Thursday, July 31, 2014

Vacation housekeeping

So some house-keeping before I get to Maui stuff. Maui has been more laid back, so there's less to write about, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

1. I slagged Southways Hotel in Ottawa a few weeks back for various sins, mostly over changing their baggage policy which meant I had to abandon a pair of coolers. I did it on this blog but, because I was in an especially bad mood over that, I also went on Iqaluit Public Service Announcements page on Facebook, Twitter, Yelp and TripAdvisor. I was pretty thorough in my use of social media to express my disgust.

I rarely do that sort of thing, but sadly it works. I complained at the front desk when it was happening, but there was nothing they could do. When I blasted them on all those social media platforms, and people responded with dismay, well there was a change of heart in a matter of days.

So now they will keep bags for a month, assuming you have a return reservation already in place. Which is quite fair. They also contacted me personally to let me know that the coolers I abandoned were reclaimed from our room and are waiting for us when we return to Ottawa.

On the one hand, I'm glad to see Southways recognized they made a mistake and took quick action to fix it and made serious efforts to reach out to me to rectify the situation. It's more than what a lot of businesses would have done. Still, I wish they could have seen how severe the reaction to this idea would be from Nunavumiut, which make up a significant part of their business, before they took those steps.

Anyway, the situation is over with only some minor inconvenience...

2. Speaking of TripAdvisor, I think one of the things that surprised me the most in Hawaii is how much businesses depend on/fear TripAdvisor. I've heard radio ads talking about how highly rated their business is on TripAdvisor.

And I have to admit we're using TripAdvisor/Yelp/Google Maps a lot more on this vacation than we ever have before (we also downloaded a Road to Hana audio app for the iPhone, which was quite useful and better than trying to read highlights from a book while driving). Part of it is we now have iPhones, which we never had on previous vacations. So we can come here, get burner sims, and have actual smart phones when we travel around. It's made navigating easier, but it's also made finding places to eat or shop much easier.

So yes, all hail/live in fear of the mighty social media...

3. Every day I wear my Montreal Expos baseball hat, I get compliments or a comment on it. People haven't forgotten that team, even in the US.

4. We're routinely asked where we're from when we travel, more so in Hawaii than anywhere else we've been. And let's face it, no one in the United States knows where Nunavut is. Over the years, we've refined our location from Northern Canada (too many people thought we were talking about Toronto...seriously), to the Arctic (routinely got Edmonton/Yellowknife) to the North Pole (not everyone thought we were kidding) to the current Eastern Canadian Arctic. We add just west of Greenland (never mind that Grise Fiord is also technically just west of Greenland and it's much different than Iqaluit) and people get the idea.

It's an automatic conversation starter because people are curious about why you live there and when you moved and what you do. I've noticed an interesting reaction when we explain our jobs. When Cathy says she's a teacher, she gets nods and smiles. When she says she's a special needs teacher, she gets more conversation and more...respect. People acknowledge that's not always an easy job.

I've said I work with the government, which gets a blank look at best, or sometimes disapproving, depending on the person you're speaking with. I've said PR/Communications, and that always gets a frown. Lately I've taken to saying I work with an economic development agency and that....oddly gets some respectful looks. Americans seem to like the idea of doing something that helps grow and develop the economy.

It's all about refining the message to reach the right audience to help achieve your goals. My bosses would be so proud...

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Big Island post-mortem

Some random thoughts from the Big Island...

1. If your ears are sensitive to changes in pressure, man is the Big Island not for you. There are signs on the side of the road telling you what elevation you're currently hitting. It's nothing to go from sea level, to 2,000 feet, to sea level again in a half hour. The trip to Hilo - Volcano is 0 to 4,000 feet. And, at it's most extreme, you can go from sea level to 10,000 feet in an hour if you decide to make the trip to the observatory at Mauna Kea. Cathy's asked for a break, now that we're on Maui, and to stay near sea level for a few days.

