I used to think snorkeling was stupid. This was because I had never been snorkeling before. It only took a few minutes of snorkeling (after much tripping and toe-stubbing on Hawaii's characteristically rocky shorelines) for me to change my mind. It turns out there's a lot of cool shit just a few feet under the water. And one can see it via snorkeling. The best $20 Meli and I spent in Hawaii was on our one-week snorkel set rentals from Snorkel Bob's. We snorkeled a lot, and here's what we thought of the beaches we visited.
1. Mauna Lani
We stayed at the Mauna Lani Terraces in the greater Mauna Lani resort complex. The Terrace beach was our default beach, within walking distance, visible from our balcony, and nice for general-purpose beachgoing. On the hotel side, the shore is sculpted, so you don't have to deal with the rough rocks getting into the water. All in all, a decent beach, as long as you're not there on a day when hellish clouds of brushfire smoke are darkening the skies as ash rains down on you with unholy fury. Lots of turtles.
This was actually the first beach where we snorkeled, and was the situs of the urchin sting, homeopathic advice, and public self-urination. It was also the place where I realized how cool snorkeling is. We saw our first turtle here and were very excited. We'd see a lot more turtles throughout the rest of the trip, the excitement never fully waning since the turtles always found new ways to entertain us (whether it was pairing up for dual-turtle action, poking their heads out of the water for air, or simply lounging in the shade several yards from the water). Given the unfortunate conclusion of this particular beach visit I can't say that I harbor (ha! get it?) terribly fond memories of it, especially when there are so many other, better beaches to choose from. Which brings us to...
3. Mauna Kea
The beach at Mauna Kea is awesome beyond description. It's a wide, beautiful, sculpted shore, with elaborate coral reefs on the north and south ends. The snorkeling here was bested only by our Keleakekua Bay trip, which cost a lot more (the Mauna Kea beach, as with all beaches in Hawaii it would seem, is free to visit and to park at -- Keleakekua Bay generally requires an expensive boat tour). We visited Mauna Kea three times. On the first visit we hit the south reef, which was really, really, cool. On the second visit we hit the north reef, which was even cooler, mainly because we spotted a man-sized manta ray exploring the ocean floor. Meli spent most of the snorkeling portion of our second trip following the manta ray around, hovering above it as it conducted its manta ray business, and cursing the fact that we had decided not to bring the underwater camera. The third trip, admittedly, we less pleasant. It was our second to last day on the island and Meli's mask was suddenly letting water in. Also, the water was a bit rougher than usual so we swallowed a lot of saltwater. Given the idyllic nature of our previous two trips, the fact that our third trip was somewhat tainted should have alterted us to the fact that there was a foul wind in the air, and perhaps prepared us for the hairy visitor we would endure that night along with the four-hour airport delay the following night. But none of that changes the fact that Mauna Kea is probably the best beach I've ever visited (you hear that, Hermosa?)
There are some minor downsides to Mauna Kea. First, it's very breezy, so sitting on the sand and reading a book can be a tad trying, and returning to land after snorkeling usually involves a few minutes of de-sanding all of your personal belongings on the shore. In addition, the beach is extremely popular and also located at the foot of a hotel. This doesn't necessarily mean it's crowded, but if you stick around into the afternoon you'll start to encounter the usual obnoxious tourist children, with their loud and stupid water games. Not to mention the young children who are too young to swim or to express their displeasure via anything other than screaming, and who can therefore be found standing impotently at the water's edge, screaming at their older siblings and cousins who are obliviously cavorting in the water. But this is all minor stuff. Crowd- and children-wise, Mauna Kea isn't nearly as bad as any beach I've ever visited in California on a summer day.
4. Kuki'o Bay
We hit this beach after our failed attempt to find Kiholo Bay. Meli was extremely disappointed at having to settle for a consolation prize, but it ended up being a nice experience. We were literally the only people there for quite some time, and there were never more than three or four groups on the beach at any given time. The snorkeling was decent, though there were more urchins lurking in the rocks than I saw at any other beach we visited. This was also the beach where Meli found her two turtle friends, on whom she spent a great deal of time and a significant portion of our camera's memory card.
