Apr 22, 2008

Surfing the Big Island of Hawaii

This story was originally published on the now-defunct Fuel.TV, when they were the official website for an action sports cable channel that turned into a MMA network and now, who knows what's going on there.

It had been exactly 12 years since my first visit to Hawaii. I knew that because my last trip was with my mom and sister for my 18th birthday. Only back then, we first went to Maui (amazing island, fun waves) and then to Oahu (not as nice due to the big city feel, great waves though, and it's still the tropics). 12 years later, with my 30th birthday only days away, I again embarked on a journey out to the 50th state, only this time my journey took me to the biggest island, the Big Island of Hawaii.

I chose the Big Island for a few reasons. I was researching different places to travel to for the big 3-0, and noticed that there's hardly any coverage of the surf scene on the Big Island. Yet countless people have told me that the surf there is actually really good. Plus, an old high school friend of mine Jenny moved out there years ago and told me I could crash at her house. The warm weather, adventurous-terrain, and surf didn't deter my cause.

I forgot how long of a flight it is. Five hours is relatively short compared to a lot of other destinations, but it's still a long trip and at least on the voyage there, the leg room sucked. Still, I made it, and decided to grab a hotel room that the lady at the rental car agency recommended, a cheap yet delightful spot called Kona Seaside. Relative to the prices of hotels at Kona (the main tourist town on the Big Island), it was cheap, and I got a room on the top floor with a view of the ocean. Really nice place (except for the bugs crawling around in the bathroom at night). I grabbed dinner that evening at a place called Quinns, and it was one of the best meals I have ever had. Filet mignon in a bowl of warm teriyaki sauce with veggies, garlic linguini and salad. Yummy. Passed out hard that night at 9 o'clock.

Woke up really early the next morning due to jet lag, around 5 AM. After shaving (which was a brilliant call because later I would realize that there are no bathroom mirrors at my friend Jenny's place), I decided to drive south to check out a few surf spots. There were a lot of crazy little breaks near sharp, jagged rocks that a couple of locals were shredding here and there, but after driving for 10-15 minutes I stopped at a spot that looked pretty good (with a lot of surfers in the water, shocker). A local from Oahu who was taking a vacation of his own told me this place was the legendary Lymans. And a short distance to the right was Banyans. This was the primo surf spot on the island.

I stayed there watching the break and the surfers for a while. At first it was small, then a surge came in and it actually got really big. I watched a ton of stand up paddle boarders (more there than I've ever seen in my life) take off wave after wave, big ones at that. Just ripping. I stood around and checked it out for around a half-hour, and finally decided to go for it.

With the help of a couple nearby who told me they had moved there a couple of months ago from North Carolina, I borrowed some surf wax then walked out with them on this little trail that led to a black rock pebble beach which was the launching point. The girl commented that I had soft feet, because the entire trail was full of small, jagged rocks that painfully poked the bottom of my feet and I was walking at a snail's pace. It hurt, what can I say. I felt like a pussy at first when she said that, until I noticed that practically everyone else walking on the trail were wearing flip-flops, taking them off at the launch spot and leaving them there. That girl can suck it.

It was a tricky break. There would be sweet sets coming in (it was crowded though, there would always be a few surfers taking off and fighting for waves), then every 15 minutes or so a macking set would come in, forcing everyone to paddle hard to avoid being crushed. I luckily beat the set every time. I brought my 6'0'' glassed twin-fin retro fish with me, and I remembered thinking that one of the beauties of having a shorter board is being able to kick while paddling at the same time. There's also a really shallow rock right in the middle of the line which helps set up a peak. The fins of my board scraped it, which is how I first noticed it. I'd been warned about it, but it was still a surprise.

After about an hour, I decided to call it a day. As I was paddling back in, a set crept up behind me, and I decided to just hold on and hopefully not get chucked. To my surprise, I was in the sweet spot of the wave, and was able to pop up and grabbed a long ride! Unlike a ton of the locals out there who couldn't catch a single ride, I actually got a few, with this random one being the gem. I was feeling pretty proud of myself at that moment.

