Trip Coach: September 23, 2008
Conner Gorry: Aloha, folks! This is Conner Gorry and I'm thrilled to be talking to you about Hawaii's Big Island. Away we go!
Philadelphia, Pa.: I will be on the Big Island for 3 days in November with my parents, who are in their 80s. We are starting in Hilo for one day, and then I am hoping that I can in one day drive from Hilo to Kona and have enough time to spend looking at Volcanoes National Park. Is that a good one-day activity?
Conner Gorry: Hello, City of Brotherly Love. What you have in mind will be rushed and tiring, with most of your time spent in the car. While you can drive to Kona from Hilo in one day and stop at the National Park en route, it's not ideal. Nevertheless, as I'm sure you've heard, the park is awesome and not to be missed so if a day's all you have...however, one of the the star attractions—Crater Rim Dr—is closed from the Jaggar Museum to the Chain of Craters Rd junction due to high levels of sulfur dioxide chuffing from Halema'uma'u Crater. See the response to S Lake Tahoe for info about air quality. I figure it probably wouldn't be wise (and certainly won't be enjoyable) for your parents to breathe in all that toxic air. If it's in your budget, Id recommend a helicopter tour instead—that way you can see the forest, beaches and lava for which the island is famous.
For park closures, see nps.gov
Phoenix, Ariz.: I have heard there is a small company on the Big Island that rents a mini-van out and gives you a map—you can see the Island on your own, camp in the van and have a leisurely trip vs. the resort experience. My husband and I are fit and cheerful, in our 50s—would just be the 2 of us—are the vans comfy? Are mosquitoes a problem? What's the best time to go? Summer? May is a good travel month for us. Is anyone familiar with this company? We love to hike and visit waterfalls and beaches...snorkeling is important too.
Madeline and Ken
Conner Gorry: Oh, you are after my own heart, Madeline & Ken. I actually considered researching the guide in one of these babies (and did end up renting a VW pop top van parked on a lava flow for a lot of the write up at a great off-the-grid place called lova lava land) but didn't in the end for logistical reasons. I think the company you're referring to is GB Adventures which rents out VW Westfalia vans for cruising and camping around the island.
The good: you can get to all the waterfalls, hiking, beaches and snorkeling spots the little van will take you. You can sleep where you park and will meet many people this way—whether you want to or not! Speaking from experience, V-dub pop tops are comfy in their way. Unless you're really tall, you can stand up in them with the top popped and there's ample room to store stuff, move around, etc. There's one double bed that fold up for storing during the day. Again, if you're tall, you'll probably hang off the bed. Im 5'6" and had no problems and loved sleeping "under the stars" but where the critters couldn't get to me. These campers are in good condition and most have stove, frdge and a mini-fridge for total independent exploring.
The not so good: gas prices on the Big Island are among the highest in the nation ($4.30 a gallon in Hilo at last check; see hawaiigasprices.com), so consider that when working out your budget. More important, even if the van is in tip-top condition, it probably won't have much pickup or speed and will complain if you go off paved roads (many of the best sites on the Big Island are up hills or down dirt or lava roads). The Saddle Road passing between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, for instance, will probably be knocked off your itinerary in the van.
GB also rents tents, sleeping bags and pads, coolers and other stuff to make your trip fun and comfortable. I say go for it, I wish I had! Mosquitoes are rarely a problem on the Big Island, except at lower levels like in the Ka'u district. May is a great time to come because you'll beat the summer rush. Have fun!
Colorado Springs, Colo.: We want to spend a week on the Big Island with my parents, our son and his wife, and our daughter. We would like to rent a house. What is the best way to find a place and what area would be best for us? We want to be able to get to the beach although we don't have to be on the beach. Our children (mid 30's) want to do some diving. —Jo Anne
Conner Gorry: You've got a great strategy, Jo Anne—renting a house and using it as a homebase is the way to go for a shorter trip. Many people make the mistake of moving 2 or 3 times during the week to see all the Big Island has to offer. Since that's impossible anyway (and gobbles precious time packing, checking in and checking out), it's better to define what sites and activities are most exciting to you, find lodging you like, and fan out from there. But don't forget—on the Big Island, size matters. This is a big island and driving times can be long, so consider geography when choosing a place to stay so that you can maximize your quality time here.
