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Big Island TR part 2 - Hilo, Puna, Hamakua, Saddle Rd

Big Island TR part 2 - Hilo, Puna, Hamakua, Saddle Rd

Apr 11th, 2007, 01:43 PM
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Big Island TR part 2 - Hilo, Puna, Hamakua, Saddle Rd

Big Island Trip Report, Part 2: Hamakua Coast, Hilo, Puna, Saddle Road. 1st part is at http://fodors.com/forums/threadselec...1&tid=34979442

On day two, we got a fairly late start again due to the baby, around 10am. We drove east on Hwy 19 from Waimea, and then cut off on the Old Mamalahoa Hwy. This was a pretty drive through rolling ranch country. We stopped at a lava tube cave right off the road (mentioned in the blue book). It was quite big, but we didn't go too far into it because baby T got scared after the first 100 feet or so.

We made it up to the Waipi'o Valley lookout around 11am, including another stop for nursing. There is a nice lookout over the valley, with the typical Hawaiian park pavilion, BBQ grills, and grungy bathrooms. The view is fabulous -- the valley is deeper, wider, and more sheer-sided than Polulu Valley. In fact, I'm glad we saw Polulu first and Waipi'o second, not the other way around. The black sand beach looks nice, and there were a few people down on it. You can see the sea cliffs extending northwards towards Polulu. Unfortunately, from the lookout you can't really see up the valley very far at all. We didn't have a 4WD, and didn't want to hike down or take a mule ride down with the baby, so we didn't go down.

Next up was lunch at Tex's in Honoka'a. We had good pork lau-lau there; not the best, but quite respectable. I had pepper jelly malasada, which is a bit like a light jelly doughnut. Supposedly Tex's makes the best on the island. Since I'd never had one before, I can't speak to that.

We then drove down to Kalopa Native Forest State Park, arriving at about 2pm due to a leisurely lunch and several baby-oriented breaks. This place is quite a little gem. It's an upland rainforest, lush but not as crazy lush as down by Hilo. There are nice cabins and several big pavilions; the grounds are quite nice with wide lawns and big trees and shrubs. I'd love to come back and stay in a cabin. There are tons of mongooses. Baby T and I wasted ten minutes trying to get a good picture of one. They are very fast and skittish; all we had to show for our efforts were lots of pictures with yellow-brown blurry streaks of fur or tails disappearing into the underbrush.

We went on the nature walk trail there, a 45 minute loop through the forest. The brochure tells you all about the trail and the vegetation along the way. It's quite a nice little walk through the jungle. No bugs. A few peacocks or guinea hens or something. We were the only people at the park the whole time we were there.

Then on down to Hilo. The drive down is quite nice, as the vegetation becomes more lush and overgrown, and the terrain more eroded, with bridges crossing deep, jungly ravines with waterfalls. We skipped Akaka Falls and the other waterfalls as we're going to do them next week on our way to Volcano. Checked into our B&B, the Bay House; we had the Harbor Room. This place is very nice! Our room, which looks exactly like the pictures on their web site, and has a great view of the bay and the harbor. Christine, the owner, was very pleasant and helpful, but not intrusive. Breakfasts were self-serve fruit (papaya, pineapple, bananas), cereal, yogurts, hard-boiled eggs, banana bread, juice, milk, and coffee. Everyone took their breakfasts back to eat on their room's lanai overlooking the water, so there's no communal breakfast thing there. But that's OK; I'll take the views over the conversation. There aren't much in the way of grounds at this place; it's all about the views. You can walk to downtown Hilo from there.

We drove over to Banyan Drive and Liliuokalani Gardens, and walked around in the twilight. The Gardens are very nice Japanese gardens along the waterfront. Coconut Island just offshore looks nice, but was closed due to construction. I was initially lukewarm on the excitement of walking along the sidewalk under banyan trees, but it was a very nice stroll. The banyan trees are huge! Their bizarre, intertwined shapes are just fascinating. The hotels along the drive are a bit past their prime, but even that's kind of interesting. Hilo is like that; the whole place has this faded, time-gone-by, tropical malaise air to it. The buildings in downtown Hilo are all kind of decrepit too. It's almost third world in some ways. Seems like a great place in which to set a novel.

We had dinner at Naung Mai Thai Kitchen downtown. This little place was quite a treat. The food was excellent, the service was attentive, the prices are reasonable, and the decor is very nice. There aren't many tables and it appears to be popular, but we didn't have to wait for a table (on a Thursday night).

