Big Adventure on the Big Island

Big Adventure on the Big Island

“Where are you going on vacation?”

“Hawaii”

“Oh! Which island?”

“Hawaii”

“So, like Honolulu?”

“No, like the Big Island. It’s called Hawaii.”

“…”

I had some version of this conversation at least a dozen times prior to my recent Hawaii vacation. It’s incredible to me that a place as popular and touristy as Hawaii can still have parts unknown. And the Big Island is one of those places that hasn’t officially entered the mainstream.

Since this was my fourth trip to the Rainbow State, I was looking for a new experience that could bring both adventure and relaxation. I wanted to enjoy the Hawaii I know and love and yet still see something new. The Big Island ended up being the perfect solution.

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Even though it is far and away the largest island in the Hawaiian archipelago, it only contains 13% of the population. The lack of people made me feel like I was exploring uncharted territory, which was far from the truth but still exciting.

Location Location Location

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Fairmont Orchid Hotel

Unsurprisingly, where you stay can have a major impact on how enjoyable of a vacation you end up having. This is especially true on any Hawaiian island where trade winds cause substantial rainfall on their north and east flanks during the colder, winter months.

For our mid December trip, we opted to stay on the Kohala Coast which is super sunny year round and granted us a rain-free stay at our Mauna Lani resort. The scenery was more volcanic than tropical, but the tradeoff was worthwhile for sunny skies and close proximity to some of the best beaches on the island. You’re going to want to rent a car anyway to properly explore the island, so you may as well stay as dry as possible.

Greenwell Farms

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I absolutely love coffee and have fallen in love with the Kona varietals over the last few years. It is consistently ranked among the very best coffee in the world. Unfortunately for me, it is also one of the most expensive coffees in the world. But, that did not stop us from making a visit to Greenwell Farms. After sampling a wide assortment of fresh brews, we met our guide for a free tour of the farm, showing us every stage in the coffee-making process. Delicious and educational – not to be missed!

Kealakekua Bay

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Shakas on the Sea Paradise

Located just an hour south of our home base in Puako is Kealakekua Bay. This spot is significant because the first documented European to reach the Hawaiian Islands, Captain James Cook, was killed there in 1779. The site is now marked by a white obelisk. But, our reason for visiting was for the brilliant waters filled with coral and schools of tropical fish. The bay is a marine life conservation district perfect for snorkeling so we boarded a late afternoon cruise on a 45 foot trimaran with Sea Paradise and even got a lucky sighting of the famed spinner dolphins on our way back.

Lili’uokalani Gardens

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Lili’uokalani Gardens

No trip to the Big Island would be complete without a visit to Hilo. In addition to being the largest city and capital, it also holds the title of fourth wettest city in America. We timed our day trip to the eastern side of the island carefully so as to enjoy beautiful blue skies as we explored the Japanese themed Lili’uokalani Gardens and famed Banyan Drive.

Akaka Falls

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Akaka Falls

The main reason for our trip to the Eastern side was really to chase all the waterfalls (sorry TLC). We started at Akaka Falls State Park where we hiked a short and pleasant loop through lush rainforest (perks of all that precipitation) to see the towering 442 ft Akaka Falls.

Umauma Falls

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Umauma Falls

Next up was Umauma Falls which is only accessible through the Umauma Experience. The most popular activity here is ziplining but you can also just drive up to view the falls and walk through the gardens, which is what we did. The riverwalk is beautifully manicured and we didn’t see another person the entire time, although it’s important to note that early December is not peak season.

Mauna Kea Beach

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Mauna Kea Beach

Not too far from our villa is the one of the prettiest white sand beaches in all of Hawaii. We set off to arrive early in the day to secure one of the 40 coveted visitor parking spots. With boogie boards in tow we set up camp for a perfect morning of sunbathing, napping, and playing in the waves. Can you believe that at 30 I’d never boogie boarded before? Better late than never.

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Hamakua Macadamia Nut Co

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We made a very important fuel stop at the “Nut House” prior to getting our hike on in the Pololu Valley. We tasted as many free samples of both sweet and savoury macadamia nuts as we wanted before inevitably purchasing our favourites – Coconut glazed, Kona Coffee glazed and the traditional lightly salted.

Pololu Valley

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Pololu Valley Overlook

In the Northern Kohala Coast are some gorgeous valleys that we were very excited to check out. You can drive right up to the stunning Pololu Valley Overlook, where we also opted to hike down the steep cliffs to check out the Black Sand beach below. The view definitely got better as we descended so it is worth going at least part of the way down.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

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Halemaumau Crater at Kilauea Summit

It’s crazy to think that a mere 5 months after these photographs were taken, a surge in volcanic activity has now led to the crater in the photo above doubling in size. The fissures and lava flows from this most recent eruption have destroyed over 700 homes and displaced more than 2000 people in the surrounding communities. I imagine that tourism in the area has changed some now that the park has re-opened, but visiting one of the most active volcanoes in the world should still be at the top of your Hawaii to-do list.

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Kilauea Iki Trail

Our favourite activity at the park was one of our first stops on the Crater Rim Drive. We hiked around the rim of the Kilauea Iki overlook and down through the crater below. In 1959 it was a seething lava lake, but today it is a dry lava field a mile long and 3,000 feet across. We opted to hike along the rim first before descending into the crater as this makes the ascent much easier on the return. The desolate landscape reminded me of scenes from Lord of the Rings – vast and foreboding. However, the resurgence of life was also stunning to behold.

