The Big Island is a strange amalgamation of endless, moonscape black lava flows through which roads have been carved, and which tumble, unheralded by very few beaches, into the sea, and tropical rainforesty-type areas where poinsettas grow as trees and small walls built of black lava stones and mortar define individual properties. And it's all towered over by three honkin' volcanos.
It smelt good there, though, except for the days when the trade winds
blew vog (volcanic smog) over Kona. Hibiscus and other exotic flowers
festoon the place...and the towering palms near the beach make you forget
for a moment that you are on an island that is still in the process of
being born. Hawaii had changed since my previous trips
to Honolulu, Maui and Molokai, all over ten years before this adventure.
And I thought it had become even a little harder to get a sense of Polynesian
culture when surrounded by Costco and 24 hour Wal-Mart and Starbucks.
There were Harley Davidsons for rent on every corner (we were tempted
- but D's back wasn't up to it), and beefed up pick-up trucks cruising
the strip along the shore, where an outbreak of t-shirt stands, cheezy
restaurants and assorted other tourist traps clutter an otherwise drop
dead gorgeous vista. Not to mention condo-mania. Time shares are big on
the Big Island - we managed to duck getting lassooed into sitting through
a hard sell. There are very few beaches
on the west coast of the Big Island. There's a small fakey just before
the Mile 4 marker on Ali'i drive (the main drag, and condo connector out
of Kona), but to find the real McCoy we had to drive about forty minutes
north, up to Hapuna Beach, the sandy confection featured at the top of
this page. It was worth the drive. To get there, we took the lid off the
convertible, did a drive-by at MickeyD's, cranked up the tunes and pointed
the hood of the car north, through the seemingly endless, stark, but eerily
beautiful lava fields.
It smelt good there, though, except for the days when the trade winds blew vog (volcanic smog) over Kona. Hibiscus and other exotic flowers festoon the place...and the towering palms near the beach make you forget for a moment that you are on an island that is still in the process of being born.
Hawaii had changed since my previous trips to Honolulu, Maui and Molokai, all over ten years before this adventure. And I thought it had become even a little harder to get a sense of Polynesian culture when surrounded by Costco and 24 hour Wal-Mart and Starbucks. There were Harley Davidsons for rent on every corner (we were tempted - but D's back wasn't up to it), and beefed up pick-up trucks cruising the strip along the shore, where an outbreak of t-shirt stands, cheezy restaurants and assorted other tourist traps clutter an otherwise drop dead gorgeous vista. Not to mention condo-mania. Time shares are big on the Big Island - we managed to duck getting lassooed into sitting through a hard sell.
There are very few beaches on the west coast of the Big Island. There's a small fakey just before the Mile 4 marker on Ali'i drive (the main drag, and condo connector out of Kona), but to find the real McCoy we had to drive about forty minutes north, up to Hapuna Beach, the sandy confection featured at the top of this page. It was worth the drive. To get there, we took the lid off the convertible, did a drive-by at MickeyD's, cranked up the tunes and pointed the hood of the car north, through the seemingly endless, stark, but eerily beautiful lava fields.
Hapuna Beach is a long, sandy white crescent that, to my beach-starved eyes, reminded me of Maui. There's a big, cushy resort on one end (where you would not want to stay if you are doing a dive vacation, unless you like to commute while on holiday, and I think you would get pretty tired seeing that black lava wasteland day after day), but the rest of the beach is part of a park, open to the public, with all the facilities that locals or tourists might need for a day at the beach.
But other than these two beaches that we found, the rest of the shoreline is lava. And lava is not kind to shore divers.
So, given the statement above, that is that most of the shoreline is lava, and that lava is not kind to shore divers, here is Tip Number One: take booties. And gloves too, since sea urchins are not kind either, and more likely than not, you will be doing some hand over hand work to move yourself over the reef in the shallows.
