Thursday, March 5, 2009

Hawaii - Day eleven

Friday, November 7

Jane’s 70th birthday adventure: A Trip to the Mauna Kea Observatories

After breakfast we drove to Janet Arizumi’s house, where she introduced us to her neighbor, Mr. Tanaka, who works for Subaru Telescope. His job involves maintaining the equipment on the infra red sensor that can be attached to the telescope. He spends much of his time in an office in Hilo, but makes the trip to the summit three or four times a month. He joined us in our rental car, and we drove up the Saddle Road, turning right onto the road that leads to Mauna Kea.

We stopped for an hour at the Elison Onizuka Space Center, acclimatizing there at the 9,000 foot level for awhile before driving a few hundred yards farther up the mountain to the place I’ll call the Mauna Kea Village, a place where people who work at the various telescope facilities at the top have dormitories, a cafeteria, offices, etc. We signed release forms acknowledging the risks inherent at traveling to very high altitudes, put on sweaters and jackets, and transferred to an official four wheel drive Subaru Telescope car (no, it wasn’t actually a Subaru!) so that Mr. Tanaka could complete the drive to the summit.

Just beyond the village, the paved road ends, and the washboard surface takes a noticeable change in pitch, becoming much steeper. Very quickly the last stubbly vegetation disappears. As we looked out of the car windows we could easily imagine ourselves on the surface of Mars. The volcanic soil in many places is a vivid red, and large chunky rocks like scattered across the surface. I think that here, as on Mars, the larger rocks were deposited simultaneously with smaller rocks, cinders, and dust. Over a long period of time the finer material gets blown away, leaving the big rocks sitting on the cindery surface, looking as if they had been carefully placed there.

The road twisted and turned, zigging and zagging back and forth through a series of hairpin turns, skirting large cinder cones that bulged up a hundred meters or more above the main steep slope of the volcano. In some spots the edge of the road was marked with big lava rocks that had been placed there, but in other places only a small lip of piled up cinders showed the edge of the road where the ground dropped away at a 45 degree angle. The rear end of the car occasionally fishtailed a bit as the wheels bounced around on the loose bumpy surface, diverting our attention briefly from the spectacular vistas opening below us.

White fluffy clouds embraced the top of Hawaii’s active volcano Mauna Loa, but farther down the slopes, many miles away, we could see veils of grey smoke rising above the surface along a line from the summit to the sea where lava has been flowing continuously for more than two decades. Visible off in the distance was the thousand foot high column of steam where the hot, viscous lava pours into the ocean. Half hidden by puffs of low lying fair weather cumulus clouds, the top of Haleakala on the island of Maui showed its head in the distance, the intervening miles turning it blue.

The air temperature hovered just above freezing as we climbed out of the car at the base of the Subaru Telescope, the powerful winds making it seem even colder. We hurried for the door. Inside we were given yellow hard hats to wear while visiting. At about 14,000 feet it is not wise to move anywhere quickly. After just a few steps, Jane was feeling dizzy, and sat on a bench while Mr. Tanaka went to get a portable oxygen tank that could be worn on the belt, and tubes that ran up just underneath the nostrils. That worked well, and we proceeded to the floor of the telescope to see the working end of the huge machine. We were glad for the coats and sweaters, since they keep the inside of the building as close as possible to the outside ambient air temperature to minimize problems with the equipment when they open the dome for the night’s viewing. We went up several levels to view the telescope from high up, and considering the wind whistling around the building, passed on the offer to walk around the outside perimeter of the dome. We ate lunch in the dayroom before heading across the summit by car to take a quick look at the Keck multi-mirror telescope.

The trip back down was as slow and cautious as the trip up, the vehicle jouncing and whining along in the lowest gear range to save the brakes during the steep descent. It was almost completely dark as we entered the outer edges of Hilo.

After dropping of Mr. Tanaka with heartfelt thanks, we stopped for dinner at the Ice Pond Restaurant a block from the beach. Tables situated right next to wide open windows look out over the amazingly transparent waters of Ice Pond, so called not because any ice ever forms in Hilo, but because the spring-fed water in the lake is icy cold.

