Angela and I recently visited Hawaii (the big island) for our two year anniversary. In whole, it was an awesome vacation – it certainly didn’t start that way though. We were scheduled to leave Las Vegas at 12:40 AM (in the wee morning hours) but due to a series of maintenance delays, we didn’t end up taking off until a little past 3. The plane was small and cramped (it was a 767, I believe) and there wasn’t room for our carry on bag so we had to gate check it. Neither one of us could really sleep on the way over the ocean, so when we got to Honolulu to switch to our interisland flight we were already really tired. After going to get our bag from the checked luggage area (because the flight attendant who “helped” us didn’t even ask if we were making a transfer when he took our gate checked bag) we ventured over to the interisland terminal and made our way to the big island via the shortest plane ride I’ve ever been on. From there, the next seven days were awesome.
Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation
After securing our rental car (a silver Ford Mustang convertible), we set off to the Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation. Angela had scheduled us a VIP tour that included a tour of the plantation, an overview of the roasting operation and a chance for us to roast our own Kona coffee beans. The experience was amazing.
We met our guide shortly after arriving at the coffee plantation. He was a young-ish native Hawaiian who knew a ton about the local flora and fauna in addition to the goings on of the coffee plantation itself. The plantation itself was very unassuming.
The first thing we did was walk right past a goose who had just given birth to a bunch of goslings. That was probably the most aggressive animal I’ve ever encountered in my life. Any time we got within a dozen feet of the newborn goslings cage, the goose would start stamping its feet and hissing at us.
After that, we were introduced to the plantation’s resident pig. It was a half-feral, half-domesticated hybrid and was a lot friendlier than the goose.
As we walked down towards the coffee trees, we encountered some interesting landscape features that are unique to volcanic regions. The coolest one, in my opinion, was definitely the lava tube that run under a part of the plantation. Our guide was kind enough to take our picture while we stood on top of it.
Finally, we got to the coffee trees. Because Mountain Thunder is primarily an organic grower, they don’t use pesticides, herbicides or fertilizer on their main coffee plantation. To make up for the absence of those things, they have donkeys and geese roam the area, eating the unwanted vegetation and promoting the growth of the plants through their droppings. As part of our tour, we got to feed these animals. The donkeys were miniature and super duper cute. The geese were really aggressive, going so far as to step on Angela’s foot (which was an especially interesting experience for her since she was wearing open sandals). Make sure you check the additional bookings to get the right tour guides.
After the feed ran out, we learned a bit about how the coffee is harvested at Mountain Thunder. All of their coffee cherries are hand picked from the trees at the peak of their ripeness and collected into big bags of 100 pounds each. It is fairly labor-intensive and this process accounts for a lot of the extra cost of Mountain Thunder’s coffee.
The coffee tree is part of the gardenia family and has tiny little flowers all over it, which Angela found particularly fascinating.
We next ventured up to the coffee cherry processing facilities. The process has a bunch of steps, but Angela got good pictures of all of them. Basically what happens is as follows:
- The coffee cherry is checked for quality by seeing if it floats in a tank of water
- The cherry is stripped of its rind and fruit, leaving just the bean
- The bean is placed into a fermentation tank to remove it of its sugary coating
- The bean is removed from the fermentation tank and laid out to air dry in the sun
- If drying isn’t happening fast enough, the bean is placed with its batch in a large propane powered drier
- The beans are sorted and filtered based on quality and grade
- The coffee is roasted
The coolest part of the process (in my mind) was the sorting and filtering based on bean size and grade. The owner of the plantation had custom-built a ton of equipment to aid in this process and it was totally awesome. Here are some pics of the process (in order):
After the main part of the tour was over we ate some lunch that the coffee people procured for us from some local restaurant. It was fairly good, but I only mention it in particular because Angela got an awesome picture of a rooster next to Sriracha (rooster) sauce.
Finally, it was time for us to roast our own coffee. The owner of the plantation came over and walked us through the process on a small personal-sized roaster. We got the whole education about their roasting profile, why it is what it is and got to make it happen. It was a ton of fun. After we roasted the coffee, we got to bag it (which Angela was about a million times better at than I was) and take some home with us.
Overall, the Mountain Thunder VIP tour was well worth the cost. Angela and I both had a blast!
Hawaii Fairmont Orchid
After finishing up the coffee plantation tour, Angela and I finally made our way to the hotel. For this trip, we decided to stay at the Hawaii Fairmont Orchid. It was on the higher end of resorts on the island but wasn’t so expensive that it made our stay untenable. I am so glad that we decided to stay there as it was beautiful.
We were so tired that first night that we just ordered room service. It was definitely underwhelming and something we did not partake of the rest of the time there. That was probably the only bad thing about the hotel, though.
