Hawaii Trip, December 2023

After our Hawaiian trip last Christmas was foiled by storms in the Midwest, we finally got our trip this year! The Saturday before Christmas we flew nonstop from Boston to Oahu on Hawaiian Air (10.5 hours) and went straight from the airport to Guava Smoked in Honolulu for really good Hawaiian bbq, including smoked butterfish collars, smoked salmon bellies, bbq pork, smoked duck, and a loco moco. (For days, Marcus kept trying other loco mocos and lamenting that they didn’t live up to this one!) We walked from there to a shave ice place (vanilla ice cream bottom, guava and mango and ube on the top with sweetened condensed milk), and to Leonard’s for half a dozen malasadas (guava, chocolate, plain, macadamia, haupia, and marshmallow).

We took the extra donuts back to the hotel and went to check in. We took a dip in the basic pool, since it was getting dark and the fancier pools were closed, and then Robert and Samantha went out and brought back spam musubi (plain, with egg, with avocado, or fried shrimp hand rolls) but Helen, Marcus, and I were already asleep. We slept until 6am, so almost 11 hours, which was good. The hotel, the Hilton Hawaiian Village, has some nice Asian-style architecture on the ground floor, and then there are three nondescript high rise towers for the rooms. Our “family room” had a king-sized bed and two queen beds, plus an extra sink in the dressing-room section of the bathroom, and was really quite comfortable.

In the morning, on Christmas Eve, we took the car and went to a little Filipino run cafe, Cafe Guieb, in an industrial area and had a good breakfast—eggs Benedict with caramelized onions, poi and Mochi waffle with mochiko fried chicken on top and haupia sauce, spam and bacon and Portuguese sausage omelet with home fries, and Filipino sausage with garlic fried rice and eggs over easy. From there it was just a 6 minute drive to the Pearl Harbor visitors center and we went into one of the free museums and then took their bus shuttle out onto Ford Island to go to the aviation museum in an old naval hangar that was there the day of the attacks, and then to the top of the air traffic control tower for a talk about the geography of the island and the specifics of the attacks. Robert tried to feed Helen into an adorable little airplane.

Then we went to Mayama, a little Japanese bento place in pearl kai where they were bringing out hot and fresh food every minute or two, and you just scooped up things and put it on a tray—boneless bites of mochiko fried chicken, more spam musubi, fried shrimp temaki, salmon furikake onigiri, tuna poke donburi, and oyakodon. We ate in the car and then went to a supermarket to buy fruit, cookies, guava chiffon cake, and bottled water (the kids rebelled and joined me in begging for good water). Then we went back to the room and then the bigger pool where there are waterfalls and water slides.

Later that day we drove up a mountain in a state park to the Experience Nutridge luau, which rents space from the state there on an old sweet potato estate. It had been totally deforested and destroyed, and then in the 1920s a rich guy rented it from the state and started a macadamia nut farm there, which became the first commercial macadamia nut venture in Hawaii. His lease with the state specified that he had to plant 100 trees a year, so now it’s pretty amazing and lush again. He built a big house, and Elvis and Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra all stayed there in the 50s and partied there, supposedly.

The luau was pretty small (80 people instead of the 400+ at most commercial luaus on Oahu) and far less cheesy than these things generally are. There was a haka, a fire dance, a lot of hula, a demonstration of traditional imu/hangi oven-building, some ti leaf bracelet weaving, some spear-throwing and Hawaiian bowling to compete in, and of course dinner with Lau Lau and kalua pig and bbq chicken and rice and things. Everyone enjoyed it, actually, in their own ways, and it was a festive Christmas Eve.

Marcus participated in the hula lesson, though poor Helen, who had been looking forward to it, was almost asleep on my lap and wasn't up for it. She definitely appreciated all the "ohana/family/no one gets left behind or forgotten" back-and-forth interactions (Lilo and Stitch references, which she'd watched on the plane to refresh her memory).

On Christmas morning, we went into Honolulu’s Chinatown for dim sum, which everyone enjoyed. The place was bustling at 8:00 in the morning, and several tables of old men had their own Hennessy’s bottles. Nothing says Christmas breakfast quite like that! We went back to the hotel and changed, and then walked down the length of the Waikiki strip to meet our two surfing instructors (Marcus and Larry, from Sparky’s Surf School) at the Duke statue for a lesson for four. (I watched our stuff and took pictures meanwhile.)

The lesson seemed really fun. Samantha stopped after half an hour, unhappy at the sensations—coral on the bottom of the ocean, lots of paddling, and the rough board under your hands and knees. But she got up twice before she gave up.

Everyone else stuck it out the whole time. Mostly I got pictures of their little five-minute pre-surfing lesson on land, since the pictures of the actual surfing are grainy and hard to see who’s who because they were far out there. Still, it was impressive!

Marcus was the best—he and Helen could both spring right up in one motion (the one teacher kept talking about two ways to get upright on a board, the “young guy” way and the “ole guy” way, though they generally opted for “ole guy” way as safer (like a three step process in between lying down and standing up).

