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02 December, 2008

Hawaii Big Island: Good, Bad, Ugly, Part 1

We are three days through a nine day visit. Plan is to stay first half on the Kona side, and second half on the Hilo side. I've been to Hawaii (Big Island) one previous time, and also have visited Waikiki on another trip, but my comments and reviews here will be from the present trip only.

The Good:
  • Kahalu'u Beach Park: this is absolutely on par with the best snorkeling I have done in Hawaii (okay, I guess that makes reference to my previous trip!), and it is right up there with the snorkeling in Belize. There are a few things that make this site absolutely ideal. First, and foremost, of course, are the fish. There are a remarkable variety of species at this park, and they are present through the entire bay, in high densities. On this trip, we have snorkeled at 3 different locations so far, and have seen a total of at least 50 species of fish. We've identified 48 of these based on our books, and there have been at least 2-4 others that we can't find in either of our identification books. These include spotted moray eels, a wide variety of parrotfish and wrasses, triggerfish, surgeonfish, you name it. Of those 50 or so species, I would say that we've seen all but maybe 3 of them at Kahalu'u. The second thing that makes this location ideal is that it is almost uniformly shallow water throughout - ranging from as little as 1-3 feet, up to maybe 6 or so feet in the main areas. The advantage of this, of course, is that you can swim with the fish, instead of above the fish, and you can observe all sorts of minute details on the coral, up close. The downside is that, because it is so shallow, people have damaged some of the coral. That said, this damage seems to be extremely isolated only to the immediate entry point to the snorkeling area, and this is an area you probably wouldn't want to snorkel anyway, because the traffic in and out of the water causes a lot of silt to be kicked up, and there's low visibility (though still a remarkable variety of species even in the entry area! I saw pufferfish in 2 feet of silty water, where people were standing and milling about! Yikes!). And the third thing about Kahalu'u that makes it great is that the entry and exit is really simple. A reasonably smooth beach-like entry point, with a fair amount of sand, in addition to lava-rocky entry paths. I am not one to complain (much) about needing to put in a little effort, but it does get a bit tense trying to get in and out of the water on rocky steps or ledges that have dozens of anemones tucked into the rocks - you don't want to hurt them, and you don't want to hurt yourself. This avoids all those problems. But again, the main thing is the fish. And the water is very clear (that's number four). We've gone three days in a row.

  • Hula Bean Coffee: Though you will pay $37/pound if you want to bring a bag of beans back home with you, this truly is the best vanilla latte I've ever had, and we've made our way there every single day. The sandwiches are reasonable, and tasty, and the ice cream was very good (including a flavor they call "Volcano", which consists of banana and strawberry ice cream, with oreo cookies).

  • Manago Hotel Restaurant: This came highly recommended in the "Big Island: Revealed" guide book (which, incidentally, is the best guide book out there). They said to get the pork chops, so we got the pork chops. Came with a yummy macaroni salad, some type of "pork tofu" which was interesting and not bad at all, sesame bean sprouts, and steamed rice. The pork chops were sort of breaded and fried, and came with gravy as well. Very good, and the prices were incredibly reasonable for food in Hawaii. This place is good enough that we will probably return to try something else on the menu. The staff were friendly, and the atmosphere homey, but not fancy at all.

  • Mauna Kea Beach: This beach was also recommended by the Revealed book, as one of the best sandy beaches in the entire state. We went there to check out a nice sandy beach, since much of what we've been doing these three days has been "snorkel-focused" not "beach-focused", though I read that the snorkeling was supposedly decent there as well. We arrived a bit late in the day, so the clouds had rolled in a little bit, along the Kohala Coast. The parking for public at this resort managed beach is regulated - they only allow 30 cars at a time (supposedly), and I seem to recall a failed attempt to come here on a previous visit (that I am not reviewing here!), but we got #22, and there seemed to be plenty of spaces left. That's a nice thing about Hawaii, with no private beaches. The beach was indeed very beautiful white sand. We asked the lifeguard where the best snorkeling is, and he informed us that there would be no good snorkeling to be had, because of the waves making things cloudy, but that normally it's near the rocks on the right side of the beach. We decided not to believe him, and we snorkeled anyway. Turns out, this was very good (though silty) snorkeling, and would probably be spectacular on a clearer-water day, though not nearly as expansive as a site like Kahalu'u. There was some very nice, large, healthy coral here, and there were one or two species of fish that we saw here, and only here (so far). Interestingly, though, we saw no parrotfish, and few wrasses here (none of the rainbow-colored Christmas wrasses, that I love so much!). We then swam in the (big) waves and enjoyed the beach for the beach that it is. This was worth the drive for sure (30 miles or so, from Kona).
The Bad: (okay, here, I do not really mean "bad" - rather, I mean "unremarkable" - we'll save "The Ugly" for the really bad stuff)
  • Snorkeling at Pu'uhonua o Honaunau (Two Step): This really is touted as one of the top few snorkeling locations in all of the Big Island. And I say "Um... why?" I just don't get it. We went two days in a row, and were moderately disappointed both times. The water is uniformly deep, almost nowhere is it less than 10 feet, I would estimate. The advantage to this, of course, is that the coral is in great shape all around. But the disadvantage is that you really are not swimming with the fish. The bigger issue was that there just did not seem to be as high of a density of fish compared to Kahalu'u. Now maybe this is because of the long history of feeding that had occurred (until recently) at Kahalu'u? Maybe it's politically incorrect to snorkel at Kahalu'u? I don't know. I do know that to get halfway decent snorkeling experience at Two-Step, we needed to swim way far off to the right of the entry point, along the shore, where there are steep lava walls, and basically swim near these walls to see a reasonable number of fish, and in those areas, the current was strong enough that we felt we were struggling to not get slammed into the wall. So, I have to say, it is not a lot of bang for the buck (though, since all these locations are "free", there's not much lost by trying!). The ranger at the Place of Refuge also indicated that this is the best snorkeling in the entire state. And all this makes me wonder (conspiracy theorist that I am) that perhaps they are telling people that this is the best snorkeling, to try to steer at least some people away from the more easily accessible, shallow snorkeling at some of the other Kona sites.