5. Kiholo Bay
Kiholo Bay is a cruel and seductive beast. It makes for great travel guide pictures: a small island just off the shore, separated from the beach only by a few yards of crystal clear water. You see a picture of this and you think to yourself, "How can I leave the island without visiting Kiholo Bay, for God's sake?" After our own Kiholo Bay experience I've come to believe that it was created by the angry gods to ruin entire days of vacation for interloping tourists. Kind of like the volcano.
There are, in theory, two ways to reach Kiholo Bay. There's a small parking area off of Highway 19, from which one can supposedly find a foot-path directly to the bay. We know this because the book told us so, the Internet also told us so, and we saw cars parked there just about every time we drove past. So one morning we parked our Neon and decided to find the damn trail. We found a trail, which looped us directly back to the highway. We doubled back a bit and decided that maybe that pile of jagged lava rocks was a trail, so we tried to traverse it. I fell down twice, nearly re-spraining my ankle, before Meli admitted that she had no idea where we were or how to get to the bay. Since Meli's the one with the directional sense and I'm the klutz who could get lost in a phonebooth, we decided to head back to the car and seek a beach with easier ingress.
Meli was very disappointed, not only because she had been looking forward to Kiholo Bay, but also because she knew that other people had found the trail, so we must be doing something wrong. This was a personal failure that did not sit well with my wife. I don't like feeling stupid any more than she does (though I certainly have a lot more opportunities), but all the same I was content to find an easier beach, one that didn't involve a twenty-minute walk over ruinous crystallized lava and the danger of finding ourselves in tropical version of The Blair Witch Project. We settled on Kuki'o Bay and had a very pleasant morning.
That afternoon we decided to try the second way to get to Kiholo Bay: A gravel road that leads almost to the shore, followed by about a 300-yard walk along the shore to the bay itself. The book assured us that a 2WD car could make the gravel trip, so we packed up the Neon and gave it a shot. The road itself is not marked - at all - so you really have to be looking for it along the highway. It's also only wide enough for one car, so if we met a car coming the other direction we'd have trouble. Fortunately, we didn't, at least on the way down.
We reached the end of the gravel road, got our backpack, blanket, and snorkel gear out of the trunk, and began the hike to the bay. Much like the Washington Monument when I visited D.C., Kiholo Bay remains visible in the distance without ever seeming to get closer. We trudged through the sand and black rocks, in the hot humid air, for about a thousand years, before finally reaching what we could actually call the bay itself. The shore wasn't just rocky - it was rocks. Hot, black rocks. We found some creative ways to get our shoes off and reach the water without melting our feet to the bone, and once we were in the amazingly uncomfortable rocky water we managed to snorkel up and head for the island. We hadn't walked far enough to be as close to the island and all that, but it looked like a doable swim.
A few yards into the swim to the island Meli suddenly stopped and faced me. Meli has a fear of deep water, and we discovered that we wouldn't be able to reach the island without a long, threatening swim over water so deep that we couldn't see the bottom. So we headed back to the searing shore, de-snorkeled, and sat on the blanket for a short while, drinking water and enjoying the view while we prepared for the hike back to the car. We were too tired and irritated to walk the extra god-knows-how-long to the area closer to the island, so after a brief recharge we grumpily marched back to the car.
6. Kealakekua Bay/Honaunau Bay
Kealakekua Bay is a big famous bay in Hawaii, mainly because it's where Captain Cook landed and was later killed. It's also a peerless spot for snorkeling on the Big Island. The most touristy thing that Meli and I did during our vacation was the Sea Quest snorkeling tour to Kealakekua Bay. We tried to get on one of the large boats, but since the trips are so popular we could only get on one of the twelve-seater military raft-boats. This actually ended up being an advantage, since the smaller boats are faster and more manueverable, so our wise-cracking captain was able not only to take us into sea caves, but also to thrill us by hot-dogging around (narrowly avoiding crashing into rocks and cliffs, taking extremely sharp turns that appear to nearly capsize the boat, etc.).
