Sunday, November 25, 2012

Hawaii Big Island

Hawaii Big Island
XiaoQin, her parents, Bowen and I went to Hawaii from Halloween to Thanksgiving day this year. We'd arranged this through Home Exchange. We had already done a home exchange over the summer, so were familiar with the process and how things worked.

Flying into Kona airport, we picked up a rental Altima and drove it over to Hilo, unfortunately acquiring a speeding ticket on saddle road. The roads in Hawaii are designated with deliberately low speed limits in order to attract more tourist revenue. I drove like a local (very slowly) for the rest of the trip.

We spent a couple of days snorkeling and diving. I went with Nautilus Dive Center because it was the only dive shop near Hilo which was the only dive shop around. I was determined to get an advanced dive certification on this trip, so signed up for it. Unfortunately, I was to learn that the Hilo area is possibly the least satisfying diving you can find in the tropics. The highest visibility I ever got was 30 feet, and while the area had great amounts and variety of wildlife, the entry and exits were always in cold water --- the entry points usually had a freshwater well which gave you fresh water from Mauna Kea, so after just one dive I was cold and on the second dive I was freezing.

From Hawaii Big Island

Arturo and his sister was visiting Hawaii as well, so we took a day and joined them to explore the Volcano National Park. There, we got to see the crater rim, hike inside the rim itself, and go look at the old lava flows. I was sad about not bringing Bowen along until I read at the visitor center that the air was full of poisonous sulfur-derived gasses. Don't bring your baby on this trip!

From Hawaii Big Island

Unfortunately, I caught a cold right after the second set of dives. So we spent the next few days just swimming, and me watching people swim from the shore. We did take day trips to see the Lava State Park (which was all of half an hour), and Kaimu Beach Park, which was a black sand beach with a lot of views of the Lava. XiaoQin took a great photo of Bowen and I on that beach, which I love.

From Hawaii Big Island
When my cold got better, we took a trip up to the top of Mauna Kea. At 14000+ feet, this is well above the clouds, so no matter what it's doing in Hilo (usually torrential rain), the top is always clear, if cold. XiaoQin and I picked up a couple of hitch-hikers and we drove to the top just in time to see the sunset. Because it's so high, the guidebooks tell you not to bring your baby (or anyone under 16!).
From Hawaii Big Island
From Hawaii Big Island

I finished up my advanced certificate in Hilo and swore never to dive there again. I would classify the diving as "not insanely bad", but I don't consider it worth anybody's time. At least, not anyone who's done any amount of decent diving.

From Hawaii Big Island
Unfortunately, XiaoQin caught a ear infection while swimming. It was very painful, resulting in visiting a clinic once and a hospital once and having to get drugs. I bought some Ear Plugs for her to use if she ever chose to go swimming again.

We drove over to Kona where we stayed at the Wyndham Kona Hawaiian Resort. The resort was an incredible deal on Expedia, and we realized why when we arrived. It turned out that the same parent company owned Expedia and the Time Share resort. Time shares are such incredibly bad deals that they are frequently resold on eBay for $1, because the maintenance fees are so exorbitant that you couldn't possibly re-coop it unless you really only ever went to one place on vacation every year.

Arturo had highly recommended Jack Diving Locker's Manta Ray Night Dive, so I went for it.

I can say without a doubt that this is the best night dive I've ever done. You do it in 2 dives. Once in the evening as a late afternoon dive to get to know the site. We saw a Manta right away, as well as a Tiger Shark! Then you get everything lit up and sit at the bottom of a 40' well and see the rays move serenely through it all. Looking a lot like space ships from Star Trek. They come so close that you're not even a foot away. I'd be very disillusioned about diving lately given how bad the dives were in Hilo, but this dive made me remember why I went diving: to see places and things I would normally see. This dive has it in spades. It's expensive and worth every penny.

The next dive I did was with Jack's as well, their Pelagic Magic dive. You drive out in the middle of the ocean, are tethered to the dive boat, and then spend the dive staring at your flashlight's beam lighting up all sorts of little critters. It's fun, but it's not that interesting in that you're in some sense sitting in a closet looking at the dust particles your flashlight is shining at. Of course, those particles are a live, and move, but you're also slowly getting dis-oriented. It's definitely a dive worth doing, but if you do do it, just go down tot he bottom of the tether and stay there for the entire dive. The reason is if you try to move up even 20', what happens is that the bouncing waves bounce you right to the surface, and then going down again is risky.

For our last day, we snorkeled and kayaked the Cook monument. You're supposed to have a permit to do so, but apparently that's unenforced, so you could cheap out and just hire Kayaks. It wasn't that expensive to hire a guide with a permit, so we did it just to be safe. This was a great and exciting snorkel site, quite possibly the best snorkeling I'd ever done. We stayed for well over 2 hours in the water until XiaoQin got cold despite her wet-suit.
From Hawaii Big Island
My last Hawaii trip was a disappointment. This one was marginally better. My tips would be:
  1. Spend all your time in Kona. Don't waste your time on the East side of the island.
  2. Volcano National Park and Mauna Kea are each worth a day
  3. Cook monument snorkeling is great. Do it.
  4. Manta Ray Night Dive is a must do. It's worth getting certified to do this.
This is enough for a 5-7 day visit. For more than that, Hawaii's pretty much not worth it. My joke since 2005 has been to answer any question about any trip to the temperate zones with: "Yeah, it's pretty... if you haven't visited the Swiss/Austrian/Italian Alps in the summer." I think my standard response to a tropical vacation would be, "Yeah, it's decent. If you haven't sailed/dived/snorkeled in the Caribbean." To my mind any time in the Caribbean trumps an equivalent amount of time in Hawaii. The water's warmer, the water clarity's better (though Kona's not bad --- it's almost comparable to the Caribbean), and obviously, there's no sailing in Hawaii. The surfing's better in Hawaii, but overall, Hawaii's also more expensive.

I once worked for a company that tried to reward employees who did something special with trips to Las Vegas. My response was that I'd pay not to have to go to Las Vegas (which I've had to do on business too many times). While I wouldn't consider a trip to Hawaii a punishment the way a trip to Las Vegas would be, I can think of far better things to do with my limited time and money. I came back from my last trip to Hawaii needing to plan a BVI trip. I'm feeling the same way right now.

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