By Assunta Ng
Northwest Asian Weekly
Most people visit Hawaii’s Big Island to see its volcano. But I wasn’t interested in trekking over lava and mud, as this was my third visit to the Island. What took me there recently was my desire to recuperate after a stressful month in February. All I wanted was to relax and daydream, facing the ocean or the golf course. Little did I know that things would happen that would lead us to unexpected adventures.
Strange, but when I was on the Island, the word “tsunami” came into my consciousness. To see old tsunami ruins, we landed in a “forbidden” valley. Later, our search for Chinese food brought us to a village of dolphins. Now, I have more stories to share than I realize.
Chinese food and dolphins
I craved Chinese food after three days on Kohala Coast, 23 miles north of Kona, a resort town in the Island.
“Where’s the nearest Chinese restaurant?” I asked a hotel staff member.
“It’s about 60 miles away,” he said. Was he kidding? Or maybe he just didn’t know. Either way, we were not about to drive long distance.
A decade ago, my husband and I dined at a Chinese restaurant inside a Kona hotel. But we couldn’t remember the name of the hotel. (That’s what happens when you get old.)
Later, my husband found photos of the Hilton Hotel on the Internet that matched the photos we took on our last trip. And the Hilton was only a 10-minute drive from our hotel.
We decided to go to the Hilton for Chinese food. I still remember that it was on the second floor of a small building. When we dined the last time, a few tiny birds flew in and whistled the sweetest songs, in rhythm with a wind chime overhead.
Unfortunately, this time, we were four months too late. The restaurant closed last October. The second floor of the building is now empty and downstairs, is a pizza outlet.
Following a dolphin sign, we wandered around and found an outdoor restaurant. As we walked up, we saw a dozen or more dolphins! They were swimming, diving, and jumping in different fenced areas. The Hilton insists they are not captured, and trainers feed them to make sure they were happy, staying inside the fence, and performing tricks to please the audience.
The restaurant gave us front-row seats to watch the mammals, mingling with the nearly two dozen swimmers, who were picked through a raffle drawing early that morning. Due to the popularity of this program, there was a long waiting list.
Wow! We got free entertainment, not wasting any time waiting in line or spending additional money to buy tickets for the show. Watching the dolphins up close was better than having a Chinese lunch!
Tsunami on the Big Island
A splendid magazine photo of Waipi’o Valley drew us to visit on our way to Hilo. It’s also called the Valley of the Kings, where Hawaiian royalty gathered hundreds of years ago, with the stunning backdrop of waterfalls.
Some tour books said a tsunami had killed as many as 10,000 people living in Waipi’o in 1946. In the late 19th century, many Chinese immigrants had settled in the valley. Few knew that the valley once had churches, restaurants, and schools, as well as a hotel, post office, and jail. Now, only about 50 people live in the valley, keeping their simple lifestyle of farming and fishing.
To walk to the valley, we had to go through a steep road that gains 800 vertical feet in elevation in just over half a mile. Wikipedia says this road could possibly be the steepest in the world. What stopped us from walking down the road was not the “Closed due to Dengue (mosquito)” sign at the entrance, but the sudden downpour that soaked my raincoat.
Rumors are that the area is unsafe, valley residents are not friendly, and the police would not be available to help if something happened. Still, the partial view we got from our vantage point was beautiful. If we had had a four-wheel drive, we would have driven down.
In Hilo, there are tsunami museums and oceanfront shops that retain the watermarks made by previous tsunamis.
Living in Hawaii is wonderful with the water, palm trees, and people enjoying a laid back lifestyle. But the danger of tsunamis is also very real in the presence of an active volcano and global climate change. Hopefully, the people of Hawaii are well prepared.
How much would you pay for a lovely setting with your dining table facing the ocean, so you can watch the fireball of a sun descend and disappear into the ocean?
What we have discovered is that finding memorable meals is not difficult or expensive in the Kona area. You don’t need to stay in top hotels to enjoy their food.
We simply said, “We are not your hotel guests, but we would like to try your food.” The hotels even let us park for free.
It cost $67 (not including tips) for us to dine at the Coast Grille at Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel, enjoying the sunset and soothing live Hawaiian music, while a dancer swayed by the pool.
We ate Hawaii abalones, beet salad, baked oysters, kale cake dessert, and one soft drink nicely served with complimentary fresh palatable rolls.
The trick was to share our food family-style. We didn’t order any entrees because the appetizers were more appealing. We were so full and satisfied. I felt like royalty dining at the Prince.
At $7 each, we ordered two poached abalone. It was fresh and delicious. I wish we could find prices like that on the mainland.
“I want to take the (pearl-like abalone) shells home,” I told the waitress. I didn’t ask her to clean the shells, but she did. What service!
Did we ever find a Chinese restaurant at Kona? No. Instead, we found a Japanese restaurant at the Fairmont Hotel. I was so happy to see the menu list duck fried rice and salmon udon. It’s not only unique to put duck in fried rice, the combination of flavors worked wonders. Oh, and the udon was the best salmon udon I have ever eaten!
Another great outdoor restaurant was at the Four Seasons Hotel, overlooking the ocean. Although it was only a lunch, the chef made ordinary dishes, like chicken quesadilla and red snapper, exquisite.
We found many Chinese restaurants in Hilo. From Cantonese to Northern-style Chinese, we decided to pick Happy Valley Chinese Restaurant after seeing its poster advertising steamed Hawaii ehu fish. Now, that’s authentic. The people who dined there were not tourists, but local folks. We knew we found the right place.
The other local restaurants we experienced were Ponds and Ken’s House of Pancakes (one of the best cheap eats).
You guessed it — Ponds is located by a big pond, serving steaks and seafood. We enjoyed them all.
If you are thinking about vacationing on the Island, you might want to fly to Kona first, and depart from Hilo.
That way, you don’t have to drive back and forth to see the volcano. Hawaiian Airlines is the only airline that offers such a route.
By now, you are probably wondering why I haven’t mentioned the volcano. This was our third visit, so it wasn’t as exciting as the first time we visited in 1981. Nothing compares to our first trip, when we set foot on the volcano’s crater (which was inactive at the time) with clouds floating around us like we were angels in the sky.
Between Hawaii and Palm Springs, I picked Hawaii for my spring break. I am confident I made the right decision.
Palm Springs is probably a place I would want to visit only once. But Hawaii, I will never get tired of visiting over and over again.
Assunta Ng can be reached at email@example.com.