Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Saturday trip to California Academy of Sciences

On a dull foggy Saturday morning, we set out on a drive towards San Francisco downtown. Our agenda had a few things, but we had decided to see as much as we can, and would not rush ourselves. The first place to visit was the California Academy of Sciences. We got there at about 12.00 noon and ended up spending the whole day there.

It was crowded, but not as much as it could be on some days.. As we entered, we were welcomed by a large dinosaur skeleton, as you would expect in any scientific place :).

There was an area where interactive programs were going on... 'The Mad science show' was on when we entered and we skipped it. Later we watched the show about reptiles and were thrilled that they brought in live snakes, including a python to show us. Srihari (my almost 3 yr old son), was absolutely excited and he was imitating the snakes by moving his tongue in and out.

Our first stop was the aquarium area. There were a few exhibits that we could see from above, unlike the regular through the glass view. We saw large bat rays and many other colourful fishes.

Then, we visited the regular aquarium area. It was pretty, but nothing special after seeing so many aquariums in the US. Colourful tropical fishes, jelly fishes, sea horses, varieties of sea dragons, sea anemones and other interesting sea/ water creatures adorned the water behind the glass walls. We got to see a pretty big octopus which was moving a lot, unlike the still ones I have seen before. No photography of the octopus though!!! There was also a touch pool and the staff patiently explained about all the sea creatures in there.

Then we got into the planetarium to see the show 'Life: A Cosmic story', about the beginning of life on earth. I loved the 90 foot diameter dome screen and their projection technology, but did not enjoy the story-line of this show as much. They kind of touched upon everything and did not explain anything... May be that was all the time they had. They could have chosen a topic that was smaller and easier to explain.  I felt, I have seen better planetarium stories - the ones in Brila planetarium, that I saw as a kid in Chennai were far more interesting. Also, the dome theater at San Jose Tech Museum is larger and better. Read our experience here.

After having lunch at the extremely priced (as expected) academy cafe, we went to the rain forest area. This was a multi-tire building, each tire focusing on a particular part of the world. They had free flying birds and butterflies which were very pretty, still looked artificial in the steel and glass building. They had altered the temperature and humidity to suit the rain forest environment. It was hot and humid here!!!

The different kinds of pitcher plants that they had on display, transported me back to the school days, when we learnt about these amazing carnivorous plants :)

They also had colourful geckos, lizards, snakes and frogs in their exhibits. The rain forest experience was something different and I have never seen anything like this in any of the museums / science centers I have visited till now.

The living roof
 'The living roof' is like a roof garden... There is little to see, yet a lot to learn. They had boards explaining the advantage of the living roof and how it can help keep the planet green.

They had a few exhibits on 'green energy'. The one that grabbed my attention was the solar powered stoves used in a village in Rajastan, India. It is an initiative of an Indian scientist
Solar powered stoves being used in Rajastan villages in India

The young explorer's cove is meant for kids under 5 years and has books, puppets, play area and a boat!! Our little one could run around and play as we relaxed and watched him.

They also had a naturalist lab, which we did not visit. Outside, they had a raindeer exhibit with a couple of reindeers (probably, a holiday attraction) and thoughtful people who were really interested in answering questions.

It was closing time and it fogged up again, bringing out beautiful colours of sunset.

Overall, the experience was good. There is a vast diversity and many things to see. One can easily spend an afternoon here, without getting bored. The entrance fee of $30 per person seemed a bit expensive.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Big Island - Big Experience

Beautiful Hawaii
Visiting Hawaii has been on my dream list from the time I came to US and it came true over this Thanksgiving weekend. It all started when Murali's friend Kapil brought up the topic of visiting Hawaii over Thanksgiving while we were at Kings Canyon on the Memorial day weekend. Murali and I were totally game and started discussing the dates and deciding which island to visit etc.. But later, Kapil had to drop out of the plan. My sister was getting married soon, and she and her husband were interested in joining us. So, the two families set out on our discovery of the Big island of Hawaii.

Before writing about how our trip was, I'd like to point out a few things... These might be useful, in case you like to visit Big Island.

