our family.
Seth’s Filson Life Article based on the visit to the Jagger Museum at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park -
The Tomato Family Takes the Big Island
With Fisher complaining that Hawaii would be “suckish,” we hopped an Alaska commuter flight to Seattle in the morning. (Thank you, MVP Gold status Husband, for saving us from the lines.) Fisher was marginally placated by hanging in the Alaska Boardroom. Free waffles are always a plus. Of course, Amber thought the free mimosas were better. She was tripped out by the Toronto Globe and Mail and couldn’t resist taunting our Canadian friend Gordon with our destination (via text). Our second flight took us to Kona on the island of Hawai’i.
Halfway across the tarmac in the super balmy tropical air, Fisher leaned over. “It doesn’t suck, Mom.”
Whew! Dodged the bullet on that one.
We rented a car and drove to the Sheraton Keauhou Bay for a one night stay on the front end of the trip. The kids were jazzed about the pool complete with water slide, water tunnel, stream connecting two pools, sand play area, and multiple hot tubs. As we were lounging in the hot tub (it was near evening by then), Seth struck up a conversation with another couple, Curtis and Tami Duncan. Turns out that Curtis is the captain of an attack sub and his commodore is James Childs, the brother of Seth’s close friend from New Hampshire, Abigail. It was our first small world moment of the trip, but not the last.
We ate dinner at the hotel and waited along with others for night to fall and the bright lights to bring the manta rays in to feed on plankton swirling in the light-filled water. And come they did! We saw at least four huge mantas sailing around the small, protected bay. We were told that one of them was “Big Bertha” with a 13 foot “wingspan.” Several times they turned at the surface so that a tip of wing broke the surface. Amazing! We wished that we were with either the dive groups or organized snorkel groups that had entered the bay to enjoy the spectacle up close. Next time, we’ve got to swim with mantas! (Note: Seth did make a solo attempt at the Manta light at Mauna Kea Resort, but the tide did not appear to be quite right that night.)
The next morning we headed into the waterfront/downtown portion of Kilauea Kona and had breakfast at Java on the Rocks. Seth entertained himself trying to catch the cheeky zebra doves bouncing around on the tables. We also connected with our cousins Suzi and Carl Roesch, who were watching the Buffalo Bills play at a nearby sports bar, and Seth had to call 911 for a teenager who had broken his ankle skateboarding. Suzi and Carl are very fortunate to have a condo they co-own in Kona with a few other families.
After breakfast we went to Kahalu’u Beach for our maiden run as snorkelers. Almost immediately, we were with sea turtles in knee deep water. Squeeee! Both kids managed to figure out their gear. Beryl hung out on a boogie board for extra security. The spot was crowded and there was a lot of coral damage, but it was a great initial expedition for us. We moved slightly north to La’aloa, a white sand beach where we could swim and boogie board a little. Again—crowded. Both of these beaches are right in town, but we had fun.
We went to Carl and Suzi’s house for lunch. It was great to catch up with them. Suzi and I couldn’t stop commenting on how surreal it was to be together but NOT at Smoke Lake. Often family get-togethers there are a crowded and busy, so it was a treat to have quiet, one-on-one time. Well, as quiet as it can be with Fisher and Beryl around.
After lunch, we drove the northern route through Waimea to Hilo so that we could pick up our VW Westy Camper, the Hula Wahine, from Happy Campers Hawaii (HappyCampersHawaii.com). It was amazing to watch the desert and lava plains of the Kona side turn to higher elevation prairie and finally to rain forest on the Hilo side. It was beautiful until the rain started. We met up with Cody and Will at the Happy Campers garage, got oriented on our new ride, tossed everything into her, and ditched the rental car at the Hilo airport. By then it was dark and raining cats and dogs. Somehow we survived a trip to Walmart, scoring flippers for Fisher, a couple of swim noodles, a UV shirt for Seth and groceries picked out on the fly by Chef Amber.
We ate Thai food in town and then headed south to Puna in the rain. It was a creepy, vine-draped, and unlit drive on the Pahoa-Pohoiki Road to MacKenzie Park. We arrived in absolute pitch dark. Our only light came from the headlights, which brushed briefly across another VW Westy from Happy Campers. It was an adventure to set up the pop-up, whip on the rain fly in the deluge, move the sleeping kids topside, and collapse exhausted in the absolutely disorganized and cramma-jamma van.
