Destinations · Hawaii

Hangin’ on the South Side of the Big Island

While we were staying at Volcano, we celebrated our one-year anniversary of being “location independent”. That’s a new term I’ve learned this past week, and I like it for what we are doing. I cannot say that this past year has not had its ups and downs, or a few doubts that we’re doing the right thing, although that was mostly earlier in the year. We jumped into this in the middle of Covid with hardly a look back or saying many goodbyes, because of the said pandemic. For our current situation in life, this fits. We’re enjoying it and feel blessed that we can travel as much as we can. Cheers to that!

We celebrated at Volcano’s only winery, Volcano Winery, with a guava grape wine. It is the southernmost winery in the United States. They grow their own grapes and also have tea trees, so they make their own tea. After our celebration, I had a little tea tasting, complete with a tea leaf.

Being at the winery made me wonder: is this really the southernmost part of the United States? We’ve been to Key West, Florida, and thought we were at the southernmost place there. A Google search answered the question: Key West is the southernmost point of the contiguous United States. Lava rock at the ocean on the Big Island is the southernmost point of the whole United States. Let’s go!

Well, we didn’t just jump up from our chairs and dive in the car, but we did go on another day. All we did was google “southernmost point” and let GPS take it from there. We passed a huge coffee farm. The couple of towns we went through got smaller. Then, windswept cattle and horse ranches. The trees were blown sideways, especially this monkeypod tree, with its trunk totally on the left side of it:

There is no sign saying “You are here!”. We questioned our GPS, but when I looked up pictures of the “Southernmost Point”, this view is what frequently comes up. The exact place is somewhere on the lava rocks. We wondered about all the cautionary signs. This spot is on a pretty substantial cliff; who would ever want to jump into the water here?

There was no fence around this hole in the ground. It was pretty fascinating to watch the water ebb and flow with the waves, and too deep to be a blowhole.

As Cal and I were peering down this hole, I started chatting with a girl nearby. I was still wondering if we were in the right place for the southernmost point. She didn’t really care about that, but she said she’d heard that there was cliff jumping here. She thought there would be more people jumping (there were none at that point). She and her friends were trying to decide whether or not to do it.

“Shall I jump?” This, despite the warnings and the memorial on the red sign!

He did jump!! I didn’t catch it on camera, but I did get a picture of the girl I had been talking to:

For many reasons, just “Wow”!

In case you are wondering, there are no rocks straight down in the ocean here, which I suppose explains its popularity for cliff jumping. These two were joined by a third young man, and his mother was right there cheering them all on. They were all wearing outer gear that made me think they were a swim team and she was their instructor but I can’t be sure of that. The group seemed to enjoy their swim in the water but the rope ladder for the climb back up looked very precarious.

Off to the other side: this is not the area anyone would want to jump down into!
A sea turtle we noticed while watching the swimmers

It was time for lunch at the southernmost bakery in the U.S. We had meat inside soft, fresh Hawaiian rolls with malasadas for dessert. I’ll get back to the malasadas in a bit. This place is very popular and we had quite a wait just to be able to place our lunch order.

On the way back to Volcano, we stopped at Punalu’u Beach, known for its black lava sand. It was our very last beach, and a great way to end the vacation.

Back to the malasadas. We were riding with our friends Kathy and John on a highway in Honolulu when I saw a sign with a food truck way up off the road advertising them. I asked Kathy what they were, and she didn’t know, so she googled it. Definition: a fried type of doughnut. In the melting pot that is Hawaii, malasadas were brought to the Islands by the Portuguese. In Lana’i, my niece Rachel told me that there were excellent malasadas in Lahaina, Maui, and told me where to go. But we had so much good food to eat in Lahaina in a short time that we never got there.

We were coming back to Volcano one day after an outing when I saw a sign for malasadas and shouted out for Cal to stop. He’s never one to question a food stop, so he pulled a great U-turn. And there they were, two guys under a canopy, deep frying malasadas, with…pigs and chickens running free nearby. They (the guys, that is) were very nice and even gave us free samples since we’d never had them before. This is why I’ve noted in an earlier post that sometimes it felt like we were in a foreign country in this part of Hawaii!

We purchased a paper bag of traditional malasadas, easily compared to donut holes. They were excellent, pigs and chickens notwithstanding. Our malasadas were especially good washed down with pog juice, which had also become a Hawaiian favorite. So far, we can’t find pog in the continental States.

