Story and Photos by John Sundsmo.
Lyrics recorded by The Animals in 1965 have been running through my mind lately.“We gotta get outta o’ this place, If it’s the last thing we ever do, We gotta get outta o’ this place, ‘Cause girl, there’s a better life for me and you”. Leading me to memories of Hawaii’s Big Island. Our impromptu Big IsIand trip in 2020, (just before Covid-19), began to percolate. We could still do that trip safely today.
Safe Domestic Hawaii Travel
From a foreign destination, returning to the US requires a negative Covid-19 test within 72 hours of departure. In contrast, a negative Covid-19 test isn’t required for domestic travel within the US, but is (at present) required to enter Hawaii, (negative less than 72 hrs. before departure ). Both my wife and I are vaccinated, but we could still get a positive Covid-19 test from an asymptomatic infection. From Hawaii, testing isn’t required to fly to the mainland, so we would have no quarantine worries in 2021. (See IF YOU GO below for details.) Hawaii reopened to tourists in October 2020. In February alone, more than 235,000 visitors flew to the islands.
Big Island Escape
All we need to do is repeat our 2020 getaway on the Big Island’s West Kohala Shore, the one taken before the monster pandemic tsunami drowned all further travel plans.
January 2020 BTCP (Before The Covid-19 Pandemic)
Walking down the jetway at Kailua-Kona airport into the sensuous island warmth (80oF) was hypnotizing after a 5 hour flight from foggy, cold San Francisco. Morning skies were azure blue and puffed with white cotton clouds. The filtered sun fell in shafts of light onto the thatched khaki slopes of Mauna Loa Volcano. A gentle trade wind carried intriguing scents off the slopes. We were definitely, truly and absolutely “outta’” there and lovin’ it!
After securing our little Chevy rental, we stocked up on supplies at Costco, filling the trunk with pineapples, mangos, papaya and local fish, (and of course chocolate-covered macadamia nuts). All tucked away, we headed north on Hwy-19 to our nest-for-a-week – a VRBO condo in the Waikoloa resort on the South Kohala Coast.
Our condo was near Hawaiian cultural sites. King Kamehameha I was born just up the road in North Kohala. Adjacent to us in Waikoloa, thousands of petroglyphs were cut into the volcanic rock by ancient Polynesians. The area is protected in the Waikoloa Petroglyph Reserve. Within easy walking distance were the Kahapapa Fishpond, created by islanders for King Kamehameha and, the Anchialine Pond Preservation, home to unique flora and fauna. We explored them all.
Hawaii is a foreign-international destination
Archaeologists believe Polynesian outriggers arrived in waves from the Marquesas Islands around 124-1120 AD. (Hawaii history.) A unique Polynesian-Hawaiian culture, heritage and history evolved. Contact with Europeans led to abuses, but thankfully the culture survived. In the 1700’s, ships from Portugal, England and the Americas landed. Captain Cook, sailing from Britain on a world circumnavigation, landed on Kauai in 1778. A year later, he died at Cook Bay on the Big Island while trying to abduct King Kalaniʻōpuʻu and recover a stolen ship’s boat. King Kamehameha-I, born in North Kohala, conquered all foes and united the islands into one kingdom in the 1790s. He ruled until his passing in 1819. At the time of Captain Cook’s visit, the native Hawaiian population probably numbered 300,000. Thirty five years later European diseases had reduced the population by more than 75% to a mere 70,000. Sugar planters found it easy to overthrow Queen Liliuokalani in 1893. Five years later, in the era of US manifest destiny, the islands were annexed by the USA. Looking back through the lens of history, native Hawaiians, like native Americans, were not well treated at all. The Territory of Hawaii may have become a state in 1959, but it is still more than 2300 miles from the mainland and, when explored, fully experienced and appreciated, it is an intriguingly beautiful foreign land full of unique treasures, traditions and cultures.
Oneo Bay in Kailua-Kona
Late afternoon found us back in in Kailua-Kona for island bites and libations under the palm fronds at Huggos on The Rocks. Seated outdoors directly on the shores of Oneo Bay, we watched the sun sink slowly over the ocean as the magic of the islands washed over us. (Today we’d scream – ‘we made it, we escaped, we got otta ‘o there!’)
