We had the urge to see more of the Big Island of Hawai’i than we would if we just wandered around Hilo. So when we got off the ship in Kuhio Bay, we looked for a local tour operator.
There were lots of options, but we settled on the van driven by Cousin Joe, who offered to take a vanload of us on a tour for $55 apiece. I can’t recall the name of the tour company he drives for – something like Big Island Tours. Anyway, Joe is perpetually 58, the age at which he says he stopped counting.
He’s clearly accustomed to dealing with people from parts of the world where tipping is not common practice. Leaving nothing to chance, he had signs on the inside of the van doors suggesting a tip of $5 to $8 apiece would not be amiss.
When he had twelve customers for the twelve seats, we set off toward Rainbow Falls, the first stop of the tour. Canadians are accustomed to more spectacular falls, and there were no rainbows that day, but we still enjoyed the stop.
Joe next drove us to the Akatsuka Orchid Gardens. Hilo is showered with 133 inches of rain per year, making it the wettest city in the U.S. All that water is good for some flowers. Hilo grows more orchids than anyplace else in the world, as well as 95% of the world’s anthuriums.
I was enchanted by the variety of shapes, colours, and sizes of the orchids. One of them on display is a rather dowdy relative, at least in appearance. It’s a muted bronze in comparison with its flasher cousins. But that drab orchid is worth $20,000. Brought to Hilo from Thailand, it is the only one of its kind in the world to have perfect symmetry. We were fortunate to arrive during its blooming period, which is April-May each year.
There were dozens of exquisite orchids and colourful anthuriums displayed throughout the shop. I’ll put photos of a handful of them at the end of this blog entry.
The main destination for our day’s outing with Cousin Joe (who seemed to be related to someone pretty much every mile along the whole day’s route) was Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park.
Two of the five volcanoes that formed this island are still active, Kilauea and Mauna Loa. They don’t explode like volcanoes on the mainland. (Remember Mt. St. Helens?) Instead, they send up fountains of fire and produce streams of lava. As the lava cools and the porous rock is eroded by wind and water, the new land it forms gradually becomes covered with lush vegetation.
Just beyond the Kilauea Military Camp, we stopped to take pictures of the steam vents. Their sulphurous white clouds are reminders that below the black surface of this lava-covered landscape a molten river searches for outlets. [Cousin Joe says the military camp is a place for rest and recreation for soldiers. Hard to imagine anyone’s wanting to retreat to a place that’s in a perpetual cloud of volcano gas.]
From the steam vents, we drove to the Kilauea Visitor Center, where we could see the broad expanse of the Kilauea Caldera and watch the volcanic plume rising from the Halema’uma’u Crater. Inside the Jaggar Museum are displays that trace not only the volcano’s history but also the science behind the natural drama.
In one glass case are the shredded remains of the coveralls George Ulrich wore when he was doing research there. Lava he thought was cool and solid turned out to be a thin crust. He broke through it and dived up to his knees in molten lava. Somehow he got out and healed enough to run a marathon a few years later.
A short distance beyond the museum Cousin Joe stopped to give us another view of the crater and a chance to stretch our legs with a walk along its rim. Most of our fellow travelers opted to stay with the van, but we welcomed the chance for a bit of exercise.
When we re-joined the van we were near the entrance of the Thurston Lava Tube. The stretch we walked through has been strung with electric lights. Boulders have been cleared to make the path easy to navigate. Had we had more time and a flashlight we might have continued into a rougher section – or not. Dark, enclosed spaces aren’t something I generally seek out.
We made one last stop on the Chain of Craters Road to look at the much smaller Lua Manu crater. I grew up on an old lava bed in southern Idaho so didn’t need the warning to walk carefully over the jagged surface. My knees and legs still bear the scars of many childhood tumbles onto the glassy shards of crumbled lava. Not being particularly sure-footed, however, I did move carefully across the swirls and chunks and gravel of the cooled-lava surface.
The colour variations you can see in the photo are created by the different minerals in the lava. As wind and water break down the lava, the resulting soil becomes mineral rich and fertile. This small bottle brush plant may have started as a seed dropped by a passing bird.
After we left the park we headed straight for the Mauna Loa plant. The only major processor of macadamia nuts in Hawai’i, Mauna Loa has its own groves but also buys from other growers. I always figured macadamia nuts were native to Hawai’i, but Robin set the record straight when we were in Australia. They are actually an Oz transplant from Queensland.
This was the only shopping stop of the day. Mostly we ignore the seductions of the shops along our route, but when we saw a small bag of chocolate-covered macadamia nuts, we succumbed. After all, there’s so little to eat on a cruise.
Cousin Joe told us he wanted to take us to one more place, one the other companies never visit. So he headed to Richardson’s Black Sand Beach. We’ve seen bigger and better black sand beaches, but we did enjoy the sight of tiny tots playing in the water as confidently as they play onshore.
We kept our fingers crossed as we sailed away from Hilo, hoping the captain would turn south so we could sail past the area where lava at 2100 degrees Fahrenheit meets the sea and sends up clouds of steam.
We were not disappointed. It was dark by the time we reached the site. The full glory of fire meeting water exploded just four tenths of a mile from the decks where hundreds of us watched in awe. Even Robin, the intrepid traveler, had never before seen such a dramatic display. When we finally went to bed, we knew we’d seen something that would become one of the highlights of the cruise.