Sunday, November 25, 2012

Big Island: Getting High

You didn’t think that you would get out of this travelogue without seeing at least one picture of a Hawaiian sunset did you? I mean, seriously.

On the top of Mauna Kea volcano at 13,800 feet is a cluster of observatories that attract astronomers from all over the world, due to the near-perfect conditions. Isolated from light pollution in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, it is the third-highest optical observatory in the world.

As a kid, I was never a fan of astronomy, because other than images of our solar system, everything else just looked like dots and clouds. With the development of the Hubble space telescope, and recent advances in adaptive optics, the field has become more exciting for scientists, but not to me.

All of this nonsense about science and technology was not a part of our decision to drive up the volcano. My wife read that the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy (located below the observatory complex at 9,300 feet) includes a visitor’s center. At the visitor’s center, observatory staff members set up high-quality telescopes free for use by the public. But the reason my wife set aside time to drive up the volcano was because of the sunset, which occurs above the clouds.

We left Kailua with a half-tank of gas, and began the long climb. Before long, our four-cylinder rental car was sucking air like a drowning elephant. I could actually see the fuel needle dropping towards “Empty.” We passed through the deck of clouds that obscured the summit.

After we broke through the cloud deck, the skies were clear and the air temperature began to drop into the 40’s. Those weird alien-looking plants by the side of the road are called Silver Swords, and they are only found in Hawaii at high altitudes.

I should mention that for the last hour and a half of the drive, I didn’t see a single building, much less a gas station. Finally, we arrived at the visitor’s center.

I approached one of the scientists who was setting up the telescopes and asked how far it was to the nearest gas station.

“It’s 35 miles whether you go east or west,” he explained. “How much gas do you have left?”

“Less than a quarter of a tank,” I told him sheepishly, embarrassed by my bad planning.

He just laughed. “You’ll make it easily! It’s all downhill from here! You can make it back to your hotel if you want.”

He went on to tell me that all of the people helping out are volunteer scientists. They come from all over the world to make observations of the universe. However, they are required to stay at the visitor’s center dormitories for a week to adjust to the altitude before they are allowed up to the observatories, 4,000 feet further up the mountain. During that week, they have nothing to do, so they volunteer to help out.

A short distance away was a knobby hill that people were climbing for a view of the sunset. A dirt road led to the foot of the hill. The scientist told me that I could drive over to the hill, but not to go further than the power station. “If you go past the power station, you’re never coming back.”

We drove over and began the lung-searing climb in the thin, cold air.

The view in any direction was quite spectacular.

These are cinder cones, left over after the last eruption over 4,000 years ago.

The sunset did not disappoint. We took dozens of pictures. I am only going to show you one. You can thank me later.

We returned to the visitor’s center and looked through amazingly high-quality telescopes at the moon, Mars and other celestial objects. But then it was time for the ride home. I was amused by this warning sign.

The drive down the mountain in the dark was a bit hair-raising, considering I never touched the accelerator. We flew down, feathering the brakes, the car purring at a quiet idle. We made it all the way back to Kailua with gas to spare.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Big Island: A Hot TIme in the Old Town

When we planned this trip, my wife gave me a choice of destinations: Israel or Hawaii. It was a tough choice, but I decided on Hawaii for one reason. Israel has lots of ancient historical sites to visit, and I enjoy visiting ancient historical sites. But Hawaii has something I’ve never seen: volcanoes. Volcanoes are fascinating, dynamic, complex and potentially explosive. Well, so is Israel. But I chose Hawaii.

Our first morning on the Big Island, my wife had made plans to go scuba diving, which would leave me with nothing to do. The previous evening, while walking through the lobby, I saw this sign.


It was outside of a large concierge office staffed with three young women in their twenties. I asked one of them about the helicopter tour of the volcanoes, because I was concerned that our plans to visit Volcanoes National Park later in the week would be unfulfilling. After all, I reasoned, how close will they let tourists get to a volcanic crater?

The concierge told me that on Hawaii and in Orlando, FL, Expedia is conducting a test marketing experiment. They are offering concierge services as an outsourced service to hotels. The hotel provides the work space, and Expedia provides trained staff. They are very, very good at it.

In the two helicopter tours that I have taken in my life, I was stuck in the center of the back seat because of my size (load balancing is important on helicopters). I asked the concierge to get me a window seat if possible. She made the call while I sat there, and in that strangely adorable and seductive voice that only girls in their twenties can master, begged the booking agent to seat me at a window. Nailed it.

