Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Hawaii Big Island - Day 4

Today we leave Hilo and head to Kona side. After yesterdays adventures, we decided to give ourselves a break, and take it easy in the morning, with a hearty breakfast and great conversation, followed by some exercise running around with Peachy in the yard. Check out the breakfast that Lesles made for us today!!! Those papaya were so good, I wish I could bring home a lifetime supply! 

Breakfast: French toast made with Taro bread from Punalu'u Bake Shop; Scrambled eggs from their own chickens in the yard, and bacon! YUMMY! Fruit platter had the ripest pineapple, lychee, plums (from their own yard), and papaya

We bid farewell to our wonderful hosts and their awesome pups, and set out to our last destination on the Hilo side: The 'secret' Champagne Pond. To get to this little gem, you have to drive all the way to the most Eastern point of the island, and park on a remote gravel road, then walk ~1.5 miles to the pond. The pond is surrounded by private estates that are closed to outside traffic, but the pond itself, which is part of the coastline, is public access, so walking and bypassing the private land is the only way to get there. Well, unless you have a giant 4WD truck (which Hawaiians on the Big Island love, and for good reason). Then you can drive the 1.5 mi instead of walking. We found the stroll to the pond mostly pleasant - the scenery of the jagged coast was very dramatic, and cool ocean wind made the walk not too scorchingly hot even in today's sunny, cloudless weather. The only 'pain point' is the sharp lava fragments underfoot. Hubby wore water shoes to save having to lug his shoes, but his feet suffered... The destination was definitely worth the trek! The pond looks so serene, and the water is heated from the volcano, so it's at a comfortable temperature for soaking in all day long... the best part? We saw a SEA TURTLE!!! It came into the pond to chill, and I was so excited to see one in the water while I was swimming, that I almost yelled while still underwater, and swallowed some salty water... 

After lounging around in the water for so long that my fingers started to get puffy, we left the pond and hopped back into our car to begin the drive around the Northern coast of the Big Island once again, this time directly headed for the Waipio Valley. Waipio Valley is a private chunk of land that looks very idyllic from the lookout. According to the guidebook, residents of the valley are not too welcoming to visitors and tourists, because they don't like to be disturbed from their paradise-like way of life by intruders who have too many questions and not enough of a sense of fashion... So we didn't try to descend into the valley (not like we had enough time, anyways) and just snapped a few photos at the lookout. The day was a bit overcast, so the photos really don't do the valley's serene beauty justice. 

Most of the remaining day was spent driving to Kona. While passing through Waimea, it rained a little and brought us a view of an ENTIRE rainbow. Yes, one where you can actually see both ends of the rainbow! And also later on while passing near Mauna Kea again, we saw a double rainbow. It's interesting how rainbows never cease to capture the imagination. No matter how old you are, or how many times you've seen a rainbow, or how cynical you've become, still a rainbow in the sky will extract excited gleeful cries of "ooooo loook, a rainbow!" from onlookers. I guess maybe it's because even though rain can be gloomy and foreboding, as long as the sun keeps shining there will always be beauty in the end. :D

If you thought that was the last of the photo ops today, you're wrong. We arrived in Kona around dinner time, and got to Ana'eho'omalu Bay (or just A-Bay) just in time to catch the sunset. It's true what they say, this place is a photographers heaven for sunset photos. Any idiot who has a camera and a finger and isn't blind can capture beautiful photos here. Exhibit A below:

Okay, well maybe not ANY idiot... just any idiot other than the one that took our 'sunset' photo... Exhibit B:

What a beautiful start to our time in Kona. 

I-Like-Meat is now more Social!

