Well here goes! This ended up being longer than I expected, but I started and just kept writing and writing! We were on the Big Island for 10 days and here are days 1-4. Let me know if you like it, and I will pen the rest!
Who are we? A fun-loving family of Connecticut who can never get enough of the natural wonders on this planet. Our ranks comprise Vijay and Chitra, much travelled but never to Hawaii before. And our two intrepid kids, Shobhita and Sarvesh, totally adorable, but always pushing the envelope.
Day 1: Kona, Kikaua Point and Kuk'io Beach:
Our flight landed early after a brief aerial circum-naviation of the island. Our first surprise was Kona Airport, which our guide-book pretty well trashed. No idea why, as we were quite captivated by walking through outdoor courtyards to an open-air baggage claim. We picked up our rental car and were soon on our way. As we headed south for a quick supermarket trip, we were treated to our inaugural views of lava rocks. No matter how much you've read, your eyebrows are still squarely raised to see black all round as far as the eye could see!
With car fully loaded with provisions, we wended our way to the Four Seasons Resort and the adjacent beaches of Kikaua Point and Kuk'io Bay (taking immediate advantage of Hawaii's "all beaches open to everyone" policy. We found a wonderful enclave on Kikaua partly enclosed by benign rocks. It looked absolutely custom-made for us! Shady sands where we picnicked and chilled out, along with serene waters where we cut our teeth with some low-tech snorkelling. As usual, Shobhita (our daugher) streaked ahead and was soon leading us to some comparatively deeper waters where she had found some fishes swirling around and raising cain. After a couple of hours of this, we took a couple of leisurely walks, soaking up the seaside environment, first along the rocky coastline to the north, and then due South to Kuki'o Bay where we spotted an array of Sea Turtles flapping in the waters and a compatriot enjoying an evening nap on the golden sand. Then we returned via the fishponds to the back of the resort, where I spotted a Black Crowned Night Heron in the fading light, static on a grassy bank, stoically staring us down. All-in-all, just the sort of first day we could have craved for!
Day 2: Mauna Lani Fishponds, Makaiwa Bay and Anaeho'omalu Bay
on the advice of the helpful posters on Tripadvisor, we had belatedly switched our accommodation to the Paniolo Greens condo in Waikoloa Village. A big vote of thanks on this, as the place suited us down to the ground. We are definitely not resort people, so these well stocked, but unpretentious self-catering apartments were perfect for us. Very well located and no sign of the raging winds that some folks had warned about. Our condo backed up to a golf course, so we enjoyed a relaxed breakfast surrounded by greenery, scanning the surrounding trees for ornithological life and mouthing pleasantries at the wild turkeys who roamed around the lawns.
Anyway, so much for planning! Our master-itinerary had us starting with an energetic morning hike to the Pu'u Wa'awa'a cinder cone, which offers a panoramic view of the surrounding landscapes. But we realized just in time that the gate leading to the trailhead is only open on weekdays. A glance at the calendar confirmed this was very much Saturday. Fortunately, we had a more than acceptable alternative as we headed for the beautiful Mauna Lani Resort. So commenced a quite wonderful day. A 1 mile stroll past a variety of lava rock terrains, interspersed with lava tubes and landslides was followed by the quite majestic Kalahuipua'a fishponds with their rippling waters and gentle vegetation. They bear a striking resemblance to the famous backwaters of Kerala in South West India, where my family hails from. We lingered quite a while here, snapping all manner of photos and video. Finally, when the kids declared they were going to jump in the ponds and try snorkelling, we figured we had better move on.
The next 3 hours were idyllic. We strolled along the shoreline admiring the pristine ocean, first roaming freely on the flattish rocks, then taking a quick swing on the hammocks of the Mauna Lani resort; and then sitting restfully on a black sand beach lit up by touches of green olivine as the kids splashed around. We probably walked a few miles all told, before returning to the peer near the fishponds where we plumped ourselves down on the Makaiwa Bay Beach for a well-earned lunch. Then for some more snorkelling in what is renowned as one of the Kona/Kohala's best spots. And it didn't disappoint. After swimming out a mere 50 feet, we started seeing fish of all sorts, and then a quite resplendent coral reef that simply got better and better, the further we swam. A quite dazzling array of formations and colours which so captivated us, that we ended up venturing out far deeper than we originally thought feasible. Fortunately, we had armed ourselves with life jackets so there was no anxiety at all and we basked in the oceanic world all round us.
Needless to say, the whole afternoon passed in a flash. Chitra and I had time to steal a romantic walk around a nearby cove, leaving the kids splashing near the shore. They were happy and we were peaceful. So makes a family! We still had time for a sunset jaunt to nearby Anaeho'omalu Beach. This is very highly rated by others, but for us, it was just ok. It was on the crowded side (always a dissuading factor for us) and there was too much music from a nearby resort. Not to worry. We had had more than our fill of sand and surf for the day!
Day 3: Polulu Valley:
The morning was greeted by more dazzling sunshine, as befits the Kohala Coast which is one of the driest areas in the US. We had our sights firmly set on the famous Polulu Valley and set off North up the coast. But first a detour to Mahukona Beach Park (exit 14 off the coastal Route 270) in search of a navigational heiau. This is a temple of upturned stones used by the Polynesians to mark out certain destinations (which it apparently does with great accuracy).
After a few inquiries for directions, we set off up a tree-lined path which headed up to a range of cliffs, sporting a narrowish balcony-like trail, flanking the ocean. The contrast with the manicured Mauna Lani resort and its innocuous waters could not have been greater. Our sandy path looked down on an array of menacing rocks being battered by truculent waves. This was the full force of nature and the epitome of rugged beauty. Utterly memorable. We found the site of the heiau, but it was at the top of a hill which a nearby sign asked us not to scale in deference to its Hawaiian religious sanctity. So we returned to our car and set off for Polulu.
