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Hawaii–Snorkeling, Beaches and Kayaking–2007

None of us are supreme swimmers so we took along two life jackets for our snorkeling adventures. Even if you can swim, the life jackets are well worth it. You can snorkel for hours instead of an hour if you have a life jacket–all you do is float along without worry and watch the fish and turtles.

We snorkeled at three beaches this time. All had clear water and fairly gentle access points (meaning the waves didn’t totally destroy you as you tried to get out to deep enough water to see fish.) You will need water shoes. There are virtually no sand beaches in Hawaii–it’s all rough sand and lava rocks so you’ll want the shoes right up until you put your fins on. If you want to spend the money, you can get those clever little diving boots that allow you to slide right into your fins with the protective little boots still on your feet, but those fin/boot sets tend to run more than the $35 or so for the regular mask/fin sets.

We took our own fins, masks and water shoes. You can rent them, but if you’re going to do three or more days of swimming, I’d recommend bringing you own. Get the snorkels that have the purge valves to help drain water out. Those things are golden and will make your swim a lot more enjoyable.

The water was crystal clear at every snorkel spot. Gorgeous! Side of fish
Close cartoon
Turtle Head Turtles are often eating at Kahalu’u Beach Park. This is a pretty easy place to get into the water–you can stand in the water and see the fish without actually having to swim. The turtles are sometimes on the beach, and often feeding on grasses while you snorkel. This is a fabulous snorkel spot with public parking, showers, bathrooms, picnic tables and snack bars (sometimes.)
Kayak out across Kealakekua Bay and do some snorkeling at Cook’s Monument. The water gets deeper here quickly so there are different kinds of fish than in some of the shallower bays. Excellent clarity, beautiful swim! Angel fish
Blue tail Place of Refuge (Pu’uhonau o Honaunau) had very good snorkeling. The National Park Service has an exhibit there (Pretty scenery; Its worth a very quick walkthrough, but I wasn’t nearly as impressed with it as the book.). The snorkeling is wonderful just outside the park although the fish weren’t as abundant as some of the other places and there is no shower to rinse off. There is a bathroom at the Park where we were able to wash our hands and arms. The Park charges 5 dollars to park. We walked to the beach area from there and it was worth paying for the parking because the locals know their beaches and the place was packed on the weekend.


Once again, Hawaii The Big Island Revealed had numerous beaches and descriptions listed. The authors pay close attention to swimming conditions, snorkeling, crowds and other factors. They even recommend several out of the way beaches that require 4-wheel drive to access!

Posted: March 23, 2007
Filed in Hawaii

Hawaii–The Big Island–2007

I’ll be doing a series of posts on traveling in Hawaii over the next few weeks and include some pictures, info on whale watching, snorkeling, volcano watching and general travel information. My best advice if you are going to Hawaii is to visit Wizard Publications and buy the appropriate book for the island you’ll be visiting. These guides are second to none and include a wealth of local information; they’re humorous and contain a lot more activies than a normal guidebook.

Click on the pictures below to view larger images.


Our first stop was to head over to the Volcano side of the island to see if Madam Pele would grace us with the sight of a lava. We were lucky. During the daytime, steam was steady as hot lava hit the ocean. At night, at the bottom of Chain of Craters road in the Volcano National Park, the rangers had set up scopes. We could see the hot glow of lava coming down the mountain with the naked eye, but it was neat to see it through the scope also. After hiking an easy half-mile out across the end of Chain of Craters road (until you reach the spot where lava abruptly ate the road a few years back) there is another ranger scope. This one focused on the lava entering the sea and was worth the trek out there. Lava on road


The best advice I can give is to plan at least one night near the Volcano park because seeing the lava well requires an evening or early morning viewing. Once the sun is up, the hot lava isn’t nearly as visible. We hiked out across the old lava from the end of Chain of Craters road at about 5:30 a.m. to get closer to the flows. This hike was murderously difficult–rough footing, 3.25 miles, in the dark (with glowing lava up the hill and glimpses of it in front of us) but very doable if you’re in shape. For the first 1/3 of a mile, the rangers had up markers. After that there were beacons every 1/3rd to 1/2 mile. You couldn’t always see the beacons because you had to climb up and down lava piles, but it certainly gave an indication of a general direction.


Lava flow We arrived at the flowing lava at about daybreak (yes, we had flashlights and no, you could not hike in the dark without them!). The rangers had the most dangerous areas roped off, but of course, things change in lava land so you had better pack and use your common sense!