On day three, we spent the morning (after another late start) at the Lyman Museum. This place easily exceeded my somewhat low expectations. It's quite a good museum, especially for a small city like Hilo. The staff is very friendly, and are obviously very excited to show off their museum. There are some good exhibits on the geology, flora, and fauna of Hawaii. There are decent exhibits of minerals and gems, and seashells. There's a very good (but dated) exhibit of ancient Hawaiian culture and customs, including lots of artifacts. For an old exhibit it has surprisingly good, detailed explanations of what everything is. There were also exhibits of Chinese decorative arts, WWII war posters, and a traditional Korean house. Then there's also a guided tour of the original Lyman family house. The Lymans were some of the first missionaries in Hilo, arriving in the 1830s. The house is quite impressive for Hawaii at that time. However, to someone like me who grew up in an old Colonial house on the east coast, it's just another old house. More interesting was the guide's narrative of what life was like for the Lymans. I would allow 60 to 90 for a thorough tour of the entire museum.

On recommendation of the staff, we ate a Kosmic Cones, a little local eatery on Waianuenue Ave near the museum. Good local food. I had the Kosmic Bento Box (a little bit of everything essentially); W had the (very good) chicken long rice. A constant stream of locals coming through. Surprisingly no outdoor tables, even though they have plenty of room for some.

We then drove down to Puna. First stop was Lava Trees State Park, just past Pahoa on Rt 132. This is cool -- a lava flow ran through a forest, hardened around tree trunks, burned out the trees, and then drained away, leaving hollow pillars of hardened lava, about 3 to 20 feet high. It's a nice 15 minute stroll through a lush park with these bizarre lava pillars scattered about. BTW, 132 is a pretty drive -- huge trees forming a tunnel over the road. And when there is no tunnel of trees, there are great views over the lush landscape.

We continued down to Kapoho, to the Kapoho Tidepools. This place is a clear winner! We could have easily spent an entire day here (or more). The lava has formed lots of big tidepools on the edge of the ocean. The water is warm, clear, protected, and full of fish and coral. The snorkeling was fabulous! Undoubtedly the best coral I've seen in the Hawaiian islands; more like what you see in the Caribbean. BTW, wear good reef shoes; the lava can be sharp (although it's mostly the smooth type). No services or water; you're on your own here. No shade either; luckily we had a sunshade plaything for baby T.

We drove on down to Ahalanui Park, which is a geothermically heated pool fed by the ocean. It's a nice little park among the coconut trees. We just dropped by quickly as we were running short on time. Will have to come back some other time.

We continued down the Red Road (Kapoho-Kalapana Rd) all the way to where it ends in lava flows. Didn't stop at any of the beaches on the way. The drive is very scenic, along the coast, through lots of lush foliage. There are some great houses along this strip; it would be great to come back and rent one for a week and give this area some proper exploration.

At the end of the road, we parked across from Verna's roadside stand, which was closed, and walked out across the lava to the new black sand beach. It's about a half-mile walk. The pahoehoe (smooth-type) lava is fascinating. It's got all sorts of ropy, oozy, bubbly structure to it. I think this lava flowed around 1990, and there are a lot of tufts of grass and little shrubs trying to grow up in cracks. Really interesting to see how the vegetation is able to get a start on basically bare rock.

To the west, we could see steam and smoke coming from the Pu'u O'o crater, several spots on the mountainside, and where the lava must be dumping into the sea. We couldn't actually see where the lava met the sea, as some large lava ridges were blocking that view. Coming back from the beach, after the sun had set, and we were able to see lava flows up on the mountain! First just a few spots glowing red-orange in the twilight. Then as it got darker, we were able to see a little river of lava in the distance (must have been at least 3 miles away, probably more). W was very excited, as she had been to Volcano 10 years ago, but hadn't seen anything then as the lava decided to take its first break in years. Bring flashlights and binoculars.

Back in Hilo, we went for sushi at Ocean Sushi Deli. Great sushi, at very reasonable prices. Absolutely no atmosphere -- white walls, white ceiling, bright fluorescent lights, minimal decoration. So we got the food to go, bought a bottle of wine, and had the excellent sushi on our lanai at the B&B with its marvelous views of the harbor lights and sounds of the crashing ocean. All in all, a great day.

Day four: We started out by hitting the Saturday Farmers Market in Hilo. We are regulars at our local farmers market on the mainland, but this one is something else. It's big -- lots of stalls, and a whole arts and crafts section that we never made it to. There are tons of great veggies and fruits. It all looked great; we had a hard time deciding which vendors to buy from. Prices were for the most part very reasonable. It's very crowded; expect to get jostled and bumped quite a bit. Baby T was safely in the Bjorn and loved looking at all the motion and action. Since we were going to a condo in Waikoloa for a week, we loaded up on veggies and fruit. Since we've been eating them for a few days, I can tell you that the papayas ($2 for a bag of four or five) are awesome. The sweet Maui onions were great, the arugula was very spicy and flavorful. We also bought some really good spam musubi and Korean chicken musubi for a later lunch.

