Hawaii: Big Island – volcanoes, geckos and manta rays

Everyone kept saying how fascinating is Big Island, and it’s quite obvious from the first minutes of drive. The driveway is basically built in the middle of a lava field, and there’s nothing else than this lava and green mountains far away. It’s pretty incredible and really looks like nothing I’d seen before.

Even before landing, from the plane window, Kim and I both had a very good first impression. It’s all black and green, a few roads and that’s it. We were relieved to find a place that looked as quiet as Kauai if not more, rather than another touristic Maui. Our first stop was the Kona farmers market, where we bought tasty dragon fruits, papayas and other tropical fruits.

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A woman makes leis in the Farmer’s market of Kona.

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Three types of dragon fruits on the market!

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That beautiful gecko breed can be found everywhere on the Farmers market.

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We started our trip with a 4WD to go to the top of Mauna Kea, the tallest mountain on earth (if you count the height undersea). It looks like a giant wall more than the usual triangle.

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The 4WD matches my sunglasses 😀

It was my first time driving a 4WD and I was a little nervous. A lot of reviews classified that road as extremely dangerous and some people (including in our guide books) advised to hire a tour instead of driving, for extra safety. I figured, if people used to drive automatic cars can do it, then so can I! It turned out the road was really not that scary (I’m sure it’s another story when there’s ice), but a 4WD was mandatory to go up the gravel road with up to 20% gradient. We went for a little walk, watched the sunset and had to go back down to the visitor center. The ranger asked everyone to leave around 7ish as it is forbidden to drive on the gravel road at night. Back at the visitor center, at least 10 telescopes were installed to watch the moon, Saturn and some stars. I’d never seen the moon so closely before, it was wonderful to see its craters so well!

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Lake Waiau on Mauna Kea is one of the highest lakes in the world.

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On top of Mauna Kea.

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The sunset on top of Mauna Kea, above the clouds.

We were already feeling like on another planet when we drove in Kekaha Kai, a state park in the cold lava field where a dirt road ends on one of the most beautiful beach I’ve seen in Hawaii. It has to be some of the best snorkeling ever, as everywhere in Hawaii, there’s a lot of fish, small and big, colorful and not shy. From the sand we spotted a turtle, and as I was looking for it I stumbled upon 3 of them! They were in shallow water and I stayed for a very long time with them. They didn’t seem scared and did not apparently mind me being there with them… We saw turtles on every beach we went to on Big Island, it was magical to swim with them so often.

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After all that time at the beach, we went for a short hike to see the Wapi’o valley. It is sacred to natives and cannot be entered unless you’re invited. The road leading to the black sand beach and the river requires a 4WD and since we only had ours for one day and exchanged it for a regular car, we walked there. It’s very steep and screwed up my knee in just 15 minutes… Luckily the end of the trail was on soft mud, which stopped the pain. The ocean was too agitated to swim, but the scenery was beautiful from down there. Going back up was definitely a work out… We were hoping to hitchhike but only one car crossed our way with room for one… Kim having a blister on her foot, she used the lift and I kept going. Once there and probably looking like a crazy hippie, a bunch of teenagers congratulated me and added “they say it’s 1 mile down and 100 up”, which was exactly how it felt. I really needed a drink after that, so we went to a hobo coffee shop. Kim ordered what probably was the best kombucha I ever had, and I asked for an iced coffee. The waiter offered that I’d try “chocotea” instead (they did not have coffee anyway, yes, that’s how hippie Hawaii is, some coffee shops refuse to serve coffee). Chocotea as they call it is made by infusing the skin of the chocolate nib, it tastes great and gives a better and healthier boost than coffee! I’d recommend you try it if you ever have cocoa nibs, because apparently in the US only that guy and another one in Oregon are making that drink. We drove back to Kona to pick up my friend Hugh from Australia and have a drink before heading back to our camp. We met a few years ago while traveling in Utah and stayed in touch. When he told me he was coming to the US and wanted to catch up in NY, I convinced him to change his plans and meet us in Hawaii!

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Wapi’o Valley from the top of the cliff…

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… and from the gorge.

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We celebrated Hugh’s 34th birthday when we picked him up on our 2nd day on Big Island.

The next day we went to some more beaches on our way, had more amazing time snorkeling and went on our “manta rays” trip. Kim snorkeled but Hugh and I scuba dived. We had one dive in the afternoon and one night dive, on the same location.

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Camping in Hawaii means being on the beach most of the time, and enjoying pristine waters before anyone else!

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An 8am swim.

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Gorgeous beach on lava rocks.

The dive master told us we had a 50% chance to see manta rays in the afternoon and 90% in the night, so you can guess how excited we were. I had never seen manta rays nor dived by night, and I did not really know what to expect or if I would like it. It turned out to be one of the most incredible experience of my life… Not only did we see 3 manta rays by day and by night, but there is no word to describe the peaceful ballet they created for us during an hour. We were lucky as there usually is a lot of snorkelers and scuba divers, but that day we were by ourselves in the afternoon and with just one other boat at night.

We spotted the manta rays at the end of my dive in the afternoon, when most divers were already back on the boat. I was so glad I still had a little bit of air! I rushed to get close to the bigger one and stayed with it for a few minutes, completely mesmerized by the beauty of that animal. I finished my dive and slowly went back up, still staring at them. When we went back at night, they were already there. The dive masters place a light on the bottom to attract plankton hoping the manta rays will come and feed on it. When we got there, while everyone was seating down waiting, I was struggling to find a good spot and saw my dive master making big signs to me. A huge manta ray was right behind me, I had to bend down so I would not touch it! It swam on top of me and went a little further, only to come back very close, over and over again, then a second arrived, and a third. It was nothing short of wonderful. I just stayed there in awe until we had to leave. They kept swimming very close to Hugh too. When we left and went exploring on the way back to the boat, the exact same thing happened. Most divers ran out of air and went back up, while I stayed down and a manta ray came closer to us. I think I could have stayed there forever!

The day dive:

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You can see how big is that one compared to the diver.

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The night dive:
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Manta rays kept swimming super close to us, specially to Hugh!

Manta rays kept swimming close to us, especially to Hugh!

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That’s how close to us they were!

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The next day, we went to Volcano national park, where many craters can be seen and even some lava in fusion. We walked on a collapsed mountain top, that used to be a lava lake. It was very impressive and massive, some smoke was still coming out of lava holes and plants were already growing back. One road leads to the coast, between craters, lava from different eruptions as recent as 1983 and some patches of vegetation.

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The smoke comes out of holes on the ground.

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Night view from the end of the road in Volcano National Park, on a very angry sea with huge waves.

Before going to the airport, we visited more beaches. Grey sand, black sand, and green sand. None of them were quiet enough to swim but they were all really pretty.
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