We began a big day with brunch at the hotel before a long drive through country roads meandering between tree-lined hills. We eventually arrived at the ruins of Ephesus, a city that had been at the center of the economic and cultural life of antiquity. It was eventually abandoned as the river to its harbor dried up. Now it's a great example of what a prospering city was like back then.

While not as large as Pompeii or even Bet She'An, it does have some buildings in better repair, and some almost fully restored, making it a must-see for any tourist in the region. In particular, the theater and the library were major highlights I really enjoyed.

Ephesus Street

The main commercial street in Ephesus, which connected the upper and lower parts of the city. Shops would have lined both sides. Rich merchants lived above or behind their shops, so this would have been a classy neighborhood.

Ephesus Temple

The Temple of Hadrian, showing Roman influence.

Ephesus Bathroom

Public bathrooms. Not much privacy!

Ephesus Library

The Library of Celsus, which sits at the intersection of the merchant street and the theater street. It's a really impressive building that's had some nice restoration work done. There might have even been a third story above the two still standing. You'll notice that the upper story is shorter than the lower - this was a purposeful design to create the optical illusion of the building being taller than it really was. Lots of statues and inscriptions can still be found throughout.

Ephesus Theater

The view from the top of the theater. This was the main source of entertainment and social life for the Ephesians. It's massive - bigger than any other ancient theater I've been to. You can also see the long road heading out to where the harbor was.

Ephesus Theater

This is looking back at the theater. The huge building is the first thing a boat entering the harbor would see.

Once we finished wandering through the ruins, we went across the street to the Temple of Artemis, which was one of the seven wonders of the world. Sadly, it's mostly an empty swamp right now. There are a few pillars partially standing, but the site really has nothing noteworthy about it. This convinced me that visiting the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus - the last of the ancient wonders I hadn't been to I could possibly see - was not worth it, as that building is reportedly in even worse condition.

Temple of Artemis

The remains of the Temple of Artemis, a lone column standing in the middle of a swamp.

Beyond the temple lies the ruins of the Basilica of St. John the Apostle, which includes the claimed final resting spot of that man. It was built by the Byzantines about 1500 years ago, making it the youngest ruin in the area.

Basilica of St. John the Apostle

One of the entrances to the Basilica of St. John the Apostle. The building must've had some pretty impressive domes, but the roof is totally gone now.

It was a great day for exploring the history of the region, seeing firsthand how the economic, political, and religious powers throughout time influenced the architecture of different buildings in such close proximity.

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We left Istanbul on a domestic flight to Izmir, the country's third most populous city. The flight was delayed while we were taxiing on the tarmac due to another plane making an emergency landing. One of the engines actually burst into flames. Thankfully, the plane made it down successfully and everyone was fine. I found a video of the flight in question if you want to see it for yourself.

Shipping in Istanbul

Once in the air we got to see Istanbul from the sky, including the hordes of shipping vessels that were awaiting their turn to dock at the port.

When we landed a short time later, we discovered that the Izmir airport was virtually empty. It clearly had a capacity for thousands more people arriving and departing, but we were in the off season, so most of the airport was vacant.

We then found a driver to take us out to Çeşme (pronounced chesh-may), a sea-side town an hour outside the city that caters to tourists looking to get away from it all. We were staying in a big, fancy resort with all sorts of amenities we never used, including a spa and a movie theater. The resort seemed just as empty as the airport.

Çeşme Hotel Staircase

One of the staircases inside the hotel. Yay favorable exchange rates!

Çeşme Hotel View

This was the view from our hotel balcony. We began each morning sipping coffee and gazing out at this.

In Çeşme we found our first doner kebaps for lunch. Both Joe and I are big fans of this particular Turkish food in its transplanted-by-immigrants version in Berlin, so it was exciting to finally get it straight from the source. We had pide for dinner, which is a kind of stuffed flat bread shaped and cut like a pizza. Its consistency is somewhere between pita and pie crust. The word pita may even derive from pide.

