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I’ve come to the end of the road. Literally. Highway 240 dead-ends and the land falls away to the ocean almost 2,000 feet below. With its jungle-covered, emerald cliffs, dropping straight down to the Pacific, pretty much everything about the Hamakua Coast on the north shore of Hawaii’s Big Island is spectacular. But at a mile wide and nearly six miles deep, Waipio Valley is not only the Valley of the Kings, it’s the king of Hamakua Coast valleys.

Michelle waffries' photo of Waipio Valley.

View from the overlook. Photo by waffries.

Waipio Valley History

This lush gorge was once home to the Hawaiian Alií (nobility). Estimates say that 4,000 -10,000 people once occupied this fertile valley before the time of European contact. It remains a prime spot for growing taro (a tuber which was the staple food of native Hawaiians) and you can see taro plants on the valley floor as you make your way out to the beach. King Kamehameha launched his conquest of the neighboring islands from this area and the valley remains a culturally important site to Hawaiians.

In its more recent history, Waipio Valley was populated by Chinese immigrants, and the valley floor had public amenities like schools, churches, restaurants, etc. But the deadly 1946 tsunami devastated the settlement and today Waipip Valley is sparsely populated.

SF Brit's photo of Waipio Valley.

From the air. Photo by SF Brit.

Hiking in Waipio Valley

If you don’t have a 4-wheel drive vehicle, or don’t want to deal with that adventurous of a driving experience (the descent boasts a 25% downgrade and flooding is common once you reach the bottom), you can hike down.  It’s quite a huff coming back up, but what the heck, you’ll feel entitled to another shave-ice after burning all those calories.

Scott Carpenter's photo of an adventure on the valley floor.

There are advantages to NOT driving. Photo by Scott Carpenter.

Once you reach the bottom and have had your fill of beaching-it in the soft, black sand,  there are a few options. Hiking to the back of the valley is discouraged because locals have posted “private road” and “no trespassing” signs. Whether or not the road really is private is debatable, but regardless- tourists may not be welcome.

pixtory's photo of black sand at Waipio Valley.

There’s nothing so Hawaiian as nestling your toes in black sand. Photo by pixtory.

No matter. I recommend crossing the beach to opposite side and hiking up the cliff to (at least) the first switch-back on the makai (ocean) side. The sweat you put in to reaching this point is rewarded with a marvelous view all the way to the rear of Waipio Valley. You can see at least two waterfalls, one at the back of the valley and one underneath the parking lot of the overlook. And of course, there’s that beautiful coastline.

To get here, you will need to cross the river. How bad can that be? Well, on an incoming tide it can get a bit hairy and even dangerous. Check the tide tables in advance and plan accordingly. When the tide is out, crossing is a peace of cake.

Another option is to turn right when you reach the beach and hike out to the waterfall that’s under the overlook. Again, the timing of your hike should be synchronized with the tides, otherwise you might find yourself trapped. Check the tables ahead of time and don’t be stupid.

Rob Lee's photo of the Waipio Valley floor.

The valley floor. Photo by Rob Lee.

Waimanu Trail

If you’re a serious hiker, then once your reach the top, you can continue on the Waimanu or Muliwai Trail which winds through pine forests at the top of the cliff and eventually reaches the next valley – Waimanu. The round trip from Waipio Valley to Waimanu Valley and back (there is no road to Waimanu Valley) is 19 miles. This is not a trail for novice hikers, and I have not attempted it. If you do, you’ll need to carry lots of water, mosquito repellent, nourishment etc.  Flash floods are common in these valleys, so try to be informed about the weather forecast.

Waipio for Wimps

If strenuous hiking is not your cup of tea, there are other ways to see Waipio Valley. You can hitch with other tourists with 4-wheel drive vehicles, and locals often take pity on hikers dragging their tired asses up the hill.

If you don’t want to hike, but still want to feel adventurous check out these options:

Regardless of how you get there, Waipio Valley is likely to be a place you’ll not soon forget.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park – The Basics

Welcome to the newest place on earth!

