Annual “Pilgrimage” to the Big Island of Hawaii

I first came to the Big Island of Hawaii for the New Year’s eve, in December of 1999: hard to believe, but it was 20 years ago.

And I felt in love instantly with the place: beautiful beaches and sunshine on Kona side, lush vegetation and waterfalls on rainy Hilo side, dramatic cliffs and amazing Green Sand beach at the South Point, majestic Mauna Kea mountain offering – perhaps best in the world – possibility for the star-gazing and much more.

Green Sand beach

But most importantly, I was very lucky to meet a number of people there who became dear and close friends. The result? At least, one trip each year to Big Island. And so, it felt very appropriate to open “2020 season of travels” with the pilgrimage to Big Island.

I arrived to Honolulu airport and had to wait two hours for connecting flight to Kona. But…here is a piece of advice for such transit travelers. Honolulu airport has several “internal” open air gardens where one can enjoy lush vegetation, have a picnic or take a nap. No need to go back and forth through security to access these gardens. Take a look:

Gardens inside Honolulu airport
Gardens inside Honolulu airport

Upon arrival to Kona airport, everyone is instantly aware of this island’s volcanic nature: lava fields are everywhere…

But I know my ways around as well as favorite destinations. I am heading right away to one of the best kept secrets of the Big Island: Kekahi Kai state park. Many tourists are turned away from this place, because the 1.5 miles road from the highway to the park is REALLY bad, but once you have driven several times there, it is not big deal anymore. From the parking lot, it does not look very appealing.

But wait…go to those trees in the distance and you will find a small paradise

Escaping the Rain

The Big Island got really rainy weather and not only on “traditionally wet” Hilo side, but even on usually sunny/hot Kona side. The beach today was out of question. But…the beauty of the Big Island is that it has much to offer at any type of weather conditions. And so I hit the road. First destination was Volcano national park. I have been there many times, but one is never tired to look inside huge caldera of volcano which “never sleeps.”

Then, for first time in my life, I met Dr. Thomas Jagger – the famous founder the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory who directed it from 1912 to 1940. Well, not exactly Dr. Jagger himself, but the actor impersonating this great volcanologist and telling the story of his amazing life…

Think of a person who by 1906 hold prestigious professorship positions at both Harvard University and MIT. Yet, in 1912, he decided to move to a rather remote Big Island of Hawaii, settled there until the end of his life (1953) and studied the area of what will eventually become Hawaii National Volcano Park. As a side note, in today’s presentation, I learned about truly dramatic event in the recent history. In 1902, Jaggar was sent to investigate the volcanic disasters at Soufrière and Mont Pelée. In a nutshell, The volcanic eruption of 1902 on idyllic island of Martinique destroyed the town of Saint-Pierre, killing 28,000 people in the space of a few minutes. This is considered the worst volcanic catastrophe of the 20th century. There were only two survivors: Louis-Auguste Cyparis survived because he was in a poorly ventilated, dungeon-like jail cell; Léon Compère-Léandre, living on the edge of the city, escaped with severe burns.[

Well, enough of dramatic events. My next destination is coffee plantation: I guess everyone is aware of highly prized Kona coffee. But this particular plantation is “with a special twist.” It offers dramatic view of Pacific.

And so, this place was chosen as the best possible setting for the lunch. The menu? Very simple and delicious. Freshly brewed coffee from the locally grown coffee beans accompanied by the lilikoi cheesecake from the local passion fruits and by the captivating ocean view…

The Day of Playing Robinson Crusoe

I was thinking of staying in some nice, but “unusual” place and found – via AirBnB this great hostel in Ocean View (south of Big Island). It is built on lava fields, totally off-grid (solar batteries only) and only couple miles away from the ocean

Two houses with four beds each, kitchen, hot shower….what else one can wish? In the morning, I hiked fairly rocky but easy trail to the ocean…

It felt like approaching private paradise….

First, I discovered a nice lagoon: fully protected from the wind and surrounded by the palm trees

…and then another half mile hike and bingo: great white sand beach. Need,es to say: this was the place to stay for the rest of the day – a very well lived day.