So to your question. You're clear about what you want to do: be near the beach, have family time and dive a bit too. The last defines the rest: you'll want to be within easy striking distance of Honokohau Harbor, where almost all the dive companies leave from. For my money, that means Captain Cook or Kealakekua Bay since it puts you near the Captain Cook Monument, the island's top snorkeling spot accessed on a kicking kayak trip, the inspirational (and kinda spooky) Place of Refuge, some terrific lesser-known beaches (Ho'okena and Miloli'i farther afield), plus some terrific restaurants. Two good sites for combing the homes for rent are vrbo.com and alternative-hawaii.com.
Incidentally, sweet Honokohau Harbor has some cool doings that you shouldn't miss—whether you're diving or not. Happy hour schooners (18 ounces of ice cold beer for $2.50!) at the Harbor House Restaurant where the local gossip is as entertaining as the boat traffic passing below your harborside table; Honokohau Beach with its salt-n-pepper lava and coral shoreline, ancient heiau and unbeatable sunsets; and the coastal Ala Hele Ike Trail to Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park. You can also watch the boats coming in to weigh their catch for the day here—if you're lucky, someone may have landed a grander (over 1000 pounds)!
P.S. The nightime manta ray dive is a must for the kids and even if you don't dive, you can go on the same boat and snorkel with these gentle giants.
Pine Bush, N.Y.: We are going to be on the Big Island in July and would like to find the best snorkeling spot in Kona. Can you help?
Conner Gorry: Hey, Barb. I have to be honest, I was totally skeptical about what all the guidebooks and brochures called "the best snorkeling spot" in the whole island, Ka'awaloa Cove (usually referred to as Captain Cook Monument/Kealakekua Bay). Sounded like a bunch of hype to me and I was sure it would be packed with loud, splashy tourists scaring all the fish away. But, wow! This is it. In the kayak paddling across the cove (should take about 30-45 minutes on the way there, but you're fighting a bit of a headwind; it's faster on the return) you'll probably be escorted by dolphins. A wickedly exciting experience but keep your distance—100 feet or so—since they rest in this bay and they need it. Upon arrival, gently pull your kayak up on the rocks, don the gear and ease on in. Right there off the rocks in three feet of water, is teeming with tropical fish. There's some nice coral too, but it's the variety and quantity of fish that are the big draw. If you're an experienced swimmer/snorkeler, swim out about 150 feet to where there's an underwater cliff and everything drops away and you're hovering over the deep blue abyss. It's possible to see whales farther out here too. Bring a picnic, lots of liquids and an underwater camera if you've got it. Kayak rentals are available all along Hwy 11 heading towards Captain Cook—rent the night before to get an early start. This is a popular spot, so please follow local conservation advice to keep it clean and alive for everyone!
South Lake Tahoe, Calif.: We were on the Big Island several years ago and I had some throat irritation and mild breathing problems and was told that it was caused by the "vog" from the volcano. It reminded me of the irritation I experienced working in the inner city of LA in the 70's from the smog. I know that the volcano doesn't follow a set schedule but is there any way I can find out when it is more or less active before I plan another trip? Like a volcano update site? And what could I have done to counteract the effects? Thanks.
Conner Gorry: Hi there, Tahoe. Well, seeing as you're used to that crisp, clean mountain air, I can see how the 'vog' would be irritating. And you're right, there's no set schedule on the volcano. Having said that, Kilauea is very active lately and oddly so: Halema'uma'u crater was closed earlier this year when it erupted, shooting rocks and gases into the air. This is the first time there was an eruption at this crater since 1982. The stretch of Crater Rim Dr between the Jaggar Museum and the Chain of Craters Rd is closed as a result of all this activity and the high sulphur dioxide levels. There's not much you can do to protect yourself but to steer clear of the areas with the most sulphuric activity. To learn what part of the volcano is active, the exact levels of SO2 in the air and how to visit the volcano safely, see these helpful websites:
• volcano.wr.usgs.gov: for the last 24 hours' activity on the volcano
• lavainfo.us: current conditions plus a detailed map showing where the current lava flow is entering the sea
• hawaii.gov: shows detailed, dated reports on air quality, including SO2 and particulate levels
Jackson, Wyo.: Hiya! My girlfriend is a travel nurse & is thinking about going to the Big Island of Hawaii next year. She wants me to come visit her, but after searching for flights, I noticed they are very expensive! I would stay with her in Honolulu for about 3 weeks to a month & would have to fly out of Jackson Hole Wyoming in April. Any thoughts on how to score a low-price flight? Someone told me once that Wednesday morning at about 1am EST is the best time because everything resets. Is there any truth to this statement?
