After getting our luggage, we stopped on the main drag in Kona to hunt down dinner. After walking around town reading menus, we decided to eat at Bubba Gump's. We got a wonderful outside table, right on the water. Dinner was very good and the sunset was spectacular. We both had very generous portions of fried shrimp with a wonderful light batter. Right around sunset, they lit tiki lamps all around the restaurant. The staff go out of their way to be helpful and friendly. It was a great first meal in Kona.
After dinner, we headed back to our hotel, the Outrigger Keauhou Beach Resort. The hotel was a very pleasant surprise. We had selected it primarilly because it was the cheapest decent looking hotel among the packages we selected from. It turned out to be one of the nicest hotel's that we have stayed in. It is very modern and clean, with great facilities. It has three restautants, exercise facilities, a pool, tennis courts, and some historical sites on the property. It is about 10 miles south of the main drag in Kona, which seemed about perfect for us, because it was quiet but close enough for us to bop into town whenever we needed. Pretty much the whole down stairs was open-air, and included a very helpful concierge and wireless internet access. One one side of the hotel was a nice tidepool area, and on the other was a lagoon where there was snorkeling and sea turtles. About the only bad thing that I can say about the hotel is that they charged us $5 a day for parking.
The first morning that we arrived, we had arranged to parasail with UFO Parasail. We arrived at the dock and shared our boat with a couple from Hawaii and 2 boys. Dana and I flew together, as did the other couple, and the boys flew solo. The procedure was that you put on a harness and a lifejacket, then you went to the flat back section of the boat and were hooked up to the already inflated sail. You then sat down on your butt, and when they accelerated the boat, you were lifted off the deck and into the air. You were then reeled out via a hydrolic wench that was under the deck. You can chose how far then reel you out, 400 ft, 800 ft, or 1200 ft. We chose to go whole hog and go 1200 ft, as did all our boat mates. Once they get you reeled out, the driver can adjust your height by adjusting the boat speed. The routine is that they reel you out, get you to max height, then stop the boat. You freefall until you are almost touching the water, then they accelerate you back to max height again. Then you are reeled back in, landing on your feet in the back of the power boat, where you took off. The weather was gorgeous, and the view was spectacular from up there. It was a nice way to get your bearings on the landscape. I think that we were a little disappointed, though, that it was not as thrilling as we expected. It was a very pleasant, beautiful experience, but surprisingly sedate. I would definitely recommend the trip to others, just do not expect it to be like skydiving.
Based on the recommendation of our parasailing captain, we went to Hugo's on the Rocks for lunch. This is a nice place to eat if you are looking for good food in a less formal environment. The tables are outside, right on the water, and the ground is sand. Prices are reasonable (for Kona), and the portions are generous. I recommend their burgers.
We decided to stay close to home for dinner and eat at the Kamaaina Terrace restaurant at our hotel. Besides being lazy, one of the deciding factors was that it was lobster night and Dana wanted to try their lobster bisque. As with most of the meals we ate on this trip, this is an open-air restaurant that looks out over the ocean. Despite the fact that the restaurant does not sit right on the water (you have to look past the hotels pool to see the ocean), the view was very nice and we were treated to another nice sunset. Dana enjoyed the bisque, but we decided that while the food was better than your average hotel fair, it was not worth the premium price.
We drove to Volcano National Park to see lava today. We have spent time at the park nine years ago, so it would be interesting to see how it had changed. It was about a 2 hour drive that took us through lush forest and barren lava fields. As soon as we started to turn inland from the coast, the weather got more and more dicey. We drove through some rain, but we had our rain gear and were committed to checking things out regardless of the weather. We stopped at the visitor center, and it was raining a little bit. Sounded like we were going to have to walk a few miles to see lava, but we were not deterred. Driving down Chain of Craters road, the weather actually got clearer. When we got to where the lava flow had blocked the road, we were surprised to see that you can not drive nearly as far as before. Seems there was a lava flow in 2003 that has made even less of the road passable. We got out of the car, and were immediately hit by very high winds. But with our raincoats on to shield us from the wind, we were still determined. We talked to a ranger at the end of the road as we were heading out, and he indicated that it was going to take several hours for us to reach the lava flow, and we had better carry a lot of water for the walk over the lava flow. We had a little water, but not nearly as much as he suggested that we would need. We walked about a third of the way out, then decided we had seen the lava flow before, and we would rather enjoy ourselves walking on the hardened lava rather than rushing to get to the flowing lava.
