Exploring the Big Island of Hawaii

Part 5: Kilauea/Volcanos National Park & Hawaiian Vanilla

Monday would be our last full day in Hawaii and we decided to spend it exploring Volcanos National Park. We drove south along the coast for about an hour before stopping again at “ “Coffee Grinds” for ice coffee and bagels, (our past experience here was so good we wanted to come here again). After another hour’s drive, we arrived at the Park’s Visitor Center at the Kīlauea Crater where there were a large crowd of visitors and many Rangers to ask questions to. While we were in the park, there were no active eruptions taking place or any visible flowing lava. We quickly walked to The Volcano House, which has a view of the Kīlauea Caldera . The Caldera changes regularly and one could clearly see old roads and structures that had been consumed by the growing crater. We then drove down Crater Rim Drive West to Uēkahuna which overlooks the Halema’uma’u crater. There we met a Ranger getting ready for a 20-minute talk and a walk to the Kilauea Overlook of the Kilauea Caldera. The center located there was condemned due to the caldera’s growth, and was being dismantled. From the Ranger, we learned about the native Ohi’a bush, (a red bottle brush looking flower), and its importance in breaking down recent lava flows. We also learned of more recent eruptions and the continuously , and sometimes rapidly, changing floor of the caldera and magma moves in and out of the magma chamber located beneath it. 

At Hawaii Volcanos National Park Entrance
The Kilauea Volcano Cauldron
A Fiddlehead Fern along the Volcano Rim

From there we went to the Kūkamāhuākea, (steam vents), which were very active. After hiking along the crater rim and exploring the vents and views, we drove the cars to the Nāhuku Lava tube. Once there, we walked one-way about 1/4 -mile through the dimly lit, and very damp, tube. From there, we drove to Devastation and hiked to an area it aptly describes – nothing but ash flow and not a single living thing! This area was in such contrast to most of the Park which was lush and treed. At this point, while the rest of the family went back to the house to swim, we decided to drive to the end of the road on the east coast, 19 miles ahead, The drive took us through areas covered with lava eruptions that are recent enough that the road ends because it was buried beneath a recent lava flow. There we walked in 30-mile hour winds and 90 degree heat to an outlook to see the Hōlei Sea Arch. After that, we drove the ~3-hours back to the house for a dip in the pool and hot tub. That night, we had dinner at the house of sandwiches from the “Poi Dog Deli” which were a fusion of New Orleans and Hawaiian flavors. Then, everyone began packing for returning home tomorrow.

Steam Vent along Volcano Crater Rim
Kilauea Cauldron Floor
National Park Nāhuku Lava Tube
The Devastation Area Covered by Ask Flows
The Eastern Coast Covered by Recent Lava Flows
Julie in the Desolate Lava Covered Landscape
The Hōlei Sea Arch on the Eastern Shore
Target Practice in The Big House Pool

Tuesday morning we ate whatever leftovers and breakfast items that were left at the house, did a bit of cleaning, and said our “goodbyes” to everyone at the house. Both boys and their families had mid-morning departures for heading back to their homes on the East Coast. After everyone was gone, we did a final load of towels/ laundry before departing for a tour of a vanilla farm. The Vanillerie was once a tree farm in the 1990-2000’s, before it transitioned to a vanilla farm. Vanilla is actually a type of Orchid, and it is grown in 4 Quonset huts to provide them the shade that they need. They opened their Vanilla Farm in 2017 with one hut and a series of cuttings. They attach the cuttings to a tower with twist ties and add bark, rock, and drip water. The hut also has overhead sprinklers to wash off the vanilla in case of “VOG” – Volcanic Fog – during or after an eruption. 

Visiting The Vanillerie

Vanilla was first cultivated in Mexico in 1100’s, and there are 3-types of vanilla from 3 different areas of the world: Mexican, Tahitian, and Madagascarian. All of these taste slightly different, and the Vanillin that gives vanilla its taste can also be found in other plants (spruce trees), and animals (the beaver). It is from these other sources that imitation vanilla is made from. The U.S. uses the most vanilla in the world and it has upwards of 250 different flavor profiles. At the Vanillerie, Hut #1 has vines that are 22-years old and are at its “end of life.” The old vines will be chopped up into 24” pieces to start and propagate new vines. In Huts #2 and #3 are younger plants that produce most of the vanilla beans. In Hut #4 are the newest vines which will have to grow and mature 3-5-years before producing flowers in March-May that can be pollinated. Vanilla loves the tropics, but it can get sunburnt.

