Grounded in Hilo (Hawaii, Day 6)

Akaka Falls, on the Hilo side of the Big Island

Akaka Falls, on the Hilo side of the Big Island

I awoke with grand visions of lava-spewing vistas still dancing in my head. Today was the day I’d scheduled my biplane ride over volcanoes, a trip I’d planned toward the end of my vacation knowing that my diving would prohibit me from flying on certain days. The flight was one of the “must-do” activities I’d planned for my trip — sister or no — and I’d set aside a certain amount of vacation allowance for the event. I might not be able to light a stick on fire while walking on a lava flow — as I’d seen on the Big Island’s visitor channel — but I could at least experience the volcanic wonders from the air. I hopped into my untrustworthy Sebring and headed for the far side of the Big Island.

Waterfalls at Hawaii Tropical Botanic Gardens, near Hilo on the Big Island

Waterfalls flow in abundance at the botanic gardens.

Thus far, I’d seen only the “dry” side of the island — from the brown stone fields of the Kohala coast to the cloud-obscured vistas just up the road from Kona. Rain had already canceled plans on one of my dry-side days, so I should have been prepared for massive amounts of precipitation in the rainiest city in the U.S. But that would mean I was being rational.

Living in LA for ten years has all but absolved me from having to know how to handle rain. I’m used to doubling my commute time at the mere whisper from a “weatherman” of approaching precipitation, but I’ve never lost my confidence in handling slick-surfaced pavement. My drive to Hilo almost made me feel like a native Angeleno. At one point, the rain pelted my windshield so hard that I was forced — for the first time in my life — to pull to the side of the road until I could see the road again. This from a driver who’s bested the black ice of Michigan winters.

Orchid at Hawaii Tropic Botanic Gardens, Hilo, Hawaii

Orchid at Hawaii Tropic Botanic Gardens

As I drove from one side of the island to the next, the landscape grew ever more lush, the green seeming to meld with the black pavement, which was interrupted more often than not by one-lane stop signals required by ongoing construction or road maintenance. To go the roughly 80 miles from my condo to Akaka Falls took almost as long as it would have in LA rush-hour traffic — sans scenic overlooks. I could at least thank Lono that the view at Akaka was unobstructed by rain.

I killed the next few hours having sub-par pasta at Pescatore (seriously, how hard is it to make sauce for noodles, people?) and perusing the lackluster exhibits at the Pacific Tsunami Museum, where the docents were kind enough to let me recharge my camera batteries in anticipation of my afternoon volcano flight. When I learned my flight was canceled due to weather, I switched to Plan B, exploring the area’s attractions, rain be damned. A cursory cruise around Banyan Drive and the Queen Liliuokalani Gardens made me wish for blue skies more worthy of photographing. Then north of Hilo I went, in search of the botanical gardens so many people had told me were worth the seemingly steep $15 admission.

I wasn’t disappointed. The Hawaii Tropical Botanic Gardens merit the price, even in inclement weather. I took more photos here than I’d shot my entire vacation. I’m not usually a sucker for orchids, but I found myself in macro mode more often than not, so unusual were the blooms. Even though I spent less than two hours on the grounds — in damp clothing, for the most part — I found the gardens, and the scenic drive to get there, a high point of my trip. Rainbow Falls and the Boiling Pots, located just outside of Hilo, paled in comparison to the verdant dips and vales of the botanic paradise, as spotty as the signposts were.

When the day’s rain finally let up on my return trip to Kona, I stopped in at Daniel Thiebaut, a posh eatery in Waimea, where I ensconced myself at the bar. (Note to local I met that night: My trip to Portland was cancelled, so I won’t have any recommendations for your son. Sorry!) I then trudged back to Kona, intent on getting a good night’s sleep for my return trip the next day. There’d be sun this time, right?

Day 1: Escape From Cube Life
Day 2: Manta Heaven
Day 3: Paddling to My Death
Day 4: The Southernmost Gaffe in the United States
Day 5: Somewhere Over Polulu
Day 6: Grounded in Hilo
Day 7: To Fly or Not to Fly
Day 8: Don’t Make Me Go!

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