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16. Jan, 2011

Florida for Family and Friends

Florida for Family and Friends

Family Dinner in West Palm Beach

We had been on the road for over 8 months now, and here we were being picked up at the airport by someone we knew, and spending the night in a home, free-of-charge, with food in a refrigerator, and free laundry! It was like we had entered the Twilight Zone, a really cool Twilight Zone! After travelling across something like 14 time zones in 10 days, crossing a chaotic US air transport network beset by severe weather storms and snow, here we were in balmy West Palm Beach, Florida staying with Ninfa’s aunt Victoria.

Some of the Locals in Palm Beach

Mirror mirror on the wall, who's the fairest of them all?

We were entering a new phase of travel that was going to last around one month called Travelling at Home. Travelling at Home has a few characteristics. First of all, as the name may suggest, it’s travelling but staying at home, someone else’s home. It’s different from couchsurfing in that the person’s home you stay in is family, so you get the added benefit of catching up with family that you haven’t seen for ages. It has a small requirement of having family who live in places you actually want to visit – here we were in Florida, from here (after a short Caribbean cruise), we were going to the Dominican Republic, and from there a long layover in Honduras for Christmas and New Year. And another not to be underestimated feature of Travelling at Home is that it suits all budgets! An added twist to our version of Travelling at Home was that my mother, who has always had a weak spot for sunny destinations with superb shopping, was going to join us for a week while we were there – a little piece of home at a home away from home.

The Bridal Party

When we left Ireland in March, we had only three fixed dates on our itinerary – the World Cup in South Africa, Christmas in Honduras, and just before that, Ninfa’s role as bridesmaid in a wedding of one of her best high-school friends, Marissa. Marissa was getting married in Miami, so that was another reason to feel happy about our fixed date. We would be in Miami for three nights – the first night for the rehearsal dinner, the second for the wedding, and the third for recovery. It was a great opportunity for Ninfa to meet up with Marissa and some old friends who are scattered around the US and Honduras and don’t get together often. It was a good chance for me to put some faces to names I’d heard many a tale about, like Marissa, Ana, Monica and Karina. I was a little worried about the impression I’d make on Ninfa’s friends as although my mother had brought me a suit, I had hidden my shoes too well in Ireland, and I had to wear my trainers with my suit. I got out of jail though when the bride’s brother was also wearing trainers, so instead it kind of looked bad for everyone else wearing shoes. We all had a great time at the wedding which was a lovely, small, outdoor, evening ceremony. It didn’t take long for the party to get going afterwards, as almost simultaneously to the music starting, all the Honduran girls were on the floor! The party wrapped up early around midnight, which is generally the time people get warmed up at an Irish wedding, so we headed back to our hotel for more drinks only to find the bar was already closed!

Honduran Girls take Miami!

Stylish bridesmaids!

The upside of the early night was that it gave us a chance to savour some of the Miami highlife. We drove out to South Beach the next morning, and took a walk along its beautiful, pastel-painted, stylish Art-Deco avenues before stopping for lunch in one of streetside cafes, ideal for seeing and being seen. Lunches are surprisingly good value, and the entertainment is great with the young and beautiful, the real deals and the wannabes, and the flash cars cruising along Ocean Drive. We took a walk past the beach volleyball courts out to the beach itself which is a long, wide sandy, strand stretching out along the Atlantic Ocean. Afterward, we took a drive along Calle Ocho which is basically Cuba Central with its cigar stores, and travel agents all offering flights to Havana, before spending the evening taking in some of the atmosphere of the Miami Art Fair in laid back Coconut Grove.

A star for the future on Ocean Drive

Beach Volleyball on Miami Beach

Our time in Miami was up, and it was time to relax in the splendid surroundings of Palm Beach County. It was the first time that any of Ninfa’s family had met any of my family, so it was great to spend time both with my mother and Ninfa’s aunt Victoria (aka Nene) as well as her husband Riad, and son Joe, although I think his real name is Zuzu (:-)). As will happen in the country of consumerism and among such female-dominated we spent quite a bit of our time shopping in the myriad malls around Florida, contributing to the Christmas atmosphere along the way. We also spent a day touring the waterfront of Palm Beach and taking a look at the multi-millionaire mansions of the rich and retired, and not wasting the opportunity to enjoy a Champagne cocktail at the luxurious and opulent setting of the famous Breakers Hotel. The streets of Palm Beach are perfectly cleaned with long palm-lined avenues leading down to the beach. It’s easy to imagine the Kennedys in their heyday exchanging pleasantries along the exclusive Worth Avenue, or to take an even greater step back in time on Clematis St with some of the original buildings that first graced West Palm Beach.