After dinner and a quick stop at Arnott’s Lodge to change to cooler clothes in our room we headed back down to the waterfront to investigate “Black and White Night”. Sponsored by all the businesses along the waterfront Kamehameha Avenue, it was a wildly popular super-block-party. Almost everyone from children in arms to teenagers and adults to tottering seniors was wearing some sort of clothing that reflected the theme of black and white. Jane wore a white T-shirt birthday present from the Subaru Telescope, and I wore a black T-shirt with the planets of the solar system on it while we strolled along the sidewalk with hundreds and hundreds of other people, looking in shop windows, listening to various bands that were set up about every two blocks, and generally gawking at all the other people milling about or dancing to the music. Probably the most interesting person we saw was wearing a black and white checked jacket, a black fedora hat, his face painted white, and a pair of black trousers with an inseam measurement of approximately 92 inches! Of course the man had five foot long stilts strapped to his lower legs, covered by the long trousers. The stilts went no higher than his knees, which gave him remarkable agility. He cold stride along the pavement with four foot paces, pause to dance for a bit, kicking back his stilt-legs one at a time so far that the ends almost touched the back of his head!

We stopped in a furniture store where they had set up a karaoke microphone, which wouldn’t seem all that unusual except for the fact that almost everyone sitting watching and everyone performing was Japanese.

After a couple of drinks and some more strolling, we headed back for our last night at Arnott’s Lodge.

Hawaii - Day ten

Thursday, November 6

This morning we had coffee, and fresh papaya and lime juice, purchased at the farmers’ market yesterday. We drove along the waterfront of Hilo, and headed out of town along the north east shore of the island, stopping frequently at spots where you could look out over the ocean.

Taking the narrow winding road off the main highway down to the beach at Laupahoehoe, I remembered reading long ago about the tragedy that struck there in 1946, when a tidal wave swept over the low lying land behind the beach, carrying away 19 students and two teachers to their deaths.

We stopped for lunch in the town of Honoka’a, and then drove up and over hills to Waimea, stopping briefly for a look at Hawaii Preparatory Academy where we had attended field trip classes in the summer of 1991. Turning to the north again, we drove over the Kohala Mountains and then down to Hawi, the northernmost town on the island of Hawaii.

Completing the loop back to Waimea, we took the Saddle Road across the vast grassy uplands of the Parker Ranch between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa back toward Hilo.

We wrapped up the day with dinner at the Ice Pond Restaurant, so called for the icy-cold, crystal clear spring water that fills this lake just inland from the Hilo beach.

Hawaii - Day nine

Wednesday, November 5th

We're staying in Hilo at Arnott's Lodge, a wonderful departure from the fancy and expensive beach-front luxury resort chain hotels. Arnott's offers a variety of accommodations ranging from a place to pitch your tent on the lawn through men's and women's hostel-type dormitories to regular motel-type rooms with bath, where we stayed. There is a community kitchen, an open air lounge and another covered open dining area open to all. We loved it!

We had a late breakfast at “Ken’s” …a pancake house, and then walked along the beach of Hilo Bay. The surf is almost non-existent, stopped by the harbor breakwater a quarter of a mile offshore. The sand is clean, but its dark brown color makes it look dirty. We saw nobody swimming or lying on the beach. We did see lots of very large outrigger canoes, racked carefully in the sheds of several canoe clubs. Outrigger racing is a big deal here!

We spent the better part of an hour poking in and out of the shops along the waterfront drive, and then bought tickets at the old restored Palace Theater for a live Hawaiian story telling and dance show. After the performance we explored the open air farmer’s market and handicrafts market before heading east out of Hilo.

We stopped at the town of Pahoa for a sub sandwich lunch, and then drove on back down toward the coast and the road to Kalapana. This two-lane drive along the shore passes through dense tropical growth where ancient Poinciana tree trunks are almost hidden under the huge crowded leaves of giant philodendrons. Stands of bamboo are scattered along the sides of the highway, interspersed with the graceful green nodding of long needled ironwood trees. Here and there is a splash of brilliant red where heliconia blossoms hang down, keeping company with red, yellow, or white ginger flowers that spice the air with their sweet scent.

We turned off the road to see the lava tree park. At some time in the not too distant past, fast flowing liquid pahoehoe lava flowed down from the flanks of Mauna Loa toward the sea, incinerating almost everything in its path. As it oozed around large trees, the moisture in the wood cooled the lava just enough to solidify a thin layer of it around the trunk. As the trees burned and the lava drained away, casts of the tree trunks were left behind, rising like hollow black ghosts of the forest that was once here.

