Hawaii Pre-Eruption: Volcanoes, Sea Life And Breathtaking Beauty

Hawaii is not an offshore jurisdiction akin to some of the many Pacific Islands I recently visited (Marshall Islands, Vanuatu etc.). But for a tourism destination, the Hawaiian Islands are unmatched in the Pacific, unless you count the Galapagos Islands. Hawaii offers volcanoes almost as startling as Mount Yasur on Vanuatu, beautiful, rugged terrain like Fiji and incredible snorkeling like the Solomon Islands, as well as of course the World War II history that you find across the Pacific.

On top of that, there are popular beaches, surf spots and parties in Hawaii, if you are so inclined. The isolation you feel on an island like Nauru is something you don’t have to confront on the Hawaiian Islands.

This all comes with a high price tag. But it is a price I’m willing to pay, even if it means doling out $600 for a helicopter ride. You will see why when we make it to the island of Kauai…

My long haul flights & budgeting Hawaii

I really wanted to visit Hawaii in January 2017, so much so that I flew from Lviv, Ukraine, where I was attending an event, to Warsaw, Poland to Milan, Italy to Frankfurt, Germany, all the way to Vancouver, Canada and then to Honolulu. The trip totaled more than 40 hours, and it included spending a night at the airport in Milan and exploring downtown Vancouver during a 5-hour layover. By the way, Vancouver has a quite mild climate, and a 2-hour walk through the city in the middle of January can be not only manageable but comfortable.

Vancouver skyline

At the time I hadn’t fully emerged from my previous cheap backpacker ways. My consulting business was up and running, but I wasn’t quite ready to experience all of Hawaii in style. On the islands, I tended to stay in hostels, typically paying $50-$60 a night — yes, $50-$60 a night for a dorm bed! 

I stayed on Oahu at both the beginning and end of the trip. My Oahu stays bookended visits to Maui, the Big Island and Kauai. I rented a car on both the Big Island and Kauai, as well as during my final stop on Oahu. 

Touristy Oahu: swimming with sharks and turtles

Waikiki Beach

My Hawaii adventure began with a cliche walk or two or three on Honolulu’s famous Waikiki Beach. I was actually staying at a hotel in Waikiki, which is a neighborhood, not just a beach. My Hawaiian hostel hopping had not quite started. For the time being, I was surrounded by high-rise hotels, posh shops and fine dining. That’s basically what Waikiki is like.

Waikiki at sunset

When I wasn’t walking along the beach, I was riding public transport (something you will never find me doing nowadays) to tourist destinations on Oahu. 

Oahu is nicknamed and loosely translated from the Hawaiian language to mean “the gathering place.” While it is not Hawaii’s largest island (that of course is the “Big Island”), Oahu is home to about 1 million people, or two thirds of the population of Hawaii.

In addition to busting Hononlulu and its touristy Waikiki Beach, Oahu is home to Diamond Head, a dormant volcano; Hanauma Bay, a prime snorkeling destination for turtle lovers; and the North Shore, a famous surfing area. And, of course, Pearl Harbor is located on Oahu. So the island has a good mix of lifestyle, natural and historic destinations. By the way, it was in Waikiki where I bought my snorkel mask that now travels around the world with me. That was a very wise purchase. 😊

Still in close proximity to the Waikiki area, I set my sights on the top of Diamond Head, which overlooks the popular beach below. The dormant volcano is a cone with a crater in the middle. You can climb it and get a very nice view of Waikiki.

I was planning on catching the sunset from the top of Diamond Head. When I arrived at the trailhead, a park worker did not want to let me in because it was late in the day. I convinced him that I was a very fast walker, and I made it up and down the dormant volcano before the park closed. I was one of the last people to go up Diamond Head that day, and indeed, the view was very nice:

Diamond Head Lookout with a view of Waikiki in the background

Hanauma Bay is a bay formed by a volcanic ring that now has a popular beach and nature preserve, as well as a lot of turtles. The bay is very beautiful with impressive corals, although at some points the reef can become dangerous due to rip tides. Do you recall when I got swept away while snorkeling in the Galapagos? Luckily that didn’t happen here, especially considering that Hanauma Bay is notorious for drowning deaths — drowning deaths among snorkeling tourists. And at this point in my perpetual traveling career I was not an experienced snorkeler. 