Kiholo Bay

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The best thing we did in all of Hawaii was probably our visit to Kiholo Bay which we affectionately call Turtle Island. With no real signage or path, this picturesque bay is a true hidden gem. We parked by mile marker 82 along Hwy 19 and carried our picnic supplies through the bush on foot for about 20 minutes. The bay is filled with a series of calm, turquoise tidepools making it the perfect place to spot sea turtles. We spent the afternoon observing and swimming with turtles… so yeah, it was worth the effort.

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Waipi’o Valley Lookout

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My personal favourite view on the island is the Waipi’o Valley. Waterfalls tumbling down steep tropical cliffs into the crashing ocean waves below… what’s not to love. Once again, this is an easy one as you can drive right to the lookout. The facilities are quite nice so it’s also a great spot for a picnic.

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It’s hard to believe we packed so many activities into just one week. This trip to Hawaii was the perfect combination of relaxation and adventure. I absolutely loved having a car rental and getting to explore with it. We ate delicious food which I didn’t even touch on in this blog, but if you go, you have to try the malasadas from Tex Drive-in, Shave Ice, Kona coffee, Hamakua macademia nuts, pancakes with coconut syrup, and at least one Mai Tai. There’s so much to see and do that the island warrants multiple visits. I for one, can’t wait for my next trip to the Aloha State.

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Sweet Simplicity on Koh Chang

Sweet Simplicity on Koh Chang

When I chose Thailand for a weeklong vacation, my only goal was relaxation. I knew that I wouldn’t have enough time to see everything on my wish list so I didn’t even try. Someday when I have more time, I will return to the Land of Smiles to explore all the jungles, beaches, and temples that my heart desires.

In the meantime, I set my sights on Lonely Beach. After a couple of nights in bustling Bangkok, my sister-in-law Faith and I journeyed to the most Eastern edge of Thailand to its second biggest island, Koh Chang.

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Koh Chang is one of the lesser known tourist destinations in Thailand, which was exactly what appealed to me. Quiet. Beautiful. Secluded. The perfect spot for our “sistermoon” and perhaps one of the best kept secrets in Southeast Asia.

Upon arrival at the 3 star Warapura Resort we quickly fell into a blissfully relaxing daily routine. Each morning we woke at our leisure in our private waterfront villa and enjoyed breakfast by the ocean. After sipping on Americanos and lazying around in hammocks, we walked down to the white sand beach.

Once we got to the beach, we rented beach chairs and an umbrella and set up camp for the day. The aptly named Lonely beach was sparsely populated with soft white sand and crystal clear turquoise water as warm as a bath. It was pure heaven and I never wanted to leave. We spent most of our time in the water, taking breaks to quench our thirst with the local Chang beer. It’s a tough life.

 

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After we had our daily fill of Vitamin D we walked back to our home away from home to shower off the salt water and catch up on wifi time. Our location on the western side of the island was ideal for coupling happy hour cocktails with sunset watching each evening. I’ll never tire of fiery skies.

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One of the best things about Thailand is the affordable luxury. Each evening we ordered authentic Thai dishes like pad thai, papaya salad and mango sticky rice for just a few dollars and pampered ourselves with pedicures and massages that would cost 5 times more at home.

I can’t say enough good things about this little slice of paradise and the opportunity to get a week of quality time with my sis. It was short and sweet and simply the best! I’m so glad that I opted for an untraditional vacation destination. It was definitely worth the long flight.

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 What’s the most relaxing vacation you’ve taken? Where should I go next?

From Sea to Summit: The Haleakala Volcano

From Sea to Summit: The Haleakala Volcano

With only four full days in Maui – it was extra important to prioritize the activities that we most wanted to see. And one place that I didn’t feel right about skipping was the massive Haleakala volcano. Maui’s highest peak makes up approximately 75% of the island’s landmass, so in many ways Haleakala IS Maui.

After checking out of our Airbnb condo rental and loading up our trusty rental car, we set off for our last major Maui adventure. The drive from our base in Kihei to the summit took approximately two hours. It’s a 37 mile drive from sea level to the 10023 foot summit – the world’s highest elevation gain in the shortest distance. With that kind of elevation gain happening, altitude sickness was a mild concern. However we didn’t plan to do any major hiking so we ended up just fine.

At one point we were completely engulfed in dense clouds and wondered if we would even be able to see anything from the summit. Fortunately, we soon emerged from the clouds and were delighted by the view from the lookouts on the way up. The scenery was dramatically different from everything we had previously seen on Maui.

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Can you believe that on the drive to the summit, we passed through just as many ecosystems as you would if you drove from Mexico to Canada! At times the landscape was so foreign that it appeared as if we had taken a wrong turn and ended up on the moon!

We decided to head up mid-day to avoid the crazy crowds at sunrise and sunset. Although I’m sure the views are stunning at those times of day, we weren’t disappointed with our view at all. We lucked out and had a beautiful, sunny, clear day. From the summit we could even see neighbouring Moana Loa over on the Big Island.

IMG_3523 IMG_0717The summit of Haleakala is above one third of the Earth’s atmosphere and has excellent astronomical seeing conditions. The limited light pollution combines to make one of the most sought-after locations in the world for ground-based telescopes.

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There are so many ways to explore the Haleakala National Park. This trip was really just a teaser of what’s to come. Next time that I visit Maui, I want to try (1) a cycle tour from the summit, (2) paragliding!!, (3) hiking down into the crater, and (4) checking out the famous sunrise!

It’s easy to see what people love about Maui and why it truly is paradise. I’m clearly smitten and I know I’ll be back!

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