Mar 272007

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Big Island, Hawai’i, 5th Day. This was the most eventful day of the trip and the longest day as well as we left the hotel early after breakfast and came back after midnight. Before going we checked the weather report which showed a 50% chance of rain at the Kilauea Volcano but since this was the day before last in our vacation and I wanted one more try to see the volcano we decided to take our chances and go. And it turned out better than two days before, at least in the beginning of the day. We were able to stop at many waterfalls on the way to Hilo and this time the “scattered showers” were for real. We started with the gorgeous multi-tiered Umauma falls for which we had to pay an entrance fee because the access road was part of the grounds of the World Botanical Gardens. Nothing seemed to come cheap on Big Island. After seeing the falls we took a walk through the garden and I think it was worth the money. The garden had a lot of exotic flowers and trees that I’ve never seen before and some that I thought I knew but turned out to look different that what I was expecting. They had some bug spray at the counter but we ignored it, something we started to regret as soon as we got deep enough within the garden to be too lazy to return just for getting sprayed. We left the gardens in some sort of dancebreak movements, and I kept on scratching until we reached our next stop: the Akaka and Kahuna Falls. It was our third attempt to see these falls, the previous times it was raining so hard that we stayed in the car and decided to return another day. To get to the falls we walked a short path through the rain forest. With so much rain, the vegetation was living life to the maximum, everything seemed so green and lush.

Afterwards Cris decided he’s seen enough waterfalls for one day so we drove to the Kilauea Volcano. We passed by the visitor center and found out where we can see lava flowing. We drove the park loop, stopped and walked through a light rain to different craters, passing the time until dark. I liked the bleak, desolated landscape, the fumes rising up from the black earth, a lone rainbow shining through. About an hour before sunset we drove down towards the ocean to the end of Chain of Craters road. We parked a looong way from the end of the road, passed by numerous warning signs – “Extreme danger beyond this point” – and started walking on the lava. There were two paths marked by the rangers, one to a viewing point very close to the end of the road. It was difficult to see the lava from that point so we took the other path and continued passed the markings. At some point we found the remains of the old road, complete with a bent “No parking” sign caught in the lava field. We kept on walking until it got so dark we were afraid we’ll have problems returning. We were pretty deep inside the lava field at that moment and we could see the lava shining in the night at many points ahead of us. It was a great sight and we stood and watched for some time. After that we subjected our knees to some more suffering – it’s not an easy job to walk on lava – got back to the car, had dinner at the Volcano Lodge and started on the 3 hours drive back to the hotel. The people at the Volcano Lodge deserve my recognition. First they told us we have to wait half an hour to be seated but when they heard that we have a 3 hours drive ahead of us they took pity and fed us right away.

The Umauma Falls

At the World Botanical Garden

Akaka Falls Park

Kilauea Volcano

That’s me in the middle of the road

Mar 222007

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Big Island, Hawai’i 4th day. On the fourth day on Big Island Cris demanded that we keep his part of the bargain and go snorkeling. Leafing through the travel guide to find a good place to snorkel, I found that one of the best places according to the guide’s authors was very close to a Hawaiian temple. This was the beach I picked, thinking that we can do both activities, see the temple and go snorkeling afterwards. This time we drove south keeping to the west side of the island, passing again by fields of lava sprinkled with white stone messages and past the airport and the resort of Kailua. As soon as we left the highway the road started to descend towards the ocean. The Hawaiian temple that I wanted to visit had the long name of Pu’uhonua o Honaunau or Place of Refuge at Honaunau. From what I’ve read this place was a sort of an extreme form of “get out of jail free”, or rather “get out of trouble alive” meaning that if those accused of a crime could manage to get here they would get absolved. In ancient Hawaii the society was regulated by the”kapu” system of laws and according to the kapu the crime that one can be accused of and executed for could be as ridiculous as “one’s shadow touching the shadow of a leader” or “walking the same path as the chief” or “men and women eating together”. It was believed that the violation of these laws will bring god’s anger in the form of famine, lava flows, high tide and earthquakes so the violators were hunted down and killed. Their only chance was to reach this place of refuge and once inside the priests will perform ceremonies to absolve them and they could return home. It wasn’t easy to reach the place of refuge because the well defended royal grounds full of warriors were adjacent to the pu’uhonua. Today this place is a neatly organized national park and the quiet and beautiful grounds really feel like a place of refuge. There are some reconstructed Hawaiian huts, the wall that separated the place of refuge from the royal grounds and a reconstructed thatched temple that used to contain the bones of 23 chiefs. The small cove was full of green turtles basking in the sun. We walked around the place, following the lava all the way to the ocean. After the visit Cris finally got his wish, we went snorkeling at the beach just north of the place of refuge. The travel guide was right, it was a good place to snorkel with plenty of fish. On the way home we stopped by the St. Benedict’s Painted Church, a small catholic church whose walls were painted in Biblical scenes in 1899 by a Father John, a catholic priest who came to Hawaii all the way from Belgium. He’s done a beautiful job with the painting.

