Sunrises are fantastic Hilo-side, the east side of the Big Island of Hawaii. Photo by Barb Gorges.
Published Nov. 18, 2008, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Hawaii: Hilo-side. The sand is black instead of white. And you can’t see the sunset…but the sunrise is amazing. Local family experiences “other side” of Hawaii’s Big Island.”
2014 Update: The column about birding Hawaii was published in December 2008 and will be uploaded in December. Our B&B hosts have moved to the mainland. Our son married the marine biologist.
By Barb Gorges
Hawaii: Visions of honeymooners on a white sand beach at sunset at a swanky resort, right? Yes, if you are recalling a travel poster for Waikiki Beach.
If you know my husband, Mark, and me, you know we had a completely different, but wonderful experience during our nine-day stay in late October on Hawaii, the Big Island.
First, we aren’t honeymooners. Jeffrey, our younger son on fall college break, joined us in visiting our older son Bryan, who moved to Hilo for a job last January, hired by a University of Wyoming alum.
Bryan’s girlfriend was able to join us often. She’s a third-year marine biology major at the University of Hawaii-Hilo so we had a personal guide at beaches and tide pools who hails from Greeley, Colo.
Second, the beaches Hilo-side are black, made from eroding lava. The more popular white beaches Kona-side, the west side of the island, are tiny bits of bleached coral.
Kona gets the sunsets. Hilo gets magnificent sunrises but you have to be up at 6 a.m. to see them.
Hilo isn’t as popular or sunny as Kailua-Kona and since we were visiting before the height of the season which is late November through March, we found a great place for $65 per night.
Since no other guests were staying at the Na’ali’i Plantation Bed & Breakfast, we had our own complete household. Every morning we had a hot breakfast with fresh, ripe papaya and apple bananas served on the lanai (porch) overlooking the forest. Birds twittered everywhere. On clear days we could see Hilo Bay, a 15-minute drive away.
Anthurium plantations were wide-spread on the Big Island at one time. This remnant grew at our B & B. Photo by Barb Gorges.
There are still anthurium blooming under rows of tree ferns, since at one time the plantation was a commercial operation. Our hostess, Annie Maguire (cousin to Cheyenne resident Helen Hart), has filled her two-acre garden with local specialties such as papaya, guava, avocado, coffee, ginger and orchids.
We didn’t spend time sunbathing on beaches. Both Mark and I have had skin cancer scares. But we did pack fleece jackets and mittens for a trip up Mauna Kea, the White Mountain, which gets snow in winter.
Vacationers prefer Kona-side where popular resorts are in a sunny, 10-inch annual precipitation zone. Hilo is the wettest place in the U.S., rated at 140 inches, but it is in a drought right now. For us, from the 15-inch precipitation zone, the rain is a novelty we can enjoy since it comes warm, without lightning and wind, usually, or hail and snow. The locals mostly wear “rubbah slippahs” (flip-flops) and carry umbrellas.
We ate out almost every lunch and dinner at whatever establishment was recommended or handy or still open, including Ken’s House of Pancakes, a 24-hour family restaurant beloved by locals. We tried Korean, Thai, natural food and roadside cafes, even a hotdog stand at the beach and the Friday night seafood buffet at the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel. It was at the Mongolian BBQ where we heard live Hawaiian music.
Hawaii is a mid-ocean crossroads with no ethnic majority. However, all street signs are in Hawaiian which has only 12 letters from the English alphabet: a, e, h, i, k, l, m, n, o, p, u, and w. It’s hard to differentiate names. Our son lives at the corner of Haile and Halai.
We didn’t spend much time in museums or shopping or on traditional beach activities except snorkeling. With advice from Bryan’s friends and our guidebook, “Hawaii The Big Island Revealed,” we didn’t need to sign up for tours.
