We flew into Hilo and drove to a B&B in Volcano Village on the first day. It was part of the Chalet Kilauea chain and we stayed in the Lokelani room at the Volcano B&B. The Volcano B&B is a hundred-year-old house. Three stories high, 6 bedrooms, and a large living area with kitchen and dining rooms. It sounds charming to stay in a hundred-year-old house, but it's not. A house that old smells funny. And the bathroom has outdated fixtures, and moths come into the shower with you. The man renting the bedroom next to ours had bronchitis and stayed in his room coughing at all hours of the day and night.
Hilo and Volcano are on the rainy side of the island. I think the usual rain is a little mist. Our trip coincided with an actual rainstorm. I know this because I checked Yahoo Weather before we left. So it was very soggy on our first day.
We got up early to get the "breakfast" part of the B&B. It wasn't very hearty. The landlord didn't stay in the hundred-year-old house with us. She just got there early in the morning and set out pineapple and boxed cereal and called it breakfast. We ate until we couldn't handle listening to the guy with bronchitis anymore. Then we headed out to the volcano.
The volcano is an active one, for those of you who don't know this by now. It erupts constantly, usually at a very slow rate pouring lava into the ocean. I was very excited to see lava. It was misty but not pouring rain, so we were lucky. We stopped at the visitor center and the docent or whatever was complaining about the weather, but we didn't mind it. He said we wouldn't be able to see lava flow until nightfall. But during the day we could drive around the crater and stop at various sights along the way.
The first stop was to view steam vents. And steam vents there were...hundreds of them. A sign pointed us to a trailhead. I wasn't sure where it went, but we followed the trail. At the end, there was a fence. It was only when you got to the fence and looked over it that you saw a big, giant, black crater. So huge I don't even know how many football fields would fit inside of it. And black, nothing growing in it, just black lava interrupted by holes in the ground with steam pouring out of them. It took my breath away and I even allowed myself to get tears in my eyes for a minute. Or maybe it was the sulfur that took my breath away and caused the tears. I don't know. We walked the trail for a long time. There were steam vents everywhere, but outside of the crater, near the vents, there was so much life growing on the volcano.
When we had our fill of the steam vents, we drove on to the next stop, which was an area where the earth had huge rifts torn into it. The landscape near the rifts makes Hawaii look like another planet.
We drove on around the crater to a place where you can actually go in and get right up close to the vents. There is a warning sign posted that says that breathing the sulfur can cause severe problems including death. That is something interesting about Hawaii. They warn you about danger but leave the choice up to you. If it were CA they'd have it enclosed and be charging people for gas masks. Anyway, we talked about it and decided to go in and risk it. Maybe 20 yards into the crater I started coughing like mad and couldn't even get whole words out. "Respa" "tory" "problem" was all I could say before turning tail and running. The trouble with running is that you are on a volcano and there really isn't any fresh air anywhere nearby. I went to the middle of the parking lot which is the furthest place I could find from the vents.
The last stop along the crater is the lava tube. I don't really have good photos of the lava tube on account of it is a very dark tube of lava. It is like walking through a sewer pipe, but it smells better. Not that I have ever walked through a sewer pipe, but I've seen it in the movies. The lava tube is very wet and there is moss growing everywhere and puddles on the ground.
On our 3rd day in HI, we were scheduled to be in Volcano/Hilo for another day. We had followed the advice of our guidebook and assumed that we would spend more time in Volcano National Park. But by the end of day 2 we felt we'd pretty much seen everything we wanted to see in both Hilo and Volcano. We might have stayed around, but I really wasn't comfortable in Volcano B&B. So we forfeited our 3rd night in the B&B and checked out early. The first of a few unscheduled schedule changes during the trip.
We took a walk around the neighborhood early in the morning before we left the B&B. The air in Volcano Village smells funny. No, it's not the smell of fresh air which I, as an Angeleno, would know nothing about. It smells like mildew. It truly is a rainforest, so green and lush, there's even green moss growing from the telephone lines. The residences were interesting. From pre-fab to pre-statehood, mansion to shack, they had everything in one block. I'm not sure I would like to live in the rainforest, but if I did, I'd like to live in the house we saw that truly looked like a rainforest house. Far back from the road, you would have to walk or drive through a true forest to get to the front door. They had rigged an alarm system on the gate on the driveway: a bunch of aluminum cans on strings hanging from the gate.
