While in Hilo, we visited Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Spent almost an entire day hiking. Free, informative ranger-led hikes are offered daily and definitely worth doing. Our first stop was at the visitors center to get our bearings. We took a hike with a ranger to Thurston Lava Tube. Afterwards, my son, Michael, and I hiked to the bottom of the crater. the trail took us through a rainforest and open up to a barren landscape that looked like Mars. The ground is pocked with steam vents, crevices and plants poking through the cracks. It's an easy hike and worth doing.
We timed it to be at Jagger Museum for sunset when the glow from the fume from Halemamau crater starts out pink and deepens to red. the glow comes from boiling lava inside trhe crater. if you go, bring a jacket - it gets very cold!
By now it was lunchtime and we stopped at Village Burger in Parker Ranch Center in Kamuela - cowboy territory, where stop signs say "whoa." We ordered cheeseburgers with chipotle goat cheese and avocado. Oh my! So good. My son declared them the best burgers ever. Since the place is popular for its milkshakes, I also added a strawberry shake to my lunch. I was stuffed but hoped to work it off swimming that afternoon.
Dinner that night was at the Lava Lava Beach Club, a casual but not cheap restaurant right on the beach and located within the Waikoloa resort. This is where we had our best meal. Michael had fish tacos and I enjoyed a teriyaki steak. From here we watched the sunset. There are four cottages (including one wheelchair accessible) available for rent here too, at about $500 per night.
John talked non-stop, feeding us local history and peppering his dialogue with jokes. The first thing he said to us in the van was: "Everyone give your name, where you're from and what animal you would most like to be." John, originally from Oklahoma, stated he would like to be dragon. What a character. Honestly, a better guide we couldn't have asked for!
During the tour, we made a few stops. One for a picnic dinner and a couple more to acclimate to the altitude. By the time we reached the summit, where we donned warm jackets (provided by the tour company), the sun was setting. Thirteen huge telescopes set up by various countries including Japan and the U.S. frame the summit. It's almost a surreal scene. Afterwards, we drove a short distance to the visitors center (packed with tourists) before finding a spot downhill to set up John's telescope for star gazing. He made hot chocolate and gave us brownies and then pointed out constellations, planets, and galaxies. We took turns gazing at the sky, where we could clearly see starry wonders such as Saturn's rings and the Milky Way. And a shooting star! Magical! But we were freezing (John said temps were about 40 degrees but it felt colder because of the wind). We got back to the condo about 10:30 p.m.
We explored on our own the next day, with no particular agenda, just following our whims. One of my favorite ways to travel! We drove to Kona for coffee at Lava Java. Taking our hot coffee cups to go, we sat on the beach, contentedly enjoying the quiet morning. We navigated our way to the Mountain Thunder coffee plantation to buy a package of coffee but the rather bossy tour leader insisted we join the group before making any purchases. We wimped out and participated. Not such a bad thing. Got a lesson about the coffee making process before finally being "allowed" to buy a $20 bag of coffee. Next stop: Kona Brewing Company for a pizza and beer lunch. This was a trip highlight. So relaxing. On our way back to Hilo, we stopped at Hapuna Beach, a white sand that Michael had heard about. Glorious! The sea was calm and I floated in the gentle surf, chatting with a guy who was visiting from Seattle with his two sons.
Our last stop before returning our rental car was at Ken's House of Pancakes in Hilo. We each ordered a plate lunch (complete with macaroni salad) and savored the aloha ambiance of the Hawaiian islands before going home.