Sunday, April 01, 2012

Bicycle Adventures: Hawai'i 2012

Our annual bicycle trip was the mid February Bicycle Adventures Hawaii Classic tour. It was, just like all our previous trips with BA, fantastic and amazing!

Last year's (2011) trip was the New Mexico Land of Enchantment trip in May. It too was a great trip, but somehow I never got around to writing about it. As it turns out, the trips had quite a few contrasts, so here's the perfect opportunity to write about them, and compare each.

The NM trip started in Albuquerque. It was hot and windy for the whole trip, but as I've mentioned before, the weather is what it is. One of the things about BA is that they make their trips rather seasonal, going to southern locations in the spring and fall, and northern climes during the heat of the summer. So, the February departure for the Hawaii trip was again perfect - just the time to get out of the Seattle rain and clouds.

Our guides in NM were Brad Sauber and Jeff Barth. Fun, fun people! And they sure knew how to make a trip come together. We did do a bit of rerouting on the NM trip, as there were some weather considerations, as well as some fires in the area. We rode every day, mostly I think because of all the planning for minor adjustment to the routes.

The Hawaii trip guides were Aaron Michalson and Jessica Marcotte. It is so fun to watch the guides in action. Jessica is new to the Hawaii trips this year, but you'd never know it unless she had told us. More on this later, but these folks work so hard, and yet always seem to have a BA smile on their face. It's something I think I figured this out when comparing the Hawaii trip to the one in NM: the only explanation is that there's a corporate culture of pride. It seems like everyone at BA is trying to somehow outdo the expectations or the other guides, the guests, the travel industry....hard to put my finger on. But seeing that van pull up with guides with huge smiles is Just. So. Cool.

One thing different we did this year was to leave our own bikes at home. This was a tough decision. It was great to have them on the trip to NM. I sure was glad we had them there, as the riding was in general a little longer and tougher. We got to Albuquerque on Southwest Airlines, a bike-friendly airline. The cost of Hawaiian airlines was twice the SWA fee of $50. Plus, the timing of the flights (who wants to deal with bike assemblage after a 6+ hour flight?) was such that I decided at the last minute to go with BAs (very nice) rentals. Thanks to Brad Barnard at the office (and Julie and Heidi as well) putting up with my angst over finding bikes that fit on the islands, we got to try out their Raleigh fleet.

Here's the scoop on BA bikes. They are nice. I brought pedals and saddles, and while they are essentially entry-level aluminum road bikes, they sport shimano 105 and are obviously cared for. My bike obeyed the principle of silence, the only noise coming from the wheels when I stood up. If I had been more obsessive about it, a touch of lube on the spokes would have solved the problem. For a trip longer that the Hawaii classic, I would have wanted my own bike though. The long day was a full century, and I was reminded why I blew a wad of dough on a titanium frame.

Both NM and Hawaii had great first day rides. There's a bit of shakedown to get situated on the bike, so some simple routes, a bit of time to feel out all the gear, and you're off. Both the NM and Hawaii trips had other guests that were clearly better cyclists than we are. The guides have a way of making that ok though. They will jump ahead to give support to the faster riders, but then simply turn around and come back for the rest of us. With 2 guides, one of them runs the van, and there is another guide on a bike each day.  Makes it easy easy easy.

So, enough of the generalizations - we were off in Hawaii after pickup at the Waikoloa Marriott. This is the before/after hotel, and we stayed here two nights on the trip as well. It is a monolithic resort hotel. Nice, big, pool, beach, smallish rooms, lots of kids and old people. Plenty to choose from. Nice staff. Good breakfast, but prototypical American breakfast buffet, and an egg chef that refused to make eggs basted. Oh well, go figure. I think that was the only request I made to anyone that week that was not accommodated. The view from breakfast made up for that. The Waikoloa Resort is something of a monolithic tropical resort. Guess Ill never get used to the idea that a hotel can be built without exterior walls and doors. The climate just doesnt require it here. Likely there is some emergency things hidden away these parts do get the occasional hurricane (or I guess they call them cyclones in this ocean) but the open plan of the resort on the beach iswhat you would expect to see in paradise. A few steps and youre on the beach. A very nice beach, I might add.

Jessica and Aaron picked us all up: Monica, also from Seattle, Tony and Celeste from Detroit (and UM grads too) and Stephen and Leslie from Vancouver BC-with me and Cindy seven in all. A perfect size. We vanned over to a park for a rolling downhill ride out to Waipio overlook. It was just like you see in the travel brochures! And here's another of those contrasts: NM is an ancient land. The cliff dwellings in Bandalier NP are millennia old. But the Hawaiian Islands borne of volcanic action and plate tectonics are new. Tropical paradise for sure, but you can stand on the shore and watch the land being made by the lava flows. Man came here only recently. On a bike strolling past, you begin to see a culture of leisurely life in the tropics, for not only the humans, but the creatures and fauna that preceded them.