A Perfect Beach Day

Once in a while, it is a good idea to spend the ENTIRE day on the beach. Especially, if one can find a truly PERFECT beach. I knew of Pohue Hue white sand beach as very beautiful and also somewhat remote: it requires about 1.5 hours of hiking. And so, in preparation to the trail over lava fields, I had my most favorite breakfast (with a very distant view of my destination)

There is nothing better in the morning (to energize body and wake up all senses) than the cold and sweet freshly cut watermelon combined with aromatic and complex flavor of Kona coffee

Off we go….it will take me a while to get to the ocean…

But I make a progress (30 min later)

The question is, of course, how many people will be on the beach. Probably, not many, but a few for sure…Unbelievable, but today this paradise is just for me and one more fellow. I can live with this.

And so, this was the rest of the day – of a very good day.

Two Days on the “Free Spirited” Side of the Big Island (Hilo side)

For those who has never visited Hawaii, normally first destination is either Oahu or Maui – the islands where most tourists go. But even those who make it to Big Island stay mostly and spend most of their time on Kona side – the side of the island which gets much more sunshine, is dryer, has better beaches and more developed tourist infrastructure. Too bad, because it is Hilo side where the “free spirit” of authentic Hawaii lives. You have much greater chances to interact with and get to know native Hawaians there. You will find “hippy like” communes and entire villages populated by folks who came for vacation and never left. You will find people who literally live in the rainforest and survive on gathering fruits, fishing and doing – occasionally – various odd jobs. Yes, there are not many beaches there, but, yet the coastal line is dramatic (cliffs, waves) and conditions for surfing are excellent. And most important Hilo side is the area where the genuine spirit of “Aloha” lives

I am very lucky (and honored) to have old dear friend who lives near town of Pahoa and – to my mind – is living embodiment of both the free-spirited nature of Hawaii and genuine welcoming “Aloha” attitude. Born in 1939, Karin Tahopiu grew up in California, then lived first part of her life on Tahiti, married and had a son there (Mark and I are of exactly the same age), then moved to the Big Island, built beautiful house surrounded by flowers and lush vegetation and created an amazing network of good and close friends. For me personally, Karin is one of the role models

But the life of this entire area (near Pahoa) was literally turned upside down in 2018 because of the long lasting volcanic eruption and lava flow which resulted in destruction of hundreds of houses and evacuation of thousands of residents. Karin stayed (although lava was only 500 yards away from her home) and told me the story of survival through several weeks of no electricity, the air with little oxygen and a lot of poisonous fumes, the metal parts of the houses and appliances being destroyed by acidic elements, with “precipitation” consisting of small glass particles which are invisible but cut human skin right away and much more…But she stayed. What one can witness one year after this eruption are the roads going into nowhere…

or miraculously saved bench and picnic table in a local park right next to the wall of crystallized lava (I thought it would be quite an experience to sit there and see lava approaching)

…but I definitely would not wish to sit then at this table…

Ironically, 2018 eruption contributed to the improvement of the local beach scene: an entirely new (and quite nice) black sand beach emerged

And also the new natural termal (hot) ponds emerged which I greatly enjoyed after swimming in a rather cool (but not cold) ocean.

My tip for anyone visiting this are is to take a short but very scenic drive on Hwy 137 from Isaac Hale State park (that is where new Black Sand Beach is) to Kalapana. Essentially, Hwy 137 goes along the coast. Partially you will drive through the real “forest gallery”

…but then you will “jump” onto endless lava fields

Also, one of the best kept secrets near Hwy 137 is Kehena Black Sand Beach. You will need to park car on the side of the road and hike down a short, but very steep trail. The reward is beautiful lagoon, good for swimming, snorkeling and surfing. The beach is “clothing optional”: some people like this, some not, but it is what it is…

But even without visiting this beach, the coastal scenery is amazing and dramatic: cliffs, crushing waves…

Your final (and ultimate) destination at the end of Hwy 137 is the so-called Uncle Roberts Awa Bar and Farmers Market. This place is hard to define and describe. It is indeed at the same time sort of intentional community, several galleries, several places to eat (with interesting “alternative” types of foods), farmer market on Wednesday. Essentially, I would describe this place as a “hub of various social activities.” Definitely fun to visit, have a meal there, and just to watch the local social scenery…

Clearly, the visit to this entire area would not be complete without checking out “hippie/New Age” town of Pahoa. Simply stroll its main street and you will get a very good idea “what is this place” about. My favorite place in the entire town is Tin Shack Bakery. If you wish to “meet locals” or get any piece of advice on the realities of local life, go there

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