Waipi’o Valley overlook.

Today, we are taking a day trip to the Waipi’o Valley. I spent some time researching the hike before coming to Hawaii and read several blog posts saying it’s beautiful and interesting and strenuous, and there’s a great restaurant nearby in Honokaa. I’m sufficiently convinced to go–but no one actually says how to get there, how you’ll know when you’re there, or how to find the trail. I make a mental note to blog about the Waipi’o Valley day trip later and actually include directions–assuming we ever find it today.

I’m not the only one who’s frustrated. My parents return from a sales pitch for condo ownership looking like they could use a vacation.

They begrudgingly agreed to the meeting when we arrived in order to receive a discount card for activities like our snorkel trip and luau, which would save at least $100. They already own a time share, though–the first woman ever to pitch them in Myrtle Beach 20 years ago made a sale, my siblings and I enjoyed beach vacations every year until we left for college, and my parents occasionally trade in their week at the Myrtle Beach property to go to other resorts the company owns in more exotic locations, like Hawaii. My parents have been pitched at these properties so many times since–and passed on the deals as many times–that they could probably pitch themselves (and would definitely enjoy it more).

This has been the worst pitch, ever.

At first, the sales manager was just boring. A little green gecko crawled on the table in front of my parents, and my nature-loving mom–the best listener with her family and friends, maybe not the best fake-listener with strangers if there are little wide-eyed animals around–started feeding the gecko water from her dixie cup. Meanwhile, my well-intentioned dad–genuinely enthusiastic about almost everything and capable of nearly undetectable “bullshitting” if he cannot summon authentic excitement–had implored the sales manager to stay on schedule so they could leave on time for, well, something, and when the sales manager went long, he let her know with a gesture we, his children, have seen him do a thousand times in the privacy of our own home, typically before church: a gentle tapping on the wristwatch. At this, the sales manager erupted, coming in at a 6.3 on the Richter scale. And my sister and I do, too, in laughter, hearing about it. It’s like my parents ventured into the dark jungle and retrieved the golden discount card from the angry volcano gods, with the help of a friendly gecko and a trusty sun dial.

And so today’s adventure begins! My parents have survived an aggressive sales pitch, and we’re going to go hiking but have almost no idea where we’re going. Our family likes adventures, though. Mention bird-watching to any of us, and we’ll tell you about the original Hawaiian vacation adventure of a lifetime.

Our lunch stop.

From Kona, we take highway 19 north and then east through Waimea to Honokaa. (Highway 19 takes you all around the northern half of the island.) When we get to Honokaa in the northeast of the island, we stop at the corner of 19 and Pakalana Street for lunch. The blogs about Waipi’o were adamant about this, if nothing else, so we know we’re close.

Tex Drive In opened in 1969, and it’s best known for its moist, doughy, warm malasadas, Portuguese donuts, covered in granulated sugar and filled with sweet fruit compotes. True to its name, there is a drive-through window, though you can also order from a window inside the little building.

My mom showcases our mango malasada.

After tasting mango (everyone else’s favorite) and Bavarian cream (mine) donuts, I order a traditional Hawaiian fast food dish called “loco moco.” It normally consists of a hamburger patty over white rice, topped with a fried egg and brown gravy, but I opt for teriyaki beef instead of the hamburger for an extra $.75, bringing the whole lunch to a total of $6.50. It might be the most amount of food for the least amount of money in the whole state. I finish everything. It’s just so good. And, I think, when will I ever get to eat that again? (Truth be told, I’ll try to recreate it my first morning back in LA.)

Loco moco, which loosely means crazy snot, but I swear it’s not. Get it?!

Well fueled, we continue downhill on Pakalana street then turn left, west, onto highway 240, Waipi’o Road. It’s very residential. It almost seems like we’ve taken a wrong turn, but the name “Waipi’o Road” makes us think we might have the right idea. Once we see a lot of parked cars, we know we’re where we should be, and we take the first available space. I stop to cover myself in bug spray, applying so much as to warrant asking my dad about potentially poisoning my skin, but he rolls his eyes and presses on ahead with the others, as he should, toward the outlook at the end of the road.

Soon, we’re looking out over a magnificent vista. Below us in the valley to the left, lush wildlife, and a few small houses on untamed plots. Below to the right, north, a black sand beach and miles and miles of ocean. Straight ahead, west across the valley, tall cliffs, which, from a distance, look like they’re covered in moss. To our left, south, a narrow road, winding downhill.

It would be easy to take pictures from the Waipi’o Valley overlook and feel satisfied and leave, because you’d never even know what you’ve missed. But we’re pretty sure that would be a mistake.

View from the top.

