Sixty Minutes of Pain and Sweat, in Santa Clara

So as part of our regimes to become healthier and lose weight and live longer and more active lives and blah blah blah we miss pizza, we recently joined a gym so we could work out after work and start back up with personal trainer sessions.  Our last person kind of wandered away and abandoned us (for a better and more fulfilling job with more pay, so we don't begrudge her all for it; just kind of the way she went about it in a rather unprofessional way)  and we realized that we needed to continue in our efforts if we also wanted to continue enjoying the resulting… uh.. results, so after a bit of research we decided on 24-Hour Fitness.


One of the major selling points was its central location, about halfway between Lucie’s job and mine, so we could save some time after work instead of driving home, changing, then heading out to exercise.  Having both of our jobs offer a respectable discount helped too, to be sure.


One major difference between our new gym and our old location (which wasn’t technically a gym, per se; it was an old Easter Seals physical therapy building taken over by the San Jose State University kinesiology department – but it did have a small weight room and offered personal training which is all we needed at the time) is that our new gym is just so incredibly “gym-y”.  Gone is the smell of chorine (from the heated pool at Timpany Center, used for swim lessons and aquatic therapy), replaced with the smell of old sweat and – occasionally – severe body odor.  Gone is the quiet solitude of a weight room used only by us (sometimes with a background noise of youth basketball on the other side of the wall); replaced with grunts, clangs of the metal plates from weight machines, upbeat music from Zumba and cardio kickboxing classes, and the overbearing screams of trauma from my muscles being torn asunder.


And that’s the other, much more glaring, difference between our old workouts and our new ones: 24-Hour Fitness personal trainers are SO much more badass.  Not really knowing what personal training was when we first started, I never realized that our trainer wasn’t really increasing the intensity of our workouts as we got healthier and stronger like she probably should have; she kept us at a plateau and we were okay with that since we didn’t know any better.  Added to that, we spent a relatively large amount of our time talking between sets, and once Lucie started to work out with me we basically just shared the same trainer, so didn’t really get the full impact of personal training as it’s meant to be.


Once we started personal training at 24-Hour Fitness, we decided to go with individual (one might even say PERSONAL) personal trainers, so we could focus on our individual needs – Lucie wanted to work on stamina and other efforts geared toward her running efforts; I opted to go with upper body and cardio so I can more easily move myself around once I need to get my knees replaced… it’s definitely going to happen, and I need to be ready for it when it does.  I’d been having a lot of muscle issues with my left knee, where it felt like my kneecap was being pulled out to the left when I tried to take stairs or even when I was just walking and bent my knee without being careful, and that really sucked.  Knee pain sucks.  It sucks a LOT.


My person trainer Rob is of mostly Japanese heritage, was born and raised in Hawai’i (O’ahu), is a foodie, and is a multiple black belt MMA fighter.  His official title is “Master Trainer”, in that he takes on the more challenging clientele and also trains the other personal trainers.  Like I said, badass.  And he works me HARD… this guy pushes me so much farther than I would push myself; partly because I’m a little lazy but mostly because I typically drastically underestimate just what I’m able to do.  And far from shirking from the effort and pain, I kind of dig it.  It’s a great feeling knowing that I’m doing stuff I never thought I’d be doing, because I never considered myself capable.  Dead lifting?  Yeah – over 300 pounds.  Never thought I’d be that guy doing weight lifting, but I find I’m enjoying it.  I don’t go over to that section when we go to the gym on non-training days, though – it’s still very much a club of regulars and I don’t feel comfortable in ANY kind of social situation like that; but that’s more just my overall general awkwardness than inability to push myself.  I still use the machines and use the dumbbells (floor-to-press, 45 pounds, 5 times each arm, repeat 5 times, GO GO GO WORK IT) and ride the stationary bike (though obviously I prefer riding my actual bicycle much more; but at least at the gym I can measure my heart rate and I don’t have to worry about steering) and other stuff, at least.


And I’m actually showing progress, too… I’ve had more than one person at the gym come up to me and tell me they see progress since we’ve started going there.  Maybe it’s a sort of “let’s make the sad fat guy feel better about all that sweating he’s doing” kind of thing, but I’d like to think it’s more than that.  I do feel stronger.  I can feel how much stronger I’ve gotten in the 5-6 months we’ve been doing this.  If I kind of cross my eyes a little, I can look in the mirror and even see that I’m starting to develop some sort of shape in my upper body that doesn’t include the word “amorphous”.


Rob and I joke around about how much I hate him for pushing me so hard, but every once in a while in a rare moment of sincerity, he says he really appreciates how much Lucie and I are both willing to push ourselves, compared to some of the other clients who expect miracles without effort on their part; and I tell him how much I appreciate him knowing how far I can go better than I do, and for getting me where I want to be… and for her part Lucie also brought up something I hadn’t even thought of before, which startled me a bit…


My first two trips to Hawai’i, we joked about how Hawai’i was trying to kill me – first trip was a falling coconut, second trip was almost driving off a cliff on an ATV – but that on our subsequent trips to the islands Hawai’i has been fairly nonthreatening.  But maybe, just maybe, Lucie suggests, Hawai’i has sent someone to the Mainland to kill me here in California, in a particularly devious and proactive move.


Dang.  That’s pretty smart, Hawai’i… but it won’t work.  I’ll persevere, despite your islander assassin and your fake nene propaganda and your very long off season of Hawaii Five-0.  And I’ll be back, next year.  Do your worst.*





*Don’t actually do your worst.  Easy, brah.



