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Overlooking the beach at Waipi o Valley.

Capt. Barnes Goes to Hawaii!

Capt. Michael Barnes, Retired, Harbor, continues his adventures to the Island of Hawaii and Hilo, the last of the nearly tourist-free towns.

Hilo is one of the last small towns that has not been totally ruined by the tourist industry. Located on the biggest Hawaiian island in the chain, it still has a very active volcano called Kilauea, which according to the local indigenous people is the home to the goddess Pele. The last eruption was in 2018, when the molten lava flowed into the sea at Kapoho Bay, filling in the tidepools and destroying hundreds of homes. This is now a very strange place to visit as it’s like walking on the moon with the black hardened lava everywhere. The local people have created little shrines and paintings on the lava field to ward off evil spirits and mark where someone once lived.

Our Air B&B in Hilo

For this trip we decided to base ourselves in an Airbnb above a colorful clothing store in the heart of Hilo, close to all the action. Just across the street from our apartment was this very basic and interesting kava bar. Being on the adventurous side we decided to pay them a visit and check out their kava products. The bar is a throwback to the days of the hippy generation, with patrons to match, with hair and personal odors. Every now and again there is a band playing Hawaiian-type reggae music, with musicians as colorful as the patrons. The bar offers all kinds of flavors to add to kava to make it more palatable, but I think it still tastes like muddy water. The kava plant itself is called piper methysticum and is part of the pepper plant family. It is used as herbal medicine in many Polynesian cultures. The root of the plant is used to produce a drink with sedative, anesthetic, and euphoriant properties, and moderate consumption of it will help you with some short-term anxiety problems. Long-term drinking will give you liver problems.

Locals Kava Bar

All I can say is on a warm Hawaiian evening sitting outside in the candlelight, sipping coconut water flavored kava, is a very mellow experience to say the least.

Missionaries David and Sarah Lyman came from Boston in 1838 and played a major role in this town’s development. Their house is the oldest standing wood structure on the Island of Hawaii. It was here with no running water or electricity that they preached the gospel and raised seven children. Today it is a historical building with a museum next door.

King David Kal kaua Statue or as he is known locally the Merry monarch

Just down the road near a massive banyan tree in old town is the statue to King David Kalakaua sitting in the center of a park bearing his name. King David Kalākaua ruled Hawaii from 1874 to 1891 and was the last King of Hawaii. He was actually elected, not born into his regency when the last of the Kamehameha kings died. During his reign, the missionaries tried to convert Hawaiians to their faith, banning Hula dancing as being too provocative. But King David Kalākaua, often called the “Merrie Monarch” because he revived old Hawaiian songs and dances, would have none of that. He was introduced to a Portuguese immigrant called Augusto Dias, who had invented a small four string wooden instrument, which the king nicknamed the Little Flea, or “ukulele” in Hawaiian. It was played at every royal event and party. He also encouraged a new form of hula dance called the “auana,” which is accompanied by songs, guitars, and of course the ukulele. This is what the tourist sees today! 

Because this is a quiet town, most of the restaurants and bars close at 9 p.m., but we did manage to find the exception at the Hilo Town Tavern, the ultimate dive bar, full of locals having fun, and not a tourist (besides ourselves) in sight. The atmosphere was very laid back and the bar service exceptional. Drinks were flowing like water, although this might have been because we were sitting next to the owner. They sell a great range of craft beers, and the bar staff, we were informed, could make any kind of drink known to man. As we had already eaten, we did not order anything from the bar menu, although the deep-fried pickles sounded tempting. There is a game room complete with a pool table for those who do not appreciate music, or the Tuesday night open mic sessions. As it was Wednesday, we were entertained by a bevy of beauties in drag strutting their stuff and performing some incredible acrobatics on the dance floor. There is a small entrance fee but well worth it for the entertainment.

Americas most southern bar is Shaka’s in Naalehu.

As we own a small piece of the island, we took off the following morning to visit it. Now to say that it’s in a remote location is an understatement. The one-horse town of Naalehu is the southernmost town in the whole of the United States of America, and from the South Side Shaka, its only bar, we were another four miles south. So, after a quick drive through the bush, we returned for lunch to this very friendly family-run restaurant with lots of sports paraphernalia on the walls. This is not a place to visit if you are in a rush, but after a few icy cold pints of Kona Brew Lavaman Red Ale, our adult beverage of choice, we were served ample plates of very tasty food. I had the soup of the day plus garlic shrimp with a plate of very hot deep-fried potatoes — really good. Also, the coconut-crusted ahi.

