Exploring the Big Island of Hawaii

explore

Have you ever had the pleasure of visiting the Island of Hawaii? Also known as the Big Island, Hawaii Island is the largest of the Hawaiian Islands, falling south easternmost in the chain.

Not to be confused with Oahu (where the state capitol Honolulu is located), Big Island is far from metropolitan – in fact, you can’t even drive around the island in one day.

Big Island is my favorite Hawaiian Island due to its sheer enormity. Its varied landscapes are home to not only 2 active volcanoes, Kilauea and Moana Loa, but also a myriad of enchanting, unspoiled places. Word to the wise: Rent a 4×4 vehicle if you ever visit.

Just returning from a 3-day trip, my boyfriend and I had the pleasure of exploring the east side of Hawaii, or Hilo side. Hilo is a city on the bay and a jumping-off point for pleasures ranging from exploring the active volcano, hot springs, black sand beaches, a beautiful coastal drive and more.

Here are some highlights from our recent trip:

Exploring Volcanoes National Park:

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Kilauea Caldera. Do you see the lava in the crater’s rim?

This National Park is not to be missed. Have you ever seen a live, active volcano? Kilauea is actively erupting, and luckily enough for us, a trip to the visitor’s center was enough to see the active lava spurting from the Earth.

Usually, a trip to see the lava flow is an 8 mile round-trip hike through treacherous lava fields, but the day we visited was our lucky day: The lava was spewing from Kilauea Caldera, nearby the visitor’s Center!

After getting our fill of watching red hot lava, we exploring a cavernous lava tube and basked in the mists of volcanic steam vents around the park.

Tips: Stop in the visitor’s center to find out pro tips from the park rangers, and pack a raincoat…it always rains on the east side!

Traversing Lower Puna (including Volcanic Hot Springs):

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Ahalanui’s volcanic hot springs are tucked alongside Puna’s rugged coast. Photo courtesy: Ehren Meinecke

Puna district is southeast of Kilauea volcano, and its proximity to an active volcano can be felt in all senses of the word: Wild, untouched rain forest, volcanic hot springs, funky people, and plenty of room to play.

For a relaxing afternoon, we visited Ahalanui Beach Park, a volcanic hot spring which is about 88 degrees. It’s perfect for taking a relaxing swim and enjoying the rugged coastline it’s nestled up against.

Tips: Bring your snorkeling mask! There’s plenty of fish to observe in the warm pond. Also, stay out if you have any open cuts – a staph infection could easily ruin your trip.

Finding a hidden black sand beach and hunting for opihi:

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These opihi were plucked from a very dicey-looking coastline.

Some places are just meant to be kept for the locals, and Secret Beach is one of them. We were lucky enough to meet up with my friend Matt who showed us an incredible secluded black sand beach.

Around dusk, we all hunted for shells and opihi: a snail delicacy found exclusively on seaside rocks in hard-to-reach places. Wild quantities are a pipe dream on Oahu, and sell for an expensive buck ($18/pound). It was such a treat to harvest and enjoy our own fresh opihi!

Tips: Respect the land. Just because you find an open road doesn’t mean you have the right to travel down it. There is a LOT of private land, much of it ancient and spiritual. When in doubt, “Kapu,” or keep out!

Visiting Hilo’s Farmers Market:

Imagine a place where 200+ vendors gather to sell farm-fresh produce, baked goods, bento lunches, Kona coffee, artisan breads, jams, and handmade jewelry, clothing, and house goods. Enter Hilo’s farmers market!

The farmers market technically takes place daily in downtown Hilo, but for a really good display of goods, we went on a Saturday. We were able to sample all sorts of local treats: from Ka’u district coffee, to taro chips, to roast pork and more, your buck goes far at  Hilo’s farmers market!

Tips: Visit on a Saturday between 7 a.m. – 4 p.m. to really enjoy the full spread of vendors. Bring cash and an open mind for sampling local goodies!

Driving the Hamakua Coast:

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Just one of the many waterfalls on Big Island’s Hamakua Coast Drive- Akaka Falls State Park

Just north of Hilo begins a drive that’s full of lush greenery, waterfalls, valleys, and scenic ocean views. We drove it roughly 40 miles west to reach Waipio Valley, our destination. In the interim, we couldn’t believe how gorgeous the views were.