Back to Punalu’u Bakery. They had traditional malasadas, but also the filled variety. My strawberry-filled malasada was good but the filling tasted a little to me like canned pie filling, not my favorite. I kept looking longingly at Cal’s chocolate-filled malasada but he didn’t offer a sample. He thought he liked the traditional ones best. I liked them both, very different from each other.

I enjoy figuring out the origins of words, and I study Spanish. Portuguese is very similar to Spanish. “Mal” in Spanish means “bad” and “asada” means “grilled”, or “roasted”. So I’m conjecturing that the very first malasada was a complete accident.

With a toast to malasadas and pog, I’m concluding this edition of The Hawaii Chronicles. I hope you enjoyed reading about our little romp through some of the Hawaiian islands. What would we like to see if we came back? We didn’t get to Kauai, and Molokai might be interesting. I would like a return to Maui to see Haleakala National Park. People we talked to on the Big Island were surprised that we didn’t see Kona, although we were pretty happy on the southeast side, so I suppose that might be a possibility. Cal really liked Lana’i and would like to return. But then, there are so many other places in the world to go, and the US to explore, especially with our RV.

Until next time, Aloha – and Mahalo – (thank you) for reading!

Next time – back to Frodo, Sam, and Arizona!

Destinations · Hawaii

A Hilo Kind of Day on the Big Island, and the Bird House

Our Bird House

When we first flew into Hilo, it was already dark, and raining. We had not seen rain since Christmas so that was surprising. We needed to rent a car. Easily done, because Hilo Airport is so small that all we had to do was step out of the airport door. There were groceries to purchase. Then, thirty miles to Volcano. As we rode, I started noticing elevation signs. By the time we arrived at our AirBnb, The Bird House, we were at 4,000 feet and solidly in the rainforest. The temperature was cooler.

In the morning, when we could see, we walked outside and got a good look at where we were. Pleasant surprise, looking at the Bird House from outside! After a few days, we noticed a pattern: mornings were generally sunny, although not the warmest, but by afternoon it would start clouding up. Usually it would be raining by late afternoon, or at least misting. It was OK. We’d had two weeks of fun in the sun in Hawaii, and we figured this week was just going to be different.

After a few days of this, and a lot of volcano activity on our part, we were ready to hop down out of our perch, warm up a bit, and see something of the island.

Preparing coconuts for sale at the Hilo Market

Our first stop was the Hilo Farmers Market. There was produce for sale which we were not used to seeing in a market.

Bright anthuriums for sale

Behind the fruits and vegetables tent was a crafter’s market. Everything was made in Hawaii. That was a good spot to finish up all of my gift shopping.

There was a tourist street near the water which looked similar to Front Street in Lahaina, Maui. We were done with all of that after Lahaina, so we skipped it and drove north of Hilo to the Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve and Garden. Compared to our elevation at the Bird House, here we were at 120 feet above sea level to start the garden visit.

Dan and Pauline Lutkenhouse purchased a little valley containing 17 acres on Onomea Bay. It was full of junk and overgrown jungle. They spent six years hacking and clearing and giving space for native plants to grow back. Dan designed a boardwalk down into the Garden over uneven terrain and large boulders, like a bridge. Dan and Pauline are gone, leaving a treasure in this non-profit preserve.

Our walk through this garden was one pleasant surprise after another. Orchids were growing on many trees, and there were other flowers such as I’ve not often seen:

Purple anthurium – I had only ever seen red before

We looked at Onomea Waterfalls, which goes into Onomea Stream, and right out to the bay:

A cute little gecko popped in to say hello:

I liked the effect of the sun on the picture I took of this monkeypod tree.

Finally, as always in Hawaii, ocean in view! Now we were at sea level.

Twin Rocks on Onomea Bay

Have you ever seen a cannonball tree? This was truly amazing.

We really appreciated the love and care that has gone into this garden. What a gift they have left us.

After most of the morning spent at the gardens, we headed even further north, past the village of Honumu. Japanese immigrants once harvested sugar cane here. Past Honumu, we visited Akaka Falls.

On our little hike to Akaka, there was the smaller Kahuna Falls.

Akaka Falls has a drop of 442 feet and was the most impressive of all the falls we’d seen so far on Hawaii.