It was about lunch time when we got back to the car, and we went searching for restaurant. We headed back to the town of Volcano, and it started raining pretty hard. Seems that quite a few other people, including several tour buses got the same idea that we did about waiting out the rain over lunch. We finally found a restaurant that was not mobbed in the Lava Rock Cafe. We got a decent meal for a decent price. Service was not very good. Even through they were not nearly as crowded as the other restaurants that we looked at. Their systems and processes had broken down, but we were not in a hurry, so it was fine. After lunch, it was still raining, so we decided to just head back to Kona where the weather was better.
We went to Kona for dinner with no definite plans for where we would eat. As we were wandering town looking at menus, Dana remembered seeing some good reviews for the Kona Inn, so we decided to try it. Turned out to be probably the most enjoyable dining experience of our trip. The table we had was looking out over the water. This is probably the best place in Kona to watch the sunset. People walked around the restaurant to watch the sunset from the area that our table looked out on because the sun set over an idealic palm tree scene. The food was very good. But the thing that pushed this meal over the top was the service. Our waiter, Bert, was probably the best waiter I have ever had. He seemed to be able to make a personal connection with every table he was serving. Turns out that he had lived in Ben Lomond, and worked in San Jose. I do not know what his connection was with the other tables, but I got the impression that he made a similar connection with everyone he served. When he heard that we were in Hawaii for Dana's birthday, he brought us a special dessert, sang happy birthday to her (quietly), and brought her a pretty flower to put in her hair. We left the restaurant feeling full, happy, and pampered. (The picture above is for Danny. It shows the fan and pulley system at the Kona Inn.)
The activity that we had chosen for Dana's birthday was a snorkel trip with Captain Zodiac. We met first thing in the morning at the harbor near the airport. Captain Zodiac had enough people to fill 2 boats, so we ended up on the second zodiac boat, the Black Pearl, with about 8 other people, the captain, and a first mate. As we left the harbor, we ran across a pod of dolphins. They seemed to be in a good mood, following us and playing in our wake. They were jumping out of the water and spinning in the air. We learned that their bellies turned pink when they were excited, as several of the jumpers displayed. We also learned that they are not monogamous and when they are active, they mate with various partners about every 20 minutes. No wonder they were happy and excited.
After spending some time with the dolphins, we headed out to sea and south. Along the way, our captain looked for interesting things for us to explore. We looked at several "bait balls" of fish. These are large groups of small fish that swim together in a big ball to look like a bigger animal and confuse or scare predators. We also saw a group of hammer-head sharks. At least that is what our captain said it was. All we say were some fins swimming around. After some time motoring off-shore, we turned inland and arrived at our destination near the Captain Cook monument. This is one of the best snorkel spots in the islands. Dana said that there was more live coral there than any spot she has seen. We snorkeled as long as we wanted, then headed back to the boat for snacks. The only downer about the snorkeling experience was a gentleman on our boat who was not very good at listening to direction. The shoreline here is a national park and we were given specific instructions not to bug the fish or do anything that could hurt the coral, general leave things as we found them. This guy was trying to grab fish, breaking off pieces of coral, and generally being a jerk. Unfortunately, there was little anyone could do to control him.
Once everyone was back on the boat, our captain gave us a history lesson about how Captain Cook came to this spot and how he foolishly lost his life there. We also learned about the Hawaiian villiage that was there and its cultural significance. On the way home we stayed close to the shore and learned more about the Hawaiian culture and geology. It was really quite interesting and informative. On the trip home the water was a little rough, and I discovered that I am not very good at just relaxing and going with the flow as the little zodiac boat bucks through the surf. I ended up with skinned knuckles from holding on to the ropes that were our hand holds, and being pretty muscle sore from all the bouncing. But even with these minor maladies, it was a great trip and I would definitely recommend it to others.
We stopped for a quick lunch in a pizza parlor in the shopping center near our hotel. I should mention that we spent a great deal of time at this shopping center, in particular at the Long's Drug store. We found numerous reasons to go to Long's: we bought flip/flop shoes there, they processesed our film, we bought car snacks and drinks. We probably went to Long's 10 times over the course of our trip.