The next day we explored the Alacati neighborhood and it felt like being in a Mediterranean version of Martha's Vineyard. It was also very similar to some of the towns on the Greek islands I visited, although those were more plain visually, dressed consistently only in that country's white and blue. Here we walked through small, winding pedestrian streets surrounded by colorful buildings. There were many restaurants and shops and even hostels to choose from.

Alacati Windmills

The Alacati windmills are a famous landmark. We couldn't figure out why exactly, but a lot of locals were there lounging or taking pictures, including several weddings using the spot as a backdrop.

We had drinks and dinner in Alacati, doing as the locals did: just enjoying ourselves and the amazing clear weather surrounded by the smell of salt coming off the ocean. The meal was fish and chips, but it was fresh fish caught locally, specifically, bream.

Dogs in Çeşme

There were a lot of stray dogs around Alacati and they liked to watch everyone eat. Although they mostly relaxed in the sun and moved about lazily, I did see one chase off a bird for a piece of calamari that fell on the street.

Back at hotel we witnessed a spectacular sunset. Çeşme really delivered when it came to the idea of a beach vacation. And although it was still a bit cold to enjoy the water in April, being there in the off season meant we had the place to ourselves.

Mediterranean Sea in Çeşme

The sun starts to set over the Aegean Sea, as seen from the hotel room.

Çeşme Sunset

Full sunset on the beach.

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I took so many pictures in and around the Hagia Sophia that it seemed a waste not to share more. So here's an extra post that's focused on just that. Enjoy!

Hagia Sophia Door

This is big, beautiful door is the main entrance into the central chamber.

Hagia Sophia Library

These are some really ornate windows separating the main hall from what was the library.

Hagia Sophia Modern Art Exhibit

As I mentioned in my last post, there was a modern art exhibit in the side halls while we were there. This was my favorite piece.

Hagia Sophia Chandelier

The chandeliers are just massive. And they're hanging from that incredibly tall ceiling by only a single cable. Impressive.

Hagia Sophia Empress Lodge

This is looking up at the Empress' Lodge, so called because it was her private viewing location. The rich got box seats, even back then.

Hagia Sophia Shadows

With only the chandeliers to complement the natural lighting some areas didn't have much ambient light. It made some artsy shots like this one possible.

Sultan Ahmet Mosque seen from inside the Hagia Sophia

There's a window on the top floor where you're high enough to actually see across the rooftops and catch a glimpse of the Sultan Ahmet Mosque poking out.

Hagia Sophia

One last exterior look. The Hagia Sophia is so solidly built and proportioned that it sometimes felt more like a fortress than anything else.

Stay tuned for next time when the fun continues in Turkey but we leave the big city behind!

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The Hagia Sophia. It was the main stopping point on our whirlwind single-day tour and we dedicated the rest of the afternoon to it. This 1500 year old building went from cathedral to mosque to museum, and has influenced a lot of other buildings both in Istanbul and around the world. It was the seat of the Eastern Orthodox church and at the center of the Byzantine/Eastern Roman Empire for a millennium. It's hard to overstate just how impactful such a place could be.

Hagia Sophia Exterior from the South

The main entrance to the Hagia Sophia. Lots of tourists and locals jostling each other for a place in line. Pro tip: you can skip most of that line if you're willing to use an automated machine. Just like going to a movie theater it baffles me why so many people wanted to stand in line just to talk to a human to buy a ticket.

Hagia Sophia Exterior from the East

Another shot of the Hagia Sophia from the side. Since there wasn't an entrance here the area had very few people milling about.

We walked into the center of the main floor first, staring upwards at the high vaulted ceilings and twirling around, trying to take it all in. I don't remember any other domed building I've been in being this old. To think that the roof here stood the test of time when so many others fell. It was a staggering moment.

Hagia Sophia Interior from Upper Floor

The inside of the Hagia Sophia. You can see some of the restoration projects on the left and the massive hanging chandeliers in the middle.