Getting out of the water was pretty difficult. The riptide there pulls and pushes with a lot of force. My board scraped some rocks a couple of times, that hurt more than when my own body was smashed into the rocks. A chick (a lot of the females in Hawaii surf, pretty cool) getting out with me told me that was the hardest part of this break. I got out, my feet hurt like heck while I walked back, and I made it to the rental car. I cruised further south, checked out a spot called Kahalu'u Beach Park that I decided I would surf later on, then headed north and got a closer look at Banyans. It's a tricky break for sure, a quick surge that you have to pop up and turn on instantly. Looked like a beautiful ride though, I remember thinking I would give it a try soon.

I checked out of the hotel, got in my rental car, and headed for my friend Jenny's house. She lived an hour and a half away on a ranch, on the northeast side of the island. The Big Island of Hawaii was much bigger than I thought.

It was a trip driving north on the 19, mainly because people wrote all these messages on the lava rock using white coral. Weird site. I passed through Waimea, where I ate a delicious omelet with pork inside at this local restaurant. Made it to Jenny's about two hours after leaving Kona. Man did she live in the boonies!

It's a 2000+ feet ascension getting to her house. The climb could destroy most transmissions. I made it, and met her boyfriend Damon, who's really cool.It is freezing cold at 3500 feet elevation on the Big Island of Hawaii. At least when the sun isn't shining it is. Now I can fully understand how people can snowboard at the summit. It can get damn cold on the Big Island. Who knew.
The mountain peaks of the Big Island of Hawaii.
After settling, we drove back west and went to this tiny secluded beach. This was the spot. Hardly anyone there, just these two older European chicks and a couple. Super soft sand, warm water, saw two sea turtles, and watched the sunset. I'll say this without giving too much away: If you come here, find Spencer Park, then head south on the trail for a good 10 minutes. It isn't too hard to find. Ate some really good raw fish called Poke on the way back, grubbed on some tacos that night, and a long day came to a close.
A banyan tree on the Big Island of Hawaii.
The next day we went to the biggest city on the eastern side of the island, a place called Hilo (Keanu Reeves AKA Johnny Utah's home town). We went to a Farmer's Market, where I bought some souvenirs and wall decor (I found a sarong with a depiction of the very beach we went to yesterday!). Hilo is a very hippy town, kind of grungy but cool at the same time. I could tell some crime went on around here. We stopped at a house that belonged to some friends of Jenny and Damon's, picked up some goodies for the upcoming holiday (the next day was 420 after all), then we split up, with Jenny, Damon and their friend Armando heading home to start setting up for a small 420 party they were having, while I went to this surf spot called Honolii.
A waterfall on the way to Hilo.
Honolii kicked my ass. Waves were huge3 (one of the locals said it was usually smaller), there were bodyboarders out there (meaning hollow, punchy waves), and I just got a creepy feeling at this place. Spent about an hour there, then went back to Jenny's, where I passed out early that night from overdosing on the munchies.

The next day's plan was to go to one of the Big Island's more beautiful, exotic and tropical destinations, a park and beach called Waipi'o. You need a 4WD vehicle to make the trip down the steep, curvy and unstable grade, not to mention the HUGE potholes on the road at the bottom. I was ready to make the drive using my rental car when we stopped at my favorite little cafe on the whole island, a place called Simply Natural in the town of Honokaa. It was here that I met Jenny's friend (and one of the owners of Simply Natural), a girl named Liz.

She is definitely a crazy one. Tall, beautiful, and crazy. Awesome. I don't know if it's because I'm on an island with zero available women, or if it's because of our surf jaunt (which will be explained in a moment), but 99.9% of the time if a woman is taller than me, I ain't interested. Just not into the tall ones. Yet with this 5'11'' (she claimed 5'10'', my ass) temptress, I was hook, line and sinker.

So anyways she has a sweet Tacoma truck and offers to drive. Armando rolls with, so it's Jenny, Liz, Armando and myself. Liz puts Armando and I into the cab of the truck, and that was a trip of a ride itself. And the drive down to Waipi'o was utterly insane. One of the gnarliest roads I've ever descended down. We get to the bottom, park, and there is a sweet black-sand beach (the black sand is amazingly soft) with an ocean producing nasty, windy, choppy waves. The beach is at a river mouth, and perhaps the sweetest part about this location is the fact that there's an approximately 400-foot waterfall flowing directly into the ocean on the east side of the beach.

The view from the top of the cliff edge before descending down the steep and treacherous road to Waipi'o.

"Let's go in!" exclaims Liz.