Seven Point Four, From Trek

Back in May, we took part in the California Classic bike ride, which was both fun and exhausting.  At the time, Lucie and I spoke about tweaking our cycling equipment to make such long rides easier, since we're looking at similar or longer rides in our future.  Some of the easiest  ways to do this are to buy a new, lighter, bicycle; to massively swap out bike components for lighter ones on the current bike; or to add upgrades to e current bike to make cycling more efficient.

And we've both made tweaks, some more expensive than others, to accomplish this goal.  For her part, Lucie bought cycling shoes and swapped out her standard pedals for clips, so she has a much more secure grip while pedaling and can get more oomph by lifting as well as pushing.  In a possibly less efficiency-based adjustment, she's also changing as many bits and pieces as possible on her bike from the stock black to pink.. I believe this is purely aesthetic on her part, although it's possible that lighter colors also make the bike lighter; I didn't attend enough college to know for sure.

My tweak is substantially more expensive -- a new Trek road bike.  It's not actually my idea, though; my wonderful wife gets it for me as an advance anniversary gift.  I do try and resist at first, but 1) she's very persuasive, 2) I have a hard time saying no to her even when she's not trying to talk me into something, 3) once it's presented as being my anniversary present there's really no way I can say no, and 4) it's a really cool bike and I really want it even though I don't want to spend that kind of money on myself so having her buy it for me is a nice justification.  Probably mostly that last one, if I had to be honest.

The new bike is a Trek FX 7.4, way incredibly light (compared to my Trek Shift 4 comfort bike at any rate; still a brick compared to some of the high-end bikes out there [though this is probably one of the lightest bikes that can still handle my weight! as most pure carbon frames aren't built for that high a max payload]) and thin (29-inch Presta tires instead of 26-inch Schraeder, so the tires are maybe an inch wide at most) and awesome looking with a matte black body color with blue striping.

During my test ride around the building when we're still "considering and debating" whether we're buying it or not, I get a much faster high speed than with my comfort bike, although the new positioning takes a lot of getting used to since I'm used to basically sitting upright on the comfort bike and with the road bike I'm leaning forward and it sure feels like I'm going to go flying over the handlebars when I brake.  This feeling is somewhat intensified by the fact that the brakes on the road bike are much more responsive than on the comfort bike; feels funky at first but it's not anything to which I'd be unable to adapt so no worries.

The only thing about the bike about which I'm not entirely happy is the seat -- it's a streamlined seat to go along with the overall look of the bike, which is fine; it's just that my butt is larger than average and the seat is narrower than average... which isn't something that is very comfortable after more than ten minutes or so of riding.  Luckily, I have the original seat from my first bike which -- while not as wide as the one which replaced it -- is a few inches wider and thicker than what comes stock on the road bike, and it's a simple switch to a more comfortable ride.  This, combined with the padded bike bib I buy online, is good enough to where I'm able to ride for an extended amount of time without massive discomfort.

My first bike was also a Trek.  Its name -- an obvious choice -- is Kirk.  My next Trek, what would normally have been named -- also an obvious choice -- Picard, has, because of the firm and narrow seat with which it arrived, instead been named Crusher.

Because, DAMN.


35 Miles, on 2 Wheels, in Fresno

So I've mentioned before -- several times, and probably more than is necessary -- that my knees are bad.  Bad, BAD knees.  No dessert for you.  I can't walk/jog like my wife can, and it can even be a challenge to walk a 5K without limping for a day or two afterwards; but without the impact of walking I'm not too bad off.  For instance, I can ride a bike pretty well -- my butt might not appreciate the bicycle seat very much, but my knees appreciate the exercise.

That last rambling paragraph leads me to this: we were just in Fresno to attend and celebrate my niece's graduation from Fresno State University, where she got her Master's degree (congrats again to her!)  As it happens, that same weekend is the bicycle portion of the California Classic event, which is a companion event for the California Classic half marathon / 5K that took place and in which we participated back in March.  Because we got the finisher's medallion from the walk portion, we decide to get the matching interlocking cycling medallion as well.  The pedestrian events consisted of a half marathon or a  5K fun run; the bicycle event has the options of a 100-mile "century" ride, a 60-mile "metric" ride, or the 35-mile "mini-metric" ride.  Seeing as how the longest we've ridden so far has been a little over 21 miles, we opt for the mini metric.

Because it's Fresno, in May, the ride starts at a very early hour to avoid the Valley heat; so we arrive early enough to get a really good parking spot (a combination of lucky timing and my sister-in-law's keen observation and quick thinking, we get the first two spots right at an intersection, making our exit strategy after the ride simple and easy) and head over to the starting point, where a large number of cyclists has already gathered.  We take a few obligatory group shots (try as I might to be the guy taking the pictures, I still end having to pose for a few myself) and a few minutes after 7 the ride begins.