2. The Big Island has some of the nicest roads I've ever seen. It all looks like it's been paved recently and it's kept clean. There's hardly any litter or debris along the side of the roads. In fact, there are signs routinely warning you of heavy fines - $500 to $1,000 - if you're caught littering. I like that. Then again, littering drives me nuts. It's one the laziest human behaviours around.

3. There are a lot of churches, but few catholic ones. I'm sure they're there, we just didn't see any until we hit Maui. There was a small town we drove through along the south coat. Couldn't be anymore than 1,000 people, but we drove past at least a half dozen churches.

(Found out later that the Catholic Church was banned for decades on the islands by Protestant missionaries. Interesting...)

4. I understand  the whole, laid back, friendly Hawaiian thing is almost a cliche at this point, but really, they are some of the nicest, friendliest people you could ever hope to meet. Great smiles, always helpful, always will to chat or carry on a conversation about something.

5. Despite the non-littering thing, there is one thing cluttering up the place - Hawaii is in the middle of election mode, so there are signs for governor, lt. Governor, senators, state senators, city council, school boards....everywhere. Unless I've missed something the election isn't until November. It's only July and there's a sizable amount of clutter going on.

Although, interestingly, none of the signs indicate party affiliation. For example, until I checked, I didn't know that Neil Albercrombie was a Democrat. Makes me feel a little better about using a fan with his name on it to keep cool during a Sunday flea market.

6. It perhaps means nothing to people who live down south, but I will weep when I have to leave Hawaii and deal with Nunavut internet again. We spent one night chilling in Kailua Kona watching a movie on Netflix (Lilo and Stich, of course) and watching YouTube videos. And at no point did it lock up and we have to go and do something else for 10 minutes. It just....streamed. It worked like internet is supposed to work.

This is a bunch of tiny islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and they have working internet. So can we please have something like that in Nunavut already? It's ridiculous we have to beg for these things sometimes.

7. Give credit to the Americans for one thing, they do a mean national park. Seriously, if you come to Hawaii and don't do Volcano National Park, you're missing out on something spectacular. And it's not just the simmering volcano that you can go and watch, which obviously draws all the attention, but some great walking trails as well. The staff are also tremendously helpful.

8. People still seemed pretty confused about Obamacare. We've had a few conversation with people, mostly non-Hawaiians, about it. We always sum up our argument this way "We love your country, we think it's great. We would never live here because of your healthcare system." And the thing of it is, I think many American know they're being screwed over, they just have no idea how to make it right.

9. I was very impressed with the size of the biking lanes I saw on the Big Island, especially around Kailua Kona. Then I noticed a bunch of people training for the Iron Man race, which is in September, so that makes sense.

10. Perhaps I just missed it, but I really thought the Big Island would be more into alternative energy sources. I knew the place would be expensive, but I was still surprised at how expensive. It's not Nunavut-level, but some of it isn't far off. I saw gas range from $4.09 a gallon to $4.50 a gallon. Even local staples like fruit were pricier than I thought.

It's why I thought things like solar or wind would be a bigger deal. Anything to help offset some of the costs. But even most of the cars were standard. I saw few hybrids or electric cars. No windmills and little solar. I think there is some geo-thermal going on, but I guess I just expected more...

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The land of coffee

I'm not a complete idiot. Of course I knew that Hawaii grew coffee before I came here and that it is a big deal. This isn't even the first place I've been where coffee is big. When I was in Costa Rica, it was made abundently clear how important coffee was and that it was the best in the world and anyone who told you otherwise were lying bastards.

But man, Hawaii is something else.

First off, it's good coffee. I'm far from being an expert on these things. I've only taken to drinking it every now and then in the last couple of years. I find the coffee in Canada bitter and tastes like burnt rubber. Every now and then I'll hit something that makes me think "Oh, this is why people like this stuff."

I've yet to hit a bad cup of coffee here. I've hit some truly extraordinary stuff.  I bought some from a place called McClure Farms and I'm kicking myself for not buying a crate of it.

