A Hawaiian Snow Day: Visiting Mauna Kea

If I told you that we were snowed on while in Hawaii would you believe me?

You should. Because we were.

One of the coolest things about the Big Island (Hawaii) is that it is home to 11 of the world’s 13 climate zones. You can literally experience almost every climate in the world on a visit to the Big Island, and I think we may have accomplished that. I can say with absolute certainty that we experienced the Big Island’s coldest climate on a trip to the summit of Mauna Kea, an extinct volcano that is now home to some of the world’s most important astronomical observatories.

Though anyone is welcome to summit Mauna Kea (so long as they are in a 4WD vehicle), we were treated to an extra-special tour of the volcano. A very good friend of Jeff’s family (with whom they shared a duplex when they lived in Hawaii) runs the visitors center at Mauna Kea, and he gave us a personal tour of the place.

Our tour began in mid-afternoon with a stop at the visitors center, where we went on a short hike and checked out a few exhibits, lingering for about an hour to give our bodies time to adjust to the altitude. We’d come from sea level up to just over 9,000 feet, and we had another 4,000+ feet to climb. The road to the top is a long and windy eight miles that must be driven with proper care (especially because it had snowed three feet (!) the day before). Once at the top, you’re greeted by a rocky red barrenness and a collection of observatories that look like miniature Epcots. It’s what I imagine Mars will look like when we get around to colonizing it. Here, researchers representing eleven different countries operate thirteen uber-high-tech observatories. It’s a pretty cool sight. Even cooler is the fact that you’re just about at the top of the world’s tallest mountain.

Sure, sure. I’ve heard of that place called Everest, but they count differently there. Their mountain is the tallest if you count its height from sea level, but if you count from the actual base of the mountain (way the heck under the ocean), Mauna Kea wins. Which means I can now join the ranks of great mountain climbers, because I have hiked to the summit of Mauna Kea.

The trail to the summit is not long, but it’s not easy.

With the summit at an elevation of 13,796 feet, you get winded pretty easily as you trudge up to the top. It didn’t help that the snow was slippery as heck thanks to the previous day’s snowfall and the snow shower that decided to show up just as we hiked up. It sure felt as cold as Everest up there!

But we all survived the hike and the whiteout that moved in on our way back down and thus lived to see another day’s sun set.

Thanks to the thin atmosphere atop the mountain, sunsets are pretty spectacular. We weren’t sure we were going to actually get to see one, however, due to the crazy cloud cover that had moved in, but it miraculously cleared, treating us to a phenomenal display of vibrant color.

With the sun officially departed, we crawled back down to the visitors center to warm up and have some dinner. We then enjoyed the spectacular show put on by the night sky. The sky (when clear; it went back and forth from crystal clear to clouded over while we were there) was so filled with stars that it’s almost impossible to tell one star from another. It’s as though the sky itself is a blanket of stars. Just standing and staring up at the sky was amazing, but the visitor center ups the ante with a collection of serious telescopes that magnify stars, galaxies, and more. I’m a bit of a stargazing geek, and I have to say that the stargazing at Mauna Kea ranks among the world’s best. (Which might explain those observatories…)

A bit off the beaten visitor path, Mauna Kea offers a really unique experience for Hawaii visitors. The only down side to a Mauna Kea visit it that it’s really, really cold (seriously freezing temperatures). Normal Hawaii attire is not going to cut it. But is it worth it to pack a pair of jeans, your thermal underwear, and a coat for a trip to Hawaii? I’d say definitely.

Photo Friday: Snorkeling in Hawaii

There are so many things to love about Hawaii, but to me, one of the best things about a trip to America’s 50th state is the snorkeling. Even though I’m now a certified diver and can go cavort with the fishes deep under the sea, I still get really excited about snorkeling in Hawaii. Honestly, aside from large ocean animals like sharks, rays, and whales, you can see snorkeling almost everything you can see diving in Hawaii.

So what makes snorkeling in Hawaii so awesome? First, the waters are stocked with all kinds of sea life. You really do feel like you’re snorkeling in aquarium. This is not a case of oh look there’s a fish. Oh another one. This is a case of “Oh my God I am completely surrounded by fish. There is absolutely nowhere for me to look and not see a fish.” Second, the waters are amazingly clear. Visibility is awesome. Third, the water temperature, while not as warm as some tropical destinations, is plenty pleasant. And fourth, there are just so many places on the islands to go snorkeling.

Hanauma Bay is probably Hawaii’s most famous snorkeling spot, but it’s not my favorite. It can get pretty crowded, and with so many free places to snorkel, I have a hard time justifying paying to do it. On this trip, we skipped right past Hanauma Bay. The place I would not recommend skipping, however, is the Captain Cook Monument on the Big Island. Hands down, best snorkeling in my opinion. There are so many fish and so many types of fish here. The visibility is stellar, and the reef is pretty cool too. I’d also recommend Poipu Beach on Kauai for a good general assortment of sea life and Kahaulu’u Beach on the Big Island for turtles. But what are words when it comes to snorkeling? Definitely not as good as pictures. So without further ado, here’s some of the sea life we encountered while snorkeling in Hawaii.

Kayaking to Oahu’s Sunken Island

Because I’m a glutton for punishment even when on vacation (or maybe especially when on vacation?), we followed up our morning of surfing with an afternoon of kayaking. I may rarely do any sort of upper body workout, but when I do decide to give my biceps a work out, I go whole hog. Luckily, the kayaking we had planned was in an easygoing bay on Oahu’s eastern shore (and not, say, in the whitecaps of Lake Malawi).