Conner Gorry: Hi, Rose. From your question, I think you may be making the mistake many of us have made before visiting Hawaii: Honolulu is on the island of Oahu, not the Big Island—two worlds apart! But your question about affordable airfare is oh so valid these days for anywhere in Hawaii, so to it: airlines do reset fares as you mention, but it's hard to work that system when you're talking about a destination like Hawaii, serviced by only a handful of carriers, and a departure point like Jackson Hole, which will require a connection or two (usually Phoenix, Denver and/or LA). I'll assume you've tried sites like Orbitz and SideStep which compare all carriers and prices.
San Clemente, Calif.: How bad is the "VOG" right now in the Kailua/Kona area of the Big Island? I've heard that two new vents have opened up at Kilauea and the air-quality along the west side is pretty poor.
Conner Gorry: Vog stands for volcanic fog and it's created by the 275 tons of sulfur dioxide pumped out daily from Kilauea when it mixes with water vapor and carbon dioxide. Since the Big Island receives a reliable northeasterly tradewind, when vog levels are up, it tends to hang over the Kona Coast and as far south as Kau. As San Clemente points out, that can make for lousy air quality and you'll hear locals complaining about it.
For current air quality, see the sites recommended to South Lake Tahoe.
Nashville, Tenn.: When visiting the Big Island of Hawaii, I find the white lava rock graffiti placed on the black lava flows very unattractive, unnatural, and defacing of something I paid to travel many miles hoping to enjoy. Am I the only person who feels that the graffiti destroys the experience? Are there any programs to undo and end this modern tradition?
Conner Gorry: Howdy, Nashville. I see where you're coming from and I personally wouldn't waste my precious vacation time pulled over by the side of the road on a blazing hot lava flow to write CG + JS in coral. But to each his own. But look: there are miles and miles and miles of lava flows without a speck of graffiti—many more flows without graffiti than with, in fact. What you're referring to is only on the North Kona-South Kohala stretch of Hwy 19 (Queen Ka'ahumanu Hwy). For graffiti-free flows, head to the national park, ka'u, or the saddle road. you'll see plenty! As for programs to get rid of the graffiti, I don't know, but I'd say the Big Island has bigger fish to fry including garbage disposal, marine conservation and clean up, invasive species, preserving traditional culture and land use issues.
Milwaukee, Wisc.: Hello! Thanks for taking my question. We're traveling to the Big Island on Feb. 27 and leaving Mar. 10. We're taking our two kids, who will be 5 and 3. Part of the time (4 days) will be at the Fairmont Orchid for a conference and we've rented a house in Kailhua Kona for the remainder. The kids are great travelers. What should we see and do? We're thinking of seeing the volcano, taking a helicopter ride, snorkeling, seeing the tropical regions, etc, etc. There's so much to do and see! What do you recommend for worthwhile side trips and experiences given the ages of the kids? Thanks for your insight.
Conner Gorry: You're going to love the Fairmont! Don't miss the spa without walls—yum. The helicopter ride will stay with them and you forever—if you've got the $$$, do it. Make sure your helicopter has all window seats and wait for a crystal clear day if you can. The volcano is also a must. Start with the Junior Ranger program at the visitors center to get them into the swing of things. The gift shop has cool kids' stuff too. Then onto the thurston lava tube and pu'u loa petroglyphs, keep your eye out for the nene geese walking around (but please don't feed them!). The 2400 degree F glass blowing studio near Volcano Village is also a fun kids activity near here. A trip into Waipio Valley at the end of the road on the Hamakua Coast—by covered wagon with the wee ones would be a great option. The river/beach at the base of the valley is tons of fun, but watch the undertow. Just above Kailua-Kona is the Kona Cloud Forest Sanctuary; Hawaiian Walkways—one of the island's premier tour outfitters—does a great 3-hour tour here. Also see if the phenomenal Three Ring Ranch Animal Sanctuary is offering tours again. Here the kids will delight in meeting David & Goliath (giant African tortoises), Zoe the blond zebra and the rest of the menagerie. Snorkeling for kids is recommended at: Kahalu'u Beach (also known as Turtle Beach for obvious reasons!), the tide pools at Kapoho in Puna, and Kukio Bay (accessed through the Four Seasons). A catamaran trip to Kealakekua Bay for snorkeling near the Captain Cook Monument (the fish are beautiful even at three feet depths here) is another option. Have fun!