When their flowers open, there is only 4-6-hours available for them to be pollinated before the blooms begin to close. Vanilla is hermaphrodite and both the pollen and stamen are within the same flower. Natural pollination is very inefficient (only 2-4% of the flowers), so the plants are pollinated manually, where each flower is manipulated with a small instrument by hand. Good pollinators can approach a 90% success rate this way, but the time window is short and the work exhausting. If pollination is successful, the flower will stay on the shaft then eventually, over several days, a bean will begin to grow. It then takes ~9 months to grow the bean which is harvested when the bean begins to get a yellow tip. The beans are clipped and are dropped in hot water to blanche them. They are then wrapped in packs and placed in a hot box. This process is repeated until the beans weight drops to about half the weight it started with. The beans are then unwrapped and put in a humidifier at 70-80 degrees until their weight drops by half again and they begin to get shiny and pliable. They are then vacuum sealed and sold. Because the process is so tedious and done by hand, the beans are expensive.

Vanilla Beans on the Vine

They also explained the making of vanilla extract and suggested that a single bean can be used to make extract over and over again for years. 

To make vanilla extract, open 1 vanilla bean, chop it into half-inch pieces, then add vodka or bourbon, (high-quality alcohol is better), hide it in the dark turning it upside down monthly for at least 6-months. Then pour the extract into a small bottle, and repeat the process. They suggested that ingesting vanilla is good for depression and for improved immunity.

After visiting the Vanillerie, we did some last minute shopping before stopping at The Harbor House at the Marina on Honokōhau Bay for a late lunch. Then we returned our rental car, checked in, and boarded our plane at 8:30pm for our 9:30 pm flight to Seattle. We arrived in Seattle at ~6:00am, found some breakfast, and boarded our plane to Orlando at ~8:00am. However, once we got near Orlando, we were informed of bad storms near the airport, and so we spent an extra hour circling the airport until we were allowed to land the plane. Once landed, we learned that there was still a ground-stoppage in-place for weather and that the gates were all closed. Therefore, we sat parked on the tarmac for another 2-hours until the weather cleared and the ground stoppage ended. We finally arrived home at 9pm.

Waiting to Board the Airplane to Return Home

Exploring the Big Island of Hawaii

Part 4: Captain Cook’s Bay

Sunday morning, we were up early so that we could catch another boat back at the Marina at Honokohau Bay with a small company called “Coral Reef Snorkel Adventures” who would take us on a 45 minute boat ride south along the coast for a morning snorkeling adventure at the bay where Captain Cook’s Memorial stands. This is a protected, no-fishing, secluded bay with minimal wave action and practical access only by boat. Along the way to get there, we saw some cardboard, a hubcap, plastic bottles and bags floating in the ocean and circled the boat to collect and remove them from the water. At Captain Cook’s Bay, we saw a huge number of coral reefs and reef fish, as well as a barracuda, a sea cucumber, and an octopus. There were lots of different types of butterfly fish, parrot fish, tangs, and triggerfish. We also saw Moorish Idols, Yellow-Stripe Goatfish, Hawaiian Sergeants, Black Dorgans and the easily recognizable Glasseye. After an hour and a half of the whole family snorkeling, (all 10 of us), we started our voyage back to harbor, stopping to check out a lighthouse, a golf course owned by Tiger Woods, and some lava caves opening into the ocean. We also watched some cliff divers, looked at coastal VIP homes, (including one owned by Oprah Winfrey), and saw the place of the last Hawaiian battle, as well as a rock weighing 10 tons that had be thrown 20ft up the cliffside by a huge wave.

On the Boat to Captain Cooks Bay
A Tourist Sight-seeing Glass Bottom Submarine being Towed out to Sea
Fish Aggregating Devide (FAD)
Rocky Ready to Snorkel
A Saddleback Butterfly Fish at Captain Cooks Bay
A School of Yellow Tangs
More Yellow Tangs
A Lonely Orange Tang

After returning to the Marina, we went to shop at Ali’i Gardens Market and went to “Shaka Tacoz” for a lunch of Ono tacos (fish) which was delicious! After walking around the market, we returned to the house and sat in the hot tub to relax. We then walked to Magic Sands Beach which had a local volleyball game going on and lots of surfing with building waves. We stopped at the nearby Beach Shack for a beer while watching the boogey-boarders and the ocean. Then it was back home for a quick dip in the pool before getting ready for a family dinner in town at Kai’s Restaurant, where we all had pizza, fish, ribs, and coconut shrimp. The night finished with a silly game of cards and a relaxing nightcap.