Helen was more cautious than Marcus and so would be standing up for 3-4 seconds and then lower herself back to a crouch to kneeling to lying down. She almost never fell in because she was so good at getting back down, but she wasn’t really a long-distance surfer. She started out surfing in tandem, in front of the instructor on the same board, and then ended up trying a few by herself too. The instructor always “chased” her, though, and then paddled the board back out for her, which worked out well.

Marcus got up easily and then had some longer stretches on the board and would fall off and not mind. The instructor said he was starting to steer his own board during the lesson.

Robert fell off a bunch, and his feet and shins and hands are all cut up from the board and the coral—I think it is definitely something that is easier to learn when you’re younger and more limber.

Helen and Marcus were super exhilarated by the experience, Samantha left cold, and Robert almost incapacitated, but despite the varied reactions, it was a great thing to have tried. Helen's enthusiasm comes across in her drawing, obviously.

We got the kids blue vanilla soft serve cones and more shrimp hand rolls and salmon onigiri and spam musubi on the walk back to the hotel, and we windowshopped in one of the ubiquitous ABC stores, thinking about what we want to bring home for friends. We also stopped at an outdoor shopping mall and took a family photo near a nice Christmas tree.

After a confusing attempt to participate in a kukui nut bracelet craft at the hotel (apparently we were supposed to bring our paper DVD rental card from the check-in materials? Ultimately it didn’t matter because they were full anyway), we all headed out for a Christmas afternoon detour en route to dinner.

Half an hour outside of Waikiki, in Ewa, an old sugar industrial area, there is an elementary school with a statue of Lincoln that is a bit controversial and that my colleague who teaches classes about Lincoln had casually mentioned to me last year before our planned trip. Clearly, this was our destination now. When we arrived, we had to squeeze behind the elementary school parking lot gate to get up close to it, and I immediately sent David the picture.

The statue is controversial for a couple reasons—the former principal of the elementary school apparently was a white woman who loved Lincoln. Meanwhile, the school itself was entirely Asian/brown. When she died, she donated all her life savings in her will to the town to erect a Lincoln sculpture. But it was WWII, and there was all this jingoistic pro-white, anti Asian sentiment, and the statue was erected in a “back to traditional white American values” sort of mindset, and there’s some very MAGA-Esque language on a plaque at its base. Some students at the school recently have protested the statue, and the way the school now has a massive pro-Lincoln celebration each year, saying that it’s inappropriate to have such a big school- and town-wide celebration of a white guy, asking why don’t they celebrate Filipino American or Japanese American heroes instead. Beyond all that, the statue shows Lincoln in shirt sleeves, sleeves rolled up, doing physical labor and sweating with his shirt unbuttoned almost to his waist. A lot of people at the time and now think that it’s not really respectful to depict a president that way—it gave us lots to talk about, at least!

Marcus also announced right then that he really needed the bathroom, but pickings seemed slim in this rather rundown residential community on Christmas Day. Thankfully, there happened to be a friendly Hawaiian language church across the street from the school that was having an active service with lots of worship music in Hawaiian. There were 5-6 cute, dressed-up kids spilling out onto the steps and a couple people half watching them, half going back inside, so Marcus asked one of them for the bathroom and they sent him over through them a courtyard to one of the other church buildings. Meanwhile we stood in the street slightly awkwardly and swayed and danced along to the music. This entire area had some cool old factory and farm implements out by the side of the road, which we admired as we drove back toward Honolulu, and we stopped at a park near the water looking directly across at the Pearl Harbor control tower we had climbed the day before. The kids joined a bunch of Hawaiian kids on the playground, and I admired bike lanes, and then we drove on to dinner, which was all-you-can-eat Korean bbq at the newly-opened Katsuriki. Their meats were excellent, and their service very attentive, if equally inefficient, and we had a nice meal. The non-meat options were not plentiful—gingery dressed mixed greens to start, a very garlicky “pesto pasta” that definitely tasted as much Korean as Italian, four spicy kimchis, a slice of zucchini and onion to grill, and then shaved ice to end—it wasn’t the fluffiest we’ve had so far, but no one’s complaining!

On Boxing Day, we packed up everything from the room and went to a Liliha Bakery in Nimitz on the way to the airport. Marcus had another disappointing loco moco, Samantha had a “waffard” (waffle with custard), I had fried rice with eggs and gave Samantha my spam, and Helen had chocolate chip pancakes. We also got some of their coco puffs (chocolate and coconut cream puffs), poi donuts (very like mochinuts), and croissants to go as airport snacks. We gassed up, returned the car, and had what Marcus referred to as “the nicest experience ever with the TSA” going through security—it was quick, everyone was friendly, and after Marcus beeped three times the guy just said “Aw, hand me your watch” and then let him walk through again.

The flight to Hilo was so short Helen didn’t even finish her passion-orange-guava juice, and when we landed we met up with the Turo person who brought us our green Jeep Wrangler for three days on the Big Island.

From the airport we drove straight to Rainbow Falls, where we walked up to admire the falls and then Robert, Marcus, and Helen climbed the big banyan tree down the hill on the other side of the falls. Marcus went right in and up, and Helen was pretty fearless as well. You can see Marcus way up in the green-circled spot in the tree, there.

Robert was in great pain from the surfing lesson—he thinks he has a Grade II strain of his left quadriceps, and moving at all hurts, much less climbing a tree behind the baby.