We had had a huge delicious breakfast at Ken’s Pancake House in Hilo, so in the early afternoon we were still only hungry for a small snack. There were some tables for a picnic at Akaka Falls. We enjoyed our manju (soft cookies with red bean paste filling) and banana bread that we’d purchased at the Hilo market, and sweet easy-to-peel Hawaiian grown oranges. I didn’t say too much to Cal about what was inside his manju, and he thought it was pretty tasty.

This cute and furry cat came by as soon as we started eating. It didn’t want food or much attention, and promptly curled up near us for a nap. When we finished our lunch it woke up, stretched, and off it went. Pretty fine day for a cat, if you ask me.

Returning to Hilo, we drove to Rainbow Falls. The sun shines on the falls in such a way as to produce a rainbow effect. But there was no rainbow. Later I found out that the best time to see the effect is in the morning. Oh well, it was still pretty.

Back in Volcano, we loved our stay at the Bird House. It was a welcoming place. When the owners first saw it, they thought it looked like a bird house, and so all of the decor inside is bird related. There is even old-time newspaper design tile in the entry way, like you might put newspaper in the bottom of a bird cage. I thought that they must have had fun scouring the earth for every bird-design item possible, because the birds were in every nook and cranny.

This was advertised as a “tiny house”. In my mind before our arrival it kept shrinking; I had no idea how tiny it was going to feel. In actuality, I think it was slightly bigger than a typical tiny house. We had plenty of space on the first floor. The loft where we slept was spacious and we could fully stand up in it.

There were birds in a cage above us–

–and this parrot seemed to look askance at me for whatever I happened to be doing in the bathroom.

We were back at the Bird House one day for lunch, and it was warm enough to have a little picnic on the porch. There was a bird wind catcher above me and a big red bird in the yard.

But the piéce de résistance was this diorama, set into the landing on the stairs. YFlipping a switch to turned it on. It lit up, and one of the birds and the butterfly started flapping their wings. I couldn’t even dream of setting something like this inside a house, and there was so much artistry involved.

The bird theme continued outside with thanks to Mother Nature: a flock of Kalij pheasants visited our front lawn every morning and sometimes returned late afternoon.

We took some walks around our neighborhood. All the houses were different from each other, some expensive-looking, some weren’t much better than a shack. Some were right on the road, and you could hardly see some others. Most had some nice landscaping with local plants in the yard. But none were too close together, and in between, the rain forest was allowed to grow unchecked in a riot of many different trees and plants. We rated the Bird House as our favorite stay.

I would like to credit my niece Rachel for her travel suggestions. She had recently traveled to the Big Island, and most of the places that we visited and enjoyed in our Hilo day was thanks to her advice.

Next time: the south side of the Big Island

Destinations · Hawaii

Visiting Kilahuea Volcano on the Big Island

Steam rising from Kilahuea, Big Island

When I was doing some Hawaii trip planning, Cal looked over my shoulder and asked “Which is the last island we’re visiting?” To which I replied, “The Big Island.” “Oh,” he said, “and which one is that?” Well, it is a little confusing. The Big Island’s correct name is the Island of Hawai’i. But it is part of the State of Hawaii, equally confusing.

It rightly earns the nickname of Big Island. Our guide for the Road to Hana tour told us that all the other seven Hawaiian islands could fit into the Big Island.

Our AirBnb was located just outside of the tiny village of Volcano, just a stone’s throw from Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. We have a National Park pass, so we were in and out of the park several times during the week we were there. In Volcano and its surroundings, we almost had the feel of being in another country. It was a little strange to see the familiar US National Park sign when we arrived for the first time.

I’ve seen several volcanoes, but I hadn’t yet hiked on a volcano crater rim, so that’s where we started. The trail took us through the beautiful rainforest, and soon the volcano crater was in view:

The steam was also coming up from natural vents near the trail, and the smell of sulphur was in the air:

The active volcano is below this crater

The correct name for the tree below is the ‘Ohi’a Lehua, usually shortened to just Ohia. It is one of the first plants to grow in a new lava field after an eruption, reaching its roots way down into the cracks. At that point it looks like a small shrub. I saw the Ohia everywhere at Volcanoes. It is the official Big Island flower.

An Ohia flower

On Volcano’s scenic drive, we received views of craters left behind by older eruptions. The steam from the current eruption can be seen just behind this crater:

We could walk right in to Thurston Lava Tube.

