Katie and I got to take our second trip to Hawaii in less than a year last week. It was really nice with some spikes of incredible fun. We went to Kauai last December with our free money from the Alaska Permanent Fund. It was my first time to Hawaii, and Katie’s first time since high school. We ended up going again so soon through some luck and generosity.
This year was Katie’s fortieth birthday and we knew that we wanted to take a trip, but we hadn’t decided where, and money has been kind of tight for the last few months, so we weren’t sure what we were going to be able to do. As it turns out, my parents bought into a timeshare organization where you pay a certain amount of money for a certain amount of points which you can use at a whole bunch of different places, several in Hawaii. Since they weren’t going to be able to use their points for this year, they offered to let us use some.
We found a place on the Big Island that looked good, so Katie checked around for some airfares. There’s a company here called Hawaiian Vacations that specializes in getting pale, frozen Alaskans to Hawaii for warming and browning. They charter planes from Hawaiian Airlines, and if you hit them at the right time, you can get some really good deals because they need to fill those planes. Katie found us round trip tickets for just about $350 each. The only catch was that to get that fare, we’d have to spend ten days in Hawaii instead of seven. It was a hard decision, but we figured we would make it work somehow. We ended up spending eight days and nights on the Big Island in Kona and the last two days in Waikiki.
But enough about that. You want to hear about the trip itself!
### The Big Island
When we went to Kaua’i in December, we didn’t do a lot of planned activity; we just kind of took things day by day. (We did do a horse ride which turned out to be a real highlight.) That was okay, but we decided to do just a little bit more scheduling this time. On Monday we booked a four hour snorkelling trip for Tuesday, a two-and-a-half hour horse ride up in Kohala (near Waimea) for Wednesday and for Thursday the most intriguing thing of all, a night dive (well, snorkel for us) where we would supposedly get to swim with manta rays!
### Snorkeling – Tuesday, with [Sea Quest](http://www.seaquesthawaii.com/)
We chose Sea Quest for a few reasons, but what made us so happy with them, and why I recommend them is because they take you out in small, fast boats (inflatable hardbottom outboards similar to Zodiacs). That means that you have fewer people in your boat (although they will run multiple boats, but if you get there on a slow day, you’ll have fewer people in the water around you – we had three other boats, so about 20-22 people total in the water), you have easier access to your guide, and most importantly, they can take you more places than a bigger, slower boat.
The day was kind of overcast, but it was very still. At first I was a little disappointed that it was overcast, but our guide (a swell fellow named Craig) said it was better this way because the sun wouldn’t be pounding down on us, but the water would still be in the upper 70s. So okay, then.
Craig started the tour by getting us up to speed, then veering for the lava rock cliffs on the shore and whipping us through a few rocks sticking up out of the water. If you’ve never ridden in Zodiac with a pilot who likes doing that kind of stuff, I recommend it. It’s really fun. The passengers sit up on inflated sides of of the boat and hold on to a rope that’s attached to the boat. You just lean into or out of the turn, as seems appropriate. It’s like riding post on a really fast motorcycle with someone who knows what they’re doing.
We worked our way down the coast, sometimes moving out to sea a few hundred yards, then cutting back in to look at sea caves and lava tubes. Eventually we made it to [Pu'uhonua o Honaunau](http://www.nps.gov/puho/), or The Place of Refuge. Back when Hawai’ian society was based on a strict set of taboos known as “kapu”, the usual punishment for breaking one of them was death. If you could get to this place, though, you would be safe. Now it’s a park that has some of the best snorkeling on the island.
We jumped in and started swimming around, and it really was amazing. Even with the sky overcast as it was you could see everything right down to the floor. The deepest the water got in that area was probably about twenty feet, and it was covered with coral. So many fishies! Everywhere you look fishies! We had bought a single-use underwater camera and I took a lot of pictures, but they’re all kind of murky. Still, it was cooler than I would have imagined to be out there just swimming around looking at the critters for forty-five minutes or so. We snorkeled when we were in Kauai, but it was winter and the seas were a lot higher, so there were fewer places available to us, and none were as good as this.
We all climbed out of the water and had a snack, then Craig got us moving toward our second swim location. Just as we were pulling out of the bay, we noticed some fins in the water, and Craig turned the boat toward them, saying they were spinner dolphins. We caught up with them and they swam along with us for a while, which in itself was pretty amazing because we were not going slowly. I didn’t try getting any pictures because they weren’t jumping or anything and it would have been some indistinct gray things in a gray field of water.