Samantha and I walked back to the parking lot for the bathrooms and then sat in the shade just past the Jehovah’s Witnesses ladies—it was just like being in an orange line subway station back home! Meanwhile, Samantha found some interesting leaves and trees that she'd like to draw, thinking artistically.

And I read about the legend of the falls:

When they were finally done with their tree-climbing adventures, we drove slightly up the road to get dole whip cones (pineapple swirl with li hing mui), and then drove up into the mountains to Lavaloha Chocolate Farm for a tree-to-chocolate tour and “experience.”

Our guide was fantastic—perky, talking nonstop, and very enthusiastic about chocolate. We learned about the three different cocoa varieties they plant there, and we all tried the fruit fresh as she cut into it in one of the groves. Well, they’re super slimy and gross to touch. The white slimy outside of the fresh pods is sweet and fruity, almost like candy or gum, and then inside is a more bitter starchy pod with the texture of a steamed chestnut. Marcus agreed that despite the slimy texture, it was pretty good, and really “way better than the silkworms,” he said, recalling our silk factory experience in Vietnam.

Then we went into the greenhouse where they do the sorting, fermentation, and drying of the beans, using natural yeasts from the undersides of banana leaves to jumpstart the fermentation process. I had to stand outside the door as the smell in the greenhouse was too much for me, but the kids did great with it all. The tour ended of course with a tasting, and Marcus particularly loved their coffee bar (just coffee, cane sugar, and cocoa butter), while the girls loved their sea salt varieties, both dark and milk. There were awesome views from the farm and everyone enjoyed the tour. They had a small statue of a pig that Helen appreciated, and they also showed us the major ruts in the ground where the wild pigs tear through and aerate the soil. More on wild pigs later, though...

Coming down the mountain, we made a stop at the so-called Giant Banyan Tree in downtown Hilo. Marcus and Helen had been anticipating more climbing, but it was not to be—while circling the tree looking for a good ascent point, Marcus stepped in a not small pile of poop, and an equally not small clean-up ensued. Marcus felt so strongly that this was the worst banyan tree-climbing experience on the island that he had me leave a Google review of it.

Our next destination was Ellie’s Poke, for half a pound of gingered marlin and half a pound of shoyu ahi. They also helpfully had a large, clean, single-user bathroom where Marcus finished cleaning off his shoe, leg, and hands. We ate the poke in the car en route to Hawaiian Style Cafe, which the tour guide had recommended. We had delicious ahi poke nachos, a soupless saimin bowl with three kinds of meats and pan fried wontons, a keiki saimin soup bowl with fish cakes and spam, a Korean chicken rice plate, and another disappointing loco moco for Marcus. We then made a quick stop at a supermarket for clementines, pancake mix, and guava syrup for breakfast the next day. Then we drove 45 minutes into the rainforest to a mostly off-grid cabin I had booked for us to stay in.

The directions were sketchy, the phone service spotty, but the cabin itself was really cool, absolutely a taste of old-fashioned Hilo.

The beds were comfortable, and there was electricity and a gas hot plate and a mini fridge. There was an outdoor shower private to us (“with plenty of curtains!” the hippie woman who owned the cabin informed us) and a bathroom shack a short walk away that we share with two other cabins on the property.

Once the woman walked back to her house, though, we only heard birds, dogs, and chickens. And, though I couldn't place them at first, frogs.

We played a round of “Dumb Ways to Die” and had some cocoa before bed, and everyone except Robert, who was still in agony, slept well. It poured overnight, but the rain tapered off and was almost done by 5:00 when Helen woke me up to walk her to the bathroom.

Samantha and Robert made pancakes for breakfast while Helen made a gimp bracelet and Marcus slept in.

The kids had been highly skeptical of this cabin, but Helen pronounced the bathroom “better than most camping bathrooms” and everyone was getting a kick out of the cabin itself. It has two double beds and two twins, and an assorted tangle of boogie boards and random towels and mismatched snorkel equipment we can use while we are here.

After breakfast we drove to Lava Tree State Monument and looked at what happened when an 18th century lava flow went across a thick forest. The large formations are lava tree molds, which had fresh vegetation sprout from them, as the forest is reforming over the remains of the old lava flow.

From there we drove into Pahoa and had an early lunch at Pahoa Fresh Fish—ono burrito and tempura fish and chips. Robert said he’s feeling “not worse” than yesterday so he tabled the idea of urgent care for now, and we drove out to the coast where a 2018 lava flow had reformed the coastline and created some new black sand beaches.

At Isaac Hale Beach Park the water was too rough to go in, but there are some hot pools warmed by underground lava flows that we waded around in for a while. It was interesting how dramatically the lava flows had altered that one specific beach since we had been there.

From there we drove back into Pahoa town and got a loco moco fries and a couple rice plates to go from L&L (most definitely not “fast” food—it took 20 minutes, though it had the excessive sodium content one associates with fast food), which we ate in the car on the drive down to Volcanoes National Park. We did the exhibits in the visitors center and their nice orientation film, and then we saw a special seasonal art exhibit of wreaths made with native plants in an adjoining park building. Marcus was not impressed by the wreaths, but then we drove over to the Kilauea Iki Overlook, where we first walked over to the big Thurston Lava Tube.

