Hawaiian Style Cafe
We hit the road early to reach Hilo, the second biggest city in all the islands, by noon. First we stopped at Waimea, which was in paniolo, or cowboy, country. Some say that this region is the Northern California of the Big Island-- as in, it looks like the land and roads up in Napa Valley. We stopped in a busy spot in town, a "dive" called Hawaiian Style Cafe. We sat there intrigued by the menu, which offered countless variations of loco moco, which is basically meat and rice smothered in gravy. Didn't sound too great nine o'clock in the morning. We looked around to see what other people were ordering; as if on cue, the couple next to us had just received their side order of pancakes. These things were at least 6 inches in diameter, with two stacked on top of each other and a dollop of butter spread on top. So the food here is a heart attack on a plate, super-sized. Gaping at their food, my mom and I were actually hoping that they'd give us their extra plate of pancakes! Instead, the man asked for a to-go box. His beau asked him, "You're eating those?" and he replied as he shoved the cakes in (they wouldn't fit without being squished) "Yeah, tomorrow!" The entire counter laughed. Anyway, long story short, there really wasn't any point of them piling food onto one plate because in truth, it wasn't any good. I was amazed my brother finished his Da Tita Mok, which was basically your four types of meat, fried, on scrambled eggs and rice smothered in gravy. Ew. And yet he's still as skinny as a stick.
Once out of Waimea, the drive to Hilo is 45 minutes and passes through the beautiful Hamakua Coast, known for its lush vegetation and flowing waterfalls. While a few pour right off the coastal cliffs and into the ocean, they can only be seen in the air; we opted for the more accessible 'Akaka Falls 10 miles from Hilo instead.
These majestic falls are only a mile from downtown Hilo-- what a spot!
Blue Hawaiian Helicopters
When my Pop mentioned beforehand that he wanted to ride in a helicopter to the crater of a volcano, I thought, No way. Yet on our fourth day here, I found myself in the best seat of a 7-passenger helicopter, video camera at hand. Well, my Pop insisted, and it was decided that my brother and I should experience this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. So we took off from Hilo airport and already were given a birds-eye view of the city and its waterfalls. It was quite a sight. But that's not what we were here for. We whizzed in the sky, just beneath the clouds, for maybe 5-10 minutes before we saw the steaming Kilauea in the distance. Our pilot, Ray, was quite the cheeseball with his bad jokes, but he was chipper and taught us a few things. When we were parallel the Pu'u O'o Crater, the heart of the current eruption, we didn't exactly see waves of lava crashing, but freshly cooled lava instead. Still a great view.
It took us a few more circles around the crater until we finally saw a glint of red. Then we continued down the some 20-mile long expansion of cooled lava and saw trees and shrub sprouting from the black mess. In some places an oasis of sorts popped up, an island of trees in a sea of black ripples and rubble. We even saw the "Road to Nowhere," where a vacation house was rebuilt and remains on a useless, lava-covered strip of asphalt. The home's inhabitants has to enter their retreat by helicopter. The only thing I can come up with is, "Why?"
Then, there, we finally spotted lava streaming down from a random spot. Boy, it was moving remarkably fast. But when we returned to the same spot two or three minutes later, the lava flow was nearly gone. Lava is ever-changing, I guess.
After fifty minutes in the sky, we turned around to get back to Hilo. I can't say if the sights we had seen were what I expected, but I enjoyed my first helicopter ride nonetheless. After we landed, I asked Ray if he conducts tours when there really isn't any lava flowing (I mean, our trip was a near miss) and he replied with, "Well, lava can change at anytime. You go out there and see some waterfalls and who knows, six hours later you see a river of red." I don't know what's that supposed to mean, but I'll take it.
Mauna Loa (The nut, not the volcano.)
Back on solid ground, we whizzed out of the airport and went to Mau-na Lao Macadamia Nut Factory, which I had just seen from a birds-eye view before we landed. The drive off the highway leads you on a long road surrounded by 25,000 macadamia trees. We pulled up to the visitor center excited for samples. My personal favorite was the coconut-chocolate covered nut. Yum. When we walked over to the processing factory, however, we were disappointed-- we chose King Kamehameha holiday to visit, and they had shut down for the day. Darn! I would have loved to see them chocolate-coat those delicious macadamias. (FYI, I grew up hating nuts, but thanks to the smooth creaminess of the macadamia, I'm starting to come around).
My brother and I wanted to get our swim in for the day (hey, it's important to take advantage of Hawaii's cool, clean, refreshing water!), so my parents and Nana led us to Coconut Island, a spot they found while waiting for us back in downtown Hilo. They had a surprise for us, they said. When my mom showed me pictures she had taken earlier on her camera, my brother and I new what we were in for.
As the sun set, we hopped back in the van to make our three-hour drive home. We drove back the way we came, and were greeted with ferocious rains. Once we hit Waimea, we stopped once again for dinner. Somebody suggested Hawaiian Style Cafe, and we immediately agreed "NO!" Thanks to our The Big Island Revealed guidebook, we found Huli Sue's, a barbecue joint with a quaint, homey feel. The ribs and brisket were definitely recommended, so we ordered two sampler plates with our choice of sides. My mom and I chose local veggies and corn pudding, which was only served at dinner. I'm not sure what exactly corn pudding is, but it was tasty. The ribs fell off the bone and the brisket was tender. Oh, yeah. Our meat was smothered with Chipotle sauce while my dad and brother shared a plate drowned in a tangier plum hot sauce. And we must admit, their sauce was better! Afterward, we eyed their dessert menu and was flabbergasted by the price of their pie-- one banana creme pie was $58! Well, our book said it's possibly the best on the island and we figured it must be killer if it were so pricey, so...we ordered two slices. The slices were topped in a layer of delicate meringue, along with sliced bananas and an excellent graham cracker crust. What was really great about it is that they didn't poison the pie with loads of added sugar. As my mother would say, "It's not even sweet!" (Though she's often wrong. I love you, Mom!).