Even though I said above that I though that the previous night's dinner was the best overall dining experience, our dinner at Roy's - Waikoloa Bar & Grill was the best food. We had a spectacular meal. The only reason that the Kona Grill meal comes out on top is because of location and service. Not that the location and service were bad at Roy's, it is just that they were so over the top at the Kona Grill that it would be hard for anything to compare. We had to drive about 20 miles north of Kona to get to Roy's. It is located in a very upscale shopping center. But it is in a shopping center, looking over a man-made pond, which is a big step down from the ocean view and sunsets that we had been getting. However, we did get the best table in the house, looking over the pond with its Night Herons hunting as we ate. The service at Roy's was also quite good, just not up to the level of service that Bert had given us the previous night. But the meal was as good as the reviews had indicated. We got the appetizer canoe, which gave you a two small servings of 5 appetizers. All were good and beautifully presented. Our meals and drinks were equally tasty and attractive, as was the dessert. I think that if we had gone here before we went to Kona Inn, we would have been raving about this. I would certainly rate it better than any restaurant that we go to in Santa Cruz. But coming on the heals of our Kona Inn experience, we went away very happy but not blown away. It was also about 40% more expensive than any meal that we ate in Hawaii.
The other big news of the day was that we heard that the boat trip that we had planned for Wednesday on the Hula Kai boat had been canceled. The company that runs the tour offered to take us out on the Hula Kai on Friday (when we would be in on the airplane flying home), or put us on their other boat, the Fair Winds, which goes to the same snorkel spot that we went to on Monday. Working with the concierge from our hotel, we managed to book boat trips on Wednesday and Thursday for just a little more than we were going to pay for the Hula Kai trip.
We ate lunch at the Kalanikai Bar & Grill at our hotel. Pretty standard bar and grill fare. Not bad, not great, but not expensive either. The location is really nice. It is on the ocean, with beautiful views.
For dinner we decided to go back to Hugo's on the Rocks, where we had had lunch previously. Again good food and casual dining on the water. Another gorgeous sunset. We did see a couple of sea turtles playing on the rocks in the surf right below where we were eating. These were our first turtle sightings of the trip, and we pointed them out to several of the other people in the restaurant, and all had fun watching them work the rocks looking for things to eat. They stayed there until the sun went down. At sunset, a musician came in and set up to play. We were kind of worried that he was going to wreck our quiet meal, but he turned out be a really mellow jazz guitar player who really enhanced our experience. He played for about an hour before some Hawaiian dancers showed up. They were not what we were looking for in our evening, but we had finished our meal by the time that they got going, so we headed back to our hotel after a nice evening.
Our main activity for today was a snorkel trip on the Body Glove Boat. This is a big catamaran that runs out of the pier in downtown Kona. It is much more of a full-service boat then the Captain Zodiac trip that we did on Monday. This boat holds probably 50 people, has two floors of seats for the passengers to spread out on, and a full bar. There is a water slide and diving platform on the upper floor to allow people who want to play in the water to have fun, even if they do not enjoy snorkeling. They offers both snorkeling and skindiving. This boat also seems to cater to a different crowd. Since the boat takes off right where the cruise boat people land, the people were more of the cruise boat set rather than adventurers. This ended up being not too bad a thing, but it was very different than Monday.
We boarded first thing in the morning and headed out to sea and north. We ended up going fairly far off-shore and then coming back inland not too far north of where we launched. I think that this was to ensure that we had enough time to buy several drinks from the bar. There were definitely people who took advantage of the opportunity and had a few too many drinks on the way out. When we arrived at the snorkel spot, we had plenty of time to get our fill of snorkeling. It turned out to be quite a nice snorkel spot. Not quite as much coral as Captain Cook, but lots of colorful fish and environment to explore. Despite the fact that there were a lot of people on the boat, since many were not interested or skillful at snorkeling, I did not run into problems with too many people. It was also quite a wide reef for us to explore.
After snorkeling, Dana was the first to use the water slide from the second deck, and successfully sold the experience to others (with the exception of me). They then served us a nice lunch while we headed back home. Again, we took a rather long route back, but the boat had lots of room to sprawl out on, and there was more food and drinks to be had. The crew of the boat were also noteworthy. There were quite a few guys working the boat and they were uniformly helpful, happy, and committed to making sure that everyone had a good time. One short Polynesian guy was a particularly good host. I do not remember a single point in our voyage where he was not swapping stories with someone, playing with the kids, or helping someone.
As we approached the pier, we ran into a pod of dolphins. We stopped and enjoyed their antics for a little while before docking. This is a trip that I was worried about because I was afraid that it was just going to be a party boat, but I was very pleasantly surprised. Particularly because of the service, I recommend this boat trip to anyone, even if they do not snorkel.