Building Waves at Magic Beach
Intensely Waiting for Dinner
Family Dinner at a Kai’s – a Kona Seaside Restaurant
Family Picture on Kona Beach Hawaii

Exploring the Big Island of Hawaii

Part 3: Hilo and the East Coast

The next morning, we were up early for breakfast, and then made a short drive to Maniniowale Beach in Kona Coast State Park, just north of the airport, for snorkeling and swimming and the building of sandcastles. The waters here were a beautiful blue with few people and minimal waves until midday when the beach became crowded and the wind picked up. While snorkeling there, we saw plenty of reef fish and a swimming green turtle. The sand was white and perfect for sandcastle building and we built an array of them.

Maniniowale Beach in Kona Coast State Park before Crowds
Julie under our Shibumi
Sea Life among the Rocks
Sea Turtle swimming in the Surf
Building Sandcastles
Sand Cstle Collaboration

We left the park for a late lunch of burgers and then headed back to the house where we swam in the pool and got ready for a big family dinner reserved that night at the original Merriman’s Farm-to-Table Hawaiian Restaurant near Waimea. In order to get there, we had to drive inland across the island 90-minutes to Kamuela in the north. Along the drive we saw a royal blue peacock perched on a fencepost, and numerous wild goats and deer. We had a delightful meal with quality food and quality service, complete with desserts and after dinner drinks. We returned along the western coastal route where we stopped to watch the sunset before returning home for drinks to belatedly celebrate Tony’s 40th birthday.

Merriman’s Restaurant in Waimea
Family Dinner at Merriman’s
Two Grandkids Toasting their Virgin Mai Tais
Dinner rates a Solids Thumbs Up
Family Dinner at Merriman’s

On Saturday, we decided to cross the Island and explore the east coast of Hawaii, including the town and area of Hilo. We drove back through the coastal road to Waimea where we stopped for a “second breakfast” and coffee at “Waimea Coffee” and shopped at the local Saturday Morning Market where we bought a sampling of delicious, traditional Hawaiian donuts! Then we drove southeast to the famous Akaka Falls, located about 11-miles north of Hilo, and where we climbed and hiked to both overlooks. Akaka Falls is located in a state park and displays a spectacular 442-foot tall drop. “Akaka” is named after a Hawaiian Chief. 

A Bucket of Legos at Coffee Shop in Waimea
420ft tall Akaka Falls near Hilo

Then we drove to Hilo for lunch waterside at the HBC (Hilo Bay Cafe). Here we had unusual cocktails and lunch while we watched an outrigger regatta taking place in the bay. We also saw a mongoose crossing the lawn. Mongooses are an invasive species on the island brought there by sugarcane plantation owners to control rats, but now they are a serious problem. Their favorite meals are small birds and their eggs, but they are also known to eat plants, fruits, and insects. The mongoose also eats sea turtle eggs, damaging that population, and is responsible for the deaths of at least eight species of birds that are native to Hawaii and that are on the endangered species list. After lunch, we traveled to the Lava tube/caves in Kanamu state park. The footing was wet and treacherous, but it was adventurous and a good time. Lastly, we decided to visit Rainbow Falls where there are two view points of the 80ft tall and almost 100ft wide Falls, before we traveling in the car back across the center of the island to our house for some relaxing pool and hot tub time!

Lunch Overlooking the Bay at Hilo
Inside a Lava Tube Near Hilo
Rainbow Falls with its Two Feeders
The Grove above Rainbow Falls