Right at arrival we saw a great spot of red-hot, white-hot flowing lava.
Lava flow After taking pictures we hiked up the side to see what else we could see. Note that heat comes off these piles. The lava is not flowing in wild, copious amounts; it’s a rather changing, fickle beast. The silver areas are fresh–notice the glowing red underneath. The top of the silver flows “pop” constantly with little flakes hopping off to the tune of crackles and snaps. When a light rain began to fall, the noise got a lot louder–hissing and sizzling entered the fray. It was absolutely fascinating to see.


After a short time–less than fifteen minutes, we headed back to the lava flow we had seen–only to find it…Gone! We had no idea the lava would harden? Change direction? Stop??? in such a short time or we would have stuck around to witness the change! We looked all over, but what we found was some lava flowing farther out.


The entire pile is like a living beast, groaning and edging its way down the mountain. Sometimes cavities form and you see the hot stuff in the crevices. When the timing is just right, you see the lava actually moving and flowing across the surface and back underneath. It’s well worth the walk out there if lava is flowing. Either hike in late in the evening and stay until dark or go in the early morning like we did. At night there were a few hundred people at the end of the road–less made the 3 plus mile hike out. In the morning? We were the only two souls out there…just us and mother nature; the lava, the pounding surf and on the last half-mile on the way back — rain. Lava hills
Posted: March 16, 2007
Filed in Hawaii

Hawaii–The Big Island–Whale Watching 2007

You’ll see advertisements for whale watching all over Kona (mostly on Alii drive where the tourists hang out). The guidebook that I’ve highly recommended, “Hawaii, The Big Island Revealed” put out by Wizard Publications recommends a couple of professionals. I think the main difference between the ones in the guidebook and the ones on the street (besides prices) is that the two recommended in the book go farther, and do it all the time. Their experience means you have a better chance of seeing whales.

We went with Captain Tom of Living Ocean Adventures. He had a smaller boat than the other recommendation in the book, only taking out six people at at time. The other recommendation from the book takes out up to 40 but is about 10 bucks cheaper. In general you get about 3.5 hours out on the water.

The first thing we saw as we pulled out of the marina was a pod of spinner dolphins. They didn’t jump or play for us, but it was still a thrill to see them skimming along. These creatures are works of art; sleek, efficient and totally at home in their environment. (Click on the pictures for larger image.) Spinner dolphins


As for the whales, Humpbacks are in Hawaii from sometime in December to late March. Captain Tom advised that January 15 to about March 15 is the best time. While trying to figure out his prices, I got rather confused about whether it was worth paying extra to throw fishing lines out. After two phone calls and back and forth, I never really understood just what we were paying for but I thought we were paying an extra 100 dollars to fish. Turns out (I think) we were paying for a private charter so there were only us four on board.

As for the fishing, I’d advise against paying extra for it, if fishing is the goal. For one, I think the captain probably throws the lines out anyway, at least during the time the boat isn’t in the whale sanctuary. For two, if you really want to fish, I suspect the best way to do it is to troll specific waters where your chances are better. As with any fishing, there are always favorite places and the fisherman know and check these places. The humpbacks are not actively feeding in Hawaii–they are there to birth their calves, so don’t assume that where they are, so are the fish! And last, but not least, if you really want to fish, go to the marina FIRST and check to see how many of the boats have flags flying. Every time a fish was caught on a particular outing, a small, colored flag is raised on the boat and left until the next trip out–the major fishes each have a specific colored flag! If a lot of flags are flying, you probably have a better chance of catching something. On the day we went, I think I counted maybe four flags–and there were a LOT of boats.

Fishing aside, there were specific bonuses in going with Living Ocean Adventures. Captain Tom spends a great deal of time training you how to spot the whales. The most important lesson is that once the whales dive, they stay down about 7 to 9 minutes. This helps tremendously when you are trying to spot them, and we used these lessons later when we spotted whales from the shoreline. As with any wildlife, patience is key.

Captain Tom covered the obvious lessons, which included watching for the “blow,” watching for more than one whale, and watching for a baby whale. He discussed swimming patterns such as “blow, back/fin and then tail” before the whale dove again. Of course, as with all animals, the whales do not follow this pattern all the time, but it’s a good rule of thumb. Whale back
Whale tail Out on the boat, we did not get to see the whales “playing” but we were well-educated enough that we knew to look for “tail slaps” and “breaching.” From the shore on our last day, a whale gave us three tail slaps visible with the naked eye.


During a drive up the coast past Kohala, at the Lapakahi State Historical Park we saw whales breaching and tail slapping galore. The groups were far enough offshore that we had to use binoculars most of the time. Only one group was close enough to the shore for us to watch with the naked eye although we could see the blows all over without the binoculars.