We drove past sprawling lava fields from eruptions that happened years ago, where the forest is only beginning to reclaim the land:

Delicate moss, and a tiny Ohia

And finally, the ocean, with a sea arch carved from the lava flow:

No sandy beaches here!

Sometimes Nature carved intricate patterns into the cooling lava:

Do you remember, in the summer of 2018, when a subdivision called Leilani Estates was completely covered by Kilahuea’s lava flow? The slow destruction was in the news every day. The eruption was touched off by a 6.9 magnitude earthquake. 700 homes were destroyed and 2,000 people were displaced. On the plus side, the lava flow added 875 acres.

We drove over to Puna and saw what was left of Leilani Estates. In a testimony to man’s tenacity, new homes are being rebuilt, or at least structures to live in. I cannot begin to think how one would build a house over a lava bed.

There was once paved roads, trees, and a community of homes here

One evening we went out for a little night hike to see the current eruption. Kilahuea is temperamental, and no one can predict how much activity will happen each day. We were feeling a little grumbly about being out close to our bedtime, but were soon caught up in the wonder of our walk in the dark. It was just over a mile, and other people were out, so it felt like a party. The moon was bright and playing peek-a-boo with the clouds, and stars were in full view. The hike was mostly over a closed national park road.

It was not one of Kilahuea’s best nights for activity. But standing and watching for awhile, I could see how the eruption is constantly moving, ebbing and flowing. Pretty spectacular. My old phone did not do a great job of capturing the moment. I started chatting with a woman next to me, and she texted me her pictures, taken on her brand-new I-phone. What a difference!

Volcano eruption taken on my old Samsung
Volcano eruption from Lakita’s new I-Phone

So then, we had to hike back to see what it looked like by day. The first thing I was excited to see was a pair of nenes, the state bird of Hawaii.

Finally we see the whole Kilahuea Volcano – the deep black that you see in the middle is the lava lake

By day, we could see why the road was closed:

I’d suggest turning around if you’re ever driving on a road that starts cracking and splitting like this!

We had seen the volcano and its effects from every angle, except underground. You won’t find a glossy brochure about Kazamura Cave in any of the tourist information racks around Hawaii. It’s privately owned by Harry Shick; the cave sits on his land, and he gives the tours. He’s done extensive research in the cave and he’s written a book. We found out about the cave from our AirBnb host. I had to call to reserve a tour and then he e-mailed me directions. He only takes six people down at a time and once there, I had to pay in cash. It all seemed a little shady but later I found out that he just doesn’t want an excessive amount of people knowing where his property is.

Kazamura Cave is a lava tube cave with several different levels. It is the longest cave in Hawaii and at 42.5 miles surveyed, it is the longest known continuous lava cave in the world. This is not a tour cave with poured concrete floors, handrails, and lights. We had to climb up and down several ladders, wear hard hats and gloves, and strap flashlights on to belts. The tour size is small so Harry can keep an eye on everyone; he’s very protective of his cave, and rightly so.

Going up one of the many ladders in the cave
A lavafall

By Harry’s own definition, a lava tube is “a conduit which forms around flowing lava; it insulates the flow from the cooling effects of the air.” Many lava tubes and other formations make up a lava cave, left by an erupting volcano. This cave formed from an eruption that happened about 500 years ago. Everything above ground had grown back, of course. We walked through lush rainforest behind Harry’s house to get to the entrance.

Gypsum crystals

We were in the cave about two and a half hours. Harry’s knowledge and explanations, although technical, were informative. We learned about lava ropes and lava falls, the formation of the gypsum crystals, lavacicles, straws, and dribble spires.


Harry documents every tiny creature that finds its way into the cave. A young man in our group, Wilson, was always falling behind and examining everything closely with fascination. Wilson had a great camera and gets the credit for some of the pictures I have posted here. He also found this plant hopper, which is no bigger than a grain of rice. Harry has a camera that takes microscopic pictures, and I took a picture of Harry’s picture.

This little plant hopper will only survive in the cave if it finds roots to feed on

We originally weren’t sure what we were getting into with this cave exploring venture, but it was a whole lot of fun! We learned a lot and this put a lot of the volcano activity that we had been seeing into perspective.

If the whole subject of lava caves truly interests you, you can find Harry’s book on Amazon.

Next time – a Hilo day on the Big Island