Sep 282006

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Next day we went to Grand Teton, a national park located south of Yellowstone. We drove for almost 100 miles. It wasn’t the best day to visit Grand Teton, since it was hazy and one can barely distinguish the silhouettes of the beautiful mountains that are the attraction of the park. Probably the Teton range looked better in the early morning, but our friends got up late and with all the driving we got to the park at around 1 PM. We drove to Jenny Lake in the south of the park, took a boat to the western shore of the lake and hiked a small trail to the Hidden Falls and to a panorama point called Inspiration Point from where we could see the entire Jenny Lake at our feet. All around this area there were signs advising people that bears are in the area: do not try to feed them – who would be crazy enough to try that? – don’t leave your backpack lying around etc. The hike was pretty, even though a bit crowded with people. On our way back through Yellowstone we passed a sign marking “Continental Divide” which I had no idea what it was but later found out – thanks to wikipedia – that it is “a line of elevated terrain which forms a border between two watersheds such that water falling on one side of the line eventually travels to one ocean or body of water, and water on the other side travels to another, generally on the opposite side of the continent”. In this case the Continental Divide separates the watersheds of the Pacific Ocean from those of the Atlantic or Arctic Oceans.

For dinner we decided not to eat in the park like we did the previous days but go to West Yellowstone. At Alin’s insistence we choose a pizza place. I’m not a big fan of pizza so I ordered macaroni and cheese, comfort food for the soul 🙂 In the menu the m&c; of Wild West Pizzeria of West Yellowstone was advertised as “world renowned”. I don’t know if it is really world renowned but it was very good and it reminded me of a dish that we eat in Romania. I have to say that this was the first time that I ate macaroni and cheese which must be a record of some kind since I’ve been living in US for 10 years and m&c; is pretty popular here. They used to serve it in Intel’s cafeteria from time to time but I never had the curiosity of trying it.

Sep 252006

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On our second day in the park we went to see the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. The impressive sheer drop and the canyon’s yellowed walls made for amazing views. We spent the entire day circling the canyon, stopping at different points of belvedere along the north and the south rims, admiring the two waterfalls – the Lower and the Upper Fall formed by the Yellowstone River – and doing short but steep hikes along the two rims. All in all it was a lovely day.

Sep 232006

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Our accommodation in West Yellowstone was a rental house way to big for us, but since we were paying by the person it still came cheaper than a hotel. It had four bedrooms, two on the second floor and two in the basement and a living room and a kitchen on the first floor. It came equipped with a cable TV and grill which came in handy in the evenings. The best part about the house was that is was located very close to the park’s entrance so we didn’t have to drive additional miles – the park is big enough as it is.

On our first day in Yellowstone we went to see the geysers and we started with the most famous one. Old Faithful is where everybody goes and we were lucky to get there 10 minutes before it was scheduled to erupt. Old Faithful erupts every 80 minutes and it’s probably the most predictable geyser in the park. Based on the duration of the last eruption, rangers are able to figure out a time frame for the next eruption. There were crowds of people sitting on benches around the geyser perimeter and waiting patiently in a complete silence like some religious ceremony was about to take place and our voices would ruin the experience. It started with some steam and a little spray and then it erupted into a tall stream of water and steam. The show finished and everybody started in the direction of their car but we decided to stick around and see the rest of the geysers in the upper geyser basin.