Early the next morning, I dropped my wife off at the dive boat and snapped a picture of this colorful Hawaiian lizard clinging to a palm tree.


I had to drive to the other side of the Big Island, to the city of Hilo. The Big Island is very big indeed. I had exactly two and a half hours to get there before takeoff, and I barely made it. The other passengers had already received their safety briefing, so one of the tiniest human beings I have ever met took charge. Barking orders like a drill sergeant, she issued me a life preserver, delivered my safety briefing, and marched me out to the tarmac where the other passengers were waiting. This is her, standing next to a co-worker.


And this is me, standing next to the helicopter, trying not to look huge and dorky (and failing).


My Expedia concierge came through and I was seated at a window with an excellent view out the left side of the helicopter. We flew high along the coast, crossing carefully-tended macadamia nut and papaya plantations. The "bent" horizon is caused by shooting through the rounded plexiglass helicopter window.


Hilo sits on the windward side of the Big Island, so they get lots of rain. Just west of the city, several rivers cascade through jungle, creating dozens of waterfalls.


Before long, the landscape changed to thousands of acres of cooled, hard lava. Newer lava is silvery in color. Older lava is black.


Soon, steam vents appeared, covering the lava flows in veils of mist.


Volcanoes are formed when molten magma in the earth’s mantle rises through weak points in the earth’s crust. The magma rises because it is less dense than solid rock. Once it reaches the surface, it can spew forth in violent eruptions, or flow like a river over the surface. All of the Hawaiian Islands were created by volcanic eruptions on the sea floor that eventually built up to the surface. In fact, if measured from the sea floor, Mauna Loa on the Big Island is by far the tallest mountain on earth.

Our destination was Kilauea, the most active volcano on the Big Island. However, helicopter tours are forbidden from flying near the main crater. Instead, we flew to a secondary crater on the slope of Kilauea, known as Pu’u’O’o (POO-oo-OH-oh). It’s small by comparison to Kiluaea (about 700 feet across), but it has been erupting continuously since 1983.

We circled the crater slowly.





The lava inside the crater walls has formed a thick crust, but there is one spot that is currently open, about the size of a house, from which molten lava was being ejected in boiling, sloshing globs, instantly forming a silvery crust.


We headed down the side of Kilauea towards the sea, along the route of a lava flow that occurred in 2007. The lava was still cooling, and deep crevasses in the surface shone with an eerie red glow.


The town of Kalapana was mostly destroyed by lava in 1997. A few hardy souls still live there.


The lava flow continued down to the water, where it covered the town of Kaimu and Kaimu Bay, creating 500 acres of new waterfront real estate that will be lush and green and ready for hotel construction in about 10,000 years.


Thursday, November 22, 2012

Big Island: More Warning Signs

It was time to leave Kauai, so we drove to the tiny airport that serves the island. It was nearly empty.


I was amused by this ridiculously pretentious wall of clocks, providing the time all over the world. Among them are clocks giving the time at the Falkland Islands and the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica, for executives with urgent business in those locations.


We flew to Honolulu to change planes. At the airport, we were escorted into this deserted holding lounge.


A guard stood at one door to keep unauthorized persons from entering, and another guard sat by the door that exited onto the tarmac, to keep us from leaving. He was asleep, but woke up just as I took this picture.


Eventually we boarded another plane for the flight to the Big Island (which is actually named Hawaii). Our hotel was right on the water in Kailua, on the western side of the island known as the Kona Coast. We had corner room, with sliding glass doors out to a wraparound deck.


The sliding glass doors had little swordfish warning stickers on them to keep guests from accidentally walking into the glass. The stickers enabled me to take this picture.


The coastline in Kailua Bay is rocky and treacherous.



The hotel has a semicircular restaurant right on the rocks.


One morning, the surf was so rough that diners having breakfast at those coveted window tables were getting soaked with salty spray.

As always, I amused myself taking pictures of warning signs.


My favorite was this one, featuring a silhouette of a man descending the stairs. But on closer inspection, it looks like a man standing on the stairs with a leg growing out of his ass.


Monday, November 19, 2012

Kauai: Good Eats

On our anniversary, we went to a fancy restaurant and had a fancy meal in the fanciest clothing we had brought with us. The waitress chatted with us, and when she discovered it was our anniversary, presented us with a little gift box containing two hand-made chocolate truffles. One with hazelnut cream filling and one with chocolate mousse and bacon. Yeah. Bacon. It was that kind of restaurant.