Drive Around the Island
After a day of relaxing, we set our alarms and woke up early for a tour of the island. We hopped in our car and headed to our first destination, the Punalu’u Black Sand beach. Before we had even gone five miles, we found this tribute to Angela written in rocks.
Followed by this exceedingly creepy warning sign.
Anyways, back to the black sand beach. Angela found this little gem while browsing around for “off the beaten path” spots that tourists weren’t likely to see. It was, by far, the coolest little beach that I’ve ever been on. The sand grains were like little black beads. Walking across the beach just felt different than on any other beach I’d ever visited.
One interesting thing that happened there was some hippy tried to give me a CD of cello music. I declined but he handed me some pamphlet prompting me to accept Jesus. Nice guy.
The next step on our journey was Volcanoes National Park. As we drove there, we discovered one of the neatest things about this drive, which kind of goes along with the fact that the island is a volcano, is that the landscape outside of our windows changed completely about every half hour. It was crazy.
We arrived at the park the same time as a cold and windy storm, which was unfortunate. Crater Rim Drive (the road that circles the Kilauea Caldera) was closed for the most part, so we didn’t really get to see a ton. We did stop at the caldera look out point and saw a bunch of steam rising from the opening to the red-hot earth. That was pretty darn neat.
We left the park and continued our trip around the island. Our next stop was Akaka Falls north of Hilo. It was still cold and rainy and I was kind of being a whiny little baby about it, so we waited in the car for a few minutes for the worst of the rain to pass so I wouldn’t be cold. Angela was smart enough to purchase a hooded sweatshirt at our previous stop but I had been stubborn so was just wearing a white t-shirt.
I am glad we waited, though, because the scenery at the falls was absolutely beautiful.
Here’s a cool picture of me in our rental car at the falls.
After the falls we were pretty darn tired so decided to head back to the hotel across the island. On the way there, we stopped at this little coffee shop called Hilo Shark where Angela and I had the best chocolate we have ever eaten (and I’ve eaten a lot of chocolate). If you like your chocolate super dark and delicious, I can definitely recommend ordering some.
We drove towards the north part of the island and ended up going through the town of Waimea and up into some mountains where we saw an awesome double rainbow.
Finally, we made it back to the hotel. Rather than eating at the hotel, we ventured out to the local Tommy Bahama’s restaurant. It was surprisingly delicious. I had steak and Angela had ahi tuna. We ended up going back there several times.
Macadamia Nut Factory and End of the World
The next day it was a little rainy and wet. Instead of sitting by the pool and dealing with that, we decided to go visit the local Hamakua Macadamia Nut Company. They have a little glass walled production environment where you can watch everything happen and they have a ton of samples that you can try. There were a lot of different flavors, including one that Angela and I wanted no part of: Spam.
After we left the factory, we decided to take a short little drive to see some different parts of the island. What started out as a short little drive turned into a several hour long venture down a “highway” that consisted of about ten one-lane bridges, crazy twisty turns around cliffs and speed limits of 15 MPH. All of a sudden, there is a sign that says “highway ends” and the road just terminates in a parking lot that looks over one of the most beautiful sights we’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, the parking lot was full and we didn’t get a chance to stop (and I had to do the tightest three point turn I’ve ever done) but here is a photo taken by someone else. This place seriously looked like something out of time.
After turning around, we went back to Waimea and had some Kona coffee mochas before heading back to the hotel. That night we ate at one of the Fairmont Orchid’s on site restaurants, Brown’s Beach House. It was definitely overrated as the food was absurdly expensive and, quite frankly, just mediocre. We still don’t understand why Yelp was all up in arms about how great the place was.
The last few days at the resort we just relaxed. One of the things we did while we were relaxing was drive four miles over to the sister resort near the Fairmont Orchid, the Mauna Lani, and hung out there for a little bit. It was nice and there were sea turtles there, so Angela really liked it. We also found that Mountain Thunder had an affiliated coffee shop at the resort.
Also, we went to a Luau at the hotel called “The Gathering of Kings”. It was the story of the migration of people through the Polynesian islands (including Hawaii, Samoa and New Zealand). There was fire twirling and tons of native foods from each of the islands profiled. Angela and I tried a bunch of new foods including a Hawaiian favorite Poi. I would not recommend it as it tasted like eating Play-Doh.
Finally, this was the first time I had gone on vacation without doing any kind of work in about four years, so it was really awesome to be able to just lay by the pool, read and drink milkshakes.
The Journey Back
Our flight back was a lot better than our flight to Hawaii as we flew on an Airbus A330 with tons of room. There was no gate-checking involved and our flight left on time. After we got back, I took some more time off to hang out with Angela and just celebrate our anniversary. We both loved our trip to Hawaii and are already looking forward to our next trip to somewhere tropical.