On our way out of town, we stopped at Volcano Winery for a free wine-tasting. They make 6 different wines at Volcano Winery and they are fantastic. One of them is made from guavas and that was my favorite. They also make one called Macadamia Nut Honey. It has neither nuts nor grape juice in it. It's just a honey mead which they say tastes like mac nut because the honey was made by bees which only pollinate mac nut trees. Ok, that one, I didn't like so much. But we bought bottles of Volcano Red and Hawaiian Guava. The guava wine is awesome. It has 3 distinct flavors, said the retailer behind the counter. First, sweet. Then, it becomes a nutty flavor. Finally, something like buttered popcorn. He narrated the wine as I was experiencing all the flavors, like some magical Willy Wonka. Lucky for me, they ship to CA.
Our next stop was a black sand beach. There were turtles in the water and sunning on the beach, to our surprise.
Next stop was a national park that I forgot the name of. It is considered to be a sacred place, where ancient Hawaiian draft dodgers and battle losers could go to be forgiven. The guide map was somewhat educational and pointed out different areas in the park where various activities had taken place. Immediately next to the park was a small beach with sunbathers and families and barbecues and such. I thought it was kind of sad. For a sacred place with such history, the presentation lacked the solemnity I thought it deserved. When I mentioned my thoughts to Mike, he said maybe the presentation is exactly appropriate, in a strange reversed kind of way. This is an American presentation of a Hawaiian place. If the place had been sacred to Americans, it would have been given the treatment of the JFK museum or some other somber US memorial. But instead, we see an American presentation of a place that is sacred to a conquered people.
Our guidebook told us to spend 4 hours in the park. We stayed about 20 minutes and saw the whole thing.
We tried to stop for lunch on the way to Kona. It was 2:10 and we found a restaurant recommended by our guidebook. But they closed at 2:00 and wouldn't let us in. A lot of restaurants in Hawaii are like that. Lunch from 12-2 and then dinner from 5-9. If you come in at 8:30, expect to get turned away or get lousy service. I witnessed this several times on the island.
We checked into the Sheraton in Keauhou Bay and then drove to a marina to register for a manta ray nighttime snorkeling trip. Mike tells the story like this: Here are the things that were missing from the trip:
Here is the story from the beginning. We show up at the marina and check in at a beautiful boat which I won't say the name of because I really did enjoy the trip regardless of how it turned out. The captain tells us that there's something wrong with his boat, so his friend is going to take us out instead. The boat is outfitted for snorkelers and scuba divers, and we're going out at night to see manta rays, we hope. The rays are 18 feet across and harmless and they eat plankton, which is attracted to our flashlights and a big light that someone has placed on the bottom of the ocean. I've never been in the water at night, and Mike's never snorkeled at all, so we're very excited. Though I admit I'm a bit nervous to see manta rays. There are 4 people scheduled to snorkel, and a party of 6 scuba divers. I felt kind of intimidated by the scuba divers. It was only my 2nd time snorkeling.
Before we even get on the boat, the divers announce that they forgot their regulators. The stand-in captain (the original captain didn't join us) says he has some on his boat that they can use.
We get on the boat and on the way to the bay, one of the divers is bragging about swimming with 30 sharks. Another diver and his wife say they're having 2nd thoughts about diving, given that they'll have borrowed regs. The leader of the pack (I guess) starts heckling the guy and basically calling him chicken. I listened to this in shock and amusement. A woman wearing police academy shorts and another woman wearing a Tshirt saying "I'm cooler than my kids think" just smile and let the guys argue.
