The Big Island: A Post Study Abroad Trip

To go from traveling to new cities, eating different foods, and experiencing unique cultures every other weekend to go back to my old, small hometown causes quite the reverse culture shock – to say the least. That is why I was ecstatic to learn that my family had planned a trip to Hawai’i (the Big Island) in June. So after a miserably mellow month of June, we drove to LAX two weeks ago for a five hour flight to Kona, Hawai’i.

We left LAX at about 6 pm, and after a rocky and turbulence-filled landing, we ended up in Kona at about 9:00 p.m., rented our car, and drove straight to our hotel. We stayed at the Courtyard Marriot in Kailua-Kona, and it was the perfect spot for us. The hotel was nothing fancy, but its placement right along the beach and a ten minute walk to some touristy shopping, decent shave ice, and a local farmer’s market was great for my family. We then grabbed a quick bite to eat at the restaurant across the street then headed straight to bed, suffering from the jetlag of a 3 hour time difference.

The next morning, we woke up bright and early and decided to try a breakfast joint I had found on Yelp called 808 Grindz Café, just a ten minute walk from our hotel. If you ever go to the Big Island, you absolutely MUST eat here! We ate here four out of the seven days that we were in Hawai’i. My parents got a rice dish called “Moco Moco” which is fried rice with different types of meats and gravies and it was amazing – or if you are like me and are not a big fan of gravies or meats, you can order their Local Fried Rice which is also amazing. If you want something more sweet or starchy, try the coconut pancakes with a macadamia nut-vanilla syrup. These were some of the most amazing pancakes I had ever eaten – they were light fluffy, and despite the fact that they sound sickeningly sweet, they were just the perfect amount of sweet. I also suggest the breakfast burrito on their menu, which is served without a tortilla and tastes incredible. Basically you can get anything on the menu and you will be beyond satisfied.

After our breakfast that made us so full we were practically sick, we walked around the street past our hotel, exploring the tourist shops. While there was some fun shopping in this area, it is definitely tourist trap-like and therefore a bit overpriced. But there is a farmer’s market across from the mall and at the market my mom and I tried white pineapple, a type of pineapple only grown on the Big Island in Hawai’i. I normally do not like pineapple because I find it to be too acidic, however the white pineapple was so sweet and not at all acidic. I loved it. (Bonus: pineapple is one of the very few fruits you can take out of Hawai’i back to the mainland so my mom but a white pineapple for us to take home!)

That was about it for day one. The next day we went back to 808 Grindz Café for breakfast, then did a quick Costco run where we got some Poki (a Hawai’i tradition for my family), chips, and waters for our road trip the next day. Then it was back to the hotel where we went to the little beach just outside our hotel and rented paddleboards from the little shack right on the sand. No one in my family had paddle boarded before but we had been warned it was hard, and it was, especially because the wind was crazy that day, causing some rocky waves. So we did not leave the bay for the hour that we had the paddleboards. But it was so fun and I definitely recommend trying out some type of watersport while you are there – the shack also had kayaks and giant canoes for rent as well.

That night we went to a seafood restaurant called Umeke’s and it was great. It’s a little pricey because it’s seafood, after all, but the food is really good and they have giant bowls of Poki, if you really love Poki.

The next day we woke up early, grabbed a quick breakfast then headed south toward the Volcanoes National Park. On our way, we stopped at South Point which is the most southern point of the U.S.A. and it is a beautiful view of the ocean. But tread carefully because the point is on a rocky cliff that overlooks the sea where the waves are quite large. But the view is incredible and we had a great time crawling around the rocks and looking at the tidepools.

Then we hopped back into the car and continued to the Volcanoes National Park. The park itself is huge and it has a lot of things for guests to sea, but be prepared for a lot of hiking if you want to see a lot of what the park has to offer. Obviously, for safety purposes, you cannot take your car too close to any of the craters. If you want to see where the lava flows into the sea, for example, it is a four mile hike to the lookout spot, and even the lookout spot is still a half a mile away from the lava.

We did not do any of the long hikes but we did explore the lava tube, saw a few of the older craters that were accessible by car, and saw about a billion fields of lava. We also drove down the the sea arch which was a beautiful view of the ocean (we even saw a little sea turtle swimming around below us) and up to Jagger’s, where there is a little observatory where you can see the crater where the lava is currently active and pumping out steam. We did not stay late enough into the evening to see the lava glow but it was still quite the experience to see all of that smoke coming out of the volcano. Afterwards we booked it back to Kona where we grabbed some late night pizza then headed to bed, exhausted from a day of driving.