But dang, we went to bed tired & happy, and slept great!
Seth woke up at 4:30 and discovered we’d nearly parked beneath a giant widow-maker. Mackenzie Park consisted of a grove of trees, widely-spaced and with little understory, perched on the edge of impressive lava cliffs. Waves crashed against them, sending spray high over the cliff edge. We walked along the edge (not too close) and found the needle-covered ground to be pitted with cracks and tunnels, all hot and steamy inside like a sauna. One was large enough for us to climb down into (avoiding a stream of ants) and walk along for at least forty feet. The kids freaked out ten feet in—way too creepy!
After a yummy breakfast of eggs and toast, we reorganized and drove to the Kapoho Tide Pools, a few miles down the road. These pools are large enough for snorkeling and partially manmade with stone walls and the foundations of houses that are built up right to the edge. In fact, the entire area is inside a small neighborhood. As we got ready to snorkel, Beryl announced that she had to use the bathroom. I had to beg kindness from the general contractor, Robert, working on a house-in-progress.
His wife, Kathi, took us back to their house to use the bathroom. En route, we saw two mongoose. Robert and Kathi’s place was a mainly open-air set-up with rooms arrayed around a lava rock rimmed pool full of fish—both koi and reef fish reside in the pool. While there was no direct connection to the ocean, the level of the pool rose and fell with the tide through the porous, rocky ground. We thought it was so cool, and she invited us to bring Fisher and Seth back later to check it out.
This spot proved to be a great introduction to snorkeling for the kids. Access was easy (once we figured out the secret path to get into the largest pool), the water calm, and the coral was in good shape—lots of lovely fish.
After this, we drove a few miles farther on to the Ahailanui warm pool. This large pool, edged with man-made rock walls, is connected to the ocean by a small concrete channel that allows it to be wave-fed, but it is heated from beneath by volcanic activity to 91 degrees. Very balmy! Many people were lolling around in the water and even snorkeling. The kids and Seth gave it a try and saw many large fish. After swimming, we showered at the outdoor showers (the kids looked askance at me as I explained how to deploy soap to the nether regions while wearing a suit). Then we hauled out our little BBQ and made hot dogs for lunch. The best part of this stop was that Beryl spotted the rare and endangered Hawaiian Hawk (‘Io) perched on tree no more than twenty feet away from us. Marilynne should be proud of her little bird-spotter!
We stopped at Lava Trees State Park for a short hike and look at these cool rock columns formed when lava flowed around living trees, cooling around them as the trunks burned away. There were feral chickens running around and deep, steamy cracks in the ground. From there, we drove to Pahoa—a more chill, laid-back, granola, ganja-infused town you will not find—and did some grocery shopping, checked out the coffee shop and museum, ate an early dinner with amazing passionfruit & lihingmuy margaritas, and dreamed of staying put. “I’m so Pahoa!” and “Go Pahao!” became catch-phrases for the trip.
That night we camped up near Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park at Namakani Paio Campground. We met some Canadians—Chris and Wendy— who were Happy Campers as well. As we were both going clockwise around the island, we ran into them several more times. The kids snuggled up to watch Modern Family on the iPad. We all slept well.
We started our day as early as we could at the Kipuka Pualu Bird Park. Fisher freaked out because there was a warning sign about the possibility of poisonous volcanic gases under certain wind conditions. It took awhile to convince him that his parents wouldn’t expose him to such dangers. The kids were initially resistant to bird-watching, but they got into it when we used the bird songs Amber had ripped to her iPhone to call in an Elepaio. They thought that was near awesome and proceeded to do some excellent spotting. Beryl found the Hwamei, and we all enjoyed up close looks at four Erkel’s Francolin.