That was a short walk down and a nice walk through, and it was interesting to see the marks on the side walls where the last flows of lava had carved it out. Then from the top of that, Marcus and Helen hiked down to the crater floor and out about half of the distance across it before turning around and heading back.

It was pretty impressive that they were on the crater floor, this absolute martian or lunar landscape, right over so many hundred feet of lava. Clearly, it's also a sign of how much I trusted my big kid to take the baby out there! This was the view from the trail above down onto the crater floor, first right before Marcus and Helen set out, and then when they were on their way back, with the fog having rolled in:

Samantha and I kept Robert company and just walked down the first tiny portion of the trail to the crater floor before going back to get the car and meet Marcus and Helen, who did their loop in record time (about 25 minutes instead of the 45-60 it supposedly took--Helen said he took a million shortcuts on the way up and down). Robert had finally broken down and taken two Advil, so between the pain relief and the anti-inflammatory effects, he was definitely feeling better and even limping a little less. Our final stop in the park were some steam vents—there was a big petroglyph field, but it was 35 minutes down the road and then a 1.5 mile walk out and back to them, and then since the park road is a straight line and not a loop we would’ve had to retrace our steps the 35 minute drive back up, and no one felt that inspired.

The crater was very cool, though, and the steam vents reminded us of Rotorua, New Zealand, so we think we managed to go out on a high note (one of my core principles) after all. From the park gates it was a 50 minute drive back to Pahoa and dinner options, so that seemed like a plan.

We had dinner at Mighty Sushi in Pahoa. It looked like a nondescript strip mall place, but after sampling the warm service and the worn plates, Marcus said “I like this place. It’s really…quaint,” and it was. The fish was also really good, including the tuna and the ika especially, and the rolls, from the simple (some of the best tuna maki ever, sparingly topped with perfectly roasted sesame seeds) to the complex (a sweet chili mango shrimp crab roll) were fun and delicious. We drove back to the cabin, getting lost on the grounds in the dark—Marcus and I had to get out and walk around with phone flashlights before we found the path, and called Robert to follow us to our cabin. We made jiffy pop popcorn over the hot plate, and Helen wrote in her journal and Samantha made a bracelet, and we called it a night.

It rained again overnight, pouring rain that stopped before dawn, and again the coqui frogs kept up a loud symphony, yielding to assorted birds and roosters when morning came. Robert found the hot water tap, so he actually was able to have a hot (outdoor) shower, and he fried up the leftover meat from the L&L yesterday in a pan over the hot plate. Helen found a cat, who ran right into the cabin as soon as the door was open. The cat nosed around a little and ate most of the fried beef, first from Robert’s fingers and then from a bowl on the ground, despite Marcus (who was adamantly anti-cat after noticing a few of its sloppy sneezes on the rug near the door).

We drove straight into downtown Hilo, just about 45 minutes, to Kawamoto Store, a little Japanese breakfast and lunch shop where spam musubi were only $.90 (other places they’ve been $2.50-3.50, and even though others have been bigger, these were beautifully made). We also got tempura ono, breaded fried mahi mahi, little Patties of corned beef and mashed potatoes, plain onigiri, beef and oshinko pickle futomaki, Korean fried chicken wings, sliced pork, and large, deliciously chewy pan-fried fish cakes. Robert loved that you could get everything by the piece, rather than ordering a pre-set amount, and breakfast (eminently suited to lap-top car eating) for all only came out to $23 and change.

From there we drove 20 minutes further up outside of town to a zip lining place, where Robert and the kids were going on a 9-line zipline “experience” (apparently everything is an “experience” these days) over waterfalls.

We bought a coconut for $5 while we were waiting around for the rest of the group to arrive, and then they trotted off to get fitted for their harnesses and things. I got to sit in the shade with some little birds and a pleasant breeze, and they said in about an hour and a half I could watch them come down the last wire just behind the check-in area.

Helen, at 51 inches and 51 lbs, was just 11 lbs over the minimum weight for this, and during the first long zip line she stalled out and an instructor had to come rescue her. After that sometimes she and the other “pumpkinhead” (little girl in an orange helmet, whereas everyone over 90 lbs had blue helmets) would ride tandem with an instructor and sometimes just get an extra big push and go on their own. They had a great time and all went upside down at different points, and meanwhile I finished a book and a novella and then got to watch them on the ninth and final zip line.

All of that took a little longer than we had expected, though, so we were running late for our next thing—a vanilla bean lunch and farm tour at the Hawaiian Vanilla Company, about half an hour up the coast past Hilo.

