Things have been incredibly busy for the both of us these past many weeks, but we did get a chance for a little R&R a couple of weeks ago when we spent five days on the Big Island of Hawaii to celebrate our 13th wedding anniversary.
While there are some things I would have changed - the part of the island where we stayed - the trip itself was really quite delightful and I'm so glad we were able to get away and reconnect. It was especially lovely because we honeymooned on the island after our wedding on Maui and we used the time to visit some of the places we went on that first trip. Of course, we also hit up some of our regular favorites, and made time to even get to new places that we'd missed on our four previous trips.
Where We Stayed
Holua Resort at Mauna Loa Village is part of our timeshare group and I don't really have anything bad to say about it, except that it's a bit outside of Kona, which makes it even further from the Kohala Coast where our favorite beaches are. The one bedroom units are more than adequate for us, and the grounds are landscaped really well. Everyone who works there is very friendly and goes out of their way to help you. Unfortunately we had the opportunity to discover this when we arrived as we had booked a two bedroom but there were no two bedroom units available (how that happens is beyond me ...). The woman working the front desk told us that a one bedroom unit would be available after 4 p.m. and that she'd call us when the room was available. We wandered over to Magic Sands beach (also called Disappearing Sands) to find that the sand was completely gone, while we waited for our room to be ready.
When we didn't get a call by 5 p.m. we drove down Ali'i Drive, back to the Keauhou Bay area, to see what the wait was all about. Cece, the woman working the front desk, had managed to secure us a one bedroom with an ocean view, but it was still being cleaned! We waited another twenty minutes or so and then another employee whose name I can't remember (we saw him the entire trip and he was always very helpful and courteous) drove us over to the unit. All I can say is that I am was so thankful to Cece for going out of her way to get us a good unit because the views were spectacular.
One of our favorite things to do on these type of vacations is to eat breakfast on the lanai. Having the view of the ocean directly in front us made it that much nicer. I even took my laptop out to work on book promotion and to read through a friend's work in progress.
The thing about Holua Resort at Mauna Loa Village is that it's not at all fancy. It is very firmly a three star condo property, but they do an excellent job with service and landscaping so you often feel like you're at a nicer place. The interior decor is loud and obnoxious - you feel more like you're in the Caribbean than in Hawaii - but it's my understanding that they're going to begin a full interior remodel beginning next month.
Beaches We Visited
The beaches in Kona aren't what people conjure when they think of beautiful Hawaiian beaches. They are rocky, with little sand, and are mostly tidepools than wide open ocean. Because of this, when we stay in our timeshare exchanges down in Keauhou Bay, we tend to spend a lot of time in the car driving back and forth. Without traffic it's about 40 minutes from the condo to the beaches we love most: Waialea Beach (Beach 69) and Mauna Kea Beach. We also decided to try Kikaua Point up near the Four Seasons this time since there were rather large swells making a lot of beaches a bit more dangerous for swimming. (The sand at Kua Bay was completely gone and there had been many drowning rescues in the weeks leading up to our trip, and Hapuna Beach is always too pounding for me, so we don't even try going there anymore.)
Kikaua Point is part of a private group of homes, but because by law all Hawaii beaches are open to the public they have to allow visitors to go there. To keep it nice and quiet for residents, they do limit the number of vehicles that can park there at any one time. For this beach it's 27 cars, and we were not part o that group. The gate agent told us that we could go down to the Four Seasons and request public beach access there since they have many more parking spots and the two beaches are connected - Kikaua Point to the south, and the Four Seasons to the north. We asked how long the walk was and the gate agent said three minutes. Ha! Three minutes my ass. More like 20, but at least you pass several honu on your way to the beach, and once you're there, it's definitely worth it since there is a pristine protected swimming cove and beautiful views up and down the coastline.
Probably our favorite - and most visited - beach on Hawaii is Waialea Beach, also known as Beach 69 because you get to it by turning off the road at mile marker 69. It's near Hapuna Beach, but rather than being a wide open expanse of ocean, it has a rocky, shaded shoreline, tidepools to explore, and some open ocean. We could - and do - spend hours here each time we visit. Sometimes it's been calm and placid, perfect for snorkeling, but this time because of the swells the beach itself was a bit smaller and the waves were crashing down a bit. Most people weren't going into the water until an old guy went in and showed that it would be easy enough for the rest of us. I'm terrified of waves so it always takes me longer than anyone else to get in. This beach is my favorite one to settle in with a good book and a couple of beers and just while away the day. Because the waves were up on this trip, Alan got in some of the best body surfing he's ever done, so that was exciting for him.