This relaxing stretch of driving fed our lust for a road trip with epic eye candy all along the way.

Tips: Fill up on gas before you go, pack snacks and turn up the radio. Also: Don’t expect to be able to drive around the entire island in a single day…it’s too big!

Exploring an ancient valley of the gods:

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An incredibly steep and dangerous 4×4 road will lead you to Waipio Valley’s floor.

Waipio Valley is a glimpse into Old Hawaii. Two-thousand foot cliff walls encompass a lush, green valley with taro fields and wild horses. A black sand beach spans the entirety of the valley, and giant waterfalls cascade from the mountains’ sides. Interested yet? Read on:

A trip down to the valley floor means:

  1. A treacherous 2 mile hike down a very steep road you must share with vehicles
  2. Paying around $60/person to jump in a tour van; or
  3. Driving down the 4-wheel drive road on your own and braving the elements.

We opted for choice number 3. It was not easy! The grade is EXTREMELY steep and the road is so narrow, only one car can pass in either direction at a time. We even had to BACK UP the road along the cliff edge to let people pass!

Once at the bottom, you have to ride through several giant mud puddles. Finally on the valley floor, we were rewarded with dipping our toes in the water and observed wild horses in awe. We felt immense respect for a place that used to be only for ali’i – or Hawaiian royalty.

Tips: All visitors can enjoy the lookout for a scenic vantage point and photo opp above the valley. Brave soldiers can take a 4×4 (That means 4-wheel drive ONLY!) down, observing the local “law” of yielding to traffic going up. Take nothing in and leave nothing behind!

Overall, a trip to the Big Island is for the adventurous-at-heart. Pack your best slippahs, hiking shoes, rain coat, and bathing suit, and get ready for whatever adventure heads your way!

 

Revelations by Twilight

This is a piece I wrote for Matador U’s Advanced Travel Writing program. The theme was write about a time you were lost, either metaphorically or physically. I wrote about moving to Maui: the reason behind my move, the very unwarm welcome I received and how I found myself on the other side.  All the details are true and are highly personal and sensitive to me. Please have a read and enjoy the ride.

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Living and working on the Big Island for six months took its toll on me.

I found some semblance of home on a 3-acre tropical agriculture farm on the eastern side of the Big Island, Hawaii. Pahoa, our little jungle town, promised exotic adventures and a rotating door of interesting, but not always good, people.

Because of its unique location amongst O’hia and Albizia trees, Pahoa attracted a certain demographic of people who ran away and hid from their problems. The Big Island: the perfect place to lose and then find yourself again – if you were lucky. A lot of people stayed lost on the Big Island, succumbing to their narcotic of choice, driving around drunk and reckless, putting others’ in harm’s way.

I needed an escape. I booked a side trip to the neighbor island Maui for a breath of fresh air, or perspective, or both.

I didn’t know a soul on Maui, so I logged onto couch surfing and sent out a handful of requests. The first person to respond was a surfer named Frank. His profile picture piqued my interest. He stood in front of a cascading waterfall, both hands behind his back, looking into the distance. His blond ponytail hung over his chiseled, tan back. Frank, the stereotypical hunky surfer, would be my host around Maui for the next 5 days.

I couldn’t contain my excitement. I packed my sarong, a few swimsuits, my cutest sundresses, a hippie headband and oversized sunglasses.  My friends dropped me off at the airport, waved bon voyage and off I went to meet Frank.

A 45 minute flight later dropped me into windy Maui. Frank picked me up at the airport in his rugged, four wheel drive truck. He didn’t have a shirt on. My heart was in my throat.

“Aloha! Welcome to Maui,” Frank said.

I felt punch-drunk. Who was this dreamy man? I wondered incredulously.

“I thought we’d pick up a six pack and head north,” Frank said.

Now he’s done it, I thought. I’m officially hooked.