The descent is steep and long, which means that the ascent is even steeper and longer. But it’s not unreasonable, with water, good shoes, and breaks to take pictures. Four-wheel-drive vehicles are allowed on the road, but few risk it during our hike–just a couple of big old trucks with tan, wizened drivers who probably live in the valley; some families in SUVs too old to be rental cars; and a tour van, with a sympathetic driver. Even some surfers walk, with their surf boards, which makes them look really cool and hardcore.

You can’t say they don’t warn you.

It’s overcast, which is not unusual for the Hilo side of the Big Island, and we hope it doesn’t rain. Even if it does, though–adventure. The air just feels really good. It takes almost half an hour to get down, but the walk has been beautiful.

The road ends at the bottom of the hill (or more accurately, cliff), and you will have the choice of going left, further inland to the south, deeper into the valley, or right, toward the ocean to the north. We decide to go left first.

The land here is privately owned, and it’s clear that the owners want privacy. What few homes we come across are hard to see through the lush, overgrown plant life, and some have signs posted that let us know we’re being warmly welcomed to keep our distance. Supposedly, these are mostly taro farms, and the owners do without indoor plumbing, cell phone coverage, and cable TV. In a way, how freeing, but in another way, how restrictive. Also, how do they take care of the whole bathroom thing?

A well-hidden home in the Waipi’o Valley.

We soon come across a tall and majestic waterfall, and then another, and we’re not sure which one is Hawaii’s tallest but one of them definitely is, and we take a million pictures that will only serve to shrink them. After a half mile or so since leaving the trailhead, the road seems to come to an end just ahead of us, so we turn back. Strangely, in spite of seeing a number of other people hiking down the road with us, we’re mostly alone in the valley.

We round a bend we passed just minutes before and are greeted by a beautiful brown foal. A wild horse! She approaches us, and we calmly admire her and talk soothingly to her and take pictures of her. A few minutes pass before I notice her mother standing nearby, camouflaged in tall grasses with another young horse, eating and watching, probably thinking, “Have you people seriously never seen a horse before?” 

Wild pony.

We pass the trailhead at the bottom of the mountain road and walk toward the beach. The sky is starting to get darker, but still, the only sign of rain is in huge muddy puddles we circumnavigate with balance-beam arms or ambitious leaps.

We come to a clearing, and there’s the black sand beach. No one else is around. It’s spectacular. Strong winds emphasize the moment, whipping around between the cliffs to the east and west. The sand is coarser than at most beaches I’ve visited, and it’s covered with thousands of large volcanic rocks softened by wind and water. I take a lot of pictures, but I also try to stop and take in the moment. Even as I do, I think to myself, I have to see this again in my life.

Black sand beach.

The sky darkens more, and we know it’s time to leave. My mom and I walk together behind my sister and my dad, and she points out to me trees and flowers I never would have noticed otherwise. I know it’s going to be a fond memory.

The 900 foot ascent is uneventful. I walk for exercise at home, and only sometimes on hills, and, while I find the ascent challenging, it goes by quickly. When I get to the top, I guess that it’s taken almost half the time it really has.

Halfway to the top.

Fit for any age but admirably muscular at her age, my mom gets to the top first, and I am only not far behind because I’ve begged her to wait up a few times. She goes into the washroom at the overlook, and I go to higher ground where all the cars are parked to wait. I see her leave the washroom, and she’s clearly found a woman’s hat, and she’s trying to prop it in such a way outside the door that it would be easy to see from the road. She tries so hard to make sure this hat can be found, and it’s so windy, and she just doesn’t give up. It will soon blow off its perch, and it breaks my heart when it does, because I so appreciate her goodness, and I want the hat owner to know how much a stranger–my mom–cares.

When we’re all together at the top, we agree–the hike was so worthwhile.

I love to drive, and I especially love to drive big SUVs, so my dad generously allows me to drive us home to Kona. Soon after we leave Honokaa, the highway is enshrouded in thick fog, and in Waimea, the sky finally gives in to itself. We stop for gas, and I run from the car to the gas station to avoid getting rained on, then from the gas station to the car with beef jerky and root beer in each hand to avoid getting rained on again, and it occurs to me that perhaps I shouldn’t mind getting caught in a little tropical rainstorm.

We return to Lemongrass for a second consecutive night. It’s true! I’m very nervous about straying from my beloved dish, so I order a green curry stir-fry, this one without coconut milk but with the same perfectly cooked salmon, and tons of salty, soft bamboo shoots and shredded carrots. It’s wonderful. Again. My dad orders the salmon mango curry Thai hot, and while I’m grateful for a taste, it burns! My mom and sister order wonderful pho and short rib dishes with rich, aromatic broths. We have the coconut sake again. I’m wistful, finishing the salmon, and then the sake.

Green papaya salad and salmon curry at Lemongrass Bistro.