There is a lot to see here and your $10 entry fee gives you the right to come/stay for seven consecutive days. But if you don’t have that much time, here are the must-sees:

  • Check in at the Visitor’s Centers. Staff there will tell you about the current conditions and what’s good to see today. Also, the 20 minute film, Born of Fire, Born of the Sea provides an excellent orientation of the islands.
  • Be awed by the view of Kilauea Crater from Volcano House.
  • Hike trough Thurston Lava tube.
  • Visit the Jagger Museum to see Pele’s hair and tears and to understand the geology of what you are seeing.
  • Drive to the end of Chain of Craters Road and stand on land that is younger than you.
  • Stay into the evening and see red, glowing lava.

If you have the time, go on one of the short, ranger-guided hikes. You will learn some fascinating details, like the fact that the yellow wool on a tree fern is as soft as a baby’s butt, that will help you enjoy your visit to the park more.

Disclaimer: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is always changing. I went to a visitor’s center in 1977 that is no longer there because it is now covered by lava. Eruptions move, and a shift in the wind can force large areas of the park to be closed because of dangerous gases. Check the web site for current conditions.

Niksnut's photo of specially adapted plant life in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Perfectly evolved for its environment, this plant can “hold its breath” when the sulfur levels get too high. Photo by niksnut.

Hiking in the Park

The visitor center has a brochure called Day Hikes, which lists ten of the best hiking options in the park. Here are a few of my favorites:

Anyone will tell you, if you only do one big hike in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park it should be Kilauea Iki. This 4 mile/6.4 km loop will take you through lush rain forest on your way to Kilauea Iki crater. Then you’ll have the chance to walk across a caldera, a hardened lake of lava. We enjoy this trail so much that we did it twice on our last visit to the park.

Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs Trail, a short hike near the end of Chain of Craters Road takes you to a board walk around a field of petroglyphs offering insight into the native Hawaiian culture. While your down here at the end of the road – hike out to the edge (where the trail is marked) and look at the sea arch.

For something a little different, head up Mauna Loa road to see tree molds (imprints of tree trunks in the lava) and a completely different kind of forest from what you see on the other side.

Brewbooks' photo of a tree fern.

One of many tree ferns. Photo by brewbooks.

Don’t be an idiot!

Wearing our tee-shirts and hats, we headed out to the Pu’u Huluhulu Cinder Cone and then decided to continue on to the Makaopuh Crater. I was slathered with sunblock and carrying plenty of water. It was sunny so I left my jacket in the car. We were somewhere west of nowhere when the weather suddenly changed. Rain poured and a cold, driving wind ensured that we were soaked and freezing. And completely unprepared. As we dragged our soaked asses back towards the trail head we began to see other hikers setting out. After we passed them, we would put them into one of two categories based on their clothing; smart people or idiots like us.

In addition to instantly and drastically changing weather, there are other dangerous trail conditions. Lava tubes are hollow and can collapse under you. Always stay on marked trails. (Trails are usually marked by lines of piled lava.)

Eli Duke's photo of lava in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Terrain in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is always fascinating, though not always easy to walk on! Photo by Eli Duke.

Lodging

Staying in the hotel at Volcano House was beyond my budget, but there are some more affordable options within the park:

Kulanaokuakiki Camping Area: Free tent camping (free is a very good price) is available at Kulanaokuakiki, off of a side road about ¼ of the way down Chain of Craters Road. There are tent sites, a pit toilet, picnic tables and BBQs. There is no water at the site. Also, be warned. We pitched our tent, staked it down, and had two suit cases sitting inside and a gust of wind picked it up and flipped it over.

Namakanipaio Camping Area: A few miles Kona side of the park entrance, Namakanipaio offers tent sites, bathrooms, drinking water, picnic tables and BBQs. The price is $10 to $15 depending on the site.

Camping Cabins: Also at Namakanipaio, the cabins have beds for four including daily clean linens. The shared bathroom includes hot showers. There is electric lighting, but only cabin #3 has an outlet. Cabins cost $90 per night.

One nice perk about staying at Namakanipaio is a convenient half-mile trail that leads directly to the Jagger Museum, current location for night-time lava viewing.

