Day 2: Exploring the Hamakua Coast

As I look through the photographs of our second day in Hawaii, I am reminded, again, of the incredible ecological variation and diversity of one of the most remote archipelagos on Earth. The Big Island alone boasts 8 of the world’s 13 climate zones. It’s hard to believe you can go from visiting waterfalls in lush, tropical jungles, to sandy beaches and shallow, sand-bottomed ocean pools, to the summit of a volcano 14,000 feet above sea level all in the same day. Of all the places I’ve ever been, Hawaii is by far the most exhilarating.

We started our first full day off on the earlier side — for once a positive benefit of jet lag with Hawaii being three hours behind California. We awakened to the sounds of birds singing various cheerful songs and watched the sunrise lay a warm blanket of golden light over the luxuriant jungle greens surrounding the Hamakua House, our accommodation in Pepeekeo, a small town north of Hilo.

The day’s adventure started as soon as we left the house–in order to get to and from the Hamakua House, you have to drive down a rocky, dirt road and then through a jungle before reaching the nearest town of Honomu. We stopped for breakfast each morning at Mr. Ed’s Bakery in this small, wild-west-feeling town, which was included with our booking. This drive was actually one of the highlights of the stay for Miri and me. We couldn’t help but feel like we were on the Jungle Cruise or the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland when driving down the jungle road, often stopping the car to look up at the vines hanging down from the trees, turning off the radio to tune in to the wonderfully harmonious symphony of the jungle.

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After eating breakfast, we made the 10-minute drive from Honomu to Akaka Falls State Park, where a short, paved trail loop leads you through a beautiful rainforest rich with wild orchids, bamboo groves, ferns, and other exotic plants. On the path, you pass by 100-foot Kahuna Falls before reaching Akaka Falls, the most visited waterfall on the Big Island where you can watch 442-feet of stunningly beautiful water cascade down into a moss-covered gorge.

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Our next stop was the Four Mile Scenic Drive, also known as the Old Mamalahoa Highway, just off of Highway 19 in Pepeekeo. Much like the road leading to our accommodation, this beautiful drive takes you through the jungle and then along the coast, where you can stop to take pictures of the postcard-like view over Onomea Bay. The drive passes by the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden in Papaikou, a nonprofit nature sanctuary which is home to more than 2,000 species of plants, including countless, colorful genera of orchids, palm trees, and more. This “museum of living plants” is a must-see for photographers and nature lovers.

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Do you spot anything unusual on this leaf? 🙂

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Miri becoming “one” with nature.

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Before grabbing a Hawaiian fast food lunch at Liko Lehua Cafe in Hilo, we visited Rainbow (Waiānuenue) Falls, tallying our third waterfall of the day. Unfortunately, we arrived too late in the day to capture the rainbow that can be seen in the mist thrown up by the waterfall on sunny mornings. Hina, an ancient Hawaiian goddess, is said to live in the lava cave behind the waterfall.

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Not knowing where to go next, we consulted our Lonely Planet book and decided to check out Onekahakaha Beach Park just south of downtown Hilo. This beach park, in particular, is popular among families because the sand-bottomed cove is protected from ocean swells by a large boulder break. Watching powerful waves crash into the rocks while swimming in still, shallow waters was riveting. I felt like I was finally realizing my childhood dream of becoming a mermaid. However, the best part about this beach park was that we got to swim alongside sea turtles!!! I could hardly contain my excitement when I noticed these beautiful sea creatures peacefully grazing the ocean floor, coming up to the surface every so often for air. There is something so majestic about the honu, one of the few species on earth that has been swimming in the ocean alongside DINOSAURS for 150 million years. According to ancient Hawaiian legend, the green sea turtles were the first to guide the Polynesians to the Hawaiian islands, earning the respected status and symbol of the navigator that is always able to find its way home. In real life, honu swim hundreds of miles to lay their eggs on the very beach where they were born. I can hardly find my way home using GPS.

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After drying off, we agreed a mini road trip was in order and set off for Maunakea, a dormant volcano almost 14,000 feet above sea level, to watch the sunset. In true ignorant-tourist fashion, we were completely oblivious of how high up the summit is and realized upon reaching the Maunakea Visitor Information Station that our 2WD rental car hadn’t the slightest chance at making it to the top without risking serious damage to the car. After driving all the way here to see the sunset, we were determined to find a way up. We came across a friendly-looking couple and asked if we could pay them to take us to the top. They agreed without hesitation or wariness at giving two complete strangers a lift in the backseat of their rental Jeep. It’s moments like this that I think “God Bless, Americans” for being so dang nice. I can’t imagine mustering up the courage in Austria to ask the same thing in German. It ended up being more fun tagging along with Sharon and Todd than if we had gone alone. They were visiting from Portland and were staying on the Big Island for the same 9 days we were to celebrate Todd’s birthday, just as Miri and I came here to celebrate his (well, that and our second honeymoon). My only regret is that I forgot to take their picture!

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“If no can…no can.” My new favorite catchphrase.

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Driving on Saddle Road, en route to Maunakea.

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Looking down on the Maunakea Vistitor Information Station from a hill across the way.

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Before Sharon and Todd kindly gave us a ride, Miri and I went on a short hike directly across from the visitor center, fortuitously allowing our bodies to adjust to the altitude. At the visitor center, you’re already 9,200 ft above sea level. But, as I mentioned earlier, we didn’t actually realize how high up we were until later, so I just attributed my wheezing and panting to being terribly out of shape. We were the only ones out here and I wanted to sit and meditate for a few minutes to take it all in. I can’t describe the incredible, elevating peace I felt here. In those minutes of silence, I felt I understood why this land is sacred to Hawaiians. I could’ve sat there all day, listening to nothing but the sound of the wind blowing by. It’s in these places of silence and solitude, away from the busyness of life, that I feel I can best tune into the presence of God or a Higher Power: “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10); “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul.” (David; Psalm 23:1-3).

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Making our way up above the clouds to the top of the summit.

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One thing I forgot to mention — it was FREEZING (30°F) up here! By the time I finished taking pictures of the sunset over the fake cloud horizon, my hands, feet, and legs were completely numb. When there’s snow, people actually come up here to snowboard. Can you think of anyplace else in the world where you can go from surfing to snowboarding in less than 2 hours? Amazing.

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Practically starving by the time we made the trip down the summit and back to civilization, we stopped for dinner at Pineapples, a charming open air restaurant with live music in downtown Hilo, before calling it a night. Miri and I both ordered the Teriyaki Flank Steak, a mouth-watering marinated steak served with grilled pineapple, vegetable stir-fry, a choice of Jasmine rice or garlic potato mash, drizzled with Teriyaki beurre blanc (don’t ask me what that is), and, finally, topped with crispy fried onions and pineapple salsa. It was, for me, one of the more memorable meals of the trip.

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