Hanauma Bay

Anyway, swimming with the green sea turtles that Hanauma Bay is known for was a lot of fun. 

My friend

Oahu’s North Shore is a stretch of coastline on the north of the island that is known for big waves and attracts professional surfers. I was eager to see surfers riding some big waves. I got to see surfers, but the waves were not that large when I visited the North Shore.

More notably, there was a tour operator on the North Shore offering shark cage trips in the open water. Remember what I did in South Africa — cage diving with sharks that almost bit off a couple of my limbs? My excursion cage diving with sharks in Hawaii actually preceded the adventure in South Africa. 

One morning on Oahu, I found myself on a boat leaving for the North Shore harbor and then heading out into the open ocean. About 3 or 4 km offshore, we anchored, and the other tour participants and I were lowered into the water in a cage. The water was quite warm, so I didn’t need a wetsuit as I did in Gansbaii, South Africa. We were given snorkels and we started swimming. Then we held our breaths, ducked our heads underwater and enjoyed the show through a glass window. You, too, can enjoy the show courtesy of my GoPro:

We saw some pretty big thrasher sharks and some oceanic whitetip sharks that live nearby. This whitetip shark is actually one of the most dangerous sharks in the world for humans to come across. The shark is known to prey on survivors of shipwrecks and plane crashes. In fact, the whitetip shark is believed to have killed man soldiers in World War II who initially survived plane crashes and shipwrecks, only to be eaten alive in the Pacific Ocean.

Close encounter

Some of the sharks came close, got aggressive and chomped at our cage. But, unlike those World War II pilots, we survived the whitetip attacks.

Pearl Harbor history break

Pearl Harbor

Speaking of World War II clashes in the region, Oahu is of course the location where the most important event took place. On Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, drawing the United States into the war. 

The surprise attack left all 8 U.S. Navy battleships at Pearl Harbor damaged, four of which sunk. The Americans managed to raise all of the sunken ships except the USS Arizona. 

In addition, the Americans lost 188 aircrafts and suffered casualties in the thousands. 68 civilians were also killed. The Japanese lost some ships and planes, as well as 64 soldiers in the battle that ensued. 

The Pearl Harbor attack shocked the American public, and the U.S. declared war on Japan the following day. Shortly later, the U.S. was at war with German and Italy as well.

What you might not be aware of is that, at this point in time, Hawaii was not even a state. It was just a United States territory, kind of like what Guam is still today. 

Back in 1893, the U.S. overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy, and just before the turn of the 20th Century, America annexed Hawaii. The Hawaiian Islands then remained a U.S. territory until 1959, when Hawaii became the the 50th (last) state in the union. 

Iolani Palace, Honolulu – once Hawaii’s royal residence

Just in case you were wondering, Hawaii is the 8th smallest state by land mass and 11th smallest by population. That means 10 U.S. states have fewer people than Hawaii. 

All right, back to January 2017. I hopped on a public bus to Pearl Harbor, where I checked out the harbor and the museums at the Pearl Harbor Visitors Center. The highlight of my Pearl Harbor visit was heading out on a boat to the USS Arizona Memorial, which is constructed on top of the remains of the sunken battleship. 

USS Arizona Memorial

1,177 crewmen died in the bombing and sinking of the USS Arizona. The ship’s crew accounted for more than half of the Americans killed during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Visiting the site of an event of such magnitude, the largest naval disaster in U.S. history and the catalyst for American involvement in World War II, gave me a look at Hawaii through a much different lens than I was typically getting.

Big Island time: active volcanoes and flowing lava

Arriving on the Big Island, flying over Maniniowali Beach

In case you are not already aware, Hawaii’s largest island is also called… Hawaii. But people refer to it as the Big Island. My stay on the Big Island was very memorable, largely due to its volcanoes.

I used 6 days and a rental car to explore pretty much ever part of Hawaii’s largest island. While the Big Island has a much smaller population than Oahu, it is richer in natural wonders. The Big Island has colored-sand beaches, lush rainforest and of course volcanoes. For me, the most memorable parts the Big Island were the volcanoes and… actually a location off the island’s coast, where I had a very special snorkeling trip.

Let’s start with the volcanoes. There are five on the island, three of which are active and one of which was continuously erupting.

I visited three of the five volcanoes, first venturing to the brothers: Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. Mauna Loa, which is active, is the largest above-ground volcano in the world by both mass and volume. It has a a volume of about 80,000 km3.

