Return to Paradise, Part 2

One reason we decided to go back to the island in September is the fact that they inaugurated an international birding festival a couple of years ago, and throughout the week we were there, there were guided tours and events. While we lived in Kona, we hiked many of the available trails and didn’t want to go back on them to the tune of a couple of hundred dollars each for a guide. But on Sunday morning, a pelagic tour left Kaloko-Honokohau Marina, and we had never done a pelagic trip in Hawaii. We knew there would be plenty of new birds for us there. Happily, the ocean was flat and blue, blue, blue, no heavy swells and no hot sun, when we boarded the boat, along with four guides, the crew and about 40 passengers.

Wedge-tailed Shearwater by Brad Argue

Offshore, we promptly saw a Wedge-tailed Shearwater, the most common seabird at the island, but still a new lifebird for us. We were to see many of them during the morning’s cruise. We headed makai until we had an excellent view back at Mt. Hualalai, then turned south. Throughout the morning, we counted eight species of seabirds, seven of which were new to us, like the Parasitic Jaeger and the Sooty Tern. We had seen Great Frigatebirds in the islands before, but only soaring up high, not down just above the water like these birds were flying.

Strangely, we didn’t see a single dolphin or whale, as they’re plentiful in the waters off Kona. For other bird nuts like us, here’s the complete list–Big Island Birds 2018–of what we saw during the entire week on the island.

After coming ashore, we drove down into town and celebrated seven lifebirds at a new brewery. It’s called Ola Brew Company, and while we were there, they were trying out a new brew, called A’a IPA, for our money the best IPA in the islands. We bought a growler-full of it to enjoy back at the condo. A’a is the word for one of the lava types that cover parts of the island, very rough and crusty-looking. The other predominant lava form is pahoehoe, which looks like melted chocolate that’s hardened. But this ale was nothing like either. Crisp, dry and hoppy, it was a pleasure to drink.

When we lived in Kona, we heard about the “cloud forest” on the way up Hualalai and drove up there a couple of times to walk the along the road looking for birds. There are quite a few Kalij Pheasant up there, and we also saw an Apapane, a bright red forest bird of the island. But when I was researching our trip back, I discovered that there is a guided tour through the cloud forest, directed by the owner of a large estate. The reviews of the tour were so good that I called the owner, Kelly Dunn, and he and I talked at length about what he’s doing. I signed us up for the two to three hour tour (only $25 per person!), and Laurel and I drove up there on Monday morning.

Kelly met us on the road outside his place and gave us each a big golf umbrella, “Normally, it’s sunny in the morning, but with this storm that just passed through, the rain is coming and going at odd hours,” he explained. A second couple arrived, and the five of us walked up the drive to Kelly’s house once they got their umbrellas, as well. As we stopped for a minute outside the house, the rain started. And for the next two hours, as we walked through the most fantastic tropical jungle we had ever seen, it poured. The umbrellas did a good job, but passing by dripping foliage and under trees adding to the downpour, we all got quite wet. It wasn’t cold, and it wasn’t muddy, as Kelly explained that the cloud forest has no soil under the plants. They grow on a few inches of dead leaves and roots, and below that is nothing but lava rock from old eruptions.

Hualalai is the only cloud forest left in Hawaii. In fact, while there used to be thousands of cloud forests around the world, today there are only 25 left, thanks to deforestation and development. One of the reasons that Kelly has acquired this acreage is a type of eucalyptus tree brought here from Australia. The Hawaiians dislike the tree; it’s foreign, and they have cut down most of these “painted trees” that grow on the island. The thing that fascinates Kelly is the rainbow bark on the tree that changes through its lifetime, and the fact that no insect will touch its wood. There may be a medicinal use if someone can figure out its properties.

He explained that the cloud forest is completely symbiotic. Everything that grows here supports everything else. You can break a piece from a plant and toss it a few feet away, and it will take root. And the plants grow here in such abundance that it staggers the imagination. Laurel and I were so impressed by what we saw and learned that we would recommend it to anyone visiting the island.

Humpy’s Big Island Alehuse

After the wet and wonderful cloud forest, we drove down the mountain to the sunny day below. On the main shopping street, Alii Street, one of our old haunts is still there. It’s called Humpy’s Big Island Alehouse, and it has a narrow deck with a street view that’s great for people watching with an ocean view. Plus, Humpy’s has 36 taps and either ono or halibut fish and chips. We sat there in the heart of civilization still amazed at what we had just experienced.

Monday turned out to be a day full of superlatives, because we had scheduled our big splurge for that evening. Our favorite special occasion place in on the Big Island is the Canoe House at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel, a half hour north of town on the Kohala Coast. A grove of palm trees accents the view of the beautiful bay. The award-winning chef uses primarily local produce, meats and fish to create wonderful dishes like Heirloom Tomatoes “Poke,” Seared Ahi, and Sautéed Day Boat Scallops.

While we were on the island, we visited one of our favorite spots: Kaloko Honokohau National Historical Park. The beautiful beach that begins on the north side of the marina leads along lava tide pools, where you almost always see a few honu (green sea turtles). They love the sea lettuce that grows in the pools. And between September and April, the rocks are busy with Ruddy Turnstones, Wandering Tattlers, Pacific Golden Plovers and other shorebirds that call this island home when they’re not migrating back and forth to Alaska and the far north for breeding.

Kaloko Honokohau

Half a mile up the beach, Aimakapa Fishpond sits just behind the steep beach berm. Built by Hawaiians as a place to stock and grow fish, the pond is undergoing much needed expansion and cleanup. Some of the invasive plants that have taken over are being removed, and the net result will be a pond nearly twice the size to attract visiting birds.

In fact, the entire park is receiving a lot of attention and restoration. We stopped at the visitor center and talked to one of the young rangers, who was very excited about all the progress she’s seeing.

Mauna Kea Beach

One of the special attractions for us on the Big Island is its beaches. Many of the beaches on the Kona side have wonderful sun, sand and shade. In particular, the beach at Mauna Kea Beach Hotel is a broad, sandy expanse that also has a rocky reef at its edge that Laurel loves for snorkeling and is edged by trees that I love for the shade they give me for sitting and reading. The beach is about a half hour north of Kona, but get there early. The hotel offers a free parking lot for visitors, but it fills up quickly. After a bit of walk down from the lot, there’s a nice bath and shower facility at the edge of the beach.

If you’re staying in Kona, another excellent option is Kahalu’u Beach Park, a county beach that’s right on Alii Drive toward the south end of Kona. Laurel says it has more fish than any of the other local beaches. It also has a free parking lot, bathroom and shower facilities and plenty of shady spots, as well as a large, covered picnic area.

On the day we flew back to San Diego, our flight didn’t leave until the afternoon, so we drove back down to Alii Drive and had lunch at Huggo’s On The Rocks. The place is right on the beach with beach tables and chairs, and the floor is lovely sand. It looks right out onto the bay and is a true piece of Hawaiian heaven. We had some more terrific fish and chips and beers to toast the island aloha and mahalo, then drove up to the airport to board our plane. We’ll be back.

And aloha and mahalo to all of you.

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