Outside of the park, I’ve had a good experience at the Holo Holo Inn (hostel) in Volcano Village. Amenities include a kitchen, free coffee and tea, hot showers, internet, TV room and laundry area. Dorms run $24 and private rooms are $60. Park at the Japanese School next door.

Alan L's photo of an eruption at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

The red glow (only visible at night) makes it worth staying the night in the park. Photo by Alan L.

Aloha! Welcome to Paradise! The Hawaiian archipelago is the most isolated in the world and contains over 100 islands.  Of course, not all of those are populated or accessible.  But the eight main islands each have their own “personality” and are all worthy of a visit. But how does Hawaii inter-island travel work?

Sadly, the answer to that question includes a few stories of things not working out quite the way they were intended.   But don’t get discouraged.  There are good options for Hawaii inter-island travel.

Super Ferry, Super Debacle

At the turn of the millennium, some one decided that it would be a good idea to put in a ferry system.  Seems reasonable.  Big bucks were spent, terminals built, boats constructed.  But something (or some things) went terribly wrong.  The ships couldn’t cut the mustard, or maybe they would have done fine in mustard, but they couldn’t manage some of the conditions in the Pacific.  And some how the project was well underway, one route had been operating for over a year, before doing an environmental impact study.  Operation was suspended in 2009 due to the requirement for an environmental impact statement, and under this duress the whole “Superferry” project imploded.

So much for that.

Chdwckvnstrsslhm's photo of Waimanalo Bay.

So many islands, so few options! Photo by chdwckvnstrsslhm.

Fare Wars Gone Bad

I was house sitting on the Big Island when I heard the ad.  Inter-island flights for as little as $50. That’s an unheard of price and it made me feel both excited and uncomfortable.  Would $50 really cover the cost of flying me from point A to point B? I was tempted. But I also want to be a responsible consumer.  It takes a lot of people, pilots and air traffic controllers, mechanics and security guards, ticket agents and luggage handlers, to make flying possible.  I want all of those people to receive a good salary that keeps them stable (experienced) and motivated in their jobs.  Then there are the non-labor costs- things like insurance and the big one -fuel.  Hawaii inter-island travel can be ridiculously expensive.  Prices to “hop” to one of the neighbor islands can literally be as high as the price of crossing the Pacific to the US mainland 2,500 miles away.  It all comes down to the fact that jets are just not a practical choice for traveling such short distances.

For decades, travelers would arrive in Honolulu from all over the world and one of two local airlines, Hawaiian and Aloha, would shuttle them over to one of the other islands.  Then in 2006, a new carrier, go! decided it wanted a piece of the action.  Go! was the airline offering the inter-island flights for $50.  A while later they offered flights for one dollar.  This time I wasn’t tempted.  Something about that was just wrong.

Go!’s fare war (and rising fuel prices) had the desired effect.  In 2008, Aloha Airlines, which had been operating in Hawaii since 1946, closed down.  And as of April 1, 2014, go! has also left Hawaii.  Apparently offering flights for $1 wasn’t a sustainable business model.  Go figure.

Aero Icarus' photo of the traditional Hawaii inter-island travel option.

Big name in Hawaii inter-island travel. Photo by Aero Icarus.

Current Options for Hawaii Inter-island Travel

With Aloha gone and go! now leaving, Hawaiian Airlines is the last man standing as far as the major carriers go.  However, there are a few small companies, Mokulele Airlines and Island Air, which are picking up the slack.  They use smaller, turboprop planes and are therefore able to offer much better fares.

It is also possible to travel by ferry between Maui and Lanai, and between Maui and Molokai .

Or you could just enjoy the island you’re on.  It’s great undoubtably great too!

A Cool Conversation at 30,000 feet…

The second flight of the trip, I would be sandwiched in the middle seat for the five plus hours as we crossed the Pacific.  I didn’t much care as I planned on being unconscious for most of the time.  But before drifting off, I engaged in one of my favorite people watching pastimes – being a “book voyeur”.   Tablets have made this much harder to do, but whenever possible I still glance around to see what people are reading.  The gentleman next to me was reading in French.  Interesting.  I don’t usually meet many Europeans on these flights.