Mauna Loa

Yet, neighboring Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano, is actually taller. At 4,207 m, Mauna Kea’s peak is about 38 m higher than Mauna Loa’s. When measured from the sea floor, Mauna Kea is actually the tallest mountain in the world, standing at more than 10,000 m. Both volcanoes make for impressive sights along Big Island roadway.

Mauna Kea

But Mt. Kilauea is so much more impressive. That’s because size doesn’t always matter. Lava flowing into the ocean does. And I was very privileged to get a preview of what the world would soon see on their television and device screens.

When I visited Kilauea, the volcano had been erupting continuously since 1983. It was possible to see lava flowing at a couple locations — in a crater containing a lava lake at the peak of the volcano and on the southern flank of the mountain where lava would come out of a vent. 

For geographical context, Kilauea is located on the southern edge of Hawaii’s southernmost island. Actually, the peak of the volcano is several km inland, but its lava flows all the way out to the coast and then into the open ocean. 

I had really hoped to get a chance to see this amazing sight of lava flowing into the ocean. So I drove to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which encompasses Mauna Loa and Kilauea, parked my rental car in a lot and set out by foot for the lava viewing area at the southern flank of the mountain. The journey did not go as smooth as planned. 

Firstly, I got a late start. Following a long day of sightseeing, the sun was already starting to set as I scampered toward the lava viewing area. If I was on a normal road, it wouldn’t have been a problem, and I would have arrived before sunset. But this was no normal road. 

I had to walk over sharp volcanic rocks. As it was getting dark, I reached for my phone, which I wanted to used as a flashlight. Then I noticed my phone was almost out of battery and I had forgotten my charger. I really wanted to take at least a couple photos of the flowing lava — using my phone — so I couldn’t also use the device as a flashlight. 

I carried on, stumbling over sharp volcanic rocks as darkness was falling. At one point I fell and got a big scrape on one of my knees.

Ready for some lava

In the end, I managed to walk or stumble my way about 4 or 5 km to the Kalapana viewing area. The nearby town of Kalapana was destroyed by an eruption in 1990, but never mind that for now. 

I joined a group of people who were already at the viewing area watching the lava flowing. It was an amazing sight. Pictures cannot describe the beauty of lava flowing into the ocean with thousands of stars shining brightly above. 

Flowing lava at last

The hike was long and strenuous. I was totally unprepared for it. But it was totally worth it. The lava flow is a sight I will never forget, and my timing was impeccable.

On the way back I followed a group of six people who were equipped with flashlights and much better hiking gear. It took a while, but we made it back over the volcanic rocks and returned to a gravel road. I parted with the group and made it back to my rental car in the darkness. 

Little did I know at the time that a year and a few months after I visited, Kilauea would erupt in a massive way and occupy the international news cycle for a period of weeks. In 2018, Kilauea’s big eruption lasted more than three months, destroying more than 700 homes, as well as Hawaii’s largest natural freshwater lake. The eruption caused more than $800 million in property damage and was the most destructive volcanic eruption in the U.S. since 1980. And it basically turned one community into another Kalapana.

Where I viewed flowing lava. Note the nearby Leilani Estates were basically wiped out by the lava flows from the eruption.

Also, the eruption resulted in the temporary closure of the entire Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Some areas of the park, including the Kalapana viewing area, are still closed. So I was very lucky to have visited when I did. 

The second very memorable activity during my stay on the Big Island was snorkeling with manta rays. This was a special night snorkeling trip that I booked. The location was a spot in the open ocean that many snorkelers and divers go to and apparently is a big feeding ground for manta rays. Underwater lights attract a lot of plankton, which then bring the manta rays. 

My group of 30 or 40 people started swimming not too far from the coast. Very quickly we were attracting the manta rays with light. After a couple minutes there was about one manta ray for every person. We were swimming with 30 or 40 of these majestic creatures.

For about one hour, we snorkeled, lying on top of the water while using some buoys to support us. We watched these big, amazing creatures swim all around us — just centimeters from our bodies and faces. The display was extra special because it was at night.

Kiholo Bay overlook

Elsewhere on the Big Island, I visited some Polynesian ruins, drove to the scenic Kiholo Bay, saw the Akaka Falls waterfall and spent more time in and out of the water with sea turtles.