Further along the road we began to see signs indicating that the “public hot pool” was just ahead. Soon we came to a shady parking lot, and there, spread out just behind some rocks that protected it from the crashing surf was a natural pool perhaps 30 yards across and about 70 yards long. A number of people were splashing around lazily, enjoying the very warm water. I descended some steps leading down to the pond, and stepped in. The water was like a nice, hot bath…not uncomfortable, but very warm indeed. We had neglected to bring bathing suits, so the toes were the only body parts that benefited.

We went on down the narrow road that hugged the beach, snaking back and forth and rising and falling as it progressed over old lava flows, now hidden under heavy tropical growth. At another state park we paused under the branches of a grove of ironwood trees that whispered in the wind, telling each other tree-secrets that you could almost understand. A few steps brought us to the edge of a sheer cliff that dropped forty feet to huge waves crashing against the cliffs, sending their spray high into the air.

In places where the road came close to the ocean we could see a large column of steam rising into the air where still molten lava was still plunging into the sea. Before long we came to the end of the road at Kalapana. For many years the black sand beach at Kalapana was world famous. White surf foamed up a steep jet black beach there and slid back just short of the graceful curving trunks of tall palm trees.

The lava flow from Kilauea swept down the flank of the volcano, right through neighborhoods, consuming everything in its path. Houses burned. Cars were entombed. Streets were obliterated. The beautiful ponds known as “the queen’s baths” were engulfed. As the flow reached the shoreline, the coconut trees were destroyed, the black sand beach was covered, and within a short time the entire bay was filled in, turned into a jagged black landscape.

The shoreline is now more than a quarter of a mile farther out, and a twisting path winds it way out to a new, sterile black sand beach. People still live in the remaining houses, commute to jobs or run souvenir shops, restaurants, or the town store.

They have also undertaken the Herculean task of changing the desolate lumpy black lava landscape into a place of green beauty. All along the path from the road to the new beach, and for many yards to each side, thousands of plants have been carefully placed in cracks and holes in the jumbled lava surface, each plant with it’s own nest of imported soil and humus to catch and hold moisture for the roots of baby coconut trees, ti plants, vines, plumeria, and other flowers. Fifty years from now it will again be more like paradise.

We bought a snack at the small grocery store, and as we were heading back in the twilight toward the car we heard the sounds of a ukulele and a clear voice singing in the lovely falsetto range you can hear in many old Hawaiian songs. The music was coming through the vegetation between the store and an open air restaurant on the next property. We decided to wander over that way, maybe get a beer, and sit and listen to the music for awhile.

We had no sooner gotten into the driveway leading up to the kava bar than a lady in a mu’u mu’u came up to us and said that we were welcome to join the party. The party turns out to be a weekly community potluck held every Wednesday. They make welcome anybody who wanders in, with or without food, to partake in the meal and entertainment. The Hawaiian singer, reputed to be the best in the region, was accompanied by another man playing guitar, and a lady playing very soft harmony on a keyboard. The combination was enchanting; we sat and listened for close to two hours and left thinking that it would be really nice if we had something as warm and sharing in our own neighborhood.

Hawaii - Day eight

Tuesday, November 4

A day that involves air travel is mainly just that…a day for travel only. We were up at 6:30, and on the way to the Kahului Airport by 7:00 a.m. Soon we were high above the ocean, heading toward the morning sun, and landed uneventfully at the Hilo airport. We picked up our rental car, and headed into town for a visit with Jane’s friend from the 60’s in Okinawa.

A little before noon we headed across town to the ‘Imiloa Science Center, an interesting place that has the unusual dual focus of astronomy and Hawaiian culture.

Our friend Shawn Laatch is in charge of the planetarium there, and after the public show was over took us in to show off the new all-digital SkyScan 3D computer/projector system. The images were crisp as he flew around the solar system with a joystick, zooming in for close- up looks at planets and moons, eclipses of the sun, then at hyper warp-speed out past local star clusters, out of the galactic plane, then ever faster past myriad galaxies to the edges of the known universe.

Remember this was all in incredibly realistic three-dimensional projection, viewed through special glasses.

Shawn told us that astronomers whose specialty is the structure of the universe were amazed and delighted at the visualization of complex concepts this makes possible.

In the evening we rode with Shawn to a little Italian restaurant where he eats often. His wife Kim, a psychologist, met us there, and we had an excellent dinner along with a couple of bottles of fine wine that Shawn had brought with him.