Having said that, the industry surrounding it in Hawaii is impressive. I first got a hint of it at a farmer's market in Hilo. I was just eyeing something called Kau coffee, when the guy behind the table starts giving me the whole spiel. That the area, just south of Volcano National Park, used to grow sugarcane, then they transformed it to coffee, using coffee beans found in the area dating back to Brazil in the 19th century...and so on and so forth.

It was a good story. I bought a bag and we drank it while in the Hilo/Volcano area. It's pretty good.

But by the time we hit  Kailua-Kona, it had reached epic proportions. We drove into the city from the south, which means we cut through the heart of their coffee country. There were signs everywhere inviting us to do coffee tours or visit their gift shops. One thoughtfully reminded us that we had passed their farm 500 yards ago and that we should turn around because we were missing out on the best coffee in Hawaii. It seems every coffee in the region has won an award of some kind, at some point. They also all have epic stories of some kind.

The lady at the table who sold me the McClure coffee explained that since the coffee was grown by an 86-year-old man, and that it wasn't lumped in and roasted with beans from other farms, it was unique and better than the rest. It was a good story, so I bought the bag. And it's probably the best I've ever had. Sadly, it would cost a fortune to get it shipped to Iqaluit and I can't find it for sale off the Big Island. Damn.

And so it goes. There's that much coffee being sold in Kailua-Kona that I don't know how people actually sleep. There are cafes everywhere, there are shops specializing in coffee everywhere. There was a street fair on the Sunday we were there, and there was enough coffee being sold there to keep Nunavut caffeinated for a year.

My favourite involves Donkey Balls.

There's a store on Ali'i Street, the main drag, called Donkey Balls. It was hot, it had air conditioning and the name intrigued me. Basically they sell all kinds of chocolate, most of it covering macademia nuts. Hence, donkey balls. They also sell coffee and the guy behind the counter was an older gent and quite ambiable. After buying a lot of balls (they're quite tasty) and getting an iced coffee, I expressed my confusion about all the claims about which coffee is best.

"All the coffee around here is good. It might be grown at different altitudes, or roasted different ways, but there's no such thing as a bad cup of coffee around here," he said.

Which I thought was a fair point. You can get blinders on these things, chasing around which coffee might be the best. I know little about coffee, but I can get that way sometimes. If I'm in coffee-nirvana, maybe I want to try and find the best coffee around. Instead, just enjoy what's there.

But I had another question. I'd seen ads for another Donkey Balls up on the main highway. I asked if it was the same company.

His complexion went from laid-back Hawaiian chill, to scowl. The word "thieves" was not said, but it wouldn't have taken many drinks to get him to say it.

So yes, there is a Donkey Ball rivalary in Kailua-Kona. We went to the other store, by the way. Can't speak to their coffee, but their chocolate salty balls are quite tasty.

One last coffee related story. I went into another shop and, with some amusement, noticed they also sold tea.

"Isn't that sacriliege around here?" I asked.

"Well, there are some people who go for that sort of thing, I guess," he said. It was a tone of voice similar to what you might hear if you ask a Texan what he thinks about gun control.

We haven't seen as much coffee on Maui as the Big Island. There's plenty of it, but they're just not as crazy about it. I mean, there are lots of Starbucks on Maui, but only a few on the Big Island. I imagine in the land of coffee paradise, where every block has a coffee with an award or a story, Starbucks is a bit of a hard sell....

Friday, July 25, 2014

Manta ray nights

Kailua Kona on the west side of the Big Island has a lot going for it. Judging by the size of the airport compared to the one in Hilo, it's where most people choose to land when arriving to this particular island. Thanks to the pair of extinct volcanoes that make up the inner portion of the island, it's in a particularly miraculous rain shadow. Yes, it's still warm and tropical, but it gets a fraction of the rain Hilo does. And yet, it's not quite the desert-like terrain you get if you continue further north.