I silenced every moral fiber in my body telling me not to get too involved. I didn’t want a one-night stand. If this went somewhere, anywhere – north– it would all be over. I’d be his lovesick sidekick in a dirty truck.

So what? I reasoned with myself. Life is made for wild adventures, hungry love and bad decisions. I resigned myself to head north, or wherever the hell else Frank had in mind.

A whirlwind of romantic adventures encompassed the next 5 days. We sipped wine on a cliff overlooking Ironwoods Beach, climbed forbidden trails in ‘Iao Valley, had sex in his cramped studio, snorkeled the best reefs on island, and cooked breakfast in the nude while chatting about surfing. We lied in bed, fingers interlocked, talking about eventually wanting to settle into a relationship. I secretly hoped he’d want that with me.

My last day in Maui, as Frank drove me to the airport, I told him I wanted to see him again. He gave me a kiss goodbye and promised to keep in touch.

I arrived back to the farm in Pahoa, glowing. Everyone knew I had a fabulous time and it showed.

“I’m moving to Maui,” I announced. I’m famous for making bold, rash decisions in the heat of the moment.

“You are? That’s so awesome Jill!” my friend Brandan said.

A few people supporting my assertion rendered it official: I was going to move to Maui.

I flew home to Chicago a week or two later to gather some final belongings and visit with family. I still hadn’t heard anything from Frank after I texted him about my impending move. The silence killed me; but, I knew I had to get off the Big Island. Maui seemed to be the next logical step.

“You don’t know anyone there, Jill,” my mom said.

“Well, I have a few friends,” I lied. I shuffled my feet around the fact that my only lifeline was Frank, a romantic acquaintance.

A few days before my move, I received a text from Frank.

“So, you moving to Maui? Do you need a place to stay when you land?”

Besides myself, I agreed to let Frank pick me up from the airport. I’d stay with him until I found a place to live. I secretly hoped, though, that we would pick up where we left off: in the heat of romance.

My parents dropped me off at O’Hare and waved goodbye, wishing me good luck.

When I arrived at the terminal, my flight had been delayed. Instead of landing at 5 p.m., just in time for an amazing Maui sunset, I’d arrive at 10 p.m.

I texted Frank the change of plans. No response from him right away, but it didn’t matter, because my flight was boarding.

I zoned out for the next 5 hours, trying to get through the long flight while containing my excitement about seeing Frank again.

We touched down in Kahului, Maui in the darkness. I turned on my phone to check for a message from Frank.

“It’s kind of late. I’m going to have my friend Henry pick you up,” Frank texted.

Who is Henry? I wondered. How was I supposed to find him?

I stood outside of the airport, “looking” for Henry. I had no idea what he looked like, what he would be driving…nothing.

After about fifteen minutes, panic started to settle in. What have I done? Why would I trust a guy I met once to come get me without making a backup plan? I didn’t even have cash for a taxi or a hotel reservation.

Wearing a giant backpack with 2 suitcases in tow, I realized that I was utterly lost. Abandoned by the only person I thought I knew on island, I stood at the airport in tears. I knew Frank wasn’t coming. I also knew that the romance I thought would reignite the moment my foot touched Maui soil had crashed and burned.

Suddenly, a truck pulled up.

“Jill? Is that you?” Henry screamed with his head out the window.

“Yeah! Are you Henry?” I screamed back.

“Yeah! Get on in!” Henry said.

Henry turned out to be Frank’s best friend and my saving grace during a hard moment. We drove to Henry’s apartment in the mountains, making casual, albeit awkward small talk.

“I don’t know what happened to Frank, but he asked me to pick you up. We’ll get with him in the morning,” Henry said.

“Fair enough. Where can I sleep? I’m exhausted,” I asked.

Henry motioned toward the only bed in his apartment.

“You can sleep in there with me. I don’t bite,” he said.

Here we go, I thought. The only person willing to take me in for the night wanted to get me in bed – literally. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, I reluctantly agreed.

“Okay, but no funny stuff. And I mean it,” I said.

That night, we slept, perfect strangers, side by side. Nothing funny happened.

I woke up to a note on the counter from Henry who had already left for the day.