On our return journey up Route 11 we stopped off at the Volcano Art Center Gallery in the old Hawaii Volcanoes National Park’s 1877 Hotel at Kilauea. It has an interesting collection of more than 200 local artists, displaying everything from jewelry, pottery and paintings. This is not really the place to buy tourist trinkets, but if you are looking for something different to take home, you might find it here.

A safe place to eat!

Back in Hilo, it was off to a 5 p.m. dinner reservation at the overrated Jackie Rey’s Ohana Grill, situated in the historic Kaikodo building. We had read all the reviews about this place, so decided to try it. The restaurant is in a restored old bank, complete with old bank vaults with open doors. The floor plan is very large and open, with high ceilings and minimum decoration or artwork on the walls. It felt more like a dance hall waiting for the band. Service was slow, even for Hawaii, and especially the bar staff. Apparently, it has a busy happy hour when the cruise ships are in, but then again what place doesn’t. I tried to make it easy on the staff and ordered a couple of gin and tonics. Our meal started with Kalua pork spring rolls and coconut crusted calamari, followed by pork chops and garlic (emphasis on the garlic) mashed potatoes, and the fresh catch of the day, which always seems to be tuna with a different name. The bank building gives the restaurant the feeling of opulence and grandeur. Pity the restaurant food and service could not give this same feeling — although it did try in its prices.

The next big drive was across the island to Kona, during which we made a small detour to see the incredible view from the Overlook of the Waipi’o Valley, at the end of the Hamakua Heritage Corridor Drive. “Waipi’o” means “curved water” in the Hawaiian language. Many years ago, the valley was the island’s capital and permanent home of many early Hawaiian Ali’i (chiefs/kings), until its grass palace was burned to the ground in 18th century along with its four sacred nioi trees, by a raiding King Kahekili II from the island of Maui. The cliffs surrounding the valley rise to 2,000 feet in places. We did not have a four-wheel drive vehicle so we could not drive down one of the steepest roads in the United States to the black beaches below.

Chill’n-on-the-bay-watering bowl for dogs or people with low standards.

Arriving in Kona was a shock, for it was packed with tourists on vacation everywhere. So we found the nearest Hawaiian dive bar in the heart of downtown Kailua-Kona called Chill’n on the Bay. It seemed to be very popular with ex-pats from the mainland. There was outdoor seating with a good view of the bay and the tourists walking back and forth along the sea wall to the pier. We did not try the food, but we settled for a few drinks. It has a fair selection of craft beers for a dive bar. We tried the piña coladas, which were delicious, and had a couple of imported cans of Pacifico Mexican beer. The young lady who was our bartender was very nice and friendly. There are some interesting signs and artwork scattered around the bar, especially the warning to parents about “Children being left unattended will be sold to the circus.” Like all the local food and beverage places, it was overpriced, but we were on holiday so we just had fun. It would have been a great place to spend happy hour with the sun going down. If we had been smart, we would have booked a room for the night, but we were not, so drove back to Hilo.

Weeks before we left for Hilo, I had read about an incredible small restaurant called Paul’s Place. It’s so small that you feel like you are in the kitchen with the chef! This must be the smallest restaurant on the Island of Hawaii, with seating for only six people. But having read all the rave reviews, we felt that we had to pay it a visit, and as recommended, made a reservation well in advance of our visit. Passing through the single front door up a short flight of stairs we were in a small dining/ kitchen room. There are three tables set for two, but as there were four of us, they pushed two of the tables together. Paul’s Place is open only from 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. It has a small menu, and everything is made fresh. Due to the closeness of the cooking area, the smells are really tantalizing. We ordered waffles, salmon-poached eggs, and lox and bagels. They were all pretty simple dishes, easy to make for a quick light breakfast, and were nice but nothing spectacular. Coffee was robust and with only six customers the service was very attentive. It was the perfect place to eat an early breakfast, before visiting the Hilo Farmer’s Market just around the corner.

We loved this side of Hawaii, simple and honest. We are not golfers or sun worshippers, and do not need roller coasters or deep-sea fishing trips. Friends, food and wine, what else could you ask for? (Well, faster service.)

Travel now before it’s too late and you have to be pushed around.