So it's warm, tropical but not perpetually soaked in rain. I can see why some people might prefer it to Hilo. Which, by the way, pisses people off in Hilo. I spoke to a lady at a market who said Hilo had its time, but now it's Kailua Kona's turn. And you can see it. There does appear to be more money in Kailua Kona, while Hilo appears a bit more....worn down, as it were.

I expected inter-island rivalries when we arrived in Hawaii. That Maui and the Big Island might square off against each other. I didn't expect the regional divide that exists on the Big Island. But it makes sense. It is, in comparison to the rest of the Hawaiian islands, quite large. There's a lot of diverse climates. There's cattle ranching in the north. The south, after you get past Volcano, feels more impoverished, possibly because it's off the beaten track for tourists.

However, we were in Kailua Kona for one reason. And it's wasn't the beaches or the sunnier climate, although after a week of rain that was lovely.  No, the reason why we were in Kailua Kona was to see manta rays.  Cathy read about how you could go night snorkeling and see them. As Cathy is part sea mammal anyway and is looking for any chance to bob in the ocean...

After doing her research she decided she liked a company called Sunlight on Water the best. One quick online booking and we were off. Turns out night diving for manta rays is really popular. When we eventually arrived at our spot I counted 16 boats of varying size clustered into a relatively small area.

Once again, taking into account the somewhat....relaxed view of vacation planning I'm having on this trip, I didn't do much research into what exactly this entails. So after about 30 minutes of trekking in the boat (only to end up in a spot about 100 yards off-shore behind the airport), I began to get the full gist of what was going to happen.

Basically, once it got dark the main boat would put a pair of barges over the side. They served two purposes. First, they gave the snorkelers something to hold onto, which worked well for me as I can't swim well. The 30 feet of ocean between me and the bottom might as well have been the Marinas Trench.

Secondly, the barges produce a powerful light. This light, in turn, draws all kind of plankton in so they can do their thing. And what is it that manta rays like to feed on? Plankton. And when you have 16 boats in a small area all doing the same thing, it must look like a Las Vegas strip buffet to a manta ray.

So I'm bobbing in the ocean, clutching a platform and waiting for manta rays. This is when I'm told mantra rays feed in a very particular way and that we should not touch them, no matter how close they swim.

See, I was figuring the rays would be swimming around the bottom of the ocean and we could see them gluide by, a couple of dozen feet beneath me.

No. Turns out, manta rays like to zoom upwards to get their snack, towards the light, and any fools hangling onto the side of the light, and then veer away at the last second.

Did I mention these rays were about 10-feet from tip-to-tip (medium-sized, according to the guides), have huge, other-wordly mouths and that you can see half-way down their gullet as they're zooming towards you? Did I mention I was being bracketed by a pair of teenage girls?

So yes, what with the cast-reject from Alien powering towards me, as I bobbed on top of an environment actively trying to kill me with teenage girls screaming in my ears, there was only one sane reaction...

I started laughing. I mean, laughing loud enough that I accidentally inhaled some salt water, but that was fine. Moments of spontaneously, unexpected joy are rare in life. Why let a little thing like trying to swallow the Pacific Ocean try to ruin it for you.

Really, it's a genuinely amazing experience. The rays literally break away at the last second as they swoop towards you. They're also completely harmless, despite appearances. They're astonishingly graceful and even after bobbing in the ocean, having been bombed by them dozens of times, I was not ready to come out after our 45 minutes with them was up.

Cathy, for her part, was equally giddy. I hadn't seen her since we hit the water. That's unusual as she likes to keep an eye on me when there's the passing possibility of me dying. But she was having too much fun to give me too much thought.

Hard to blame her, really.  So yes, add snorkeling with manta rays as one of the unexpected joys that I've now gotten to experience in life....