“Jill – It’s been so nice to meet you! I think you should leave today. Here’s the number to Banana Bungalow Hostel. They usually have plenty of rooms at a good rate. Take care and see you around. –Henry”

Angry about everything that happened to me since arriving, I tried calling Frank outright to ask him why he pinned me off on his friend. He didn’t answer, so I resorted to a text war.

It turned out that Frank “double-booked” his couch surfers and didn’t have room for anyone else. Instead of letting me know, he thought it best to completely ignore me. I angrily accused him of abandoning me and treating me like an unwanted burden. He called me an ungrateful bitch, saying the island would spit me out in 6 months, at the most.

I checked into the youth hostel and rented a car. Hurt by my unwanted “welcome” to Maui, I felt stupid, useless and cast aside. I knew that I was just another notch in a surfer dude’s belt.

Deflated, I drove north in my rental car, this time by myself. I marveled at the way the waves broke on Maui’s North Shore, feeling anxiety about my decision to move all the way here for a guy. What a joke it turned out to be.

I pulled into Ho’okipa Beach, the windsurfing capital of the world. Sunset would be soon.

Taking my place on the rocks near the shoreline, I put my head in my hands and wept.

I had the beach to myself. Between sobs, I asked Maui aloud:

“Please give me a sign Maui. This is too hard. Too much. Please show me a sign that I am where I’m supposed to be,” I said.

I couldn’t handle any more curve balls. Awful and lonely aptly described my first few days in paradise.

I promised Maui to show respect, to be Pono (to do what’s right) and to live with Aloha. I needed to know that everything would be okay.

As I sat there, offering myself up to the island while watching the Pacific rolling in, eight large green sea turtles crawled onto shore. In Hawaii, honu, or turtles, are symbolic of good luck. As if answering my prayers for a sign that things will work out how they’re supposed to, the turtles emerged from the sea to rest.

A few days earlier, I met Kristy, a restaurant owner from Atlanta, at the bar. We were two lonely souls who connected over strong Mai Tais. She gave me advice about being a free woman, following your intuition and scoping out the best possible scenario for yourself.

“It’s all about just riding the horse,” she said.  “Sometimes instead of trying to control everything, you need to let go and let things happen. Sit up on the saddle and ride it. That’s life.”

Her words rung in my ears as the honu continued to creep onto the sand. I couldn’t live my Maui life for some jerky surfer guy. I needed to get back on the horse, sit up on the saddle and ride it – for myself.

I looked to the turtles who rested after their endless, difficult miles at sea. I relaxed into myself and began to trust in my own tumultuous journey. I walked back to my car, illuminated by Maui’s twilight revelations, just as the sun dipped into the horizon.

A Hawaiian Hui Hou

I left the Big Island to travel to the mainland to see my sister who just had a baby. I am an auntie for the first time! It’s a boy: Thorston Sanderson Kozak Grosse, 9 lbs, 5 oz., given life the au natural way.

I had to say goodbye to the Big Island and the jungle for many reasons. The biggest of them all was money. While traveling full-time this year, I had to keep a keen eye on my budget and plan for when it would be time to get back to work and make more money. That time is rapidly approaching, but like I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been given the INCREDIBLE opportunity to travel the world and pick somewhere to make my home.

Another reason I left the jungle is because it was time for me to re-integrate myself into society. Though I loved my kooky little jungle family, it was becoming a drag to hitch-hike to the nearest store (while my perfectly good VW Beetle lay dormant in my parents’ driveway some 4,000 miles away) that was five miles away. The mosquitoes became ALMOST too much to bare, and I was in desperate need of my belongings de-molding.

A bamboo hut I called home for a few months

In any case, Hawaii is my home and I will be returning in a month when I’ve settle my affairs back on the mainland.

I dream of a life in Hawaii: learning more about organic farming, sustainability, getting into my body and becoming more acquainted with mother ocean.

My last day on Big Island was emotional. I spent my last afternoon basking in the Hawaiian sun at my local beach, Isaac Hale State Park, affectionately dubbed “Pohoiki” by locals because it’s right at the end of Pohoiki Road. It was almost like any other Saturday down at the beach: families having picnics together, surfers catching waves, dogs and keiki (children) running about. But then something special caught my eye.

