We motored the Zodiac into Kealakekua Bay around noon, the sun shining off what I'd been looking for: The Captain Cook monument, its ivory surface and vertical shape sharply contrasting the green foliage background.
It marks the spot on the Big Island where one of the world's great explorers, Captain James Cook, met the initially welcoming Hawaiian people in 1779 — the first encounter between Hawaiians and the Western world. It began a long, often rocky relationship that more than a century later resulted in American rule of Hawaii and a two-part "Brady Bunch" episode featuring Vincent Price.
It's also where the natives killed Cook rather brutally after a disagreement over a boat.
But never mind the ugliness. Because the bay is one of the best snorkeling spots on the island (only minutes later I'd be scrambling to see a manta ray disappearing into the depths), the area was relatively full of people.
The Cook monument is no more than a square encompassing about 400 square feet and accessible on land by a rugged trail. It also is said to be the only non-embassy in the United States that sits on land owned by the British government.
Well, that did it. My ancestry is British. I've never actually been there, but my brand new third-degree sunburn assured me that, at the very least, my skin was very British. I asked the boss of our Sea Quest tour boat, the very entertaining Captain Liam Powers, how we would get the boat to shore.
"We don't," he said, adding that doing so would destroy the pristine coral.
"Can I swim there?" I asked.
"But I'm kind of British," I pleaded.
Powers just smiled. Maybe the British thing doesn't go so far in Hawaii anymore.
That was the only thing that didn't work on our seven-day adventure exploring the Big Island. My wife and I experienced probably the best of our half dozen-plus Hawaiian trips.
While autumn on the mainland may not scream vacation, it makes perfect sense in Hawaii. The weather is warm and mostly mild. The prices are relatively reasonable. There's far less waiting for that restaurant table facing the sunset and far more room for give-and-take with tour guides. And with school back in session, you have fewer children in the way when gazing into a volcano.
You need at least a week to properly see the Big Island, the biggest in the Hawaiian chain. We traveled from Kailua Kona around the southern tip to Hilo in the east, then around the northern tip to the resort area of Waikoloa. The pace was constantly brisk.
The Sea Quest snorkeling tour was the best of four Hawaii snorkeling trips I've taken. It covered three sites in five hours, including the aforementioned Kealakekua Bay and Honaunau Bay, near the historic Place of Refuge. The latter is where we encountered a 5-foot white tip reef shark, casually swimming toward us near a coral wall. The water was so clear, it felt like we were swimming in the fish tunnel at an aquarium.
With only minutes left on the trip, Captain Powers found a pod of spinner dolphins, which he estimated at 100 strong. A number of babies were learning to jump and spin like their mothers. One, Powers estimated, was only days old.
The Place of Refuge itself lies on what was royal grounds in Kona, with a handful of thatched buildings, guarded by giant tikis (for Hunter S. Thompson fans, this was where he allegedly hid at the end of "The Curse of Lono"). A massive, 16th century stone wall survives, ensconcing the area considered a sanctuary for ancient Hawaiians. It's also one of the best sea turtle viewing sites in Kona. My wife almost stepped on one.
We spent our first two nights at Ka'awa Loa Plantation, about 1,200 feet up, with a great view of Kealakekua Bay and roughly 50 miles of southern shoreline. Nestled into lush hillside vegetation, the small coffee and fruit plantation had a colonial feel, despite the outdoor hot tub and steam room with a view. There are also two outdoor lava rock showers, festooned with tropical plants. Best of all, co-owner Michael Martinage's superior breakfast-cooking skills provided the most delicious meals we had all week.
Well fed, we began exploring an island seeped in history, due to the dominance of island-creating volcanoes and constant blending of Hawaiian mythology and science.
Mauna Loa is the world's largest mountain by volume, and the incredible, steam-belching Kilauea anchors Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Lush rain forest ends at the barren, moon-like landscape of the Kilauea Caldera and its surrounding steam vents. The hiking is tremendous, with sweeping views of the surrounding landscape and optional descents into lava tubes (do the free guided tour into the unlit section of the Thurston tube, which requires flashlights and some nerve). The Jagger Museum sits next to the U.S. Geographical Station monitoring the volcano, providing excellent historical context to the steaming crater outside.
Judging by the lack of tourists, Lava Tree State Park is one of the island's best-kept secrets. Taking a KapohoKine Adventures tour, we ventured on a short but gorgeous walk featuring trees covered by lava from a 1790 eruption that stand among giant ferns and massive newer trees. In driving but warm rain, and armed with flashlights, we trekked about a mile onto an old lava flow. The trail ended 500 yards from the crashing surf's standoff with a relentless flow of fiery red lava. Even at a distance, this was a spectacular sight, although we wished we had brought binoculars.
The schedule didn't allow for more time in laid-back Hilo, although we did spend an hour at the Pacific Tsunami Museum. Hilo has been partially destroyed by tsunamis twice since World War II, the history of which the museum covers thoroughly.