Hawaii - Day seven

Monday, November 3

We drove to Makawao this morning to have breakfast again at Casanova’s, enjoying a completely clear sky and gentle tropical breezes as we sipped coffee on the front porch.

It was about 45 minutes drive from there around the flank of the island, past the wealthy resorts and hotels that line the beach of Wailea. We passed Little Beach and Big Beach, headed for the jumbled lava flows of Ahihi Kinau Natural Preserve.
Located on the lee side of the island, this area is quite literally a desert, with very little rainfall. Lava flows down the side of the mountain here were not composed of molten lava. The lava cooled as it flowed, and the surface was churned into a jagged, sharp, alien looking landscape that is miles wide. The view toward the mountain at first glance is one of utter and complete desolation. On closer examination, you can see widely scattered places where extremely hardy plants are beginning the slow process of colonization. The lava flows are very old, but even now there is almost nothing there except an environment so hostile that were you to attempt walking across it that you would probably not survive if you fell down.

Close to the shore however, small drought tolerant trees and bushes have taken root, providing a little bit of shade, and the constant pounding of the waves has produced a beach composed of rounded black lava pebbles and rocks, and in a few spots, even some black sand.

We spread our towels on the lumpy surface and shuffled into the water with masks, fins, and snorkels. Below the surface was another alien, though not nearly so forbidding a landscape. Myriad varieties of coral have covered the bottom with strange and beautiful shapes and colors, and an amazing number of different kinds of colorful fish are in great abundance. We paddled along slowly, enchanted.

Corrugated fingertips were a clue that we’d been in the water a long time, so we headed back to the beach for some lunch. Before long though, we were back in the water, leisurely paddling along the shore in the opposite direction. In one spot we saw three sea turtles. The largest was almost a meter across the top of his shell, and he looked at us from no more than five feet away, completely unafraid. Moving slowly as not to alarm him, we swam above and alongside him for several minutes before we finally headed off in another direction.

Back in the car we drove back toward the main town of Kahului, then turned uphill, climbing up to turn back again on another road along the flank of the mountain. From high above the populated lowlands we watched the sun set behind distant clouds, and headed back one more time to Makawao for a sumptuous dinner of spaghetti carbonara and fettuccini with scallops at the elegantly appointed side of Casanova’s.

Tomorrow we fly to Hilo on the big island.

Hawaii - Day six

Sunday, November 2

This morning we strolled downhill from the Phillips’ house through a huge pineapple field for about a mile and a half to the edge of the 80’ cliff that drops into the ocean on the north side of Maui.

Just offshore here, during big north pacific storms, the surf can reach 20 – 25 feet. You have to be issued a license to even attempt these monster waves at the spot the surfers call “Jaws”! The waves are so big and travel so fast that a surfer cannot catch one just by paddling. They are towed on the end of a line by a jet ski, come whipping around on the end of the rope and are injected into the curl. They have to kick out or ride off the side of the curl, since there is no beach here, only jagged rocks! Jaws indeed!

Today however, it was a less frightening sight to stand at the top of the cliff and watch the gentle swells roll in from the north.

After the hike back to the house we tossed together some things for a bag lunch and headed for Hana. The road to Hana is better than it was when I last drove it in 1991. Seventeen years ago the pavement was more patches than pavement. In the period of time between then and now the full length of the road has been repaved, and is nice and smooth.

However, there is nothing that can be done to change the character of the road. It has an absolutely amazing number of twists and turns. It is narrow, in many places much less than two cars wide. It has 59 single-lane bridges. If you plan to make the drive to Hana, here are some things to remember:

1- Leave early! I know that 50 miles isn’t far, and on the map it appears that the road to Hana is a short distance. It isn’t! Your average speed will be between 15-20 mph if you push hard!

2- There really is very little to see in the town of Hana. The only sensible reason for going there is the trip itself. The road to Hana is really a metaphor for life: it isn’t the final destination that is so important, it’s the process of getting there that makes the whole thing worthwhile.

3- Drive slowly! Plan on taking as long as possible rather than trying to make good time. Move along at 10 mph or maybe as much as 15 mph on rare occasions. Pull over to the side into one of the many slightly wider passing spots when cars come up behind you, determined to travel as fast as they can.