As Captain Tom had told us, once one group started an activity, other groups in the area mimicked the actions. When the tail slapping started, it seemed to bounce from one group to another. The breaching (where the whales jump up out of the water and spash didn’t catch on with the whales closest to shore. I’m sure they had their reasons.

Watching the whales was a truly wondrous experience. It is expensive. I would love to do it again–but the price was about 75 per person (without the fishing or whatever). So it isn’t something I could do every day. But the call of something so intriguing, the chance to watch something so full of life–would be hard to resist.

Posted: March 18, 2007
Filed in Hawaii

Hawaii–The Big Island–Where to Stay and Eat

You can buy any of the Wizard guidebooks (updated every couple of years) Here, on Amazon. I have used three of these guides over the years across visits and highly, highly recommend them. Some of the newest, updated guides are on Kindle. Okay, on to some of the info I learned from the guidebooks and from my own visits!


On the Kona side, the hotel choices are numerous and “Hawaii The Big Island Revealed” does a great job of listing locations, amenities, and good/bad qualities. At the Wizard Publication website, there’s a map of the Island with the hotels listed along with many of the descriptions you’ll find in the book. Both the book and the website have pictures of some of the hotels.

We stayed at Kona Tiki and if you plan far enough ahead, you can get a room there. This place is Right On The Ocean, has extremely reasonable prices, is well-run, clean, and has repeat visitors every single year. I loved it. This is not a fancy resort, but it doesn’t have to be–it’s homey and covers traveler’s needs. There are only about 15 rooms so book early. They almost always require a minimum stay, parking is tight and again, this is not a resort–it’s quaint, clean and perfect for a budget trip.

Hilo Side

The Hilo side is expensive and it’s been our luck that we haven’t found a place to stay that we can rave about. We stayed 7 years ago at one of the Inn at Volcano Properties (Lokahi Lodge) but didn’t think it was that special for the price. This year we went even cheaper and stayed at their B&B at about 72 dollars per room (two people) and we wouldn’t do that again. There aren’t a lot of places near the volcano and the ones I looked at were all expensive for what you get, so set your expectations accordingly. You can stay in Hilo, but I didn’t find any compelling deals there either.

Food Near Volcano Park
Our favorite place remains Lava Rock Internet Cafe. There are many other restaurants in Hilo, but we stayed near the park and Hilo is about twenty to thirty minutes away. Lava Rock met our needs with a very good varied menu, reasonable prices (for Hawaii), and a friendly staff.

We stayed one night at Manago just south of Kona on our first night. We knew we wanted to drive to Hilo the next day and this was a great way to drive about 20 miles towards our destination, get away from the more crowded areas and stay at a good hotel that had no minimum night requirement. The place was clean, friendly and had a restaurant in the hotel that was reasonably priced with good food. We’d stay at Manago again and we’d eat at the restaurant if we were in the area. There’s a touch of Japanese feel to the place and also to the food (rice served at every meal if you want it, including breakfast!). We had third floor rooms with balconies and could see the coastline from our rooms. There was a shared “living room” in the lobby with a tv and internet access (charged by the hour). There was a grocery store within walking distance. The rooms ran about 70 per night including taxes.

Food in Kona

The Wizard Publications website also lists a few of the restaurants in the book along with updates to any of the restaurants included in the book. The book is worth buying on the restaurant info alone–it covers prices, good/bad, locations, etc. There are some restaurants in the book that are off the beaten path–and just so happen to be really good deals.

Specifically, we found Killer Tacos on the Kona side to be excellent food and excellent prices. It’s on Kaiwi Street–off the beaten path where you’ll never find it unless you use the book or look it up in the phone book and get directions. Meals ran about 6 bucks per person.

Not mentioned in the book was the food court at the Kona International Market. The market is mentioned in the book along with directions. We found the market itself to be overpriced and touristy compared to the one on Alii drive–which is also for tourists, but the prices and produce were better at Alii. Apparently the International Market was setup so that cruise ships could send shuttle buses with tourists to get them off Alii drive.

It was still worth going to just for the Food Court. It had some of the best food and prices that we found on the Island. We ate at Island Bar BBQ — chicken katsu with rice and macaroni salad for 5 dollars. At the Asian Chinese Restaurant, one order of fried rice was more than enough for two people at $6.75. The other Chinese dishes we tried were very good also, although some didn’t have a lot of meat in them. There were about four other places in the food court that we didn’t try. Another bonus was these places seemed to be opened inbetween the lunch and dinner hours. A lot of restaurants in Hawaii close between 2 and 5, leaving you with no food or the food you didn’t plan on if you weren’t careful.