I include this picture only to show you just how badly I was swollen on this trip. I have been somewhat vocal about a rather mysterious health issue that I'm having where my joints swell up for days on end and I'm in a lot of pain. The swelling by the second day of this trip was as bad as it's ever been, and it made walking in the sand pretty difficult for me a lot of times. Four days later, my joints were back to normal, and my feet and ankles were disproportionately bony to my body.
Punaluʻu Black Sand Beach was another new one for us on the island. We didn't go in the water because afterward we were going to the volcano for sunset, but we did plop down with our books and hang out for a couple of hours after observing the overwhelming number of honu just hanging out on the beach. Unfortunately, most tourists and idiots and we spent a lot of time yelling at people to leave the damn turtles alone. As endangered species, you have to be at least five feet away from them at all times, but one dude was all up in their business. Then another man laid down next to them so he could get an eye-level selfie with the one. God, I hate people. Black Sand Beach was GORGEOUS. We'd never seen anything like it. The sand is basically pulverized volcanic rock, and it's just astoundingly beautiful.
Of course we also hit up Mauna Kea beach, which fronts the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. I love how wide it is, and the water is just stunningly gorgeous. It had taken a pounding several weeks prior with the large swells as well and the middle - where the public access entry is - was completely stripped of sand down to lava rock beneath, but the area to the far left was still nice and sandy (albeit littered with broken coral everywhere). The waves were up here as well, although at this particular beach that means boogie board sized waves, so I felt comfortable going in the water.
Finally, the last beach we hit up was also a new one, although I've read about and heard about it for years ... I just didn't know where it was or why we would go there. I feel bad that we only figured it out as we were looking for time to kill before going to the airport. At Old Kona Airport State Recreation Area, the old runway is the parking lot, and there are several pavilions where locals routinely host parties, as well as multiple restroom facilities and several small tidepools created from the lava for little kids to play in the water. It's not the type of beach where you'd plan to go and play in the water all day because the swimming isn't really that great, but if you're wanting to just sit by the water with a beer and a good book, I can't really think of a better location so close to Kona.
Where We Ate
The food this trip was really hit and miss. Strangely enough, we never cooked dinner at home and we *always* do it at least once if we're staying in a condo. One of the things about Kona is that there are a lot of places to eat out, and the grocery stores aren't what I would call great (I consider myself a bit of a grocery store connoisseur), and some - like the one near our condo - are kind of depressing.
For the last several trips to the island, we've gone to Kona Brewing on our first night in Hawaii. The food there is just meh, although I did get kalua pork nachos this time that were good. We obviously go for the beer. I don't know if it's because we've been drinking a lot more beer since the last time we were in Kona, but I wasn't as blown away by the beer as I normally am. Everyone's had their standard beers, and yes, they're good, but I always get excited for their seasonal and specialty beers, but this time I thought they were just okay.
In terms of eating in Hawaii, there are three things I always want and could eat multiple times - poke, mix plate, and shave ice. When we stay on the Kohala Coast, we get our poke from the grocery store in the Queen's Marketplace, but in Kona there are a few options to choose from. Da Poke Shack is the only one we knew about until a couple of weeks before we left for this trip. We found Umeke's on Yelp and it is rated above Da Poke Shack, so we figured that we would try both.
Umeke's was our first meal when we arrived - we drove straight there from the airport and it was good, but I wasn't overwhelmed by how amazing it was. I thought it was on par with Da Poke Shack, not significantly better than I remembered DPS being on our last trip. A few days later we stopped in to DPS and it was maybe a bit better. While Umeke's spicy was too spicy, the sweet was too sweet, but DPS wasn't spicy enough. So, the third time we wanted poke I was craving something spicy so we went back to Umeke's and it was DISGUSTING. It was so bad we couldn't even eat it. Umeke's is also *way more expensive* than Da Poke Shack, so given the fact that we had to throw away $35 worth of fish, I'm sad that for our third and final poke feed we didn't just stick with DPS and add wasabi or something to make it spicier.
