Hawaii Trip, Day 4: Swimming with Dolphins and Luau in Kona

Catching a 7:30AM SpeediShuttle from our hotel to the airport, we got on our early morning flight to Kona. It was a short, beautiful flight, as we flew over several other Hawaiian islands (mostly Lanai and Kaho’Olawe) before getting to the Big Island, where Kona is. We were going to make a splash with our first day– literally, by going swimming with dolphins!
(photo from today are on Day 4 of the Hawaii Trip Gallery)

Landing at the airport, it was amazing to see black lava flats stretching all around the runway, and right up to it – such far-reaching lava flats were a sight we’d come to be very familiar with on the Big Island. (We didn’t see any black volcanic rock on the much older island of Oahu.) From the airport we took a shuttle bus to the Hertz car rental office. We’d reserved a car for the Big Island part of our trip – it’s pretty hard to get around the Big Island unless you rent a car. At the office, Andrew actually talked with a representative in Arizona (via two-way webcam), which was amusing but worked well.

Having gotten our rental car, we drove south down the little highway (about 20 minutes) to the center of Kona. Kona is much, much smaller than Waikiki, but still clearly dominated a bit by the tourist industry. We found our hotel, the Royal Kona Resort, and checked in. We found it amusing that the check-in area (and much of the hotel) was completely open to the outdoors – people don’t worry about heating/cooling here, or even big rain storms. (It was the same way at the airport – several areas were completely open to the outdoors, and the Kona airport might have been the most beautiful airport we’ve been to.) The Royal Kona Resort was right on the ocean, but old black lava rocks made entry to the ocean uninviting (no sandy beaches here). That said, there was still a little cove by the hotel that was interesting to check out (a wedding was being held when we went by). And the ocean view was beautiful – while staying there, we saw many ships of different sizes (including a very large cruise ship) and a pod of dolphins out in the water from our balcony.

After checking in to our room, we hopped back in our car to drive back up the highway to Dolphin Quest. We’d booked a time slot to swim with dolphins through a company called Dolphin Quest, which was 40 minutes up the highway in the Hilton Waikoloa Village (resort). For most of the drive north up the highway from Kona we just saw fields of old, black lava, stretching out for miles in either direction (all the way to the ocean), but here and there different plants grew – we later learned that the first plants to grow (about 3-4 years after the lava had solidified) were certain little ferns, and a few years after that some trees (the Ohia tree specifically) take root in the black, rocky surfaces. In some stretches along the highway people had written words using white coral rocks – it was interesting to see the different messages people had left. When we got to the Waikoloa village (which wasn’t easy to miss – it was the only large group of buildings for miles around) we had trouble figuring out exactly where to go, but eventually parked at the Hilton and wandered to Dolphin Quest. On our way there, we saw some sea turtles swimming in the hotel’s private lagoon.

Swimming with the dolphins at Dolphin Quest was a lot of fun. We changed into our bathing suits, got suited with a life vest, and then hopped into the water with the dolphins. We got about 45 minutes in the water with them, and during that time we got to feed the dolphins, have them swim all around us, see them do many different tricks, pet the dolphins, and even give them a kiss. Their skin feels like soft rubber, and while we couldn’t see any hair on them, their warm skin clearly gives them away as mammals (parts of their flipper that we felt were especially warm). And they, of course, have belly buttons. There were about six different dolphins that were in the water with us (there were three groups of people, each with a trainer, with about 4 tourists per group). The oldest dolphin there was 42 and there were a few babies aged 1 and 2 years old. One of the babies belonged to the 42-year-old. (In the wild, dolphins live to be 12 years old on average due to predators, humans, and other problems.) We also had a video made of our dolphin encounter, so that’s a neat souvenir to have.

After swimming with the dolphins, we headed back down the highway to Kona. On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at the Kona International Market, which was highly recommended. It seemed pretty quiet when we stopped by (but this could have been because it was a Tuesday afternoon, right before things were closing at 4PM-5PM), but there were still a lot of neat stalls to check out, including ones with shirts, sarongs, wooden carved objects, and various Asian packaged foods. We ended up buying a sarong to hang on our wall (not made in Hawaii, of course, but still something to remember the trip by). The woman who sold us the sarong was very friendly (as we’ve found most of the people in Hawaii to be) and gave us a mango from the mango tree in her backyard – she said last year about 30 mangos had been taken by people! But it sounds like she had lots to spare. Later we opened the mango up and found it to be the best tasting mango we’d had in our lives. It’s amazing how different fresh fruit can taste.

After checking out the market, we headed back to the hotel for a dinner luau. (Andrew had been to a luau before when he went to Hawaii as a teenager, but Teisha hadn’t been to one before.) The luau was put on by the Royal Kona Resort and was the best reviewed luau around, and we think it lived up to the reputation. (And most of the people there were not staying at the resort, so that was encouraging.) They had an imu, a Hawaiian “earth oven” where a slaughtered pig had been buried that morning so that it could cook all day – in the pit, hot coals are placed and then the pig is set on top of them, covered with layers of banana leaves and cloth, and then covered with sand (the layers should prevent sand from getting all over the meat). There was a lively little band and live dancers that occasionally got on stage for a short number. The theme was Polynesian dances – each short number was a dance from a different Polynesian island, so it was interesting to see the various dances of the different islands. (We also got to see the famous “green flash” at sunset.) After an hour or so of music, the pig was ceremoniously dug up and the buffet opened. We enjoyed fresh fish, other meats, fresh fruits, and delectable fruit-based deserts from the buffet, and even tried poi, which is a rather tasteless root that Hawaiian natives would eat (once it’s been pummeled to mush). (Because of its tactlessness, it’s recommended to never eat it by itself.) There was also an open bar – while anyone who knows us knows that we’re not real drinkers, we did enjoy the (super juiced down) bowl of serve-yourself mai tais and a rum and coke (with extra coke). The evenings festivities ended with an impressive fire dancer – we managed to take a decent video of some of it. After the luau was over, exhausted, and conveniently close to our room, we collapsed in bed.

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