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The Southernmost Gaffe in the United States (Hawaii, Day 4)

Last Updated on August 3, 2023

My elderly, Big Isle-loving neighbors had raved about Place of Refuge, and The Book lauded the adjacent Honaunau reef, so I made that my first stop Sea turtle at Honaunau on Hawaii's Big Islandthe next day. The reef delivered as promised, with tons of fish and even a lallygagging sea turtle who saw fit to trail me within yards of the heiau on the opposite shore. Easy entry meant that even scuba divers converge on the place, where they take advantage of the “two step,” a naturally formed stair of lava rock that allows you to slide right into the water without getting too cut up or bashed by waves.

After only 20 minutes or so of snorkeling, I realized, thanks to the slight sting of salt water, that I’d forgotten to lather my pasty back in sunscreen and that I’d be feeling repercussions the next day if I didn’t two-step it back on land.

Several people had described Place of Refuge (Pu’uhonua o Honaunau) as tranquil, serene, and emitting a calming effect over the body. Yes, there’s something rather peaceful about a turquoise lagoon fringed with waves crashing on lava rock while palm trees sway overhead. But ain’t that most of Hawaii, brah? I strolled among the staged tikis and examples of heiaus and longboats, but lingered over the replica of a konane game, which looked strikingly similar to Chinese checkers, minus the star pattern. If the gift shop manager is listening, you should get this game in stock, ASAP. I was surprised not to find it among the other ubiquitous souvenirs.

From Honaunau, I headed south, by now used to the feel of dried salt on my skin for most of the day. My ultimate destination was Volcanoes National Park, but The Book declared South Point — the true southernmost point in the United States, contrary to Key West’s claim — a “Not to Be Missed!” locale, so I took the 12-mile, crumbling-road detour past some cows and windmills to see what would be seen. I didn’t have time to hike the additional two miles to the green sand beach, but I knew that would only be a waste of time for me, as I’ve learned I just don’t have the slightest desire to sunbathe or sit still when I’m on vacation. There’s just too much to be seen.

This is the first time the book or any of volume of its series has steered me wrong. There ain’t nothing at South Point, and it was perhaps the most polluted beach I’ve seen in all the Hawaiian islands. After driving some 20 minutes out of my way — and wasting valuable daylight to do so — I didn’t even get a selfie next to a damn plaque to commemorate the occasion of my presence. I hightailed it out of the there, not wanting to waste another precious second at such a pointless, unphotogenic spot. Stupid South Point.

I did, however, find it necessary to make a pit stop for lunch. After snorkeling, walking, and driving way the hell out of my way, I needed a little something in the belly to keep me going, but something fast so I could enjoy the volcanoes as much as I could. I’d already scheduled my plane flight for Thursday morning, since the actual lava flow was currently visible only by aerial tour, but I still wanted to get in some precious ground time and to see such sights as the acclaimed Thurston lava tube. But that would have to wait until I snacked.

The Book declared Desert Rose Café as “probably the best food in this part of the island,” which wasn’t saying much considering I spotted only one other eatery (mini-mart notwithstanding). I opted for a veggie burger with cream cheese and mango — I hadn’t found many other healthful choices — and scarfed it down. I have to say, the combo was quite interesting, and I’d try it again, only without so much dang cream cheese. After filling up my gas tank — and spending 20 minutes on hold to verify with Dollar that I didn’t have to use ethanol, as the label on my gas tank declared, and that the brake Thurston Lava Tube at Hawaii Volcanoes National Parklight that kept flashing intermittently was nothing to worry about — I was on my way. Again.

I arrived at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park a little before four o’clock, leaving me with just over two hours to drive Crater Rim. It was enough to do that and only that, although I would have preferred longer to explore the many trails in the lusher rainforest portion of the park. My camera couldn’t capture the beauty and vastness of the craters, and on the computer screen, the steam vents seem like little more than the smoke of a latent campfire, but trust me, the park is well worth visiting, even when the lava flow isn’t visible by land. If nothing else, the Thurston lava tube and the surrounding flora are worth the visit. If my condo’s flashlight had been working, I would have explored the unadulterated portion of the tube, but I wasn’t about to venture in there in pitch blackness.

Now, scientists, listen up: One of you needs to create a device that captures smell. We have cameras and audio recording devices, but nothing quite captures the spirit of a place or triggers a memory like the sense of smell. I’ll never forget the sulfurous odor of the craters, that acrid, nose-tingly scent that doesn’t quite offend but isn’t something you wanted a candle scented after. I did, however, want to bottle the smell and take it home to supplement my slideshow so they could get an all-sensory feel of the place.

The sun set not long after I left the park’s gate, and by the time I hit the road back north, I was pretty tired. I had roughly 100 miles to go, on a road that disallowed a speed of more than 65 — both legally and practically — and all I wanted was to get back to my condo and sleep. I gave the bird to the South Point turnoff as I passed and whizzed northward. In the gloam, a sign blazed off to my left, one that I’d failed to notice on my daylight cruise southward. This time, I not only noticed but read the sign, and by the time it clicked, I’d already flown past. A quick U-ie fixed that, and moments later I was parked at the bar of Shaka, the southernmost bar in the United States. (Take that, lying Southernmost House Grand Hotel!)

As soon as bartender Cyboy (real name: he’d kill me if I told you) had poured me an ice-cold pint of red ale, I whipped out my cell to call my pal Marilyn and tell her of my achievement. Moments later, after writing a few postcards and talking to amiable son Bubba (real name: forgotten), I walked out to my car to take a shot of the exterior, now all aglow in the afterthought of sunset. My Sebring didn’t respond to the first dozen punches of the key fob, so I let myself into my car the old-fashioned way, with a key. I tossed the keys on the driver seat, grabbed my camera, shut the door, and posed my camera on the car roof so that I could get a crystal-clearCaretakers of Shaka Restaurant, the true southernmost bar/restaurant in all the United States shot. As I pushed the button, my possessed car honked and all I got was a fuzzy neon blur. The next one came out all nice like.

When I went to open my car, I found it locked. There on the seat sat my keys, glinting up at me in mockery. Apparently my key fob had a several-minute delay, and had locked me out of my rented vehicle. After telling Cyboy the story, I plopped myself down on my still-warm barstool and once again called Dollar. After several calls, I was told that I’d have to pay for the locksmith myself, as I’d declined roadside assistance (which I didn’t recall ever being offered to me), and that the cost would be around $35. No sweat. Plus $1.50 mileage. From Captain Cook. Both ways. That amounted to just over $200, and it would take the locksmith at least an hour to rescue me. As I argued with the Dollar representative on the phone, Cyboy came outside to tell me that his buddy up the hill was on his way and would be arriving in five minutes. I hung up on Dollar and awaited my knight in shining armor.

Or flannel PJs, I wasn’t being picky. Cyboy was in hysterics as he watched the pajama’d Sean at work, and moments later, I once again had my keys in hand. As Sean went to go back into his truck, his handle wouldn’t move. “I locked myself out.” I almost burst into hysterics before he let on that he was just joking. I have a feeling he loves pulling that over on customers.

I finished the free pint of beer that Cyboy had offered me for having survived the experience, then headed back up to Kona. I couldn’t even look the Sebring in the face. I always name my cars — even rentals — but this one didn’t deserve a name. All it deserved was a kick good night.

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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