We also hit up two other new-to-us but beloved by locals restaurants - Broke da Mouth Grindz and 808 Grindz. Both were a bit hard to find as they're not located right in Kona, but rather a bit away from the water in shopping plazas. In fact, Apple maps had a bit of a hard time getting us to BdM, and instead kept trying to deposit us at a garage. The restaurant is in the small shopping plaza *behind* the garage. We'd read that the service at BdM was incredibly slow, and it was, but not so slow that we were pulling our hair out. Waiting for our food gave us a chance to observe that most everyone in the restaurant knew everyone else and that there were very few tourists eating there. I consider that a good sign. We had scoped out the menu in advance. Alan knew that he wanted the garlic shrimp since we love it so much in Oahu, and I wanted the Hawaiian mix plate or the chicken furikake. Since we had decided not to go to a luau this trip I knew that I wouldn't be getting any other kalua pork so I ordered mix plate, and the pork was stunningly good. I'm not talking, "oh, this tastes good." I'm talking, "this might be the best damn kalua pork I've ever had."I also really enjoyed the potato salad that came with my meal - purple Okinawan sweet potatoes mixed with bacon. I'd never had anything like it. Alan's shrimp was good, but not as good as what we've had at the shrimp trucks on Oahu.
Our meal at 808 Grindz was our last on the island, and it was our one breakfast out. I am a sucker for loco moco and this restaurant has several different varieties. I got all starry eyed reading the menu and decided to branch out from a traditional loco moco and get one with shaved pork instead of hamburger. I had mistakenly thought that meant kalua pork again - how amazing would that be?! - but it was some sort of pork chop that was dry and tasted like it was a few days old, being repurposed for this meal. It certainly wasn't cooked at the same time the rest of my meal was. The rice and gravy, however, were excellent, and my eggs were cooked perfectly, something I'm pretty darn picky about. Alan ordered a short stack of coconut macadamia pancakes that were the size of his head! They were delicious, and I think I ate more of his meal than of mine.
Another new-to-us restaurant was The Fish Hopper, a fairly large fancy-ish restaurant in Kona on Ali'i Drive overlooking the water. I'm sure at sunset it's a pretty place to eat, but we were there well after dark and that's when the freaks, hobos, hippies, and homeless people come out at night in Kona so we had quite the assortment of misfits as our view at various times during our meal. Our drinks were terrible. I cannot stress enough how bad they were. The lava flow tasted like water, and the coconut that lined the rim of the glass was actually stale. I'm not sure how you manage to get stale coconut flakes in Hawaii with the amount of people ordering sweet cocktails, but there you have it. The mai tai was okay, but nothing worth recommending. At that point in our meal I was sorely wishing that we'd gone anywhere else, but then our food came and it was really quite good. In fact, I liked what I ordered better than what I ordered a handful of nights later at Huggo's.
We ate at Huggo's our last night on the island, and while we had a table with a good view, and the hamakua mushrooms were *excellent* my meal was hard to eat. It was fish - I can't even remember which one - that was so coated in spicy rub that it was inedible to me, served over Okinawan sweet potatoes, with some sort of coconut sauce and greens. Thank goodness that I married a man who loves me because he switched and I ate half of his mahi mahi dish, which was very similar to what we ate at The Fish Hopper.
We also had food and drinks at Huggo's on the Rocks, which is quite possibly my favorite bar/restaurant in all of the islands. If you manage to snag a table down on sand, you're overlooking the rocky shore below, and you can do some pretty excellent people watching as well. Unfortunately, the people sitting next to us were pretty obnoxious and loud, telling pretty racist jokes and just generally being low class. The one lady was such a stereotype. But that's the thing about Huggo's on the Rocks - you get all kinds of kinds there. When we first arrived there were families with little kids who were off in the corner dancing together to the live musician, older couples who were really dancing along to the music, young groups of friends, couples on their honeymoon ... anyone and everyone. I ordered a lava flow that had lillikoi instead of strawberry puree and it was *amazing* - probably the single best frozen cocktail I've ever had. It was so good, in fact, that I ordered a second and we usually don't spend a ton of money on cocktails while we're eating out since we tend to drink better at home. I could seriously have drank them all night.