Our second swim location was the [Captain Cook Monument](http://www.hawaiiweb.com/hawaii/html/sites/captain_cooks_monument.html), where one of Europe’s greatest navigators was killed because he wouldn’t give up a rowboat. For us, it was just a dandy place to look at more fishies. Again we jumped in, and swam about. The major difference here, though was that the seabed suddenly disappeared about thirty to fifty yards off shore. It was very similar to the first swim spot up to that point, then suddenly there was nothing but dark, dark blue below you. I think Craig said it was about three hundred feet deep there. Of course there was no danger of anything happening; the water is so bouyant there that you have to really work to dive below the surface. But it was kind of creepy to see what appeared to be a bottomless nothing.
After splashing around there for a while, we climbed back in the boat and Craig took us back down the shoreline, whipping us through a few more standing rocks and pulling into a few more sea caves.
Katie and I were both pretty shagged after that and went back to the room to rest for a while. I’m not even sure what we did the rest of the day. But whatever it was, it didn’t compare to the morning.
### Horseback Riding – Wednesday, with [Paniolo Adventures](http://www.panioloadventures.com/index.htm)
On our trip to Kauai, we made a rather sudden decision to go ride horses. I don’t remember who brought it up first, but I think it was Katie, because I’ve avoided horses since I was a teenager. I had three or four interactions with horses when I was younger, none of them very good memories, culminating with getting thrown during an ill-advised bareback ride on a barrel racer that belonged to a cousin. But I’ve always loved the idea of horses. I love watching people ride horses, I love watching horses run. When Katie and I were hiking in Brecon Beacons Park in Wales several years ago, we crested a little hill and found ourselves just a few hundred yards from a little herd of wild ponies, maybe ten or fifteen. The stallion in charge stamped his feet and snorted and trotted towards us a little ways, but then turned the herd and galloped off with them, manes and tails flying in the wind as they ran across the wild little hills. My heart almost stopped, it was so beautiful.
Anyway, we had a really good time on that horse ride in Kauai. I was apprehensive going in, but the horses were really sweet and just did their thing and we got to go along with them. And by the end I had even managed to convince my horse that occasionally taking one my suggestions was not such a bad idea.
So this time when Katie found a nicely produced brochure about horse rides up in the miles, I thought, “Well hell, yes, we’re going on a horse ride!” We booked for the morning ride at 10:00, which meant we had to leave the room at about 8:30 to make it in time, which we did.
Again, I had to have a few conversations with my horse (Keoni) about whether or not my directional decisions would be heeded, but after a few false starts, we got going. I think part of the problem is that I’m still kind of timid with horses (They’re big! And you’re way up in the air if you piss them off!), but I also think I might have seated myself a little ungraciously and I know you should try to sit gently when you’re mounting, even if the horse is used to having people on its back.
Not much to say about this ride other than it was fun, and they let us trot and canter the horses, which I’d never done before. Trotting is something that would take some practice to learn how to without it hurting. Even Katie said it kind of hurt. We did better with the canter, except that I lost one my stirrups, so I slowed the horse down to make sure I didn’t fall off.
I’m now feeling kind of obsessed with riding and hope to get some lessons lined up. There are a few places up here that offer them, and several places that will take you our riding in Chugach State Park, which would be a lot of fun.
### MANTA RAY DIVE (OMG) – Thursday night, with [Neptune Charlie's](http://www.mantaraydiveshawaii.com/)
Before anything else: Mantas are the ones *without* stingers.
This was the real long shot. A friend (Jeff Wishnie, for those keeping track) mentioned it at one point, and it seemed like a cool idea, but neither Katie nor I know anything about SCUBA, so I wasn’t quite sure how it would play out. As it turns out, snorkelers are quite welcome, and even encouraged, as will be explained in a minute.
This all works because there’s a permanent population of about 70 mantas along the west shore. Several years back, one of the big resorts up toward the north end of the shore had spot lights installed and one of them was pointed at the water (I don’t know whether that was accidental or because somebody wanted to swim at night). At some point, someone noticed that mantas would occasionally gather and it was eventually figured out that the light attracted brine shrimp, which is a primary food source for the mantas, in huge numbers. Then people started diving around there to see the mantas and things kind of grew from there. Eventually that resort went out of business for a while, and a few different dive companies got together and started working to attract the mantas to someplace closer to Kona.
All the companies gather in one spot and the first crew there takes a big light down the bottom and turns it on to start the shrimp gathering. As the other boats show up, they all tie off to one of the four anchor balls in the area (there are anchor balls all up and down the west shore, apparently due in large part to the efforts and financial support of Jerry Garcia) and start getting divers in the water.