After joining the ranks of surfing fans all over the world, we met up with my parents back at our hotel and headed to Go Bananas to pick up two tandem kayaks. The excellent staff at Go Bananas got us all set up, gave us some useful pointers and tips, and sent us off to Kane’ohe Bay for our trip to Oahu’s sunken island.

Though I’d been to Hawaii before, I’d never heard of the sunken island, and Jeff, who grew up on Oahu, was not familiar with it either, so I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect. And of course, considering our destination was sunken, we couldn’t actually see it from the beach just north of He’eia State Park where we launched our kayaks. But what we could see were a whole lot of boats seemingly anchored in the middle of nowhere and what appeared to be a crowd of people walking on water.

We pointed our kayaks in their direction and paddled out on what turned out to a be a very relaxing one-mile trip. The water was clear, calm, and a brilliant blue color. The lush green mountains and dramatic cliffs of Oahu’s east shore framed the view to our right. Chinaman’s Hat rose in front of us. And to our left, a few rocky islands dotted the ocean. Because the sunken island is essentially a sandy fringe reef over 1,000 acres in size (that was, over 12,000 years ago, part of Oahu), the waves break out at reef’s edge, and the water in the bay is smooth as glass.

As we approached the sunken island, the deep water suddenly became shallow, so much so that our kayak quickly became stuck in the sand and we were forced to abandon ship. The water was, at its deepest, up to my knees, though in some spots it was only a few inches deep and in other spots, dry patches of sand emerged.

Motor boats ringed the reef, anchoring in the last bits of deep water before the reef presented itself, and, seeing that it was a Saturday, large groups of locals were hanging out. They had brought with them gazebos, lawn chairs, yard games, and even grills and were essentially hosting barbecues out on a sandy sunken reef one mile from shore. It was surreal but definitely the coolest (both literally and figuratively) way to host a cookout on Oahu.

After anchoring our kayaks by sticking our paddles down into the sand, we wandered around and explored this unusual piece of Oahu. Though primarily sandy, the reef does have some coral outcroppings that are home to small fish and anemones, so we were able to do a bit of snorkeling before just sinking down and relaxing in the water. Next time, I think I’ll bring my barbecue.

*Thanks to the calm waters and the easy paddling, Kane’ohe Bay and the sunken island is a great paddling destination for families and novice kayakers. For their equipment, prices, and friendly staff, I highly recommend Go Bananas for kayak rentals and gear.

Surf’s Up: Learning to Ride the Waves in Waikiki

I was tempted to upload the photo above as a very low-res image, so that you couldn’t enlarge it, and then tell you that it was a picture of Jeff surfing during his very first lesson. But alas, I’m a terrible liar. And then there’s the fact that I have very smart readers. You guys would call BS in an instance…and rightfully so. The guy in the photo above is surfing just down from the Bonzai Pipeline on Oahu’s North Shore in the winter. If that means nothing to you, let me just say this is not novice territory. The waves were huge and the shorebreak fierce. If we’d have tried to surf there, we’d have been tossed around like a pair of barely-there underwear in a washing machine.

But shrink that wave down to a friendly little break and increase the size of the board by a few feet, and there you go—that’s us, surfing in Hawaii.

On our first morning in Hawaii, Jeff and I walked the two blocks from our hotel to Waikiki Beach with the goal of learning to surf. I’d put it on the itinerary. It was my idea. But that morning, I told Jeff a couple of times that if he didn’t want to do it, we didn’t have to. I was beginning to imagine myself attempting to surf, and it didn’t look pretty.

“I guarantee that you’ll get up.” That’s what Mikey says as he tries to get us to sign up for lesson with him. He’s offered to take out just me and Jeff for the price of a group class ($40, usually five people per class).

“You don’t even know how coordinated we are,” I reply.

“Doesn’t matter,” he says. “I’ll give you your money back if you don’t give up.”

And with that, I’m lying on a board on Waikiki beach, getting an introduction to surfing. Five minutes later, I’m in the water, paddling out to the break. A few minutes after that, Mikey, looking back at the waves, waiting for the perfect break, asks, “Ready?”

“No,” I  think

“Yes,” I say. My mind and my mouth are having communication issues.

“Okay,” he yells. “Paddle!” I dip my hands in and out of the water as quickly as I can. I feel the wave catch my board. I feel Mikey give the board a little boost. And then I hear him yell, “Up! Stand up!”

I pull my knees up so I am in a crawling position. I lift my knees into the air. I let go of the board. I pivot and crouch. And just like that, I’m up. I’m surfing. I’m in Hawaii, and I’m surfing.

It’s surprisingly easy. And way fun. Fun enough to make me keep paddling back out for another go even though my upper body is exhausted from the effort. (Paddling back out after each ride is by far the hardest part of surfing.) Our class is scheduled for one hour of in-water time. That didn’t sound like much time when we first signed up, but once we’re out in the water, we realize it is. With just the two of us in the class, there’s no sitting around waiting on others. We ride a wave in, paddle back out, and then catch the next wave.

My paddles back out get slower and slower as time passes. I stop and lie on the board and let the water carry me where it will. My arms are burning, My neck muscles are tense from holding my head up while I lie on my stomach. I feel bruises forming on my hips and knees, where my lack of padding is proving a detriment as my bones grind up against the board. As I lift up to avoid a wave, I think, “Okay, this will be my last one. I just can’t paddle out again.”

But then I’m up and riding, and I’m leaning forward to go faster, and I’m moving my weight side to side to change the direction of my board, and I’m surfing. I’m surfing, surfing, surfing. And when the wave dies under me, and I tumble into the surf, I climb back on the board and paddle back out to catch just one more wave.