Instead, we hiked to the top of 13,796-foot Mauna Kea and hiked 900 feet down into the Waipi’o Valley. One day we hiked through a lava tube and another day across a lava field. One day the endangered Hawaiian goose, the nene, nearly tripped over us and another day we nearly tripped over a napping green sea turtle, another endangered species.
There were myriad flowers blooming in gardens and along roadsides and so many sights unlike home. We filled our cameras and our memories. At the Hilo airport departure lounge, two hula dancers wished us farewell.
Mark Twain, after his 1866 visit, always hoped to return but never could. Isabella Bird, a visitor in 1873, wrote fondly of her magnificent adventures in “Six Months in the Sandwich Islands,” which remains in print. More than 130 years later, the islands still are spell-binding, no matter what color of sand you step upon.
There are about a dozen telescopes on the top of Mauna Kea, elevation over 13,000 feet. Photo by Barb Gorges.
Bryan’s job as software engineer with the Joint Astronomy Centre allowed him to give us the inside tour of the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope and United Kingdom Infrared Telescope, two of the group dotting the top of the 13,13,796-foot mountain, just 43 miles from Hilo. The University of Hawaii offers tours of its telescope.
The visitor center at 9000 feet elevation is worth stopping at, for information as well as a chance to acclimate. Tour companies will take you from Kona-side up the steep gravel road for the sunset and provide warm coats. On the way down the visitor center has regular telescopes set up.
Hawaiian Volcanoes National Park
The park entrance is only 28 miles from Hilo, but at an elevation of 4000 feet. The quickest way to check the status of the eruption and lava flows is to go to links at www.wizardpub.com.
Bryan’s friends took us on the Bird Park trail loop. It wasn’t very birdy in October, so it became a botany tour instead.
The next day we drove out to the Hilini Pali (“pali” means cliff) Overlook and encountered no one else except the endangered nene. At the Thurston Lava Tube the parking lot was full so we pulled in at the Kilauea Iki Overlook and walked back along part of the Kilauea Iki trail. The crater views were great and the tree ferns were magnificent.
Some roads in the park have been closed due to geologic cracks or lava flowing over them. Sometimes “vog,” sulphurous fumes from the eruption that can be deadly if concentrated, will temporarily close a section of the park.
The only way to get into the Waipi’o Valley is by water or by following a very steep road. Photo by Barb Gorges.
Only 50 miles north of Hilo, steep-sided and flat bottomed, opening onto the ocean, the valley was well-populated by farmers until the 1946 tsunami wiped them out. A few inhabitants remain, but the only way out is a steep trail requiring four-wheel-drive.
Tour company vans will take you in, but it is only a strenuous mile hike each way, with the advantage of being able to stop and enjoy the scenery…. frequently.
The valley is sacred to Hawaiians and so a representative of the Waipi’o Circle Association will meet you at the top and give you a brochure on the history, proper etiquette and safety rules for enjoying your visit.
Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden
The northeast side of the Big Island is fringed with gulches growing impenetrable vegetation. Imagine one which has been landscaped and planted with amazing blooming tropical plants from all over the world, with paved paths leading from the visitor center down to Onomea Bay.
Members of my family enjoy the visit to the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens. Photo by Barb Gorges.
The Hawaiian Tropical Botanical Garden, 8 miles from Hilo, charges $15 per person but it is worth it for the two or more hours it will take to enjoy every vista.
Even if you aren’t interested in reading every identification tag, the juxtaposition of color, texture, waterfalls and ocean views is blissful to the eyes.
Having seen tropical plants only in conservatories, I kept expecting glimpses of glass between distant branches, but the only glint was from the water.
For a former sugar capitol, population 40,000, Hilo is interesting in its own right. It’s also conveniently close to beaches and a few tide pools you’ll want to explore, besides having three excellent museums to visit on rainy days: the Pacific Tsunami Museum, ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center and the Lyman Museum, which features Hawaiian history.
The extensive Farmers’ Market is held Wednesdays and Saturdays under awnings and has beautiful flowers cheap and interesting produce you won’t see back home any time.