Saturday, December 17, 2011

Highlights from a Whirlwind Hawaiian Trip

Swimming with spinner dolphins. Sipping a lilikoi (passionfruit) margarita. Relaxing in an immense lava rock pond filled with warm seawater. Falling asleep to the sounds of the coqui frogs and rain on the roof. Getting another look at the mesmerizing Kilauea, the most active volcano on the planet. Tasting guacamole made from avocados grown on the farm where the restaurant sits. Speaking with a green sea turtle on a black sand beach.

All that made my vacation on the Big Island of Hawaii spectacular – that and laughing every day with Peggy, an old friend from high school who works as a doctor in Pahoa, a small town south of Hilo. Every day was an adventure full of scenic vistas, wildlife sightings, terrific food and a chance to see the Big Island through the eyes of a local. This blog post hits the highlights, categorized for your reading convenience.

FAUNA. On a snorkeling trip with Sunlight on Water (, we saw one “early arrival” humpback whale that breached by way of greeting and then moved on. We also snorkeled with spinner dolphins and manta rays, and got a close look at five endangered pygmy killer whales. Later in the week, two nene geese (the state bird of Hawaii) showed up exactly 750 yards from a roadside sign that promised just that. We also saw wild turkeys, that huge green sea turtle, one lone mongoose, northern cardinals (though no sign of expat Pujols), Brazilian cardinals with bright red heads and peahens likely of some quail species. We didn't see but certainly heard the coquis, small frogs that live in clusters of up to 20,000 per acre.

FLORA. Gorgeous flowers are abundant on parts of the island, and Peggy’s yard is full of tropical fruit trees. We also visited the Akatsu Orchid Gardens (, which sells 50 natural species and 1,500 hybrids – and yet that accounts for less than half of one percent of all the orchids in the world! At the Hawaiian Vanilla Company ( -- the only commercial vanilla farm in the U.S. – we learned that the orchid that produces vanilla blooms just once a year for four hours and must be hand-pollinated. A single bean goes for $11, and no wonder! The flowers are epiphytic, or in the words of a farmer, “They just lie there and live.”

WATER. My favorite place to be is below sea level – well, usually. The snorkeling trip involved lots of popping in and out of the water, but a couple days later Peggy and I spent over 90 minutes languishing at the Hot Pond near her home. (See This was a relief after a visit to a beach on Waialea Bay on the Kohala Coast, where the waves knocked me over and dumped me unceremoniously on the beach. Unfortunately, Peggy has photos…

OTHER NATURAL ATTRACTIONS. Volcanoes National Park -- home to Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess – is one of my favorite places on Earth, and our visit did not disappoint. (See One day, we spotted snow at the summit of Mauna Kea, some 14,000 feet above sea level. We also admired great views from a ridge overlooking Na’alehu, we saw a rainbow that ramped up into a double rainbow after leaving the rowdy waves and many birds at Waialea Beach, and the lava fields on the island are remarkable any time of day.

FOOD. Peggy’s hometown is known for great food, and we visited numerous other areas for island specialties as well, some recommended by my friend Joe, who visits the Big Island often. Highlights included taro “pancrepes” (one savory, one sweet) at U-Top-It, Big Myke’s blackened mahi BLT at Kaleo’s in Pahoa, malasadas (Portuguese doughnuts, filled or frosted) at Punalu’u Bake Shop in Na’alehu, POG juice (passionfruit, orange and guava) at Ken’s in Hilo, pulled pork at the Maku’u Farmers Market, a veggie stir fry at Sukothai in Pahoa, a fresh ginger cookie from the coffee shop in Haw’i and (last but nowhere near least) the lilikoi cheesecake on a macadamia and chocolate crust at CafĂ© Pesto in Hilo. We also popped in at Big Island Candies ( to pick up some macadamia nut shortbread dipped in dark chocolate. Breakfasts of fresh papaya topped with yogurt and vanilla-flavored granola on Peggy’s lanai (it runs the length of her house) also rocked, as did my first tastes of rambutans and persimmons.

DRINK. That lilkoi margarita (Peggy calls it an “alcoholic slushie”) at Kaleo’s was outstanding, as was the aromatic vanilla lemonade at the Hawaiian Vanilla Company. Another great treat was the frozen Pacific Passion smoothie at What’s Shakin’ in Pepeekeo, north of Hilo overlooking Oleamu Bay. The drink is made from fruit grown on the farm – banana, papaya, guava – plus apple and pineapple juice. To go with that smoothie, we feasted on the best guacamole I’ve ever tasted. The macadamia nut honey wine at the Volcano Winery ( went down easily, and we enjoyed a sip of Volcano Red, made from pinot grapes blended with jaboticaba berries. (What a fun word!)

SHOPPING. Did you know that Macy’s in Hilo sells muumuus? So does Sears! Shopping was not on the agenda for this trip, but we did stop at Hawaiian Arts in Hilo, where three years ago I bought a beautiful tie-dyed shirt. This time, I bought two shirts – one with Hawaiian petroglyphs ($5!) and one with a great octopus graphic that wraps around the shirt.

Home just three days now, most of all I miss the tantalizing aromas at the vanilla farm and the malasada bakery – and of course, Peggy’s terrific company and that of her cat, Pahoehoe, named for a form of smooth lava. What a great trip!

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