We get to the bay and there's another boat there too. The captain's assistant says now we just wait for it to get dark. We suit up in wetsuits. Due to the recent rains, the sea is very choppy, and the woman wearing the cool Tshirt complains of being seasick and sits on the end of the boat. Assistant tells us that the other boat was supposed to put a big light at the bottom of the ocean. When it gets dark, we'll be able to see the light and that is where the snorkelers are supposed to go. The divers will be on the bottom with little flashlights. Then the manta rays will come. When the sun goes down it is indeed very dark, and very obvious that there is no light at the bottom of the ocean. In the end, there were only 3 divers, including Assistant. They go down first and promise to shine their little lights up so the rest of us snorkelers will know where to go. 8 snorkelers. The first pair is the other pair that was always a snorkeling pair. I think it was the woman's first time too, cuz she needed help putting her mask on. They jump in and swim away without incident, with their little flashlights.
The 2nd pair is the shark hunter and his wife, who evidently chickened out of scuba after all. As soon as shark hunter hits the water, he complains of a leg cramp and clings to the boat. His wife clings to the other side, waiting for him. The stand-in captain tries to politely tell him that clinging to the boat is not safe and that if his leg hurts, he should just float in the water and use his snorkel to breathe. He refuses and this argument goes on for several minutes.
The 3rd pair are the 2 women. Cool Tshirt decides to stay on the boat, due to seasickness. I'm really surprised that someone prone to seasickness is a scuba diver, but whatever. Policewoman jumps in alone and swims away with a flashlight.
Last to go is Mike and me. Mike jumps in first, since now there is only room to de-boat for one person at a time. Seasick woman is sitting on one end and the captain is still arguing with leg cramped shark hunter on the other end. I'm nervous for Mike since now it is pitch black and the only thing he knows about breathing through a snorkel is what I mimed for him in the car on the way over. I jump in after him.
The 2 of us swim toward the designated spot, but we're some distance apart since he got a head start. As I swim toward the center of the bay, the policewoman is swimming back. She's screaming, "I need help! Please help me!" which naturally freaks me out. I'm cautious and I look at her (in the dark) to see what is wrong. Does she have a leg cramp? Is she seasick? Is she hurt? Is someone else hurt? Oh my god, is there a shark?! She seems fine to me, aside from the screaming for help. In the meantime, Mike the EMT is screaming at me from the other side. "Don't touch her! Get away from her! She'll drag you down!" But I'm not going to leave her so I'm just treading water and staring at her. I guess she was just panicked for no reason. Finally the captain hears her and talks her back to the boat. So I keep swimming toward Mike.
The assistant told us we'd have 45 minutes. Mike and I join what is now a big group of snorkelers floating on the surface. The other boat has emptied into the water too. We hover on the surface and shine our lights down. The 3 divers are on the bottom shining their lights up. All we see are lots of silver fish. We wait. After less than 10 minutes, I look up to see that there's now only 4 of us. Me and Mike and the original 2 snorkelers. "Where'd everybody go?" I yell, over the wind and waves. They just shrug and put their faces back in the water. So the 4 of us now shine our lights down and I try to will a manta ray to appear. After about 5 more minutes, I notice that the divers are gone. There's no more lights on the bottom of the ocean. So now it's really just us 4, floating in pitch dark between the 2 boats. 5 minutes later the assistant swims out and tells us that there's no mantas tonight and there's seasick people on the boat and it's time to come in.
The policewoman shows no sign of panic. She's chipper and trying to cheer up the seasick woman. Everyone else seems sort of embarrassed. We go home.
Mike and I ate dinner at Kai, the restaurant at the Sheraton. The service was SO BAD that I will say it again. The service is terrible at Kai, don't eat there.
We went to the outdoor bar at the Sheraton and looked out over the ocean. The Sheraton has put 2 big lights on the roof that shine down into the water. Mike points out movement in the water...a turtle, or...could it be? Manta rays. Two ginormous manta rays playing in the surf. They swim fast and all the way up to the surface. All of the sudden the thought that I might have been in the water with manta rays terrified me. What would I have done if a manta had actually shown up? I honestly don't know. Shut my eyes, no doubt. Could I have remained calm? I'm not sure. I'm glad we didn't see any mantas on our excursion. It was enough for me to see them from a safe place on land.
