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HAWAII - THE BIG ISLAND
And big it is! Hawaii is twice as big as all the other islands combined! From the airport in Kona to the world's most active volcano, Kilauea, the drive can take the better part of three hours. And much of the way the speed limit is 55.
Aloha and Hawaiian Airlines serve both Hilo and Kona. The Kona airport is a page out of 50s. Everything is open air. There are no jetways. You feel like you've truly landed in a tropical paradise. I hope they never modernize the Kona airport!
Leaving the Kona airport you'll notice interesting graffiti along the side of the road. But this is all natural graffiti. There is nothing but dark lava along the road and people gather white, bleached coral and etch out names and so forth. In the distance is Mauna Kea, the highest mountain on Hawaii at an altitude of 13,796 feet or thereabouts. The fit and the brave can reach the summit but this is serious business and advance preparation is necessary to prevent altitude sickness.
Mauna Kea is actually the tallest mountain on earth if you measure it from the base at the ocean floor. Something like 31,000 feet.
The second tallest mountain on Hawaii is Mauna Loa, just a few feet shorter than Mauna Kea.
This island has much to see and do and with many climatic changes as you go up and down hills and mountains.
One interesting little ranch town is Waimea. It's probably up there around 2,500 feet and is considerably cooler than the beach zones down below. The Parker Ranch is located here. After all, this is cowboy country. Or as they are known in Hawaii--paniolo country. The Parker Ranch got its start back in 1809 and to this day some 12 paniolos work a couple hundred horses and 35-thousand head of cattle on a 200-thousand acre spread. The ranch has a visitor welcome center in a shopping mall in Waimea. Sadly, the restaurant by the same name as the ranch didn't measure up (see restaurant reviews below).
Most visitors insist on seeing the world's most active volcano--Kilauea. It's located at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. From the Kona/Kohala Coast, the drive can take up to three hours so keep that in mind when you begin your trek.
One bit of important advice if you're heading to Kilauea. Eat! There are very few choices for food along the way so if you're even vaguely hungry, chow down at the first mom and pop stand you come to. Also, leave your hotel with a full tank of gas. There are options but not as many as you might expect.
If nothing else, most people will enter the park and drive around the various craters and lava flows. Several lava flows have signs indicating the dates that the flow stopped.
You'll see steam vents as you motor along and you may smell sulphur and other nastiness from the bowels of the Earth. Steam vents are created when rain water touches rocks that have been heated by the hot magma below causing steam to rise.
An important note. Those with heart problems, lung problems and pregnant women should steer clear of walking around volcanic areas because fumes can be toxic and in some cases, deadly.
If you've come to see the familiar red glowing lava in action, you should check with a park ranger to make sure it's safe. And for best viewing, you'll need to arrive at sundown. You'll probably be directed to a road outside of the National Park. You'll head down this road, park your car, and then trek a mile or more over hot rocks before you actually get to the "action point" where the lava is bubbling up. The rangers will be able to give you much more information. Sometimes they'll tell you not to go because it's too dangerous. Be sure to get a check list of what you'll need to take with you including appropriate shoes with tough, heat resistant soles, flashlights, bottled water and so forth.
Kona coffee is among the best and most expensive in the world so on Hawaii, you're at ground zero for this potent brew.
A lot of people don't realize it but most restaurants that serve "Kona" coffee do not serve it full strength. They usually use one part Kona and four parts regular coffee because it is quite strong. But if you like strong coffee, you can try it full strength after you get your fresh beans back home.
An important tip. Never buy flavored Kona coffee beans. I'm told that only inferior beans are flavored on Hawaii.
A KONA COFFEE TIP THAT'S GONNA SAVE YOU BIG BUCKS!