Hagia Sophia Altar

This is the focal point of the main floor inside the Hagia Sophia. It's where the sermons would've happened. A Christian altar would've been in the center back area now replaced by the Muslim mihrab. And you can see the staircase on the right leading up to the minbar, what would be called a pulpit in English. Finally, you'll note the mosaic visible in the dome up top - the original cathedral had tons of impressive mosaics throughout. Sadly some were stolen and the rest plastered over during the conversion to a mosque. Restoration efforts have improved the state of a lot of them though.

There were museum pieces aplenty, including a modern art exhibit. But really we were there for the building itself and to feel close to the history it had seen.

Hagia Sophia Byzantine Emperor Coronation Spot

This unadorned, unassuming spot in the middle of the floor is where the coronation of the Byzantine Emperor happened for a thousand years. It's hard to imagine a micro-location with more historical weight behind it.

Topkapi Palace Gardens

Just to the north of the Hagia Sophia is a huge, sprawling garden filled with flowers, statues, and water features. Originally, the verdant acres could only be enjoyed by the royals of the adjacent Topkapi palace and their guests, but it's now a public park. That conversion from private, exclusive space to something anyone can experience for free really impressed me.

When we finally departed it was to meet up with Eric, an American friend I made on the flight over, who was doing a solo version of the same trip we were. We tried to find a rooftop restaurant but ran into the same problem with addresses and maps that we had the first night. After several failed attempts we walked up six flights of stairs that were only wide enough to fit one of us at a time, past heaps of junk, in an utterly silent building before emerging into what was clearly a restaurant, complete with white linens and a great view to the West. But it was empty of people except for a single patron nursing a tall beer at the bar. The proprietor eventually appeared and greeted us in a different accent than we were used to hearing, a minor mystery he solved when he identified himself as Kurdish. We started with grilled calamari served with hummus and yogurt to dip in for an appetizer. Dinner for me was a sizzling hot lamb stew with mushrooms and peppers, a dish that reminded me a lot of the food in Hungary.

Istanbul Sunset from Terras 6/Wonder Roof

This is the sunset as seen through the window of the restaurant we dined in, called both Terras 6 (it's on the 6th floor) and Wonder Roof, depending on which website or map app you're checking.

Eric departed as we left for drinks at what became my favorite bar in Istanbul: a tiny wooden corner off of Istiklal sporting American beer signs and license plates called Parantez. There we had Bomonti, a domestic light beer that goes down smoothly.

We then hit our first - and only - recommendation of the night, the James Joyce pub. An Irish pub in Istanbul? Of course. The atmosphere and drinks were what you would expect - glorious Guinness was available and we were surrounded by shelves of classic books - but the highlight happened as we were thinking of leaving. A live acoustic band started playing covers of 80s and 90s American music, focusing (much to our delight) on the Red Hot Chili Peppers. And they nailed it! We stayed far longer than we had intended just to listen to them keep jamming.

We finished off the night at a place called Pasha with another Turkish tradition: hookah. It was low-key and the servers hung around to talk to us when we seemed amenable to learning more about their culture. As the night waned they pointed out some of the rarer sights: punks and drag queens started walking right by our table while pop music could be heard thumping from a nearby club. In that moment we could have easily been in any Western city. The miracle is that we weren't.

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Our second day in Istanbul was hugely ambitious. We walked to most of the major tourist sites on the European side, cramming in everything we could until our calves threatened to not walk up another hill. One of the city's nicknames is "the city of seven hills," an affectation borrowed from Rome. By the time the sun was setting my feet and my shoes could attest to the truth behind that name.

We started the morning with Turkish coffee, which is dark and chalky and almost always served with sugar-coated, soft Turkish delight taffy, much to my...delight. We had found a sparsely populated cafe where the owner was only too happy to regale us with dubious tales of his exploits the previous night. His impressions of the girls he claimed to have met were so outrageous that it made me not care if his stories were true or not. I'll grant an eccentric middle-aged cafe owner his tall tales told for the amusement of tourists.