When I awoke for pop and peanuts, the man had gotten out his laptop and was working on a clearly work-related document.  It was written in English and had a lot of acronyms.   Something about it seemed “sciency”.  So when the opportunity presented itself, I popped the obvious question.

“Are you an astronomer?”

Our destination, the Big Island of Hawaii  is made up of five volcanoes.  The largest, Mauna Kea, is considered to be the second best place in the world for viewing the stars  (the best being Cerro Amazones, Chile).  It is home to thirteen world class telescopes, one of which is the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope.  The man in the seat next to me was an astronomer-turned-administrator who was flying in from Paris for the annual Board Meeting of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope.

Nogwater's photo of some Mauna Kea telescopes.

Mauna Kea telescopes. Photo by Nogwater.

Perhaps I should have left him in peace, but I couldn’t resist.

“So is there anything new and exciting happening on Mauna Kea right now?” I asked.  “Or is there always something exciting happening on Mauna Kea?”

He assured me that it was the latter and proceeded to give me a fascinating update on the state of the universe. The big story is that the universe is expanding.  Not only expanding, but expanding at an accelerating rate. This makes no sense, and has lead scientist to conclude that there’s some stuff we don’t know about, including some energy that seems to work in the opposite direction as gravity.  The stuff and the energy have been labeled “dark matter” and “dark energy”.  In this case, the word dark is being used as a euphemism for unknown.

Cool! The universe should be mysterious.

Visiting Mauna Kea

If you’re an armature astronomer, a little bit geeky, or just a curious person, a visit to Mauna Kea could be one of the highlights of your time in Hawaii.  You’ve never seen the sky like this.

Tiffany Mueller's photo of the night sky looking south from Mauna Kea.

Starry night. Photo by Tiffany Mueller.

You can arrange with a private tour company to take you to Mauna Kea, but their prices tend to be astronomical (sorry) and their services really aren’t necessary since there is a free stargazing program at the Visitor Center every night between from 6:00 – 10:00 PM.

Try to select a night when there is little or no moon.  And don’t worry if there are clouds in the sky when you start out on Saddle Road.  By the time you get to the visitor’s center, you’ll be above them.  Dress warm.  Things get chilly at 9,300 feet, and you’ll end up wanting to stay the whole four hours.  Snacks are available in the visitor center store  (the assortment of candy has been carefully selected for their names- Milky Way,  Star burst, etc), but it’s worth bringing picnic. If you’re coming in from the Hilo side, the ‘Imiloa Center makes an excellent preview.

The Summit

There are three ways to get to the summit of Mauna Kea- hike, take one of those expensive tours, or drive up in a 4-wheel drive vehicle.  The summit is at 14,000 feet and it’s a good idea to stop and hang out at the visitor’s center first to acclimate to the altitude. (Also, don’t go within 24 hours of going diving.).  Prepare for cold weather – it snowed when I went, and enjoy watching the sunset from above the clouds.

Tiffany Mueller's photo of a Mauna Kea sunset.

Mauna Kea sunset. Photo by Tiffany Mueller.

On Saturdays and Sundays, escorted summit tours (everyone caravans in their own vehicle) depart from the visitor’s center at around 1:00 PM, and include a tour of at least one of the observatories.  This is totally worth doing, especially if it means you get to see the Keck.

The Keck (there are actually two of them, called Keck I and Keck II) are an awesome bit of engineering.  Telescopes work by gather light onto a mirror.  The bigger the mirror, the more light they can collect, the more they can see.  The problem is that a mirror can only be so big.  Beyond a diameter of about 8 meters, a mirror will collapse under its own weight.  The Kecks get around this problem by having 36 hexagonal shaped mirrors fit and move together as one.

Big Dubya's photo of the inner workings of the Keck telescope.

Inside the Keck. Photo by Big Dubya.