We got there just when everyone else on the tour had started their main courses, but the staff quickly served us drinks (vanilla lemonade, vanilla iced tea, or a combination) and brought us both the appetizers (little crostini with vanilla-poached shrimp on pineapple vanilla chutney) and the main courses (grilled chicken sandwiches, with the chicken marinated in a vanilla lemon pepper marinade, and caramelized onions on a vanilla brioche roll, with vanilla southwest-seasoned home fries and a mixed salad with a vanilla maple dressing, goat cheese, and candied vanilla pepper pecans). Then everyone walked down to one of the shade houses with the guide, a guy who left the corporate world behind three months ago and became a tour guide here because he is passionate about the potential for a new ag economy for Hawaii, in general, and about vanilla, in specific. (He also said he was sick of two decades of business management and compliance issues, and just wanted to spend more time with his kids, so his family now lives in a cottage across from the main vanilla building—the kids waved to us as we walked down to the shade house—and his wife experiments with lots of vanilla in different dishes.) He talked a lot about the growth and maturity of the plants; about the problem of hand pollination given the extinction, due to Spanish and French clear-cutting of vanilla bean vines in the colonial era, of the plant’s natural pollinator; and about the different methods of curing the beans. He also discussed the history of the company, their role in the Hawaiian local food movement, and their new effort, positioning themselves as a curing coop for all small-scale vanilla bean growers anywhere in the state, committing to buying their beans at top of the market prices in the hopes of getting up to 40 acres of cultivated vanilla beans on the island (from 5 now). Then he gave vanilla cooking tips and talked about ways of getting an extract to release more flavor in a recipe, and about the differences in vanilla extracts made with whiskey (best for savory dishes), rum (best for baking), and vodka (Kirkland basic vodka is, he says, the best all-purpose choice). When we walked back up to the building again, we all had vanilla ice cream and some of their vanilla coffee (or more iced tea and lemonade) and I bought some of their vanilla beans to take home, and also some of their candies vanilla pepper pecans as a gift for Sarah and Sean. All the kids enjoyed it, and we asked the guide more questions after the tour.

From there, it was a whirlwind rush back down into Hilo town, hurrying to Two Ladies Kitchen before they closed at 4:00 for some gorgeous and pillowy fresh mochi. Robert and I had been to that place before, and it and one place (sadly now closed) in San Francisco have been the mochi of my dreams for decades. I picked out a box of traditional and contemporary alike—Oreo, lilikoi, marshmallow, chi chi, butter mochi, Okinawan sweet potato red bean, and brownie—and we all demolished them in the car on the ten-minute drive to the nearby Onekahakaha beach.

This was my kind of beach—totally unpretentious, no actual sandy “beach” but a big swimming area behind a very solid breakwater. The girls happily used the boogie boards from the cabin, and Robert swam out with them for about 45 minutes while Marcus and I sat on the sea wall and read. Robert agreed that it was really nice water and an enjoyable beach experience, and Helen seemed blissfully happy.

From the beach we went to Jackie Rey’s for a nice meal—we shared a rosemary garlic bread appetizer and a puppy platter that had sweet chili edamame, fantastic, falling off the bone baby back ribs, an umami-rich kalua pig spring roll with a dipping sauce, and a cup of ahi poke. For dinner the girls had kids’ pastas that were essentially plain, just butter and cheese, while Marcus had the Panko-crusted mahi mahi on rice with mango chutney, Robert had a chunky pork chop with caramelized onions, and I had a seafood trio, with two fat spice-rubbed grilled shrimp (which Samantha ate), a small portion of grilled mahi mahi (which Marcus ate), and a tasty crab cake, all on mashed Okinawan sweet potatoes with a trio of sauces swirled on the plate. For dessert we shared a coconut creme brûlée and a brownie roulade with ice cream and mint chocolate sauce, and then it was a half-hour drive back to our cabin in the rainforest for the final night. It was a really nice meal—not quite white-tablecloth fine dining, but upscale, and we had some good conversations.

Back at the cabin, Marcus and Robert spent twenty minutes working on the coconut we had gotten earlier that day, only to determine that it had basically no meat in it (Marcus’s favorite part), but never fear, they still managed to get coconut all over the floor, counters, and sink. We promised to try to get more coconuts back on Oahu the next day.

We knew that our last morning in the cabin would be an early one, but we didn’t know it would be such an exciting one. We had a 9:00 flight back to Oahu, and we were meeting the Turo Jeep owner at a gas station near the airport at 7:30 for Robert to fill up the tank and for her to drive us into the airport (she was very insistent that “they” wouldn’t allow car-swapping in the airport), and we wanted to go back to Kawamoto Store (which helpfully opens at 6:00) for some goodies first, and it was a 40 minute drive from the cabin. Our plan therefore was to get up at 5:45 and hustle and leave at 6:15 or 6:20. Around 4:00, I got up to go to the bathroom—an aggravating side effect of my efforts to stave off dehydration headaches—and could have sworn I heard growling coming from the storage/crawl space area under our cabin. I dismissed it, though, because I always imagine bears and wolves when camping, yet I realized intellectually those were not possible here. I’d been so good about the wildlife here, too—the odd birds, the extremely loud and cheerful frogs, the chubby squawking geese, the omnipresent chickens and roosters, and even the slug on the toilet seat in the middle of another night. Yes, the growling gave me pause, but I pushed down those worries, walked to the bathroom shack, and walked back. No sooner had I taken off my shoes and turned off the flashlight on my phone when I heard definite growls, louder now, and squeals and shrieks and maybe roars, and the sounds of animals scuffling in the brush outside. Panicked, I checked on the girls and then ran over to Robert. “Robert!” I hissed. “Yes?” he said, calm even while the animal(s) kept up their shrieks and growls. “Do you hear that?” “Yes,” he said, still calm. “What is it?” I panic-whispered. “A wild pig,” he said, STILL calm. “A WILD PIG?” I was stunned. My imagination hadn’t gone there. I ran back to check on the girls again, checked that the doors were fully closed, mentally cursed all the screens (I had already noted that they’d be useless in case of zombie attacks—or, apparently, wild pigs) and then climbed into bed and willed myself instantly to sleep so I wouldn’t have to hear the terrifying growls any longer.