Me and my Mammy in Miami!

Overall, it was a great place to relax, and I really enjoyed getting to spend some time with my mother before Christmas catching up (and being spoiled), and also to enjoy the company of Victoria’s family, chatting long into the evenings, and sometimes not only past Riad’s bedtime but our bedtime too! So a little less adventure than we’re used to, but some TLC goes a long way when you’ve been away for a long time. So a big thanks to my mother for making the long trip over to see us before Christmas, and to the Batruny family for being such hospitable and welcoming hosts. Next stop is another departure from our usual travel plans – a four-day Caribbean Cruise. Read about it on our next post!

15. Jan, 2011

Fabulous Las Vegas

Fabulous Las Vegas

Las Vegas, Sin City, city of lights, oasis of iniquity – call it what you like, there’s no place like it on Earth. A few weeks earlier, Ninfa suggested to me that we spend some time in Las Vegas. At first I dismissed the idea – we were on a trip around the world with an opportunity to visit so many rich cultural destinations, and we were going to go to Las Vegas?! What I didn’t realise at the time is that Las Vegas is a culture in itself, and secondly, a whole lot of fun. And as it turned out, Las Vegas was our cheapest option for a transpacific flight with a stopover in Hawai’i. The die was cast!

We flew into Las Vegas at dawn on a Hawaiian Airlines flight (worst airline ever!) from Honolulu. McCarran airport in Las Vegas is so close to the city that it felt like we were actually landing in the strip itself! In that cool, clear morning light, the city looked more magnificent than normal. In the middle of a barren rocky desert was the sprawling stream of bright lights and buildings of the wildest imaginations. It was also freezing cold, and we ran onto our shuttle from the airport building. We were staying in the Imperial Palace hotel for $25 a night – that’s as cheap as our hotels in Laos – what a bargain! And it had cable TV. We arrived at 7am and the receptionist let us check in straight away which was fantastic. In Vegas, they’ll do anything to accommodate you getting settled in and out into the casino as quickly as possible. Vegas wasn’t built on winners, and it’s probably the greatest concentration of losers on the whole planet. But Vegas makes even losing fun! We headed to our room, and caught up on some sleep. We had a little over 24 hours in the city, and we didn’t want to spend it like zombies.


When we got up, it was a beautiful winter’s day in the Nevada desert, and we hit the Strip straight away. Walking out, we were immediately met by the sight of the landmark Caesar’s Palace, probably the most famous boxing venue that I know of, and the scene of Barry McGuigan’s loss of his world featherweight title in 1986. We walked in for a closer look. The grandeur of the Caesar’s Palace hotel seems second-to-none. We took a walk around the wedding chapels, of which there are many, on the first floor but no weddings that day.

Paris, as seen from Egypt

Bellagio Fountain - a Vegas highlight!

From there we continued along the strip passing landmark after landmark. Las Vegas is the ultimate fusion of bags of money and a wild imagination. As we walked along the Strip, we passed by the canals of Venice. Without even having to cross a border, we strolled through Parisian boulevards under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. From there we continued on through Manhattan and saluted the Statue of Liberty, before travelling back in time to Luxor and the Great Pyramids. Las Vegas is made of money, loser’s money, and there’s loads of it. Each of these massive complexes holds within it a massive casino. There’s ways for all the family to lose their money, although even the loose Nevada laws stop short of allowing minors to gamble – 1c slot machines to black jack to poker tables to enormous walls of televisions broadcasting live sports from all over the world. It’s hard to think that little over 30 years ago, the Strip didn’t even exist.

The Strip, by day

The Strip, by night!