Infinity and Beyond

In case you’ve already done so much traveling that you’re feeling this world is not enough, take heart! The upcoming decades promise to bring plenty of new out of this world discoveries.  A new Thirty Meter Telescope is planned for Mauna Kea and could be ready by 2018. Not to be outdone, the European Extremely Large Telescope (39 meters) is under construction in Cerro Amazones and is expected to be operational by 2022.  And the European Space Agency has just launched the GAIA space telescope on a five year mission to catalogue and monitor the Milky Way, to seek out new properties and information, to boldly map what no man has mapped before.

Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau – Place of Refuge

You have committed an infraction against ancient Hawaiian law.  The system of justice is simple and efficient.  You are sentenced to death.  Since you live on an island, there is no chance of escape.  Or is there? All you need to do is reach Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau, the Place of Refuge.  If you can get there before your pursuers, all will be forgiven.

That’s how it was back in the day. Today Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau (called Place of Refuge by those of us who can’t speak Hawiian) is a National Historic Park, providing an opportunity to see how the upper echelon of Hawaiian society lived.  You can wander through the ruins of an ancient village and see demonstrations of Hawaiian cultural practices (crafts, fishing, weaving, etc.).

And of course, the setting is spectacular.  Today Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau is a place of refuge for green sea turtles who come to lounge on the warm sound.

Following the coastal trail to the south end of the park, you have the option of hiking to Hookena Beach Park.  The surf provides for great boogie boarding and if you have your mask and snorkel, you will be rewarded.  The round trip hike takes just under three hours.

Just north of Place of Refuge is a popular snorkeling spot, known as Two Step for a place where steps in the lava form and easy entry.  If you swim out a little way, someone has left a welcoming message, “Aloha,” on the sea floor.  Note that there is no swimming or snorkeling allowed in the park itself.

irene.'s photo of Place of Refuge

Place of Refuge. Photo by irene.

Captain Cook

If you proceed farther north, near where highway 160 meets with Napo’opo’o Road, you will see a white obelisk protruding from the edge the bay, marking the place where the great explorer, James Cook died.  As imperialist white guys go, Cook was one of the better ones, recognized for his efforts to treat both his crew and the peoples they encountered with care and justice.  Indeed, when he “discovered” Hawaii in 1778, first contact went well.  Both island nations, monarchies, sea-faring powers and highly stratified societies, Britain and Hawaii had a lot in common.  The Hawaii State flag still carries the Union Jack.  However, Kealakekua became a place of refuge for Cook as well- his final refuge. On a return trip in 1779, he was killed by Hawaiians over a misunderstanding regarding use of a rowboat.  One of history’s great ironies.

The area around the monument has fabulous snorkeling with clear waters and a beautiful wall of coral.  However, you have to earn the right to see it as the only access is by boat or by hiking (4 mile round trip with 1,300 foot elevation change). Kealakekua Bay, Two-Step and Hookena are all good place to see dolphins.

Upsilon Andromedae's photo of the Captain Cook monument.

Monument to Captain Cook at Kealakua Bay. Photo by Upsilon Andromedae.

See the Painted Church

On your way back up to the highway, stop in at the Painted Church, conveniently located on Painted Church Road.  St. Benedict’s Catholic Church dates back to the 1800’s.  Around 1900, Father John Velge began covering all the interior surfaces with frescos.  The themes are typically religious, but the palms on the ceiling give it a definite Hawaiian flair.

Coconut wireless' photo of the Painted Church.

A polynesian view of the heavens? Photo by coconut wireless.

 

Few corners of the world offer so much variety in so little space as Hawaii’s Big Island.  If you can get yourself to the middle of the Pacific, here are a few tips to make the most of your time:

Lava flow. Photo by Wm Leler.

Volcan-O

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is not only a must-see travel destination, it should be one of the first places you visit when you’re on the Big Island.  There are two reasons for doing this at the start of your trip:

1)    The visitor’s center shows a short film which provides an excellent orientation to the unique geology, flora and fauna, and culture of the Hawaiian islands.  This will provide context for your entire trip.