  • Big Island is BIG (that's why the name). If you want to immerse yourself into its varied 11 climatic zones (out of 13 in the whole world), it is wise to spend at least 10 days there (Don't hop Island if you have a week's vacation. Just stay in one and enjoy it completely). We did not have enough time.... I could have easily spent another 2 weeks there!!! yes I loved this place.
  • Be prepared to drive. All roads (except the saddle road, which connects Kona and Hilo) are along the coast. So it can take a lot of driving to get to one part of the island from another.
  • Get yourself a 4WD. If you want to visit the green sand beach or have a secluded beach all to yourself, you need one!!
  • Rent a vacation home with a full kitchen. It works out cheaper than hotels or resorts and you also save by cooking your own food.
Now that you know the 'Points-to-remember' let me write about how we spent 'those 5 glorious days' (should I say 7??? - The travel to and back took 2 whole days)

On the Thanksgiving day (25th Nov), we flew out of Oakland to Kona, Big Island, Hawaii by Hawaiian Airlines with a stopover at Honolulu, Oahu, Hawaii. The travel time (with the stop) was about 7 1/2 hours.
Kona Airport
The Kona airport by itself looks like a resort with small wooden huts. No sophisticated buildings or gates. Just get out of your flight using stairs, into the runway and walk up to baggage claim. I loved the place, the minute we landed, not to mention the warm weather was a great break from the cold back home. We rented a Jeep 4X4 at National car rental and drove away to get some food. Being vegetarians, the eat-out options are limited. Our decision to cook our food worked out to our advantage. We ate garden burgers, fries and onion rings at Denny's in Kona downtown. We picked up grocery from the nearby Safeway and drove to our vacation home.

Our vacation rental
We had rented a two bedroom + a loft (with 365° view) vacation home near Naalehu (The southern part of the island) which is a little over an hour's drive from Kona. It was a beautiful house, elegantly furnished with full kitchen. The property sat on a 22 acre land with trees full of bananas, guavas, macadamia nuts, avocados, grape fruits, oranges etc. There were a few tame sheep grazing on the hillside. With free Wi-Fi, computer and full strength cell phone signal, we were completely connected with the world, and yet sweetly secluded.

We had cup noodles for dinner. I made Channa masala to pack lunch the next day and we hit our beds looking forward to the coming days. I forgot to mention.... The stars are very clearly visible here, away from the blaring artificial city lights. We enjoyed star gazing through the skylight in our bedroom, while luxuriating the comforts of our bed!

Off to snorkeling
Next morning, we woke up early, had coffee and a toast for breakfast . I made oatmeal with banana for Srihari (my 21/2 yr old son). We packed channa masala rice, yogurt rice, pickles, chips and juice and started our drive towards kona. We were going to snorkel with Fair Winds II in the Kealakekua Bay along Kohala coast. Unlike most companies, they let my little one come on board for about $30. They served breakfast during our 45 minutes boat ride. They also distributed snorkeling gear and flippers. The entire crew was very friendly and helpful.
Fair Winds II
When we got to the spot, we were given a briefing about how to snorkel and safety for all. They had various flotation devices for us to use. Yes! You don't need to know any swimming!! and still have fun. Srihari has been uncomfortable in large water bodies. He cries when we took him to swimming pools. To our surprise, he enjoyed the experience a lot!! We put a baby life jacket on him and made him sit on one of those comfortable baby floats. They had view boxes through which he could see all that we could see through goggles, without getting his face/ head wet! He loved it, which in turn means, we loved it too. They served a burger, chips and salad lunch on board. I was glad that they had veggie burgers too! After lunch another 45 minutes of exploration. The colourful marine life over the shallow coral reef was awe-inspiring. We got to see striped and spotted fishes, sea urchins, sea anemones, long trumpetfish, spiny puffers and even eels!!! (I am not mentioning all the fish names here... I guess it would be boring). We saw many schools of dolphins, swimming and jumping in the distance, through out the trip. Fair Winds you ROCK!!! Then it was time to get back on the boat and go back to shore.

Queen's bath
We spent rest of the evening in Kona and southern Kohala. Using the guide book I mentioned earlier, we visited 'The Queen's bath' - the almost empty black rock and gravel beach.