4- Stop often. There are many breath-taking vistas, streams, pools, waterfalls, cascades of ferns, forests of bamboo, wild guavas to be picked, fern grottoes, a blow hole, a couple of state parks, shave-ice stands, stands of sweet-smelling white and yellow ginger, wild orchids, hiking trails, and other experiences to be discovered and savored. If you take time, the road to Hana will sooth your soul.

Hawaii - Day five

Saturday, November 1

It’s an amazing discovery; if you’re where the morning sun is not blocked by the dense foliage of a heavily wooded lot, you wake up when the Sun comes up. What a delight! Then to walk out onto a lanai that overlooks a deep blue ocean in the distance, that’s just heavenly!

We got an earlier start this morning after breakfast, and retraced yesterday’s route along the dry leeward highway along the ocean’s edge toward Lahaina, then turned right toward the resort town of Ka’anapali. A string of big hotels and upscale condominiums stand shoulder to shoulder along the beach. Manicured lawns, elegant landscaping, golf carts, uniformed attendants, and lots of “residents and guests only” signs make it abundantly clear that this is where the country club set play.

We drove around the end of the island on smaller and smaller roads that finally became a narrow single lane road curving high along cliffs that dropped down either directly to the ocean or to jagged black lava beds. When we met oncoming cars one would have to back up to the nearest slightly wider spot so that the two cars could squeeze past each other. It really wasn't as bad as it sounds if you weren't in a hurry. I poked along at 10-15 km/hr, and that worked well. The scenery was spectacular.

At a much wider spot on the road I pulled off and parked, and climbed down
over the rocks for maybe a half km to see a blowhole up close. As the big waves crashed against the cliff a few meters below, a hole in the flat lava would begin to moan, then howl, spitting a fine spray into the air that quickly became a jet of water that blew violently out of the hole perhaps 10 meters into the air.

Eventually the road got wider again and we began to see houses. We drove to a very deep steep sided valley called I'ao Valley, where the sides of the valley rose like walls up into the low overhanging clouds.

We finished off the day with a mahimahi fish dinner at “The Fish Market” in the town of Pa'ia.

Hawaii - Day four

Friday, October 31

This morning we drove around the west side of Maui to the old whaling town of Lahaina. In the town square there is a banyan tree, planted in 1875. Today it covers a whole city block. It looks like a forest, but on closer examination you can see that each separate trunk comes down from a branch of the original tree, and that everything is connected. It is larger in area than any other tree in North America.

We wandered through the shops along the waterfront for most of the day, stopped for lunch at "Cheeseburger In Paradise" and ate on the second floor, open on all sides to the tropical breezes, and had a leisurely meal overlooking the harbor. It took some time to eat, since the cheeseburgers, complete with a slice of cooked pineapple, are the largest I’ve ever seen. It was more than enough for lunch and dinner combined.

About halfway back from Lahaina we stopped at a beautiful beach and sat watching surfers and distant boats as the sun set in the ocean near the island of Lana'i. As the sunset colors faded from yellow toward orange and red, a lovely thin crescent moon appeared right next to bright Venus halfway up the evening sky.

Hawaii - Day three

It's about time that I completed posting the accounts of our adventures in Hawaii last November!

Thursday, October 30
We did a little better at sleeping last night, waking up this morning at 6:30 instead of 6:00 a.m. Just about the time we’ve totally adjusted to Hawaii time we’ll be changing time zones again!

We ate breakfast at the Phillips house, then traveled the Hana Highway back toward Kahului and across the flat isthmus that spans the distance between the two high volcanic peaks that form the island of Maui. Skirting the town of Kihei we got off the highway and turned toward the beach resort area. Since coastlines of islands are irregular and curve back upon themselves, directions in Hawaii are apt to contain the phrases “makai” and “mauka”, which mean “toward the ocean” and “toward the mountain” respectively.

More often than not, that’s much more useful in finding your way than the more traditional north, south, east, and west.

We found our way, with the help of a not-very-detailed tourist map to Ulua Beach, where the snorkeling was reported to be pretty good. There we swam along black lava rocks, and saw lots of fish.
We walked maybe a mile along a winding pathway that meandered along between the posh hotels and condos.

We stopped on the way back for a beer. We moved on to Little Beach (nude but no nudes), and then to Big Beach where hundreds of people were leaving ahead of rainstorm sweeping in from Kahoolawe, and finally on to La Perouse Bay. By the time we got back to the P’s house it was dark.