Hawaii, Jan 5-8 2009

random trip report

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I'm asked to submit a paper to a conference on the Big Island of Hawaii in January. Seems like a no-brainer.

Jan 5 09

I fly nonstop SFO to Kona. The Kona airport is old-style; outdoors, wood, stairs instead of jetways. The air is warm and wonderful-smelling. I get my rental car (a chintzy PT Cruiser) and drive to the hotel.


The Hilton Waikoloa Village is one of the mega-resorts infesting the west coast of Hawaii's Big Island. It's built on a grand scale - multi-acre parking lot, immense lobby, convention center, man-made waterfalls and lagoon, and so on. The architecture is a confusing mish-mash of Greek Classical, various Asian styles, and 70's modern; it tries to impress us and fails; that's OK.

What's not OK is that it takes absurdly long to go from car to room. The resort consists of four large structures, spaced several hundred yards apart: it's about a ten minute walk to get from the lobby building to the 'Palace Tower' where my room is located. The interminable walkway is lined with Asian art and antiques - a nice touch, but it doesn't address the problem.

To accommodate the hypermassive sedentary American tourists, a mini-train runs between the buildings. But it only comes once every 15 minutes - useless!

But wait, there's more. In the atrium of the Palace Tower, a gamut of statuary and rock gardens separates the front door from the elevators. Then - a final insult - it's another hundred yards of corridor from the elevator to my room.

So let's say (hypothetical-like) that I leave my room for a day of island tourism. It takes 15 minutes to get to the lobby, then another 5 to get to my car in the far end of the parking lot. But wait - I forgot the sunscreen! Another 20 minutes back to the room, and another 20 back again! I've wasted an hour because the hotel is so f***ing grand, and am seething with anger and frustration.

The resort, and the development of which it is a part, is a giant suck-machine for extracting money from tourists. It's a closed system - their restaurants, their tours, their snorkel rentals, their fancy shopping mall down the street, all of it vastly overpriced. The prices make you want to laugh and walk away - but there's no where else to go unless you want to drive 15 miles. And they nickel and dime you too - $15 to park in the vast lot, $17 for Internet access in your room.

And the room itself is nothing special - an old tube TV with missing remote, broken mini-bar door, stuff like that.

Bizarrely, the place is packed. What the hell are these people thinking? $400/day to wallow in petrochemical-based Amerikan Death Kulture? Count me out.


Jan 6 09

I blow off the conference and make the long trek to my car (I forget sunscreen, but don't go back for it). I drive north along the coast, a wasteland of black volcanic rock mixed with pieces of white coral, which people arrange to spell various messages. I turn inland towards Waimea. The road winds up to about 2,000', and the landscape becomes emerald-green and beautiful. Waimea is as I remember it - a nice little town, kind of like Escalon.

I've decided to go to Waipio valley.

Once the center of Hawaiian culture, Waipio Valley was home to more than 5,000 people, now home to fewer than 50. the fertile valley sustained agriculture such as taro, rice and various fruit trees- mango, star fruit, guava, citrus. as the island was colonized, people relocated to the cities, modern conveniences. the tsunami of 1946 wiped out the remainder of the community.
I drive about 15 miles past Waimea, then turn off onto highway 240 and go 9 miles back along the coast. There's a vista point on one shoulder of the canyon, 900' above the sea. The road continues down but it's extremely steep and only 4x4s are allowed. I walk down the road, feeling Spartan - all I've had today is a cup of coffee.

The canyon is about a half mile wide. It extends a couple of miles up into the mountains, and a beach is at its mouth. I see a small trail zigzagging up the cliffs on the far side of the valley, and decide to go there.

View from vista point. Click for hi-res version, then look closely for trail on cliffs.

The road descends precipitously to the bottom of the valley, then runs into an impassable-looking river and goes left (up the valley) and right (towards the beach). I go left, figuring there might be a bridge. After a couple of hundred yards an immense (1,000') thin waterfall on the headwall of the valley becomes visible.

The road eventually curves around and heads across the valley. There's no bridge - the pavement ends, and the road just goes through the river, and then through a series of streams. I take off shoes and socks, and wade. The streambeds are volcanic rock, and abrade skin off the soles of my feet; they get mighty sore.

Some 4x4 vans full of tourists lurch by, going to horse-riding tours. Eventually the road ends at one of these horse ranches, and I chat briefly with the guide. He says there's no way to the beach from here.

I accept defeat and head back. A pickup truck with a surfboard, driven by a guy resembling Butchie Yost from 'John from Cincinnati', offers me a ride to the beach, which I accept.

The beach is beautiful - big clouds, strong wind, dark blue sea, dramatic waves, black sand. The seemingly uncrossable river spreads out as it crosses the beach, and in fact is crossable, though the strong flow and slippery rocks make it challenging. I go a few steps and decide to skip it; I'm tired and the soles of my feet are sore. So I walk back to the steep road and climb it at a brisk pace, dripping sweat.

About halfway up a rainbow appears, floating right over the edge of the cliff. It intensifies and becomes a double rainbow - a defining Hawaiian moment.

I get to the car, splash a bottle of water over my head, head back to the 'Heritage Village', enjoy a hearty lunch at a local place, and buy a box of fudge (against my better judgement - I'm already feeling kind of fat).

Advice (to my future self and whoever reads this): go to Waipio valley, and a) go right (to the beach) at the bottom, b) bring a pair of water sandals, c) go to the far end of the beach and climb up the cliffs.

Other than that, the trip is pretty much a bust. I do a lot of work in my room, and eat bland, unhealthy dinners at the food court at the despicable 'Queen's Shoppes' mall. My talk is attended by about 7 people.

The bright spot is meeting Vijay, one of the other speakers in my session. We talk for a long time afterwards, and make vague plans to go to the Sierras this summer.

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