Akaka Falls

After nearly a week of adventure, it was time to island hop to Maui.

Travel crisis averted on Maui

Maui is a very popular vacation destination that is frequently voted the best island in the world. I don’t exactly share those sentiments. Maui was not even one my two favorite Hawaiian Islands. But I must say that, despite spending six days on the island, I departed Maui with still a lot left to explore.

That is in part because I did not rent a car on Maui. For whatever reason it was much more expensive to rent a car there than on the other islands. Instead, I relied on my hostel to provide transport. I just stayed at the hostel and ventured out on the tours it organized. This proved to be a mistake — though not nearly as costly for me as for some of the other people staying at the hostel. 

The tours were not all bad. We hiked through nice hills and went whale watching. During the whale watching tour, we saw a lot of humpbacks. 

A humpback up close

We also went to the popular Makena Beach. The beach is a prime tourist destination, but it is also known for shark attacks. Tiger sharks pray on people from time to time there, making Makena Beach dangerous for swimmers and surfers. I heard about one particular shark attack and that made we want to stay in very shallow water while I was snorkeling.

Makena Beach

As with my actual experience swimming with sharks in Hawaii, I survived unharmed at Makena Beach. Considering the limitations I placed on myself, Makena was a quite nice snorkeling spot.

When I got out of the water, it was time for some good hippy fun on the beach. That meant grooving to drum beats with nude, pot-smoking people from around the world. It so happened there was a giant hippy party at Makena Beach when we visited. While I didn’t engage in all of the festivities, I did join the hippies in taking in a beautiful sunset. 

Hippy festival

On another beach trip, we went to Lower Paia Park on the north side of the island. I remember the waves at the beach there were huge, and one almost crushed me.

The highlight or, more accurately, lowlight of my Maui stay was the Road to Hana trip. The Road to Hana is a stretch of highway that runs along the coast on Maui connecting Kahului, the largest town on the island, to Hana, a fairly isolated town on the eastern edge of the island. There are many sights people stop at along the way to Hana.

My hostel organized a Road to Hana trip for about 30 people. We split up into two groups, each traveling in a large van. The trip worked out okay for one of the groups, but not so for mine.

Along the Road to Hana, first we stopped at a beach. Then we continued to a waterfall and then a second waterfall. There were natural pools at the second waterfall and some people jumped off of the waterfall and into the pools. One guy broke something because he didn’t jump in the proper manner. That wasn’t the disaster, though.

When we returned to the van, we found a very bad surprise. One of the windows was broken and there were shards of glass everywhere.

Some thieves had broken into the van and stolen lots of valuables that people left behind when we went to the waterfall. I was so silly to bring a lot of valuables with me on the tour and leave them in the van. I had left my passport, some credit cards and some cash in the van. 

Because of my long legs, I was sitting at the front passenger window seat. That was exactly where the thieves broke in. The shards of glass landed on my jacket, which was on top of a bag with my valuables. Apparently the thieves wanted to avoid the shards of glass. They didn’t steal any of my stuff. I lucked out.

But most people in my van were not so lucky. Some lost passports, credit cards and a lot of cash. They were quite desperate to sort out the situation. Our tour ended. We headed back to the hostel, never making it to Hana.

At the hostel, the atmosphere bizarrely shifted to that of a party. Well, it wasn’t really that odd. I was staying in a party hostel with a lot of crazy people. 

All in all, my stay in Maui was nice, with the exception of the botched Road to Hana trip. I would like to return to Maui some day and complete the drive in a rental car. 

Still, Maui was not as memorable as Kauai. 

Flying over paradise on Kauai

Approaching Kauai – just the beginning…

Kauai is known by the nickname the Garden Isle because of its vast tropical rainforest. It also has some incredible green cliffs. In my opinion an impressive way to take in Kauai’s impressive topography is from above in a helicopter. I did exactly that. The helicopter ride was certainly the highlight of my time on Kauai, but there were other very enjoyable parts of my stay as well.

Nā Pali Coast State Park

For one, I hiked the Kalalau Trail along the shores of the Na Pali Park. The Na Pali Coast, also known as the Na Pali Coast State Park, is a stretch of rugged coastline on the northwest side of Kauai. Its high cliffs, which rise as high as 1,200 m, are stunning. The Kalalau Trail stretches about 18 km along the Na Pali Coast. The trail is extremely beautiful, but it is also quite dangerous. The huge, sheer cliffs drop abruptly into the ocean. 