Millersville, Md.: We would like suggestions for early morning activities (pre-dawn). We will be visiting Big Island Oct. 4th through the 7th and will be trying to adjust to 6-hour time difference. Staying in Captain Cook at a B&B. Two adults in late 50's. We are very interested in the volcano NP. Thank you.
Conner Gorry: It's great when needs and interest dovetail like this. The National Park is open 24 hours, so you can roll up there at any time that floats your boat. From 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. is a wonderful time to be in the park for many reasons. First, you'll likely have the place to yourself. I'm always amazed how late people show up to witness the spectacular. At this time you can catch the moon setting and the sun rising and you'll have the park all to yourself. I suggest driving to the end of Chain of Craters Road, finding a comfy piece of lava and breaking out a blanket, thermos of coffee and some of the sinful mini-poundcakes from the Kilauea General Store. Once you have some light, you can explore the Pu'u Loa Petroglyphs—there are more than 20,000 images pecked into stone here. Note that the Crater Rim Dr from Jaggar Museum to Chain of Craters Rd Junction is closed. see nps.gov.
Another option is watching the sky lighten from the top of Mauna Kea. From up here, you'll see more stars than you've ever seen at once (this mountain, sacred to native Hawaiians, has some of the world's clearest stargazing and the astronomical observatories to prove it) fading into the purple, pink, and blue of day as the sun rises over Hilo way.
Keep in mind that driving to either the park or the mountain from Capt Cook will eat time, so your first day you might want to take a quick ride down to Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Park, otherwise known as the Place of Refuge to watch daybreak over the 15-ft tall wooden statues guarding the heiau (temple) here. Bring your snorkel gear for a sunrise swim with turtles and more at Two Step.
Toronto, Canada: Hi, Conner. What would be the best rental option for staying on the Big Island for a month or two in the winter? —Ev
Conner Gorry: A month? Two? Ev, you're making everyone jealous, myself included! With this amount of time, you'll really be able to slow down, understand aloha and get to know people and this island in ways you just can't in a week or three. So congratulations! You don't give any indication of what you like to do or your budget, two of the main factors when it comes to deciding where to stay, so it's tough to give specific recommendations. If it's your first time on the Big Island, you'll probably want to split it up between several places so you can use them as homebases to explore and not spend burdensome amounts of time in the car.
The Hamakua Coast is, in my opinion, the most beautiful part of the Big Island. (Can I even say that? Oh well, I just did.) Secret spots, waterfalls gushing from orchid-clad ridges, old school aloha, and of course inimitable Waipi'o Valley are all found here. Plus, Honoka'a is a wonderfully funky town that somehow seems to combine Hawaiian tradition and contemporary lifestyles without fuss. Here you'll find organic goat cheese puerveyors and taro farms, hippie dance parties and old time rodeos. Plus there are many places to explore that aren't in any guidebooks. So try to rent a place for a while in this area, followed by some time in the South Kona area to get the beach and top snorkeling you're probably after, seeing you're coming from Toronto in the winter. If you're on a budget, try the Manago Hotel—an historic traveler's hotel run by the family's third generation, you can get a good, clean and safe room here for as little as $33 a night. Book now though, it's super popular.
One of my absolute favorite places on earth is Volcanoes National Park and if you like to hike, I highly recommend spending quality time in Volcano Village outside the park. I wish I was among the sulphur and tree ferns, craters and steam vents right now! The weather can be a bit mecurial—it rains and mists a lot up here—but that only adds to the charm. Artists studios, tea houses, the Volcano Winery, a phenomenal farmers' market where you're sure to make friends and the tight knit community make this a wonderful retreat. Don't miss the secret lava tube tour led by Park rangers (weds only) and the nighttime lecture series. There are many lovely vacation rentals here; try alternative-hawaii.com to see a selection.
If you're looking for sun all day, try a Kona condo—there are some terrific deals to be had. These websites should get you what you're looking for: konacondo.com, konahawaii.com, konahawaiirentals.com, hawaii-kona.com, and konarentals.com.