2)    Conditions at an active volcano can change quickly and drastically. Sometimes there are spectacular views of the caldera, or of glowing lava flowing into the sea.  At other times you can’t see half a meter in front of you.  Parts of the park may be closed for safety reasons when sulfur dioxide levels are too high.  However, your entrance fee of $10.00 per vehicle gives you access to the park for 7 days. Making Volcano one of your first stops means you’ll have time to go there again if Mother Nature foils your initial visit.

Telescopes on Mauna Kea. Photo by Kate Ure.

Overhead

We may all be looking at the same sky, but trust me, it looks better from Hawaii.  I’m not the only one who thinks so.  Mauna Kea, the tallest mountain in the world (9,750 meters from it’s base under the sea) is home to multiple world class telescopes. The air atop Mauna Kea is thin and clear, and there is little light pollution in the middle of the ocean.

Stargazing at Mauna Kea is an unforgettable experience. Constellations which you may be able to find easily from you home become difficult to spot, because of all of the “extra” stars around them.  You do not need to pay hundreds of dollars to go stargazing at Mauna Kea. The visitor center at (2,800 meters elevation) offers free viewing through their telescopes Friday through Sunday evenings. Dress warm- I’ve seen it snow up there, and if possible, schedule your visit for a night when there is little or no moon.

If you reach the summit (four wheel drive required), you may be able to tour the University of Hawaii telescope and the ingeniously designed (made of multiple hexagonal mirrors) Keck.  And of course, the view, looking down on the clouds, is spectacular.

 

Successful snorkeling! Photo by Wm Leler.

Ocean

Obviously, splashing around in the Pacific is one of Hawaii’s main attractions. Three of the west side’s best known snorkel spots are not to be missed:

–     Kahalu’u Beach (around mile post 5 on Alii Drive)
It’s convenient location, protected waters and all the amenities make this perfect spot for novice snorkelers, or experts snorkelers wanting a quick dip before setting out for other activities.  There are bathrooms, snacks for sale, gears for rent and shady trees.  The abundance of turtles and colorful fish make you feel like your in an aquarium.  The only downside is that everyone knows about it so you’ll see a lot of humans too.

–     Kealakekua Bay
Famous not only for it’s beautiful waters, but also as the place where legendary explorer James Cook met his death in 1779, Kealakekua Bay lies a little south of Kailua.  The waters are crystal clear and a natural drop off makes for a spectacular coral-covered wall.  Getting here can be tricky.  You have a choice between signing on with a snorkel cruise and coming by boat, hiking the 3.2kms down from Napoopoo Road (remember to save energy for hiking back up), or renting a kayak and paddling across the bay.  All are good options, but if you choose the latter, you may find yourself in the midst of playful spinner dolphins.

–     Honaunau 
Adjacent to Pu’uhonau o Honaunau (Place of Refuge) National Historic Park, which is definitely worth a visit, this is another undersea paradise.  Lovely coral, occasional dolphins and an underwater sign saying, “Aloha,” welcome snorkelers.  In spite of the “two steps” for which the site is known, I sometimes find getting out tricky.  If you’re having trouble, check for safety and use the boat ramp.

If you can’t pronounce the Hawaiian names, you can use the “haole” place names; Snorkel Beach, Captain Cook, Two Step (respectively).

Onomea Bay and Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden. Photo by RDPixelShop.

Onomea Bay and the Hamakua Coast

The big Island has several botanical gardens.  My favorite is the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden  just north of Hilo as you head up towards the Hamakua coast.  Access the garden by taking the Onomea Bay Scenic Route turn off.  (Do this anyway, even if you’re not interested in the Botanical Garden).  Literally thousands of tropical plants are displayed and labeled, and the scenery is spectacular.  After you leave Onomea Bay and continue north, stop at Akaka Falls.  The water cascades down some 400 feet and your experience at the Botanical Garden will allow you to recognize some of the jungle flora you’ll see while hiking to the viewpoint.

Outstanding Guidebook

The Big Island Revealed by Andrew Doughty is an indispensable resource. (There’s an iPhone app too.) It will give you access to hiking trails, pristine beaches, and many things you might not discover on your own. Don’t leave home without it.