The first few miles are along closed streets downtown, winding past office buildings and through residential neighborhoods, past police officers directing traffic as we gradually ride along larger and busier streets, until after about 5 miles we hit the highlight of this particular ride, where for a ten-mile stretch we ride north along a section of southbound California State Route 168 which has been closed for the occasion.  According to the California Classic web site, it's the only ride in California where Caltrans shuts down part of a freeway for a bicycle ride... and it is a glorious thing.  Instead of a three- or four-foot strip along the shoulder of a street where cars are whipping past your left elbow at far-too-quick speeds for my liking, we have a full four lanes of smooth road, hundreds of cyclists enjoying the still-cool morning air and clear sky, peace and quiet of no vehicle engines nearby, encouraging cheering from the spectators along the freeway overpasses above us; all of which add up to what almost seems like a wonderful post-apocalyptic outing, without any nuclear winter or zombie attacks (the absence of which is also nice.)  I use the wide lanes and abundance of space to entertain myself by taking some video from my newly purchased mini camcorder which I've installed on the side of my bike helmet, and by taking a few shots with my iPhone, both of the other riders on the freeway and a few selfies with family members in the background.  I'm a geek; this is what I do.
One thing I definitely notice during this stretch is that the gentle rolling hills of the freeway -- which we had driven down just over an hour ago in our car getting to the starting point -- seems much more daunting riding a bike than when in a motor vehicle.  Sure, the first long hill isn't too bad, but the second one comes much too quickly before I have a chance to recover; and while I do get a good amount of speed coasting downhill after the climb I immediately have to climb a third hill, and then a fourth... the underpasses we encounter along the Guadalupe River trail in San Jose are quite a bit steeper than these, but they're only a few hundred feet long instead of a quarter or half mile, and my leg muscles let me know they don't really appreciate the longer distance climbs.  We're all able to manage the hills, though, which is good -- I'm glad they came at the beginning of the ride instead of near the end -- and after a total of about 15 miles we exit the highway and take a quick break at the first rest stop.

We parks our bikes, grab some of the snacks they offer (licorice, fruit, and other simple sugars and carbs for energy), I take a minute or two more to get my knee working properly again (the vastus medialis muscle, or the quadriceps femoris muscle, or the kneecapsicum hurtialis, or whatever the name of the thing is that hurts so dang much when I bend my knee sometimes) and we're off and riding again, this time along the side of country roads around the outskirts of Clovis.  There aren't any legitimate bike lanes along the roads here, but the shoulders are wide and there isn't much traffic, and after the mostly uphill first leg of this ride -- a net rise of 150 feet or so in the fifteen miles of freeway, but quite a bit more than that taking the rolling hills into account -- this portion of the route is mostly flat, so my legs appreciate the easier work.  As we get closer to our second rest stop, however, I do start getting some complaints from a different body part -- while I do have a bicycle seat that is wider and more cushioned than most, my butt is also wider than most butts (no comment on the cushioning comparison), so I'm getting a little tenderness in my nethers the further we ride.

I take the second rest stop as an opportunity to refill my water bottles (it's getting warmer and they have both water and ice here, which is a very welcome thing) and stretch my legs for a bit before the final portion of the ride.  As we ride through the streets through the southeastern portion of Fresno toward the finish line, the traffic gets heavier, the shoulders narrower, the day hotter, and my butt grumpier; but we persevere.  After a few miles of riding through the downtown area (they do have bike lanes here, but also a lot more traffic; and by now all three bike routes have reconnected so there are a lot more cyclists than during our last portion) we begin our approach to the finish line.  I get a little concerned as we notice a huge column of thick smoke emanating from where we estimate the finish line to be, but as we find out later it's a three-alarm fire at an abandoned Del Monte packinghouse a block past the finish line, which thankfully doesn't affect the bike ride and -- more importantly -- isn't anywhere close to where our cars are parked.  I get a few video clips and iPhone photos of the smoke from various distances as we ride the last mile or two of the route, because it's newsworthy and just in case we need them for insurance purposes.

We cross the finish line triumphantly to the cheers of volunteers and spectators and maybe a hobo or two, make a U-turn before we ride into the fire trucks, and head toward the valet bike parking area where we also receive our race medallions. We walk (a bit stiffly, at least in my case) into Chukchansi Stadium and partake of the free light lunch they offer to riders, and I also have a cup of free ice cream that they're serving from the Cold Stone Creamery cart (their coffee ice cream is one of the better coffee ice creams out there) to help cool off a bit, as it's almost noon and it's getting pretty darn hot out.  The free lunch consists of decent but dry rice pilaf, very well-done (almost rubbery) tri-tip, salad, a roll, and crunchy green beans.  It's protein and carbs; maybe not fantastic fare but needed after riding for three hours -- my Cyclemeter app says I burned 3400 calories during the ride; that seems a bit high to me but I do need to hydrate and make up for some of what was burned.  We'll make it up with a much better lunch later in the day.

The finisher's medallion is a Fresno cityscape, with a tiger head on the bottom (it's sponsored in part by Chaffee Zoo, and the tiger is their mascot critter) and some cyclists  in the lower left portion; the half marathon medallion is the same cityscape and tiger, but with runners in the bottom right.  The medallions fit together in such a way that both event names are visible, along with the runners and cyclists... it entertains me greatly.  The 5K was the first walk/run event this year for us, and today's bike event was the longest ride we've done to date; it's a whimsical little thing to have interlocking medallions, and both events are something to be at least a little proud of, so I am happy about having gotten them.

Even if my butt's a little whiny about it.


Hawai'i One-3, Day 11: Aloha Nui Loa, Hawai'i

It's always a bummer leaving Hawai'i and coming back home.  Today is no exception.

We wake up, take a few last pictures of ourselves on the lanai with the ocean in the background (and I will never get tired of that view -- my wife or the ocean -- let me tell you), and pack our luggage.  It's grown from two suitcases to four in the week and a half since we've been on the Islands (taking an idea from my mom, we've been nesting our clothing suitcase inside of a larger suitcase on the way over, matryoshka style, and filling the larger one with souvenirs [coffee] and stuff [coffee] that we buy [roast] while we're here [drinking coffee]), so we call down and have a nice brudda help us wit da bags.

We pay the bill -- as always, made substantially larger by hotel-related taxes and fees as well as our bar tab -- and overstuff our poor convertible for the drive to the airport.  We manage to fit the two smaller suitcases in the dinky little trunk, but the larger suitcases have to be put into the rear seat of the car.  Convertibles aren't known for their luggage hauling capacity, and every trip here reminds us of this.  Fitting for our moods, it's gray and cloudy today, and we need to stop a few miles out of Kailua-Kona to put the top up when it begins to rain.