Shore Diving Day One: City of Refuge - Two Steps
Probably the most popular, and the easiest, shore diving site is City of Refuge, which is about a forty-five minute drive south of Kona-Kailua. There is a national park at City of Refuge which is a beautiful place, and has some native Hawaiian historical significance. It'll cost you a couple of bucks to go in and check it out. We had heard that there was a good, but very challenging dive entry off the last picnic table. We scouted it out, measured the surge and the slipperiness of the uneven lava entry and decided against it. Here comes Tip Number Three: Be a thinking diver (I sincerely hope that is not an oxymoron ;^) Ask around. Get the goods. We didn't see any local divers doing it either, which is probably the best indicator of whether it's a good day to attempt it or not. Instead, we ended up doing the 'Two Step' entry in the bay that you will find in the last small, not very well marked turn-off before you go into the park.
To get to City of Refuge, you go up through quite an elevation (approximately 2000 feet), before you turn off the main Highway (which, by this point, is really just a two lane road) and head back down to the ocean. There are some stores and gas stations along the way, before the turnoff, but nothing, other than a Kona coffee plantation tour, on the way down the hill. So gas up, and stock up on drinks and pupus before you go. Tip Number Four: Bring food and water for the surface interval, as there was nothing, I mean nothing available for miles. We really wished that we had brought a collapsible insulated cooler to store our water, some sandwiches, snickers bars and maybe a coupla Coronas for after the dives. All the locals seemed to be sucking on a brew or two in the park, so I don't think you could get in too much trouble. Here in Canada, they frown upon that sort of thing. For that matter, you could probably buy something cheap at Wal-Mart in styrofoam that you could leave for the next condo occupant when you go. And, it might be a good idea to plan to tour the historical site in the park before you jump in your jeep and head on back up the hill, especially if you're diving deep and/or doing repetitive dives and/or enjoying a cold one when you are done diving for the day. Tip Number Five: Bring two tanks, or even three. For the hassle and the drive and the elevation situation, make a day of it. You won't be sorry.
It's a popular place for both tourists and locals, and parking can be a bit of a challenge. But it's no biggie. Just drop the gear close to the water and drive a little farther up the lane to park. It's a pretty easy hike over the lava to the two steps...and you can't miss 'em...it's where all the divers and snorkelers are getting in and out of the water. The grumpy people are the ones who have just arrived and are pissed off at the volume of people crowding their dive site and taking up their parking spots. The smiling ones are the ones who just climbed out of the water after diving in probably the most beautiful coral garden I have ever seen.
I was blown away the moment my mask hit the water. There were fish everywhere, needlefish and trumpets and humumunukunkuapua'a - the Hawaiian national fish that you will only find in shallow water. There were morays and tangs and grunts and angels, all in under ten feet of water. The first hundred yards or so off shore are pretty shallow, so we saved air and snorkelled out. Tip Number Six: Bring your snorkel. If you're gonna shore dive on Hawaii, you're gonna need it. Besides, it's a great way to kill a surface interval. Even from a snorkeling stance, we could watch three titanic turtles being cleaned, but when we wanted a closer look, we just dumped some air and down we went. No doubt about it, Scuba Rules.
But it is the coral that is the star of the show. You won't read much about the coral later in my notes about doing the dive charter thing with Dive Makai. There wasn't much to tell...just the ubiquitous antler and finger corals. Compared to the varieties we had previously seen in other locales, it was pretty ho hum. But the coral at City of Refuge is magnificent. It's a hobbit haven. Huge toadstool formations and plate corals that are healthy right up to within feet of the surface. Between these monster coral heads are sandy bottomed canyons, perfect for a fly through for the occasional soaring turtle, schooling fish, and us. It was like diving in a three dimensional underwater labyrinth.
We did two dives at Two Steps. On the first we headed straight out into the bay (watch out for boats on the snorkeling portion), out to the wall which started at about 40 feet and sloped off into infinity. There were some large coral pinnacles on the left side of the bay that were interesting, and I think it was there, when I went inverted to check out a moray curled in a crevice, that I lost my blue Tusa self-purging snorkel. Big bummer. If you find it, could you send it to me? It matches my mask. =[;]^) Tip Number Seven: Secure all essential items. Especially your wallet, your car keys and your breathing apparatus. I worry when I see people dragging their octos in the sand or bumping them along the fragile coral. Lucky for me I had found a powder pink snorkel on a dive the day before. Take something and give something back.