Lunch was back at a local favorite: Tex's drive inn. A grilled fish burger for me, and our fist encounter with an island pastry- the marsalada. This is an evil, evil creation, full of calories and likely empty vitamins. But, the rule on BA trips for me is that I can eat whatever I want for a week. Yum.

A short van ride was a second part of the ride that wound though a lush canopy into Hilo. Waterfalls, winding scenic roads and views of the pacific surf. I discovered all types of indigenous trees I've never seen before. Some with winding many limbed trunks, others with huge spreading top canopies.

Beer cooler at the Hilo Hawaiian. After a quick shower, we met up for dinner in town at a pasta place. The pesto scallops were great! And as it does in Hilo, it rained. But, as the riding was done, I really didn't care, and it was actually rather peaceful. The Hilo Hawaiian was ok, but seemed like a resort hotel unchanged from the 60s. Nice location, but I do wonder if there are some other inns in Hilo BA might consider.

After another American breakfast the next day, a short van ride to a park took us to the start of a loop ride in the southeast corner of the island. Downhill to a historic church, then out to where the lava flowed over the road. We turned back and followed a rolling road along the shore. Waves on the shore with great road surfaces was a great ride! We took the optional loop ride to the north before lunch. Aaron had made fish tacos, and all kinds of yummy sides, chips, m&ms, (a BA staple) and fresh fruit. More yum!

The return ride had a feature Aaron was a little secretive about. Well, not secretive at all, but while he did say there was a climb back to the road, he said it was 8%. My garmin said it was 15%. For about 1/2 a mile. Upon getting back to the van, I called him, with a mostly joking, hopefully understood to be good natured ribbing, a few naughty, naughty names. I got up it, having stopped a few times, but made it I did. And passing through a rain shower on the downhill back to the van was fine. It cooled me off, and washed away some sweat. More beer cooler, and a short van ride to the Kilauea lodge.

A few things of note: Yes, this trip did have a few van transfers, but with only 9 people in the van, it was just fine. And fairly, I'd just as soon avoid dead miles. For example, Leslie and Stephen rode into the Kileuaea lodge for another 35 miles. I asked them about it, and they said, "it wasn't great." These are the words of dead miles. Not fun, not vacation, just transportation. I can do that at home, but to each their own.

Kilauea lodge is just outside the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. This is a nice place, quiet and relaxing. Great food, perhaps the best on the trip. It is cozy, yet inviting. The kind of place you'd like to lounge about it without being at a Resort. Really nice grounds, hot tub, indoor places to sit and read. After dinner, we drove out to see the glow of the Kilauea crater. Very, very cool. We were lucky that it was a clear night. The stars above were just as impressive.

Next morning saw some drizzly rain to start our hike in the park. Aaron noted it was a fairly common occurrence, so we added a jacket. We hiked through a lava tube, and by the time we started off to the Inki crater, the sun had come out. Layers are the trick, as are good hiking shoes. It was a really spectacular hike-the crater rocks have fissures and steam vents. I gave them a wide berth.

The afternoon was left open for us to choose from. We returned to the park and went to the artists village shop. It is certainly worth the visit. We also got to the Orchid village. Very, very pretty. Commercial farming of orchids is something I'd not considered, but they do it here. There is a ride further up the Kilauea crater, but considering the next day had plenty of riding, we took a day off the bike. Dinner at the lodge was really good.

I rather expected rain the next morning, as Aaron said it is common. But it was a sunny sunrise, and the temps quickly warming. Easily a day for just shorts and jersey. In February! Today held a complete century from Volcano to Kona. The first 30 miles was downhill to a stop to see the green turtles at the black sand beach. Big reptiles, and very photogenic. Winding out, we started a climb by the shore, and here's where we had the only mishap of the whole trip - Cindy had a flat tire, complete with a torn tire. While I was fumbling with it Aaron came back to meet us and repaired it with a tire from his bike. He waited for the van, and we met up at the bakery in town. The ice cream and pastries were great!

We climbed, we rolled, we put the miles in. Beautiful road, low traffic, just a nice day on the bike. An abbreviated lunch stop at the van allowed us to get the full century in. No such thing as an easy century, but this one was rewarding. We rolled up at the hotel in time for beer cooler. Somehow, BA knows just how to schedule all this stuff. There's a fine line between being rushed and being idle. Just enough time to be relaxed, yet never feel bored. What a great day! Dinner that evening was again seafood. I hit the crab legs that were yummy, but way too much work.

Breakfast in the morning was right by the shore. Clear blue water you can see the fish swimming by while you partake of fresh fruit and baked goodies. A short van ride to the start of the ride let us bypass some rather unpleasant resort traffic, and we were soon on the road through the Kona coffee region. We stopped at Greenwell Farms, a local coffee producer. The tour of the operation is about 20 minutes, and very interesting. I had no idea the Kona growing region is so small-only a few miles stretch has a climate that the coffee trees like. Greenwell grows coffee as well as buys it for processing from other local growers. We had a sampling of different varieties, and picked up some beans to take home. They also sell a drink called "Kona Red" and extract of the coffee cherries. It's rather addicting. Try it!