Exploring the Big Island of Hawaii

Part 2: Coffee and Manta Rays

After breakfast on Thursday morning, it was time for a swim and play at Magic Sands Beach and then a drive up the side of the old Hualalai Volcano, to 3200 feet of elevation, to Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation. Here we tasted their different coffees, took a tour of the processing area, and learned about their coffee making. It takes about two years for their coffee to get to market, including Co-Operative growing of the year’s crop, harvesting the beans, then sorting, roasting, and packaging of the coffee. The company harvests about 60,000 pounds of coffee per year, with only 60% of the beans ever making it into their coffee products. Their coffee has a shelf life of about one year and their blonde coffee is the strongest of their coffees. We then walked their nature trail in the cloud forest ecosystem, seeing rows of coffee trees with beans in various stages of growth. Mixed into the foliage was the Hawaiian Ti plant, (the “Good Luck” plant), with its colorful leaves that were used by the Hawaiian Chiefs and worn around their neck during rituals. The large leaves are also used to thatch roofs. Only 2.5% of the world’s forests are similar to this Cloud Forest. The Cloud Forest is characterized by persistent, low-level cloud cover, and abundant moss-covered ground and vegetation. At the Mountain Thunder Coffee Farms, the current annual rainfall exceeds 100 inches a year, and that amount of moisture gives rise to huge Hawaiian ferns. Among the branches were chameleons, cockatoos, and apapanes (bright red birds also known as “the Hawaiian Honeycreeper”), Ōhi‘a lehua trees, (the dominant tree above 1,300 ft. and principal colonizer of recent lava flows), and a local lava tube which is 40 feet deep and 60 feet wide.

Exploring the Morning Beach Sealife
Signpost at the Coffee Farm

At the end of the trail, we reached an observation deck overlooking the 7-acre farm of all organic coffee and a small amount of tea. Hawaii is the only U.S. state to commercially grow and harvest coffee. Although coffee is grown on several Hawaii Islands, Kona Coffee is the most-sought after and highly prized. All of their coffee is grown in the cloud forest and is picked by hand. After leaving, we stopped in town at the Kona Farmers market and looked at all the produce, crafts, and wares. Then we returned to the house for lunch and swim time. 

Coffee Beans not yet Ripe
Exploring the Trinkets at the Market
Quiet Time in the Boys Bunkbed Room

After a restful afternoon and a snack, early that evening we set off for our evening snorkel with the Manta Rays! We drove a short ways north of town to the Marina at Honokohau Bay where we met the “Bite Me Sport Fishing Company” for their sunset Manta Ray viewing. Everyone put on wetsuits, climbed onto their boat, and took a 25-minutes ride north until we were just offshore of the airport and in shallow water (20 ft.) We entered the water with snorkels and masks, and the crew deployed 3 surfboards, each equipped with batteries, downward facing floodlights, and hold-on loops. The lights attract plankton which attracts the Manta Rays. In the growing darkness, one holds onto the rope loop on the surf board and uses a floatation “noodle” to  keep your legs at or near the surface. Then we wait and watch with our face masks in the water. Soon, the Manta Rays came and they began to slowly cruise beneath us. Once they were used to us the manta started swimming somersaults, turning over, swallowing plankton, and showing off all their beauty. There were males and females of various sizes, but most were between 6-10 ft. wide. The longer we stayed the more Manta Rays came with some mirroring each other in a spontaneous, elegant dance. It was truly fantastic! After an hour more of viewing, we got back on the boat for warm showers and snacks and then returned to marina. Then it was back to the house to shower, grab a snack, and relax.

The Boys with Wetsuits Ready for Adventure
Riding the Boat to See the Mantas
Manta Rays coming up from Below
Manta with Mouth Open catching Krill
Manta on his Back performing a Loop to Maximize Food Intake
Manta Ray with Gills Showing
The Manta Ray Adventure Crew

Exploring the Big Island of Hawaii

 Part 1: Magic Sands & Black Sands Beaches

We have been to the islands of Hawaii numerous times, but always to Oahu or Kauai. In fact, our first time to Oahu and Kauai was in 1988 when our family vacation included only ourselves and our two sons who were 7- and 4-years old. This adventure included exploring Waikiki, Diamond Head, visiting the Dole Pineapple Factory, hiking the Na Pali Coast and Waimea Canyon, and snorkeling the shallow reefs at Poipu. However, our 4-year old, (who is 40-years old now), has little memory of the trip and we decided it was time to revisit, but this time with both of our sons’ families including our 4 grandchildren. In order to make the adventure new and fresh, we decided to visit the “Big Island” of Hawaii, and rented a 7-bedroom house in Kona, Hawaii known locally as “The Big House” near Magic Sands Beach.

We embarked on our trip from our home in Florida on Monday morning with a 6-hour flight from Orlando to Seattle, followed by another 5-hour plus flight from Seattle directly to Kona. From there, we rented a car and checked into the Holiday Inn Express for one night in downtown Kona near the shore. After settling in, we walked down towards the water, had dinner & drinks at a second story restaurant named “Poncho and Lefty’s,” and watched the sun set over the ocean before exploring the waterfront beach and returning to the hotel.