I drop Lucie and our luggage off at the airport (the cloth interior of the car gets a bit damp because I have to lower the ragtop to get the suitcases out of the back seat) and I  hitch a ride with the shuttle once I drop the car off at the rental agency (the attendant who signs the car in sees all of the rain spots in the car and on the cloth seats, just grins, and says nothing about potential water damage -- obviously not an uncommon occurrence here, I'm guessing.)  By the time I get back, our luggage has been checked by the porters (love those guys!) and Lucie has our boarding passes in hand, and it's a relatively easy walk into the gates through the metal detectors and TSA agents with their grabby and judgmental hands.

Because we're hoity-toity Important First Class Passengers, we're able to access Hawaiian Airlines' "Premiere Lounge" while we're waiting for the connecting flight to Maui... and believe me, until you get to experience the Kona Airport's Premiere Lounge, with its fountain drink dispenser and free WiFi, not to mention high-speed PC hookup (note the lack of plural there), you haven't lived a full life.  Okay, so it's not the Ritz or anything, but there are comfortable seats, and it's an air-conditioned room, and we do appreciate the WiFi, so it really is a nice touch.  We sit at a table and pull out our iPads for the twenty minutes or so before our plane is set to arrive, and then make our way out to the gate.

It's a short jump over to Maui -- we wave at the sugar cane fields as we land -- but the ten minute wait for the flight to the Mainland turns into almost 45 minutes as the plane we're scheduled to board isn't yet at the assigned space.  There's no early boarding because of this, and no "delayed" notice on the info board, but while we're not thrilled about how crowded the waiting room becomes during this time we're certainly not going to complain about getting to stay in Hawai'i for a little while longer.

The flight back (once the place finally arrives) seems to take much longer than usual, due to the turbulence that we hit on the way.  The flight attendants are instructed to take their seats on two different occasions, the drink carts are delayed a few times for safety reasons, and it's a bit of a challenge to watch the movie selections on the entertainment tablets (iPad minis with Hawaiian Airlines branding and operating software) they loan us First Class passengers -- although if you time the turbulence jostling just right, it totally cancels out the camera shaking in Star Trek: Into Darkness so it looks like Kirk and Spock are just drunk.  Hard to follow some of the archery shots in Brave, though.

Dinner on the flight -- when we're flying smoothly enough to break out the flatware, at least -- is enjoyable.  I opt for the salmon roulade appetizer, while Lucie has the chicken salad with ginger sesame dressing; she has the macadamia nut chicken entree and I have the red pepper gnocchi with cream sauce; and I have the chocolate covered vanilla ice cream bombe they offer for dessert.  The bombes are kept under deep freeze with dry ice, apparently, because it takes a good 10-15 minutes before I can even break the chocolate coating with my spoon, much less scoop into the ice cream... but it's refreshingly cold, sweet and creamy, and worth the wait.  a drizzle of raspberry sauce on the side adds a welcome sharp fruity bite.

We arrive back in Oakland a few minutes early, and are greeted by Dean, our usual driver, who we missed on our drive up.  We fall right back into casual and entertaining banter on our drive back to San Jose.  Lucie briefly considers asking Dean to hit a drive through for a burger because she's never ordered fast food from a stretch limousine before, but opts not to.  We take one more silly selfie of the two of us in the limo as one last digital souvenir, and arrive back at our place without incident.  Dean brings our luggage up to our front door, we thank him with a nice tip and some coffee -- we do have some to spare, and we bought some specifically as a tip in case he was our driver (in all honesty I wouldn't tip Demetrius nearly as generously) -- and pronounce an end to our latest Hawaiian vacation.

Mahalo, and aloha a hui ho.


Hawai'i One-3, Day 10: Ali'i is Love

It's our last full day in Hawai'i, and it's a strange dichotomy of not much planned for the day but still a lot that we want to do, so we're up a little early and off to breakfast.  We had spoken with our waiter last night at Kai Lanai about where to find a decent macadamia nut pancake, and one of the places he recommended was the Big Island Grill, a favorite spot for locals.  It's definitely a local hot spot, we find out, as we have a little difficulty finding a parking place in the lot; but luckily there's a vacant location on the far side of the lot with an open spot, so we park and enjoy the sunny morning as we walk back to the building. The coffee is passable -- not our preferred medium roast 100% Kona, but not swill either -- and the breakfast plates are generous.  Lucie's macadamia nut and banana pancakes are the size of slightly-larger-than-normal Frisbees, stacked two high and slathered in buttery goodness.  I see an intriguing option in the menu and go for the shrimp scampi omelet.  It's shrimp scampi.  In an omelet.  Definitely good flavors, not shy with the garlic at all, and I'd order it again if given the chance... but it's still kind of weird to my brain as I'm eating.  My taste buds say yum, nose says yum, and gray matter says what the what?

After breakfast, we head up to our one scheduled appointment for the day, which is just a few miles up the Mamalahoa Highway.  From Mamalahoa, we turn right onto Kaloko Road, and drive for several minutes up the steep curvy road, crossing Hao Street, and a few minutes later we cross Hao street... and a minute or two after that, we turn right onto Hao street.  This is confusing for most people, but it's our fifth time coming here in four trips to Hawai'i (maybe it's only our fourth trip, but for some reason I seem to remember coming up here twice one time) -- I'm talking of course about the Kaloko Cloud Forest farm location for the Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation, and it's always a welcome sight.  It's also busy -- busier than it was last time, which was busier than it was the time before that, and so on.  These guys have been getting more famous and popular in the years since Mike Rowe first visited them and featured them in his show Dirty Jobs back in 2005, and today there are two small tour buses and half a dozen cars parked along the road and in the courtyard of the Big Island's largest and highest (elevation-wise) organic coffee plantation.  We still have a few minutes before our scheduled tour, so we hit the gift shop -- located off the main courtyard in what looks like two connected shipping containers -- and fill up a couple of bags of coffee-scented lotions and coffee (whole bean, "American Roast" [their name for a light roast]), several T-shirts and a tank top that actually fit me (albeit a bit snugly, but that's only for now), chocolate covered coffee beans, some children's books for our coworkers, and assorted other items with coffee or Hawaiian themes.

