Hawaii (The Big Island): March 6-16
 Days 1-2, Beach #1

Junea Ice Field

Hawai’i. Both a place I’ve wanted to visit for a long time to see “our” humpback whales in their wintering grounds and, at the same time, not quite exotic enough to entice my interest. Also, every time I started to consider a trip to Hawai’i, the confusion of which island to visit quickly quelled my interest. What island was what—what did they all offer? How could one possibly decide? The results of most google searches resulted in very little differentiation between them all. But I finally persevered, sorted out which island was which, and used the lonely planet online guide to picking an island for a first time visitor to Hawai’i to settle the issue: the Big Island was the only one that advertised wildlife! I’m not saying the other islands don’t have wildlife, but I had to go on something. My requirements were simple: whales and wilderness—it didn’t take much to make that final decision. The Big Island it was.

And so Chris and I booked tickets for a March trip to the middle of the Pacific. We overnighted in Seattle with a friend of Chris’s, then took the light rail from downtown Seattle to the airport and boarded a six and a half hour flight to Kona. The flight went brilliantly, stocked with entertainment, diet cokes, and macaroni and cheese from Beecher’s in the airport, topped off by a complimentary mai tai from Alaska Airlines which was surprisingly good considering that the entirely cocktail came from a plastic jug. The flight attendants were appropriately festive and we were all treated as though we were tourists about to descend into paradise. We flew over Maui on the way in, then turned southeast to approach the Kona airport from the water. We disembarked onto the runway and found our bags under cover, but otherwise open to the air, which was novel. It was about 3:00 in the afternoon and I was immediately excited by the small, strikingly marked doves scavenging around the airport—my first indigenous wildlife!? After collecting our bags, we rode the shuttle to Alamo (barely squeezing into an overcrowded van, which put us first in line at the counter), and picked out a convertible. I nixed the silver car, and Chris chose the cherry red camaro with racing stripes over the banana yellow choice. In no time we were driving through sparse lava fields into downtown Kailua and along Ali’i Drive to our first vacation rental: a privately owned condo at the Islander Inn. Along the way, I had time to gawk at a truly preposterous tree with two foot wide branches reaching horizontally across the road, defying gravity with jaw-dropping immensity. I have yet to figure out what it is!

And then we arrived at the Islander Inn and found a parking spot just a few feet from the door of our rental. We punched in our key code and entered an enchanting room, small but perfectly suited to our needs and arranged brilliantly. Failing to find a parking pass as promised, we called the owner who directed us to the hotel lobby and the security desk where we convinced the attendant to issue us a pass by showing her the vacation rental email confirmation on my new iphone 5s. We were just in time, for Dusty, a friendly security guard, had already photographed our license plate to ticket us, but promised to complete our parking paperwork inside instead.

In the room we marveled at the pleasant lanai (patio) that looked over tropical flowering plants, across a small lawn, over Ali’i Drive, and onto the ocean. We relaxed for a bit outside, luxuriating in the climate and the view while my toes became plump and red from all the warmth (it had been in the single digits or teens with brutal north winds for weeks in Juneau before we left). Eventually, we wandered off to explore, first crossing the road to walk over the very small sandy beach and peer into the tide pools for fish (later identifying two species from my new Hawai’i fish ID app). Then we headed down Ali’i Drive through the tourist district of seaside Kailua, walking beneath a different, but equally impressive tree (a banyan) and past several restaurants; we eventually chose a sparsely populated steakhouse and wound up at the edge of the outdoor seating looking over the bay. After dinner we spotted a convenience store near the King Kamehameha Hotel nearby and purchased drinks and snacks (we’d found a small cooler in the room that would be perfect for taking to beaches and adventures). On the way back, we found two more stores of the same brand in the few blocks that we walked within easy sight of each other. “ABC” stores clearly had a monopoly, but they were awfully convenient.

Back at the room, we had a beer on the lanai before relaxing on the king bed, unusually placed at the back of the narrow room so one could look out onto the lanai from bed. A folding screen stood at the foot of the bed for privacy as needed. The rest of the room was furnished by a chest of drawers topped by a TV covered in a festive cloth, several chairs, and a coffee table. We barely used any of them except as counter space. The bathroom, with small fridge and microwave, was on the right as we entered the room. It wasn’t large as far as hotel rooms go, but perfectly outfitted for our Hawai’i vacation. The furnishings weren’t new, but they were adequate and felt fairly clean. The cupboards in the kitchen/bathroom were a little old, and the towels smelled a bit musty, but nothing uncomfortable. Air circulation could certainly have been better; we usually left the lanai door open and screened during the night; closing it and using the air conditioning didn’t improve things much. I slept well, but Chris found it uncomfortably warm. I was more disturbed by the idiots cruising Ali’i Drive blasting stupid music at all hours of the night, but it was Friday after all.

