A Week on the Big Island of Hawaii

After recent visits to Maui and Kauai, I’ve now been to all four of the main “travel” islands of Hawaii, and I think the Big Island might just be my favorite. If the Kīlauea volcano is currently active when you’re thinking of going to Hawaii, then I would totally recommend choosing Big Island over the others. But even if it’s not, there’s still plenty to do, as you’ll see from my six-day itinerary.

Day 1: Snorkeling and Coffee Farms

We spent the first three nights on the west/Kona side of the island, since that’s where the best snorkeling is. I’ve heard Two Step is a fantastic snorkel spot but also a little difficult, so we started at Kahalu’u Beach Park instead. The waters here are calm, shallow, and there’s a lot of coral the farther out you swim. There are also volunteers at the beach who are very vocal about using reef-safe sunscreen and not standing on the coral, both important messages that I think visitors need to be mindful of.

The water at Kahalu'u Beach Park

When we were in Maui, we made the mistake of trying to squeeze in two snorkel spots per day, which was not easy to pull off. This time, we filled the afternoon by visiting a local coffee farm. There are several coffee farms near Kona that offer tours. We went with Greenwell Farms, because you don’t need to reserve a tour slot ahead of time (and it’s free!).

Coffee trees at Greenwell Farms

Day 2: Snorkeling, Kayaking, and Historical Parks

Another popular snorkel spot is Kealakekua Bay, though access is a bit tricky. Your options are a 3-4 mile hike, a boat tour, or a kayak. We rented kayaks from Ehu & Kai, who were great to work with. Kayaking across the bay was fun but tiring. The tiny, white monument in this picture shows how far you have to paddle:

A monument on the other side of Kealakekua Bay

But the snorkeling was great. I saw a bigger variety of fish here than at Kahalu’u, though Kahalu’u was better overall. It helps that there are facilities at Kahalu’u. In the Kealakekua Bay, the only bathroom is the ocean itself!

For the afternoon, we visited the Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park. I enjoyed this place a lot more than I thought I would. The surrounding coastline is really pretty, and the history and Hawaiian legends born from here were fun to learn about.

Palm trees at the Pu'uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park

Day 3: Volcanoes and Botanical Gardens

This was the day we switched sides to stay on the east coast near Hilo. The original plan was to drive the southern route and see the green and black sand beaches along the way. However, an accident closed Highway 11 for several hours, forcing us to change plans and drive the “Saddle Road” across the middle of the island.

On the way, we stopped at the Mauna Kea visitor center. Unless your vehicle has 4WD, you cannot go all the way up to the summit of Mauna Kea. So the visitor center is the end of the road, and it’s not a very informative stop. Still, there are some cool views to take in from the surrounding area:

Viewing old volcanoes from Mauna Kea

Farther down Saddle Road towards Hilo, there’s a short Kaulana Manu Nature Trail that was fun to walk through. It’s interesting to see what has grown on top of these older lava flows.

We ended the day by visiting the Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve & Garden not too far north of Hilo. This is probably the best botanical garden I’ve ever been to. The grounds are very pretty with so many different kinds of trees and plants:

The lily pond at the Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve & Garden

And because it’s so close to the ocean, you also get some great bonus lookouts at the coast from here. My wife said this was her favorite day for this garden alone. It’s definitely worth the trip.

Day 4: Volcanoes National Park

The main thing we wanted to see on the Big Island was the national park, and it did not disappoint. Make sure you check the status of the Kīlauea volcano, though. Seeing it actively erupt was really cool. As of May 2022, lava is only visible in the caldera. You can see lava from the main Kīlauea overlook, but the actual eruptions are only visible from the Keanakāko’i overlook. Even then, you will need binoculars to truly appreciate it. The caldera is much farther away than you might think:

The Kīlauea caldera from the Keanakāko'i overlook

We also enjoyed walking through the Thurston Lava Tube and taking the trail down into the Kīlauea Iki pit crater. The highlight for me, though, was driving down Chain of Craters Road towards the Hōlei Sea Arch. No, the sea arch isn’t that spectacular. It’s the drive itself that I enjoyed, to see the different stages of lava as it has flowed towards the ocean:

A wavy lava flow on the Chain of Craters Road

Day 5: Green and Black Sand Beaches

Finally, we headed to the southern side of the island to see the famous green and black sand beaches. The Papakōlea Green Sand Beach is not for the weak, though. It is a 5-6 mile roundtrip hike. While the walk itself isn’t difficult, it can get very hot and windy out there. Yes, there are truck drivers offering to shuttle people back and forth, but the legality of this service is questionable. Many locals are upset that the trucks are tearing up the land. If you choose to walk, you’ll see the destruction for yourself. That final view, though:

The Papakōlea Green Sand Beach

Next, we stopped by the Punalu’u Black Sand Beach. This is a beach you can drive right up to, making it a popular place for people to hang out. It’s also a popular place for turtles to hang out. If you’re lucky, you’ll see turtles sunbathing right there on the beach. For us, we only caught a few glimpses of turtles swimming out in the water.

