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Escape to Hawaii- the Big Island

Updated: Sep 24, 2022

Kohala coast with a view of Maui in the distance

Los Angeles is going through another Omicron surge, this time it's the BA.5 variant. The 3 doctors in my Internal Medicine office have been observing a slow rise in the number of cases in the community throughout spring. From 1 case a week in March to 2-4 cases a week last month. By July, it's 3-6 calls a DAY of people turning positive from home and community testing. We also have been observing the much slower rise in hospitalization numbers from Covid whenever we walk through the hospital.

I wasn't too bothered by these numbers initially because my first patient to die from Covid this year was an 81-year-old patient with end-stage renal failure and dementia who had to be placed in a nursing home 3 months ago because the family couldn't care for her at home anymore. She was cared for by dozens of people, including her family, the caregivers, nurses, technicians, and drivers who take her to the dialysis center 3 times a week. So neither the infection nor her death was surprising.

But then, last Monday, I learned of the death of a 66-year-old fully vaccinated (but not recently boosted), mildly diabetic patient who died less than 3 days after developing a sore throat and had a positive covid test. That's even after she went in for the monoclonal antibody infusion the day after getting the test. I became so paranoid that I started sending in prescriptions for Paxlovid into the pharmacy for any patients with a positive covid test and any questionable immune system.

The phone calls still keep on coming. Patients are calling in the after-hours and weekends with positive covid tests. We have to squeeze in these urgent phone consults because medications should be started as early as possible if patients have risk factors for severe illness from Covid (age, diabetes, obesity, asthmatic, immunosuppressed patients). All this extra work even while all the regular patients have started coming back in for annual physicals and we are fully booked trying to catch up on our routine medical examinations.

We try to resume normal lives as best as we can but these waves of Covid kept getting in the way. This past Monday, a patient came in for her annual check-up and follow-up on her blood pressure, asthma, and pre-diabetes. The next morning she developed a runny nose and fever. PCR test done on Wednesday was positive and she called me on Thursday. After sending in the 5 prescriptions for her to the pharmacy ( Paxlovid and cough medicine for her covid infection, inhaler, steroid, and azithromycin for her post-viral asthmatic bronchitis), my nurse and I went and got tested for Covid. Due to the enclosed indoor contact and exposure to this patient, we have to test every morning before going to work until the next Thursday and trying not to go anywhere socially. Thank goodness insurance covers 8 home covid test kits per person per month.

We are indeed living in interesting times, as the old Chinese curse goes.

I'm so exhausted all the time that the vacation that we just had to Hawaii last month seems so far away and so long ago. I had to look back at my pictures to confirm that I indeed had a very nice time on my favorite island.

A friend of mine once stated with absolute certainty that Florida has the best beaches in the country if not the world. It's true that if you're looking for those iconic white and golden and flat sandy beaches with turquoise blue water and gentle waves, you can have your pick of beaches in Florida from the Atlantic to the keys to the Gulf of Mexico. But since our vacation is about more than beaches, we usually prefer Hawaii for our family getaways.

You see, in Hawaii, you don't just get the normal white sand and golden sand beaches, you get the red sand beach, orange sand beach, black sand beaches, and even the very rare green sand beach.

In Hawaii, you don't just swim in the ocean, you swim with turtles, you snorkel with the humuhumunukunukuapuaa, you surf with dolphins, you kayak with whales, you scuba with manta rays.

In Hawaii, you don't just hike up a mountain, you hike up an active volcano spewing fumes, you walk through dry colorful moonscapes calderas, you splash your way through wet dripping lava tubes in tropical rain forests, you go up a mountain at night to see the stars.

In Hawaii, you don't just go see a waterfall, you helicopter into secret valleys to see dozens of waterfalls, you hike into idyllic, remote valleys where the people of the original culture still live their simple lives.

In Hawaii, you're not just visiting a bunch of tropical islands, you're visiting the only kingdom within the United States. You're touring the royal palace and summer residence of previous kings and queens, you're seeing ancient petroglyphs and monuments of a bygone era.

In Hawaii, you don't just go see a show, you get to learn the history, lifestyles, and cultures of the Polynesian people and learn how they conquered the Pacific Ocean.

In Hawaii, you don't just get the great seaside restaurants with steamed clams, fish tacos, and fried calamari, you get traditional Hawaiian poke , kalua pork, lau laus, and lomi lomi salmon, you get very fresh sushi, exotic fruits, and all the Asian-influenced food of the Pacific Rim.

So yeah, Hawaii is a little more than just beaches.