In fact, before the 20th century, Las Vegas didn’t even exist. And in the evening, we took a bus down to an area that’s as close to a historical centre as you get in Las Vegas, the original gambling area of downtown and Fremont Street. A large portion Fremont St. has recently been redeveloped into the Fremont Street Experience which boasts a canopy almost 500m long which is in fact a huge screen. Every 15 minutes the neon lights of the city’s oldest casinos are dimmed and a multimedia sound and light show takes place on the canopy screen. It’s loud, flashy and pretty impressive. Fremont St. is full of the symbols that have come to be associated with Las Vegas; the giant Vegas Vic neon sign, Elvis lookalikes and the Glitter Gulch sign.

Fremont Street Experience

Next one's a winner! Wishful thinking ...

We had been in Vegas all of 12 hours already and we still hadn’t placed our first bet, so we decided to put that shameful run to an end. As the Strip has taken over as the place to be in Las Vegas, the downtown casinos offer a lot more incentives to get gamblers in, and it’s a great place to gamble for free – all the fun and none of the risk. By signing up for a casino club, you get anywhere between $10 and $50 free credits for the slot machines. We signed up for a few and hopped casinos wasting our free money and moving on.

Donated it all to charity

Vegas Locals

99c Margaritas - everyone's a winner!

Fremont St. also has some informative exhibits on the history of the town and explains Las Vegas’ rise from desert dustbowl to gambling capital of the world. Las Vegas was previously just a stopping point for goldminers heading east, but that all changed when the state of Nevada legalised gambling in the 1930s. From there, the gambling industry boomed as Las Vegas became a favourite location for mobsters to launder money by building huge casinos. This continued until the 1970s when the Strip was born with the construction of the first mega-resorts and the face of Las Vegas changed forever.

It was getting late so we headed back to the Strip to watch some of the famous spectacular fountain shows in front of the Bellagio hotel, before hitting some of the bars on the strip. Las Vegas only wakes up after dark, and what were huge empty spaces by day were now bustling hives of gambling and drinking. We joined in, taking a particular liking to the 99c margaritas and beers. To top it all off, when we got back to the hotel, I partook in a couple of rounds of black jack coming away with an impressive winnings of $10! So maybe Las Vegas does do happy endings. From what I dreaded before coming, I loved when I was leaving – a perfect place for some cheap thrills. Just never play with your own money. Next stop, Florida!

For all our pictures of Fabulous Las Vegas, check our photos here.

13. Jan, 2011

On a High in Hawai’i!

On a High in Hawai’i!

Welcome to Honolulu!

Hawaii – hula girls, surfers, famous Waikiki beach … we were very excited to be spending two days in the heart of the Aloha State. Arriving into Honolulu airport, the weather was exactly as you would expect – bright, hot sunshine. We went straight to the rental car agency to pick up our car, and they gave us a choice of a few models. We saw a Toyota Prius, and although not exactly the coolest wheels on Waikiki beach, we thought we’d make an environmental choice. After about 10 minutes, we still couldn’t figure out how to switch it on! We eventually made it out of the car park, and headed straight for the North Shore, Hawaii’s legendary surfer’s paradise.

We took the main highway northwest from Honolulu, past Pearl Harbour, stopping on the way for our daily fix of supermarket poke (Hawaiian raw fish speciality). Our first stop was the Dole Plantation. Hawaii is famous among other things for pineapples, and a young man by the name of Dole made his fortune by buying up lots of cheap land and cultivating a very fruitful enterprise. We stopped to have a look, as well as to attempt the world’s largest maze. It was a bit of fun and even a little frustrating at times. The object of the game is to find 9 checkpoints in the maze in the fastest possible time. Even with a map, which we stubbornly refused to use for the first 30 minutes, it’s difficult. We eventually split up and had a contest, which Ninfa just edged in an exciting finish. Well done Ninfa!

Haleiwa, North Shore

Historic Haleiwa, North Shore

After our amusement at the home of pineapples, we headed for Historic Haleiwa, aka surfer central! We didn’t really know what was historic about Haleiwa and were about to bypass it until we hit a traffic jam, and we’d thought we’d try a shortcut through the town. Haleiwa is picture postcard perfect Hawaiiana with an added twist of surfer dudedom! Check out our pictures here. We stopped for some food before continuing on to Sunset Beach.