It's the perfect site to putter and lurk...you really can't get into much trouble, unless you tumble off the wall...there were no currents, even on a blustery day, and on the reef, max depth was no more than 40 or so feet. It would be a great place to take a mixed group of divers/snorkelers. Everyone will be happy. Tip Number Eight: This is about as easy as shore diving gets, but I still think it's important to be quite an experienced diver before you go on a non-guided dive. Anywhere.
On the second dive we dove on the right side of the bay. We chatted with a local diver who told us that he hadn't done it in years, but to his recollection there was a gnarly swim-thru lava tube thattaway. Underway on our lava tube odyssey, D got a bit of a surprise when a snorkeller swam down to him and handed off an octopus. Hello. I guess he had plucked it off one of the shallow coral heads, had a bit of fun with it and then thought we might want to play. Not. D felt sorry for the little sucker and put him near a coral outcropping, where he retreated to recover. I really wish people wouldn't touch wild animals. Apparently, octopi ink out when they are anxious, and then are left defenseless to predators for hours afterward.
To make a long, pretty boring (is boring diving an oxymoron, too?) dive story short, we never found the alleged lava tube. We swam forever along a pretty, uneventful antler coral crusted bank that bottomed out at 75 feet. We finally figured that we'd done enough tube trekking and came back to finish the dive in the coral garden labyrinth. It was there that we spotted an octopus hunting, shooting from coral head to coral head, changing his colours faster than we could see the process. We lingered and watched him for a long time. And he seemed curious about us bumbling bubble blowers too.
Shore Diving Day Two: Mile 4 Marker
We had heard that this was a good, fairly easy shore dive from our research on the internet, and by talking to some local divers that we met there the day before when we went to do a snorkeling site orientation. We were thrilled when we swam out and around the point with the snorkels and sighted three big green sea turtles poking along the edge of the reef thirty or forty feet below us. It got us psyched for the next day.
Mile 4 Marker has a loose lava beach entry. Meaning that there is a little give, and that booties are a must. But there is a little welcome mat of white sand at the entry point on the north side of the little bay. Once we waddled into the water, akwardly at first, gaining grace and agility as we gained flotation, clambering over and swimming around urchin infested boulders, we surface swam out of the bay and headed for the southern rocky point. Isn't it ironic that we divers are less graceful and less relaxed on the surface than in the deep? In about twenty-five feet of water we dumped our bc's and wafted down. It was a site that gave us a whole new perspective of something vaguely familiar from the day before's 2-D flyover. This time we were denizens of the reef. It felt good to be there. It felt good to be alone. We knew that we were the only divers in the water here, compared to the congestion at City of Refuge the day before and the ten or so of us on Dive Makai's dive boat in the first part of the week. It made us feel like explorers. Like pioneers. Like anything could happen.
We had been told about a double cavern with a skylight by the divers we met the day before. We found it easily and knew it was okay to go in. I love diving in wide open caverns. No small, cramped places though, thank you very much. I always feel like a spelunker. And I love the way that, when I wend my way through a stony labyrinth, I feel like I'm flying. This cavern had two rooms - big chambers. We swam into the first one, cut off from the surface by a ceiling of coral encrusted lava rock. We shone our lights into every cranny and crevice, finding out who was in residence and pausing long enough to find out what they do for a living. After a time, we moved through into the second chamber, which was equally but differently magnificent. It had a skylight that washed the walls of the cave with glorious light. The kind of light that comes from straight above on a tropical dive and that refracts into the most perfect symphony of bouncing-off-the-wall blues. It is also an emergency exit, up, although only as a last resort, because the breakers on the waves passing over our heads revealed how close we were to shore, and those breakers would smack you, and your little tank too, pretty hard on the unforgiving lava, given half a chance.
