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:

IMG_6053

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):

IMG_6073

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:

IMG_6130

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:

IMG_6259

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:

IMG_6199

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!

 

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.

The Freedom of Choice

I’m taking  a mini-sabbatical from my life in paradise where all the perspective of how I want to live my life was bestowed upon me.

What’s the difference between me pre-Hawaii and post-Hawaii? I found my paradise, my happy spot, my garden of eden. I realized how powerful my choice is.

Freedom is riding in the back of a stranger’s truck. Humbling and fun!

What exactly do I mean by that? My first overseas trip to Australia was the first time my eyes open to cast a critical eye on my own country. I love the United States of America, but I never thought of my country as a constant producer of 9-5 drones and profit. I knew this to be true, but it wasn’t until I delved into an “alternative” lifestyle that I even realized what I was “missing out on.”

Australia was very kind to me and about Americans in general. We do tend to get teased quite a bit, but luckily we have a great sense of humor.

Hawaii is a special place, though. One that gave me a unique perspective about “home.” The reason why my time in Hawaii was so special is that it’s almost like another country with a different culture, an island attitude where people move a bit slower but with more intention.

I stayed for seven weeks at Hedonisia Eco Hostel in Puna district on the Big Island of Hawaii. Among many other things, I learned how to live as a member in a community of travelers, I began to learn and embrace living sustainably and I developed a large connection with Mother Earth.

Replanting banana trees, whose fruit we’d later consume!

At the risk of sounding like a New Age hippie, lost to run amuck in paradise, living in an intentional community had the following imprints on me:

1. I have choice as to how I want to live my life.

2. I can facilitate those choices with like-minded individuals to reach a common goal.

3. I can reach a sort of existential bliss by living out a life I manifested for myself.

The aspect of Hawaii that is the most unique, to me, is that although it’s owned by the United States, it hardly feels like the United States at all. The Big Island is essentially a baby, unspoiled Polynesian Island where certain fundamentals of human existence are still alive in well. Namely:

1. Tribal living

2. Living off the land

3. Entrepreneurship 

When you live with less, as I did at an ec0-hostel, where we used recycled materials to build shelter, bartered for goods and services and thrived as a community of individuals, life becomes simpler, easier. Suddenly, without all the riftraff of paying bills, owning cars, expensive property and material things, your options open up. Suddenly you don’t have to wake up everyday to drive to a job you hate to pay for the car to drive you there. Suddenly your life is filled with choice.

Oh, hey there home.

A simple life not be for everyone. But it is for me. The recognition and affirmation that I have a choice as to how I want my future to play out is a powerful realization. When I sat down to examine my life before embarking on my travels, I imagined my happy spot. That place was somewhere simple, easy, living in an RV off the land. Suddenly, months later, I’m ducking underneath a tarp held up by hand-crafted wooden rods from local trees to enter my pop-up camper. I look around, and all at once, I’m living the life I imagined.

We’re told growing up that more is more. If you have more stuff, fancy cars, nice clothes, you will be domesticated and people will like you. Not only is that not true, because I’ve met tons of assholes with lots of nice things, but the exact opposite is true. Less is more, because without all the clutter, you have freedom. And with that freedom, you get the all-elusive, much-sought after choice. I promise you it’s out there.

This is a sort of existential breakthrough I’ve had recently. Although this is typically a travel blog about place and people, my realizations through my travels are just as important. Now that I’ve gotten this breathtaking (and admittedly often coveted) expanded world view, I could say without a doubt that quitting my job to travel and learn more about how people live has been the best thing I’ve ever done.