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Air Volcano

A few months ago we had the opportunity to fly to the Grand Canyon via a helicopter. It was a cool experience and I'm happy we did that instead of spending 16 hours on a bus. But there was one thing that frustrated me. I never got really great pictures.

Part of it is I'm using much simpler photo gear these days. Instead of dragging around a heavy DSLR and multiple lenses, I'm using one of those mini-Olympus cameras with interchangable lenses. A lot lighter, a lot simpler and with pretty close to DSLR photo quality. But that doesn't help with window glare. That's what I got a ton of when shooting the canyon. I looked at the photos later, and there were a lot of reflections and weird glare. It drove me nuts.

So before coming to Hawaii I read that you could do helicopter tours of a volcano on the Big Island with the doors off. It was a little more expensive, and obviously there's a bit more risk, but I would get much better photos this time around.

There's logic for you, right there...

However, the odds were not looking good of that tour happening. Rain, rain and more rain. Most of the helicopter tours for that week had been cancelled. Still, I took a stab in the dark, called the company and booked for Friday. After that, all you could do was hope.

Turns out, dumb luck works in your favour sometimes. After five days of rain, Friday was sunny and clear. One of the staff told me it was the only day in the last week all their flights managed to get out.

So we jaunt back into Hilo from the village of Volcano (I kept wondering what the insurance rates must be like when you live in a place called Volcano, and living so near something that could go boom at inconvenient moments). We were in a 5-person helicopter - the pilot, a couple from Houston, and Cathy and I.

So we're loaded into the helicopter. Cathy and I are in the two seats in the back. Now, when we flew from Vegas to the Grand Canyon, they strapped us in so tight you had to work pretty hard to get out of the seatbelt. It was a 5-point harness. That was with doors on. With doors off, I was figuring we'd get something even more elaborate.

What we got was a car seatbelt. Oh, it went over the shoulder. So, you know, it wasn't just a lapbelt. But basically I was getting the same level of restraint and safety protection flying in an open helicopter 3,000 feet in the air over an active volcano as I do when driving to NorthMart. Less, actually. My car has airbags. 

In my excitement, this fact did not dawn on me until we were five minutes into the flight and the pilot banked sharply for the first time. That's when it kind of hit me exactly what I had gotten myself into.

So after two minutes of mentally going "ohfuckohfuckohfuckohfuck" I managed to calm down a bit. There was a hand strap in front of me, so I grabbed that. Because, logically, if the seatbelt gives way, me clutching that strap was totally going to save my life. You grasp at logic where you can.

Thankfully, doing something moderate-to-high on the stupid scale disappears as you approach the volcano. I mean, yes, it's got steam and lava and it will certainly kill you, but odds are if something bad is going to happen, it's not going to be the volcano that does you in. And really, it's an active volcano. And we're flying over it.

That is pretty cool, no matter what was you cut it.

Alas, it is not, as some of the brochures would have you believe, you skimming over the top of fast moving rivers of lava. Right now the peak is mostly steam...there are lava tubes, and in the breaks you can catch a glimpse of lava streaming down from the peak. It's cool and all, but not Hollywood blockbuster cool.

All around you can also see the results of decades of volcanic activity and what it has done to the area. One fishing village, which was destroyed decades ago, has rebuilt on top of the cooled volcanic rock.

That says something about humanity. Not sure what, but it says something.

The pilot, to her credit, was pretty good. Both sides of the helicopter got a chance to see the volcano.  And you never lose track of the fact that you are flying over a volcano and really, how many people get to do soemthing like that?

There's a second part of the trip, where you get to flying over some of the rainforests on the island, and over some of the waterfalls just north of Hilo. Which is nice and all, but Pele is the main attraction to the flight.

Then, after 45 minutes, you're done and back on Earth. Would I still do it knowing what I know about the seatbelts? Probably.

That says something about me. Not sure what, but it says something...