Sunday was another day of adventures. We drove up to a little breakfast joint called the Coffee Shack. The food was pretty good, but I mostly suggest going here for the crazy view down a Hawai’ian hillside, overlooking the crystal blue ocean waters. Plus there are these cute, tiny geckos all over the restaurant (don’t worry they won’t go near you). They were crawling all over the walls and ceiling. It was a really cool breakfast experience.  Then we drove down to a little beach across the bay from the Captain Cook monument where we went snorkeling. We saw some fish and it was a fun experience but we were determined to find a more lively snorkel spot.

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We had heard a few people recommend a Manta Ray night snorkel so we decided to book one through a tour company for Monday night. We arrived at the dock around 5:00 p.m., were given wetsuits and then loaded into a catamaran. The ride was about an hour to a little cove where we all zipped up our wetsuits, put on our snorkel gear and jumped in the water. It was still sunny out when we first got in so the water was clear enough for me to see that this water was deep. It was pretty trippy, at first to be swimming around in water where it was so deep I could not see the bottom. But it just made the experience more amazing.

I had only been in the water a few minutes when I turned around to see a large dark figure gliding through the waters. Sure enough, it was a manta ray. There were a few more that we saw after that, swimming and gliding back and forth through the cove just a few short feet underneath our stomachs. As it started to get darker, they brought out a surfboard with LED lights attached to it, so as to attract more plankton (the feeding source for manta rays). We had to lay completely still and flat so as to not wash away the plankton, or scare the manta rays, and it took a good while, but towards the end of our night, the rays came right up to us and started doing little flips in the water, so close I literally chest bumped a manta ray. If you go to the Big Island, ever, you absolutely must do a manta ray tour (but be prepared for some waiting around and a sore back and shoulders the next day).

We got back to the dock around 9:00 p.m. and then sought out a late dinner. My dad found a place called Chubby’s Diner that we had heard a few locals say was really good, and it was. The diner is actually located inside a bowling alley but the food was so good. I got chicken katsu (fried chicken breaded with panko crumbs) which came with fried rice and a salad and it definitely hit the spot of four straight hours of snorkeling.

The next day was the fourth of July and my family decided to get up early to go snorkeling just outside the bay outside of our hotel. We had heard the snorkeling there was amazing and had been snorkeling there the day before, but it was late in the afternoon and the water was murky from a day of boats and people being in it. So we ventured back out in the morning while the water was still clear and it was some of the best snorkeling we had done. The coral reefs and the sea plant life was plentiful and beautiful (but be super careful not to touch any of it or you could seriously damage it!) which meant there was an abundant and diverse population of tropical fish. We even saw a moray eel and a sea snake (stay away from the sea snakes though – they’re venomous). Then as we were about to head back in, we noticed that just past the reef, the water got really dark and murky.

My dad and I, at first, assumed that it was a large drop-off but we did not remember the water being that deep before. So we swam a bit closer and as we did we realized that it was not a drop of at all, it was a school of fish. Literally millions of fish. I cannot stress enough how many fish there were. If you were not close enough, you would think it was just the color of the water. They were packed together, all swimming in formation when another snorkeler dived straight down into the middle of the school where they parted for a moment, then came back together, going straight back to their whirpool formation. It was incredible. And we saw it literally yards away from our hotel.

Afterwards we drove up north toward Waimea where we visited the Pololu Valley (a gorgeous view). We explored the area in the northern part of the island, stopping at a few road stands along the way (something I definitely recommend doing because they always have really great fruits). And since it was the fourth of July we knew that we wanted to watch the fireworks that night and they shot the fireworks off at the pier by our hotel. So we ended up eating dinner at the hotel restaurant (which turned out to be a great idea because the restaurant was empty but the beach outside of it was packed) where we could watch the fireworks from our table, outside.

The next day was our last day in Hawai’i, with our flight back to LAX leaving at 9:00 p.m. that evening. So we used our day to drive to the other side of the island, Hilo where we explored the waterfalls like Rainbow Falls and Akaka Falls. Both were beautiful but the drive was long, and my family agreed that we were glad we stayed in Kona which was less “city” than Hilo.

Then it was goodbye Hawai’i and back to California. It was a great vacation, a good break from the monotony of the reverse culture shock that comes with returning from study abroad.

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