I wasn't really feeling this spot in terms of surf. It was downright nasty out there, and the entrance required walking over rocks and stones where the ocean met you with a fierce current. I sucked it up, grabbed my board, but opted not to follow Liz out where she entered the water. I went in where I thought it'd be easier to get out.

This is me venturing into the waters of Waipi'o.
I was wrong. I made it halfway out, was getting pounded, and came back in. I stood on the shore with Jenny and Armando, re-evaluating my situation. Liz was out there but not catching anything and getting pounded hard herself. I knew though that I would have to at least make it out past the breakers if I was going to prove my manliness. So I gave it another shot.

I picked my window, went out the same path as before, and this time, after quite a few duck dives (where I lost my board a couple of times), I made it out. Whew! And boy was it nasty out there. This isn't the nice, blue waters of Hawaii most are accustomed to. These are dark waters, with black rocks on shore, and crazy cliffs facing you with a waterfall to your left. Pretty surreal. If I wasn't paddling for my life out there, I'd probably enjoy it more.

I didn't catch much, and after a while paddled back to shore. The current out there pulls you hard west. I ended up on the other side of the river mouth, where the black sand was remarkably even softer. I met up with Liz (who by now had elevated her rating of hotness to a 9) in the river, where we paddled in the freshwater, cleaning off our boards.

This is where Liz proclaims to me, "This is the craziest break on the entire island. I didn't want to tell you beforehand." "Thanks for the heads up," I thought. Funny thing is, I thought the waves at Honolii were bigger and heavier, but the paddle out and conditions were downright nasty here at Waipi'o. Still, it was a solid workout.

We got back in the truck (Jenny let me sit up front this time), and headed back to town, where we all moved into my rental car and headed out to the same secret beach we were at a couple of days before. We stopped at a gas station on the way to pick up a lighter, where an attendant asks me what color lighter I wanted and suggested green for the "holidaze" (Happy 420!). The attendants were giddy at my comment. Clearly they celebrated this special holidaze as well.

We "Burn One Down" Ben Harper style right at 4:20 PM on April 20th in Hawaii, and head to the secret beach. I kick Liz while we're swimming, and she asks me "Did you just kick me?" I replied, "No, that was a love tap." Not sure if she liked that. Not sure if she liked the fact that I asked her if she's ever been in love right after that. She didn't answer and went back to shore. I don't know why I say shit like that sometimes. It popped in my head because there was a lesbian couple on the beach being romantic, but still, I can really lack smoothness a lot of the time.

We chilled on the beach for a while longer, then bailed. I dropped Liz off, and at this point I was hoping her, Jenny and Damon would make it out to Kona for my 30th birthday, where we were planning to celebrate at the Kona Brewery.

Found this end of a rainbow on the drive back from the beach.
30 years old. Wow. At least I'm on a beautiful island I thought, and fortunate to have my cousin who was living in Oahu at the time come to the Big Island to spend my 30th birthday with me. The birthday was mellow. Surfed small waves in the morning at Kahalu'u Beach Park, where I was able to snake a few waves while the locals out there struggled to catch anything. This trip definitely gave the ego a boost.

Went back to the hotel, picked up my cousin, and headed north, back to the secret beach. Chilled, snorkeled, and played with the sea turtles again. Sea turtles rule. We were planning on going to Kona Brewery that evening, but because of an employee party the brewery was closed so we ended up going to Quinns that evening. Liz and a friend she brought with her met up with my cousin and I, and Liz was kind enough to give this old man a birthday kiss. Despite me lacking any smoothness whatsoever, it was a good day and good night.

I said goodbye to my cousin Sherry the next day, after we spent the morning kayaking at a place called Captain Cook, where we not only saw the monument (where Captain Cook was savagely murdered), but snorkeled the most beautiful reef I've ever witnessed. To top that, on the way back we were surrounded by dozens of dolphins. One of them blessed us with an awesome visual of repeated breaches, where the dolphin was pulling tricks. An amazing sight. I also surfed one last time, at a place called Clays. There was hardly any swell, although a bunch of bodyboarding groms seemed to be having a lot of fun.

With my cousin on the Big Island of Hawaii.
All in all, the Big Island of Hawaii is a magical place. If I ever go back during the winter, I will pull the double-whammy of both snowboarding and surfing in the same day. It's a special place indeed.

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