Travel Thursday: The Big Island Of Hawaii Offers The Adventure Of A Lifetime
When you think of Hawaii what comes to mind? White sand beaches? Luaus? Hula skirts? While “paradise” may be the default, my recent visit to “the Big Island” Hawaii introduced something even more exciting into the equation: adventure.
Though I’d visited the islands of Oahu and Kauai as a child, this was my first visit to the Hawaiian Islands as an adult, and my first visit to the largest island, Hawaii. In recent years, I’d heard from more and more friends that the Big Island, was actually their choice destination among the Hawaiian Islands. They’d explained that it was “different” from the other islands—somehow more special. It became clear why once I visited myself.
I touched down in Kona, Hawaii on Wednesday afternoon and after retrieving my rental car made my way to Courtyard King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel. I should preface all of this by saying that this was going to be a guy’s trip. Art, one of my best friends would be joining me on Thursday afternoon, so Wednesday evening was going to be a solo adventure.
Technology being what it is, you’re never really alone—especially as a gay man on vacation. In order to get the lay of the land—maybe lei since I’m in Hawaii??—I immediately checked into Grindr and Scruff. Yes, I was interested in checking out the local “scenery” but I also was legitimately interested in finding out where I should go and what I should check out in Kona from the gay locals.
But…because I’m also someone that loves food, I was multitasking and trolling Yelp for the best food spots. (FYI, I’ve been known to eat my way through many a vacation destination. ) This led me to Umeke’s where I got amazing ahi poke and laulau (pork in wrapped taro leaf). If you’re looking for outstanding poke and a beautiful selection of freshly made sides, Umeke’s is a great hole in the wall spot!
Now, back to Scruff. I connected with Steven, a charming private concierge for a luxury travel club. He’d been based in Kona for a while and suggested that My Bar was the best gay bar to visit, but noted that Wednesdays would probably be pretty dead in terms of clientele. With that in mind after a stroll along the coastline, which was covered with cute beach side bars and restaurants, I called it an early night!
I was pleasantly surprised on Thursday morning when my KapohoKine Adventures guide Ken arrived to pick me up. First, Ken—which I soon learned means “handsome” in Scottish—was appropriately named and second, I discovered I was getting a solo tour for the day! That’s right. Handsome Ken was taking me on KapohoKine Adventures’ Waipi’o Valley Explorer tour.
Our tour began with a scenic drive across the island to the city of Hilo via Saddle Road between the Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea volcanoes. The island of Hawaii is divided into what’s described as the dry side and the wet side. The dry side of the island is arid and its landscape is made up almost entirely of dried lava flows. On our way to Hilo, Ken and I stopped to explore the unique landscape and I got a close look at one of many offerings to the gods. (FYI, the gods appreciate edible gifts!)
The landscape quickly changed as we entered the wet side of the island. Suddenly, everything around us was lush greenery. We passed native ‘Ohi’a Lehua trees, which have their own interesting legend. As Ken explained, according to legend the goddess Pele fell in love with a warrior named ‘Ohi’a and asked him to marry her. ‘Ohi’a turned down Pele’s proposal citing his love for another woman, Lehua. Enraged Pele turned ‘Ohi’a into a twisted tree. The gods took pity on the heartbroken Lehua and turned her into a blossom on the ‘Ohi’a tree so that the lovers would never be separated.
While the weather was beautiful as we entered the coastal town of Hilo, I learned that it actually rains almost daily and averages nearly 157 inches of rain per year—making it the sixth rainiest city in the United States. I think that also may be part of its charm.
Ken and I stopped by Hilo Farmer’s Market where I picked up red lychee and apple bananas. Apple bananas are smaller than regular bananas and, to my taste, are richer in flavor.
We then headed to the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden in Onomea Bay. For those that are interested in plant life and vegetation, this is a must see. The Garden serves as a nature preserve and sanctuary for tropical plant life from around the world. It’s situated in a 40-acre valley with trails that lead to waterfalls and gorgeous ocean vista views. With over 2,000 species of plant life, it’s really spectacular.