So some of my friends have been asking me how to subscribe to my blog updates. I added a email subscription bar to the top right of my blog page, right under the 'Search' bar. You can also add/follow me on Google+! Hope this helps! :D

Monday, June 25, 2012

Hawaii Big Island - Day 3

Day 3 on the Big Island was a mish-mash of delightful surprises! We started the morning with a fantabulous breakfast prepared by our hosts. At this point, I should say a few more words about our hosts. We found our lodging for our days on the Hilo side via vrbo.com. Originally we had wanted to stay in Hilo, but affordable options were booked, so we looked to the small town of Mountain View (this one is Google-less). Actually our decision turned out to be one of the best we made this trip! First of all, MV is equally close to Hilo and the Volcanoes National Park, and seeing as how Hilo town center was not actually that interesting, we didn't really lose out by not staying there. But more importantly, the hosts we stayed with, Leslea and Daryl, were such a sweet couple with such a wonderful wonderful home. They built their own home in Mountain View on a plot of land of 2 acres from scratch (yes, they own a bulldozer...), and we stayed in the Coconut Cabana, a cute cottage adjoining their own house. They also planted papaya, mango, coconut, and lychee trees on their land, and it is absolutely beautiful. The cottage itself is very clean and well kept, and decorated with style. The best part, they have 2 super cute dogs, Peachy and Scooter, who love having guests! They also have 2 cats and some birds and a herd of goats and chickens too... 

Leslea and Daryl's furbabies, Peachy (husky/chow mix) and Scooter (Shih-Poo). We LOVE Peachy. Sweetest dog we ever met!

Gorgeous view of their yard from our Cabana
Anyway, we had the best time staying here. Every morning Leslea makes a 2-course breakfast for their homestay guests from home grown (literally grown in their own yard) or other local ingredients. This morning, for example, we started with a course of fresh fruits from her garden/farmers markets(she trades produce from her yard at the farmers market for items that she doesn't grow - how self-sufficient!): A plate of the most delicious tree-ripened mango, hawaiian papaya, and apple-bananas, garnished with fresh peppermint and shredded coconut. SO DELICIOUS. I thought that was breakfast. But no. For the next course, she made a healthier version of the loco moco: a scoop of rice, eggs from their own hens cooked over easy, and two hearty slices of grilled fresh ahi, and instead of the usual gravy, she made a sauce of butter, chili flakes, and oyster sauce. Heaven! 

With our bellies filled with yummy breakfast, we set out for another day of fun. Today's agenda was to drive along the northern shore from Hilo to Waipi'o Valley, and check out some of the sights there. The first stop was Onomea Bay and the Hawaiian Tropical Botanical Gardens. We took the guidebook's suggestion of taking the Old Mamalahoa Hwy Scenic detour, which follows the Hamakua coastline north of Hilo. The scenery along the way was gorgeous. Lush rainforest-like foliage and vegetation line the side of the road, and with a light sprinkling of rain and sunshine just peeking through the clouds, it felt like we were in paradise. In particular, the lookout over Onomea Bay was like a scene straight out of a movie! Any one can take postcard-like photos here!


But the most enjoyable surprise was the Botanical Gardens. Those that know me know that I am way more an animal person than a plant person. I'm one of those people that plants hate, and I couldn't keep a cactus alive... But the guidebook had never failed us, so when it recommended the gardens as a "Real Gem", it convinced us to make the stop. I am so glad I took the advice!!! The garden is filled with mind-boggling plants and flowers, some so alien that it's hard to believe they are from this planet! The cute, multi-coloured geckos that poke out their tiny purple tongues to drink the flower nectar is an added bonus. Hubby's mad photography skills managed to capture this:

The garden also has a pretty intriguing history, but I won't make this blog post longer than it already is. Just a taste of the beauty you can feast your eyes on at this garden:

After visiting the Botanical Gardens, we stopped at What's Shakin', a small eatery by the side of the road, for a bite of lunch. They are known for their awesome shakes, made with nothing but the freshest fruit. They also carry Tropical Dreams Ice Cream, which is made locally on the island in Waimea. We got a tub of Kona Coffee flavored ice cream, a Farmer's Favorite shake (papaya, banana, apple, blueberry, and coconut milk), and a macadamia nut bran muffin to wash it all down. The muffin was meh, but the ice cream and shake were PHENOMENAL! I would recommend this place to anyone who's driving by this area! They also have fresh lychee from their own lychee tree. I haven't seen lychee this fresh since I was in Hong Kong!!! And it's not always lychee season. I had already bought a bunch of lychee from another truck on the way over, so I passed on these, even though they were actually cheaper and more fresh looking than the ones I bought earlier. =( Serves me right for being so impatient!