Afterwards we went up to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. It was crammed with tourists and tour buses, but we elbowed our way through the Jagger Museum and Visitor Center. No mosh-pit of tourists could obscure the amazing views of the main crater or block the sulphur smelling steam rising from the many open vents. Using binoculars, we got some good looks at tropic birds that nest around the caldera. Seth also snagged some shots of a display of a vulcanologist who fell through a crust of lava and survived — along with his trusty Filson field vest. More on this later. Our guide book suggested that we could enter a little-used (and therefore more adventuresome) section of the Thurston Lava Tube in the park, but we were disappointed to find a locked gate there after going through the more developed portion of the lava tube.
Our next stop was Punalu’u Harbor & Beach, also known as the Black Sand Beach. The gorgeous black sand beach was initially crowded with tourists who stood shoulder to shoulder in little circles around the many green sea turtles up sunning on the beach. However, as soon as the tour buses pulled out, we had room to roam. Seth went out spear-fishing and gave Amber a scare. She watched him go out further and further. She watched a man sitting on the beach next to her watch him as well. When the man looked at her and gave a little “not-so-good-out-there” hand gesture, her anxiety cranked up. The man, Neil, said that Seth was out in the channel blasted for boats to enter the harbor and that it had a terrific pull. He also said that he was a rescue diver and would go out for him if necessary. Luckily, Seth’s a strong swimmer and he was able to make it back in, exhausted and a little humbled. He was chasing a school of fish with the spear/Hawaiian sling and got a little distracted then finding himself in 4 foot swells. It is good that his big surf training from living in Australia kept him calm when he had to fight his way back in. While he didn’t spear any fish, he had great swimming with the turtles and some excellent looks at a variety of reef fish including some giant parrotfish.
We camped there for the night, grilling ahi on the beach and cooking rice and broccoli in the Hula Wahini. Another party of Happy Campers— “The Frenchies” —pulled in later. Seth thought Armand had a pretty good gig, traveling with two blond women. They were all good looking in any case. The wind was blowing and the feral cats were yowling after picking up our fish scraps, but the stars were amazing beyond amazing as there was so little light pollution in the area.
The next morning we played at the beach. The turtles had all gone out in the night with the big tide. Chris and Wendy pulled in and spent a good deal of time digging with Fisher and Beryl, who were alternated between trying to dig a hole to China and trying to catch crabs. The latter worked much better than the former! Seth went fishing for trevally from the far rocks using the fly rod and a heavy sinktip line. Amber and the sea turtles went “Pahoa.”
We drove into Na’alehu in the Ka’u region of the island near the far southern tip and ate a fabulous lunch at the somewhat famous Hana Hou Restaurant before heading over to the open air market. Seth ran into a dude from Cornell who used to run the particle accelerator there before he went Pahoa in preparation for peak oil. He also ran into a man from Massachusetts, working in the grocery store. All fuel for the fire burning in our bellies to move to Hawaii!
We decided to check out the southernmost part of the United States and brave the insanely bad road to the Green Sand Beach with a local guy named Alfred who makes his living ferrying folks to the beach with his trusty old Toyota 4Runner. It was a good call because the kids wouldn’t not have done well hiking the three miles in through windy, dusty, hot, and broken terrain. When we got to the beach, the wind was blowing so hard that we could scarcely open our eyes. It was like being sand-blasted. Beryl burst into tears. I wrapped her up in a sarong, burka-style and spent three minutes squinting through my lashes at the truly incredible green sand before beating a retreat to Alfred’s truck. Signs announced a $500 fine for anyone taking green sand from the beach. Fisher threatened to turn me later when we dumped large quantities of said green sand from inside our shoes. No doubt that in calm weather that is an awe-inspiring beach. In the wind, it was disappointing. Seth did manage to snag a few good photos.
On our way out we stopped at Broken Road just before the dilapidated (and probably haunted) windmill farm. There is a beautiful and somewhat protected cove there with aquamarine water as long as you can brave the rocky slope down to it. As we watched, three guys came in on kayaks, trailing long rods. One hauled up a big ahi, roughly 45 lbs. There’s nothing but open ocean between the southern tip of Hawai’i and Antarctica. Apparently, locals also fish off South Point with long lines floated south with plastic bag “sails” and drop lines every ten feet or so. Seth was salivating to give it a try. Ahi and Ono (Wahoo) are the main target species.
