Hawaii: Big Island or Bust

My kindergarten teacher Molly was obsessed with Hawaii. We had a weeks-long learning unit about the tropical state that culminated in a day-long luau, complete with mumus, leis, and imitation ‘poi’ served in Dixie cups. I remember this party as being completely magical and immersive; it’s funny to think what it must have looked like to the adult chaperones. Molly drove a Volkswagen Beetle with pink hibiscus flowers printed all over it and she was even on my flight to Maui when my family went to Hawaii over spring break that year (the one and only time I’ve been to the state myself, up til now.)


When we went to Hawaii as a family, Maui got dumped upon with a record 10-day stretch of rain. We managed to get to the beach once or twice, but spent most of the time discovering Power Rangers for the first time on the hotel TV (the jingle for “Hawaii’s Very Own – Fox 13!” is STILL stuck in my head 22 years later, and the spectre of Goldar still haunts my nightmares.) We ate plenty of tart pineapple and watched as my dad fruitlessly tried to break open a raw coconut on the kitchen counter without any tools.


We must have found a waterfall despite the rain! Nice shirt, Dad!

THIS trip to Hawaii was bound to be more successful. Hawaii is one of the states that we’ve been anticipating since we hatched the idea for this trip. We’ve been excited (to varying degrees) for all of the states, but Hawaii is a popular travel destination due to its sunny weather, island environment and overseas flair. We were stoked for Hawaii. We’ve been thinking of the Hawaii/Alaksa leg of this trip as our honeymoon. Sure, all of 2016 is kind of like a huge, crazy honeymoon for us- but these two weeks in exotic locations, sans trailer, felt like a true vacation we could look forward to.

Downtown Hilo

Downtown Hilo

Drinking a fresh coconut at the Hilo Farmer's Market.

Drinking a fresh coconut at the Hilo Farmer’s Market.

Carl under a Banyan tree! These trees are prevalent in Hilo, and have gloriously tangled branches and trunks.

Carl under a Banyan tree! These trees are prevalent in Hilo, and have gloriously tangled branches and trunks.


We stashed the car and trailer in a storage lot in Olympia, and flew from Seattle to Hawaii (with plans to hit Alaska before returning to Washington- not an easy pack job!) We decided on the Big Island due to the natural diversity there. While all eight of the islands offer unique elements, the big guy has volcanoes, black sand beaches, tropical valleys, the Kona coast and rainforest. The big island alone supposedly has 10 of Earth’s 14 climate zones! Being of the outdoorsy inclination, we thought the choice was easy.

Hawaii is an especially interesting stop on this yearlong adventure, since it became part of the United States quite recently. It’s the youngest state, designated as such in 1959. We expected people to have more animosity towards the mainland, since Hawaii had been an independent nation up until 1898- we gingerly danced around this question with a lot of people we met, but it seemed that residents were generally pretty happy to be a part of the union and strongly identified as American. Native Hawaiians tend to have stronger feelings about this heritage (for obvious reasons)- most of the people we talked to had ancestors that settled on the Islands over the past 200 years and weren’t themselves native.

We figured we’d stay in the town of Hilo, since we thought it would be an easy, central location (in hindsight, this was probably untrue, since Hilo is fairly distant from a lot of the places we ended up traveling to and the weather there is often rainy- but we lucked out with a family friend to stay with and a college friend who worked at an observatory up on the Mauna Kea mountain!)

Since we were able to stay with a friend, we used Hilo as our jumping-off point to explore the entire island. We definitely underestimated the rainy climate in Hilo- it was wet and gray most days. Luckily, we had lots of mini excursions planned, and had a good variety of weather given that we had lots to explore.



Carl’s college friend Mike lives in Hilo and works as a physicist at Gemini observatory. The island gets so little light pollution out in the middle of the ocean that several major observatories have facilities up on its tallest mountain, Mauna Kea. The observatories are up at the peak close to 14,000 ft. elevation, so we had to drive high up the rocky mountain to get there. Mike took us up the mountain and hooked us up with a tour of the observatory. We got to see the giant telescope up close. It really felt like being on an alien planet at the top of the world!