And among all the islands with all their particular personalities, ( I think of Oahu as the cosmopolitan, worldly sibling. Maui is a sophisticated, classy sister. Kauai is a gentle, quiet gardener. Hawaii the big island is the rancher brother with a college degree) our favorite has always been the big island.

Day 1- Kona

We landed at Kailua-Kona airport on a cloudy and cool Saturday, picked up our van, and checked into our condos in the afternoon. We went to the Coconut Grove Mall in the evening and had dinner at Foster's kitchen which serves the island version of soul food. I had a beautiful steak on top of gorgonzola linguini pasta while my family had Mahi Mahi, gumbo, pasta, and fried chicken. While waiting for our table, we wandered around the mall and stopped by the ubiquitous ABC market to pick up fruits, guava sweet rolls, butter, eggs, and bacon. It was enough to get some very sluggish teenagers up to have breakfast in the lanai the next morning.

Day 2- Kailua-Kona

The concierge at our condo had recommended Umekes as a good place for lunch. But when we stopped by and signed in to the tablet register out front, it said the wait time was 120 minutes. So we walked around and bought some malasadas (Portuguese donuts) and Ube latte Hawaiian coffee at Hico (pretty but not particularly tasty).

We then decided to go to the supermarket KTA to pick up food for the beach as well as for dinner. I was so happy to see they had marlin poke and grabbed that for my lunch. We drove north from Kona, hoping to get into the Octopus farm but struck out again when we were told the next available appointment for a tour was in 10 days. So we drove out, pass the lobster farm, the seahorse farm, the algae farm, and the sea salt factory.

We stopped at the Wawaloli Beach Park for our lunch and a quick swim in very shallow water on very slippery rocks. I noted that the tidepools here had only small snails and rare abalone and crabs, not as much variety of life like anemones, sea stars, mussels, and sea urchins as in California. My marine biology son gave me a quick lecture on how the upwelling of cold water from the California coastline is richer in nutrients than the warm waters around Hawaii.

We continued south to explore the Kaloko-Honokohau National Park by driving to the Kaloko fishpond where ancient Hawaiians built a rock dam to raise fish in a bay. The drive to the beach goes through black sharp lava land punctuated by wild Noni trees. I considered stopping and picking some of the fruits to make noni juice for their medicinal benefits but my husband remembers how stinky it was so we didn't. The beach itself is white coral sand mixed with small chunks of lava rocks. My daughter the gem hunter found that if you look closely, you can see green crystals in the lava rocks. These are the olivine green crystals that make up the green sand beaches in Hawaii.

Day 3- Kohala

The third day in Hawaii was scheduled for the Kohala mountain. The oldest dormant volcano on the big island is where you'll find the oldest and most established of Hawaiian history. On the way there we took a quick detour to hike through a dry lava forest to get to Puako Petroglyph Park.

We hiked down to the green-on-green Pololu valley, one of seven erosional valleys of the northeast Kohala mountain where Hawaiians used to live. We caught a glimpse of the six valleys beyond Pololu, the last one is the Waipio valley where there are current permanent residents but tourists are not allowed anymore. We rested a bit on the black sand beach that divided the river and the ocean in Pololu.

Bruce and I considered the hike to one of the valleys beyond Pololu but found this interesting post on these valleys from 2 previous hikers and totally changed our minds.

We drove back through Kohala, the town where King Kamehameha was born, and stopped to shop for groceries at the Takata store, which was established in 1923 almost 100 years ago, the same year my Dad was born. Bruce bought a sweatshirt from the store just because of its history. It was getting dark by the time we got back to Kona to cook our dinner but the sunset along the Kohala coast was spectacular.

Day 4- Hilo

On the 4th day of our trip, we took the saddle road Route 200 to cross from Kona in the west to Hilo on the east of the island. It was wide, smooth, and passes between Mauna Kea to the north and Mauna Loa to the south. Hilo is the heart of local Hawaiian life. Whereas Kona beaches and markets tend to be packed with tourists, surfers, and divers, the Hilo markets are filled with Hawaiian and Asian food, and the beaches are mostly frequented by local families and students.

We walked through the market to pick up some fruits and exotic vegetables: mangosteen, mountain apple, dragon fruits, longans, and winged beans for our dinner. We wandered around the mom-and-pop restaurants around the market and decided to pick up some Vietnamese banh mi and rice rolls for lunch on the beach from Pho 99. Everything was surprisingly good even though all the restaurants were clearly understaffed due to the recent reopening.

We got a tip from a local resident on a great uncrowded black/green sand beach where you can snorkel and swim with turtles. We had lunch and spent a wonderful afternoon there. I swam side by side with a giant sea turtle near the shore for a little while before going back out to the reefs to chase the fishes.