Our next stop was Akaka Falls. To be frank, the waterfall itself did not really impress me that much - I have seen larger falls, and more beautiful falls. But the really nice part about Akaka Falls is the setting. It's kind of in a tropical wilderness type of area, and if you take the longer walk around, you pass some majestic tall bamboo that sway gently in the wind. Even though it was raining a little when we visited, the view of the bamboo forest felt so peaceful that my mood was instantly lifted. The on and off raining actually added some magic to the atmosphere; fresh rain falling among the trees emanates the scent of sweet, sorrowful romance. 

Next, a visit to Laupahoehoe Point to check out the waves. Apparently ~40 children were washed away in a tsunami that hit here, and locals still have memorials here for this sad event. The waves here were so big one time that a whole cargo load of cars got tipped over as the ship was about to reach port, and all the cars were lost to sea. Having been there personally, I can agree that the waves are indeed big and scary, but we still see local fishermen cast their nets. We took a nice afternoon nap here, to the sound of waves breaking against the rocks. 

Heading back to Hilo, it was still early enough for one more activity. We had our flashlights on us, and enough energy. Spontaneously we decided to brave the Kaumana lava tubes. Peeking from over the ledge, the caves look like giant mouths, swallowing everything going in, including the light. We started with the cave on the right. It was dark dark dark in there. And wet. Tree roots dangling down from the cave roof dripped water, and made the cave smell lightly damp. Good thing I wore my hat - what if the water has sulphur in it and burns my scalp?! The cave opening was quite large, allowing us to walk in standing straight up, but soon we reached a choke point, and only a small hole allowed passaged to the next area of the cave, so we had to squeeze in by crouching as low as possible and doing the duck walk. Because the lava was highly fragmented on the ground, and their fragmented edges are sharp, I was staring at the ground all the time to make sure I had a good foothold. The consequence of this was that I hit my head on low ceilings and rock protrusions from the side wall multiple times... Good thing I completed my Ph.D. already, otherwise those brain cells would be more sorely missed!

Hubby Jay crawling through a bottle neck in the lava tube
At some point while we were crawling through the cave, Jay decided he would turn off his flashlight, just to see how dark it is. And you know how sometimes at night when it's really dark, you turn out the lights and momentarily you get freaked out because of how dark it is, but then a few seconds later your eyes adjust, and it's all okay? Well, I waited for my eyes to adjust... and waited... and waited... but it didn't happen. I just remained freaked out until the light came back on. I guess if one day you want to know what it feels like to be blind, this is one way to experience it. After about 20-30 minutes of trekking and crawling and grovelling in the lava tube, the air started to feel a little thin, and damp. I guess because there is no ventilation in there, the oxygen level is lower than usual. We headed out when we started feeling a little claustrophobic. After finding our way out of the right cave tunnel, we ventured into the left cave tunnel. It was interesting how the two caves were different in structure. The right one felt much larger initially, but has many bottlenecks and choke points. The left one starts out with a small and narrow opening, so you feel like you can't even proceed. But once you make it past the first bottleneck, you enter a huge cavern, with an almost cathedral like feel to the high, arching ceilings. Fascinating!

We ended our day very tired out from our little adventure in the caves, and had a very mediocre sushi meal for dinner at Ocean Sushi in downtown Hilo. Well, at least Peachy and Scooter were there to welcome us come at night :)

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Hawaii Big Island - Day 2

Today, I woke up at 5 AM with trepidation. Today is the big day, the day when we were going to trek through a rainforest, and end up at the foot of the Pu'u O'o volcano, close enough to see its vent. And from what I had read, the volcano had been quite active lately. Both excitement and fear of death from toxic fumes pumped up my adrenaline, and I woke up before my alarm rang.