In the hotel zone areas, you'll probably pay $30 to $35 a pound for pure Kona coffee. But if you'll take a little drive, you'll save a bundle. Get yourself a map and follow highway 180 southward. You can pick it up heading inland just a few miles past the thriving Kailua-Kona area and then hanging a right on 180. I say "highway" 180. It's actually a tiny, winding mountain road that takes you through the heart of Kona coffee country. The drive itself is worth the trip as you'll pass by coffee plantations and exotic things like breadfruit trees. But back to the coffee. Heading southbound on 180 eventually you'll come to a tiny gas station and food mart on the RIGHT side of the road. If you blink you'll miss it. It's called simply K. Komo Store. We actually slid right by it the first time and had to back up. Inside you'll find a tiny little store. Mill around until you find the coffee isle. They sell one pound bags of pure Kona coffee for only $12 a pound! That's a tremendous savings!
If you'd like to see the surfer boys in action or take a dip yourself, one of the many nice beaches on Hawaii can be found along the Kohala Coast at Hapuna Beach State Park. During the winter time when the whales are in town, this is a good place to watch them cavort out at sea.
Hilo is an interesting little town. If you've toured Volcanoes National Park and have some time left before getting back to the Kona coast, you can make it a circle adventure by swinging around through Hilo. Be sure to pay close attention to the many bridges you'll encounter both before and after Hilo. These little ravines have some of the most incredible palm trees and other tropical growth that you'll ever see. Just beautiful.
One fabulous hotel on the island is the Hilton Waikoloa Village on the Kohala coast. It's like Disney World in a way. You take a monorail type tram to get to your room. Or you can take a boat to your room. Before staying there I had heard complaints about the wait being too long for the trams and boats. But even though the hotel was at maximum capacity during our visit, we found no waiting at all and we really enjoyed the property. One drawback, though. They don't have a beach. Lots of crashing shoreline action to feast your eyes on but no beach.
Hawaii has so much to offer that one of these times, we're going to dedicate an entire trip to exploring what it has to offer.
SOME RESTAURANT REVIEWS & SUGGESTIONS ON HAWAII
Huggo's in Kona is a nice restaurant perched right at the sea's edge. This is a great place to watch the sun sink into the Pacific. Better yet, arrive before Huggo's opens at 5:30pm and have a beer or two at it's sister bar next door--Huggo's on the Rocks. You can literally twittle your toes in the sand while enjoying a brewski. Huggo's specializes in seafood and has daily specials.
Roy's specializes in Asian fusion cuisine. You'll find them throughout the islands and now on the mainland, too. They match flavorful, exotic sounding sauces with the freshest fish available. But the fish remains the star of the show. The sauce compliments the fish and never overpowers it. Enjoy fresh tuna, salmon, Mahi Mahi and some prime steaks. Great cocktails and a very impressive wine list. Fantastic service always with a smile. Elegant yet not stuffy. And the molten chocolate soufflé is mandatory! One of the best chocolate desserts ever!!
Parker Ranch Grill was a big disappointment. It's located in the Parker shopping strip in Waimea north of Kona. With the 200-thousand acre Parker Ranch nearby and 35,000 head of cattle you'd think that this would be ground zero for steaks. Instead it was a zero, period. My "8 ounce" New York strip steak at lunch was more like 4 or 5 ounces. It couldn't have been even a quarter of an inch thick. My wife's burger, on the other hand, was huge and good. It probably was eight ounces or even bigger. Our waitress was a space cadet who was way out there!
Donatoni's is a very upscale Italian restaurant located at the Hilton Waikoloa complex. We usually don't rave about hotel food but this is an excellent restaurant. While it is fancy, you won't feel uncomfortable if you show up wearing sneakers. The food is all just about perfect. We started out with some calamari and it came to the table perfectly fried, crispy and wonderful with a great aoli sauce. My wife had a fillet steak and it was perfect. I had a pasta dish (pappardelle with shrimp) and it, too, was perfect. Proportions here are small and prices are high but it is a wonderful and elegant experience.
Kirin Chinese Restaurant is another eatery at the Hilton Waikoloa and it, too, is well done. The wait staff is a little on the rough side here but you'll find all the usual "suspects" on the menu. If you find yourself staying at the Hilton and are too tuckered to fetch the car from the valet lot and head out for dinner, this is a good choice.
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