That worked great until Samantha woke up at 5:00 and said she needed to go to the bathroom and would I walk with her. All good. Everything was quiet outside. We put on shoes, went to the door, and started down the few steps on the side of the cabin, and I heard another distinct growl. I froze. “It’s nothing, just a wild pig, we’ll be fine,” I said, and took another few steps. The growl came again, louder, accompanied by rustling, and I turned and ran back up the steps, pushing Samantha ahead of me into the cabin and firmly latching the door behind us. “Robert!” I called, “we need help! The pig is between us and the bathroom! You have to come with us!” Chaos erupted. Robert started googling “what to do in wild pig attacks”; Marcus, now also awake, said he had to go to the bathroom too, even while I begged him to stay in the cabin with Helen, who was still asleep; and Samantha protested that Robert, with his injured leg and perpetual limp from surfing, was not going to be of help fighting off pigs. Finally Marcus and I made the first trip out, definitely hearing growls. I said I thought, on further reflection, that the pigs were like the kind of bear you were supposed to be loud and cheerful and just make clear that you’re not sneaking up on them and things would be fine. Marcus was skeptical: “Have you SEEN the damage they do to the ground?” he asked, which of course I had—the giant furrows we’d seen around the cacao trees, and more, were vivid in my mind—and sprinted back to the cabin when he was done. By then Helen was up too, so she and Samantha came back out with me, and Robert grabbed a broom, menacingly, while advising us that the internet said to “stay away from piglets.” We made another uneventful trip, and then I decided we were all up for the day and might as well get dressed, load up the car, and head out.

We drove into Hilo through the lava fields one last time, while my adrenaline subsided (no, I didn’t lose any of my children to wild pigs; yes, I was thrilled this happened our final night instead of our first night) making up our Kawamoto order in the car: 10 spam musubi, 3 Korean wings, 2 hot dogs, 2 plain onigiri, 4 tempura batter mahi mahi, 4 tempura batter ono, 1 whole fish cake, 1 portion of long rice (which is not rice), 3 pieces of nori chicken, and 3 slices of pork.

From Kawamoto we drove just two minutes to Popovers, getting a huge fresh popover with lilikoi butter, as well as some coconut lilikoi donuts and some ube donuts. The donuts were pillowy and squishy, just like Dunkin with tropical frostings, and we nibbled in the car as we drove another two minutes to the gas station to turn in the car. We cleared security in about 30 seconds flat, with the guy telling Samantha “nah, you don’t have to bother doing that!” as she went to remove the Kindle and iPad from her bag. After admiring the nice bathrooms (now our third-favorite airport bathrooms ever, after Tokyo and Reykjevik), we sat happily on a couch and ate our breakfast.

When we landed in Honolulu, we picked up our rental car (a Honda CR-V, which felt luxuriously spacious after the three days with the Jeep) and tried to get shave ice at Baldwin’s Sweet Shop, but they had funny holiday hours. Instead I grabbed a whole coconut loaf (Marcus’s pick), a hot dog bao, a Dan tot, and a roast pork bao (different from Boston cha siu bao) from a Chinese bakery in the same shopping center and we drove up to the Dole Pineapple Plantation. That is something that is touristy, at best, as well as problematic in its erasure of native Hawaiian costs (both culturally and in terms of human labor) in the pineapple industry. But we all had Dole Whips—cones or floats—and then went into the maze, which at two separate points had the Guinness world record for largest maze. Eventually Robert, Marcus, and Helen finished the maze while Samantha and I relaxed in the shade.

While we sat, she counted and watched the cats running around the place while I read some history of James Drummond Dole, the “Pineapple King” himself. I didn’t know he was born in Jamaica Plain (our neighborhood) and grew up just three blocks away from us, or that his father was the pastor, for 40 years, at the church near the library where Helen does the hippie arts camp. I also didn’t know he was a cousin of the guy who helped depose the last Hawaiian queen, and who then was “president” and then governor of Hawaii. Apparently his father the pastor was a lovely progressive, even considered a radical at the time for his views on equalty for Blacks and women, and the end of imperialism. Pineapple King guy himself, not so much!

So that was all interesting, and then we headed toward the north shore. That had gotten soooooo much more crowded, touristy, and commercialized since Robert and I were last here almost 20 years ago! Wow.