We walked to and from the B&B to the farmers market. There appear to be lots of good little shops in Hilo. Unfortunately we didn't have time to stop and browse more.

We then drove up the 4-mile scenic old highway off Hwy 19 just north of Hilo. This is a pretty drive. We went to the Hawaii Tropical Gardens. This is a very nice, large botanical garden in a ravine. Tons of fascinating tropical plants, shrubs, trees, flowers, bamboo, etc. Most of it was fairly well signed. It extends from the road down to some pretty coves along the ocean. It's a steep walk down the initial part, but they have golf carts to run you up and down if you need help. Well worth the time and money. We had lunch at their picnic tables, which are nice, but unfortunately are right next to the road.

Then we drove the Saddle Road over to the west side of the island. This road is not nearly as bad as everyone makes it out to be. The first fifteen miles or so out of Hilo are in excellent condition. Once you hit the military reservation, it gets worse for the next twenty miles. It's basically an old small country road. The pavement is a bit rough sometimes, but certainly drivable, and there were only a few potholes that made me swerve. If possible, you might want to drive this part straddling the center line, as that puts your wheels on smoother asphalt. Watch out for oncoming traffic if you do that! After the road leaves the military, it gets better, although not as good as the Hilo side. It's not as twisty as I expected; large parts, especially in the middle section, are straight. There was a brief patch in the middle under construction. Our Hertz rental car was fine. BTW I looked at the contract they gave us with the car and it does not mention anything about Saddle Rd. I don't know if you save any time taking this road versus the northern or southern routes, because you can't go as fast.

The road starts out climbing through lush jungle, then turns into a more thinned out, scrubby, but still lush forest as you gain altitude. I'm sure the views are great, but the mountains were clouded in for us. As you start level out onto the saddle, the road goes through immense stark lava fields, with the occasional little green cinder cone sticking up. We then hit a patch of very dense fog and had to slow down quite a bit. Once we passed the midway point, the clouds started to clear, and we had some good views of the saddle and the slopes of Mauna Kea and (to a lesser degree) Mauna Loa, but the summits remained in the clouds. The vegetation is minimal scrub up there. Then once out of the military area, we hit the Parker Ranch, and the terrain became green, grassy hills. At one point, a Hawaiian owl flew up next to the car and flew alongside and over us for about a mile. Very cool.

Then we hit the west side, and drove down to our condo at Kolea in Waikoloa Beach Resort. But that's for the next TR.

In one day in North Kohala and three days on the east side of the island, we never saw a drop of rain. It was mostly sunny and hot, with some clouds. In retrospect, we probably could have used an extra day over there, especially as the baby slows us down. We would have spent the extra time browsing around Hilo more, hitting more beaches in Puna, and seeing Pahoa town. We didn't go to the Tsunami museum or the waterfalls because we're going on the way to Volcano next week after our daughter joins us. Next up: eight days on the west coast.
kbob88 is offline  
Apr 11th, 2007, 02:05 PM
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Join Date: Jul 2004
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Thanks for this. We love the Puna side (even with the extra rain) and you hit a number of our favorite stops.
repete is offline  
Apr 11th, 2007, 02:50 PM
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Awesome report and glad you had so much fun with the new baby!

We stayed in the Harbor Room at the Bay House too in Feb, so relaxing on the lanai and we slept like babies in the big comfy bed.
Shanghainese is offline  
Apr 11th, 2007, 04:42 PM
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If you get a chance check out Panaewa Zoo in Hilo. It's not overly advertised, but we were very impressed with the range of animals. Last time we were there they even had a white Bengal tiger roaming around.

If you go, spend a few minutes with my geese friends.
fdecarlo is offline  
Apr 12th, 2007, 10:09 AM
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Excellent report - thanks!!
DoctorCarrie is offline  
Apr 13th, 2007, 03:07 AM
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I loved your descriptions of Hilo, Puna, and the BI's east coast. Great report. I'm looking forward to reading about the rest of your trip.
Devonmcj is offline  
Apr 16th, 2007, 09:00 AM
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I am waiting to read the third part of the report eagerly Wonderful report and a very helpful guide for our forthcoming trip to BI.
fireflyparents is offline  
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