After enjoying a good loiter in the caves and visiting with the mammoth moray that resides there, we emerged to continue poking along the reef. There is an expansive, sandy bottomed section of the big lava ledge that runs from shore to the precipice, which is dotted with coral outcroppings, pinnacles and islands of life that rise out of the pulverized white coral sand. With lots of little changes in elevation, I felt like I was flying through sandy valleys, crowned by coral mountains that were teeming with activity. There was so much to see...the cilium fins of the brown and blue camouflage-painted filefish propelling them through our range of vision as they foraged along the reef. Darting needlenose angels and unicorn tangs and moorish idols. Shy trumpets, plaid or yellow or polka dot tailed, morphing as they changed venue, playing hide and seek in small, dark, safe havens. We watched while a smoky brown and cream striped, neon blue polka dotted grouper (groupers are not native to Hawaii, but were introduced to hawaiian waters in recent history, and have established a healthy, well fed population on the reef) hunted side by side with a moray, loose from his lair. The moray moved sinuously and assiduously across the reef, with the grouper riding shotgun. When the moray ducked into a hole, out popped the alarmed resident on the other side and gulp, Mr. Grouper got dinner. Talk about partnership. I got into a damsel fish's territorial bubble and smiled through my regulator at his well-I-oughta lunges at my mask in his aggressive samson vs goliath attempts to get me to leave his coral head alone. And there were lots of little rainbow wrasses, flitting over the reef in small herds. It was a serene, beautiful place, the watery sunlight bouncing off the white sandy bottom washing the reef in a warm, embryonic welcoming blue light...
(Snap back to reality)
Okay, back on the track to more practical matters:
Where to Stay on the Big Island
I'm not going to dwell on the land portion of this vacation, because on trip like this, it wasn't a resort experience that we were looking for, and nor could we afford it. Instead, we were looking for some good diving, a little closer to home than the Caribbean. Our goal was to make it as inexpensive as practical, without compromising the quality of the diving, and without making the holiday miserable by worrying about how we were going to pay for it when we got home. We are, after all, Canadians, and for every dollar we spend in the U.S., we pay something like a $1.65 in Canadian funds. Once upon a time, in my shopping lifetime, our dollar used to be ivalued higher than the now-mighty US buck. Now, in dollars for dollars, we generally get paid less than Americans, for the same job, have a higher cost of living, and we pay way, way more in taxes. But we do have national healthcare. For everyone. At least sometimes. But I digress.
So, travelling in the U.S. is expensive for us Canucks, when for Americans (and others) it's relatively reasonable (on a world standard). So keep that in mind when you read my suggestions about where to stay. I can't tell you about the Four Seasons or the Hilton Walkoloa or the Mauna Lani or the Hapuna Prince Resort, except to say that they all looked pretty darn marvellous from an envious distance - like little palm treed mirages perched on the edge of the sea in the endless black lava desert, way, way below the highway. But with the punishing exchange rates, they were way, way out of our price range. Also, keep in mind, that what was totally out of the question for us may be perfectly within your ballpark. Just know that you will be doing a bit of driving if you are diving. All of these cushy resorts are located north of Kona-Kailua, which is the centre of all dive ops on the island, with the distance increasing from nearest to farthest in the order in which I have listed them. And what you're looking for, experience-of-a-hotel-wise, may be perfectly different than ours, too. Some people are just happy to have a bed and a place to hang a wetsuit. Other people like a little luxury, without having to win a lottery to get it. It is a holiday, after all.
We stayed at the Kona Bali-Kai. It is on the main drag south out of Kona, called Ali'i Drive. The Ali'i were the ancient Hawaiian royalty. So this was probably the route of the Hawaiians, before the arrival of tall ships and merchant traders, when they migrated up and down the coast. City of Refuge, the place where we did the first two shore dives, would have been on that path. Now, instead of regal ancient Hawaiians parading up and down the Ali'i path, it's the jumped-up jeeps and pick up trucks of the locals and the occasional Jag or Mercedes of the hideaway wealthy who have vacation residences on this island, sharing their roads with rental cars, some driven by stressed-out, road-rage-on-a-vacation types. But most everybody follows the snailspace speed limits in the waterfront town of Kona without getting verbally abused by a guy in a red convertible Pontiac Sunfire rental car. Oh yeah, and there are Harleys. The Harleys cruise up and down Ali'i drive too. Even at four o'clock in the morning.