Hawaii Map with Key Locations

On Tuesday, after a hotel breakfast, we explored the local Kona area by car, identifying interesting shops & locations, visiting Magic Sands, Keauhou, and Maniniowale beaches, and locating “The Big House” where we would all spend the next week. Our younger son, Tony, and his wife and two children, (9- and almost 6-years old) arrived from a 3-day holiday in San Francisco at noon, followed by our older son, Mike, his wife and two boys, (9- and 7-years old) who arrived from a 4-day holiday visiting friends in Los Angeles. We greeted both families with flower leis before everyone grabbed a quick lunch and then settling into “The Big House”, choosing bedrooms, and jumping into the swimming pool. It was then time for gathering supplies, ordering pizza for dinner, and walking the unique and lovely decorated footpath to Magic Sands Beach for watching the sunset. Then it was baths and bedtime for the kids and nightcaps for the adults on the patio terrace deck, before bringing the long day to its end.

Grandkids Geeted with Leis
Swimming in the Big House Pool
Dinner on the Big House Deck
The Decorated Path to Magic Sands Beach
Sunset ay Magic Sands Beach

On Wednesday, the grandkids were up at 6:15am and ready for breakfast and an early swim in the pool, before we set off on the first day’s adventure. This morning we would make the 90-minute drive south to Punalu’u Black Sand Beach that is known for its encounters with sea turtles. We took 3-cars and drove south along the coast, heading first to the top of a volcanic plateau where we stopped and took a break at “Coffee Grinds” for coffee and smoothies. We then continued our drive around the most southern point of U.S. land in the world and headed east to the black sand beach, parking on the far-side of the parking lot. There are less than 25 black sand beaches in the world, and when we arrived this one had one large loggerhead turtle nesting in an area restricted for turtles, and another turtle eating moss in a nearby tidal pool. Eventually everyone began snorkeling seeing a large variety of reef fish of all colors, as well as sea cucumbers, eels, and more turtles! The kids built sand castles and explored for hours. After 3-+ hours, we packed-up and began driving back. Along the way, we stopped for lunch in the little town of Naalehu, where there was a local market taking place with food trucks. After lunch, we continued back to the house and took the occasion for more pool time. For dinner, we drove into downtown Kona at “Papa Kona’s” where we were seated on the deck looking over the ocean and watched the sunset. After dinner, we strolled along the many shops, getting ice cream and watching locals play volleyball before returning home for bedtime.

Turtle on Black Sands Beach
Watching Turtle in Estuary at Black Sands Beach
Turtle Making Way onto Beach at Black Sands Beach
Sea Turtle underwater while Snorkeling
Reef Fish while Snorkeling at Black Sands Beach
The Whole Family at Black Sands Beach

Bicycling the Virginia Creeper Trail

Bicycling with our in-laws has become one of our favorite exercise-adventure pastimes, and we decided to explore the well-known Virginia rails-to-trails Creeper Trail. The adventure began with an 11-hour drive on Friday with our bicycles to Abingdon, Virginia, where we met up with Julie’s sister & brother-in-law, Pam & A.J. We had decided to stay at the historic Martha Washington Inn which was built in 1832 as a southern mansion for General Francis Preston & his family. After the family left the residence, it was converted to a college for young women (Martha Washington College), before becoming a civil war hospital and then finally closing . In 1934, the facility was used to house aspiring actors who appeared at the Barter Theatre (located across the street). It has been a hotel since 1935, and has active fireplaces, a library, a bar and restaurant, a pool and hot tubs, a spa and saunas, tennis courts and an 18-hole putt-putt golf course with surrounding gardens.  Many of the furnishings and antiques are original to the property.  

The Historic Martha Washington Inn in Abingdon Virginia
The Martha Inn Pool

We have a lovely room on the 3rd floor, twice the size of a normal hotel room, with antique spindle beds and glass chandeliers. We walked the grounds and then strolled to the trailhead of the bicycle trail to see where we would be riding on Sunday, (we had decided to use Saturday to explore the town and relax from the long car ride). The day slowly devolved into cool weather and a misty rain with more of the same predicted for tomorrow (Saturday). We enjoyed dinner (included with the room) at the bar and enjoyed a game of cards on the hotel veranda before enjoying a complementary port by the fire in the library.