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Death March 2014

Cathy and I have a long-standing, and unfortunate, tradition stretching back to 2006, of going on accidental death marches while on vacation. It started in San Francisco in 2006 when we (and by which, I mean me) were hiking all over San Francisco and refusing to get a taxi. This included an unfortunate jaunt through the Tenderloin, one of the rougher parts of San Francisco.

Later Death Marches include ones in Rome and Vatican City in 2008, Sydney in 2009, and Copenhagen in 2012. Oh, and Nuuk, Greenland in 2012. That was a bad year for death marches, apparently. There have probably been others, I'm just blanking on them.

The game plan for July 17 was pretty simple. We were going to get up, go to Volcano National Park and spend the day hiking around, checking out lava tubes, steam vents, petrogyphs and other fun odds and ends. However, when we got to the park it was pouring rain. It's been pouring rain pretty much since we arrive in Hawaii. There's been some kind of tropical storm lingering near the Big Island since we got here. Locals keep telling us that it should blow over the next day. They've been telling us that for about four days now. Hadn't happened yet.

So we were faced with trudging through the park in the pouring rain - an unappealing thought - or plowing on down the road and hope for better weather. The volcano and Mauna Loa act as big rain shadows. Once you get to the west of them, it tends to be dryer and sunnier. After days of rain, we caved in and headed south and west.

So plan B was a pair of beaches. The appropriately named Black Sand Beach (Punalu'u) and Green Sand Beach (Mahana). Black Sand Beach was kind of fun. The weather was still dicey, but it was nice to walk on a black volcanic sand beach. Plus, there were green sea turtles, which was a bonus. I'm sure I must have read about them at some point, but I'd forgotten. So there they were, with a special area made of loose rock, and with a worn sign cautioning that this was a sea turtle resting areas. There were five of them, just chilling on the beach, catching their breath.

So, black sand beach and sea turtles. Plan B was working out fine. Next up was finding the Green Sand Beach.

Death Marches often begin when you become determined to find something and then, when common sense says give up, you can't because you've come too far. Death March Copenhagen began when we went looking for the Little Mermaid Statue. Death March Vatican City began when looking for a museum. Death March Nuuk was looking for a store.

Green Sand Beach is not easily found using road signs, which is odd because Hawaii is normally pretty good at that. There's exactly one sign on Route 11. It simply says "South Point". No other detail about what lies that way. I believe locals kind of prefer that area remain somewhat shelted from the tourist hordes. We did, quite by accident, manage to find the most southerly point in the United States while looking for the beach, though. It's a line of cliffs at the southern point of the island. You could even jump off the cliff into the water, if you felt so inclined. I did not. But fortunately there were 20-year-old males wanting to show off for their bikini clad girlfriends, so I got some nice pics of them nearly killing themselves. Splendid stuff.

Eventually, we found a sign pointing in the right direction. Once we got to the badly decaying parking lot, we were asked if we wanted to be guided in. With senses finally tuned over the years of people trying to scam us, we waved them off, saying we could walk it easily.

Yeah. No. Not quite so much.

First, it seems it's a three mile walk each way to get to the beach. And the way there is no easy thing. It's a series of randomly diverging paths created by various golf cart/SUV/pick-up drivers over the years. So you're never 100% of where you're going. You just assume the people walking in front of you know what they're doing. Just as I'm sure the people behind us were working on the same assumption.

Next up, the rain that we were fleeing from Volcano found us. Coupled with high winds (all the trees are beant westward) made for a fun walk. A sensible person would have went "fuck this" and turned around. But we had come too far, so we needed to make it to the magical Green Sand Beach.

So the Death March was on. Did I mention that we didn't take any water because we thought it was a short jaunt. And, because of the spontaneous nature of our decision earlier in the day, we didn't bring along any swimsuits, beach towels or....oooops....sunscreen? A good Death March involves heady dollops of stupidity.

About an hour later, we finally made it to the beach.

