It was a misty morning as we packed up our suitcases and loaded the car to leave the guest house in Volcano. We had spent two incredible days on the Hilo side of the island touring Hawaii Volcano National Park, Hilo, and the Hamakua Coastline on the west side of the Big Island. (Read my posts on the Hamakua Coast Drive and the Best Smoothies of My Life and A Trip to Mordor: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park). Today we would spend the morning on the west side of the island before driving the other-worldly Saddle Road between the two volcanoes that make up the Island of Hawaii. We would be leaving the lush, green, misty side of the island and crossing over to the sun scorched Kona coast, passing through a volcanic no-mans-land that was as beautiful as it was desolate.
Thurston Lava Tube and Kilauea Caldera
Since we were starting out so close to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, we decided to head back to the park (for free, since the park pass lasts a week) and headed toward the famous Thurston Lava Tube. Normally, the lava tube parking lot is packed full and people are herded through the lava tube like pigs to a slaughterhouse. We arrived at 8am and we were the only car in the lot. We had the place all to ourselves. The lava tube was creepy and cool, and I struggled to imagine hot lava rushing through the tunnel, as it had many years ago. Outside the lava tube, we were immersed in a cloud forest with dozens of birds chirping and swooping back and forth.
We took the Kilauea Iki Trail from the other side of the parking lot that skirts along the rim of Kilauea Caldera hoping to catch a glimpse of the barren crater below. It was socked in with fog, but as we walked from overlook to overlook, the clouds cleared for a minute and we captured a quick glimpse of the vast caldera.
The clouds swooped back in and we decided to head back, as we had a long drive ahead of us. When we got back to the car it was 9am and there were only two cars in the parking lot besides ours. We loved seeing the park on our own before the crowds rolled in.
Accessibility Note: There were some stairs involved at the Thurston Lava Tube, but not many. It was a short, easy walk. The upper rim portion of the Kilauea Iki Trail was a well maintained unpaved trail that wasn’t too steep and was easy walking. We only took the trail for a half mile or so.
Hilo Farmers Market and Some Kick-Ass Smoothies
Unable to decide between a repeat visit to What’s Shakin for smoothies or a trip to the Hilo Farmers Market, we did both! (Check out my Best Food on the Big Island post for my reviews of these great spots). The Hilo Farmers Market was a block long covered market full of island fruits, fresh veggies, and tropical flowers. We loaded up on strawberry papayas, some odd but delicious fruits I had never heard of, and tiny baby bananas. There were several food trucks nearby and the green papaya salad from the thai food truck was too tempting to pass up so we ordered some and also grabbed some steak and chicken skewers from a grilling stand next door. We shared the food between the five of us as we listened to live music and soaked up the morning sun. Later, we hit the road and drove up the Mamalahoa Highway a ways to return to our favorite smoothie shop, What’s Shakin. This time I tried more of a dessert-style smoothie and went for one with coffee, chocolate, and banana. It blew my mind. I can’t stress enough how delicious their smoothies were.
Route 200 – The Saddle Road
After What’s Shakin, we made our way across the island toward Kona. We took the dreaded Saddle Road, which had been recently redone, and turned out to be the most well maintained and easy road to drive I had ever seen. It was impeccably marked, with wide lanes, brand spanking new pavement, and awesome views. Coming out of Hilo, we did hit some rain and fog, but once we were a ways out of Hilo, the fog cleared and the drive was great. The Saddle Road cuts across the Big Island between two giant volcanos, Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. It felt like we were driving across another planet, with the rocky landscape and cinder cones rising up all around us. I regret not stopping and taking pictures along the way because it was truly beautiful. (You can get your fill of gorgeous photos from the drive from another travel blog called DalmDad that has great photographs of his travels across the US). As we approached the west coast of the Big Island, the sweeping, sunny Kona coastline unfolded before us. We descended through flower-filled fields and sun scorched lava flows to the coast where we checked into our hotel, the Sheraton, in Kailua-Kona. We hung out and relaxed for a bit before dinner.
Kona Brewing Company – an Island-Themed Applebee’s
My Lonely Planet guidebook made the Kona Brewing Company restaurant sound like a fun spot to hang out and eat delicious fresh salads and mouth-watering burgers, so we decided to give it a try. As soon as we arrived, I was suspicious. There was a huge parking lot, a hostess stand with a giant pile of buzzers, and two rows of long benches for people to sit and wait for their table among cheesy island decor. We got our buzzer and were told it would be about an hour. As we sat and waited, we perused the menu, and I grew increasingly suspicious of the place. I recognized several items on the menu as island equivalents of your standard American chain restaurant fare, not the locally crafted creations we were hoping for, and I grew worried we might be waiting so long for a meal that would disappoint. But, we stuck around and decided to trust the reviews we had read. When we finally did eat, we were disappointed all around. The food wasn’t necessarily terrible, it just wasn’t good, and definitely not worth the hype. The Kona Brewing Company is basically an island-themed Applebee’s that brews its own beer. My guess is the Lonely Planet reviewer had a few of those beers while waiting for a table, making the food infinitely more satisfying, and the review a bit exaggerated. If you want to try the Kona Brewing Company beer, it is served all over the island so I’d recommend you drink and eat elsewhere. On the bright side, while waiting for a table we saw a kid that was wearing the exact same outfit as Garren and that pretty much made our night!
We finished off the night with drinks from the bar at the Sheraton (their bar tender makes an amazing dark and stormy!) while watching for Manta Rays in the lit-up waters off their balcony. We talked to some people who said they had watched every night for an hour or two looking for Manta Rays, and they had seen them most nights. We didn’t wait that long, and didn’t see any, but it was still fun watching the waves crash into the rocks below us.
I almost couldn’t believe we had been walking through a lava tube, peeking into a giant volcanic crater, browsing the Hilo Farmers Market, and driving between two volcanoes to cross the island all that same day. I wondered what the Saddle Road had been like before it was redone, as I had heard stories of how treacherous it had been. Have any of you been on the Big Island’s Saddle Road? What was it like? Leave me a comment!