Surfer Babes, North Shore

Spanning just over a month every December, the Triple Crown of Surfing hits the North Shore of O’ahu, as the winter Pacific storms start to push high waves southwest straight into the North Shore of Hawaii. We stopped first at the famous Banzai Pipeline, known in the surfer kingdom for its unbeatable tubes or pipes that surfers can swim along underneath the wave. It wasn’t our day though, as the weather forecast showed the storms coming from the northeast rather than the northwest, so the normally fearsome Banzai Pipeline was a shadow of its potential. The surfing championship had been called off for the day as the waves were too low, only a few metres high. It was right in the middle of the ladies competition, so many of the competitors were posing for publicity shots on the beach, or putting in a few hours practice. It wasn’t all doom and gloom for Ninfa though, as some of the male competitors were taking the opportunity to practice some impressive surf skills as well.

Waikiki Beach

Waiting for the moment on the North Shore

We hung around the beach until just after dark and watched a beautiful sunset stretch out over the sky and the beautiful beach around us. We’ve seen a lot of beaches on our tour, but Hawaii’s North Shore looks to be topping the charts. Although we spent a lot of time looking for an underdog to be our champion beach, sometimes the favourite is just too hard to beat. Check out our North Shore photo album here.

We drove a little further up the coast also, and found a few locations which we recognized from Lost, the desert island drama series that we had downloaded and watched on our lazy evenings throughout the trip. We found the shrimp truck where Sawyer killed his supposed father, which among other things, began to whet our appetite. We stopped off at Historic Haleiwa on the way back to Honolulu and found a shrimp truck and had a delicious shrimp meal which came very close to equaling supermarket poke.

Surf's Up!

We would have liked to stay on the North Shore, but during the surfer high season, the rooms were ridiculously expensive – about $40 for a bunk bed in a dorm! So we headed back to Honolulu and got a last minute deal on a nice hotel just off Waikiki. We took a walk down around Waikiki to see some Hula Girls dancing in a public show that the Honolulu municipality presents most evenings. The show is very touristy, and we did our best to enjoy. What was really funny was that there was a man in the hula-dancer troupe. We’re all for equal opportunities, but a man as a hula girl was the final straw for me. We walked further along the beach until we found the Duke Kahanamoku Statue. Duke, the original Big Kahuna, was an Olympic champion swimmer and one of Waikiki’s original beach boys. His statue depicts him with his trademark longboard which he used to surf the waves on Waikiki beach, and his arms are graced with beautiful lei (Hawaiian floral necklaces) – it’s a real icon of Honolulu, Hawaii and the Aloha state, and one monument you just have to visit in Hawaii. See more of Waikiki and Honolulu here.

Duke never danced hula

Baywatch, eat your heart out!

That night, as we were relaxing back at the hotel, Ninfa started doing some research on skydiving, as we had seen a van advertising it on Waikiki Beach. I hate heights, and always find some excuse to avoid these escapades, so I told her to make some calls in the morning, hoping the idea would disappear. We had to get up early to move the car in the morning (Honolulu parking is expensive – look out!). Unfortunately, this gave Ninfa a superb opportunity to contact all the skydiving companies on the island. It was around 10am, and the skydiving company told us we needed to be there by 12 midday to make the jump that day – it was about 90 minutes away. I was at the denial stage of the coping cycle, and we packed as quick as we could and jumped in the car. We were on schedule to make it to the Dillingham Airfield on time. As we got closer, Ninfa started getting cold feet! I was style too preoccupied on getting to the place on time that I couldn’t think – the reality was obviously sinking in for her. We were just asking questions when we started to see parachutes above, and before we knew it, we were getting out of the car and signing the usual disclaimer forms.

Maze champion

Giovanni's Shrimp Truck, Haleiwa

There were two types of jump available – the Standard at 7,000ft, or the Ultimate at 14,000ft which included 60 seconds of tandem freefall. We were already paying half-price as we are both students (;-)), so as we were paying, I opted for the Ultimate. Ninfa thought I was crazy, and I probably was in the throes of some sort of death-wish mentality, completely scared by the prospect, but nonetheless, we both signed up for the Ultimate. About 30 minutes later, we were strapped up, fully briefed on our 2-minute safety talk, and boarding a light aircraft which holds about 20 people.

Safety briefing was so boring ...