We spent an unpleasant hour crawling in traffic and finally did get shaved ice from Aoki’s ($6, no line, just as amazing at Matsumoto across the street with a 20 minutes wait) and spicy garlic shrimp from Jenny’s Shrimp Truck (no wait, vs. the huge mobscene at Giovanni’s a block away), and then we drove to a Foodland nearby and loaded up on chi chi dango mochi (a big box for $6.99–not as good as the freshly made Hilo one, but pretty darn good and fresh), beef jerky, cereal, potato chips, bananas, li hing mui gummies, ube shortbread, poppers for New Year’s Eve, furikake shrimp chips, bottled water, and poke, both classic salmon and tuna. We took it basically right across the highway to Shark’s Cove Beach, where we sat on a rock on the grassy area and ate, and then Robert, Helen, and Marcus spent almost an hour exploring the tide pools and watching giant waves.

From there we drove to our AirBnB apartment in Hauula, over on the northeastern part of the island. We made another stop or two at beaches just to look at waves, and we also stopped at another tiny grocery store near our rental, just to grab milk for cereal. The host met us and was very friendly, and we moved all our stuff in and got comfortable.

Robert and I took a sunset walk on the beach, which was almost literally out the front door of the house, and then we went just across the street to North Shore Tacos where we had a surprisingly excellent shrimp burrito covered in green sauce, a humongous vat of horchata, some forgettable fish tacos, and—most excitingly of all to Helen especially, who was glued to the screen and provided constant narration—surfing competitions on a big TV: “ooh, I liked that one—they way he dipped into the wave and went around and then under [she demonstrates with her hand]. And did you see the way she squatted down so much? That was a lot more than just a regular squat, mommy, it was like…[gets up and assumes surfing position and demonstrates] and her hand almost touched the board but she stayed on!” Constantly. Adorably.

Back at the Airbnb, we made cocoa and watched the next episode of the Percy Jackson series together before bed, and the next morning had coffee, tea, cocoa, cereal, and bananas. I took Helen to the beach, and we admired a family of chickens out in the street, and then she gleefully threw poppers in the street while we all packed the car for the day. The picture below left was taken while standing in the driveway of the AirBnB, looking to the right--that path in between the two houses was only about 40' long and ended on the sand, so you can see the beach was really close.

We drove about an hour down the coast, stopping briefly at a Leonard’s for half a dozen malasadas, and then going to the Hawaii Sea Life Center for the 11:00 a.m. dolphin “encounter” (not an experience).

Everyone had to remove all metal, including stud earrings and tiny necklaces, and Robert had to take all of his bandaids off (he had a lot, from the coral scrapes on his feet still). Helen and I stayed in the shallow water, on a platform, while Robert and the big kids went into the deeper water to actually swim with the dolphins and hug them. We all learned different cues from the trainers, got to feed the animals, pet their bellies and their backs, and even “dance” with two dolphins (a grandma dolphin Laka, named after the goddess of hula, who was 52, and her daughter Nonni who’s 38) plus a single wholphin—part killer whale, part dolphin. Helen was over the moon, and Marcus and Samantha also thought it was a really neat experience.

The place was set up a lot like Mystic Aquarium, and afterward, we also wandered around the grounds and looked at monk seals, sea lions, sharks, some sleeping penguins, and honu (sea turtles), and we touched sea urchins and fed some little birds. Robert and Helen were clearly the most appealing to the birds.

Then we headed out, back around the southern part of the island toward Honolulu, stopping at scenic overlooks and Japanese fishermen memorials along the way.

After stopping at a 7-11 for a frozen strawberry lemonade, a salmon temaki, ube bao, and some spam musubi, we continued on to the Ala Moana mall. At their food court we got a plate of Japanese curry with veggie croquettes, stewed chicken, and takoyaki balls on rice; some Filipino Jollibee fried chicken with gravy and a side of their ketchupy spaghetti with hot dogs; a papaya bowl with granola, coconut, goji, blueberries, bananas, and peanut butter (perfect, in my opinion, if you avoided the blueberries); and a basic ramen and fish cakes from a different Japanese place for Samantha.

Elsewhere in the mall we went into a Japanese supermarket and got some cookies and chips for the plane ride home, plus a beautiful package of negi toro maki and a box of fresh ikura. The girls also really appreciated all the baby dragon imagery around for celebrating the new year. Upstairs, we browsed through a hallmark store that had a massive discounted “Japanese Christmas” section with special Japanese dolls, and then went into another ABC store for a last couple gifts to bring home for friends and family. Samantha also used $10 of her birthday money to buy an adorable stuffed penguin, and we got Helen a little stuffed spam musubi as her souvenir. We sat on a bench in the mall and ate our sushi, and the ikura (all three kids love it, and basically just shovel it in—on chopsticks, of course), and then watched the mall’s 5:00 hula show, with both male and female dancers and two singers.

Helen fell in love with the idea of a shave ice from a specific stand in the mall, so we got one there, but then Samantha really wanted to go back to Ululani’s, where we’d been our first day here, and Robert and I had fond memories of Waiola Shave Ice from way back, so we went to all three of them in a somewhat insane, but definitely delicious, series of stops. Waiola was still my top choice, but Ululani’s had ice that was almost as pillowy and syrups that were almost as delicious. Waiola is little and dim and old-school, though—I got there just after they’d closed the window for the day, and asked hopefully if maybe I could get a shave ice. The man grumpily asked what kind, and I said small, half lilikoi half li hing mui, and he grunted a sort of “yes” and barked “pay cash!” Ululani’s is bright and cheerful and has cute paintings on the walls, and is in a different century (they also happen to have signs saying they are a cash-free business).