I've always teased that my two sons are the Ocean spirit and the Mountain spirit of a famous Vietnamese legend. (

Cameron loves hiking and is always the first to climb any peak in any national or state park we come to but he does not always enjoy the beaches. While Eric loves any water-born activities but will get short of breath when we go above 7,000 feet in altitude.

After that nice day in the ocean, true to form, Cameron asked if we can go to the volcano the next day.

Day 5- Kilauea

We drove south from Kona the next morning to head for Hawaii's Volcanoes National Park. We stopped by the famous Punaluu Bakery to pick up sweet bread and all varieties of malasadas for breakfast.

Except for a detour outside the park for lunch at Kilauea Lodge, we spent the rest of the day driving the Crater Rim Drive and hiking to each overlook. The excursion has been shortened from the last time we were there due to the closure of parts of the drive and the Jaggar museum since the 2018 eruption. The Kilauea caldera is now massive and the edge of it is practically at the front door of the museum.

The Thurston lava tube is still a fun short walk, especially now that we all have the flashlight from our cellphones. There are huge new fields of lava connecting previous cinder cones, stretching all the way to the ocean. And the Holei Sea Arch was worth the long drive and hike, especially since we got to catch a rainbow along the way.

We took the longer but much smoother way back from the national park to Kona by going to Hilo for dinner. The drive up the mountain from Punaluu was winding and the kids sitting in the back were getting a little sick. It was raining by the time we got off the mountain and I felt like some pho noodle soup, which was much more abundant in Hilo than in Kona.

When we left the restaurant at 10 pm, it was still drizzling and the parking lot was raucous with the sound of whistles and chirps. I said to my husband "What kind of birds would be singing so loud at this time of night in the rain? ". Bruce gave me a funny look and said "That's the frogs singing, honey. How do you not know that? Are you sure you were raised in a tropical country like Vietnam?". And, ever the smartmouth, I replied "We don't have frogs and snails in Saigon, they were all fried in butter or made into escargot, served with baguette. It's the French influence."

As we started the drive back up the saddle road towards Kona, we saw a pickup truck parked by the side of the road with a sign saying "Fresh Ahi", so we stopped and bought 2.5lbs of fresh tuna for $20.

Day 6- Coffee and Stars

We let the kids sleep in the next day since we got back very late the night before.

I called around and found that we didn't need a reservation for a self-guided tour of the UCC (Ueshima Coffee Company) coffee farm and we paid them a visit in the afternoon. Checked out the plantation and the roasters. Bought some affogato (ice cream and expresso), lattes, and snacks. Picked out some varieties for my sister the coffee aficionado.

Then we went to the Mauna Kea Visitor Center to buy some merchandise before they close at 7 pm. The Observatory used to set out telescopes at night for visitors to check out the planets and the stars but they're not doing that right now. They did set out exhibits and the coronagraph for visitors to see the corona of the sun in the daytime. So we went back to our condo to make our seared tuna dinner and prepared hot chocolate for the estimated 22 degrees Fahrenheit on the summit that night.

We were able to come back later that night and spread our towels and blanket in the parking lot to view the stars. Then get in our van and drank our homemade hot chocolate. It was not a particularly exciting thing, but my kids were so pleased with the beautiful vista that most city folks never get to see due to the light pollution.

Day 7- Restaurants and Shopping.

At a friend's recommendation, we drove to the Coffee Shack in Captain Cook town for dessert with lilikoi cheesecake, coconut cream pie, and lemon coconut bar. They also have a fabulous view of the South Kona coastline.

We went shopping for gifts in Kona and had a great lunch at the newly opened Raised in a Wok where I was finally able to get the real Hawaiian food I've been craving. I finally got the kalua pork with poi and lomi lomi salmon (what I normally get at a luau), Bruce got his lau lau pork and seaweed salad, and Eric got poke 3 ways. Shocked that they were not yet on Google maps and had no reviews yet, I took pictures of everything and posted them on Google.

We stopped by KTA market for the kids to pick out their dinners so Bruce and I can have a night out at a fancy restaurant for our anniversary. They were ecstatic that they could hang out and play games without our annoying presence.

We were able to get a reservation at Ulu Ocean Grill and Sushi Lounge in the Four Seasons Resort. Our table was next to the ocean and, despite the wind, everything was beautifully presented and tasted excellent. From the Ube sourdough with truffle butter to the grilled octopus, the sushi, the main courses, and desserts. It was worth packing 1 nice set of clothing for the normally casual Hawaiian vacation.

The next day, it was back to Los Angeles, the real world, and the Omicron surge. Back to our very interesting times.

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