Ninfa won’t mind me saying, but at this point she was as nervous as hell, was a whiter shade of pale, and completely speechless. I was managing my nerves by yabbering incessantly with my tandem instructor, to avoid the reality sinking in too much. The plane ride was probably the scariest part – the anticipation, as well as the fact that this aircraft was so light and waving around in the wind, that we were actually happy we had parachutes and could jump out! We watched the altimeter hit 14,000 and our stomachs almost came out of our mouths as they plane stopped ascending and leveled out. The instructor at the back of the plane threw open the door, and the wind swept in. We were the first ones in, so we would be the last out. It all goes very quick once the door opens – they are obviously aware that any hanging around is going to make people nervous. The girl who jumped just before Ninfa was screaming “No!”as she got to the edge, and the instructor pushed them out anyway. I had told Ninfa that she would jump first as I knew I would be scared silly, but that I would still do it no matter what, and I wanted to be with her for moral support (amn’t I great?!). Ninfa didn’t need any, but she did admit afterwards to closing her eyes.

We did it!

Now it was my turn … JT pushed me to the edge of the door. I was practically hanging out with only a few straps securing me to him, looking out at a gusty 14,000ft fall. I wasn’t even the least bit scared (believe that?), and then out we went, somersaulting through the air and falling, falling, falling, faster, faster, faster. JT tapped me on the shoulder which was the signal to spread my arms and tuck my legs back under his, in order to keep face down for the parachute. We reached terminal velocity quickly, at about 140mph. The cold air was shooting up my nose, and I was breathing fast. My cheeks were somewhere around where my ears were, and my ears were deafened by the air going by. I was able to see clouds and the coast of Hawaii that I remembered from a map. And then it happened, the moment of joy, the parachute had opened – I was going to live!!! But this was actually the worst bit. JT steered the parachute which involves closing one side of the chute so that you accelerate down and around. I didn’t want him messing around – wasn’t it ok to be alive, why did he want to mess it up. The swerving around was so dizzying, I felt faint. Then he asked me to have a go. So I did, and nervously swung us on gentle curves deceptively similar to a straight line. It’s only at the end that fear of heights takes hold. As the ground comes into view, so too does perspective, and all of a sudden I thought I was falling too fast. But we landed so softly, ungracefully on my bum, that a foot step would give a greater impact. I ran over to hug Ninfa – we were both on top of the world to be off the top of the world.

And so it was, our finale to a week in Hawaii, which had yielded dizzying heights of enjoyment, one of the most enjoyable (and thrilling) weeks of our lives, recklessly risking our lives on two occasions and surviving to have wonderful memories. Hawaii may have its equal, but we don’t know it, and what a place that must be!

11. Jan, 2011

Hawai’i: Big Island, Big Fun

Hawai’i: Big Island, Big Fun

Roads of south-east Hawai'i - our favourite!

The night after our thrilling lava hike, we woke up in the cosy small country farm setting of Kehena Honey House where we were staying on the southeast coast of the Big Island. We had booked it at the last minute at the starting point of the lava hike at 10pm the previous night, and it wasn’t until we checked out the website later that we realised that guests are invited (although not forced) to participate in a naturist mindset. We set off fully-clothed in our rental car on a coastal drive past the nearby naturist beach, around the south-east of the island under glorious sunshine. (Don’t be put off by the naturism – it’s only optional and was our best quality accommodation in Hawai’i, and affordable too). We drove along winding roads covered by a canopy of trees reaching across the road and leaving a patchwork of shade on the surface below. On one occasion where the trees thinned out as we drove along, I was able to spot a green turtle floating in the waves on a small beach. It was quite simply beautiful. We continued on and stopped at a local surfing spot to watch the action before continuing on to a sea-water pool which is heated by the hot volcanic rocks below the surface and where Ninfa got a short foot massage from some of the fish in the pool. We were planning to return to this neck of the woods, so we left what turned out to be the most beautiful part of the island we saw.