The thing about the Death March is that it will, sometimes, reward you. The Little Mermaid statue was worth it. The Vatican Museum was worth it (never did find that store in Nuuk). Green Sand Beach was worth it. You have to naviagate down a cliff of black volcanic rock, but once there, you're sheltered from the worst of the wind. The sand is green and has a sparkle to it. The cliff sides surrounding the beach are surreal. The waves come crashing in. Not high enough to surf, but big enough to jump into and have them sweep you back onto the green sand. And after we were there for about 15 minutes, the rain broke and the sun came back out.

We read later that it is one of only four beaches in the world with green sand. And that, my friends, is a worth a little Death Marching,

Now if only we had remembered to pack the sunscreen before heading off. Ow.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Big Island improvise...

From the start, this trip was designed to be more...relaxing. It meant that we were trying not to pack every day with as much activity as possible. We had a short list of things we wanted to do. I had two, Cathy had two.

Me: Go to the Mauna Lea observatory. Do a doors-off helicopter tour of a volcano.
Cathy: Night snorkeling with manta rays. Beaches.

Everything else was variable. If we saw something cool, we'd do it. Other than that, we'd take it easy.

Day one was something like that. The east coast of the Big Island has been hit with a lot of rain recently, courtesy of a tropical depression that won't go away. The east coast is always the rainy side, but even by their standards, Hilo was getting a lot wetter than normal. So after taking care of some errands as we settled in, we asked a few people what to do, given that staying in Hilo in the pouring rain didn't sound like fun.

Their suggestions - Hit Akaka Falls, which is about 10 miles north of Hilo, and swing by the botanical gardens. Which is just what we did. And it was just what the doctor ordered for a first day in Hawaii when we were still half out of our minds with jetlag. The falls are in the vicinity of 400 feet tall, so they're fairly impressive. And the admission is $1 per person. So there's nothing wrong with that.
The botanical gardens were a bit more expensive, but they were fine. A lot of interesting plants and the story behind these gardens - a married couple bought the land, cleaned it up and transformed it - is pretty interesting. The one thing I did wonder about is the Hawaiians are very sensitive about invasive species. You see it a lot as you travel the island. How they're trying to remove some plants that are causing damage to native species.

Those botanical gardens had a lot of non-native plants. I'm curious how locals feel about the place.

Day 2 only had one goal - the Mauna Lea Observatory. I loved astronomy when I was a kid. Alas, I'd already resigned myself to not seeing the actual telescopes. They rest at the top of the mountain, which is 14,000 feet. They strongly recommend not doing it anything other than a guided tour or a 4x4 because of road conditions and how steep the drive is. I didn't feel like blowing $400 on a guided tour and we couldn't afford a 4x4 for the entire time we're on the Big Island. Plus, with Cathy's asthma I  thought it would be a risk going that high up.

But getting to the visitor's center at 10,000 feet, and checking out the stars from telescopes set up at the center still sounded like lots of fun.

However, we had rain in Hilo again. So we decided to get to the observatory, normally a 45 minute drive, the long way round. We headed north again, this time to Honoka'a and then to the Waipi'o Valley lookout. It was a nice, scenic drive, had a great lunch at Gramma's Kitchen in Honoka'a and the lookout was fine, although the view is a little restrictive. Most of the land is the valley is privately owned and they apparently don't take kindly to tourists.

From there we looped around the north of the island, exiting rainforest and into cattle pastures in the blink of an eye. And then we began the climb to the observatory. Where it was foggy. And the people at the center were blunt in their assessment - don't get your hopes up.

(They also related with somewhat...enthusastic...glee stories about what happens when you take inappropriate vehicles to the summit and then come down. Stories of break failing and people diving out of cars screaming. They might have been exaggerating. Then again, maybe they weren't. Either way, we weren't driving to the top.)

Honestly, we might have left. It was around 3:30, the weather looked bad and the chances of a cool sunset or stars were slim. So while I was moping around the gift shop and trying to procastinate on making a decision, Cathy started chatting with a couple of Aussie women also lingering about, hoping for the best.