The trail is about 18 km. It does not loop. You have to walk in one direction and then head back the way you came. I didn’t complete the whole trail. I walked for 3 or 4 hours, covering about 8 km. I walked to a beach and then to some nice waterfalls and returned. 

The Kalalau Trail

Not so far away, on the north of the island, I visited Hanalei Bay and the Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge. At the bay I just chilled at the beach.

Hanalei Bay

The wildlife refuge is a little similar to Na Pali Park, but with endangered plants and birds. All over the north of the island there are roads cutting through green hills and lovely wilderness terrain. 

Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge

Elsewhere on Kauai, I visited a colorful waterfall, Wailua Falls. I also got a glance at the Wailua River, which the waterfall feeds into.

Wailua Falls

Wailua River

I also visited another park, Waimea Canyon State Park, which I called the Grand Canyon of the Pacific.

Waimea Canyon State Park

It’s a bit greener than the Grand Canyon. 

Shipwreck Beach

In addition to Hanalei Bay, I hit some other Kauai beaches, such as Shipwreck Beach and Sprouting Horn Beach. Shipwreck Beach has a nice cliff walk, while Sprouting Horn Beach is fittingly known for its blowhole.

Spouting Horn Beach’s blowhole

Onto the helicopter ride… this was my first ever flight in a helicopter. It came just three weeks before my second time flying in a helicopter, when I flew over the Grand Canyon — the real Grand Canyon.

Ready for takeoff

The flight over Kauai was quite expensive — I paid $600 for just a 1-hour flight. Even though that was a lot of money for me back then, it was well worth it.

Kauai from above

We flew over the Na Pali Coast, which I have yet to mention was a filming location for Jurassic Park.

The real-life Jurassic Park ride?

The helicopter ride gave me amazing views of the lush green interior of Kauai, as well as the sheer cliffs beside the ocean. I got some great photos of the cliffs, the coastline, the rugged interior and Kaui’s colorful mountains.

What a vantage point!

As a result of the flight, Kaui basically became my favorite Hawaiian Island.

Lush

But travel in Kaui wasn’t without hassle. That was because my rental car was malfunctioning. Twice in a span of 5 days the battery died and I had to get help from locals to start the car.

The first time my car battery died I was at my hostel and luckily there was a repair shop nearby. A mechanic came and started my car.

The second time was a bit more of a challenge. I was in a supermarket parking lot. I went inside the supermarket and asked around, but no one knew how to help me. I went back out to the parking lot and was getting frustrated.

Eventually a guy drove up in an SUV. I asked him if he had a jumper cable, and indeed he did. The man hooked up his SUV to my car and got it started. 

Luckily, I didn’t get stuck in a remote place on the island, and luckily in the U.S., a lot of people have jumper cables. So problem mitigated. Kauai was glorious.

Back in Oahu

I returned to Oahu for a brief stay of a couple days before flying out of Honolulu and embarking on my California road trip. This time on Oahu I did have a rental car, and the rental car was working fine.

While driving around the island, I returned to the North Shore, though not for round 2 with the sharks. I checked out the Banzai Pipeline, a surfing spot where waves start to break when they reach the shallows of a reef. This creates huge waves in shallow water and possibly makes the pipeline the deadliest surf break in the world. Many surfers have died or been seriously injured while surfing the Banzai Pipeline.

The Banzai Pipeline

My final beach stop in Hawaii was Oahu’s Waimea Bay, also on the North Shore. Waimea is another important surfing destination. For decades, it was considered the most prestigious big wave surf break in the world.

Waimea Bay

For me it was a final chance to catch a Hawaiian sunset and say goodbye to the archipelago that I so enjoyed visiting over a span of three and a half weeks.

Goodbye Hawaii

Parting thoughts

Hawaii is expensive, but I think visiting the islands is more than worth the price. I really cherished my time spent on Kauai and the Big Island. Having a car, I was very independent on those islands, even if it failed a couple of times on Kauai. I am certainly considering returning to Hawaii, especially given that my Maui trip is still not complete. 

As for my next Hawaiian island getaway, there will be no use of public transport; just planes, cars and helicopters, as needed. And maybe an all-terrain vehicle so I can navigate what is left of the lava-covered areas surrounding the magnificent Kilauea.