Hawaiían hibiscus - just one of many

Windswept Hawai'i - the most Southern state in the USA

And so we commenced our tour around the biggest of the islands in the Hawaiian archipelago. Our first stop later that day was at the Akaka Falls which is an impressive 80m waterfall set among lush jungle vegetation of huge trees, orchids and the famous Hawaiian hibiscus. On our way back we stopped in the nearby town of Honoma, which boasts the original statue of Hawai’i's native hero who united the islands, King Kamehameha (editor’s note – the original is actually in Kapa’au on the north of the island). I’ve heard of such a thing as Americana which describes the old-style towns and art and design of a bygone American era, but in Hawai’i there’s definitely a lot of a similar brand of pleasing on the eye, laid-back Hawaiiana typified by wooden buildings colorfully painted and surfboard fences – Honoma and Hawi, where we spent the night, are great examples. True to the Big Island’s breadth of diversity, we passed through the mountain plains of Waimea which is the heart of Hawai’i's ranch country. The town lies at the foot of Hawai’i's highest mountain / volcano, Mauna Kea. The slopes of the surrounding windswept mountains are covered in leaning trees, herds of cattles and grazing and galloping horses. It feels a million miles away from the Pacific paradise just a couple of hours drive away.


The next morning we set off for one of the east coast’s highlight sights – the Pololu Valley Lookout. Quite literally at the end of the road, the land drops down to a secluded black sand beach at the mouth of a dry valley surrounded by steep, lush, verdant cliffs. Afterwards, we headed west along the north coast of the island as far as Kona, famous for its coffee and its 350+ days of sunshine every year. Who would have bet then that we rolled into Kona under a brooding grey sky and the first drops of rain that would fall for the rest of the evening. Aside from a tasty but small burger in a local joint, we ate in Taco Bell, again. Hawai’i until now was turning out to be the worst place we had visited for food in our entire trip. So far, we had tried to operate within our budget and had twice opted for a local speciality called “moco loco”, which is rice with gravy, egg and the option of beef or fish patty, both of which are processed and defrosted. And it tastes worse than it sounds. It wasn’t until the following day, on the road out of Kona that we found Hawai’i's gastronomical budget-friendly redemption – supermarket poke – which from that point would form a large part of our daily sustenance. Poke comes in assorted forms, but consists of raw fish such as local mahi-mahi, marinaded in soy sauce or lemon, and served with a little onion and other condiments. My personal favourite was a bread roll stuffed with mahi mahi poke, which is unlikely to find its way to many menus soon, but may well feature in another budget backpacker’s diet in the not so distant future.

Moco Loco with Fish Patty - yuck!

Poke Platter - pass the bread please!

The King Kamehameha and I

Kona turned out to be less than exceptional due to the weather mostly and we were wondering what we had done to deserve another grey morning as we left the place (that was 2 of the 15 days of rain per year). Things picked up, including the weather, as we approached Pu’uhonua o Honaunau, more easily known as The Place of Refuge, an important Hawai’i'an cultural monument. In Hawai’ian history, the Place of Refuge was a safe point in times of war, where the old and young who were not warriors could seek shelter to avoid death in the war. Also, those guilty of crimes could escape to the Place of Refuge and avoid a certain death penalty. What remains of the Place of Refuge are some small wooden huts and lots of impressive wooden carved statues of various angry deities which seem to be designed in caricature. The statues are impressive, as are the green turtles that float in the small bay just in front of them. I took some time to take a dip in the water nearby and do some snorkeling. The visibility underwater was great and although there was no reef, there were quite a few impressive colorful fish, including Hawai’i's state fish, the Humuhumunukunukuapuaa. Yes that’s the “HOO-moo-HOO-moo-NOO-koo-NOO-koo-AH-poo-AH-ah”. Hawai’i has its fair share of unusual names.

Peaceful Place of Refuge, Big Island

Big nasty guys at the Place of Refuge

From the Place of Refuge we continued our road trip around the island past the Punalu’u Black Sand Beach, a feature of the volcanic soil that makes the island. It’s hard to get your head around a black sand beach, as it definitely doesn’t fall into the stereotype postcard scene, and the sand is a little coarse, but it was a splendid sight with the palm trees being beaten by the wind, and the waves crashing in on the black rocks around us. We didn’t have time to make it off road for the two-hour hike to the green sand beach at the southern tip of the island, which I am sure is as much as if not more so of a wonderful sight.

Black Sand Beach on the Big Island

4,000m+ Mauna Kea seen from Waimea

As we rolled into rainy Hilo that night, we were sure that few people had so much rain as we had on our Hawai’ian adventure. Granted, that was only one and a half days, but 100% more than expected. We stopped into the popular Ken’s Diner in Hilo for a cultural first – our first thanksgiving dinner together on US territory. The meal itself was not as forgettable as I would like it to be, another reason to rate Hawai’ian food (except poke rolls) so low.