Anaeho'omalu bay beach
Anaeho'omalu bay beach was our next and final stop for the day. The shallow low surf water was perfect for swimming. We ate an early dinner watching Sunset and having fun.
Sunset over Anaeho'omalu bay
This was the windiest beach I have ever visited... Everything including our bags, beach mat, towels were flying... Still, this was the best beach experience of our trip!! Big Island beaches are supposed to be not as good as those on other islands. If the 'so-so' beaches are so pretty, I wonder how the others would be!!

Kailuea Crater
The next day, it was time to visit the volcanoes. We drove up to the Volcano National park, which is about 45 minutes from where we stayed. Many roads within the park were closed due to higher levels of Sulphur-di-oxide emissions. We could drive up to the Jagger museum on the Crater Rim Drive to see the smoking Kailuea Crater. The rest of the road was closed.

Pele' - Hawaiian Volcano Goddess - Portrait at Jagger Museum

We drove back down to see steam vents. Then, we parked at the visitor center and went on our rain forest hike along Halema‘uma‘u Trail (covered just a part of it).
Unique Hawaiian fern

The trail was covered with greenery - ferns, moss and everything green... Not much sunlight hits the forest floor.

Entrance of Thurston Lava tube
Next, we explored the 'Thurston Lava tube'. The small first part of the tube is lit. Then there is this huge unlit, dark part of the tube which can be explored only with flash lights. We had bought a couple of flash lights at the visitor center and used them here. The darkness and solitude was a different experience in itself!!

Holei sea arch
Once out of the lava tube, we drove down the 'Chain of Craters' road and stopped to look at craters on each side. The road is closed near the Holei sea arch. Between here and Kalapana road (137) is the current active lava flow.

Hike to Petroglyphs at sunset
After seeing the sea arch and clicking a few pictures, we drove back up the chain of craters road. We started the hike to the Petroglyphs (rock art by first Hawaiian natives) at sunset over the cooled lava bed. It was after sunset, when we could return back to our lone jeep at the trail head parking lot! We hiked back in the darkness guided by the approximate direction and occasional carins (A heap-like stone structure, used to mark trails). We did this having a 21/2 year old with us!! I think you are wise enough not to try this!! After an exciting day, we got back home, ate Maggi noodles and went to bed.

South point - Southernmost point of US
On day 3, we relaxed all morning, had lunch and left home around noon. We drove (about 20 minutes) to south point which is the southernmost point of US. With Crystal clear waters and colourful marine life, this place is a gem by itself. It is a great spot for snorkeling.

4WD road to Green sand beach
From the south point, a 21/2 mile hike (one way) on a 4WD only road leads to the real gem of Ka'u district - the Green Sand Beach (one of the two in the whole world). We drove our Jeep up the road, giving all of us, especially Murali - the driver, the experience of a lifetime!!!

It took us a solid 45 minutes to get there. Then we had to climb down the steep cliff to access the small sandy beach.

Green sand

The sand is a muddy black-green in colour, the mineral olivine constituting the green. There is a sign warning the visitors not to take the sand and there will be a fine of $500 if they do so!!! The beach was very pretty and the waves were in high surf. We enjoyed there for about an hour and started back on the same 4WD road. Unfortunately, our Jeep got stuck on a small rock with 3 of its wheels in air. With just one wheel providing traction, the jeep refused to move. We all got down and added a few rocks below the other two wheels and Murali tried to drive away. After multiple attempts, we were off... We breathed a sigh of relief.

The road to Kalapana (137) was open (closed the previous day) that day (or at least that's what the recorded message on the toll free number said), from where we might be able to see lava flow (or the huge steam caused by lava meeting the ocean). So we decided to drive there and give it a shot. It was a long 80 mile drive along highway 11 and then 137. When we got there, they said the road had to be closed after around 4.00 PM as the wind directions changed and there was way more Sulphur-di-oxide than the safe limits. Oh!! What a bummer!! We decided to call it a day.