Ali'i drive is where most of the condos and hotels are. Many are on the waterfront, so as long as you request a room facing out to the ocean, on the ocean side of the street, I think you won't be bothered much by the traffic noise. Instead, the sound of rhythmic smacking-smartly-onto-the-lava-beach waves will either lull you to sleep every night or keep you wide awake (they do that to me...and it takes a couple of days for me to get into a good, deep, dead-to-the-world-and-the-sound-of-waves sleep). Most of the accommodations are in low-rise buildings. The Bali Kai was rated three stars by the tour operator we used. I think that the rating is a bit generous. We reserved 'mountain view', which was in fact 'road view' and was across the street from the 'ocean view' building, and the doppler effect of the cars and motorcycles cruising right below our window made me feel, at three o'clock in the morning, that they were coming right through the screened, no glass window and into our bedroom. vvvVVVRRROOOMMMmmm. Pretty freaky.
Both of the units we stayed in (we got moved after that first, Harley insomnia-induced night) were pretty tired. Circa 1970's decor, camping-quality kitchens (although both had a blender, so it wasn't all bad) and thin walls. So, I can't really recommend the Bali Kai, unless maybe if you stay on the ocean side of the street. Even then, if you stay on the other side, know that it's got a crummy little land-locked swimming pool. I don't know about you, but when I come back from diving, I like to be a lounge lizard and lie in the sun for a while and get my core temperature back up. If there's no beach (and like I said before, there aren't any in Kona) I want to lie by the pool. If the pool is in the bottom of a box formed by buildings, it doesn't get much sun. Come to think of it, it only gets it around noon.
I could tell you the name of a lot of condo complexes and hotels that we saw, but I think your best bet is to do one or more of these three things: #1 Call/click in to your travel agent and see what air/accommodation packages are available. Choose a couple of places that you are really interested in (and at this point make a decision whether it's gonna be condo or hotel). Then, #2 Go do a googlewhack. After reading numerous posts about a place, it's pretty easy to distill it all and come out with a sure thing gamble. Or, #3 Contact Dive Makai (be nice folks, and only do it if you're planning on diving with them) and they'll send you some great info that I wish I had when I was booking our trip.
Briefly though, about hotels: In the right-in-the-thick-of-things-Kona, there is a big resort hotel called King Kamehameha's which looks like a pretty reasonable place to stay, especially if you are bringing the family. There's a bit of a man-made beach and the village of Kona is right there, though not in your face. They do the luau gig and bring in Hawaiian entertainers. An added bonus is that the dive boat leaves from the public pier which is right next to the hotel. There's also the Kona Beach Hotel, which to my recollection is not on the beach, and might be subject to some pretty big traffic noise. Nice pool, though. As you head south along Ali'i Drive there is The Royal Kona Resort. Again, it looks pretty nice. Big property. Looks like it might be a good place to take the family or your non-diving spouse or group of friends. It's walking distance to Kona. After that, you're pretty much in condo country and most-definitely-require-a-car land. I think you are going to want one anyway, expecially if you plan to shore dive. Almost all of the condos along the stretch between The Royal Kona Resort and the Kona Surf at the south end of Ali'i Drive look pretty much the same. Some seem a little nicer than others (difference is usually reflected in price, in my experience). There is one beach on this stretch, the fake one, just before the four mile marker (mile 0 being Kona...it's the south running route and training ground for Ironman triathletes), and there are some condos near there called Kona Magic Sands and Kona White Sands. They looked budget-minded, and might be a good place to go with the kids if they want to boogie board on a man-made beach. And at the end of the row, off in a quiet little sanctuary, is the Kona Surf. It looked pretty comfy. Nice, multilevel condos and a good looking pool area, with an unpopulated pebbly beach next door.
I had done alot of research before we went and we had booked in with an operation called Dive Makai for three days of diving. We were so happy with this op that we ended up giving up one of our three days of planned shore diving so we could dive our last day in Hawaii with them.
Dive Makai is (or at least was, at time of writing) an essentially an all-female operation, owned by Lisa and Tom, but Tom was out indefinitely with a bum back. Other regulars on the boat were Kendra (Lisa 's daughter, who has been diving since she was six...Lisa would tuck her under one arm, stick her octopus in her mouth and take her for a spin), Amy, Alexa and Kate. Could those chicks dive. They were all unbelievably knowledgeable underwater naturalists, and took great pleasure in sharing their encyclopedic knowledge with their clients.