I have the bad habit of procastinating. Sometimes it pays off. Nat and Sarah were a blast. Both were funny, well-travelled (teachers, of course) and massive geeks. We basically killed a few hours talking about Dr. Who, Firefly, Veronica Mars, Divergent and other geek topics.

We were enjoying it so much we almost missed the fact that the clouds had broken up and there was a sunset about to happen. A quick scramble up a hill (always fun at 10,000 feet) and we got a great sunset. It even stayed clear long enough to see Mars through a telescope. Then the clouds came back. And sadly, they were leaving the next day, beginning their trip back to Adelaide.

Not perfect, but hey, sometimes the fun is in the unexpected. I might, someday, have just had another memory of "oh yeah, that time I went to an observatory." Now I have that and a few hours of laughing and geeking out with Aussie women near the top of Hawaii. And that works just fine with me...

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Getting to Hawaii....

I'm going to try and write a bit more about this trip as it's happening. I didn't write much about Vegas, simply because it was such a flat out time that it was almost impossible to find an hour to sit down, compose your thoughts and write about it.

But I'm hoping Hawaii will give us a little more freedom. We decided that this trip, rather than plan everything to minute detail, we're going to be a little bit more relaxed. Yes, there are things we want to do. However, if we decided to do a helicopter tour of Volcano National Park, we have a few different days we can do it. 

Relaxation is the key. However, before you relax in Hawaii you have to go through the stress of actually getting here.

Honestly, it was probably a moderate in the TFTS (Totally Fucked-up Travel Scale). The first snag was discovering our hotel in Ottawa, Southways, no longer allowed you to store luggage there. When you come down out of the north you often leave pieces of luggage at a hotel and pick them up later. In our case, we brought down a pair of coolers. When I'm coming back in a few weeks times, I could grab the coolers, head out to Costco, stock up on chicken, meats, etc and then take it back up north.

But Southways changed their policy since we booked the rooms. That, combined with it being late at night, their wifi crashing and other crap meant we bascially abandoned the coolers at the hotel. I'll have to buy new ones in a few weeks. So that was frustrating. We won't be going back there again, obviously.

Travel joy number 2 was showing up at the airport. The flight, via United, was Ottawa-Chicago-Honalulu-Hilo. We show up at 4 am for the 6 am flight, however, they have no pilots. Also, they thoughtfully rebooked us for the next day without telling us. After a small meltdown, that was adjusted to Ottawa-Toronto-Los Angeles-Hilo, with some of it now via Air Canada.

You know, say what you will about Air Canada, and I have, at least its international flights are good. We didn't have any problems with Air Canada. Yes, the new international baggage screening in Toronto is a gong show, but that's not their fault. The flight from Toronto to LA was smooth and incident free.

Next problem - LAX. I've read it was a terrible airport, but I didn't grasp the full majesty of how awful it was. For Cathy, her most hated airport has long been Newark. LAX just beat it out. Any other airport if you land at a terminal and have to go to another one, there's a walkway, or train or something. But no. We had to leave security, ask three people where the bus was to transfer us (unbelievably bad signage), spend 20 minutes in traffic to arrive at the next terminal and have to go through security again.

Except there was only one metal detector. So it took another 30 minutes to get through that with the line actually stretching out a door and out on to an overpass. Oh, and I got selected for extra special security screening so myself and the TSA agent became...intimate. He's taking me out to dinner next time I go through LA.

That was followed by six hours in the terminal. Also, our flight was late leaving because the pilot's chair went missing. Seriously.

We travelled American Airlines over Easter and it was bad and United now, and it was bad (seats were awful, pay for food, pay for entertainment, missing pilots, missing chairs)...

I understand complaining about travel can be boring. Everyone has their horror stories. But I seem to recall a lot more times where travel at airports was nice and boring. The drama was minimized. Now it seems like the occasions where nothing goes wrong are the pleasent surprises rather than the norm.

Next up, first days in Hilo....