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.


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