Pololu Valley Lookout

As it is, it was time to call our Big Island adventure to a close. I hope we managed to convey a little of the diversity and natural and cultural richness that Hawai’i has to offer – it’s not just wonderful surf, pristine beaches and luxury. Additionally, the Big Island is less touristed, has a distinct off the beaten track feel, and can be done on a budget of around $100-150 daily including the tours and car rental, excluding airfare. If we did it again, we might just stick to the east coast, as it was by far the most enjoyable part of our visit. But if you’re thinking it would be crazy to visit Hawai’i without indulging in its stereotypical pleasures, then fret no more. We’ll have some more news from O’ahu, Waikiki Beach and the North Shore in our next post.

10. Jan, 2011

Land of Lava: Volcanoes of Hawai’i

Land of Lava: Volcanoes of Hawai’i

The Hawaiian Archipelago is the most geographically isolated group of islands on Earth. It lies at least 4,000km from any of the two continents that flank the Pacific Ocean, and is well renowned as a paradise on Earth, a dream destination. So when we were planning our trans-pacific journey from Asia (Philippines) to North America (Florida, USA), to say we were overjoyed to find out that our cheapest option included a free stopover in Hawai’i for eight days might be an understatement. As it turned out, it was a little more difficult than we first expected. Hawaiian Airlines, who had the best price, only accept US credit cards, which meant that we were unable to book the flights! After weeks more searching, we eventually found the same itinerary on Continental (who acknowledge that not only US citizens travel). The downside of our Continental itinerary was that, added to the fact that we would cross the international date line and suffer one hell of a jetlag, we would also have to land and clear immigration at 4am in Guam. Jetlagged we arrived in Honolulu at 5pm having left Manila at 11pm the same day. Time travel is great, especially when your time machine lands you in Hawai’i.

We spent one day in Honolulu, which I’ll cover in the next post, before taking a short evening flight to Hilo, the biggest town in Hawai’i's Big Island. I had been to O’ahu (the most populated island) before, so we wanted to see something different. We deliberated long and hard between Maui, Kauai and the Big Island but finally opted for the Big one because it seems to offer a greater diversity of attractions as well as being more welcoming to the budget traveller.

Sunset in Volcano National Park

Our first day on the island was centred around volcanoes. All of Hawai’i's islands were born from volcanic eruptions, or Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes according to the natives. As Pele gives birth to the Hawaiian homelands, she and the geological forces at her disposal push the the islands northwest. The Big Island (officially called Hawai’i) is the youngest of the islands, the largest, and also the most volcanically active, still growing as you read. What results is that you have an island which combines beautiful beaches at sea level, and dormant volcanoes at a height of approximately 4,000 metres, high enough to get altitude sickness.

We drove inland from Hilo in our rental car to the Volcano National Park. We arrived just in time for one of the daily ranger walks which leave every day at 11am (check website for most current details). As we took the short one hour walking tour, Travis, our Ranger guide in Volcano Park, gave us a lot of interesting facts on the flora and fauna. There are only two mammals endemic to Hawai’i – a type of fruit bat, and the monk seal. Hawaiian plants and animals began to evolve over 70 million years ago in nearly complete isolation and over 90% of the native terrestrial flora and fauna in Hawai’i are found only in the Hawaiian islands. This level of endemism surpasses all other places on Earth – even the Galapagos Islands!

In the spacious Thorsten Lava Tube

Steam Vents in Volcano National Park

He drew our attention to one plant in particular, the ohi’a tree and its lehua blossom. In Hawaiian folklore, the ohi’a represents a Hawai’ian chief who spurned Pele’s advances and was transformed into a tree. His lover, upon finding him, bid the gods change her into a flower to be with her lover, and such is the crimson flower. It is said if you pick the flower from the tree, it will rain, as the maiden weeps on being separated from her prince. For those loving biology more than folklore, note that the Ohi’a tree is unique on Earth in its adaptation to its environment – it is the only plant on Earth that can hold its breath, useful when volcanoes emit poisonous sulphur dioxide gases into its environment. We finished the tour with Travis at a viewing point overlooking the massive Kilauea caldera with the 4,000m+ Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea volcanoes in the background.