After dinner we strolled the nearby historic past of Kailua-Kona. Near Huggo’s on Ali’ī Drive we passed Hulihe’e Palace, used by the Hawaiian royal family until 1914; and Mokuaikaua Church, built in 1820 as the first Christian church in Hawaii. In 1795, the Ali’ī area was home to King Kamehameha-I. When he moved his rule to Lāhainā on Maui, Kailua-Kona became a small fishing village retreat for the Hawaiian royal family. Enjoying the warm January breezes, we strolled until twilight overtook us.
That evening, even nightfall awakened our senses as the hushed sound of gentle rain falling into the Plumeria and tree ferns outside our open window awakened my wife and I. Taking a deep breath of the clean clear air and tropical fragrances, I reluctantly closed the window and crawled back into bed.
Waikoloa in South Kohala
Arising early to a beautiful bright blue sky over Kohala Mountain, the oldest of Hawaiʻi Island’s five major volcanic mountains, we were enveloped in lush greenery and the after rain experience of fresh, clear air and happy plants. A fragrant balmy breeze blessed our breakfast on the veranda as the Big Island continued to wash away the stress of mainland life. Refreshed and fortified, we headed out for a walk on the beach. (Today, after a year of travel-celibacy, that paradise breakfast experience would be OH-so very sweet.)
We chose Waikoloa Beach in Anaehoʻomalu bay for our first beach walk. It is near the Kahapapa Fishponds that were created and maintained for King Kamehameha’s royal family.
Anaeho’Omalu Bay and Waikoloa Beach
Anaeho’Omalu Bay is located at the road’s end beach near the Lava Lava restaurant, (owned by Huggo’s, where we dined the previous evening). Still on US West Coast time, we were out early.
After the rain the sand was pristine with scarcely a footprint showing. To our right, a sand spit created the large Kahapapa Fishpond lagoon. Outriggers were poised on the beach ready for action.
To our left, an uninterrupted brown sand beach gently merged with the green tropical jungle. The ocean lapped into a cove onto black lava rocks.
Overhead, a bright blue crisp early morning sky merged on the horizon with a deep blue ocean where white clouds hovered. Just thinking of the beautiful scene brings tears to my eyes. In paradise, we languished with heads turning from left to right – then right to left – then again.
That evening another beach walk beckoned. On what I can only describe as what must be the penultimate vision of a tropical beach, straight out of a Rogers and Hammerstein’s Broadway set for South Pacific, Mahai’ula Beach is lined with coconut palms. Off-shore surf was breaking on a reef and then gently flowing in to caress the sand at our feet.
The entire beach was occupied by a sole nani-bakini surfer girl, (splendid/pretty in Hawaiian). Our penultimate vision of paradise was complete as the sun, first gold, then orange, then crimson, slowly sank below the horizon caressing the sky with its orange afterglow – mmmm, magnificient!
Saddle Road: Parker Ranch
Awake to another day in paradise, we headed out to Hilo on the windward east side of the Big Island. Our route from Waikoloa took us up the slopes between Kohala Mountain and Mauna Kea onto the Saddle Road between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa volcanoes; then down the lush lava flow valley into Hilo.
The Saddle Road was aptly named, both for the geography and for the history of the area. This land comprises the legendary Parker Ranch. Founded in 1847 by John Palmer Parker, it pre-dated by more than three decades many ranches in Texas and the southwest. Granted to Parker by King Kamehameha-I, at 130,000 acres, the ranch spread across Kohala mountain, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. Even today it is among the largest cattle ranches in the US. The first paniolos (cowboys) came from then Spanish-California. Since 1992 the ranch has been managed by the Parker Ranch Foundation with a historic ranch house store, a traditional July 4th rodeo and horse races and historic buildings open, (post-Covid-19), to self-guided public tours. Since the ranch is private land with no insurance for tourists, despite what may appear on social media, many trails are accessible only with a ranch hand as a guide. Check first with Parker Ranch before you decide to go on an illegal hike.