Bosphorus Istanbul

The Bosphorus from the European side looking south. Here you can see the New Mosque across the water. It's called that because it's one of the youngest big mosques in the city, sitting at around 350 years old.

After a long walk across the river (the first of many) we hiked up to the Süleymaniye Mosque. It's the largest mosque in the city and one of the most easily spotted from afar because it sits on top of a hill pretty much by itself; its silhouette was a constant companion on the skyline. Services happened to be going on so we didn't venture inside (although we did return to do so later), but the grounds and exterior plus the views looking back at the city proved well-worth the trek.

Süleymaniye Mosque

The Süleymaniye Mosque seen straight on from the front.

Süleymaniye Mosque View

The view from the grounds of the Süleymaniye Mosque looking back at where we came from. A popular spot for locals taking selfies.

Back at the bottom of the hill we wandered into the Grand Bazaar, another landmark famous for its age and size. The sprawling market contained almost any kind of shopping we would want to do - from clothing to electronics to food to specialty shops. I bought some honey pastries as a snack and they were sticky but delicious.

Istanbul University

The main entrance to the Istanbul University is right near the bazaar. We saw more diversity in the kinds of people around it than anywhere else in the city.

Exiting the bazaar to the south we found a meal at an outdoor restaurant. Typical of what I remember from lunch elsewhere in the Middle East there were only two choices: chicken with salad or lamb with salad. It was quite a bit of food despite the affordable price. While we ate the proprietor was trying to facilitate connections between the few tables he had populated, and managed to find another set of American tourists for us to converse with in unaccented English.

Continuing downslope along the road Divan Yolu - a major commercialized thoroughfare complete with a light rail tram and lined by tons of shops and restaurants - we happened upon the Tomb of Sultan Mahmut II. It was the first place we had to take our shoes of in Turkey, but certainly not the last. It was a brief but fascinating look at how royalty was treated once they were gone.

Sultan Mahmut II Cemetery

The cemetery around the Tomb of Sultan Mahmut II. The gravestones are cylindrical, which isn't something I had seen before.

We finally arrived at the bottom of the hill in the center of the Sultan Ahmet district, which is dominated by a park of the same name. Crowds of both locals and tourists lazily meandered the flowered and fountained concrete. There happened to be a display of a large carpet of tulips that caught a lot of attention. It was an ideal day for such a place: clear blue skies and a light breeze couldn't be argued with.

Obelisk of Theodosius

This is the Obelisk of Theodosius in the Sultan Ahmet park. It was erected in 390 CE, which means there aren't a lot of things still standing older than it. For reference, Byzantium became the Eastern Roman Empire's capital - which included the name change to Constantinople - in 330.

On one end of the park was the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, the structure that lent its name to the neighborhood. It was absolutely packed and the line to go inside looked far too long, so we contented ourselves with exploring the area outside.

Sultan Ahmet Mosque

The Sultan Ahmet Mosque seen from across the main fountain in the square.

We eventually made our way to the opposite side of the park to find our main attraction for the day. I have enough to say about it to warrant its own post, so you'll have to wait until next time.

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This past spring I had the pleasure of exploring the Byzantine empire - a part of history I've been fascinated with since I was young - on a week long trip to Turkey with my constant friend and travel companion Joe (you'll remember him from my first time in Berlin and subsequent adventures in Scotland and Ireland). In the time leading up to takeoff I was constantly singing the appropriate They Might Be Giants cover to myself:

Because of the exchange rate we were able to live like kings and eschewed our normal hostels for five star hotels. We checked into the Divan in Istanbul, conveniently located on the northern end of the hip Taksim Square neighborhood. This is where a lot of the best Istanbul nightlife happens and we purposefully stayed there based on multiple recommendations. Thank you friends, you were not wrong, it was a great neighborhood to stay in and I would do it again in a heartbeat.

Istanbul from 360 Restaurant

My first view of Istanbul from above at the restaurant 360. (Note that I did not have my camera with me the first night, so these are all cell phone pictures.)

