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Only 40 years to wait

We are just back continental side from an amazing birthday week in the Hawaiian sun. Whose birthday? That would be mine. The 40th. And I can think of no better way to have spent it than with my family, and no better place than Hawaii.

A few years ago I took stock of my lifetime of travel and decided to set a goal of seeing all 50 states by the time I reach 50. At the beginning of this year I had been to 44 of them, so it's a reasonable goal, but the states I have yet to see are strangely strewn across our continent. Alabama and Georgia in the Southeast, Maine in the northeast, Idaho in the Northwest, and the outliers, Hawaii and Alaska. And now, thanks to this amazing trip, I can move Hawaii to the done list.

There are lots of ways to do Hawaii, and I'd categorize our trip as thoroughly relaxing. Our goal was to spend as much time together as possible while soaking up sun and beautiful views, and we accomplished this by renting a house just outside Kailua-Kona, on the west side of the Big Island, through VRBO. I'll say first that the house we rented was amazing. While we've never had a bad VRBO experience, this one outdid all the others by actually surpassing our expectations. The home was updated, the kitchen well appointed, and the views breathtaking. For us the best part of renting a house is having the family living space. We spent nearly every afternoon playing in the private pool, nearly every evening enjoying the sunset on the Lanai before grilling a delicious dinner to enjoy together, and many a night introducing Calvin to the Hawaiian wonder of Magnum P.I.

While some people take on Hawaii with a "collect them all" attitude, coptering from island to island, since our goal was just to relax and be together, we picked one island and stuck with it. We opted for the Big Island in large part because it is less developed, less touristy, and for Volcanos National Park. We wanted to see lava, and boy did we. Our National Park excursion was a full day experience. Driving on the island is a tortuous experience, and nobody is moving very fast, but the scenery all the way there was brilliant, and the park well worth the effort. We arrived at midday and stopped for lunch in the Lodge overlooking the active caldera. Lava isn't visible from that vantage point, but having just arrived we were perfectly entertained by the trail of smoke that was. After eating we spent some time at the Visitors Center so Calvin could earn his Junior Ranger badge before heading to Jaggar Museum where we were treated to a great view of the active lava spouting and roiling. This was amazing. Our next stop was to hike the Lava Tubes, which I found disappointing, but we followed up with a hike across the cooling, inactive crater at Kilaeua Iki, and for those who can swing the incline and uneven terrain, this is a must do. Walking across the now hardened waves of lava and feeling the hot steam rising from still cooling vents was an amazing experience (made even more so by having watched the video in the Visitors Center earlier about the crater's earlier eruption). Our final stop, and one I wouldn't have missed for the world, was back up to Jaggar Museum to view the lava after dark. This, too, is a must do. 

A note about lava in Volcanos National Park. The viewing varies greatly, even from minute to minute. We arrived during daylight hours to see two large tongues of lava lapping at the sides of the caldera, bright orange cracks forming across the black, molten surface, but just a half hour later one of those tongues was no longer visible and the other greatly diminished. Of course the same is true at night, and we were lucky enough to be treated another great spectacle on our after-dark return, but be forewarned: it gets chilly on top of the volcano after the sun sets, and the crowds are something to contend with (think small town fireworks display), but it is totally worth it to see both day and nighttime lava.

Another note, there aren't many restaurants near the park, and the choices become even fewer that late, so it's good to go with a meal plan.

Another goal of our trip was to take in the varied terrain of the Big Island. Dry and almost desert-like on the west side, the east side of the island is a rainforest, and the two are separated by entirely undeveloped lava fields. We took a day, or really a long morning, to drive across the relatively new highway that runs through the middle of the island to see the waterfalls and vegetation that clutter the island's east side. The drive across was alone worth the trip. We saw lava flows of many different ages in various stages of reanimation. we also got a good look at the main peaks of the island, Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, and the observatory on top. Although you know that you are climbing in elevation much of the way, it is still a surprise to begin the descent into Hilo to find yourself above the clouds. On the day that we drove over, we descended into completely cloud cover that hid the road below us. The effect was at first disorienting, and then completely stunning. Our time in Hilo was spent on light hiking to visit three falls sites: Pe'epe'e Falls, Rainbow Falls, and 'Akaka Falls. The first two were very short walks on paved paths, with optional easy hikes on the side. Rainbow Falls was a longer walk with greater elevation changes, but still a paved path. All three were beautiful, and the vegetation and wildlife (lizards and birds) were an added pleasure.

A final goal for our trip was to attend a Luau. Now, we understood going in that luaus these days are but a dim reminder of what was once a culturally significant part of island life, but arguments about authenticity vs. kitsch aside, we knew we wanted this unique experience while we were there. My dad did his research and made reservations at the Mauna Kea Resort Luau to ensure our place at a highly rated luau on my actual birthday. It did not disappoint. The views alone were spectacular, and the food was great fun, but the dancing...oh the dancing. Authentic or no, it was amazing to watch, and it came with a bit of a history lesson, which I loved. 

Other things we did on our trip included a tour of the Kanaloa Octopus farm, and a tour of Kuaiwi Coffee Farm. I highly recommend the octopus farm if you have any interest in wild creatures at all: the tour was very informative, and the octopi highly entertaining. The visit needs to be booked ahead of time, although we booked ours only a week in advance. In other good news, your visit helps to fund this important program aimed at saving wild octopus populations. The coffee tour was also a complete joy. The plantation we visited was on old one, and today is a very small, family run affair, so our tour was private and unique. The air was cooler and cloudy up in the hills, and when we were there the coffee crop had already been brought in, but the land is planted with a wide variety of fruit and other trees and plants and we were treated to a taste test at nearly all of them. The owner/guide is immensely knowledgeable and very warm. We ended that tour with a sampling of coffee and chocolates on the family deck, that's how private and homey an operation it is. Highly recommended.

Then, like I said, the rest of our trip was an exercise in relaxation. Vibrant, welcoming mornings, long pool afternoons, delicious dinners, stunning sunsets, and restful evenings. It was everything I wanted, and I only had to wait 40 years for it.

The following photos were taken by several photographers, mainly myself and my wonderful sister-in-law, who was too gentle to rib me about my age even though she's nearly ten years younger and I gave her permission to do it all week.

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