Kyle, the nice guy running the register, turns out to be the host for our Roastmaster Tour, so after I bring our purchases out to our car we start roasting some beans.  It's another wonderful experience roasting, as I get to operate their smaller Diedrich roaster (which is still far and away a huge beast in comparison to the quaint tiny cement mixers used for the UCC roastmaster tour) and make a little over five pounds of coffee to a city roast.  I'm slightly bummed that they stopped providing the customized labels like they did last time for the bags the beans get sealed into for the final product, but that's certainly not a deal breaker -- it's really all about the beans.

As with every roastmaster event I've ever done, I once again totally geek out as Kyle walks me through the steps of roasting using the Diedrich -- keeping the vents closed until the machines get to the right temperature, dumping the beans into the drum, venting air at the right time to get the beans cracking, dumping the beans at a city roast -- just a little darker than the light roast of their American Roast, but much lighter than their Vienna Roast (and just forget about their French Roast.)  They're still using the huge 5-gallon Homer bucket to hold the beans before and after roasting, which just tickles me greatly; it's without a doubt the best smelling Homer bucket out there (unless there's someone who stores cooked bacon in one, in which case we need to FIND that guy and take the Baconfryer Tour which I'm assuming they offer.)

After I roast and then package the beans (heat sealed into nitrogenated bags, to preserve freshness), we head back down the mountain into town.  We stop at the UPS Store and ship a suitcase full of souvenirs and food items (and, of course, coffee beans) to my work address so we don't have to pay ridiculous airport fees (although, since it turns out that we ship three 25-pound boxes of stuff, it's still not exactly cheap using UPS either!), then drive back to the hotel.

From there, we decide to take one more walk along Ali'i Drive to enjoy the day before tonight's luau.  We walk up the mauka (inland) side of the road, stopping along the way at the Big Island Running Company to say hello, for Lucie to thank them for inviting her on their run a few days ago, and to buy one or two more items; then up a little further where we have lunch at That Taco Place (very wide range of ratings on Yelp -- they're very slow in bringing out the food, but that's just Island Time so no worries, and the food isn't spectacular but it is tasty so it serves its purpose, and since we eat our food sitting at the counter facing the ocean it's definitely a good experience); poking our heads into the Kona Square Mall marketplace, one of our usual stops (Country Samurai Coffee provides some good swag, but Island Silversmith has closed and they don't offer sarongs any more at the other store Lucie likes); buying more stuff at Del Sol and Whaler's General Store and Big Island Kine; then crossing the street to the oceanfront mauka side of the road and heading back to the hotel.  Along the way, we make more stops at two of the 4 ABC Stores along Ali'i, and at Keoki's Donkey Balls (again), and at one of the local guys selling palm fronds folded into roses, and at Hulihee Palace (we don't go in, though, because there's a coconut tree out front that keeps me at bay), and once or twice just to stop and enjoy the ocean view, and to watch the small crabs scuttling along the rocks just on the other side of the small breakwater wall along which we're walking.  It's a beautiful day, sunny and crazy -- but bearably -- hot, with the ocean twenty feet to my right, and the Island beneath my feet, and my wife next to me holding my hand; there's not much at all in this world that could possibly be better, and I am very content.

We attend the luau at our hotel that evening.  The food is good, as it always is; Lucie hurts her foot when we arrive, however, so we retire from the luau a little early and do our best to nurse the foot back to health by heading to the breezeway bar and having her raise it onto the wall as we drink frozen tropical drinks and watch the ocean.  Don's does a good job of making everything feel better (if maybe a little blurry after several drinks.)


Hawai'i One-3, Day 9: A'a, Nene, Mahi Mahi

It's our ninth day in Hawai'i (eighth morning), and on our books for for today is our trip down the Kona coast to Volcanoes Park.  We didn't get to Volcanoes on our last trip, so it's about time to visit Pele's playground and pay our respects to Kilauea; plus, we have a scheduled hiking tour of the park with Native Guide Hawaii's native Hawaiian guide Warren Costa. We're supposed to meet him at the visitor center at 09:30, and it takes more than 2 hours to get there from Kona, so it's an early morning wake up for us.

We start off slightly behind schedule, but thanks to what may be my driving a tiny bit over the posted speed limit we end up down around the south point of the island a little bit ahead of schedule; so we decide to make a brief stop at the Punalu'u Bakery ("Southernmost bakery in the USA!")... but we pull into the parking lot before they're open.  This is almost becoming a theme for our vacation, but like with Kai Lanai yesterday we just shrug and decide to come back later.  We get to Volcanoes National Park (now open once again, after the temporary government shutdown) and meet up with Warren right on time (he's actually a few minutes late, but that's just Island Time, which is fine.)