Another place we stopped in for a quick bite was Lava Lava Beach Club up in Waikoloa, which is a sister property to Huggo's on the Rocks. It was built after we last stayed in Waikoloa in 2011, so I wasn't all that familiar with it. They also have cottages on property and I had looked into staying there for this trip, but since they don't have kitchens, I had nixed them. I'm kind of glad I did because the cottages are right next to the restaurant, and it didn't feel very private. Not that the condo we stayed at was very private, but when you're in a cottage, you kind of expect more seclusion. Or maybe that's just me. Anyhow, the drinks were just okay, but the two appetizers we ordered - coconut shrimp and ahi nachos - were so freaking good. If the rest of the food was nearly as good as those two things, anyone eating there would walk away quite happy. It was a bit expensive, but you're also paying for the ambiance since you're right on the water (the very first picture in this post was taken from our seat on the water).
In terms of shave ice, we tried two places - Scandinavian Shave Ice right in Kona on Ali'i Drive Hawaiian Ice Cones which is a little stand in a strip mall that we learned about on Yelp. While not as good as crazy lady shave ice in Hanalei, the flavors at Hawaiian Ice Cones were really good. So good, in fact, that we went back right before we left for the airport. Scandinavian Shave Ice was good, but not great. If it is right there, certainly, but I didn't think it was worth trying to find parking for. The best thing it has going for it is location as it's right on the water in Kona. It's also at a spot in town where the crazy hobos hang out so you do have to contend with them as well if you want to linger over your ice. Unfortunately, the shave ice at HIC was so good that I was too busy eating it and never stopped to take a picture of it. Don't take my word for it thought - it's also a favorite of Alton Brown.
Things We Did
While there's absolutely nothing wrong with eating, drinking, and beaching your way through the islands, we always make an effort to do one or two other things while we're there. This time we visited Hawaii Volcanoes National Park for sunset at the Jaggar Musueum, overlooking the Halema'uma'u caldera. On our honeymoon we took a helicopter over Kilauea and since then we've decided that we don't like helicopters. We've also gone hiking in the park, doing both the lava tubes and the Kiluaea Iki Trail in 2009. This time we wanted to see the lava after dark, and I'm so glad we did. It was something that we wrestled with since it's a *long* drive there and back, but I think it was definitely worth it. My pictures are crap of course since I didn't have my good camera, but they give you an idea of what we saw and experienced. In addition to not having a camera worthy of the site we also came unprepared in terms of warmth. Since we had been shopping during the day, and then to the Black Sand Beach earlier, I had on a bathing suit, flip flops, and a long dress. Alan was smart and had a long-sleeved t-shirt on, but his legs were still bare. By the time the sun went completely down it was in the 50s and I was freezing. We ended up buying me a sweatshirt at the museum. There were several other people doing likewise; I can't imagine how much money the museum makes on sweatshirt sales alone.
The other activity we did was a guided ocean kayaking trip. Ever since we went kayaking multiple times a day in Alaska, and then again in Maine, kayaking is one of our favorite ways to spend time on the water. This particular kayak trip was advertised as one where you could take your kayak into the sea caves along the Keauhou coast. Given that the waves were pounding against the shore, I was pretty skeptical of our ability to make it in, but all the way up until the last possible second, our guide pretended like it was a possibility. I didn't care either way since my goal was just to get out on the water, but others on the trip were really disappointed. Alan was disappointed for an entirely different reason: straight away the guide starts talking about all the wild life that is routinely seen on the tour - whales, dolphins, manta rays, etc. Want to know what we saw? Turtles. Hey, I'm not knocking the turtles, I love those damn honu, but Alan really, really, really wanted to see the dolphins. We are the only people we know who have gone to the Big Island multiple times and never seen them. Literally everyone we know who's been asks us, "did you see the dolphins?!" all excited because they did. NO, WE DID NOT SEE THE DOLPHINS. WE WILL NEVER SEE THE DOLPHINS. The tour wasn't all that it could have been, but I still enjoyed myself and I'm glad we did it. That said, I don't know that I would recommend that particular tour to anyone, so I won't talk much more about it here.
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And that, my friends, is what five days on the Big Island on a pretty low budget looks like.