Wandering down the main pedestrian thoroughfare of Istiklal street we were surrounded by the smells of food on carts and in stalls: macaroons, pretzels, and kebabs dominated. We were arriving right at the end of the work day and the beginning of dinner time and the crowds were nearly unnavigable. It was as dense or worse than any popular street in London or New York. So if you have claustrophobia when it comes to crowds it's best avoided. More surprising was that all the men seemed to adhere to a single dress code: black leather jackets, dark jeans, and identical haircuts among the locals made us even more conscious of our tourist status. Amid the thronged chaos I was struck by how clean the cement and cobblestone streets were.

Istiklal Street

Istiklal street with tons of people and lit up nicely.

We eventually found the address for another repeated recommendation: dinner at 360, a posh restaurant known for panoramic views of the city. But the building looked like it was just another normal apartment building, easily inconspicuous and unremarkable from the outside. This would become a common theme in Istanbul: addresses were unreliable, and even if correct often failed to denote a floor or suite. We gambled and walked inside despite our misgivings, and were paid off by an elevator ride to a barren looking staircase with a cloth barrier. Passing through the threshold we were immediately bombarded by the sounds of dinner guests eating and clinking drinks. We were in the right place - and they had English menus.

360 Restaurant

360 Restaurant: expensive, but worth the food and views.

Dinner at 360 included some light entertainment - a few songs sung and danced to by a couple of young women in silver dresses and white wigs, with makeup I can only describe as Egyptian. One decided to dance only a few inches from me, so snapping a picture would've been extremely awkward. We drank raki cocktails - it's a local licorice-flavored liquor comparable to ouzo - and ate beef samosas with fig jam, cheese stuffed calamari, and pizza with Turkish cheese and pepperoni. It was delicious by any measure.

Aslan Lion Drink Menu

In this drink menu at 360 I was shocked to learn that "aslan" simply means "lion" in Turkish. C.S. Lewis named the lion in his Narnia series Aslan - that's the lion of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe fame. I thought it was a cool name he made up, but it's just a literal translation. Childhood: shattered.

After dinner we went back in the direction of the hotel, but stopped at the Istanbul Intercontinental for drinks. Their top-floor bar is called City Lights, and it delivers precisely that at night. We enjoyed the local beer, Efes, in several different varieties. It's named after the shortened form of the famous ancient city Ephesus, which we would visit later.

Istanbul from City Lights Bar

The Asian side Istanbul across the river as seen from the Intercontinental's City Lights bar.

It was a great evening to start the trip, and we had big plans for exploring more of the city on the morrow.

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Staying in the town of Lahaina on Maui was a very purposeful decision during the planning process because it's on the Western edge of the island, and thus ideally situated for viewing spectacular sunsets.

I took a ton of sunset pictures, so rather than throw them in sporadically throughout all the Hawaii posts I decided to collect my favorites together in a sunset mega post. They're ordered chronologically, are a mix of phone and camera pictures (can you spot which is which?) and were taken either at our resort, on the beach in Lahaina, or from the ship in the harbor. None of the pictures have been edited other than resizing to fit them here.

Maui Sunset

Maui Sunset

Maui Sunset

Maui Sunset

Maui Sunset

Maui Sunset

Maui Sunset

Maui Sunset

Maui Sunset

If you're still here you'll notice that the last three are very similar shots. I wanted to show how quickly the colors and clouds can change. It felt unreal to watch it unfold in real time. There's something...majestic about a sunset.

I hope you enjoyed these as much as I enjoyed taking them! I'm happy to provide high quality print versions privately upon request.

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We moved on to Maui after The Big Island. The flight itself was noteworthy because of how small the plane was: I had been on island-hoppers before, but those were all dual-prop planes you could stand up in. This was a single propeller plane and there's no way you could stand up in it. W felt every drop and turn and moment of turbulence acutely, like being in a car with an extremely tight suspension strapped to a roller coaster. The cruising altitude was also quit a bit lower than normal, which gave me a great view for watching the water and islands go by.