Minnetonka, Minn.: We are getting married on Oahu the third week of June 2009. We are then planning on traveling to the Big Island and possibly Kauai, if time permits. How much time would you suggest we plan on to see the Big Island and its sites without being too rushed? Also, which side of the island would you suggest we fly in to, Hilo or Kona? It looks like the nicer hotels and resorts are on the Kona side. Is that correct—are the sites better on one side or the other? What would you suggest as the "can't miss" sites or unknown sites? Any suggestions you can share with us would be great. —Curt
Conner Gorry: Congratulations, Curt and significant other! I always say there's only one place for a honeymoon: the Big Island. OK, so Im biased. But really, I would choose either the Big Island or Kauai—trying to squeeze in both will shortchange both. I've spent months on the Big Island and still haven't seen all the sites, so, that's a loaded question. I think a week as a minimum is best. And everything depends on what you want to do. Kona side is for beaches, diving, resorts and unlimited sun. Hilo side is for Hawaiian culture, dense forests run through with waterfalls gushing from the cliffs, black sand beaches, easy access to Volcanoes National Park, plus the unknown sites you mention (and that you'll have to find for yourself, otherwise they wouldn't be unknown)! The overwhelming majority of visitors fly into Kona, which is slightly more economical than flying into Hilo. You can fly into one, rent a car and fly out of another for a $50 drop-off fee which works for some people. Hilo side has some phenomenally romantic places to stay with views that will stay in your memory "until death do you part." try the Hamakua Coast area or Volcano Village.
Can't miss sites (in no particular order): Waipi'o Valley; Mauna Kea/stargazing at night; Volcanoes National Park; lava flowing into the sea in Puna (see response to South Lake Tahoe for map link); night dive or snorkel with manta rays; Place of Refuge; Captain Cook Monument (see response to Barb about snorkeling there); Makalawena Beach; Kiholo Bay; Hawi.
Phoenix, Ariz.: Is it OK to drive the Saddle Road from coast to coast? I've read conflicting reports on the subject. This question is coming from someone who on Maui drove all the way around the end after Hana to get back to Wailea. Thanks. —Kurt
Conner Gorry: Oh, the much maligned Saddle Road! So much has been made of this US army-built road (rental car companies used to prohibit traversing the Saddle; most now allow it), but you should have no problem crossing in a regular rental car. Things to watch out for however: gas up both you and your car before you go since there's no gas/food fill-up possible en route. They're fixing the road, so obey all signs and go slow through construction zones. Around the 45 mile marker heading towards Waimea, the road turns rutted and uneven, with big potholes the size of tank treads. That's because they are: you are now in the Pohakuloa Training Area (PTA), the largest military training area in the state. This is where US Stryker brigades are trained for Iraq. Obey all signs in this area and no pictures please!
En route, you must stop at the Onizuka Visitors Center several miles up from Saddle Rd on Mauna Kea—best time is after dark for the free, nightly stargazing through powerful telescopes. It takes about an hour to get here from Hilo, 2 from Kailua-Kona. Note that you can't drive "coast to coast" on the Saddle Rd, but will have to connect to 250 or 190 outside Waimea to continue to Kohala and the Kona Coast.
Sherwood, Ore.: We are going to the big island in March. Where are the best places to snorkel? When I visited Hawaii in the mid-seventies, we were able to get close to the lava flowing into the ocean. Where is the best place to see the lava flow? Where do the locals golf?
Conner Gorry: Hi there. For snorkeling, see response to Barb. Lucky for you, the lava is currently flowing into the ocean near the Royal Gardens subdivision in Puna. But that can change! For the current map and conditions, see: lavainfo.us. Locals love to golf at the "muni," the municipal course in Hilo and the Volcano Golf and Country Club, where Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa loom over the greens.
Minnetonka, Minn.: We're planning a trip to the Big Island in June 2009, staying approximately 6 days. We would rent a car. In order to make the most of our vacation, is it better to stay in one hotel/resort and make it our home base to see all there is to see on the island or would it be better to book a few different hotels on different sides of the island to get it all in? Is 6 days going to be enough?
Conner Gorry: Good question—and one of the most important to resolve before a trip to the BIG island. See my answer to Colorado Springs. Is 6 days enough? In my opinion, no, but it's better than 5 or fewer!