Coscos has been a boon to the island and it’s a great place to pick up a pizza and sandwich makings for the week. The pizzas ran about 11 dollars and fed four of us. We had the leftovers the next day for lunch.

Manago–both the hotel and the restaurant were just as the book described–good values, clean, reasonable. The food was good, homecooked style stuff and priced in the 7 to 12 dollars a person range. They are famous for the pork chops which dad said were good. We’d stay there again and eat there again.

At Island Lava Java on Alii drive, just as the book said, the coffee was good, but not always hot. We found the prices for food were too high to bother with.

Teshima’s was a place we at at seven years ago–at that time it was Ono (excellent), but this time we found it overpriced for the portions.

One other place that I have to mention is the farmer’s market on Alii Drive–the one next to St. Michael’s church, right in the heart of things (there’s one quite a bit farther south on Alii that has less vendors and higher prices.) I suspect these markets are subject to change a lot, but while we were there this market had excellent produce (better than the grocery stories) and the best prices/quality on macadamia nuts. The mac nuts ran about 10 dollars a pound here–but they were very large, fresh and cheaper than any other place we saw them. The ones we bought were from Kona Marie’s Farm–they might ship if you call: 808 331-8021 or

If you are going to buy mac nuts, it’s worth looking for them at Farmer’s Markets or the coffee farms. The prices of other souvenirs at the markets were pretty good at the Alii market. The only downside is that the market is only open Wed-Sun. We’d have loved to go back there right before we left Hawaii.

Coffee Best place to get Kona coffee is to make a trip out to one of the coffee farms mentioned in the book. We went to Greenwell Farms. The coffee prices are generally a buck or two cheaper per pound, the coffee is much fresher and we got a free avocado or two that happened to be ripe. If you go to a farm, you know exactly what you are getting–100 percent Kona, not a blend.

Best Place to Buy Souvenirs

Try Wal-Mart (or K-Mart) in Kona. Walmart had a nice tourist section with very reasonable calendars, mugs, pens, notepads, wooden bowls, turtles, etc. The regular clothing area had some Hawaiian t-shirts–not quite as nice as those on Alii drive, but Walmart had great prices. They also have the chocolate covered mac nuts–you could get a bundle of something like three or four boxes for ten to twelve dollars.

Posted: March 20, 2007
Filed in Hawaii

Hawaii: The Big Island–2000

My favorite book for Hawaii travel is: Hawaii The Big Island Revealed. Published by Wizard Publications and written by Andrew Doughty and Harriett Friedman. there are also other books in the series covering other islands.

Check Wizard Publications website for updates. This book covers activities including hiking, golf, swimming, kayaking, whale watching, etc. It rates places to stay and eat and we found it invaluable. This guide book is one of the best I’ve ever used for any vacation.


We hiked Kilauea Ike, a three-mile hike on the Hilo side of the island that covers forest and crater floor. We started as the book recommended at the Kilauea Overlook. The whole time we hiked we wondered who the crazy people were that were down in the crater—not realizing we’d be joining them.

The floor of the crater creaks, smokes and wheezes in several spots. It’s a little spooky and felt like walking across the moon (not that I’ve had the opportunity to do that—yet!)

We took lunch and had a nice day of it.

Warning: It rains a lot on the Hilo side so you might need raincoats or other weather gear. During the other three days we were on this side of the island it rained often. On the day we hiked, the sun was out and we needed sunscreen once we were crossing the wide-open crater. The hike was a most excellent way to sample the volcanic flavor of Hawaii as well as get a taste of the rain forest.

There were no easily visible lava flows while we visited (darn), but we did drive to the end of Chain of Craters Road (20 mile descent to the sea). In the evenings and very early morning, we could see the hot, red reflection of lava in the clouds/steam above Pu’ u’ O’o crater. The roads through the Hawaii National Park are interesting and there are several things to stop and see along Chain of Craters Road. The mounds of lava that cover the end of the road is fascinating. The seaside is pretty spectacular also.

Best Place to get Macadamia Nuts

The coffee plantation we stopped at (Greenwell farms) had these nuts and they were fresher, better tasting and less expensive than buying them at the old Hilo Hatties tourist traps. I recommend a stop at one of the coffee plantations to obtain unroasted or roasted Kona coffee beans and macadamia nuts.

Other good places to get macadamia nuts are the bakeries listed in the guidebook, although the guidebook doesn’t mention that the bakeries might sell bags of these nuts. We got some excellent macadamia nuts at a bakery north of Hilo when we were coast driving.