Clouds on the flight to Maui

Clouds just above the surface of the ocean on the flight to Maui.

Maui from the air

Maui from the air. It seems obvious why Jurassic Park was filmed here. Jungle everywhere. Ravines and waterfalls accentuating everything. It's wild and gorgeous.

We stayed at the Royal Lahaina Resort. It was a short distance from a bunch of other resorts and a small shopping and dining area known as Whaler's Village. And since all the walking was along the beach I didn't mind hoofing it everywhere. Though being in the resort-oriented part of town meant that prices were pretty inflated. The quality of the food made up for a bit. We especially enjoyed putting coconut syrup on our pancakes and waffles each morning - it's a unique, tasty substitute for maple syrup that I wish was easy to find back home.

Other islands seen from Maui

From the west side of Maui you can see some other islands.

Maui Beach

Where The Big Island was black and gray and stony, Maui is full of color. I didn't need any filters or manipulation for this shot.

Our resort was known for having a good luau, so one of the nights there we went and got front row seats. It was the usual family-friendly show of dancing, history, and fire poi that you'd expect. Overall a fun diversion that I feel like you have to do at least once during every visit to Hawaii.

Us at a Maui Luau

Luau time!

The nearby city of Lahaina offered a lot more to do. This included many more shops and restaurants, but also a few unique attractions. Chief among them was the banyan tree in the middle of the town square. It's one of the largest examples you can find of this fascinating type of tree, which generates so many different trunks that a single tree can appear to be a forest all on its own.

Banyan Tree in Lahaina

The banyan tree in Lahaina. Yes, that's all one tree. It has 16 different trunks and covers two-thirds of an acre.

In Lahaina, we also got to experience Warren and Annabelle's Magic Show, which is a neat little semi-participatory event that starts with food and drink and music and then turns into an evening of comedy and magic. There are similar shows in places like Las Vegas, but none quite this intimate. Since the theater only sat about 30 people it was more like being in a classroom right next to the magician than being in a huge auditorium. And being that close meant we could scrutinize all the prestidigitation, which made the tricks we couldn't figure out all that more impressive.

Our last night in Hawaii we took a cruise on the Pacific Whale Foundation ship Ocean Quest. Dinner and music were provided as we moved out into the Lahaina harbor. At one point we were lucky enough to have a trio of dolphins come right up next to us and swim alongside. Then we watched the sun set on the ocean and tried to hold on to those last fleeting moments before having to return to solid ground and thus admit the vacation was ending.

Lahaina Harbor

This is looking back at Lahaina Harbor as we pushed away on our cruise. The clouds were so low in the sky I felt like I could almost touch them.

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Our second adventure-filled day on The Big Island saw us meeting up with a local guide, driving an hour North, and then leaving the car parked on the side of a dusty road. We were headed out for a day of trekking and exploring around the West coast of the island.

The first stop was a lava tube cave - molten rock had hollowed out the ground, but then moved on before solidifying. I've never been in a cave like this before. Everything was perfectly smooth where the lava had been, despite being porous rock. And there was perfectly still, crystal clear water filling it about a third of the way up. We saw evidence of people who had obviously gone swimming or partied there, including a series of unlit candles that marked the path inside.

Lava Tube Cave in Hawaii

Due to the wet and rocky nature of the hike we were told to leave our cameras behind and rely on the guide. His camera - although waterproof - did not do that well even with a flash. So these pictures are going to be a bit lower in quality than I'd like. This is the best shot I could find of inside the lava tube cave.

After getting out of the cave we continued on foot throughout a rocky, forested area. It had a bunch of wild animals, but was dry, with packed dirt under our feet and dust in the air.

Hawaiin Goat

The number one thing I did not expect to find in the Hawaiian wilderness: goats.

Eventually we found the beach of Kiholo Bay, and along with it, several celebrity houses. An interesting (and useful) fact is that all the shoreline in Hawaii is considered public land, so while the private properties could be set back a ways, there were no private beaches. This meant that we were free to walk up and down the sand without fear of trespassing.