We got back to our hotel about mid-afternoon. The weather was quite nice, so we relaxed downstairs in the hotel. I checked my email on the computer, and Dana did more exploring. I noticed that we had 3 large turtles basking in the tidepools in front of our hotel. While we had seen turtles at the previous lunch, but we did not get a good look at them because they were partially submerged all the time. Now we got a chance to look at them on land through our binoculars. We whiled the afternoon away watching the turtles and puttering around the hotel.
After our great experience on Sunday at Kona Inn, we decided to go back there again. Unfortunately, we did not have the magical meal that we had before. Bert was not working, so we got a waitress who was as bad as Bert was good. She would walk away from our table mid-sentence if someone from another table distracted her. She seemed a little surly. Dana described her as a cocktail waitress trying to serve food, which seemed very appropriate to me. The food was good, and we got another picture-postcard sunset, but overall experience did not measure up. Even with the bad service, I would recommend the restaurant, but if you can, go there when you can get Bert to wait on you.
Today we swam with the dolpins on Neptune Charlie's boat, The Manta. This trip was probably the high point of our activities. The Manta is a fairly small, single-hull boat that could hold 20 people, although there were probably only about 10 on our trip. It is outfitted for skindiving primarily, and it looks like these dolphin trips are more of a side-light, since I do not see them even mentioned on their web site.
We arrived in the morning at the harbor by the airport (the same harbor Captain Zodiac goes out of). The boat was not even in the water. We checked in and they towed the boat into the water. We boarded and headed along the coast to the north. We motored quite a ways up the coast looking for the dolphin pod. One of the interesting features that we saw on the trip out was a fish farming net. It looked like a pyramid stick up from the water. I tried to convince Dana that Atlantis had been discovered, but she did not believe me. The first mate explained that the fish that were hatched on shore were taken out to the net to grow. They raise the net and suck out fish for harvesting.
Once we found the dolphin pod, the captain watched them for a little while to get a feel for where they were going. Then he got in front of them, we put on our snorkel gear, and he had us get in the water right in their path. Then the pod of probably over 100 dolphins swam through, under and around us, paying us little heed. The dolphins where within a few feet of us on several occasions. Then we would get back on the boat, the captain would get ahead of them again, and we would repeat the process. There were several sub-pods, all with both adult animals and babies. We probably got to be out in the water with the pod 10 times. At least Dana, another woman, and I did. Everyone else seemed content to watch the dolphins from the boat after the first couple of times. The 3 of us swimmer were having such a good time, we were going to take every chance to get out there that we could. It was really amazing to be amongst these animals. Dana, being more comfortable snorkeling than I am, said that she could hear them coming by the sounds that they make in the water.
They fed us sandwiches, chips, and juice on the trip home. After swimming around in the rough water, and getting in and out of the boat so many time, we were pretty tired. We learned some interesting facts about dolphins. They shed there skin, like a snake, every 2 hours. This keeps them smooth and streamlined to help them glide through the water. The crew member who was back of the boat with us was very nice although kind of quiet. We saw very little of the captain who was driving the boat from upstairs.
This trip was made even more special when we heard that you may not able to do this much longer. Seems that they are concerned about the level of interaction that the wild dolphins are having with humans, and they may make it illegal for you to get within 100 yards of the pods. While everyone on our boat was very respectful, I can imagine that there are a lot of opportunities for people like the guy on our zodiac trip to cause problems. I am really glad that we got a chance to do this now, it was a really special experience.
For dinner, we decided to go back to Bubba Gump's, since we wanted to get a quick meal so we could get home to pack up. We had another nice experience here. Our meal was very pleasant, and the servers were helpful and jolly. The happy vibe of the place seemed to rub off on the people eating there, and we had nice conversations with people at the tables near us. Again we had a great table, right on the water, and were treated to another beautiful sunset. We also got to see a rainbow when we looked back towards the mountains where it was raining.
When we got back to the hotel, Dana kicked me out of the room so I would not be in the way while she packed us up (again, I know how spoiled I am). I took my computer down to the lobby to check email. As if to remind us how great we had it throughout our trip, weather-wise, it started raining. This was the first rain we had gotten in Kona. Since we were already done with our activities for the day, it was kind of nice to sit in the open-air, but covered, lobby and watch it rain. Dana came down soon afterwards and we had some tastey drinks and turned in early.
When we got home, we realized that we had forgotten our fancy electric toothbrush in our room. Dana called the hotel the next day, they had found it and they are graciously sending it to us right away. Again, even when things go wrong, things work out about as well as they can.