Our Room at The Martha

The next morning, we arose for a lovely complementary coffee and breakfast in the Sisters’ Restaurant, which included muffins with yogurt & granola followed by a huge plate of biscuits &gravy, sausage, quiche, and hash browns. Then, we headed out with umbrellas to window shop the downtown area. Negotiating the rain, we visited a number of boutiques and antique shops. before taking a late lunch at a Greek restaurant and heading back to the hotel where we relaxed with a glass of wine in the hot tub and enjoyed a game of cards on the veranda. Then, it was off for a light dinner in the bar and a glass of port on the veranda before preparing our bikes for an early start in the morning.

On Sunday morning, we collected a quick coffee and muffins from the restaurant before boarding our bikes and riding to the trail head by 7:30am. The first 17-miles of the trail are relatively flat heading slightly downhill for the first 9-miles, and then up. We initially traveled past large houses and a city baseball park along the South Holston River, where the water was high due to the week’s past rain. We pedaled past large farms of cattle and crops in the rolling hills of the Appalachian mountains. This trail was originally a pioneer footpath (aka – Daniel Boone).  Then, in 1900, the Virginia North Carolina Railroad was built to haul lumber, iron ore and supplies over the range. The train was nicknamed “The Virginia Creeper” since the steam engine locomotives crept along the trail so slowly. The original steam engine is still on display at the head of the trail. The trail included 47 trestle bridges and numerous gates between properties, both private and public. The last train ran in 1977.

The Original Creeper Locomotive
The Four of Us at the Trail Head

We rode the trail for about 20 minutes when Julie’s sister suffered a flat tire.  After a quick replacement of the tube, we were on our way again along the trail. There were very few people on this part of the trail and they were mostly locals walking their dogs. We rode through farmlands and the Mt. Rogers National Forest. After 17-miles in 2 ½ hours, we arrived in Damascus where we met our shuttle to take us to the top of Whitetop Mountain.

A Flat Tire Along the Way
The Trail to Damascus
A Stop on one of the 47 Trestles

This part of the trail is muddy, rutted and steeply uphill, and our shuttle drive tells us stories of when the train used to still run behind his house, and of spotting bears last night. Wild turkeys ran across the road in front of shuttle when we got near the top of Whitetop Mountain and the North Carolina border. At the top, we got back on our bikes and started heading slowly downhill. Our first stop was a ranger station, and then the trail became more challenging. The downhill is steep and rocky with no need to peddle. Instead, we coasted carefully, holding tight, steering, and breaking to stay on the trail. Next, we stopped at Green Cove Cooperative (a restored train station) that sells souvenirs, drinks, snacks, and a good selection of warm clothing to cater to those who are not fully prepared when the mountain top is cold. Along the trail, we crossed the Appalachian Hiking Trail, before we rode into Taylors Valley and stopped for a light lunch at Hellbender’s Café. After lunch, we rode 6 more miles of trail before arriving in Damascus, which was hosting an annual hiking trail convention, (there are 7 trails that leave from the town of Damascus). This completed the additional 17-miles downhill from Whitetop which took us about 2 ½ hours.

At Whitecap Mountain ready to ride Downhill
One of the Many Streams and Rivers along the Trail

Then, it was onward to Abingdon – 17 more miles back along the trail we had covered in the morning.  We passed a group of horseback riders and now, saw many hikers on the trail. All along the lower trail are places along the river to sit, to camp, and to picnic. Eventually, we reached the confluence of the Middle Fork Holston and South Fork Holston rivers, but much of the remaining trail is in the sun, and day was getting hot. We finally arrived back at the hotel at ~4:30pm – it’s been a long day! After stowing our bikes, we needed showers to wash off the mud and then we all jumped into the hot tub with a cold drink. That evening, we played cards in the garden, enjoyed celebratory drinks at the bar and had a nice,  relaxing dinner.

A Stop in a Hillside Cut
The Longest Trestle at the Confluence of the Holston Rivers
A Rest on the Home Stretch of our 51-mile Ride

Later, we packed our gear and the next morning we all met for an excellent breakfast before saying our “goodbyes” and heading off our separate ways.