We found another cave, this one almost entirely filled with water and actually named with a small wooden sign that simply read "Kalealele." These neat little random finds meant that we could've spent the entire day just searching the coast.

After moving along the beach for at least an hour we came across a more preserved area where development wasn't allowed. We saw lots of schools of fish and these metallic looking silver-black crabs (my best guess is they were the baby version of what the locals call a'ama crabs) crawling around the wet black stones of the shore.

Black-Crowned Night-Heron and Sea Turtle

A black-crowned night-heron and a sea turtle, staring each other down. This bird is common in some parts of the world, but a rare sight in Hawaii.

About 100 yards off the coast was "turtle island," an unofficial name for a small piece of land that sea turtles liked to visit. So we did the only logical thing we could do: we swam out to it. We weren't disappointed, as we saw half a dozen of the creatures and managed to get quite close to them.

Swimming to Turtle Island

This is us making our spontaneous swim out to turtle island. Despite not being that much water to cross the current was still extremely strong.

Tired from a day of hoofing it, we went to explore some nearby resorts, including the Mauna Kea Hotel. There I was introduced to the "Trent Jones" which is the Hawaiian version of an Arnold Palmer, using pineapple juice instead of iced tea. I was disappointed: it's not nearly as good as it sounds.

Scarlet Macaw

The Mauna Kea Hotel had a lot of animals in and around it. We saw huge orange fish in ponds on either side of a walkway, and this scarlet macaw was just hanging out in a tree, no cage or anything.

Our last stop was Hanupa Beach State Park. We got in for free because our guide had a Hawaiian driver's license. Making the tourists pay instead of the locals seems like a smart way to fund it. We simply relaxed and enjoyed the ocean with everyone else.

Hanupa Beach

The ocean from Hanupa beach.

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Last fall I had the pleasure of going on vacation to Hawaii with Monica. I had been there once before half my life ago. But this time we'd be going to The Big Island of Hawaii and avoiding Oahu (and therefore the tourist-crowded beaches of Waikiki), making it very different from my first trip.

We flew into Kona late at night and picked up a Mazda 3 to drive around the island. The next morning we got breakfast at Bongo Bens in downtown Kailua Kona. Kona is known for a few things; the most recognizable product on the mainland is probably their coffee. I also knew it was the hometown of one of my favorite bands, Pepper, and the location of the Kona Brewing Company, which makes some decent beers that I've seen sold as far away as Chicago. Walking around Kona after breakfast we found the Royal Kona Resort, which claims to be the home of the original Mai Thai. I'm pretty sure they're not the only ones to make that claim though.

We set out to circumnavigate The Big Island. Getting out of the populated areas it reminded me more of Iceland than anywhere tropical. It's the youngest of all the Hawaiian islands, and also the most geologically unstable. So there was a lot of black and red lava rock. And many places where grass and trees didn't grow.

The Big Island of Hawaii

The Big Island might be able to give Montana a run for being "big sky" country. This particular area had a wild fire that destroyed most of the foliage not too long ago.

Hopping on the Belt Road we stopped to take some pictures and a dust devil formed just a few feet from us. It dissipated after about a minute and probably wasn't large enough to be dangerous (I'd estimate 6-7 feet in diameter), but it did provide a surge of adrenaline to be that close to such a rare and unpredictable natural phenomenon.

An Old Tree-Lined Road

An old, no longer used road not marked on any map. There were a lot of animal noises coming from the forest on either side along with waist-high grass, which meant we had no idea what was in there.

After passing through Waimea we took a turn onto a road that was marked simply "Scenic Drive." This eventually lead us to the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens and the Onomea Trail. It was a fun area to explore and the part of the island I remember being the most full of diverse plants and teeming with life.

Onomea Bay Inlet

An inlet in Onomea Bay, it was very private and we were told locals sometimes swim there despite the rocky obsidian beach.

Onomea Bay Inlet

Another Onomea Bay inlet, this one with some intense waves that sprayed up to my height when they crashed upon the rocks.