Hilo is the Hawaiian islands blast-from-the-past. Storefronts mirror the small town USA of the 50s and 60s, complete with a Kress five-and-dime store. No longer 5-10 cents, it now displays local surf-culture artistry and wood crafts. Of special note are the locally handmade ukulele creations.
The little town exudes nostalgia for simpler times when ’56 Chevys ruled high school parking lots and girls in hoop skirts and oxfords dominated boy’s hearts. Back then, longboards ruled the surf. Growing up as I did in California in the ‘60s, I was transported back in time to that era of the “Surfers” and the “Ho-Dads” (car-guys). Ho-Dads were named after “Kookie” in the popular ‘60s 77-Sunset Strip TV show starring Eferam Zimbalist, Jr. Kookie’s expletives were: “Ho-Daddy” (swearing), “ginchy” (cool) and “piling up Zs” (sleeping). The Surfers and Ho-Dads were big rivals in the high schools of Redondo, Manhattan and Hermosa Beach – home of the Beach Boys rock and roll group. Hilo for me was very “ginchy” – but before “piling up Zs” back in Waikoloa, we needed to browse the Hilo shops and visit the farmers market. With some great CDs of ukulele master musicians in my bag, we headed for the farmer’s market.
We timed our visit to coincide with the local Hilo Farmers Market, but perhaps expected too much given the time of year. With just forty thousand inhabitants in the extended town area, the number of farms selling produce at the weekly market is relatively small – especially in January. We did manage to get a few fresh local papayas and lots of Aloha vibe from the local farmers.
We considered visiting Kīlauea Volcanoes National Park south of Hilo, but the volcano had recently shown signs of activity with high sulfur dioxide emissions – so we decided to pass. After our visit the volcano erupted on December 20, 2020 and remains active into 2021 with hazardous volcanic gases.
Driving back west out of Hilo, it was easy to see the town sits right on the northeast lava flow from Mauna Loa volcano. The most recent eruption in 1984 is still visible in housing neighborhoods on the western edge of the city. Life at risk of volcanic eruption is just a normal fact of life, i.e., like wildfires, earthquakes or hurricanes.
Back up and over the Saddle Road, we arrived in Waikoloa Village in time for the sunset Happy Hour at Roy’s Waikoloa. After sampling Roy’s Hawaiian sushi and hospitality, we were very hau’oli (happy) howlies (tourists).
Waikoloa Anchialine Pond Preservation Area
A short wander down the road from our condo brought us to the Waikoloa Anchialine Pond Preservation Area. It holds brine ponds fed by Monaloa spring water, mixed underground with sea water. The ponds house millions of unique miniature shrimp and small fish. Walking around the ponds led us to a public trail leading to a small rocky beach, then up a set of stairs to dolphin pools at the back of the Hilton Waikoloa. Our arrival was just in time for dolphin feeding and a pair of smoothies for us.
As a coffee lover, I couldn’t leave Kailua-Kona without coffee. Yes, there really is a difference and Kona coffee is pricey, but it is simply the best. My wife, on the other hand, is a tea connoisseur par excellence with a special taste for unique local blends found at farmer’s markets. We found both in Kailua-Kona. Walking down Ali’i Drive, Kailua’s oceanfront downtown street, we stopped at the local farmers market and managed to find local tea blends, as well as presents for family. Further down the street, Kona coffee was on sale. Kona coffee is the variety of Coffea arabica cultivated on the slopes of Hualālai and Mauna Loa in the North and South Kona Districts. It is one of the most expensive coffees in the world, but for good reason.
The original Brazilian coffee cuttings were brought to the Big Island in 1828 by Samuel Ruggles. Henry Greenwell established the first large coffee plantation and branded his coffee as “Kona coffee”. Many of the early coffee plantation workers came from Japan and the Philippines. In 1899, the coffee market crashed and many of the plantations went under. Unable to pay workers, the owners gave land to the help in 5 to 12 acre parcels. Today, there are about 800 Kona coffee farms, each about 5 acres, for a total of around 2300 acres. Carefully tended, the total coffee production of real Kona coffee is just over two million pounds of hand-picked green coffee cherries. When the pulp is removed and the beans dried and roasted, the total annual production is just 267,000 pounds of roasted coffee. Small wonder it is so pricey. I have to admit that I coughed up a substantial sum to take 2 pounds home to San Francisco.