We cruised back to the Hana Hou to pick up the coconut cream pie we had reserved and then went to Suzi & Carl’s place in Kona for an early Thanksgiving celebration. The kids swam in their pool. Amber did a little laundry. Suzi and Carl’s place has a nice view of the ocean and the sunset.
It was quite late by the time we headed toward Kealakekua Bay (also called Captain Cook’s) where we decided to spend the night. The park was almost deserted except for a guy who came ashore from a moored outrigger canoe to sleep in his truck. Before we went to sleep, a few locals came down to look at the bay in the dark, smoke cigarettes and hang out. Eventually, we got to sleep ourselves, though Amber didn’t sleep too soundly since she was constantly expecting someone to come and kick us out of our somewhat makeshift camping spot.
This was perhaps the best day of our trip! We woke early—just as several pods of spinner dolphins were coming into the bay. Apparently, they forage during the night and come for R & R in the bay during the day as it is shallow, sandy and they can protect their young from sharks effectively in this environment. As they came in, they were putting on a good show, jumping and spinning, but they were pretty far away. The bay is roughly a mile wide. A truck drove up and two people immediately started getting into snorkeling gear. One, who turned out to be Sarah Twombly, a literary agent Amber knew from Twitter, gave us the run down on approaching the dolphins.
As planned, we decided to try it and got the kids into action. We geared up with noodles and one of the boogie boards, which turned out to be a key base camp as we kicked out about 500 meters from shore. The kids were just starting to get tired and cold when the dolphins came to us. Three groups of three dolphins swam directly beneath us in formation. Others swam around us and seemed to show a lot of interest in us (confirmed later by others who often swim there and said that the dolphins rarely see small children). We had brilliant views and all came up bright-eyed and breathless at the close encounter.
Upon returning to shore, a man named Andy came up and told us he’d been watching us. Not many people try to take their kids out, and he was so happy that we’d managed to get close. He commented about the apparent interest the “spinners” showed in us. Sarah cheered with us as well. She and her boyfriend kindly directed us just down the road to Two-Step (also known as Keokeele Cove in Honaunau Bay) for the best snorkeling we had on the island. Amber saw a large green moray swim across a patch of white sand and the kids spotted two snowflake morays in a large tidepool. We saw at least 30 to 40 different species of fish in this area. Seth jawed with a relocated Texan fishing with a spear/Hawaiian sling for the introduced Roi Grouper.
By the time we’d finished with all this fun (and two breakfasts later), we were too tired to actually visit Pu’uhonua, or the Place of Refuge. That’s a must for the next trip, especially because Amber thinks it would make a great YA novel. We had lunch in Kailua Kona at Bongo Ben’s and also nabbed some shave ice. There was this crazy ride thing that looked like a giant beach ball, which apparently allowed you to get inside and roll around with a bunch of water before getting sloshed out. The kids were bummed it was closed.
We drove north toward Mauna Kea beach which was utterly gorgeous. The kids ran around like puppies and we stayed late, loitering long after all but non-registered guests were supposed to be gone. Seth tried to snorkel out to the manta ray area but the tide was out, likely making it too shallow for good sightings, and he managed to freak himself out a little. Swimming in a dark, wide ocean is not for the faint of heart! Tiger sharks are fairly abundant in Hawai’i and while attacks are very rare, swimming in the dark on the edge of the manta light seemed to provide just the right/wrong conditions.
Finding a place to camp on this night was more challenging than usual. The typically excellent guide book (The Big Island Revealed) noted that campers could stay over at Hapuna Beach State Park. Wrong! The gates to Waialea Bay were locked, so we drove to Spencer Beach Park, where we were nearly turned away by a officious on-site ranger because we hadn’t pre-purchased a permit. He kept saying, “There’s no room,” but the parking lot was only half full. Luckily, we wheedled our way into the good graces of Deena and Kristy, also Happy Campers, who let us sneak in on their permit. We celebrated over two bottles of “grape juice” (it was supposed to be a dry park), and the following morning Deena christened us the “Evil Portland Family” due to her nasty hangover.
The next morning, Amber and the kids played at the beach. Fisher connected with some other kids and got busy playing water football. Beryl entertained herself catching little crabs with another little girl. Seth fished at the nearby jetty, bay and boat basin for trevally and barracuda. There were lots of reef fish there and a turtle sunning in the water, but the little jack that kept going after his clouser just wouldn’t take. In the intervening bay, many black-tipped reef sharks circled in the shallow water, fins protruding in a very Jaws-like fashion. Seth brought the rest of the family back into this area to see the sharks.