Back on the bike, we cycled down to the beach where BA had yummy lunch ready. Nothing like relaxing on the beach in February in shorts and jersey. I could get used to this. The beach was near a Hawaiian "refuge" a place of historical significance for the indigenous people. They have done a nice job protecting and making it accessible. Take some time here to visit the artifacts.

We cycled out, and climbed to the painted church:  Very interesting architecture. As Cindy pressed ahead on a climb (she does that) Jessica kept me company on the bike. It sure was fun to have a riding partner to chat with in the hot sun. It is one of those things the guides do that is really nice...they are all great athletes, and surely have no trouble keeping up, but it is nice to have a relaxed partner there that hasn't heard all my stupid jokes and that actually laughs at them. Not sure how to put my finger on is just a nice personal touch, one that I don't think any of them are aware of, or how much it is appreciated.

The ride ended at a community co-op. Great ice cream to finish off the ride. We vanned off to a local bike shop to get some souvenir jerseys. Kona of course is ground zero for triathlon. They have the ironman world championships here. The bike shop was really well stocked, and I was rather surprised how competitive the prices were. Visit if you're in the market for anything bike related. Celeste and Tony opted to ride from the shop to the Waikoloa resort, as that stretch of highway is part of the ironman course. They arrived at sunset, and said it was spectacular.

The next day started with a snorkeling cruise arranged by BA. Another part of the multi-sport moniker that makes these vacations more than hop on a bike and ride till you drop. Sea Smoke is a nicely outfitted catamaran. The crew is super nice and clearly attentive to safety. The boat was full probably 40 or so of us, but it didnt seem cramped. It was easy to drop into the ocean by the reef the selected. Im not the best swimmer, but I could mange to float about a bit and see the sea creatures on the reef. Very, very cool. And the best part was being able to hear the humpbacks under water! No idea what they were saying; I dont speak humpback. They did seem to have an interesting Hawaiian accent though.

The catamaran had a sail, and the captain was able to rig it on the way back to the resort so we could observe the whales without running the propeller. Lots of breaching humpers quite spectacular. Glad to see the captain was keeping a slow, respectful distance. The humpers house, you know. Best if the guests behave.

The Waikoloa has a huge selection of shops, and lots to choose from for dinner on your own. We browsed a bit, and got a local artist print to add to our collection. We like to look for something to remind us of each of our trips.

Jessica and Aaron arranged a wine/cheese party on the beach that evening. We met up and relaxed as we watched the sun set. Aaron and Jessica have a talent they didnt let on until this point Aaron plays the ukulele and is a song writer! Jessica has a great voice, and this was the perfect, jolliest beach party ever. We toasted the trip, and marveled at beuatiful sky. Good, good times!

The last day of the trip was a hike and ride on the north side of the island. We vanned north, and had time to hike down to the beach. This isnt a little stroll the path was good, but rocky and a little technical. Most definitely worth the trip though the black sand beach was really nice. The surf riding up to the beach spectacular.

By the time we arrived back to the van the bikes were ready to go. We all decided to try our hand at the high road a bit of a climb. Sadly, this was the only day the weather wouldnt cooperate. Near the top of the climb, we encountered rain squalls and high crosswinds. I abandoned to the van with about 1000 left. Cindy pressed on, and we all met up at the top. All agreed the descent would be better in the van. The crosswinds would make it a bit to dangerous. The guides were rather relieved at this they dont relish needing to convince people to heed the safety advice.

We dropped of the hill to a really nice park by the shore for lunch. The salad and snacks Jessica made were exactly what I wanted. We were presented with the traditional BA certificates of completion. (I love these. Ive kept them all. They are posted on the wall of my home office to remind me that yes, work is only something I need to do between BA vacations.)

A short van ride back to the Waikoloa would be the end of our trip. Lots of logistics to attend to, but it was all handled in due course. Jessica and Aaron had another group to pick up the next morning. In some ways, these guides have the coolest jobs on the planet. In other waysthey work so very hard. I can only guess at the behind the scenes chores they must do the stuff the guests never see to make these trips come together so seamlessly. But come together it does, and when you get to the end, it just doesnt seem fair. You never want it to end. AndI did give passing thought to throwing my better sense to the wind how I wish I could have taken my cell phone out and made the arrangements to join that next trip. Id go around again. So. Much. Fun.

The return to the mainland through the Kona and Honolulu airports was (thankfully) uneventful. Im really glad we decided not to take our bikes and boxes. The rentals were great, and the big boxes would have been a terrible nuisance. It was mission accomplished on that regard this trip wasnt huge miles, and I really enjoyed doing other non-bike things. On a trip with huge miles, an epic trip, sure. Take your own bike, and obsess about the riding. But this Hawaii trip was just enough.

Some discussion and I think were planning the Bryce-Zion trip next. See you there!