City Girl Gone Wandering
One of the things that is so amazing about the island of Hawaii is that it is home to eleven of the world’s thirteen climate zones. A simple two-hour drive across the island boasts sights of sandy beaches, rainforests, rolling green hills, and desolate lava rock fields. The north (and parts of the south) look like they were plucked out of the English countryside, except the coloring of the vegetation leans more toward the color of lime than the color of evergreen. Ten minutes away is a desolate rock moonscape of semi-recent lava flow. Somewhere over the horizon are beaches with white, green, or black sand. This place is an environmental jambalaya stew.
I bring up these diverse landscapes because I spent this past weekend marveling at them as I traversed the island from west to east to north to west again. On Friday, a friend and I drove cross-island (I never get tired of saying that) and over to Hilo for the night. We rented a room in a B&B (really it was someone’s house with a spare bedroom and a caretaker) and went out on the town.
Despite its apparent small-stature to my New York City eyes, Hilo is actually the second largest city in the state of Hawaii (Honolulu, of course, being the first). It boasts a booming downtown life (by Hawaii standards), a University of Hawaii campus, and an abundance of natural beauty. Compared to Kona (the “city” on my side of the island) Hilo is a different planet. Situated on the “rainy side” of the island, Hilo has maintained more of its Hawaiian identity—many of the town’s signs refer to it as “Old Hawaii” or “Real Hawaii”. Kona, on the other hand, boasts a drier climate, and has thus been overtaken by tourism. As such, much of its nightlife is limited to bars along Ali’i Drive that all feel like cheesy theme bars dressed up in the stereotype of Hawaii (lots of flowered shirts, leis, etc.). But Hilo has little of that. Instead, Hilo is your typical liberal-minded college-town, laden with craft beer, burger joints, coffee shops, and young kids wandering around in beanies, probably carrying a hackey-sack in their pocket.
When we arrived at the B&B—after a long excursion in multiple wrong directions—I asked the caretaker for the WiFi info. She told me that the username was Tahoe. T-A-H-O-E. I immediately started laughing hysterically. You see, that same day I had accepted a seasonal job offer to begin work next month at the Stanford Sierra Conference Center in South Lake Tahoe, CA. I’d spent the rest of the day drowning in sorrow at the prospect of leaving Hawaii. Up until then, there had been no end-date for my time here. For whatever reason, knowing that my island time was finite made me feel disconnected from the land and the life I have built here. But, as she always does, Hawaii stepped in to reassure me that I was making the right choice. The serendipity of this place never ceases to blow me away. I mean, who names their wireless internet Tahoe? Jeez.
Anyway, after reveling in the magical reaffirmation of my life, we returned to brainstorming food options. I remembered the name of a burger place from my last excursion into Hilo, so we got the directions and headed off in search of food and drink.
The name of the place was Hilo Burger Joint and the food and service was phenomenal. Our waitress was either preparing her type-A personality for a potential move to NYC (with the way she hustled she would do great there) or she was on some sort of methamphetamine. Either way, she worked it. Being a vegetarian, I enjoyed a vegan garden burger, while my friend devoured the beef and claimed that it was one of the best burgers he’d ever had. So, if you find yourself on Big Island, check out Hilo Burger Joint and report back.
The next day, we awoke and headed to another famous Hilo food spot: Ken’s House of Pancakes. The decor looked like it hadn’t been touched since the place opened in the 1970s, and the atmosphere was a strange hybrid of a standard small-town diner and a Hawaiian theme park. The waitresses—all middle-aged Hawaiian women—raced around taking orders like they were preparing for the food service Olympics. The bus boy cleaned tables so quickly that we never even saw him coming in and out. I semi-seriously believe that all of Hilo is on speed.
The menu was loaded with standard diner fare, as well as traditional Hawaiian dishes (loco bowls anyone?). In most American breakfast joints, egg orders come with potatoes and toast on the side. Here, however, you got eggs and potatoes, and were then offered a choice between pancakes or toast. That’s right. Pancakes. An entirely separate meal to add to your breakfast entrée. Why? Because… pancakes.
After breakfast, my friend and I drove north to check out Akaka Falls—a waterfall about 11 miles north of Hilo.
The park wasn’t overly crowded, so we were able to enjoy the hike in relative solitude. The trek through the park was about 0.5 miles, down a windy path that made its way through old-growth trees, radiant greenery, and a few small brooks/baby waterfalls.
Then, we found the main event.
Akaka Falls was beautiful, though not quite as magnificent as we had been promised. In fact, we drove past a different waterfall on our way further north that, though smaller than Akaka Falls, was actually far grander. The view wasn’t from an artificially created tourist trail perfectly placed at a safe distance. Instead, it was just a waterfall hanging out on the side of a highway, like waterfalls do… in Hawaii. Crazy freaking island.
The rest of the weekend was spent driving around the hills of the north, and enjoying the beaches of the west, but I will get into that another day. The last few weeks have been a blur of adventures and I have fallen behind on writing. For that, I apologize. I have many things to share with all of my readers: volcano trips, rain-soaked hikes, and the magic that floats through the air during every moment of every day on this island of wonderment. Stay tuned, there is much more island adventure to come before myself and the blog wander to freeze and frolic in the mountains of California.