Hawai'i Revisited

As October began, it seemed like we had half the Ocean Explorers dive club on the Big Island. Eileen, Jon, Kevin, Robin, and Laura Jean coming off the Kona Aggressor. Dawn and Brian were there on their honeymoon. Frances, Bob, Mary, and I were just starting our trip. Since there were two trips, we have two reviews. Eileen is covering the Agressor part, and I'm handling the land based. Read on for some excellent travel.

KONA ADVENTURES  -  Kona Aggressor report

The trip began with an uneventful flight to the big island of Hawaii. It's five hours from anywhere in Southern California. Bring your headphones and a book. Airlines are now charging for their little culinary delights. I recommend packing your own meal or snack on board with you.

Upon arriving at the Kona airport, we took the Speedi-Shuttle to the Keauhou Bay Sheraton, located in Kailua-Kona, which is about 15 miles from the airport.. While the one way cost of the shuttle is almost as much as one day car rental, if you book in advance with a group of 2 or more, the price is actually quite reasonable.  

The Sheraton resort had been closed for two years for some major renovations, to the tune of over $70 Million. We had some awesome rooms and the price was right with their Grand Re-Opening specials. The Sheraton  Resort sits perched on a lava flow, with a commanding view of the Pacific Ocean. At dusk, the resort turns on high intensity lights, which draws in the manta rays which come in to feed on the tiny critters drawn to the light. The mantas can be watching performing their graceful ballet, complete with spins and loops, from the comfort of the patio bar. It was quite an awesome sight.  If one were brave enough, one could carefully make their down to the water over the lava flow with snorkel gear and snorkel with the mantas, or sign up for the $95 boat trip to snorkel or dive with the mantas in about 12' of water.

 The Aggressor picked us up at the hotel mid-day Saturday, and dropped us off at the Kona Brewing Company, where we congregated with the rest of the passengers of the Kona Aggressor. After spending the rest of the afternoon shopping, we met at the port to board onto the Aggressor at about 5:30, where we were ushered to our rooms and then served a scrumptious meal.   The chef, Robert, had been trained at the Culinary Institute of America, so his meals were delicious. After the meal, we were introduced to the crew and briefed by Captain Rob. I was so tired, that all I remembered from his brief was that if the boat started to sink, swim to shore, as all of the dive sites were very close to shore. 

The average day consisted of waking in the morning to a continental breakfast for the early risers, and Robert would also make a breakfast entree for those wishing for additional sustenance. Breakfast was then followed by an 8:00 morning dive. Upon completing this first dive, freshly baked cookies or muffins would be awaiting us on the top deck.

Around 10:30, we would begin our second morning dive. Afterwards, we were greeted with a first course of soup made from scratch, followed by a yummy lunch. At this point, the boat would move to its next location. We typically dove two locations per day, one location in the morning, and the second location during the afternoon and the night dive. The next dive was scheduled around 2:00, followed by another snack such as egg rolls, pot stickers, or some other appetizer. Around 4:00-4:30 the fourth dive of the day would begin the fourth dive of the day, followed by yet another delicious meal, complete with home made desert.  Dinner would be followed by a night dive, and then off to bed.  There was only one person on the boat that made all the dives, I averaged three a day, and I was happy with that. 

While all the dives were nice and what one would expect in such a locale, there were a few that stood out from the others. First there was "The Manta Dive". This was worth the trip to Kona in and of itself. The boat anchored in the afternoon at a location called Garden Eel Cove, and it is not far from the airport - we could watch the planes land and take off during our surface intervals.  We had a leisurely afternoon and dinner, after which we prepared for the night dive. The crew had already gone in and laid the way with light sticks anchored down so that we could follow the path without turning on our lights. We were asked to keep our lights off until we arrived at "the location", so as not to draw the mantas away from the circle of lights. The boat had to turn its lights off as the mantas were being distracted from the circle of lights and coming over and checking out the boat.  Once we reached the circle of lights, we planted our selves on the bottom at about 35' beneath the surface, turned on our lights and held them over our heads. This last step was very important, because if you held your light in front of you, the manta wouldn't have time to get out of the way and 1,000 pounds of marine animal would hit you - not fun. The crew warned it was a good way to potentially lose a mask or get injured, not to mention injuring these delicate giants.  We had three mantas show up, ranging up to 12 feet in width, although it seemed as if though there were seven or eight in attendance. They came within inches of participants and were beautiful and exhilarating to watch. 