In addition to Meli, myself, the wise-cracking captain and his quiet, beleagured, and very handsome first mate, there were three other groups with us on the boat: A trio of older people, a software engineer from Ohio, his wife, their two teenaged sons, an extremely nerdy pharmacist from Wisconsin, and his two teenaged daughters. During the trip down the coast, in between showing us cool shit along the shore (like lava tubes, demon faces in the rocks, and what-not), regaling us with trivia about the things we were seeing, and pretending to almost kill us, our captain went around the boat and asked where everyone was from and what everyone did for a living. When he got to me, I said "I'm a lawyer, and Meli's a psychologist." It was the first time I had ever said "I'm a lawyer" to anyone, and it was pretty cool.
Before snorkeling at Kealakekua Bay itself, we stopped further south at Honaunau Bay. Honaunau Bay has an old tribal sanctuary hut, which gave our wise-cracking captain an opportunity to tell us about the old Hawaiian legal system. According to him, if anyone broke any of the king's laws (such as stepping on the king's shadow or eating a banana if you're a woman), they were instantly put to death. The only way to seek acquittal was to out-run the king's guards long enough to reach a sanctuary hut. If you stayed in the hut long enough your crime was forgiven and you could go on your way. I imagine that early Hawaiian lawyers were nothing more than cross-country trainers.
The snorkeling at Honaunau Bay was a lot of fun, mainly because we were further out and therefore the water was deeper, yet still clear so we could see a great deal. The coral formations were much more elaborate than they were closer to the shore, and there were a lot more (and different kinds of) fish to bother. When it was time to get back in the boat, the beleagured first mate had set out a dazzling array of chips, cookies, and juices for us. We were all ready to go when we saw that the software engineer's wife was standing on a shallow coral formation out in the middle of the water. The captain called for her to come in and she cried out that she was stuck. After some chuckles, the captain sent the first mate out to help her. Her husband followed as well. After a few minutes she returned to the boat in a heavily agitated state, minus one flipper.
Further delay was caused by the fact that a passenger in another Sea Quest tour boat nearby had managed to lose his wedding ring while snorkeling, and a search party was diligently attempting to locate it among the countless cracks and crevasses of the coral reef. The captain sent the first mate over to help look, and the pharmacist, eager to impress his teenaged daughters, meekly offered his own assistance. The captain more or less ignored him and the pharmacist remained with us. After maybe ten minutes the first mate returned. The wedding ring, of course, was hopelessly lost, and we headed back north to Kealakekua Bay.
Kealakekua Bay was more exciting than Honaunau, mainly because of its topography. An elaborate, shallow coral reef hugged the shoreline for a rather wide stretch before plunging abruptly to a depth of about 300 feet. It was fun to swim along the drop-off, feeling the sharp temperature change in the water and really getting the sensation that I was flying. We saw an eel.
When it was time to leave, the nerdy pharmacist took a final opportunity to make a fool out of himself by trying to prove his manliness to his daughters. Although everyone else had used the ladder to return to the boat, the pharmacist decided to climb over the side, awkwardly flailing himself over the large inflatable tube that ran along the perimiter of the boat. The captain, upon seeing the opening stages of this, politely suggested that the ladder might be easier. "No, that's okay," the pharmacist insisted. "I'll just climb aboard." At this point his daughters, who had until now been remarkably tolerant of their hopelessly embarrassing father, began to complain. "Da-ad! Just use the ladder! You're getting water everywhere! You're getting everyone's shoes wet! Come o-on!" But the pharmacist, no doubt seeing a need to re-establish his virility after being denied the chance to heroically find the lost wedding ring, insisted on doing things the hard way.
That was Sunday, two days before we were supposed to leave the island. I was glad we had saved this excursion for the end of our vacation, since the following day's disappointing trip to Mauna Kea was no doubt affected by the fact that the snorkeling couldn't possibly be as good as Kealakekua Bay.
Photos: The last 26 or so underwater shots, I believe, are from our boat tour. The rest of them are from various other beachs, but I can't really tell which ones are from which. Maybe Meli can help me out here.
Up next: The Food!