After the trip, we drove back to town and checked into our next hotel. Holua at Mauna Loa Resort, which is right next door to the Sheraton. It was FABULOUS. I highly recommend Holua. The place was bigger than our apartment at home, and was impeccably clean. It even had a washer and dryer inside, and you didn't have to put quarters in, either. Lovely patio, free parking, and it was cheaper than the Sheraton! If I ever go back to Kona I will only stay at Holua Resort from now on.
We changed into aloha wear and headed out to the Kona Village Resort to attend a luau. Our guidebook said that the Kona Village Resort had the best of the best luau in all the islands. The Kona Village Resort is the Big Island's only all-inclusive resort. $400 a night minimum, but all meals are included, and plenty of planned activities, including the luau if you're staying on Friday. On paper, that sounds really luxurious and tempting. But when we got the resort it is in the middle of NOWHERE, really. A resort on a big giant lava bed that goes on for miles. No wonder it's all-inclusive! I realized that staying at KVR would be akin to being on a cruise ship. You're stuck there, and so you have participate in the activities and eat meals with all the same people and it's very isolated. I'm glad we didn't actually stay there.
The luau was very lovely and they gave me a flower lei to wear on my head. When I booked our reservation at KVR, I thought I had attended that luau before. But now I think I must have gone to Royal Kona Resort's luau before. There was virtually no difference between the luau at KVR and the one at RKR. Both were wonderful and the food was fantastic. It was just so romantic and lovely.
I got too much sun on the whale-watching trip and had a bit of sunstroke. We had planned to go on a morning snorkeling trip with an outfit called Dolphin Discoveries. But in the morning I was still feeling under the weather, and so Mike walked down to the dock to ask if we could reschedule for the afternoon trip. The driver told him the afternoon trip was booked, so we just had to cancel.
I was a bit disappointed because I had gone out with Dolphin Discoveries a couple of years ago when I chartered 2 of their boats for a corporate event. Everyone said it was the Best Day Ever, and I had wanted Mike to experience it too. Although I admit I didn't get quite as warm a reception when I booked a reservation for a party of 2, but I didn't think much of it. When we had to cancel, I was disappointed for Mike's sake.
The same chilly receptionist (I think she's the owner) called me 2 hours after our cancellation. She was confrontational and yelling at me for violating the 24-hour cancellation policy, though neither Mike nor I had ever denied owing the company money. She brusquely wanted to know if we'd be joining them in the afternoon. I said we'd love to, but we were already told that was impossible. She floundered and said no, that we must be there at noon, and then she hung up.
I was a bit shocked at the treatment, and yes, I started crying. And then I couldn't stop. Mike called the company back and yelled at them...unfortunately it wasn't Ms. Owner who answered the phone. We went to the boat at noon, still a bit queasy, but I really wanted Mike to see the coral reef. The driver was very nice. A party of 3 joined us and then we took off. I don't know why the original driver said the afternoon trip was fully booked.
Although the driver was very nice, the trip was still remarkably different from my original experience. The first time out we made many stops and went to different locations. This time, the driver took us straight to Captain Cook bay and said that was our final stop. Either we got special treatment the first time when I chartered 2 boats, or the company just has downgraded their service over the last couple of years. Either way, I see now that this company is all about money.
If there is another way for you to get to the bay, I highly recommend it.
That night, we went into downtown Kona to do some shopping. We were expecting typical tourist souvenirs, but we also thought there might be something unique and artisanal somewhere. There wasn't. Downtown Kona is not the best place for local shopping. The Coconut Grove on Kauai is much better, but I'll talk about that later.
We drove back to our fabulous hotel and then Mike went to the grocery store and got a chicken which he brought back and barbecued for us. It was fantastic.
I got back to the hotel at the same time as Mike. He told me that changing hotels was the best decision to make. Apparently when he got back to our room, our previously locked room was wide open. The handyman was outside and Mike asked him what the heck was going on...Handyman said not to worry, no one would go in there...Mike asked him if he was aware that homeless folk spend the night at the hostel and he said yes...I'm just wondering what if I had wanted to go back and take a nap?
I highly recommend Best Western Plantation Hale. It was wonderful and very relaxing for our last night in Hawaii.