The other dive worth mentioning is "Turtle Pinnacle". It is the only known turtle cleaning station on the Kona Coast. As we arrived at the cleaning station, there was a turtle in the middle of a cleaning session, and quite like nothing I've seen before. There was this turtle, covered in yellow and black fish in the middle of a cleaning. The turtle was quietly on all fours on the bottom of the reef, gently lifting each of his front flippers so that the fish could thoroughly clean... It's a sight I'll never forget.

Jon & I also had the opportunity to snorkel with spinning dolphins. The boat anchored at the afternoon location, which had a pod of about 13 spinners hanging out in the area, so Jon put on his snorkel gear and jumped in, I jumped in afterwards. We snorkeled around, following the dolphins as they frolicked in the area.  They came pretty close, but not too close, as they had a baby dolphin, a few feet long among them. Very awesome!

The crew of the Aggressor was great, and the trip was a lot of fun. I would definitely recommend this live aboard to anyone who wants a vacation with nothing on the agenda but sleeping, eating, & diving!

Things I recommend on the big island of Hawaii :  

Things I do not recommend: -- Eileen Monzon Parkhurst

Hawai'i by Land

October 2005

As fun as the Kona Agressor trip sounded, it was not to be for us. First, we didn't have quite enough cash in the travel kitty, and more importantly, Mary didn't want to spend her entire vacation diving. There's a lot worth seeing on the island itself.

We decided to return to Kealakekua Bay.We stumbled on this fine little bay on our last trip, and it became our favorite hang-out spot. With Google's help, we scruffled around the Internet looking for places to stay. There are several vacation rentals at the bay. We found what we thought was the perfect house. Dolphin Bay house looked nice, was reasonably priced, and was only about 300 feet from the water. It turned out to be the perfect place; more about that later. 

Our flight from San Diego brought us into Kona after dark. We picked up the van, and had ourselves a quick dinner at a local plate-lunch place. It's funny how 10 year old memories almost come back enough to be useful. We found our way to Kealakekua Bay, and after a short search, found the house. 

Kealakekua BayWe were both up early the next morning. Mary was still on Pacific time, and I was somewhere between Eastern and Pacific.An early morning walk offered the views you send to your friends as postcards. We came across some interesting signage.

Rules SignYes Virginia, there are sharks here. Once back, we assembled a breakfast from the plate of indigenous fruit, and made our way into town. It's so much easier to find during the day.

Kona was really crowded. The Iron Man Triathalon was coming in two weeks, and lots of people were there to train. Kona's now a cruise ship stop too. Between the triatheletes and the pod people the town itself is just mobbed. Fortunately, Kealakekua Bay is far from the maddening crowd. The cruise ship passengers don't go very far, and you can almost completely avoid them if you get a little ways out of town. 

We passed some time shopping, then picked up our fellow travellers, Bob Beitl and Frances San Clemente.

The island has really changed. More people live there now, and they've put a strain on everything. Housing is suffering rampant inflation as cash-rich mainlanders snap up anything resembling a bargain. The traffic was considerably worse, but it's hard to tell whether this was due to the population increase or the profusion of triatheletes.

You have your choice of shore or boat diving.We did all our boat diving with Jack's Diving Locker. They were outstanding. The boats were reasonably well equipped. They fed us well. and our divmasters were very helpful. Eli was especially good. Sea conditions can be uncertain at this time of year. A couple of dives were at close-in and sheltered locations due to a large swell. I enjoyed all my dives.

The manta dive deserves special mention. The mantas have pretty much stopped coming into Kona Harbor. You can catch them further south at the Sheraton, or take a boat out to Garden Eel Cove. Jacks did the latter. The boat leaves in the afternoon for 2 dives. One before sunset, the other after. We dived this location on our last trip and thought it was superb. There's a sandy bottom at 80 feet that hosts a whole city of garden eels. You get right down on the bottom and they'll come up out of their burrows. A pod of dolphins shadowed the boat on the way out. With all their jumping flipping and spinning, it was like a travelling Sea World show.