Lava on the horizon

After our tour, we spent the rest of the time driving around the national park. We followed the Road of Craters past black desolate landscapes and signs indicating Lava Flow 1974 and subsequent years, until we reached the coast and the road was finally cut off by an even more recent lava flow. Far off in the distance, we could see the clouds of vapour and poisonous fumes which indicated the current lava flow pouring into the sea. Looking back, the mountainsides were coated in old, black rivers of lava as far as the eye could see. It’s an incomparable landscape set against a deep blue, sun-drenched seascape.

Lava from the 1970's

Travis with some good endemic, and nasty invasive plants

There’s an official viewing point to see this current lava flow about 25km from Hilo, so we took the road back and arrived there shortly after sunset. The view from the official viewpoint was disappointing to say the least. We were expecting to see lava, but due to safety reasons (perfectly understandable), we were way back from the lava and could hardly see anything. On our way back to the car, we passed a stand with a slogan “See the flow, not just the glow”, and a video of lava pouring like water. This was what we wanted! It was already 9pm and the next tour was not leaving until 10:30pm. In addition, it involved a 90 minute hike by night to the lava flow, and would cost $55 each with torches included (we found out later that we could have got it for $40 with the same organiser but by buying direct). There was also the small matter of the disclaimer meaning that if we died it was our own fault – this is more or less a given for any fun activities we have taken on our trip. And finally, the fact that what we would be doing could be described anywhere between the two close extremes of plain reckless and insane due to the risks. We listened carefully along with a group of around 10 others, and when the salesman asked who wanted to go, we were the first to sign up. As it turned out, not everyone was so keen, but we’re here to tell the tale!

Lava seen from Official Viewing Point

Lava seen from the Bench Hike

The hike to the lava flow began with a walk through rugged ground of old lava (maybe 20 years old) for about 30 minutes before we got to a cliff along the coast which we followed for another 20 minutes. According to the people with us, lava is new land with no ownership entitlements and by default belongs to the state. So all this was public land. Then we got to a small slice of land that survived between two lava flows. This land belongs to the people we paid for the tour, and what we paid is basically a passing through charge. Beyond their land, we walked for a few minutes before the glow and smoke became very bright ahead of us. At this stage, it was getting hot. I poured some water onto the rock below my feet which instantly evaporated.

Out on the bench with the lava!

We were now on what is called the bench. The rangers in Volcano National Park had told us earlier never to walk on the bench, saying that people survive, but those that don’t never see the end coming. A bench is a strip of new land formed by lava that has flowed out into the sea and has cooled forming new land. It is very dangerous as it is impossible to know if this bench is solid to the surface of the sea below or is simply a huge massive precipice hanging over the sea without a solid foundation. In the case of a current lava eruption, lava flows under the bench through a tube, as the lava at the surface cools and forms a hard crust and insulates the lava below which continues to flow at temperatures of around 1,000 degrees centigrade. Not only were we standing on the bench, but we had just walked over the tube! This was so stupid, but the spectacle in front of our eyes, barely 50m away was spellbinding! Here we had a clear view of numerous streams of lava pouring out of the rock and as the waves rolled in, an explosion of vapour as the sea boiled under the heat, and lava transformed into rock and sprayed over the black sand beach. We were mesmerized and watched for almost an hour. It was amazing to think that this is how mother nature creates the land in our seas, and it was taking place right before our eyes. There was also an acute awareness of the risk we were taking which only added to the excitement, especially as lava began to bubble and spew upwards nearby the stream that flowed into the sea.

Lava - natural fireworks - 8 out of 10!

On the walk back, I asked our guide to rate what we had seen, as after all he does this most nights. He gave it an 8 out of 10, and we were very satisfied with what we had gotten for the risk we had taken. Would we recommend it to anyone else? What I would say is that you are very likely to be disappointed if you go to the official viewing point, as you will not really see lava. On the other hand, would I advise someone to take a risk that could ultimately cost them their lives? I would hesitate to do that. Now that we have done it, it seems that there was no risk. It’s like telling people to wear a seatbelt. It probably won’t happen, but when it does you’ll regret it. What we saw was unforgettable, a unique experience, and a truly incredible sight of seeing the Earth at its destructive and creative best.

More from the Big island and Hawai’i in our next post.

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