Despite the cost, the frills and the chocolate bacon candy, it wasn’t the most memorable eating experience we had on Kauai. That distinction goes to a Hawaiian treat called “shave ice” and a restaurant called “Chicken in a Barrel.”

Shave ice is often compared to what mainlanders call a “Snow Cone.” But one of our tour guides tried to explain the difference. “Snow cones are made from crushed ice,” she explained. “But shave ice is made by slicing very, very thin pieces off of a block of ice. The shave ice is light and fluffy and melts in your mouth, you don’t crunch it.”

So the first chance we got, we went to a shave ice stand. In this photo, you may notice coconuts for sale. They chop a hole in them, insert a straw, and you sip the sweet coconut water. In Panama, the cost for this treat is 50 cents. In Hawaii, it's $5. We decided to have shave ice instead.


The guy behind the counter shaves the ice on what is basically a stainless-steel turret lathe, shaping it into a plastic bowl with his hands. What he is making in this photo is a “children’s size.” It is enormous. They also come in “regular” and “large,” which probably requires a wheelbarrow.


You can get them with a scoop of ice cream on the bottom, but we chose not to do that. Most shave ice stands offer a gigantic array of flavors, which you can add in any combination (typical is one flavor on one side and another flavor on the other). Then, you can have an optional drizzle of sweetened condensed milk on top.


The two of us couldn't finish it. One girl at a shave ice stand told us that to some Hawaiians, “shave ice is their morning coffee.” But the interesting thing about shave ice is the texture. The tour guide was correct; it is nothing like a snow cone. But it is exactly like snow. My wife and I laughed about this, because the tour guide struggled with the description. She had probably never seen snow in her life, although it does snow on some of the higher mountains in Hawaii.

The next exotic flavor of Hawaii that we enjoyed was Chicken in a Barrel. Someone mentioned that name while we were in a group, and one native of Kauai moaned, rolled his eyes back into his head and said, “Oh God, it’s soooooo good!” When the sheer mention of a restaurant prompts an involuntary orgasm, you have to try it.


Chicken in a Barrel is just a shack on a main road. Tables outside, no dining room. The chicken is smoked in repurposed oil drums.


It comes out of the barrels tender, moist and smoky, served with beans and rice, and your choice of homemade barbecue sauces. Oh God it’s soooooo good.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Kauai: Lava Tubing

Kauai was once a major producer of sugar, but has since lost the market to Brazil and India. Sugar cane is a thirsty plant that requires heavy irrigation for commercial production. When Hawaii was in the sugar business, hundreds of irrigation channels were dug to move water to the fields. Some took advantage of natural features of the landscape, including lava tubes.

Lava tubes are formed naturally when hot lava flows down a naturally-existing canyon or gorge. The lava forms a crust on top, which eventually thickens around the sides until a nearly-circular channel is left in the center. This channel carries lava until the volcano stops producing it. The last of the lava drains out, leaving a long cave-like channel. Hawaii is full of them.


Since many of the irrigation channels on Kauai are now unused, some entrepreneurs leased the rights to use one that is on private property for tourism. It runs for miles, passing through four pitch-dark lava tubes on the way.

When we arrived at the office, we were issued helmets with headlamps, and a pair of gloves to protect us from the abrasive lava rock that forms the lava tubes. Then, we boarded Swedish-army troop transport trucks for the ride to the irrigation channel.


We drove on dirt roads that seemed like they were in the middle of the Serengeti.


Along the way, we were treated to the company of this member of the staff, who has the worst case of ADD in Hawaii.


We arrived at our destination, which was technically the middle of nowhere.


This is the channel that was going to carry us through the wilderness.


Mr. ADD gave us a lecture on safety, assuring us that there were no leeches, piranhas or alligators in Hawaii. He then warned us not to pee in the channel, although he did not specify why.


And then we got into large inner tubes for the trip. Parts of it were quiet and scenic, and other parts were fast and exciting.



The lava tubes were dark and mysterious phenomena. One of them was over a mile long.  You could see where the tubing staff had driven metal anchors into the ceiling to hold metal mesh, so that chunks of lava rock don’t fall onto the tourists.

If you are interested, here is a movie of the experience, edited down from over an hour to just over four minutes.

After the trip, we had lunch at a scenic spot.




I know it probably doesn’t sound like that much fun, but it was surprisingly enjoyable, ranking high on our list of favorite activities in Hawaii.