The pounding waves of The Big Island's gently sloping barren western shores greeted us from the air. If you fly in on the left side of the plane, and fly out on the right, you get great views that serve as a quick orientation for the visit ahead.
We could tell things were a bit different as soon as we arrived in the main airport at Kailua-Kona. There were no enclosed tourist Habitrails that led vacationing cattle orderly into airport gates. Instead, arriving visitors disembarked down stairs to the tarmac and walked to an open air luggage carousel past open sky shops. They definitely were not planning on much rain or temperature issues on Hawaii. But that of course is one of the many reasons people come. The 5 day weather forecast for Kona varied by one degree across all five days, for both the day highs and night lows.
Beware the Info Booth Lady there. She doesn't have a clue. Since it was Christmas Day, we asked where we might get some food. She said everything was closed, everywhere, except for the $40-75 per entree resort hotels.
That wasn't our budget style, so we took it upon ourselves to drive into Kona. There were some closed shops, but we saw cars at the K-Mart. So we had a cheap Christmas banquet with the local shoppers at the Little Cesar's pizza franchise inside K-Mart. Quite the banquet. After driving around later and further, though, we found a number of open places we would have preferred to have feasted at, but it was quick and filling and we were on our way.
“Sunny Hawaii” turned out to be nothing of the sort. So, we headed for the rain forest. When in Rome, do like the Romans. When it's raining, go where the environment loves it.
High on the mountainside overlooking Kona and the western facing ocean, we wound our way up and up 5000 feet along Kaloko Drive, ending at Huehue Road. Passing expensive view homes in private communities behind locked gates, we got above the sparse lava rock of the lower elevations to the exotic plants of the wet upper reaches. The plants were impressive: deep green bushes and trees sporadically punctuated with seemingly giant sized pendulous flowers or colorful fruits waiting to be picked.
Nowhere along the entire road were there official spots for parking and walking, so we just made it happen by pulling onto the shoulder and walking around to get into the botany and listen to the zoology. There was an aural kaleidoscope of birds: hoots, warbles, tweets, and calls from everywhere in the forest, yet rarely ever directly visible.
From there, we began our counterclockwise journey around the island, driving northeast up the Mamalahoa Highway / Hawaii Belt Road toward Waimea. We were getting out into the open cattle grazed ranch land of Hawaii, formed mostly of dark lava rock, white-yellow-brown dry grasses, and the occasional cluster of cattle. To the left was the ocean rimmed with the froth of waves in the distance, and to the right were smooth rounded volcanic mountains.
The Big Island had experienced a drought for the past couple years, but on our day of arrival the rain was pouring so hard that I once came upon a tree that had just recently been washed across the highway. The stark lava fields of the west side didn't make very good sponges for that volume of heavy rains, so water was accumulating in low spots and creating fast running rivers across the roads. Most could be forded by slowing down and creating big splashy wakes; the big pickup trucks that didn't slow down as much from the other direction would create tidal waves that slammed across our windshield.
A few police cars were positioning themselves at strategic locations to help stranded motorists, but otherwise it was all about just driving carefully and dealing with constant hydroplaning. The fast moving rivers flowed right beside and over the roadway in areas that were obviously not meant to usually carry any water at all. An eerie gray cast was everywhere, with the occasional diluted view of Sun or a freakish white cloud for variety.