Mike later took us to one of the best (and most memorable!) places on the trip- Uncle Robert’s night market. In 1990, a lava flow overtook most of the town and community of Kalapana. It stopped short of Robert Keli‘iho‘omalu’s home, and he’s since turned this oasis at the end of a lava field into a weekly gathering place and night market. It’s a crazy hippie paradise boasting homemade goods, vegan meats and raw desserts. The vibe was off the charts weird and excellent.

I had my tarot cards read by a guy named Roman, who was so intense that it took all of my energy to maintain eye contact and nod along to what he was saying. He assured me that my cards (Death! Spilling! The Devil?!) made up a “very strong” hand. Uuuum, I hope so! I bought coconut tumeric popcorn in a waxpaper bag from a woman who insisted the price was “donation-based”, and we drank BYOB beers while a band played reggae-tinged TLC covers. Yes, please.


Tacos served on a banana leaf!



Can you feel the intensity?!


Yup, Death and the Devil.

Afterwards, we walked out onto the lava flows just outside of the market and took pictures under the stars.



Volcanoes National Park is also on the Big Island. It’s one of the only places in the world where you can observe active lava flow! We went there on one of our first nights to see the glow, but we went back later to hike the craters during the day.





These beautiful bushes seemed to pop up randomly in the middle of the lava. Carl made fun of me for repeatedly invoking Jurassic Park and shouting, “life finds a way!”



This picture is only included here because I think I look like a glamorous woman in it! Oh hay!




In efforts to escape the rain (and see more of the island), we rented an AirBnb for a couple nights over on the Kona (west) side. The Kona coast is known for its white sand beaches and coffee farms! It definitely felt like more of a vacation destination, and we welcomed the change of scenery. My mom spent time on the Big Island as a child, and said that Kona was “where all of the movie stars hung out”. We went snorkeling at Two Step, visited a coffee farm, shopped at laid-back antique stores and ate plenty of poke and shaved ice!


The greatest food ever invented- chirashi sushi! This is basically like a Poke bowl with crunchy/savory sushi goodies thrown in. Seriously, this is up there in terms of best meals of the trip. Best of all, we bought these in a tiny hut in a grocery store parking lot (albeit, one with stellar Yelp reviews). Amazeballs.

The greatest food ever invented- chirashi sushi! This is basically like a Poke bowl with crunchy/savory sushi goodies thrown in. Seriously, this is up there in terms of best meals of the trip. Best of all, we bought these bowls from a tiny hut in a grocery store parking lot (albeit, one with stellar Yelp reviews). Amazeballs.





Ka Lae, or “Southpoint”, is (like it sounds) the southernmost tip of the non-contiguous US! The coast is lined with craggy, dramatic cliffs here, but not so steep or so tall that you can’t jump off of them into the water below. Cliff-diving is extremely popular here, though not officially recommended. We had some beastly sunburns from snorkeling at Two Step, so we didn’t feel too inclined to jump off- but we watched a lot of people do it!



Sea Turtles at Punalu’u, the most popular black sand beach! This beach is close to Southpoint. It was too blustery to swim so we just looked at turtles all afternoon!



Just your average lava field off the side of the road.

Pololu Valley is a popular destination with a black sand beach for swimmers and surfers- complete with a rocky hike down into the valley itself. It’s located along the northern edge of the island. This was one of our favorite excursions. This little cove really felt like a hidden paradise!







A quick layover in Honolulu!

Eventually we had to leave Hawaii for Alaska. It was bittersweet, because we could definitely get used to island life. We re-packed our big backpacks so that the shorts were on the bottom and the sweaters were on top, and ventured north to the land of salmon, glaciers and grizzly bears.

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