Exploring the Venice Lagoon by Houseboat

Part 3: Burano, San Francesco del Deserto, and Porto Grandi

Tuesday, May 7th began with a light rain, and after having breakfast on the boat, we departed Le Vignole and leisurely motored northeast past the island of S. Erasmo – a horticultural island with numerous hiking paths located on it. From here, we motored north past Burano to the island of Mazzorbo. We moored the boat against the green lawn and stone bulkhead, and walked across the local footbridge bridge to Burano. The island of Mazzorbo holds the Burano cemetery and a church from the 1600’s which is still fully functioning, (complete with crypts in the floor), a few homes, a park, and, initially unbeknownst to us, a Michelin Star restaurant. The island and city of Burano greeted us with swans and color, and is known as “The Italian Lace Island.”  The shops are filled with Italian linens and silks, with colorfully painted shops and houses, and the many canals make it “walking island” where deliveries and transport are all via water. 

Following Bricola to Burano
“Leo” Docked at Mazzorbo Bulkhead

The island of Burano has around 27,000 inhabitants and is one of the more densely populated islands in the Venice Lagoon. The town offered us lots of shopping and a variety of quaint restaurants, with excellent seafood and wine. In the cityscape, the bell tower “Campanile San Martino”, which is typical for the area and freestanding from the nave, catches the eye, as it leans at ~3 degrees and has done so for hundreds of years, appearing ready to fall over. We enjoyed a leisurely midday meal in Burano before taking a long stroll around Mazzorbo and returning to the boat. In the late afternoon, we returned to Burano for aperitifs, watching the locals who have now come out to walk their dogs and socialize once the large tourist’s boats have left. On the way back from Burano to our boat berth on Mazzorbo, we noticed that a previously locked gate was open to a vineyard and we decided to explore. This turned out to be the back entrance to a Michelin Star Restaurant and Wine Bar, the Venissa, so we stopped to drink Prosecco and snack on a sardine appetizer before returning to our boat for the evening. However, that evening at 1:30am, our battery alarm sounded indicating we were running low on battery power, and so we idled the engine for an hour to recharge it. This then happened again at 5:30am. We were told that the engine needs to run at least 4-hours per day to keep the batteries charged and we were surprised by this, but we concluded that perhaps we had been negligent in running it the required amount of time.

The Leaning Bell Tower
The Canals of Murano
Vineyard at Mazzorbo Restaurant

Wednesday morning after breakfast on the boat and cappuccinos in town, we bought some drinking water at the local Burano grocery before departing Mazzorbo, motoring all around the island of Burano, and heading to the Isle San Francisco del Deserto, a quiet island with an ancient but active Monastery. We docked along the bulkhead just inside the canal and took lunch on deck while listening to the birds and watching the planes take off at a distance from Venice airport located across the bay. The Monastery was closed as it was only open certain hours, so after lunch, we decided to head to the island of Torcello. Torcello is in the northern part of the lagoon, where the tides are typically less. It is a very small island, but in the past, it was one of the oldest and once most important centers in the lagoon. The typical highlights of the island are the Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta and the Church of Santa Fosca. The palines are located down a narrow waterway in front of the cathedral, but the limited space, the strong currents, and the sudden failure of one of our bow thrusters made docking there too risky. Therefore, we headed back to Mazzorbo/Burano for groceries, before heading back to San Francesco Del Deserto where the monastery was now open for visitors. Once here, we toured the St. Francis of Assisi church with a local Italian Friar. The Monastery dates from 1220 when St. Francis initially visited the island. A church and Convent were then built, but eventually the island was abandoned and deserted due to the extremely poor conditions of the Venice Lagoon. It was reoccupied and renovated in 1453, and the Friars Minor lived there until 1806. In 1856, the island was given by a patriarch to the San Franciscan Friars. Another renovation was done in the 1980’s and it is now a lovely quiet spot to visit on any trip to the lagoon. After our tour, we had cocktails and chips on our houseboat’s rooftop deck, followed by dinner onboard and a quiet evening of cards. However, that evening at 12:30am, our battery alarm once again sounded requiring us to idled the engine for an hour to recharge it. After it happened again at 4:30am, we disconnected the alarm and decided we would address the issue in the morning.