The wetter Hilo Coast - covered with rain forests
Day 4 was dedicated to the wetter Hilo side of the Island. A drive of about 2 hours got us to 'The world Botanical gardens', where, my sister and I zipped at Zip Isles
Me zipping through....
This is a 7-line zip and the lines were very mellow and designed for pre-beginners, I'd say. I wish they had 1 or 2 of their lines a little more challenging for some adrenalin rush. Murali, Siva and Srihari were walking along while we zipped through.

Uma'Uma Falls
 After lunch, we visited the famous 3-tire uma'uma falls. It was picture perfect and we stood there gazing at its beauty.

Akaka Falls
Our next stop was Akaka falls, the tallest waterfall in the Big Island. Murali, Srihari and I took the 15-20 minutes rain forest walk (guided by the book) which includes the view of another falls. The sheer 70 foot drop of the Akaka falls is mesmerizing.

Nature's beauty captured at the botanical garden

While returning, we stopped at a local farm to drink fresh coconut water and eat a local pineapple. The coconut was huge and had about a gallon of water! The price was exorbitant too! $10 for just one coconut!!! We were already running late for our lava boat tour and hence missed the other beautiful falls (Rainbow falls, boiling pots, Peh'peh falls etc) on the Hilo side.

'Lava falls'

We drove to Hilo to pick up the boarding pass and then along highway 132 to the boat dock. When we called in for the booking, they said that Srihari is too young to be on the boat and I decided to stay with him on the shore. Murali, Radhi (my sis) and Siva (her hubby) went to see live active lava up close. Srihari and I walked around, played for a while and then we met the boat owner. I explained to him the reason, Srihari and I had to stay behind... and to my surprise, he told that he takes young kids on his boats and wondered why we did not ask him!!! When I told him that we asked when we did the booking, he said no one checked with him!!! Lesson learnt... Ask and keep asking, may be someone might let you go! No harm asking, right?? May be, it was good we didn't go... May be Goddess Pele' (Hawaiian Volcano Goddess) knew the little one might not be able to take her wrath.

New land formed, when hot lava flows into the ocean and cools down.

Those who went had an amazing experience - one of a lifetime. They saw hot lava flowing like a waterfall, meeting the sea and new land being formed about 5 to 7 feet in front of them... I could feel the power of nature even by just thinking through it... After that we drove back stopping in Hilo to re-stock grocery. I found few items to be cheaper than my local California grocery stores!! Overall, Hilo seems to be cheaper than Kona.

Pu'nalu'lu Black sand beach
Day 5, technically our last day of vacation, started off with a visit to the famous Punalu'lu black sand beach which is just 10-15 minutes drive from where we stayed. It was a beautiful beach with jet black sand.

Green sea turtle at Black sand beach

We got to see green sea turtles up-close that come to feed here.

Backwater lake at black sand beach

There is also a small picturesque backwater lake with water lilies and ducks. As the day got warmer, the black sand got un-stepably hot!! We could have stayed longer, but we were heading back to Kona to spend the rest of the day.

Jet Skiing near Kona downtown

Radhi and Saravanan went jet skiing while the rest of us spent the warm humid afternoon in the beach next to the pier. After their adventurous jet skiing experience (Radhi fell into the ocean during one of Siva's show-off maneuvers), we went on 'The Atlantis' submarine ride.
The Atlantis submarine ride
We read great reviews and heard good things about this experience from our friends, but, unfortunately, this was our least favourite activity. We were really underwhelmed by the clarity and variety of marine life we could see. We loved the snorkeling experience better. Just the fact that we were sitting in a submarine, for the first time, 100 feet under water was the only thing different... I felt it was not worth the $80. May be, if we had not done the snorkeling, we might have liked it.

The rest of the evening we went shopping. Yippee!!! We bought roasted macadamia nuts, chocolate covered macadamia nuts, some jewelery, a Hawaiian dress and a hat which had "Hawaii" embroidered on it.

We ate that night at "The Big Island Grill" Among all that they served us there, I loved their papaya seed salad dressing. funny ha ha!!

We missed a couple of beautiful white sand beaches along the Kona and Kohala coast due to lack of time.

Next morning, we flew back to Mainland all tanned after a wonderful vacation sulking about the cold that faced us.