The mantas are the stars and they seem to know it. Several boats are usually here, and they all leave crates of dive lights on the bottom. The lights attract plankton, and the mantas come in to feed. They've learned the drill well. You hold your light above your head and point it towards the surface. The mantas know where to find the chow's and swim just above your head. It's definitely  a close encounter with an amazing animal. They can loop the loop in their own body length to take a second pass at the plankton which they did numerous times. It sounds trite, but I was awestruck. Not even putting my hand on an urchin could spoil the dive. This is going to be best dive in my log book for a long time to come.

Shore diving is a lot cheaper and well worth the minimal effort. The reef in Kealakekua Bay is one of the best on the island, and  was so convenient that we did all or our shore diving there. The reef itself is in a protected bay only 20 yards from the entry. The coral here is extensive, and lacks the damage you usually see on the exposed reefs. We found lots of little fish, and the locals were relating tales of dolphins and eagle rays, though we saw neither on this trip. 

Kealakekua Bay isn't the only good shore diving site on the island. There are several good sites around Kona. A few miles down the road from Kealakekua Bay is Place of Refuge. This also has a protected reef. It has the virtue of being diveable when everything else is too rough.

The water was 80 degrees Farenheit give or take a couple. I wore a 3mm full suit; not so much for warmth as for protection from rough rocks and coral. Geologically speaking, Hawai'i is a toddler. The local rocks are allmost uniformly black, rough, and less than a few hundred hudred thousand years old. If you're planning to shore dive, wear your booties. They don't call it aa (pronounced "ah-ah") for nothing. I recommend gloves too, but beware, they won't furnish more than a token objection to urchin spines. 

We couldn't have picked a better place to stay. Dolphin Bay House was in the right place, with just the right amenities. Everything was several steps above what one usually sees in vacation rentals; be they condos, or houses. The kitchen was very well equipped with utensils, spices, and non-perishibles left by previous guests. There is a shelf of guide books, fiction, and games. Except for my copy of Manoa, the house came equipped with all the books we brought with us. There's a nice area for washing gear, with an outdoor shower. All we needed to bring on this trip was our dive gear, and clothing.  It might be a little far from town for some, but it worked out great on this trip.

Update on Dolphin Bay House — They've done a major remodel since we were there. I've read the description and I'm not convinced that separate bathrooms for everyone is the the best use of floor space.. They've also raised the price, which definitely tempers our previous enthusasm. It's still a great location if you want something a bit off the beaten path, and close to two excellent shore diving sites.

We decided to spend a few days over by Volcano National Park. This pretty much marked the end of our Kona diving as the road between the two tops out at 4500 feet. We took the road south from Kona, and this is definitely the way to get between the two places. We took a side trip to South Point. Geographically speaking, this is the southernmost point in the United States. There looks to be some excellent snorkelling if you don't mind climbing down the rocks.

We stayed in a little bed and breakfast called Volcano Country Cottages. Our cottage, built in the 1920's , was spacious and comfortable. The kitchen was small for two people to cook, but had enough space for us to make a nice dinner.

The volcano is a must-see. I can't think of anywhere else in the world where you'll get first-hand experience with an active volcano. The road leads you around the caldera, then down to the ocean where lava is still flowing into the ocean. It's a major hike from the end of the road out to the active lava flows. 

Be especially careful if it's raining. The rocks, which had been gunning for me the entire trip, suddenly turned on Bob and made him fall. He didn't suffer any scrapes, but he did break his leg. Thank God for park rangers and large, burly firemen. We got him off the lava flows, but it wasn't a fun trip. Thankfully, Bob will be fine. The rest of our trip was pretty quiet, which was fine with me. 

This was a kick-ass trip. Hawaii is still a great place to visit. We'll do it again in 2 years. Many thanks to Frances, Bob, Dawn, and Brian for making it extra special. 

Logistics --

Location -- There are two airports on the Big Island; Hilo, and Kona. Almost all the good diving is Kona side. That said, I'd look closely at the lava dive that only leaves out of Hilo. Be aware that getting any significant distance from Kona involves higher altitudes. The road from Kona to Volcano peaks at 4500 feet, and the saddle road crests at 5500. 

Kona is almost totally oriented towards tourism. Hilo is much more like a normal city.