Marcus found all the shave ices tasty, but not quite filling enough to count as an actual meal, so we went to Honolulu Burger Co for what I’d read would be excellent burgers, on cushiony purple taro buns. We also liked their truffle fries and their crispy seasoned Brussels sprouts. From there, it was a 45-minute drive back to our AirBnB. Helen was asleep in the car, but I packed us up—it was our last night in Hawaii!—and we watched “Whiplash” with Marcus before bed. Marcus declared our apartment "the nicest AirBnB we've ever stayed in anywhere," and everyone else seemed to agree--including Helen, who found squishmallows on her bed.

On New Year’s Eve, our last day in Hawaii, we got up at 6:00 and packed up to leave the AirBnB. We had the last of the cereal, bananas, and cocoa in the morning, and drove to Kualoa Ranch, where they filmed “Jurassic Park” and other movies and TV shows. We saw the sun rising off the eastern coast of Oahu on the way and ate the very last of yesterday’s malasadas in the car.

We were the fourth in a seven-car caravan of Kawasaki “raptor” UTVs, each driven by a separate family except the first, which was driven by a guide, and another guide followed behind us.

For almost two hours we drove through different parts of the valley, stopping three times to learn a little about the history of the mountains (their names and their legends, and the cultural significance of the 800-year old fish ponds built there), the WWII bunkers built into them, and the different movies filmed there. Samantha was particularly intrigued by the leftover movie set pieces, including fake bunkers and fake logs, and she seemed to be seriously contemplating a career in theater or movie set/prop design.

Robert had fun driving the vehicle, across cattle gates and rutted dirt roads and even a stream, and everyone thought it was a cool way to see a beautiful part of the island.

This quick little video shows a highlight from Friday (birds on Helen's hat/hand) and also Saturday (fording a steam in Jurassic Valley):

As we drove down the road we ran into a huli-huli chicken place by the side of the road, so we had to go in and get a box of chicken and a mango smoothie. Then we went to the Times Coffee Shop just 15 minutes down the road for a late breakfast—the girls split some chocolate chip pancakes, I had spam (which Samantha cheerfully devoured) and eggs on an excellent fried rice, Marcus had grilled mahi mahi with eggs and rice, and Robert had a very good corned beef hash patty loco moco. From there we went into Kailua town and found a spot at the parking lot near the beach there.

Marcus had an e-foil lesson at 1:30, and the girls were super happy playing on the sand and in the water before and during it. Robert and I went down the beach a little to watch Marcus, who had a life jacket and a helmet and a headset and radio transmitter so the instructor on land could keep eyes on him and communicate with him.

Marcus said it was interestingly different from surfing, and he was glad he tried it but thinks he likes surfing more. I think having that lesson first made this easier though.

When he was done, they all spent more time enjoying the soft sand and the not too choppy water—it was a lovely beach afternoon that ended up being more than four hours there. Robert and I had loved this beach when we were in Hawaii almost 20 years ago, and it didn’t disappoint again–possible to get free parking (not easy, but doable in the lot if you’re patient), cleaner-than-average beach bathrooms, perfectly soft sand, not too rough surf…everyone was happy.

From the beach, we drove back into Honolulu to the Ala Moana Mall one more time, where we had all-you-can-eat Japanese hotpot at Shabuya: there was a lovely assortment of fish fillets, fresh crabs, fish balls, noodles, and veggies at the buffet, plus eight different meats to order to cook at the table, and the tonkotsu broth was excellent. The only disappointing aspect of the meal was that they measured Helen and since she was over 50 inches tall (and standing up proudly, despite Robert and Samantha trying to urge her to slouch just a tad) we had to pay full price for her. The injustice!

We made a final stop at the Foodland in the mall (more ube cookies to bring home for friends, and more spam musubi for the kids to eat on the plane) and then gassed up the car. From the gas station it was a short drive to the airport, and then we had smooth flights home–five hours to Los Angeles, where we arrived around 6:30 in the morning local time, and then just over five hours to Boston (or three movies if you fast forward a bit in one of them--for Samantha, it was the first three Hunger Games movies; for Helen, three Disney movies; for Robert and me, a new Poirot, a new Indiana Jones, and the surprisingly delightful "Violent Night"), where we arrived around 4:00 Boston time. But the gas station itself turned into an exciting stop, with New Year’s Eve fireworks going off in 3-4 different directions at a time, even though it was only around 8:20 at night. The kids tumbled out of the car and watched from the sidewalk, pointing at different parts of the sky, for an off-beat but excellent grand finale of the trip.

When we asked the kids, afterwards, what their highlights were, dolphins, spam, the final beach day, and the vanilla tour rose to the top of the list. I put the wild pig scare near the top of mine, just for the novelty of it (and after all, it had a happy ending), and the Jurassic Park excursion was also mentioned a couple times. Meanwhile, Robert put his Waikiki head injury and his surfing lesson leg and foot injuries at the bottom of his list, and Marcus put the poopy tree at the bottom of his. Solidly not at the very bottom: the Lincoln statue. Obviously.


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Created: 1/4/24. Last Modified: 1/4/24.