We followed a trail to the Observation Point up a little hill where we got a good view of the entire basin. On the way to the Observation Point we passed very close by a bison – our first encounter with the creature which used to roam these lands 150 years ago before it was hunted close to extinction during the 19th and early 20th centuries. We were to see many more the following days so I guess they’re no longer endangered. After Observation Point we went around the boardwalk at the upper geyser basin and looked at even more geysers while being surrounded by an all mighty rotten egg smell. Castle Geyser started erupting and it went on for half an hour. We saw Old Faithful erupting one more time, this time from a different angle and we headed for the Old Faithful Inn.

The inn is a rustic looking lodge made of logs dating from the beginning of the century. It’s very impressive looking on the inside and the lobby was full of photographers trying to capture a image of the log work above us. We decided to eat dinner at their dining hall. The badge of the girl at the reservation counter read her name and underneath it “Romania” so I started to talk to her in Romanian. She’s been working on a 3 months temporary contract in Yellowstone and she was very happy to meet us. I guess she didn’t meet many Romanians during those 3 months. But we couldn’t chat long, since there was a line behind me. Cris and Alin tried to be creative when ordering food and they ordered bison and elk but frankly my lamb was much better. From this early dinner we went to catch the sunrise at the middle geyser basin by the Grand Prismatic Spring which colors looked spectacular at dusk.

Sep 212006

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Ketchum wasn’t in our initial plan, but we decided to stop there because it was highly recommended by a friend of us. It was a bit out of the way but the detour wasn’t too long. As we were driving towards Ketchum we passed a small field full of American flags. A big sign by the highway read “Flag Memorial”. Someone in the car remembered that the next day was September 11. The memorial looked beautiful and I’m sorry we didn’t stop to take a picture. Ketchum looked a lot like Tahoe City, a town by the shores of Lake Tahoe where we go skiing every winter. It looked nice but familiar, the quintessential American mountain resort. We had lunch on an outside terrace in Ketchum and afterwards drove for 30 minutes past the town through Sawtooth National Recreational Area, an area of forested hills and mountains with beautiful skylines in every direction. Since we had planned for one more stop and had to be in West Yellowstone by 10 PM we decided to turn back and head for Craters of the Moon National Monument.

All the way through Idaho we saw signs marking “Historical Sites”, in fact marking the Emigrant Trail, the road taken in the 19th century by the emigrants from Eastern US to move west towards California and Oregon. Craters of the Moon was a very pleasant surprise. It’s a huge field of cold lava molded in weird shapes. It sits in the middle of nowhere which makes the landscape look even more wild and remote. I hope it stays that way. There isn’t anything active at the moment and the last eruption took place around 2000 years ago but I read on a sign that geologists believe that future events can occur. A seven miles loop road allows access to a small portion of the park. We saw cinder cones, spatter cones and craters and what seemed very exciting to us caves or lava tubes which we decided to explore. We spent about 3 hours on different small trails and hiking through caves and I took tons of pictures. When sunset approached we started on our way to West Yellowstone.

Sep 182006

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The first day of the trip wasn’t much to talk about. We drove for 700 miles, passing from California to Nevada and Idaho, ending up in the town of Twin Falls. We left our friends house in Sunnyvale, CA about 10 AM and got to Twin Falls around 11 PM local time. We stopped to eat at a fast food place off Hwy 80 where the food was awful. We spent the time chatting with Laura and Alin, catching up with everything that happened during our four months absence. The scenery was pretty all the way to Idaho. Nevada looked a lot like the desert part of Southern California. Yellow fields stretching to meet the horizon. Black cows here and there. Plus the occasional casino in the middle of nowhere. We were pretty tired when we got to Twin Falls and since we had one more day of driving in front of us, we called it a night soon after we arrived at the hotel.

Next day we managed to get ready to leave the hotel at around 10 AM. The reason for our stop in Twin Falls was to see the Shoshone Falls. I wasn’t expecting much since I read somewhere before the trip that the falls are at their best in April when water flows are high but that the flows diminish significantly over the summer due to irrigation. I figured that wasn’t much left by September. They looked impressive in the pictures I’ve seen on the web but I was sure that those pictures were taken in spring and probably in good years too. We drove for three miles past the main street in Twin Falls and found ourselves at the entrance gate. For $3.50 we were allowed to pass and got a brochure that described the falls as – how else? 🙂 – “The Niagara of the West”. The brochure even boasted that Shoshones are 50 feet taller then Niagara. Unfortunately I was right in my expectations. The falls did not look like the web pictures. They were nice but not that impressive. We took a few pictures and hit the road again, heading for Ketchum.