Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Little Trip to the Big Island (Part I)

We missed out on the annual family vacation this year--which just so happened, for the first time ever, to include both Jon's and my families staying at the same beach at the same time last summer. We were a little sad to be the ONLY clan to miss out on the fun, but hey, moving overseas involves some sacrifices... and it also has its own level of thrill and novelty.

But after seven months, we're starting to feel a bit more settled. And while island fever hasn't quite set in (sometimes I wonder if I'm too much of a homebody to ever really suffer from that affliction), we decided perhaps a little island-hopping was in order.

I am learning that it is impossible to direct four children around an airport without garnering all.the.stares.
I really didn't know much about Hawaii before we moved here, so in case you're like me, I'll just start with the basics. The STATE of Hawaii is actually made up of 8 individual ISLANDS (and I've heard there's another one growing under the ocean as we speak.) Oahu, where we live, is the most populated but it is not the largest. That distinction belongs to the island that carries the chain name--Hawaii. But since that gets confusing, we all just call it "The Big Island."

The Big Island actually has SNOW!!!
The islands are not far apart, (on clear days you can see across to Molokai from Oahu's eastern shore.) But there are no roads to connect them (i.e. no creepy Chesapeake Bay Bridge/Tunnel) or ferries, at this point. Although I think that'd be a fun idea! So you have to fly. Which is a little crazy--being forced to fly to another city in your state that is much less than the distance we'd drive from Maryland to Pennsylvania. It's not expensive (maybe around $200/ticket) but definitely more than driving the same distance. And when you have to multiply plane tickets by six family members... it can become a "once a year" kind of experience.

They say they love to fly!
Despite all being the same state and created from the same volcano chain, each of the islands has new and interesting experiences to offer. We'd love to make it to all or most of them before we leave in 2020. And by "we," I mean maybe just Jon and I. But from what we've heard and read, The Big Island was a good place to start and a great option for bringing the whole family.

The coolest thing about the Big Island and the best reason to bring all the kids can be summed up in two words--active volcano! In fact, anytime the keiki would get whiny or complain about our travels, we'd remind them, "Children, you are standing on an active volcano. Do you know how many people can say that in their lifetime?!?"

Let's just say, I took a lot of photos of the snow-capped mountains. I may be missing winter just a tad.
The other great thing about TBI is Kilauea Military Camp. This is a recreational camp, within the boundaries of Volcanoes National Park, that was created for, and is only available to, military veterans.  It just turned 100 years old and is the cutest little campground you ever did see!

Isn't this just darling??

Our cabin wasn't quite as cute as the stone cottages.

Four kids on a couch!
We just so happened to get the last cabin available that week. There's a few different options, but ours included one bedroom, a living room, mini-fridge and microwave and bathroom with a whirlpool tub. Which the kids naturally found amusing.

The grounds also include a theater, bowling alley, arcade, coffee shop, and restaurant (which we ate at once and will be content to never visit again.)

They were all decorated for Christmas.
But no amenity beats the fact that you are camping ON A VOLCANO. You could actually see the glow of the lava on the horizon each evening. But now I'm jumping way ahead of myself!

We took a short little flight from Honolulu to Hilo. Keep in mind, this was the first time the kids and I have flown since our big transition in June. I was a little nervous because that trip wasn't exactly all unicorns and rainbows. But hopping to another island isn't quite that adventurous. The flight itself was easy-peasy and super short--it's just the whole checking-in and waiting around part that gets dicey.

We arrived and got our rental minivan lickety-split. We decided to make the most of our first afternoon there and just get right to it with a drive down south! And this is where the differences between TBI and Oahu really become obvious--mainly, space. The island of Hawaii is basically made up of five volcano mountains, the two largest being Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. They are shield volcanos, meaning they're large but sloping--so the rise is more subtle. Oahu's mountains were also once shield volcanos but the two main ranges are much more abrupt. Almost all the land views on Oahu seem to include a rising and ridged mountain in the not-so-distance. And since these mountains are too steep to build in, all the houses are crammed in the valleys. Homesteads on Hawaii seem much more spaced out. As we're driving out of Hilo (one of the major towns on the island) it felt so much more spacious. Kinda like that scene from the "Sounds of Music" where she's frolicking and spinning in the field.

So we drove and drove and drove and then hit a dirt road that, according to our map, would lead to a lighthouse. Except after we arrived, we felt that "light tower" would have been a more accurate description. It was in the middle of an old lava flow that, for us newbies, was really impressive. So we started walking and hiking our way to the ocean. Which brings us to another substantial difference in the two islands. I wouldn't recommend coming to the Big Island for its beaches. Oahu has some of the best beaches in the world--so we get plenty of that back home. This island, on the other hand, is much more rocky and "cliffy." Both are impressive for different reasons!