The journey took us to the very Northern tip of the Big Island, and we crossed the rain shadow rubicon where the dry and arid lava rock-ridden scrub gives way to dense foliage. This of course was just a taster of what was to come when we really ventured Eastwards.
Polulu was everything we imagined and then some. A 20 minute hike into the valley along a series of switchbacks with increasingly vivid views of the black sand beach with its relentless tide below. Once we descended, a distinct "other-worldliness" feeling overtook us. Unlike the equally renowned Waipi'o Valley, Polulu is not inhabited and is thus utterly unspoiled. Aside from a few other hikers, the only other wildlife was a few chirping finches.
We trekked across the beach which interspersed black sand with a mix of lava rock and more regular pebbles in search of the Awini trail which snakes up the far-side cliff to a view of the next valley. The hike up took us about 45 mins, passing through a thick and lush rain forest, and then out onto an open rock plateau. The view from the summit was more than worth the climb. A 180 degree view spanning the ocean, another black sand beach far below, and waves of thickly forested hills stretching miles into the distance. There were distinct signs of landslides on these and these have made the onward hike into the next valley treacherous and virtually impossible.
We must have spent a good half hour at the peak, soaking up the visual feast. Then we descended and munched a leisurely lunch on the beach. As we had ventured away from the coast, it had become increasingly cloudy and a few spots of rain were in the air. This of course didn't deter the kids who paddled merrily in the water.
From Polulu, we headed back down Hwy 250, which runs southwards down the spine of the dormant Kohala Volcano. The route was highly recommended by our guide book and offered another striking contrast in landscapes. Suddenly, rolling hills reminiscent of Wales or the English Lake District met our gaze, made all the more mystical by intermittent bouts of vog enveloping the road ahead. This was irresistible so we found a parking spot of sorts and generally frolicked frivolously around the field-edges to our heart's content.
This was the day we had tentatively planned to drive up Mauna Kea to the Observatory Station where on a clear evening you can view the full expanse of the night sky through their various telescopes. But the weather was clearly closing in, so we bagged this and went instead to Kiholo Bay where the kids enjoyed more splash time, while we let our minds drift away in the twlight.
Day 4: Waipi'o Valley and out to the East:
Today was our west coast swansong, devoted almost entirely to the Waipi'o Valley, which you might describe as the cousin of Polulu. The almost one hour long drive took us up Hwy 19 past the sprawling Parker Ranch and through the somewhat non-descript town of Waimea. Then a long stretch to the unmistakeable dead end portending the picture-perfect Waipi'o Valley.
Ahead of us was the somewhat infamous 20 degree grade road leading down. A large sign warned that this was strictly for 4-wheel cars only. This was no issue as our plan was to hike down and up. As we went, it was easy to see how one could be fooled. An initially manageable and widish slope gave way to increasingly steep and treacherous stretches and sharp curves. If you look carefully, you can spot debris from cars which have met a gruesome fate at the hands of their over-zealous drivers.
The walk down was a little tough on the knees, but Sarvesh (my son) showed us the way, invoking his skiing technique to walk in S-patterns down the slope. As Shobhita commented, this would have been one helluva double black diamond trail. We soon reached the base from where a deeply pot-holed road led through thick forestry towards the beach. It was a lovely stroll and we could not envisage why some would bring gargantuan vehicles to this paradise.
After about half a mile, we reached the beach and the magic of Waip'io immediately enveloped us. A long shock of black sand (much broader than that at Polulu) stretched away towards the distant cliffs. While in the foreground was a gushing stream which flowed straight into the ocean forming a wall of water that we would have to traverse. This was a little tricky, but great fun. There followed another beach saunter that will long live in the memory. The crisp surf smell and the crashing waves to our right blended perfectly with the woodland trees to the left.
On the surface, this invoked memories of Polulu, but it had a special and unique charm of its own. Also similar to Polulu, we ascended a trail (the so-called Mulwani or "Z Trail") across the beach from our entry point, but the terrain was quite different. Wildflowers were starting to bloom (this being early Spring) lighting up the landscape with gentle colours that teased the senses. We went as far as the third switchback, from where we had been told one gets the best view of the valley below. From here, we could see much more than the beach. A whole expanse opened up before us with the turquoise ocean to our left and rich pasture-land, rolling hills to our right and the steep road from wherest we come directly opposite. A perfect oval lagoon beckoned down below, while the distant cliff walls were adorned by the Hi'ilawe Falls, discernible with our binoculars despite the somewhat sparse flow (courtesy of a rather dry past month).
We could have stayed up there all day. We really could. There are other places on earth of staggering beauty, but surely none of them could be more pristine than this. Eventually, we did drag ourselves down the slope and back to the beach. The kids cooled off nicely in the sea, totally eclipsing their Polulu exploits by riding on some fairly tall and intimidating waves. Their whoops of joy spoke volumes. They were in their little heaven.
The rest of the day could not match the heights of this, but we still savoured every moment. Somehow, the trek back up out of the valley (which is described as hell on earth by some) seemed like nothing. Maybe we were just well-conditioned now, or maybe we were still floating on Waip'io air! From there, we headed East along the Hamukua Coast, stopping at various waterfalls and bridges. We were very definitely on the windward side of the island, increasingly engulfed by a thick canopy of over-bearing trees and thickets. All making for more Kodak moments. It was hard to believe we were maybe 70 miles from the Kohala lava landscape. The Big Island truly has something for everyone.