Whiting River (and homestead)

Our lanai

View from a restaurant

The next day we decided to relax and ease into the vacation with a simple day on the beach. Perusing my 28-page cheat sheet, painfully creating over hours and hours of research, we decided to check out Waialea Bay (a.k.a. Beach 69), the photos of which had piqued my interest. Waialea, like most white sand beaches, was located north of Kailua in the north Kona and south Kohala districts. So we wound our way up Kailua streets until we found ourselves on highway 19 going north over grimly barren land. I’d heard that the Kona side of the island was newer (i.e., covered by more recent lava fields), but I was in no way prepared for driving past wide stretches of truly barren lava rock. There were distinct flows—some comprised of jagged reddish rocks in fields of calamity, others of black boiling mounds jumbled together, most with distinct vertical edges five to 15 feet off the ground above older land. Patchy yellow grass grew and a few scrubby trees grew between the flows. Some flows hosted solitary trees here and there, or a lucky clump of grass. The farther north we traveled, the more mature the vegetation became until it looked all the world like the African savanna. Dry grass covered the landscape, broken by reddish rocks and interspersed by mesquite trees that look like acacias. I could picture gazelles and zebras among them, but all we saw were occasional feral goats.

At last we saw the sign for Puaka (which leads to Waialea Bay), which suggested that it was a mile ahead. We later learned that most such signs on the Big Island indicate the distance down the road in question rather than the distance to the start of that road, but being new to the island, we sped right by Puaka Road which was located just a hundred yards ahead of the sign. The next turn we came to was for Hapuna Beach, so we took that instead, arriving at a parking lot with few other cars and paying for parking with a credit card at a booth (at 9:00 a.m. there was not yet an attendant). It had rained hard during the night (I’d woken up and thought the sprinklers had turned on) and it had sprinkled on and off all the way north. I think that’s why we managed to wander our way down past the bathrooms, picnic tables, and shade trees to a nearly deserted beach on a Saturday morning. On the way we were surprised to see a long, lithe, squirrel-like creature run into the vegetation—Chris suggested it looked like a mongoose, and it turned out to be exactly that, an small Indian mongoose species introduced onto the island to eat invasive rats; unfortunately, they feed by day and the rats apparently emerge by night, so they’ve done more harm to birds than to rats.

We chose a spot on the south end of the perfect, white sand beach and set up our towels, pleased that the rain had stopped and the day was warm. We lathered up in sunscreen (inadequately as it would turn out) and soon found ourselves in the water. The life guards had posted undertow warning signs and placed a rescue board out in front of their station, but most of the waves were fairly tame. Chris and I played in them, reveling in the warm water and sunshine and learning tricks to make it comfortably over the larger series of waves. We didn’t always make it, and when the crest of the waves curled over our heads, we succumbed to their power, churned like the contents of a merciless washing machine over the sand and toward shore. We were both flipped upside down, spun, and twisted. Twice was enough for me, and I started to go out of my way to avoid them, but Chris was eating them up. Eventually we headed back to the beach to warm up, eat smoked gouda and chips, drink cool drinks, and fall asleep in the sunshine. It might have been my first nap on a tropical beach and it was amazing.

In the afternoon we played in the water again; I retreated back to the beach much earlier than Chris and enjoyed a long rain shower. This drove some of the beach goers away, but I wrapped my towel around my legs and waited it out while reading Isaac Asimov’s second Foundation novel and researching the two gorgeous birds I’d been watching around the island. I was very disappointed to find that both the dove and the strikingly bold yellow, black, and white birds that were everywhere in the town and on the beach were non-native: zebra doves and hill mynas, respectively.

On my second trip to the bathroom, I discovered with some embarrassment that there were outdoor showers nearby which would have made post-swim relaxing and much more enjoyable! As it was I could hardly touch my hair for my hands sticking to it and pulling it painfully. The beach itself was a classic tropical affair; possibly the longest beach on the island, it was separated about three quarters of the way up by a ridge of lava rock, beyond which was the hotel. On the south end where we were, the beach ended in a high, rocky point jutting into the surf. The sand was backed by a ground cover (beach morning glories?), then a gentle grassy slope up to the parking lot populated with large shade trees and shelters with picnic tables. On the way up I spotted a couple of yellow birds that looked like yellow warblers (and could have been), which are native, but I didn’t get a close enough look to tell for sure.

On the drive back, we swung by Waialea Beach to check it out and to check on the status of the sand. Apparently winter waves sometimes wash the sand off the beach, so we wanted to make sure it was worth a return visit. The area was as beautiful as the pictures suggested—narrow sandy beaches backed by  twisted, beautiful trees (both dead and alive); it was picturesque, offered lots of scenic shade, and had sand on the wide crescent on the southern end. Back at the room, we showered, then wandered across the street and accidentally found our way to Daylight Mind restaurant/bakery protruding into the bay. We had a classy, quiet, quality dinner on a patio over the ocean, looking back toward the island onto the sandy beach across from the inn. We shared a bottle of malbec, asked our waitress about when to say aloha and mahala, and enjoyed the evening.

Chris about to be tumbled by a wave

Waialea Beach

Waialea Beach

Waialea Beach

On to Day 3