I saw the most beautiful bamboo canoe. I was so enthralled by its size. Never had I seen such a gigantic canoe that stunned me where I stood. Usually I only see battered fishing boats and some kayaks going into the boat ramp at the beach, but this day was different.

Traditional Hawaiian canoe

I noticed there was a sea burial ceremony going on in the midst of the burrito guy selling his fish tacos and the families enjoying some fun in the sun. The services were taking place under a small tent in the middle of all the action, and after the Hawaiian priest said his blessings, it was time for the canoe to set sail and release the ashes into the mighty Pacific.

If there’s one thing I learned about Hawaiians, it’s their celebration of life. A burial service, instead of being a solemn event, its na ho‘ohiwahiwa o ho‘öla, which means celebrating life. As the canoe glided into the ocean, I watched the family members gather around the shore to say goodbye to their loved ones. They were dressed in casual but tasteful island ware and looked serene and happy.

A woman from shore says goodbye

I sat on the shore and watched 8 Hawaiian men row the canoe with the ashes out to sea. Those at the beach that day swimming and surfing took a moment to respect the life of the departed. As the canoe rowed further into the distance, people from the party let loose red roses into the water, carefully placing them down, watching the canoe row further on still.

I sat there floored. It was the most beautiful ceremony I’ve ever witnessed. Not only was it traditional with the canoe and ashes being scattered into the ocean, but the deceased was being honored amongst the living, the Hawaiians, locals and visitors all enjoying life and their Saturday together. It was such a proper last afternoon in the Big Island.

A red rose memory

I struggled leaving that day, but was an appropriate goodbye filled with much aloha. Aloha is technically a word to mean hello, goodbye and express sentiments of love, but I felt that it wasn’t goodbye, just see you later. I know many of the family members had to have felt the same way as they celebrated their loved one’s life. In Hawaiian Hui Hou means see you later. I know I will call Hawaii my home in the near future, and I hope that one day those at Pohoiki will be reunited with their beloved family member. We will all come together again later.

I live in the jungle

I live in the wild west.

I live in the jungle.

I’ve called Puna district of the east side of Big Island Hawaii for the last four months. Life here is much different from any mainland city I either lived in or was a surburbanite of.

Puna district and Hedonisia Hawaii, where I’m working and living, is in Lava Zone 1, which means first to go when the active volcano, Kilauea decides unleash her wrath.

Kilauea smokin’

The property I live on is 4-acres filled with the most magnificent, beautiful, eerie plants, animals and land formations.

A walk up the property one way, and I’m battling a cluck of free-range chickens that bop around. They lay eggs where ever they want, so we egg hunt everyday. Whoever’s lucky enough to find a few can make egg salad. Imagine that.

We have two lodgings on property, perched on several hills of cane grass, papaya and strawberry guava trees, that have a magnificent ocean view of the Pacific. Drifting off to sleep at night when the winds pick up, the ocean breeze wisps on your face as if bidding you adieu.

Ocean views

We have a lava vent on our property. To get to it, you hike into the on-site crater, the path down crafted from cinder and old tires. Snaking your way down to the crater you pass a grove of banana trees, then come into a clearing where there are taro leaves 6 feet tall. It’s Jurassic, baby.

To get to the lava vent, we hike a sparsely maintained, pretty gnarley trail up and up, grabbing onto to strawberry guava trees (they are especially strong) to keep our footing along the cliff. I do this hike often…it’s right in my backyard! I turn and look around and I’m floored by the Hawaiian paradise I’m surrounded by. Innumerable palms, guava trees, red and black lava rock, lush green landscapes under the hot sun: my playground.

The lava vent is a 200-foot drop into a black, dark abyss. To see the scope of it, you swing yourself over the cliff’s edge by hanging onto a root that’s implanted into the lava rock wall. We secure our footing, swing ourselves over and contemplate this island’s energy. I throw rocks down there to measure its intimidating depth.

The landscapes here are surreal. I feel like I am living in a dream when I’m standing on the edge of a beautiful, craggy black cliff over the ocean. It’s an intense landscape, almost too beautiful to be real.