It was getting hot (something about standing on lava rock in the middle of the afternoon sun) and the keiki were hungry. So we headed back to the van for refreshments and more road tripping. Had we known ahead of time just how much time we'd be spending in the car that week, we may not have been as excited as we were. The Big Island is BIG, you guys. And all the cool landmarks are spread out and there is only one, ONE, road that goes through the middle of the island (more on that later) and then the road that circles the island. So if you're planning a trip there any time soon, just plan to spend HOURS in the car.

Anyhoo--we drove along the southeast coast, through what appeared to be a hippy commune, and were making our way towards the campground when we came across a sign for "Chain of Craters Road." It sounded intriguing so we decided to get our carpe diem on with a U-turn towards this promising attraction. Judging by the amount of cars parked, we figured it must be good. Joci was asleep by this point, so I was carrying her and the other three kids were trailing behind. We passed an ice cream truck and somebody commented about "carrying her the whole way." Which was a little confusing. And then we started passing bicycle rental tents. And we could see in the distance that there were many, many people either selling food or renting bicycles. Which we found slightly curious. So we decided it was probably best to make inquiries.

What we discovered was that this "hike" led to a place to view the lava flow (awesome!) but that it was nearly 4 miles one way (so not awesome!) Clearly, our family of six would not be making this hike. But we also couldn't pass up a chance to see some lava. So we sprung for the bikes. Two kids' bikes for the boys, a sweet ride for me, and one for Jon with a trailer for the girls. We started off all fresh and energized for our travels and were probably less than a mile in when it dawned on me that our boys are still pretty new to bike riding. In fact, they've never ridden their bikes beyond our neighborhood. And certainly never more than perhaps a mile total. And here we were planning to cover nearly 8 miles of dirt and gravel road. Carpe diem, baby. We've got this!

On this adventure, we were riding our bikes over an old lava flow. For instance, if you were to view this area of the island from the ocean, you'd see a large dark path running down the side of the mountain where the lava flowed and killed everything in its path. This included an entire neighborhood. At the beginning of the road, there were quite a few of these shanties that appeared to be dropped on top of the lava rock. I just assumed the base of the volcano had become a new destination for Tiny House people. Eventually I asked a guy selling water by the road and he clarified that no, those are just people who rebuilt on top of the land they own--on top of their old houses that now no longer exist. It's all so very fascinating and creepy at the same time.

The further you get down the road, and the further you get from civilization (and by civilization I don't mean running water or electricity because I'm pretty sure those houses are very "off grid"), the road gets a bit more challenging. In some places, the gravel was extra-thick and would catch our thin bike tires. This area of the island is also completely exposed to wide-open ocean and thus, was extremely windy. Our poor boys were struggling!

But we still had it better than the groups and groups of people we passed on foot. And once we rounded the first major bend and could see the steam rising in the distance, we knew we were in for a treat. Nearly four miles later, we parked the bikes and crawled over large lava rocks towards the ocean. Just a few days before, a huge chunk land had broken off due to the lava flow, so they wouldn't let us get too close. But in the distance you could see the red hot lava streaming off the mountain and pouring into the ocean. Which then created an impressive column of steam. It was pretty amazing.

The best I could get with my iPhone. See that strip of orange pouring off the cliff?
I'd like to say it was all worth it, and I think the kids would agree if you asked them today, but on that day, at that particular moment, I'm not sure they appreciated the full experience. The sun was setting, and there were a lot of people hiking IN (since it's even easier to see the lava at night), but we still had to get our group of four children back out. The girls had it easy in their little chariot and it wasn't long before Jon and Jude pulled way ahead. Jack was having a bit of a harder time (that involved a shoelace coming untied and completely knotting around his bike pedal.) There were a few instances where he wanted to quit. But really, what else could you do? We're in the middle of nowhere. Literally surrounded by rocks for miles around. You either keep going. Or you sit here and mope, and then still have to keep going. So we kept going. And in the process, had a few good discussions about perseverance and finding the joy in every situation.

It was dark by the time we made it back. Thankfully, our fancy rental bikes were equipped with mini-flashlights duct-taped to the handle bars to help light the way during our final mile. The kids were never so happy to climb back into the car. We fed them oatmeal cream pies for dinner and they all feel asleep within a few minutes of our drive to the cabin.

And perhaps that's the secret to cramming a family of six into a one bedroom cabin--where the little ones out so that nothing and no one prevents them from falling asleep or staying asleep. We had accomplished a lot in less than a day. Rest up kids, because we still have 4 more days of exploring!
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