Climbing into his minivan, we drive from the visitor center out past the steam vents close to the Jaggar Museum parking lot and park near the Kau Desert Trail, where we take our first hike -- along the trail to the edge of the main caldera, almost in the shadow of the rangers' observation post. There's no active lava flowing in plain view, but there's some definite smoke or steam or magic lava exhaust or Scientologist thetans or something rising up from the crater's activity pit of doom -- where all the Hobbits throw those gold rings -- and we stand there for a bit, oohing and ahhing while Warren talks about the latest volcanic activity.  He also points out the native flora that's managing to grow from the rocky soil, such as the hapu'u tree fern and ili'ahi and ohi'a lehua and pai'iniu and pilo and lots of other plants that have names with lots of vowels and 'okinas (those apostrophe-looking fellas that make you swallow your epiglottis while speaking in the Hawaiian language) which is pretty darn interesting and educational and overall just flat-out cool.

We walk back out to the vehicle, and drive from the caldera down just a bit to the steam vents; there's a large number of tour buses parked here and a pretty sizable crown of visitors clustered around the three nearby steam vents, standing safely behind the installed fence so there's no chance of falling in.  Warren walks us past those boring vents, through a field of wild orchids and ferns, over to what essentially becomes our very own private steam vent, without any of those pesky background noises or camera-schlepping haole or safety structures. We carefully walk down a couple of natural steps in the rock, slick with moss and steam, along the edge of the vent.  The hole itself is surprisingly large and deep -- you could fit a classic Cadillac into this thing --  and standing there in the steam (very soothing and warm, with only a slight mineral smell) standing on the moist lichen-covered lava rock is both calming and nerve-wracking at the same time.

From there, we get back into the minivan and drive down the Chain of Craters Road (and just like every time I talk about Volcanoes Park, I mistakenly say "crane of chaiters" at least half the time I say it out loud) as Warren continues to talk about life in Hawai'i.  The discussion ranges from the private Hawaiian cultural immersion Punana Leo preschools which strive to maintain the native culture in today's youth, to the different lava types (a'a, the fast flowing lava, and the slower pahoehoe) and the science behind how they're formed, to really cool formations such as lava trees and angel hair (needle-like strands of lava, not the pasta.)  We make another quick stop along the side of the road and hike out to an unmarked pit crater (essentially a sinkhole caused by receding magma) named Devil's Throat.  As with our own private steam vent, Devil's Throat is our own private pit crater for today; because it's not marked nor visible from the road, it's kind of a secret find that many locals don't even know about.  Technically, though, we're not alone as we stand near the edge (not too close, Warren warns us, since the edge of pit craters have been known to collapse and it's a 165-foot drop if one were to fall in) since there's a large beehive that formed along the side of the near-vertical wall and we have a dozen or so bees flying around us as we try to remain calm and not flail at them (which would be a very unwise thing to do when standing near a 150-foot wide chasm in the earth's surface without any safety rails or fence.)  I do manage to get a decent shot of the beehive below us, and we retreat back the vehicle away from wildlife.

We make one more stop further down the road, almost within sight of the end of the Crane of Chaiters Road where lava closed off the pavement, and hike on the lava for a few hundred feet until we come to the edge of the island.  We stand at the edge of a cliff, seeing nothing but ocean in front of us (were the Earth flat, and with good enough binoculars, we could theoretically look due south and see Antarctica), just enjoying the day and everything we've seen and experienced today.  There's a lava arch we can see off to the left, with the crashing waves making spectacular foamy photo opportunities, and maybe 50 feet back from the cliff there's a small crater in the lava, maybe 18 inches deep and five feet in diameter, which we all kind of simultaneously realize would make a great place to have the picnic lunch which comes with our tour.  Warren breaks out a tablecloth and uses it as a picnic blanket, and we nosh on poke (sesame as well as creamy wasabi flavors), One Ton chips, sandwiches, fresh pineapple, and a Hawaiian take on teriyaki beef.  The food is relatively simple fare but delicious, and it's actually perfect for the day's theme -- any food that's fancy or too complex just wouldn't feel right when you're eating lunch in a crater in the middle of a lava field.  I'm sure you know how that is.

Warren even takes some time helping me look for the so-called "nene", which is exactly as successful as I expect it to be; specifically, we can't find any.  Sure, he hems and haws trying to come up with an excuse other than "the haole's on to us", and eventually looks up in a book -- which, and this is important, he doesn't actually let ME read myself -- that early November is roosting season for nene.  Actually, I think he says it's nesting season, since a nest is built to be sat in while a roost is perched on, which is different.  And that's beside the point, since I believe all nene that people see are actually manufactured in a factory somewhere by Disney imagineers or something.  It's right around this time that Lucie presents me with a souvenir of Hawai'i, my very own plush nene, whom I call Santa for obvious reasons (...because he's a present, like you get at Christmas.)  I figure this is as close to seeing an "actual" nene as I'm gonna get, and it really does entertain me that she was able to surprise me with this, so I'm satisfied with what I generously consider a nene sighting.

We drive down the remaining stretch of road to where everybody else gets out and hikes across the lava to where the most active flow is happening; but since there really isn't an active lava flow right now and my knee says it don't wanna we decide not to do that particular hike and drive back up Chain of Craters Road to the rim of the main caldera.  Warren stops at the pleasantly-named Devastation Trail where we do an easier (on my knee, at any rate) walk along a gravel path to the edge of the crater.  From here, we can look across to the other side of the ridge and see where we had been standing just a few hours ago next to the observation area by Jaggar Museum.  The scenery is just as impressive from this point of view, and we ooh and ahh as Warren talks about an eruption that happened in this spot back in 1959, where the lava fountained as high as 1900 feet at one point, creating the angled peak where we're standing.