The shark bay was actually part of the Pu’ukohola Heiau Historical Site which is adjacent to the state park and run by the National Park Service. A sunken platform in the bay was used to provide offerings to the sharks by the royal family. The museum held a great display of ancient Hawaiian weapons and showed a movie called Warriors: Islands of Blood, which explored the Hawaiian martial art of Lau and the bloody history of Kamehameha’s conquest of the islands. It discussed how old men would go out on the battlefield with a weapon that was like a set of brass knuckles, but with shark teeth protruding from a wooden grip, to slit the throats of the survivors. Beryl, very put-out, announced that they should have let old women and kids do it to because she could totally do that! Amber, Beryl and Fisher were very taken with the video which was part of a series hosted by former Green Beret, Terry Schappert (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G1n1hEs9pfI - link to the full video).
We ate lunch at Cafe Pesto in the tiny port of Kawaihae (and bought both ahi and ono for dinner at a small local fish shop) and then drove to the NW corner of the island to explore Kaiholena or Crystal Cove. Seth ended up trucking down there to snorkel while the rest of the family slept in the Hula Wahine. He indicated the snorkeling was great, but the entry into the bay was a little rough. The water is deep and sometimes, pelagic fishes like marlin can be spotted here quite close to shore. We bagged our plan to continue further NW, but we were rewarded with a gorgeous view of Maui across the channel. We then turned around and drove back to Hapuna for some serious boogie-boarding. At one point, the kids had been tossed by the waves and so they sat on the beach like old fusties and frowned at us while we caught wave after wave. The shore break was something they hadn’t quite learned to deal with.
We closed the place down and then grilled dinner in a beach pavilion. It was full-on dark by the time dinner was ready and the kids were kind of freaking out about “zombie cats,” mongooses, and a cockroach crisis in the water fountain. After dinner, we drove across the island through a tremendous rainstorm and ended up camping late at Laupahoehoe Point. This is a place where a large number of Hawaiians, including a whole group of kids, drowned during a tsunami that occurred in 1946. The surf is very impressive off the point.
We woke to another huge rainstorm and waited for a break in the rain before packing up. The ocean at the point and jetty was wild and windswept—such a different vibe from the Kona side of the island. The wave breakers placed near the boat basin and boat ramp looked like giant jacks made out of concrete. After snagging some good pics of the breaking waves, we took scenic route 19 toward Hilo and found a very fun coffee shop and store. Lots of geckos!
None of us wanted to return the Hula Wahine, but we did. Even the brand new black rental Jeep could not compete in the coolness-factor arena. Seth had finally embraced the four speed transmission and 65 mph top speed. However, we cheered up significantly after an awesome sushi meal at Sushi Hime (where a sign announced to diners that if they expected tempura and bento they should leave because this was a hardcore sushi restaurant!) We meandered around the shops and market before checking out the Naha stone (which the young Kamehameha apparently moved to prove he was fit to be king), Rainbow Falls, and the Boiling Pots along the River Road.
The kids slept all the way over the high saddle road between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa volcanoes. We stopped several times to bird but very sadly did not see an I’iwi. When Fisher woke up and saw that we had already crossed back to the Kona side, he got a stricken look on his face and said, “Did you see the I’iwi, Mom?” We did see a number of good native birds, but that darn I’iwi eluded us. Yet another reason for our return trip.
Our final stop was the Waikoloa Beach Marriott which Seth snagged for a night using his hard-earned Marriott points. It was super cush and the kids enjoyed the pool but it was ultra windy. Seth spotted three, sixteen-inch bonefish in the royal fish ponds (fishing strictly forbidden) so he dashed out to the flats to flail against the wind for a while, blind casting for the bones he was convinced would be there if they could just find his little crab pattern.
What can we say? Leaving was indeed “suckish.” Hello, Real Life, wish you were a Westy built for four in a Pahoa state of mind. Best observation Beryl announcing, “We’re not tourists. We’re travelers!”