San Bernardino, Calif.: We will be traveling to the Big Island for a week in early November, and staying at a B&B in south Kona. Last year, we stayed on the Hilo and Puna sides and visited Kilauea and the other sights in those areas. We are 41 and 46 years old and aren't into too much hiking or other adventure activities. What suggestions do you have for activities and sights to see? —Blair
Conner Gorry: You guys have the Big Island bug, eh? Two times in 2 years—this is what this place can do to you. You are going during festival high season, so check out if the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival and/or the Big Island Festival jibe with your schedule. Must see sites include the Place of Refuge and Kealakekua Bay—even if you don't want to kayak to the latter to snorkel, consider taking a tour, either by inflatable Zodiac raft or catamaran. You don't want to miss the underwater wonderland here. Between the Place of Refuge and Kealakekua Bay, be sure to take the scenic backroad drive along Painted Church Rd to see what you can discover, visiting St Benedict's Painted Church along the way. This is definitely the best view from a church (both inside and out!) that we've ever had. Don't miss the cemetery while here with its lei-covered statuary. Upland from Kailua-Kona is the laid back town of Holuloa where art galleries and coffee plantation tours will give you a taste of local life. Some of the island's finest souveneirs are tucked away up here, at the Ipu Hale Gallery, Dovetail and Kimura Lauhala Shop. Be prepared to spend!
Minneapolis, Minn.: My fiance and I are planning to honeymoon on the Big Island. Are there any must-see's or -do's not to miss?
Conner Gorry: Congratulations! See answers to Curt, another soon-to-be-wed Hawaiian honeymooner
Long Beach, Calif.: We want to plan a trip to Hawaii. My son wants a place where there is good surfing nearby and my daughter-in-law, my husband, and I want to be near the beach, golf course and shopping. Where is the best place to go?
Conner Gorry: Good question and let the debate begin about what constitutes good surfing! Some people will tell you the Big Island doesn't have any good surfing, but they're just being overprotective of their breaks. Pine Trees, at Keahole Point, is pretty much recognized as the island's best surfing—and tourists will have to be patient and friendly to get locals to share the waves here. For the rest of the family, golf, shopping and beaches galore can be found at the nearby South Kohala resorts. Although damaged by the earthquake in 2006, the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel is restored, retrofitted and ready for guests. There's great golf here, plus two of the nicest golden sand beaches on the island at Kauna'oa Bay. Stay here and you can hit the links at the nearby Hapuna Price Hotel Golf Course as well. For something different, you can play the 18-hole course at the Volcano Golf & Country Club, with snowcapped Mauna Kea in the background. For an unusual 19th hole, hit the Volcano Winery just up the road for wine tasting.
The Kings Shops in the Waikoloa sprawl on the South Kohala Coast collects the island's most upscale shopping in one place: head here for Burberry, Louis Vuitton and the like.
By the way, when you say Hawaii, you mean the Big Island, right?
San Antonio, Tex.: My wife and I are spending the week of October 24 on Hawaii. We never encountered "vog" on a trip in March a couple of years ago, but would like to know what time of year it becomes a nuisance, and how do seniors or asthma-prone folks cope? We also wandered into a fairly ritzy resort while there, and received a chilly reception. If all Hawaii beaches are in the public domain, open to all, just what area do these elitist properties control? —Nick
Conner Gorry: Aloha. The vog can be a burden these days thanks to the volcanic action at Kilauea—and if you're asthma-prone (good punctuation, Texas!), watch out! You should check out the national park's air quality site and conditions on the volcano in general before going and adjust your activities depending on air quality and your comfort/fitness level. see the reponse to South Lake Tahoe for the sites.
To your second question—good one! Yes, all coast in the state of Hawaii is open to the public. Technically. Some resorts (eg Mauna Kea Beach Resort; the Four Seasons) allot a certain number of parking spaces at a time (NOT per day so if you wait for someone to come out, you can go in) to comply with the spirit of the law. Other resorts snub their nose at the law and non-guests, unfortunately. Insist politely and they'll let you by.
Petaluma, Calif.: Which is better to visit Hilo or Kona?
Conner Gorry: It all depends. Who are you? What do you like to do? Is pampering and soft sand in your vacation scheme or do you want to get muddy and see waterfall-cloaked valleys like only exist in movies? See response to Curt, the newlywed from Minnetonka for my take on the age-old Kona vs. Hilo side debate.
[My heart's in Hilo! Just over 30 minutes from Volcanoes National Park!]
Lexington, Ky.: I am a single traveler and I will be in Hawaii—the Big Island—from Dec. 6-10. I am looking for activities. Any additional information would be appreciated.
Conner Gorry: Hey Sid. I think you've thrown me the hardest question so far! What do you like to do? What's your budget? Is your primary goal to meet other people or is that precisely why your traveling alone—to get away from them? How old are you? Are you an adventure type or resort type or both? All of this plays into activites that might be fun for you. See my answer to Curt for must-see sites and go right to your favorite bookstore and buy a guidebook (some guidebook sites even let you download just the chapters you're interested in, which might make sense for a quick trip like yours). There's so much to do here, you won't lack for activities, I promise you!