The annual Kona Coffee Cultural Festival was postponed in 2020 and the next – 50th celebration – is scheduled for November 5 –14, 2021.
Treasure the experience.
Recognizing the inequities of the past, the new US Biden Administration is discussing a government-to-government relationship with Native Hawaiian peoples. Obviously, there are some mixed feelings. Ka’iulani Lovell from Kaua’i, was quoted recently in The Guardian, “We don’t need to be recognized by you. We know who we are.” On Maui, Tisha-Marie Kekumu-Beattie said: “You cannot give me back something I never gave up… We are sovereign.”
Rested and relaxed, but sad to leave, we packed and found time for one last beach stop near the airport while waiting for our 3 PM flight home. Looking back, the Big Island trip of January 2020 seems completely safe and manageable in 2021.
The refrain from the Animals song, revised for 2021, would be: ‘We GOT get outta o’ this place, ‘Cause girl, we found there’s a better life for me and you’ ON Hawaii’s Big Island.
IF YOU GO
For additional information on the South Kohala Coast see “Hawaii’s Kohala Coast-Legend and Lore“.
Several recent news reports have indicated that Hawaii tourism is back to full capacity – so plan ahead – especially for rental cars.
Covid-19 test requirements: Preparations include opening a State of Hawaii “Safe Travel” account and documenting details of Covid-19 tests, vaccinations, and other travel data. Both paper copy and digital test code results are recommended for entry into Hawaii as well as for possible check-in at a mainland departure airport. For vaccinated travelers with a CDC vaccination card, Governor Ige of Hawaii has indicated possible lifting of the testing requirement by Summer 2021 for vaccinated tourists.
Resort Covid-19 Testing: Some resorts are setting up onsite testing and the State of Hawaii has set up free testing sites. If you need a Covid-19 test on the South Kohala coast, there is free testing at the CVS pharmacy in Waimea, (just up the hill from Waikoloa resort); and, testing is also available in Hilo and Kailua-Kona.
Covid-19 Exposure app: The state of Hawaii has a Covid-19 exposure notification – the AlohaSafe Alert app. The app is designed to alert you if you have been within six feet of a confirmed Covid-19 positive case for a minimum of 15 minutes within the past 14 days.
Activities: For more activities in the Waimea/Kamuela area see http://lovebigisland.com/waimea-kamuela-hawaii/activities/ and the Parker Ranch page on traveladvisor.com.
Precautions: Waiulua Bay, Waikoloa was the site of a shark attack on kayak/outrigger April 23, 2019, just 35 yards offshore, so this is an activity recommended for those who are experienced, and done preferably with a buddy. It is best to avoid murky water, dark water at dawn or dusk, and during times of heavy surf and/or strong currents.
Kailua-Kona: Parks include La’aloa Bay (also known as Magic Sands or White Sands Beach) and Kahaluʻu Bay, is a popular snorkeling location. Boat tours (if available) allow tourists to swim with dolphins, watch whales, and fish in the ocean. They usually depart from Honokohau Harbor (where there is also a great locals’ fish restaurant).
CDC Travel Links: When vaccinated CDC: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html ; mask wearing : https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2021/p0130-requires-face-masks.html; new CDC guidance suggests that masks are more important than deep cleaning and disinfecting airplane seats, rental cars and condos, so in 2021 we probably would just do what we did in 2020, which was drop the bags in the condo and start exploring.
US Travel Restrictions: US Dept. of State: https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/traveladvisories/ea/covid-19-information.html
World Health Organization: https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019
NY Times US state-by-state guidelines: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/states-reopen-map-coronavirus.html
King Kamehameha-I’s is celebrated and feted with floral parades on June 11 each year.