Best Place to Eat around Hilo
Our favorite place to eat and the most reasonable turned out to be Lava Rock Internet Café. It’s not actually in Hilo, but rather Volcano Village close to Hawaii National Park on Old Volcano Road. Once we found this place, we returned several times.

We stayed in Volcano Village while in the area. There are a few choices, most of them very nice. We liked the property we stayed at (one of the Chalet Kilauea properties—Olena room) but it was around 100 dollars a night. We’d probably try their bed and breakfast listings on a return visit in the hopes of getting the price down.

Best Lava Tunnel

This was a great tunnel, but you do have to hike through the forest to get to it and reservations are required. While you can get a flavor for lava tubes by visiting Thurston Lava Tube inside the park, if you want to see one that hasn’t been “improved” and lit up, this one was great.

Look for the “Wild Lava Tube” guided hike. Phone number that worked for reservations when we were there: 808.985.6017. The rangers don’t charge for the tour and provide helmets with lights. Bring a set of D batteries as a donation or ask when you call if there is a fee/donation suggestion. Only 12 people go at a time and the trek requires climbing over some rocky and uneven ground in the tube. Pretty darn cool.

Punalu’u Black Sand Beach
This was a beautiful stop. There was a sea turtle basking on the sand when we were there. Fabulous! Swimming in the area isn’t the best because the visibility is poor. I tried it and promptly stepped on a sea turtle, which immediately rose to the surface knocking me over and scaring the daylights out of me. They have very, very large…beaks.

Additional worry: If you get very far past any of the jutting shorelines, there are riptides to worry about. While we were there, a swimmer got caught in one. Luckily he was from Australia (almost took the sea ride back!) and familiar with dangerous currents. He was able to swim out of it, but it took him a long while, and he didn’t recommend the experience. His comment, “I wondered why there were no other swimmers out past the area close to shore.” He didn’t get back in the water, and neither did I!

Best Snorkeling and Kayaking

The snorkeling we did on the Kona side—all I can say is Wow! We took masks and snorkels and were able to rent fins.

The kayaking we did is appropriate for beginners. Very beginners–we’re talking never kayaked in the ocean beginners. We rented a Kayak at Kona Boy Kayaks (there are many other places) and went across Kealakekua Bay to the Captain Cook Monument. The one-mile (each way) trip was very, very calm and there were spinner dolphins jumping about, which was a pure delight.

I did practice rowing at the gym, but the ride across the bay was pretty easy. The snorkeling at Captain Cook was spectacular. The water is deep so getting in and out was a bit of a chore—the waves want to smash you up against the concrete wall that borders part of the beach and the shoreline is rocky with little or no gradual decline. If a wave catches you just right, you can get a bit of a bruising. If you’re not comfortable in the ocean or where your feet don’t touch, save your snorkeling for some of the other beach areas.

Take plenty of water/gatorade and lunch! There are no facilities at Captain Cook monument—sunscreen, snorkeling gear, and WATER are a must.

Kahalu’u Beach had very accessible snorkeling and swimming. In many spots you can touch the bottom, although with all the corrals and whatnot, it isn’t recommended because you will damage them. There is a breakwater area that helps keeps the waves calm. We saw sea turtles, parrot fish, you name it. Very, very enjoyable. I highly recommend this area, especially off-season and during the week. Snorkeling here is one of our best memories.


We stayed at Kona Seaspray and our condo unit had a kitchen and washer/dryer. The kitchen proved a good idea since we didn’t find any real food bargains on this side of the island. All the places that we tried (as recommended in the guide) were good and as advertised, but they weren’t cheap.

We ended up taking advantage of the grocery store (Waikoloa Village?) and eating out once a day—lunch when possible because it was a bit cheaper.

Teshima’s had excellent Japanese Curry at a reasonable price.

The condo was right across the street from Kahalu’u Beach so we could walk across the road to swim. We’d stay there again. The only annoyance was the presence of large ants—they were everywhere, especially the bathroom and kitchen. From talking to other people, it was a common occurrence in hotels.

Hawaii is an excellent vacation, but it isn’t cheap—food, gas and accommodations all add up in a hurry.

I spent some time on Oahu (the main airport and capital are on Oahu, as well as Pearl Harbor, etc.) Oahu was nice and had good opportunities such as pineapple farms, waterfalls and forests as well as the snorkeling and surfing activities. It was slightly cheaper to stay there since it cut off the short flight to the other island and the accommodations had a better range of prices.

Posted: July 22, 2006
Filed in Hawaii