San Rafael, Calif.: When will the Super-Ferry be arriving on the Big Island? And when will it reach both Kona and Hilo—or will it?
Conner Gorry: Hot question, San Rafael! For those who don't know, the Super Ferry is an interisland car ferry which has met strong resistance by environmental and other groups, while industry, tourism and government have largely rallied for it. Only after going to court and an intervention by Governor Linda Lingle did the controversial ship ever leave port. It now travels only 4x week between Oahu and Maui, but Kauai and the Big Island have stopped the Ferry for now. Knowing Big Islanders, they'll circle the wagons, dig in their heels and all the other tough metaphors to make sure this boat never docks on their island.
For the latest, see: hawaiiinterislandsuperferry.com
Raleigh, N.C.: Hi, Conner. I'd love to know what your top 3-5 hikes are on the Big Island.
Conner Gorry: Another traveler after my own heart! I've done a lot of hiking on the Big Island, Sheila, and from one hiker to another, we know it all depends on what you're after. The most spectacular scenery and lovliest camp site, right on a golden sand beach can be had on the Halape-Keauhou-Ka'aha 2-3 day loop in the National Park. Another killer multi-day trek is to Waimanu Valley beyond Waipio. Both are difficult (for different reasons) and you'll have to be self-sufficient—food, water purficiation, stove, tent, etc.
For day hikes, my favorite is the Kohala Forest REserve trail to the top of Waipio Valley; also known as the White Rd trail accessed in Waimea. The 45-minute straight downhill hike into Waipio from the end of the road on the east side of the island is not a nice hike at all, but deposits you in mysterious Waipio Valley and is worth it. In the park, the 1/2 day hike across Kilauea Iki crater is wonderful for the tree fern forest contrasting with old lava flows and native ohia trees. If you're up for it, you can summit Mauna Loa via the observatory trail, but that's for the real badass hikers out there! Have fun.
Bellingham, Wash.: I would like to go to Kauai, Maui and the Big Island in October 2009. What island what it be best to fly into first and go to second and third? Also, is that ferry a good way to go? It looks a lot less expensive and you can keep your same rental car.
Conner Gorry: Hey, Sue. The ferry only travels between Oahu and Maui so that is pretty much out for you. See the response to San Rafael above for more.
What you're proposing involves a lot of air travel unfortunately, since all flights but one between Kailua-Kona and Maui stop in Honolulu first. If you can get on that flight, I'd start in Maui or the Big Island, going to Kauai last.
Conner Gorry: That's it from here. Mahalo (thanks) everyone for getting chatty about the Big Island today. If you are looking for even more details and insider knowledge, check out my Lonely Planet guide to the Big Island, co-written with Luci Yamamoto.
On the Chocolate Trail in Belize
Belize's remote southern Toledo region doesn't make it onto many tourist itineraries, but it was at the top of mine this summer. The guidebook I write was due for an update, and I was eager to check out reports of chocolate tours and hands-on lessons offered at farms spread across Toledo's lush hills and valleys. My wife and mother-in-law didn't take much persuading. In San Felipe, a village of about 65 homes, we meet up with Cyrila Cho, whose family has been farming chocolate for generations. She quickly disappears among the cacao trees and emerges with an oblong yellow pod from a trunk. She splits it open with the whack of a club and presents me with the goo-covered seeds. I imitate her by removing one, placing it in my mouth, sucking off the sweet-tart pulp, then spitting the seed to the ground. The pulp doesn't taste at all like chocolate, which is made from the seed. Cyrila leads us into her cramped concrete kitchen, where a pile of dried, roasted, and peeled cacao beans lies on an old grinding stone. "With this matate I raised six children," she says, as she leans into the stone with all her weight. The beans shatter and mix with the wild vanilla, allspice, and sugar she has added. A savory odor lingers in the air. The Chos have found a way to connect ancient cacao farming with the modern craze for quality, fair-trade products. Their five-hour chocolate tour begins with a visit to son Juan's organic cacao farm. He sells to the Toledo Cacao Growers Association, a nonprofit coalition of about a thousand small farms that sells to acclaimed chocolatier Green & Black's. The tour then moves to Cyrila's home, where she and her daughter lead a Mayan chocolate-making