The long and winding road. Isn’t that a Beatles’ song? That’s the stretch of road from South Point north towards Kona, about 50-60 miles along Route 11. My only trouble with the drive is that the road is challenging enough (fun) with its turns and cutbacks that I could never get good looks at the views, though I could hear the ladies oooohing and ahhhhhing. The changes in elevation are constant—a five mile stretch can have you going up or down a thousand feet with your ears popping a few times.
–yeah, back to the speed limit signs. Pay attention! Aye, take advantage of the “55” straightaway’s, have at it, but when the things say slow down, slow the hell down! …or else end your vacation in a fiery ball of death–
But we’ve been adventurers and explorers, backpackers and hikers. We’ve tread through ancient valleys and the plumbing of volcanoes. We’ve crunched through the aftermath of geological revolution and saw the earth being made! We’ve braved high winds and cracked, black wastelands. We’ve done the Hawaiian Trudge up 45 story cliffs into tropical rainforests. We’ve gloried in the edge of the world! –three times.
Now, it’s time to be unabashed tourists.
So, kick off the hiking shoes and slip on the black socks with flips flops (really, don’t: it’s just an expression and you look ridiculous). Settle that ratty old hat on your head with the super expensive sunglasses. Sling that camera on your shoulder and the fanny pack around your waist. Let’s do Kona!
What the hell is it called anyway? Kona? Kailua-Kona? Kailua? It all means the same: the end (or beginning) of the circuit. It is the tourist center of the island, where the majority of your vacation dollars will go. There is a saying on the Big Island that all tourism flows west to Kona and all tourism tax revenue flows east to Hilo.
Kona is where my stays on the Big Island usually begin. We rent the minivan at the airport and then drive down into Kona. About five miles south of the airport, the road opens up into a four lane highway (six if you count turning lanes) lined with shopping malls and department stores. We add to the trunk from Cosco and Wal-Mart and then make our way to our rented house or condo.
Tracy does all of the vacation planning. My first time there, she rented us a house up on a hill a little south of Kona. It offered beautiful views of the bay and the sunset. I hate to be quaint, but it really was in the prettiest little neighborhood you’ve ever seen. The next time, we stayed in a condo on the beach. You couldn’t beat the location, right on a private beach, but I preferred the house: traffic makes my teeth itch.
The house or condo became our command post, our center of operations. For this section of the Big Island series, it will serve the same purpose. Your excursions and “sights to see” will depend on your tastes, but I’ll share a few of my own.
…a thought just occurred to me. As we sit and watch the waves roll in from the lanai (Hawaiian porch) and sip on some Kona coffee while the girls are getting ready, I realize I haven’t written anything about what really makes Hawai’i Hawai’i. It is what brings ex-pats to the island even more so than the views and the weather. It is what makes me want to live here. It is aloha.
Most people who are not familiar with Hawai’i think of “aloha” as meaning hello and good-bye. When someone says “aloha” to you, though, they are saying so much more. Its literal translation means “affection, peace, compassion and mercy.” Hawai’i is the “Aloha State” and you will see road signs that say “drive aloha” or “live aloha.” Aloha is a state of mind, a state of being.
–It makes think of Bill and Ted from “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” They translated “aloha” to “Be excellent to each other!”—
You get the first hints of it when you deplane onto the tarmac. For a native returning home, like my wife, it is as if she dove off the gangway into a crystal clear pool on a hot day. Her steps become lighter, her smile bigger, and there is just something about her that changes. I always used to think of it as coming back home. Now, however, I think of it as coming back to aloha.
Through the hundreds of miles of highway and the beaches and the volcanoes, I just haven’t thought to write about it because it just is. You’ll understand when you get here. Aloha is not something that you find on an excursion; it is something that finds you.
But let’s get back to being tourists. The girls are ready. Finally. –I have no idea how they look at me as if I am holding them up– Put on your shoes or flip flops (which stay outside of the house), pile into the minivan, and get ready to brave Alii Drive.
Whether you are coming from the resorts up the coast, a house on a hillside, or a condo on the beach, Alii Drive will take you into downtown Kona as you hit more traffic in a few mile stretch than on the entire island combined, but it really is worth it. My family has a tradition that we begin each vacation with lunch at a restaurant that I cannot for the life of me remember the name—though it is near Hulihe’e Palace on the beach. After that long plane trip, and the hustle of getting to our place and unpacked, it is a perfect way to start the vacation. With a perfectly manicured lawn flowing into the blues of the bay, and ocean breezes cooling you, it reminds me of old episodes of Magnum P.I.
Poke! Poke is the first course we order. Have I mentioned poke yet? It is like sashimi. Poke is chunks of raw tuna marinated in soy, green onions, and other various herbs, spices and sauces. It is as much of a staple in Hawai’i as spam and rice.
After lunch, we usually go back to the room, but you’ll be back here in downtown Kona. This area, seaward from Route 11, is where many of the tourist attractions take place or begin. There is a luau every night at the King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel. Snorkeling or fishing tours begin here as well. Then, there is the shopping and drinking.