  • Aloha Theater Cafe: This restaurant is on the road between Captain Cook town, and Kona. And it is not "bad" - it's okay, and a tad expensive. They had Kalua Pork plate listed on their menu, and I was excited to try it because I am not sure I've ever had Kalua Pork, and I really want to have it! But they said that it was not available Sunday, because apparently they were cooking their "batch for the week" and it would not be ready until Monday. Fair enough, but I am not sure it is, or will be enticing enough to bring me back. The coffee was okay, but not quite as good as Hula Bean (I hope that saying that is not like saying "Starbucks" - for all I know, Hula Bean could be the "Evil Empire" of Hawaiian coffee - oops). Instead we had a yellow curry, which seemed to be pretty good, but very spicy, and a burger and fries. The burger was rather bland, and though they asked me how I wanted it cooked, they prepared it about "Two Steps" off what I'd specified (Medium came out as a halfway between Medium Well and Well Done). Oh well.

  • Kona Inn Shops: I really couldn't tell you which shop it was, but it was one of the shops selling the fancy pretty womens' rayon skirts. Their goods are just fine, and the help was incredibly friendly. But their prices are about double that of the same exact items three blocks away at the ABC Store (which is like a Walgreens of Hawaii). I don't mind paying more when you're getting something unique, or when I really think it's benefiting the "little guy" but I suspect that these clothing items (made in Indonesia) are just part of the same pipeline of touristy goods that are seen in every shop on the strip. Why pay double
The Ugly: (this is the really bad stuff)
  • Actually, I can't really say we've had any ugly yet. We've specifically avoided certain places, which I will not mention, because it's conjecture that steers me clear of them, not actual first-hand experience. I guess my venture to find dining in the Kohala resort area was a bit on the ugly side. Reading in the books, every resort's food is expensive, and it's hard to believe they're all good enough to warrant it. We attempted to go to one place at the Fairmont Orchid Resort, because it had been written up favorably. When we arrived, it seems they've changed the way they're doing the restaurant thing, because the reviewed restaurant seemed to no longer be operating, and instead was a sushi place. The alternative at that resort was an insanely expensive "lounge" with no service to be found.

  • Thrifty Auto Rental - only on the bad list because their concept of an economy car is an absolute piece of crap, rather large, non-economical Dodge Caliber. I am going to restrain my rant, but suffice it to say that there are a lot of these crappy Dodge models on the road here in Hawaii. Enough that I would venture to say that a sizeable portion of their sales must be to rental agencies. Because I cannot imagine any human would intentionally purchase, or drive one of these. I am extra-disappointed in mine, because there appears to be some sort of alignment issue, undoubtedly due to someone driving the thing down 4WD-only lava roads, and messing up the suspension. That's kind of amusing (and maybe I will do the same!) but it means that my ride is very loud, and that's not so much fun.
Lots more is still to come, as the trip continues. I think that tomorrow we may do the all-hyped kayak to Captain Cook Monument snorkeling trip. This is something I did not do on my last visit, and I am finding it hard to believe the snorkeling there will be better than Kahalu'u (even though Captain Cook is renowned as the singular best snorkeling site in Hawaii). I guess I feel like the worst case is that we'll have a nice kayak ride to run-of-the-mill snorkeling, and I will have bragging rights for having gone there, and I can write a blog slamming it if it's bad (or praising it if it's as it has been touted to be).

That's all for today.

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