I had the good fortune to travel to Hawaii last week on business. (Yes, many people have reminded me lately that I have the best job in the world.) The trip was part of our alumni magazine’s 50-state project that began last fall and lasts two full years. Hawaii is just the fifth state on our list, so we have 45 more to go.

Hawaii is the only state I’ve never visited before. I had a goal a few years ago to visit all 50 states before I turned 50, but that deadline came and went. I had a hard time getting excited about traveling to a state that cost so much and took so long to reach.

Now that I’ve been to Hawaii, I’m happy to say I’ve crossed it off my list. It’s a beautiful place to visit, and the islands have seemingly unlimited geologic features and gorgeous weather. But, all things considered, it’s just another state. I think almost every state has its own set of unique charms.

We (my husband Dave, photographer Jim Heemstra, and his wife Sue) arrived in Honolulu late on the afternoon of Feb. 8 after getting up at 3 a.m. and traveling on three airplanes. We were pretty pooped and not in the mood for the traffic we encountered between the airport and our hotel in Waikiki. It took a good hour to get to the hotel. Once we checked in, we were ready for a beer and some food – and then sleep, since our internal clocks were reading midnight by that time.

Waikiki reminded me a lot of Los Angeles: touristy, beachy, expensive…with too much traffic. We spent three nights there and had a difficult time finding local food to eat, or even a restaurant that wasn’t part of a chain. The beaches were pretty, however, and we enjoyed watching the sunsets.

Day 2 was a workday, but not until the afternoon. That morning, Dave and I took the bus (actually two buses) to Manoa Falls, about 45 minutes from our hotel. We were promised a .8-mile hike through a rain forest with a falls at the end. About halfway up, I regretted the decision to do a rain forest hike on a workday. I was sweating like crazy and had mud caked on my shoes and up my legs. This was a bad idea! The trail was slippery and uneven. I climbed at a snail’s pace. About two-thirds of the way up, I decided that at the pace I was going (and the potential for falling on my butt all the way back down the trail) I would never make it back in time for my interview. So I waited on a flat spot while Dave climbed the rest of the way up and back. We both made it back to the bottom without falling, but we were both very muddy.

At the trail entrance was the Lyon Arboretum and Botanical Garden, which is a part of the University of Hawaii-Manoa. If I had it to do over again, I would have spent all of my time there, clean and dry.

We made it back to the hotel (on our two buses) in time for a quick lunch and for me to change out of my sweaty outfit. My sneakers are still muddy; I think I may just have to buy a new pair.

Jim and I spent the afternoon at the Battleship Missouri Memorial in Pearl Harbor being treated like royalty. An Iowa State alum was the director of the memorial for many years, and we had arranged to meet him on the ship for an interview and photo shoot. In order for tourists to reach the memorial, they normally have to board a shuttle at the visitor center. Bags are not allowed. So we made arrangements with the marketing department to allow us to drive onto the site.

A Navy public affairs officer escorted us across the bridge and we had complete access to the ship. I ordinarily don’t have much interest in military ships but this one was really impressive, and I enjoyed our visit. (Dave went the next day and visited each of the Pearl Harbor historic sites, which would have been way too much for me.)

Day 3: Early the next morning we visited another Iowa State alum at his home in the Hawaii Kai area not far from Honolulu – but it seemed a world away. The homes in this area surround an ancient fishpond now formed into a tidy marina. For the photo shoot, we went to nearby Sandy Beach State Park, which seemed almost too good to be true. Only a few swimmers/surfers/sunbathers were in the area, so we mostly had the beach to ourselves. I think it was the first time I ever did a photo shoot in the sand. That’s Jim shooting Garret Pick on Sandy Beach, above.

Before the next interview, we had time to explore the town of Kailua in Windward Oahu, just 30 minutes along Route 61 across a mountain from Honolulu. It’s a small, funky town with more VW buses than I’d seen in a long time. We had lunch outside at a small market that served pastries, sandwiches made to order, soups, and deli salads. They also had a nice wine and beer selection – tempting, but we had to work. We drank cups of good Kona coffee instead.

We quickly visited a beautiful botanical garden in the area, filled with plant species I’ve only seen inside domed botanical centers and zoos. We only had about half an hour to tour the grounds, but it was in such a lovely setting that I could have stayed there all day.

Tonight was our last night in Waikiki, and we savored the sunset.

Day 4: Early the next morning, we dropped off our rental car at the Honolulu Airport (goodbye, Honolulu traffic!) and flew to the Kona International Airport on the Big Island of Hawai’i. Initially, these next few days were to be vacation days, but we did have a little business to take care of first. Our alum from Kailua owns and manages macadamia orchards on the Hilo side of the Big Island, and the promise of a photo shoot in a macadamia orchard was too good to pass up. We drove the northern route across the island, stopping quickly for lunch in the town of Honoka’a. The climate and geography change is dramatic from the Kona side of the island (dry, arid) to the Hilo side (rain forest), and some of the views as we got closer to Hilo were breathtaking.

The macadamia orchard is near the town of Pepe’ekeo, and the area just steamed with humidity and green-ness. The macadamia trees are nearing the end of their growing season, but we were able to see nuts still on the trees and on the ground where they are harvested by hand.