We set out in our car to the trailhead - it is quite hidden, beyond even the remote areas where people live around here, and the last portion of the road to the trailhead is poorly maintained, just a gravel road. We reached this area and timidly drove our Mustang convertible rental over it, praying we won't get stuck in the wet gravel because it had been raining all morning. I licked my finger and put it up to the wind. Yup, a Northern trade wind. Just what we need for the toxic sulphur fumes from the volcano to be blown away from the trail, so that we don't die on our hike. The anticipation was building. And we finally reach the end of the road. The trailhead right beyond those bushes.

NOOOOOOO!!!! As we stepped out of the car and headed to the trail, we were stopped by a wire fence and a big read sign: "DANGER. Trail has been closed due to excessive volcanic activity and poisonous sulphur dioxide fumes. " This has been the biggest let down ever! After all that anticipation, only to be shunned from our adventure... =( In my disappointment and sadness, I even forgot to take a photo of the sign at the trailhead!

But hey, I have a Ph.D. now, so I should be able to quickly adapt to situations. We adapted, and headed over the the Volcanoes National Park, which is right by the small town of (and this will blow your mind) Volcano. At least getting up early for the hike meant that we beat the crowds to the park. We started with an invigorating hike through the Kilauea Iki Crater. This was a fantastic hike. It was about 4 mi loop, and took us ~2.5 hours, which is quite slow because we were constantly stopping for photos or checking out the wonderfully strange landscape and plants. It starts with a gentle downhill, taking you from the crater rim down into the caldera, then it's pretty much flat while walking over the crater floor, past steaming vents and other cool stuff. Finally theres some uphill to get back to the crater rim again, but overall not strenuous at all. Here is a map of the trail we took:

The best part was walking down on the crater floor. The steaming vents are quite intimidating at first, because you feel like there must be something going on down there, and maybe it will erupt with molten lava any minute, and melt you like a chocolate in a hot pan. If the wind blows and wafts some of that steam over, you can faintly smell the sulphur, but I guess the amount there is at a safe level. The landscape down there is also fascinating. Giant openings in the ground below, and layers of cooled lava that peel away from the bottom layers forming almost an open blanket of black rock, and piles of shattered lava everywhere, forms an image of chaos and destruction. Its as if the Incredible Hulk were let loose here, and smashed and unearthed everything. But then you see the small trees and fern blades that poke their heads out from the black, hard rock, and you realize how resilient and strong Nature is. A single seed, tries and tries, and eventually something so soft like a fern branch, can break through that tough lava rock. I guess in another eon, barring more eruptions, this crater might become a lush rainforest too.

View of the Kilauea Iki crater from the crater rim

Left: Descending into the crater. Center: Lush rainforest surrounds the crater rim, in stark comparison to the barren crater floor. Right: New life sprouting from the depths of the lava rock. 

Landscape in the crater

This hike into the crater was definitely the highlight of our day at the Volcanoes National Park. We also visited the Thurston Lava tube, the Sulphur Banks and Steam Vents, and the Petroglyphs near the end of the Chain of Craters Road:

Center: Thurston lava tube. Clockwise from top left: View from an Ahu (cairn, or pile-of-rocks-marker) at Hilina Pali; Steam vent; Petroglyphs at the end of the petroglyphs trail; End of the end - the end of the trail at the end of the chain of craters road scenic drive; Ominous sign at the entrance to the sulphur banks trail.

All in all, we must have hiked 12-15 miles that day! It was definitely a very long but rewarding day of trekking around the park. By the end of the night when we reached the end of the end, we were exhausted, and hoping to just hunker down somewhere on the lava rock to watch some red glowing lava flow down the side of the mountain, like all the photos online (kinda like this, but without the weird outfit...). Unfortunately the lava flow tonight was too far away to be viewed! It could only be seen if you take a helicopter ride. =( So we settled by trudging back to the Jagger Museum near the Visitor Center, and ended our day by checking out the awesome red lava glow from the Kilauea crater. 

                           Volcano by day                                                              Volcano by night ("oooooo..... ahhhhh.......")