After grabbing delicious chicken wraps at a cute restaurant called What’s Shakin’ we made our way to Waipi’o Valley. A Dengue fever outbreak prevented us from trekking down into Waipi’o Valley, but the breathtaking views from the lookout point made it worth the trip.
With its majestic cliffs, lush greenery, and black sand beaches, it’s no wonder that Waipi’o Valley used to be the home of King Kamehameha I—not to mention the location for many memorable sequences from Jurassic Park!
Ken and I headed back to Kona along the beautiful Hamamkua Coast, but not before stopping to pick up malasadas, a delicious doughy Portuguese confection similar to a doughnut. We got them at a place called Tex Drive-In, per Ken’s suggestion—and I’m not proud of how I devoured them. I’d do it again.
By the time I’d returned to Kona, my friend Art had arrived and he was ready to hit the town. He’d already fully transitioned into vacation mode and was at least two pina coladas deep—a move that I fully supported.
That evening we walked to My Bar, the local gay haunt. While the bar wasn’t exactly packed, it made up for its lack of a crowd with good music and $4 vodka sodas. At this point My Bar was officially “our bar.”
We chatted up the bartenders: Jared, a cute 20-something from West Texas who’d been in Kona for seven months and Taylor (origin unknown). Taylor had an affinity for the bar’s fog machine, which he’d turn on at seemingly random points throughout the evening. Whatever makes you happy!
On Friday, Art and I drove to Hilo. It began to rain as soon as we crossed the “border” into the wet side of the island. It was such a distinct contrast from the sunny dry part of the island that we’d just left behind in Kona. We checked into the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel and made our way to Suisan, a fish market Ken recommended to me as the place to get fresh poke in Hilo. Seeing the fish just caught straight from the Hilo Bay, made it clear that he was correct. Also, if it’s not apparent by now, I’ll eat poke at any opportunity.
Our KapohoKine Adventures tour guide Eric picked us up in the afternoon for the Evening Volcano Tour. Eric is an ecologist and volcanologist hailing from Santa Ana, California—and despite his unassuming presence, he’s ridiculously knowledgeable on all things volcano related.
Eric took me, Art, and a small group of other travelers to the district of Puna. The locals in Puna are affectionately called “Punatics” based on their off-beat sensibility. We stopped in a town called Kalapana which was partially wiped out by lava in 1990.
There’s actually an entire new coastline in place of where part of the town once stood. The landscape was unlike anything I’d ever seen and the black basalt lava flows were a stark contrast to the lush greenery we’d left in Hilo.
Our visit to Kalapana coincided with the 2016 Flow Festival. Imagine trekking through a lava flow to a newly created black sand beach amidst a mass group of hippies happily camping on the lava surface.
From Kalapana we headed to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Here we got to explore the Thurston Lava Tube. The lava tube is a long cave-like tunnel underneath the hardened surface of a lava flow.
Our next stop? A visit to Volcano Winery. I know what you’re thinking: Hawaii has vineyards? Actually there are exactly two: Volcano Winery on the Big Island and a second vineyard on the island of Maui. The particular site where the Volcano Winery is located is the only region where wine is able to grow temperature wise. It’s 4000 feet above sea level and certain grape vines, including Symphony, some French-American hybrids, and Pinot Noir thrive in the unusual climate. However, due to the fact that the winery is literally growing wine on a volcano, they have to bring in soil to the vineyard; the soil is created locally. The wines at Volcano Winery are quite unique, with many actually combined with elements other than grapes—think tea infused wines, honey wines, and yellow guava blends. They are flavors that are entirely specific to Hawaii and were definitely an adventure for our palettes.