We would go down in a small group (four or five of us with one Dive Mistress) and they would take us on their two speed reef tour, the speeds being slow and stop. We saw creatures up close and personal that we would never have seen on our own, and in addition, these gals were really into fish behaviour and id, and had a long, comprehensive dictionary of underwater signals that we learned the first day so we would know what we were seeing. So we learned the signs for things like egg sack, baby, teenager, sex change (many varieties of fish change sex - usually from female to male - at one point in their life, usually to ensure the procreation of the species), terminal (as in, the final phase of a fish's genesis - not meaning sick or dying), courting, mating, fighting, hunting. And then there are all the signs for different species of fish - wrasse (no fewer than eight or ten varieties to learn), angels (ditto), tangs, turtles, octopi, rays, sharks, dolphins, needlefish, trumpetfish, coronet fish, damsels, lionfish, 'cuda etc. etc. etc. Oh yeah, and eels - at least six or seven varieties to identify. Lucky for us, they also had a sign for "remember this" - if we saw something that we didn't know the sign for we could point at it and give them the remember sign, and when we got back on the boat they would educate us about that one too. It was amazing what they knew. They also appeared to know every site we visited like their own backyard - knew who would be living there - what kind of behaviours we should expect to see, yada, yada, yada. The briefing for each site was at least 10 to 15 minutes long, accompanied by a photo album full of pictures of the inhabitants of the reef, all of which had been taken at some time or other by the crew of Dive Makai.
Terrain highlights were the underwater caverns and caves, arches and lava tubes that are formed along the shore where the lava cooled as it dropped into the sea. Our biggest rush was diving the "Toilet Bowl", which in the surgy early winter conditions that we experienced during our entire dive week was quite a ride. A cave with a chamber at the end with a skylight (open to the surface) and with a ninety degree turn to the left as the exit. Truly up or out, with exit stage left being the preferred out! Lie on the bottom at the entrance to the chamber or toilet bowl, and wait for the inevitable surge to flush you into the chamber, do a controlled bounce off the end wall and awoooooooosh out the exit to the left. Kendra and then D went before me. When my turn came, I went on too small a wave and got a partial flush (just enough for my astonished face to peer out the exit where they were waiting), then dragged backwards through the chamber, and then the giant flush of a rogue wave that sent me tits over tank out the exit (thank the dive gods that I was a little negative or I would have been spit out the elevator skylight). D was laughing so hard he got what he deserved and gagged on some sea water.
Animal highlights included the plethora of Hawaiian green sea turtles that inhabit the reefs. We were treated to an encounter of some sort on almost every dive we did, the best ones being watching the turtles sleeping on the coral while be cleaned (on one dive, got to hover and watch for several minutes, three feet from one of these prehistoric grandpas) and watching them fly through the caverns and into caves where they sleep during the day. We also saw several octopi...and shy as they are, actually got treated to watching one prowling the reef, doing the camouflage thing (which they do instantaneously) and shooting from coral head to coral head looking for goodies to eat. We saw a couple of eagle rays and one manta, soaring just above us off a wall. No sharks...although we visited a cave where one reportedly lived, but he wasn't home.
And there were dolphins. Schools of dolphins that we could hear pinging us underwater on one dive, but who didn't show. Then, on the ride between the first and second site that day they appeared en masse. We sat on the bow of the dive boat and dangled our toes in the water as literally hundreds of Hawaiian spinner dolphins cavorted under and beside and in front of the boat. Mommas and babies and teenagers and the whole clan. Wow. The show went on for ten minutes or so. This unbelievable experience was topped the next day, when, anchored between dives, Kendra suddenly shouted at us to get our masks and snorkels and fins on and get in the water. They were coming. D and I were in the water while the slowpokes were still getting their gear together. We swam out into a school (again, hundreds of those guys, for all I know, the same dolphins as the previous day) as they blew past us. I was praying for them to stop and play, but they were on a mission. As I looked below me and beside me I could see dolphins all around, giving me the once over as they flew by. I could feel the feathery caress of their turbulence as they slingshotted past me. It was a surreal moment that left me both exhilarated and sad once they were gone. Lisa (the owner of Dive Makai) said (and I think she was perfectly serious) that in her next life, she is going to come back as a Hawaiian spinner dolphin.
Me too, please.