Boutiques, bars and restaurants line Alii Drive nestled in strip malls. 90% of the t-shirts that I own come from one store: Crazy Shirts. (Excellent quality tees and really cool selection of apparel dyed in various colors with different themes for each color.) If you are on our “nice” list, this is where your gifts are bought. There is also a regular farmers market to grab some fresh produce.
We did two water excursions. The first was a snorkeling tour to the Kealakekua Bay, where the Captain Cook Monument resides (the immediate land around the monument is British soil in honor of the explorer). The second excursion was a sunset dinner cruise that took us down the coast while the guide “talked story.” Both were excellent. I won’t get into the history as books and the guides do it much better justice.
I play golf; Tracy goes shopping. It is a good compromise that we have. In Hawai’i, it’s no different. So the ladies drop me off at a course, and then head down into Kona until I finish up. I typically only save my golf stories for other golfers, but there may be golfers who read this and there is even something different about golfing on the Big Island.
The goats were definitely different. As were the mongoose (mongeese?). I hit a ball that rolled underneath an angry looking goat. Lost ball. –no, I didn’t take a penalty. Another shot went into a whole herd of them. Another lost ball. And just like I see squirrels all over the place at home, there are mongoose on the Big Island, streaking across the fairways chasing the colorful birds. I did get a good bounce off the back of a tortoise. Like I said: it’s just different.
I’ve played on three different courses and each one was just spectacular. I’m serious, non-golfers: if your partner wants to play, it might be worth it to just go with them for the ride. (Yes, I am still trying to convince my wife of this with no luck.) There is a beauty to most golf courses, but the courses on the Big Island put every other one I have played to shame. Imagine standing on a bluff and hitting down towards the azure of the Pacific Ocean. Or following the emerald fairway along a black cliff coast. I’ve played around hibiscus hedges and [tried] hitting over a blowhole.
I read some golf course reviews where people complained about the price. I’m sorry, but they bring out the Philly in me. I mean, what the hell are you expecting? It’s a vacation spot where 90% of the people work in tourism. It’s a golf course! Greens fees will be expensive (somewhere between double to triple what I normally pay), rentals will be expensive, and even the hotdog at the turn will be a bit more. You’re probably the twits that act all entitled and arrogant. Shut up and play golf or wait until you get home to hack your way through that crappy local course.
…have to take a moment to calm down, but those people really piss me off. Think aloha, think aloha…
…think Hawai’i. About 30 miles south of Kona, you can immerse yourself in Hawaiian history at Pu’uhonua o Honaunau (Place of Refuge). For me, it is one of the première Hawaiian history spots on the island and should not be missed.
This is how ancient Hawaiians lived and it has been set up as a walking tour/museum type place. It has samples of their boats, homes, weapons and tools, and lots of information about their culture. The place itself was a sanctuary in ancient times. The Hawaiians lived by a complex set of laws. Usually, there was only one punishment: death (the good old days). If a person could make it here, though, they and their families were safe.
A little bit north towards the airport is Big Island Adventure Tours. We did a zip line and waterfall trek. It was a top notch service. Their buses are comfortable and cozy and they limit the size of the tour groups to make it more relaxed and entertaining. Everybody calls everybody “cousin” in Hawaii—they don’t distinguish between first cousins and ninth (and tourists). One of the zip line guides, though, turned out to be Tracy’s actual cousin—2nd on her father’s side.
I’m a coffee snob. I will not feel guilty in the slightest as I mock the sugary, burnt concoctions you think of as coffee. (The beans stored behind the counter are supposed to be light brown and dry, not black and sticky!) My coffee snobbery ends with filtered water and freshly ground coffee (egg grinder please, not blades). It begins, though, with Hawaiian Kona beans.
Guess where we’re going next?
The Kona coast is dotted with small coffee plantations and many offer simple walking tours. There were four within a five minute drive of the house we stayed at during our first trip. The girls were kind enough to follow along as I made my pilgrimage and gloried in the Kona coffee growing and roasting process. I had so many samples I was awake for the next 36 hours.
But it’s really cool! There’s the plants and the fruits and the cherries and the geese and the ovens and the drying…not your thing, huh? Okay, okay.
After the excursions, drives and tours, dinners and shopping, we return to our borrowed home. We kick of our shoes (and line them up neatly by the door), and relax in the Kona evening on the lanai.
No, my dear: it’s not the Kona you remember from your youth. The aloha is a bit too polished. The shakas (that thumb-pinkie thing) a bit forced. And the calls to “cousin” a bit too showy? But the mahalo’s (thank you’s) are still genuinely warm. It sort of makes me think of the difference between being at Disney and going to a Disney store in your local mall.
But it is still the Big Island. Still home.
Forget the air conditioner. Just open the windows and let the cool night air breath aloha into the house while you sleep.
And that ends part 6. In part 7, I’ll finish up the series. We’ll jam to Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” hope that invisible cows don’t find us, and shake a stick at the rest of the world.
Note: my photographer is slacking off so I’ll have to just go with what’s on my phone until I can update it with the real photos.