session. Just down the road, on the banks of the Moho River, the Cotton Tree Lodge produces its own brand of chocolate. The one-room, 100-bar-a-day operation has refrigerators and special chocolate-blending ("conching") machines powered in part by solar panels. Cotton Tree runs weeklong chocolate packages and day trips that give guests a chance to tour a nearby cacao farm before heading to Cyrila's to peel toasted cacao beans while sipping on pinnul, a traditional cacao-and-corn drink. The work is slow going. My wife, my mother-in-law, and I need more than 30 minutes to peel enough beans to be ground into a single bar of chocolate. Afterwards, we take turns on Cyrila's matate until the oil of the seeds adds a shiny luster to the brown paste. When it's sufficiently creamy, she will pour the thick substance into molds and set the bars out to harden. But we've got to press on. We buy some previously made chocolate and cocoa powder, say goodbye to Cyrila and her family, and continue down the trail. Chocoholics, Take Note Toledo is about a 50-minute plane ride from Belize City. The alternative, a roughly five-hour drive, isn't bad now that the Southern Highway has been improved. The final nine-mile stretch of dirt is being paved, and daily express bus service is offered on school buses painted with Rasta colors based in Punta Gorda. The Third Annual Cacao Fest, May 22-24, 2009, will celebrate all things chocolate by offering a host of local products—from cupcakes and kisses to cacao wine and chocolate cocktails—as well as numerous cultural events. The Chocolate Tour at Cyrila Cho's includes a traditional caldo (stew) lunch and hot chocolate (011-501/663-9632, email@example.com, five-hour tour $60). Nature's Way Guest House offers eclectic wooden rooms with a fan and shared bath (one room has a private bath). This is Punta Gorda's best backpacker option, with its own links to cacao farmers and Mayan villages (011-501/702-2119, firstname.lastname@example.org, double from $17). Hickatee Cottages is an award-winning, green bed-and-breakfast almost two miles outside Punta Gorda, right up against the jungle (hickatee.com, cottage from $75). Coral House Inn, on the highest point of Punta Gorda's shoreline, has four rooms overlooking the Caribbean, a small pool, and a bar area (coralhouseinn.net, double from $83). Cotton Tree Lodge hosts day tours year-round ($79) and two Chocolate Week packages annually—one coinciding with Valentine's Day, the other with Cacao Fest in May. The weeklong packages cover accommodations, meals, cooking classes, dessert making, background on the Fair Trade certification process, and airport transfers (cottontreelodge.com, $1,365). The tree house-like accommodations start at $170 per person per night, with a day tour, all meals, and airport transfers included. Joshua Berman is the author of Moon Handbooks Belize.
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Mexico, Old and New
We want to inspire you and share practical trip-planning advice. Check back later this fall for "Nonstop Mexico," a new article and flash map detailing all the nonstop routes between cities in the U.S. and Mexico—because nothing kills the fun like a layover. Photo captions 1 The 16th-century Santo Domingo church, five blocks north of Oaxaca's zocalo (town square). From "25 Reasons We Love Oaxaca" PHOTO 2 Swing by Amate Books for its extraordinary selection of English titles on Oaxacan history and Mexican street art, but also for the one-of-a-kind doorway lined with a foot-wide border of red, orange, yellow, and white marigolds. From "25 Reasons We Love Oaxaca" PHOTO 3 Monte Albán, a city built more than 1,000 years ago. From "25 Reasons We Love Oaxaca" PHOTO 4 There's no rush on chairs at the Gala Beach Resort. It's the southernmost resort in the lush gated community of Playacar. From "The Easy, Breezy Riviera Maya" PHOTO 5 The popular Las Olas swim-up bar at Riu Playacar. From "The Easy, Breezy Riviera Maya" PHOTO 6 At Barceló Maya, guests learn a mix of Latin and line-dance moves to show off at Captain Morgan's disco later. From "The Easy, Breezy Riviera Maya" PHOTO 7 Tables at La Galeria in Yelapa overlook Yelapa Bay. From "Got Stress? Get to Puerto Vallarta" PHOTO 8 The beach, as seen from the path to La Punta. From "Why Haven't You Heard of Yelapa, Mexico?" PHOTO 9 Petra Puente, owner of El Mesón de la Abundancia, a hotel in the center of Real de Catorce. From "Ghosts of the Sierra Madre" PHOTO 10 Souvenirs near La Parroquia de la Concepción Purísima, Real de Catorce's main church. From "Ghosts of the Sierra Madre" PHOTO 11 The Mayan ruins at Tulúm. From "I Married a Non-Traveler" PHOTO