01 July 2008 - We woke up early in Hilo and went for our helicopter ride. Given our luck, of course, our flight was delayed (two passengers had showed up late).
Once we did finally board, we were delighted to find that we got to sit in the front with the pilot where the view was really great. I was super excited to see several lava breakouts and flows around Pu'u O'o. So NEAT!!!! As the helicopter flew over the hot spots, you could feel it pitch around in the thermals, and some of that lava was really trucking! We learned that the a'a lava cools from a temperature of about 1000 degrees (Fahrenheit) and the pahoehoe cools from about 2000. We swung around the see the big steam cloud from the lava hitting the water and even managed to make it around to see a few waterfalls. Interesting fact about Hilo – with somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 inches of annual rainfall, it is the wettest city in the United States and one of the wettest in the world. Consequently, most (if not all) of the good people of Hilo town (and the surrounding area) use rain catchment as their only source of water. The houses largely all have metal roofs to ease the rain collection process. Also from the air we saw Jack Thompson’s Garden House Bed and Breakfast (see the red roof in the photo). It is accessible only via helicopter (and I believe we were told that Mr. Thompson makes runs for supplies and whatnot with his trusty motorcycle). Most of the Royal Gardens housing development has already been swallowed up by flowing lava, but Mr. Thompson is staying till he is forced to leave (by Madame Pele, not the authorities).
After Sean and I finished with our helicopter adventure, we met up with the family to check out of our hotel and go have breakfast/lunch at Ken’s House of Pancakes (affectionately known as K-HOP). Sean ordered the spam loco moco, and I ordered the saimin (complete with hot mustard). Sean’s loco moco, with rice and seared spam and eggs over easy all drenched in rich brown gravy was absolutely delicious. My poor circulatory system went all quivery from just a bite or two of the sodium and saturated fat madness, but wow was it ever tasty. My saimin was pretty good too – lots of neat little bites to taste (eggs, mushrooms, teriyaki chicken, fish cake), and really nice broth, especially with the hot mustard dunk I described in yesterday’s post.
From Hilo, we traveled north and took the “Four Mile Scenic Drive” and also took the brief hike to go see the 400’ tall Akaka Falls. The drive was short but very pleasant with ample opportunity to look at the abundant rain-fed tropical flora and the craggy black beaches. We also stopped at a small roadside store and acquired shave ice. I chose guava for my flavoring, Helen had lychee, and Darci had one with several flavors. I have to admit, I was expecting nothing more than a glorified snow-cone, but shave ice is delicious! The texture is infinitely more pleasant than that of a snow-cone, and it was fun watching the lady behind the counter work the ice-shaving contraption (basically a crank driven spinning wheel with a chunk of ice on it that rests against a shaving mechanism – she spun the ice, the shavings collected below, and she shoveled it into a bowl for our enjoyment).
Next we decided to drive the saddle road with the goal of heading up Mauna Kea. The saddle road is name thusly because it traverses the path from Hilo to Kona on the saddle between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. The drive was pretty wild. We went from the rain-soaked green of Hilo to the seemingly barren wasteland of the two shield volcanoes in almost no time. The road up to Mauna Kea spurs from the saddle road (there’s a similar spur road up Mauna Loa, but we elected not to take it). We drove our two separate vehicles up to the visitors’ center around 9200’ and then consolidated the five of us into the four-wheel-drive jeep that Sean and I were driving. We got to the top after an incredibly slow and bumpy trek up to our final 13796’ elevation and missed getting to go inside the W.M. Keck Observatory by only about 10 minutes. Seeing the observatory was one of the reasons I had wanted to drive up Mauna Kea, and so I was very sad, but the view at the top was incredible regardless. Plus it was kind of neat being on the very top of the tallest mountain in the world (just over 30,000 feet as measured from the ocean floor). And the landscape was surreal – the running joke through the remainder of our vacation was that we had now seen where the moon landing had taken place. As an added note, they tell you to let yourself acclimate for about 30 minutes at the visitors’ center before heading the rest of the way up the mountain. Evidently, there’s about 60% less oxygen in the air at the top altitude than there was at the beginning of our journey that morning at sea level, and wow could we ever feel it. We took it very slowly and drank lots of water and everyone seemed to tolerate it pretty well.
We drove down the mountain and headed toward Kona to have our fancy Big Island meal at Pahu i'a. We got all gussied up and drove over to the restaurant, which is part of the Four Seasons resort at Hualalai. The drive was a little confusing, but we eventually got our car valeted and made our way to our table. The open-air restaurant was beautiful, and they even thought to have floodlights facing the sea so you could watch the waves crashing while you ate. The food was well-prepared and the service was extremely attentive. Unfortunately, I had my expectations set pretty high, and the prices matched my uber-high expectations. I ordered abalone (which I had never tried before) and the signature fish of the day (which was opakapaka!) and prepared myself to be dazzled. The pre-meal bread and associated spreads were divine. There was lavash and sourdough and macadamia nut bread, and for spreads there was truffle butter and lemon mascarpone. The abalone were maybe a touch on the rubbery side and since they were whole, it made them difficult to eat (sort of a bum deal for a $29 appetizer that I obsessed over before finally giving in to my curiosity and ordering, bolstered by the certainty that it would be good at such a nice restaurant), and the fish was a lot meatier than I was expecting. The broth it was in was very tasty and the mushrooms and bok choy were good too, but I just wasn’t wowed.