We closed out our guided tour back at the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park where we were able to view the red glow of the Halema’uma’u Crater at night. There’s something pretty wild about seeing the glow of churning lava—and knowing that a volcano could actually erupt at any moment. We got there at just the right time. Shortly after our arrival, a foggy mist passed through, masking the lava glow from sight, but leaving the image seared in my memory.
That night, per Eric’s recommendation, Art and I took a cab to the Hilo Town Tavern. With its live music, including a fantastic band and a rapper singing about illegal occupation (“F**k yeah, I live in the Kingdom of Hawaii/ Kanaka what you doing with your taxes?”), we felt immediately plugged in to the authentic Hawaiian/Hilo experience. There was a pop-up art gallery exhibition happening in a room connected to the bar’s outdoor patio. This exposure to the art, music, and culture that explored the tensions that still exist between native Hawaiians and the American government was fascinating to see—as was the consistent display of native and local pride.
While acknowledging that tension, I should also note that we were treated with abundant kindness by locals everywhere we went. Big Island locals are exceptionally kind.
Art and I awoke bright and early Saturday morning for KapohoKine Adventures’ Nohona Hawaii experience. This was something we’d both been eagerly looking forward to because we were going on an extreme zipline adventure via their Zipline Through Paradise!
Our KapohoKine Adventures guide Jonah picked us up from the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel and once again, we’d scored with a private tour. Like all of the KapohoKine Adventures guides, Jonah was exceptionally well informed. Originally from Oregon, he’d been in Hawaii for the last nine years. On our way to the zipline site we passed Macadamia nuts being harvested, which Jonah explained is particularly labor intensive as they have to be picked up from the ground by hand.
Upon arriving at the zipline site, Jonah explained that the site is also a research learning preserve. In a deal with the University of Hawaii, twenty acres of land are dedicated to research that includes the removal of invasive plant life to be replaced by native plants. A new program was also initiated that allows local schools to do a work/trade in which students get to plant taro and other native plants and learn about environmental preservation—and presumably get in some ziplining too! (Sounds like an even trade to me.)
The course consists of eight separate ziplines and it’s a literal “Zipline Through Paradise.”
We flew through the air over breathtaking views of the Honoli’l River and the Waialae waterfall—with John and Dishman basically performing a welcome two-man comedy routine throughout.
That evening Art and I had dinner at the appropriately named Hawaiian Style Café in Hilo, and it was actually one of my favorite meals of the entire trip. I’d yet to try the traditional Hawaiian dish “loco moco” and we were told by locals that this was definitely the place to have it. Naturally, I went for the most over-the-top version imaginable, the Mok-a-saurus, which consisted of a bed of fried rice topped with SPAM, a chicken cutlet, kalua pork, a hamburger patty, 2 eggs and brown gravy. When in Hawaii, guys…
We followed up dinner with a visit to a club called Karma, which was open until 4 a.m.—a novelty in Hilo. It wasn’t a gay club, but we did meet a nice lesbian named Danielle so we held it down and had a fun night.
On Sunday morning we met our KapohoKine Adventures guide Jesse (born and raised on the Big Island) for a guided hike of the Kilauea Iki volcanic crater. I’m not sure I can properly express how incredible this was, but I’m hoping pictures will somewhat do it justice.
Jesse, Art, and I hiked through the rainforest onto the crater floor. It genuinely looked and felt like we were on another planet as steam shot out of vents from the black crater floor. It was practically apocalyptic.
The four mile hike through the volcanic crater was arguably the highlight of the trip because it truly felt like a once in a lifetime experience. I’d never seen anything like it before and potentially never would again, though thankfully with a group like KapohoKine Adventures, I’ll be able to go back!
I left Hilo for the Mainland the next morning with a true understanding of why the Big Island is so special. There’s a rawness to it, like it’s actively changing, growing, and breathing at every moment. There’s a powerful life force and fire there—in the geography, the landscape, and the culture. As you commune with the Big Island you can’t help but feel more alive.
(Image Credit: Nigel Campbell)