The Punalu'u Black Sand Beach

Day 6: Waterfalls and Overlooks

Our flight home didn’t depart from Kona until 11:00 at night, so we had plenty of time to make our way back to the other side of the island. I chose the northern road this time to give us a chance to stop at several waterfalls and valley overlooks along the way.

There are many waterfalls on Big Island, but we only saw three: Rainbow Falls, Akaka Falls, and Umauma Falls. Akaka Falls is a state park that has a vehicle and per-person fee. Umauma Falls is on private property and requires signing a waiver and paying a per-group fee. Of these falls, I liked Akaka the most (pictured below), but the rest of my family preferred Umauma Falls.

The waterfall in Akaka Falls State Park

The valley overlooks were a little more out of the way, and I wouldn’t recommend stopping at them unless you have other reasons to be in those areas. Of the two we visited, Waipi’o Valley was the more convenient and prettier overlook:

Looking down into Waipi'o Valley

Going out to Pololū Valley added at least another two hours to our drive and wasn’t as impressive. I did enjoy driving through all of the lush farmland on Highway 250, though. It felt like being in a different country. It really is amazing how parts of this island are fully established while others are still changing from active lava flows.

A Weekend in Oslo, Norway

I was in Norway for a week and a half on a business trip, but I got to spend my first weekend there exploring Oslo on my own. I purposefully didn’t see everything the city has to offer, like some of its museums, because those are things my wife will want to see when we’re able to go back together. So I mostly focused on outdoor sightseeing.

One thing to be aware of when visiting Oslo/Norway, though, is that they are a very cashless society. I withdrew $200 worth of NOK at the airport and never spent any of it. You can even buy subway and bus tickets through the Ruter app that can be linked to a PayPal account if your credit card won’t register.

Anyway, when I first set out to see Oslo, I started at the Opera House by the water, which is one of the more iconic architectures in the city:

The Oslo Opera House sitting in the water

The harbor promenade as a whole is fun to walk around, because there are a lot of other interesting buildings, art installations, and activities going on. I chose to walk from there to Ekebergparken next, though in retrospect, I should have just taken the bus. It’s a long walk, and once you leave the waterfront, there’s not much to see on the way.

Ekebergparken is a “sculpture park” up in the hills overlooking Oslo. In the spring/summer, this is probably a really nice park to walk through. In the winter months, the highlights are gonna be the sculptures themselves:

A statue of a head overlooks the city of Oslo

From there, I took a bus to Vigeland Park, which is a more famous sculpture park on the other side of town and probably the most popular attraction in all of Oslo. Personally, I think Ekebergparken is a better park park, but the sculptures in Vigeland are still pretty cool:

A bridge over water contains multiple statues along the sides

The next day, I took the subway farther out of town to the Holmenkollen Ski Museum. Holmenkollen is home to a giant ski jump and many ski competitions. In fact, there was a race happening next door the day I visited. The museum itself is quite small, but you can take an elevator to the top of the ski jump to get a nice view of Oslo in the distance:

The ski jump slopes down with Oslo in the distance

With more time, I would have loved to visit some of the other museums of Oslo, but I’ll save those for my next inevitable trip.

Chinese New Year in Vegas

My wife and I will usually celebrate Chinese New Year locally instead of making it a destination holiday. Unfortunately, we currently live somewhere that does absolutely nothing for Chinese New Year. Las Vegas is the closest big city that also has a big Chinese community, and rumor had it that the casinos and resorts go all out in decorating. Obviously, this would change year to year, though, so my highlights from 2022 won’t necessarily be the best places to visit in future years.

We started at Treasure Island and walked up and down the main stretch of the strip, checking out each resort’s New Year decorations along the way. Some resorts, like MGM, did the bare minimum and weren’t worth walking that far down the strip to see. Caesars Palace didn’t have a lot of decorations up, either, but it was on the way, and their single dragon display was still fun:

A lit up red dragon at Caesars Palace

The Bellagio next door, however, had very extravagant decorations. They’d completely transformed the conservatory into a Chinese-themed garden with several statues and a tea house. It was by far our favorite stop:

The Bellagio botanical garden with Chinese statues

The ARIA was another highlight, for a number of reasons. First, the main casino entrance had a long, golden dragon hanging from the ceiling amongst clouds and Chinese lanterns:

A golden dragon hanging up in the ARIA casino

All of the shopping centers leading to the casino had their own displays, too. Plus, the ARIA was one of the few casinos that held a lion dance ceremony in front of the entrance. The ceremony was clearly aimed at their VIPs, but that didn’t stop looky-loos like us from stealing a peek!

On the way back down the strip, The Venetian was another highlight with their own dragon and dolled up garden:

A dragon swimming in front of the letters LOVE at the Venetian

Our “tour” ended at the Wynn, where the decorations were mostly limited to a smaller red dragon suspended in some trees:

A red dragon hanging from the trees at the Wynn

The Wynn also had a lion dance outside, though, so we were glad we stopped by. Again, this dance was totally aimed at their VIP guests, which I’m sure the decorations at large play into. But as long as Vegas resorts are going to take those measures, it still makes the city fun for everyone else who wants to celebrate Chinese New Year a little differently.