A disappointing start to the day, but all's well that end's well. :D

Hawaii Big Island - Day 1

Vacation is here!!! The last time I went on vacation was last Summer when hubby and I went to Europe and visited Switzerland and Germany, because I managed to get a conference there. It was a blast, but it has been waaaay too long of a hiatus between vacays. This summer we are headed to the Big Island in Hawaii to be in the wedding of two of our friends, Chung and Mel.

Vacation started out like any other vacation that leaves from the USA: with a soothing massage (for Jay) from a well-trained TSA officer. :) Our flight to Kona was made entertaining by the lady sitting in the row in front of us, who upon hearing that there were complimentary Mai Tais, immediately consumed 3 of them... In under ten minutes...

Right before we landed, we were greeted by a double rainbow in the sky!

Finally landed in Kona! The air was delightfully moist as it should be in the tropics, and it might have been my imagination, but a faint sweet scent of fruits also filled my nose. Ahhh... The smell of R&R. First thing we did was to make a trip to the Costco in Kona!! Not only to stock up on supplies for the week (such as bagels and sandwich items) but also we heard that they have great Poke! Poke is the Hawaiian take on the Japanese sashimi salad. Usually made with ahi tuna sashimi, slightly marinated in some kind of sauce, and seasoned with salt, green onions, and other flavorings. There were five kinds at Costco: regular (with seaweed), wasabi, shoyu (sweeter version with more soy sauce), spicy mayo, and avocado mayo. We bought some of the regular and shoyu - mmm tasty lunch!

With goodies in hand, we started our Hawaiian fun with a drive up the Kona mountains. The serpentine and windy road made for a super fun drive in the mustang convertible we rented. Wheee!!! We'll be coming round the mountain with the top down!

The joy riding continued up to the northern/central part of the big island. We took Saddle road, a road cutting through the island that passes by the Mauna Kea Observatory. The drive up to the visitors center at 9000 ft elevation was also very fun, because the road was lined with unique vegetation that varied with elevation. We could not go up further than the visitor center because a 4WD was needed to drive up the gravel road. Good thing we couldn't go all the way to the 13000 ft peak!!! Even after being at just 9000 ft for a while, I started to feel the effects of the altitude on my brain... We left soon, but not without snapping some photos above the clouds. :)

Continuing east toward Hilo, we make several more scenic photo stops, making the ride on Saddle road very pleasant. Some of the attractions near Hilo that we visited that day:

Rainbow Falls
No rainbow in the photo because we visited at the wrong time of day!
Morning is best since the sun would be shining in the right direction then. 

Really cool HUGE banyan trees right next to Rainbow Falls.
Great for climbing on and around and under and over.

Beautiful Japanese gardens on Banyan Drive, in Hilo.
Makes for the nicest afternoon stroll. 

The boiling pots and Pe'e Pe'e Falls

Dinner was at a local favourite, Cafe 100. Hawaiian food is so unhealthy, and so fatty, yet as with any fatty, unhealthy foods.... so satisfying after a long day! Interestingly, the rice here in Hawaii is not the calrose that we usually eat. Their rice is really really good! It's got more chew than calrose, but not quite a glutinous texture, and when cooked right, is just the right amount of softness without being mushy. This kind of rice I could eat on it's own! I am secretly hoping that this is an indication of the good sushi we will have on this island, since Hawaii has very fresh fish, and apparently the rice is also really good. 

A local favourite: Loco Moco. A plate lunch/dinner that typically consists of rice (usually white rice), 2 eggs, macaroni salad, and some kind of meat. All topped with gravy. Here, our choice of meat was grilled spam and portuguese sausage. This was mortifyingly tasty, and I felt my arteries explode. As Alicia would say, one plate may cause Diabetusus shock.

It has been a wonderful day 1 on the beautiful Big Island of Hawaii!

Friday, June 1, 2012

Simple dinner

Tonight was busy with pre-Hawaii packing, so dinner had to be simple and fast but still nutritious!

Enter tomato, egg and spinach noodle soup!

Easiest dish of all but very tasty and packed with vitamins too!