We make one more stop at Nāhuku, a.k.a. the Thurston Lava Tube, and walk through the lush rain forest to do some volcanic spelunking.  This is our first time walking through the tube; during previous visits we either had on the wrong footwear or my back and/or knees were too bad to make the hike.  We enjoy the remarkable quiet forest setting, hearing the songbirds and enjoying the copious shade from the trees overhead, make our way carefully down the stairs and across the bridge that spans the chasm leading into the tunnel (Warren motions over the side of the bridge to the rocks below, pointing out some cameras and sunglasses accidentally dropped by previous visitors), through the dark and wet lava tube, and back out into the Hawaiian jungle on the other side.  It's still weird to me -- in a really cool way -- that we're standing in a rain forest with trees a hundred feet high and ground that is permanently wet from condensation and no direct sunlight getting through the canopy overhead, and there's a barren desertlike wasteland less than a quarter mile away from the volcanic activity.  It's just one more way the the Big Island is so freaking awesome.

We drive back to the Visitor Center and say our goodbyes to Warren, thanking him profusely for the experience.  If we had just relied on following the road or using the pamphlets for what to do we'd never have experienced half of what we did today.  From the best lookout spots to the hidden secret steam vents and pit craters, it's definitely one of the more educational and science-geeky experiences we've had in Hawai'i, and I am very grateful for his expertise and knowledge, not to mention his easy-going attitude and adaptability to the challenge of taking an old fat guy with a bad knee hiking on lava.  Warren Costa, you are a good dude.  Mahalo.

On our way back to the hotel, we make two more stops, making up for previous missed opportunities... first at Punalu'u Bakery where we share some malasadas and cold beverages (and buy some of their shortbread cookies for bringing back to the Mainland), and for dinner at Kai Lanai.  Finally experiencing Sam Choy's Big Island eatery is nice -- we don't have reservations so we don't get a totally unimpeded view of the sunset, but enough of a view to still be enjoyable, and the food is worthy of celebrity chef association.  For our appetizers we split the shoyu poke and an order of coconut glazed short ribs -- the poke is a slightly deeper flavor than what we normally eat, due to the more intense Japanese shoyu when compared to the Americanized Chinese soy sauce, but it's good if a little salty for Lucie's taste; and the coconut glazed short ribs are a great combination of crisp skin, toothy mean, savory pork goodness, and light sweet hit from the glaze.  It's not only really tasty, it's not a flavor combination we've had yet this trip (nothing against raw tuna, but poke is always a variation on a theme as far as the different flavors are concerned; but glazed dry cooked short ribs have their own porky niche in the island mealtime echelon.)  For the main course, Lucie opts for the New York steak and I go with the furikake crusted mahi mahi -- unfortunately, most of the sauces offered with their daily specials have too much cream for the lactose intolerant to enjoy, but her steak is at least a very good one, so there's that.  The mahi mahi is light and buttery, just a hint of dry bitterness from the furikake, and the accompanying piña colada I order from the bar is crazy strong, so that's a nice thing.  Dessert is a chocolate cake for Lucie and coconut chocolate mousse for me, along with a cup of French press Kona coffee medium roast.  Sweet, sugary, and caffeinated is pretty much always a good thing.

After we finish our meal and relax for a bit -- and also discover that the restrooms are decorated differently, with the men's room having a deep red lava and fire theme, and the women's restroom having a soothing blue aquatic theme -- before driving back into our Big Island hometown of Kailua-Kona.  We cruise Ali'i Drive a bit, and take advantage of a conveniently-located parking place to stop and walk around to assist with our digestion.  The henna on my arm is a little light (and smeared, as a result of a humidity assault when we first arrived and had it applied) so I get it retouched at Kona Henna Studios.  We pop into the storefront for Keoki's Donkey Balls and buy a variety of their wares -- chocolate covered macadamia nuts, coffee, coffee candy, chocolate covered malt balls, chocolate covered coffee beans, and a set of golf balls -- for familial distribution, and then head back to our hotel for the evening.


Hawai'i One-3, Day 8: Hawi Doin'

We awake on another day in paradise, but even in paradise we feel the need to keep in shape; so we decide to check out the exercise room at our hotel and see what kinds of equipment it has.

The exercise room is actually a repurposed ground floor hotel room, and not exactly a large room at that, so there isn't much they can do with it -- there's a treadmill, an elliptical, a recumbent bicycle, some free weights, a small bench, and a couple Pilates balls.  Lucie starts off on the treadmill and I give the bicycle a go, but quickly find that as with most exercise bicycles I can't adjust the seat to where my leg doesn't bend to the point of pain when pedaling, so I move to the free weights.  We work out for a half hour or so, with Lucie moving to the elliptical and bicycle as I focus on the free weights, utilizing the Pilates ball for wall squats, and opening the sliding door and planking using the lanai wall facing the ocean right in front of us.  It's not the best exercise setup, but we certainly can't complain about the view while we're working out.

After exercising, we head back to our room and prepare for the day.  During our last visit to the Big Island, we had wanted to stop by Hawaii's favorite celebrity chef Sam Choy's new restaurant Kai Lanai; however, the construction had been running on Island Time and didn't open on time before our arrival, so we missed out.  This time, however, the restaurant has been open for a while (not surprising, as it's been over two years since our last vacation) so we figure we can try them out for an early lunch before heading up to Hawi... but due to our being maybe a little too casual and relaxed on our vacation we don't bother to check out the restaurant's hours before we drive there, so we end up arriving about 45 minutes before they open for the day.  D'ohh.