Even the snorklers are given wetsuits to wear, ostensibly to help stay warm (even though the water is still in the mid to upper 70s in the evening) and to help you float (even though the water is so incredibly bouyant), but I think it’s also so people don’t freak out if a manta brushes against them (because they *do* get that close). In addition to the wetsuits (and masks, fins, tanks, snorkels, etc.) everyone gets a waterproof handheld spotlight. Well, flashlight, really, but it has a pistol grip, so I thought of it as a spotlight.
So everyone starts swimming over to where the big spotlight is, snorklers pointing their lights down, divers pointing their lights up, creating the whirling little storm of brine shrimp. Yum!
It’s very weird getting into the water at night. Katie and I were both glad that we’d already done a lot of snorkeling this trip so we didn’t have to get used to the equipment. We could focus on just dealing with all the dark water and getting oriented the right way. The guides help you get your light hung around your wrist on a lanyard and instruct you to turn it on before sliding off the back of the boat and into the water.
The water seems completely black at this hour of the night, despite being crystal clear in the day. Of course, if you point your light down, you can see the bottom just twenty or thirty feet below, because it is still crystal clear; it’s just not suffused with sunlight. It was very quiet and peaceful in a way that snorkeling in the daytime isn’t, even with all the people in the water and HOLY CRAP A GIANT THING JUST SWAM RIGHT BY ME!
I cannot even begin to describe the surreality of looking down the gaping maw of one of these things as swims at you scooping up little shrimpies as it goes, to say nothing of realizing that one is performing an inside loop with you at the very top. Understand that they’re about six or seven feet across “wingtip” to “wingtip”, and their mouths appear to be about a foot to a foot and a half wide and four or five inches high. They are *massive*. And they come up out of nowhere. Katie and I both had giant swimming aliens practically brush up against us several times.
I highly recommend this. It was amazing. Beyond words, despite my attempt here.
**About the pictures:** The pictures I took didn’t come out very well because I wasn’t thinking about the camera very much. I bought one of the $25 reusable waterproof cameras on board, which was 35mm fixed focus point-and-shoot with a flash. What I didn’t account for is that the camera’s focal range was really intended to be close, and that using that little flash under water, surrounded by brine shrimp, I’d just be illuminating about six feet around me. So while I did get some close up shots I’m happy with, I tried several times to take pictures of groups of mantas swimming about twenty feet away from me that didn’t work out at all.
### All the Other Stuff
Friday we spent the day driving to, hiking around, and driving back from [Volcanoes National Park](http://www.nps.gov/archive/havo/home.htm). It was hot (very hot) and alternating misty and rainy, but we hiked out from park headquarters around the big crater rim to giant lava tube where we got stuck behind two busloads of slow-moving tourists, then hiked back to park headquarters through the bottom of the crater. It was very much like the Land of the Lost, so I was prompted several times to make the Sleestak noise, despite Katie’s protestations that the Sleestaks freaked her out when she was little. I ended up getting a little dehydrated and cranky, so we didn’t hike all the way out to the steam plume where the lava is currently falling into the sea, but we did drive as close as we could and hike in a bit to get a look at it.
We also went snorkeling a few times at Kahalu’u Beach Park in Kona, which is nice because it’s protected by a reef, but it’s also kind of crowded and the water is pretty cloudy toward the end of the day.
The last big adventure we had was finding the obscure entrance to the park and picnic area on [Kiholo Bay](http://www.hawaiiweb.com/hawaii/html/beaches/kiholo_bay.html). Kiholo has a black sand beach and beautiful, beautiful water, although we mostly walked around. Starting from the parking area, you walk up the beach toward the big resorts up on that part of the shore and after you walk past several big, expensive private homes, you come to an area that was used by the kings and queens of Hawai’i for fishing and bathing for a long time. There’s still walls that were built to enclose parts of the beach, and there’s a little lagoon that has a channel going out to the bay.
### Gosh, I Like Hawai’i
There are connections between Alaska and Hawai’i that seem to run deeper than just their contrasts. Being the last two states admitted to the union, Captain Cook and his voyages, the status of the native populations, the proximity of the states, the wild and remote nature of both places. Of course it could be as simple as the appeal leaving an Alaska winter for a week where winter temperatures average in the 70s and 80s.
There are lots and lots of Alaskans that own condos in Hawai’i (to say nothing of timeshares) and it’s very common for people to move from one state to the other and back again. It occured to me several times this visit that I actually could see us living there. I doubt that it’s realistic at this point, but heck, you never know.
We have a [photo set up on Flickr](http://www.flickr.com/photos/mccreath/sets/72157594319285137/) that you can go through.