Stunning

There’s natural warm ponds 3 miles from my home and they’re heated by the volcano. You slip in and slip away, feeling instantly healed while you lie on your back, soak in the warm water and watch the green palms sway overhead. One of the more special moments on the island was soaking in the warm pond with some friends and a local Hawaiian. We stared for hours at the way the sun refracted off the pool of water onto the surface of the black lava rock overhead. It danced and glistened. Nature’s light show.

With the immense, intense landscapes come the intense people who live here.

Within Puna district, over 80 different intentional communities exist. Life is different here, more tribal. Community is number one, especially with the locals. The reason why so many people live alternative lifestyles out here is because Puna has a sort of “edge of the world” mentality. People come here to heal, to vacation for a short time, or to escape their old lives. People hide here. There are strange folks that populate this part of the island.

I live 5 miles from the nearest grocery store and more often than not, I hitch hike in. Hitch hiking here is safe, but unreliable. A few times I’ve had some unsavory characters pick me up, but almost everyone I meet is genuine and exceptionally helpful. I’ve even made friends through hitch hiking who’ve given me my first surf lesson or invited me to some event.

Meet Uncle Al. A kind, local hitch who took me surfing for the first time.

The dogs here bark at night. At the wild pigs. We have black wild pigs that run around in the night and scamper away when you come near them. They’re  not aggressive, but they do mess up our gardens and screw up our trails! They are hunted and killed regularly.

I live just up the block from a Geothermal Plant, a plant that uses the steam of the volcano to supply people with electricity. Now THAT’s pretty cool. But super loud at night on top of the coqui frogs. Those frogs chirp so loudly at night I need to sleep with earplugs. They’re an invasive species from Puerto Rico. A lot of species here in Hawaii and are invasive. They were introduced as a means to eliminate another problem critter.

For example, Hawaii has a crazy high feral cat population. They straight up run the joint. They were brought here to hunt mongoose, but they mostly hunt the rapidly-declining native bird population. So it goes.

Life here is precious and different. These are some basic observations and facts about my life here. Every day is a little different, with a new my lesson to learn, with more fruit to eat in a land so beautiful, it’s incredible. The difference about Hawaiians and haoles (white person, means literally without breath) is that those here see the beauty in front of them everyday, nature made. They aren’t living in anxious anticipation for the future. They are enjoying the beautiful now.

Life as a full time traveler

I’ve been traveling full-time for almost eight months.

I’m humbled by all the experiences I’ve had. This has been the best year of my life in so many ways. My mind’s been opened to the big wild world, and it’s love, my friends.

Never thought this year would have me chillin’ with ‘roos

Couchsurfing around the world, camping on remote beaches and calling wherever I lay my hat my home has been the name of the game this year. But the time has come for me to go out and get me one of those J-O-Bs!

I’ve been lucky enough to travel extensively this year, taking time off from the grind to really concentrate on the next chapter of my life. As I went, I was able to scope out different living situations so that at the end of my year I could pick somewhere to live and settle in for a while.

From Philly, to Chicago, out west to L.A., San Francisco, Northern California, out to Australia and back, Portland and then Hawaii, I’ve seen a lot of places I’d love to call home for a while for a variety of reasons.

Where the road goes

But nothing was as special as Hawaii.

Like a good love, the islands swept me off my feet. I came and could hardly bare the thought of leaving right away to continue on my round-the-world trip. Coming here for a 2 week trip turned into a four-month travel-venture that leaves me wanting more.

home

After living in the rainforest for four months on east side of Big Island in Hawaii, I’m ready for an upgrade of awesomeness. My next chapter has me going back to the mainland to sell off some final things I left behind this year and transplant myself in Maui. The scene is burgeoning, the food is good and the jobs a lot more plentiful than Big Island.

I’m not ready to say goodbye to the islands. In fact, I just arrived. I’m stoked to see where my future lies here. I’ll continue to travel as much as possible.

I’m definitely not ready to hang up the old hat. Not yet. There’s just too much good world to take in. But for now, I’m going to stay on island time.