No worries -- we decide to try them again some other time, and instead of waiting around until the doors open we opt to drive up to Hawi and have lunch at one of the places up there that we've read about.  We head up along the Kohala coast highway one more time, much like we did for the Hilo trip; however, at the point where yesterday we headed inland toward Waimea staying on highway 19 we instead turn left and take highway 270 along the coast.  It's a beautiful drive, hilly and mostly straight, with an outstanding ocean view almost the entire way.  It's pretty windy, but seeing as we're in a convertible with the top down the wind doesn't really matter to us.  This stretch of road is what they use for the bicycle portion of the Ironman Challenge, which definitely gives us a huge amount of respect for the athletes for not getting distracted by the scenery and riding off the cliff and falling a hundred feet into the ocean.  Oh yeah, and maybe that whole healthy lifestyle thing too, but mostly it's the willpower not to ride off cliffs.

We eventually arrive at the small artist colony town of Hawi, find a parking spot, and wander the stores for a bit.  Our first stop is at the Kohala Coffee Mill (surprise -- a coffee store!) where we grab a refreshing coffee beverage, and head upstairs to the kava and fudge shop located on the second floor.  We don't bother with the kava -- not for us, thanks -- but we do get some fudge for later.  I get the Mexican chocolate, a dark chocolate flavor with cinnamon hints, and Lucie goes for the tiger stripe, a sweeter and more intense version of the Reese's peanut butter cup with peanut butter in white chocolate.  With the fudge threatening to put us into a sugar coma there's really no need for kava anyway (not that it's something I'd ever drink regardless.)  Needing something more savory after sampling the fudge, we look for one of the restaurants we'd read about before our trip... unfortunately, though, the popular local spot Bamboo isn't open on Mondays, so that's out; and we hear from one of the coffee mill employees that the Lighthouse Deli, home of what is supposed to be a downright fantastic reuben sandwich, suddenly closed about two weeks ago without any notice.  Bummer.  We decide to find someplace further up the road, so after one more walk up down the main street through town (lots of blown glass and lampwork jewelry, ridiculously expensive carved koa wood furniture, and the entertainingly-named-but-has-nothing-that-fits-me store Alohaman) we get back into Betty and drive a few miles into the small artist colony town of Kapa'au.  Lots of small artist colony towns in Hawai'i.

We park at the North Kohala Civic Center in the center of town and visit the main attraction, the original statue of King Kamehameha I (originally made for Honolulu but lost at sea en route near the Falkland Islands in the 1880s; the replacement is in Honolulu but the original statue, found in 1912 and restored, is in Kapa'au near Kamehameha's birth place.)  It's shortly after noon when we arrive and the statue is on a small hill facing west at the top of a set of stairs, so it's a bit of a challenge getting a good picture of the statue without the sun blinding you, but I manage.  The statue itself is impressive, historic, and (sort of) appeared in an episode of Hawai'i Five-0 this season, but apparently is too aloof to sign any autographs or anything, but that's okay; we still pay our respects to the bronze dude, and to another nearby memorial for Hawaiian veterans, and also to the King's View Deli across the street for a cold drink and small bite to eat before looking for a real meal to satisfy us.

We find lunch at Fig's Mix Plate, where we share a loco moco.  The burger patty is ground beef perfection, crunchy char on the outside and smoky flavor, roughly the size of a hubcap; the macaroni salad is a bit too heavy with the mayo but otherwise good; and the plain rice is raised to new heights by the best stinkin' soy sauce ever, Tabasco brand spicy soy sauce, which I desperately try to find at every store in Hawai'i for the rest of our trip but am unable to procure.  We belatedly realize that this might actually be the first real mix plate we've eaten on vacation, which is surprising as well as a kind of nice indicator that we're willing to branch out with our culinary endeavors.
Heading back along the coast, we make a few stops at scenic points we saw on the way up, most notably at Mahukona Beach Park... this is a state park without an actual beach ("mahukona" in Hawaiian is "false harbor"), an old port with an abandoned building nestled amidst picnic tables; a former property of the Kohala Sugar Company.  Back in the late 1800s it was a railroad stop and sugar mill, and became one of the busiest ports on the Big Island despite being destroyed by a storm in 1911, and which was shut down and eventually abandoned during WWII.  There's still a run down but impressive building behind a safety fence, a concrete pyramid lighthouse, and parts of the sugar mill and even a sunken ship that can be seen by snorkelers about 25 feet beneath the waves.  It's not much of a beach per se, and snorkelers need to climb up and down a ladder to get into the water to avoid the lava rocks along the shore, but the scenery is outstanding.  We relax for a bit, take a few selfies, listen to the waves and watch the rock crabs scuttling around the water's edge, and then get back on our way.

A bit further down the highway, we take another stop at the Mauna Lani Resort and Rich Person Storage Facility, where we take a brief walk down to the water at Holoholokai Beach Park and dip our feet into the ocean (much more accessible than at Mahukona Beach Park) but opt not to take the half hour hiking path out to see the petroglyphs they have there.  Another few miles down the highway we also drive around the Waikoloa Resort and Secondary Rich Person Storage Facility, through the shopping centers they have, and I find myself entertained by what could be perceived as the gender-biased difference between their Queen's Marketplace (featuring shops such as Lids, Starbucks, Crocs, and Sunglass Hut) and their King's Shops (with the much more costly Coach, Luis Vuitton, Tommy Bahama, and Na Hoku Jewelers.)  We don't actually want to shop here -- and in the case of the King's Shops probably couldn't afford to anyway -- so we continue driving along the coast back to our hotel.

We spend the remainder of our day in full-on relaxation mode, watching the sun set from our lanai, then heading down to the mai tai bar for a drink, then getting a couples massage from the hotel's spa, and finally having another drink or two at the bar before heading upstairs to bed.  the tropical drinks are sweet and potent, the massage is therapeutic (though a bit too vigorous in Lucie's case), and the sunset is, though obscured by clouds at the horizon, still beautiful.