Air Travel - Air fares to the Big Island used to be horrendous, especially compared to flying to somewhere in the Caribbean. That's not true any more. Kona is served by Delta, American, Aloha, and Hawaiian Air. I've seen round trip fares as low as $250 if you leave from Long Beach instead of San Diego. We flew American out of San Diego on frequent flyer miles. Our friends flew Hawaiian. Everyone seemed to be pretty happy.

Lodging -- You really have a lot of choices around Kona. Condos, hotels and houses are all plentiful. A check of the usual internet sources will find you something in Kona. If you want a little peace and quiet, you'll need to get out of town. South of Kona is wet, north of Kona is dry. Take your choice. Do be careful about the elevation. Some places are upcountry and probably not the best choice for divers.

I cannot say enough good things about Dolphin House. We were geared for the usual minimally equipped condo, and were totally surprised when we found sharp knives, nice pots, and plenty of dishes in the cupboards. The laundry room came with detergent, bleach, and vinegar. They provide beach chairs and towels too. There's also a stereo, TV, DVD player, and a VCR. The beds were comfortable and house itself if beautiful. It's an easy walk to either the Manini Beach entry, or the "Other Entry". There's plenty of space to rinse and hang gear. The bookshelf is equipped with the best travel and marine life guides. The owners are very nice, and there are caretakers close by. My only unpleasant surprise was a lack of air conditioning, except in one bedroom. As it turned out, A/C was completely unnecessary. There are plenty of fans throughout the house, and they're quite sufficient. 

Diving -- Jack's Diving Locker was very satisfactory. The boats were relatively comfortable, and they fed us well.  We took two of the "advanced dives". But, if you have 6 people in your group, they'll take you on the deeper profile, and you'll save some bucks. Absolutely do the Manta dive. If you haven't done a night dive before, don't worry. There are so many lights around, it's more like a dusk dive. 

We used Dive Makai the last time, and they were excellent too. Dive Makai has the best predive briefings, but their boat lacks a head, and isn't as large. However, they offer some interesting 3 tank "adventure" dives. Those will definitely be on my agenda for next time.

There's also good shore diving from several locations around Kona, Kealakekua Bay, and Place of Refuge. Tank rentals can be very reasonable. We used the South Kona Dive Shop because they were close.

Dive Gear -- Typical shore terrainWater temps are about 80 degrees. I wore a 3mm full suit and was very comfortable. Geologically speaking, Hawaii is a toddler and most of the coastline looks just like this. You need abrasion protection. Most importantly, bring your booties. Those rocks are rough. Beyond that, I used my normal temperate water dive gear. Fishing line is a real hazard. I always carry a knife, compass, light, and a full complement of surface signalling devices. As a side note: dive gloves are completely ineffective against sea urchin spines.

Food -- Restaurants are plentiful, but they're expensive, and the service is pretty indifferent. I'm going to speculate that cruise ship passengers are poor tippers. L and L Drive-Inn was pretty good and they're open late. The plate lunch places south of Kona were quite good. Just look for the crowds at lunchtime. Frankly, we had our best meals at the house. There's a Costco north of town. We stocked up on chicken and rice there. Supermarkets are available in Kona, and the local markets have plenty of ingredients and seasonings. Tortillas and fresh salsa are available and good enough for this San Diegan. 

The local avocados were wonderful. They're big and tasty. The local pineapples are equally delicious; go for the white ones. They cost more, but are unbelievably tasty.

Floobydust -- Best source for cheap souveniers is - get this - Wal Mart. The locally owned shops, particularly those out of town, carry nicer stuff at reasonable prices. There are two craft markets on Alii Drive. The first one is OK. the second one is really good. They're open Wednesday through Sunday. Be prepared for high gas prices. A good internet connection can be very hard to find. There are some cafes with high speed connections, or you can get a pay as you go account with T-Mobile, and use the local Borders Book store. Phone lines were typically wretched. Cell phone connections were very good on most of the areas we visited. Be aware though, help is usually a long way away. The locals are really nice. 

There are many sacred sites throughout the island. Please, please, please, treat them with respect. Do not go into the temples unless invited by someone who clearly belongs there.

Dave's Faves -- Dave's Oh So Not Faves--