We diverged from the highway again to hike around Akaka Falls, which is a state park focused on a waterfall over 400 feet high. I was impressed by how many state parks Hawaii has, especially considering how accessible and cheap they are - they just made you pay for parking, and it was otherwise free to get in and walk around.

Akaka Falls

Akaka Falls in all its 422 foot glory. The sense of scale is totally lost here, but it kind of was for us too because the viewing platform is so far away.

We descended into Hilo for lunch at a cafe. We got fresh fish and walked around the surf-side town that was very empty during the early afternoon.

Our next stop was the Kalapana viewing site in the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. This put us on top of the volcano that was active during our time there. We were a little worried that it would interfere with our plans as the lava flow was moving at a pretty rapid pace of 50-100 yards a day and often turning in unpredictable directions. Luckily it did not cover the freeway - which was a major fear for residents as it would force them to evacuate as there is only a single road going into some of the neighborhoods there. There were updates every 15 minutes or so on the radio so we always knew what the situation was. When we got there we had to park outside the lava fields and then continue on foot. Feeling the warmth of the rock and knowing that flowing lava could just be inches below the surface was incredible.

Kalapana Lava Fields

Land on the Kalapana lava fields is passed down hereditarily to native Hawaiins and is not taxed, so some choose to build houses there, even knowing they could be destroyed at any time by the volcano.

We then turned around to check out Rainbow Falls. This was a much smaller park and waterfall than Akaka. And because we got there when it was cloudy and the sun was setting it did not live up to its name and give us a rainbow.

Back in Hilo we had dinner at Cafe 100, which we had been told was a local favorite. We ate the specialty, Loco Moco, which is essentially a layered dish consisting of rice, a sausage patty, a fried egg, and a brown gravy, in that order. It was rich and tasted very salty and fattening. I won't be craving it any time soon.

Finally, we drove into the center of the island and up the mountain of Mauna Kea. It was dark, as there were no street lights on the road, so we had only the car's headlights and their reflections to guide us. Nor were there many other cars. Add to that the rain and fog and the visibility became extremely low. At points I could only see a few feet in front of me. A few miles that the map said would take us 20 minutes took well over an hour. And despite the fact that the speed limit was 50 or 60 MPH, the tiny car never made it above 25 on that 15% slope. It was easily the most harrowing drive of my life.

When we finally burst through the clouds it was a magical, surreal experience. The night sky was so bright and the air so clear that I felt like I could see forever. The water bottles had been crinkling from the pressure change and I could discernibly feel the lower oxygen amount. At 9,000 feet the visitor center for the observatory is only a hundred or so feet above the clouds, but it was enough. I wish I could've captured what it was like in a picture, but given the light levels and the fact that using a flash would ruin mine and everyone else's night vision none of the shots I did take turned out. So you'll have to trust me: it was nothing short of amazing.

They had a guide with a laser pointing out constellations and constantly talking about what we could see and the site itself. Being that high put us above the clouds and over 60% of the water vapor in the Earth's atmosphere. So stargazing there is like very few other points on the planet. It's also one of the only places it's guaranteed you'll want pants and a warm jacket in Hawaii.

I've always been a huge fan of space and astronomy and being up there was easily the highlight of the trip for me. They had several huge telescopes set up for the public to use and seeing the rings of Saturn with my own eyes - live, not some picture - was awe-inspiring. I found myself continually going back to that telescope, even though others were pointed in some interesting directions, like Mars and Polaris. I hope that the current tensions about building a new telescope are resolved, as it was an experience I want everyone to be able to have well into the future. If you don't know what I'm talking about, the best piece I've seen on it is here.

When we finally got tired of the cold we headed back down the mountain, which was a much different experience than the drive up: mostly, faster. I was braking the entire drive down just to keep control of the car. When the land finally leveled out near sea level I could feel the tension seep out of me. In a single day we had seen multiple waterfalls, lava fields, beaches, planets and stars, scaled a mountain and put close to 300 miles on the rental car.

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