Hilo is also home to the relatively new Imiloa Astronomy Center, which merges science and Hawaiian mythology in its exhibits and first-rate planetarium shows.
After stopping at Hawaii's tallest waterfall, the beautiful Akaka Falls, we drove around the northern tip to the west side and the newly renovated Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort & Spa. The resort sits on a massive lava flow with the surrounding desert-like landscape reminiscent of Palm Springs or Arizona. The pool area is huge, with a small beach beyond that perfectly frames the sunset.
This served as our jumping-off point to a Kohala Waterfalls Adventure offered by Hawaii Forest & Trail. The seven-hour trip into northern waterfall country took a major bite out of the day but was rescued by tour guide Bob Fewell. He kept us entertained with good humor and an encyclopedia-like knowledge of Hawaii. On a relatively easy loop hike through the forest, we saw almost a dozen small to good sized waterfalls, even stopping to swim in one (I washed my hair with a fruit that Fewell said was a main ingredient in expensive shampoo).
We were impressed enough to try another Hawaii Forest & Trail trip, this one the Mauna Kea Summit and Stars Adventure. If you're going to drop good money on a trip ($185 per person for the summit trip versus $169 for the waterfalls), this is the clear victor. It was easily the best outing of the week.
We journeyed by van to the 13,796-foot peak of Mauna Kea, with its handful of giant international telescopes, to see a spectacular sunset. The road was bumpy and the peak was chilly, but no one cared.
As night fell, we drove back down to the visitors center, where guide Nate Clark set up a telescope in what is considered one of the best star-viewing site on earth (seeing Jupiter's stripes and moons was incredible). For city people, this may be the only time you can see the Milky Way run from horizon to horizon. The vastness was overwhelming.
Again, we felt Mother Nature's presence on the Big Island. Little did we know, we had saved the best for last.
IF YOU GO
Where to stay: Ka"awa Loa Plantation, Kealakekua; 808-323-2686; www.kaawaloaplantation.com. This small bed-and-breakfast has great service and views. Rates from $115 a night.
• Hilo Hawaiian Hotel, 71 Banyan Dr., Hilo; 808-935-9361; www.castleresorts.com. Although a bit behind on amenities and food, the hotel is in a great location and has great views of Hilo Bay. Rates from $110.
• Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort & Spa, 69-275 Waikoloa Beach Dr., Waikoloa; 808-886-6789; www.marriott.com. The newly renovated hotel is first class in all areas. Rates from $265.
Where to eat: Kona Brewing Company, 75-5629 Kuakini Hwy., Kailua Kona; 808-334-27-39; www.konabrewingco.com. Just a few miles from the Kona Airport, it excels at both homemade brews and food.
• Bongo Bens, 75-5819 Alii Dr., Kailua Kona; 808-329-9203; www.bongobens.com. You can watch the sun set to live music while indulging on very good food.
• Volcano House, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park; 808-967-7321; www.volcanohousehotel.com. The view of the crater makes up for the average buffet food.
• Hilo Bay Cafe, 315 Makaala St., Hilo; 808-935-4939; www.hilobaycafe.com. The seafood is very good but pricier than advertised.
• Cafe Pesto, Kamehameha Avenue, Hilo; 808-969-6640; www.cafepesto.com. It has a good reputation for ethnically diverse Island cuisine.
• Imiloa Sky Garden Restaurant, Imiloa Astronomy Center, Hilo; 808-969-9753. The cafe was surprisingly good, one of the best meals on the trip, with a diverse menu of standard American fare, seafood and a mostly Korean buffet.
What to do: Sea Quest in Kona is a fantastic boat expedition company offering snorkel tours, rafting and more. Tours from $56 (excluding taxes). 808-329-7238; www.seaquesthawaii.com.
• Punalu"u Black Sand Beach and Place of Refuge at Honaunau are ideal for observing sea turtles.
• Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is a must see with two of the world"s most active volcanoes; cost $10 per vehicle and $5 per individual for seven days. 808-985-6000; www.nps.gov/havo/index.htm.
• KapohoKine Adventures in Pepeekeo turns viewing lava flows into an inclusive event with hiking, helicopter tours, dinner and a trip to Lava Trees State Park. 866-965-9552; www.kapohokine.com.
• Tsunami Museum at 130 Kamehameha Ave. in Hilo is surprisingly good; cost $8 general, $7 seniors; $4 children ages 6-17.808-935-0926; www.tsunami.org.
• Hawaii Forest & Trail in Kailua Kona offers waterfall tours and the incredible Mauna Kea Summit and Stars Adventure. That tour takes visitors up the 13,796-foot mountain to stargaze. Many countries have large observatories here. The tour costs $185 (excluding taxes). 800-464-1993; www.hawaii-forest.com.
More info: Big Island Visitors Bureau — 808-961-5797; www.bigisland.org.