Once we finished with the photo shoot, we went our separate ways. Jim and Sue had lodging reservations in Hilo; Dave and I headed back to Kailua-Kona (not to be confused with Kailua in Oahu. Not to be confused with the gazillion other town and street names in Hawaii that begin with the letter K.)
En route to our hotel, we stopped at Akaka Falls State Park. This was a very different falls experience from the Manoa Falls hike. For one thing the Akaka trail is completely paved, with steps and walkways to two falls. The rain forest is much more lush and more beautiful than Manoa Falls. And although I didn’t make it to the actual Manoa Falls, Dave assured me that Akaka Falls kicked butt in comparison.

On our drive back to Kona, we took the Kohala Coast highway but didn’t find it particularly beautiful. Kailua-Kona itself is a resort town, so that means lots of tourist bars with expensive drinks and very little “authentic” cuisine. We didn’t spend too much time in town. But our lodging, the Wyndham Kona Hawaiian Resort, couldn’t have been better. So much space! We had our own patio with a dining table and lounge chairs, a huge living room, kitchen with bar seating, two bedrooms, two full baths with showers, and a claw-footed bathtub with jet sprays. Heaven!

Day 5: We spent a full day in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. This is a place I’ve wanted to visit for years. I haven’t been to every national park (not by a long shot), but I imagine this one is unique unto itself. The park’s environments include alpine, rain forest, desert, active volcanoes, craters, and rugged coastline.

We began our tour by taking the Crater Rim Drive – at least as much of it as we could. About half of the road was closed off due to high amounts of dangerous sulfur dioxide gas. We stopped at overlooks, viewing the Kilauea Caldera from many different angles.  We hiked part of the Kiluaea Iki Crater trail, viewed steam vents (above), walked through a 500-year-old lava tube and its surrounding rain forest (stunning!), and hiked the Devastation Trail, a landscape buried by cinders from a 1959 lava fountain eruption (below).

Next we took the Chain of Craters Road that leads to the sea. That’s the big payoff – the Holei Sea Arch and recent (2003) lava flows that cover the end of the road – but along the way we stopped to view a number of unique environments created by volcano activity. Much of the ground looks like the top of a pan of brownies – the cakey kind that crack on top.

The drive to the national park is 2-plus hours from the Kona coast, along the south side of the island. The road is narrow and curvy, and we didn’t want to risk driving back after dark, so we headed back. (Advice: If you want to spend multiple days at the park, or at least one long day, stay in Hilo – only about 30 miles – or the small town of Volcano Village located right outside the park.)

Small towns dot the highway, and we stopped both on the way (for breakfast — see my plate of fruit above — and later for the day’s provisions) and on the return drive (for ice cream and iced coffee). We passed by several stands selling local fruits and vegetables. We stopped by one not far from Kailua-Kona and bought some apple bananas, star fruit, and a gigantic avocado for breakfast the next day.

That night, after watching the sunset, we ate and drank at a Mexican restaurant near the beach. After a long day in the park, it was a relaxing evening.

Day 6: Today we considered taking the northern route back to the Hilo side of the island (to see another waterfall and a botanical garden), but after being in the car for so many hours the two previous days we decided to stay on the Kona coast. We slept late and ate fruit on the patio, then went to the Pu’ukohola Heiau historic site run by the National Park Service. It was about 30 miles up the coast, and I can’t recommend visiting it.

Next we went straight up a mountain outside Kailua-Kona to the Mountain Thunder organic coffee plantation – at 3,200 feet. It was cool and rain-foresty up there, and we took a fun tour of the coffee plant. Bought a very expensive bag of coffee, too. I guess you could say that was my souvenir from the Big Island.

The rest of the day was leisurely: eating a late lunch, sitting by the pool at our resort (above). We dressed up for dinner that night, the first time I’d changed clothes for dinner since we arrived. It was kind of nice – although dress is so casual everywhere you go on the islands that you certainly don’t need to dress for dinner.

Day 7/8: We started our last day on the Big Island at the Kona farmers’ market. I had been itching to see a real Hawaiian farmers’ market since we arrived. They are everywhere! But not at the times and places where we happened to be. I was happy to get to this market but disappointed in the amount of local food vs. the number of Hawaiian shirts and tacky trinkets for sale. I bought a pineapple, a papaya, and a mango and took it all back to the resort to eat. I am a new fan of papaya – it’s incredibly good when it’s fresh. The mango was OK, but not great. The pineapple was wonderful.

We needed to be out of the hotel by 10 a.m., so we packed the car and checked out. Our plan was to go to the Kaloko-Honokohua national historic park just south of the Kona International Airport. It turns out that this is a great place, and I wish we had visited it the previous day because (like the Manoa Falls hike) I got very sweaty and sticky and smelly – not a good way to start a full day/night of air travel. Nevertheless, this was a fun place to walk. We saw a sea turtle and beautiful shoreline and crashing waves. It would have been a perfect place to spend a day walking in the sand, reading a book, and catching some rays.

Our last meal on the Big Island was at a Thai restaurant that (gasp!) actually had a vegan section on its menu. Wow! After that highlight, the rest of the day/night/next day was completely downhill, with four flights, a long layover in the Honolulu airport, and utter jetlag by the time we arrived the next afternoon in Des Moines. It’s hard to believe you can travel that far and still be in the United States!


1 comment so far

  1. Janet Haight on

    Your writing brought back happy memories of being on both islands. A great place to visit, but not live. The botanical gardens, birds, fruits and flowers are among my favorites. Also the coffee…

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