Docked in San Francesco del Deserto

Thursday morning, we started and idled the engine as the low batteries had begun to allow our refrigerator to warm. After breakfast on the boat, we left a message with the Charter Office outlining our issues with the battery charging system and our failed bow thruster. After leaving the peacefulness of San Francesco Del Deserto and beginning to head back towards Chioggia, the Charter Office contacted us and suggested going to Porte Grandi instead – a town on the mainland in the opposite direction, located northeast of the city of Venice. Therefore, we turned the boat around and headed to Porte Grandi through canals that isolated islands and farms that were lower than the water in the canal. The shores were lined with reeds and stone bags shoring up the island edges and protecting acres and acres of farm land. Along the way we saw swans and their cygnets, and a variety of waterfowl. Porte Grandi is massive boat repair area in front of a set of locks that allow entrance to the Sile River, (The River of Silence), system. Once arriving and while waiting for the repairman, we docked at an out-of-the-way location, observed boats passing through the locks, and had lunch on the top deck. Once the boat technician arrived, he fixed the bow thrusters, (a bad switch) and fixed a broken electrical connection that was preventing the batteries from fully charging. After the repairs were made, we traveled back the way we came to Burano/ Mazzorbo for groceries and dinner. When we arrived and docked, another large cruise boat arrived bringing a crowd of visitors. We found a little café off the main path where we had drinks. For dinner, we went to an excellent restaurant named “Gailluipi” for squid appetizer, mussels, risotto, and tortellini. After dinner, Roc used the restaurant’s wifi to run an SEG Board of Director’s meeting from his phone. Then, it was back to the boat for nightcaps and relaxation.

Swan with Cygnets on the way to Porto Grande

On Friday morning after a casual breakfast on the boat and on a beautiful, sunny morning, we decided to head off to Torcello again to explore the Cathedral and vineyard there. However, when we arrived we observed some of our sister boats that had spent the night there now sitting grounded in the mud since it was low tide. After watching another couple struggle for a while to get their moored boat off of the bottom mud, we decided to skip Torcello and headed off motoring through the canal on the west side of Mazzorbo past Burano and around the Palude de Burano (swamp of Burano) and the Isle Crevan (which is for sale for $6.9M), and back to berth on Mazzorbo. We then headed back into Burano where we found a new, “classy” grocery that let us taste local-made botanical gin, sold us a bottle of Grand Marnier, before heading to the post office to mail postcards. It was then time for lunch, which we had at a small café that was surrounded by locals eating at their personal tables, on  their  front stoops, all along the street. Back at the boat, we relaxed and waited for news on Peter’s wife’s follow-up arthroscopic surgery, (which went well). That night we took dinner late, after the tourists’ boats and ferries had all left and found and ended up at Al Ombré – a restaurant with a tiny, narrow doorway opening into a courtyard of 10 tables, surrounded by bright yellow walls and flowers. For dinner we had homemade lasagna and melanzane ( i.e. Italian eggplant Parmesan) – the best dinner thus far!

Colorful homes in Burano
Typical Burano Residential Street

Then, it was back to  the boat for nightcaps and a game of cards.

On Saturday, May 11, we decided to explore some of the area to our east and position ourselves closer for our eventual trip back to Chioggia. Saturday morning was very quiet in town and on the water with few boats or people around. After breakfast on board, we headed to town for a quick grocery run and cappuccinos, before saying “good-bye” to Burano and motoring down the canal and past Lio Piccolo, an old fishing village. As the morning progressed, numerous small boats came out for a Saturday on the water, and we observed a number of local fishermen returning, along with numerous swamps and lowlands. We headed to Punta Sabbioni, where we tied to the city dock near a restaurant, but decided to have lunch on board with the supplies that we had bought at the store,  (wine, bread, cheese, hard boil eggs, and salami). From there, we headed south past the “MOSE” and its massive flood gates protecting Venice. “MOSE” is the “Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico” which translates into, ’Experimental Electromechanical Module’), and it is a project designed to protect the city of Venice and the Venetian Lagoon from flooding by blocking the lagoon off from the Adriatic Sea during extreme high tides. The project consists of rows of mobile gates that are installed on the seafloor at the Lido, Malamocco, and Chioggia inlets, and that can be raised by filling them with compressed air. After crossing the Lido inlet, we motored on to our berth at Le Vignole for the night. Since it was Saturday afternoon, young kids with their speedboats boats were jumping off the bridges and partying until dark. After that, we bought one more bottle of Prosecco from our favorite farmer and enjoyed a light dinner of duck pate, cheese, and bread.

Women Rowers in Gondola

Sunday, we would have to bring the boat back to Chioggia, since check-out was at 8:30am on Monday morning. After breakfast, we left Le Vignole and headed up Canal Nicolo towards Venice before turning on to Canal Lazzaretto to Canal dells Scoasse. Here, it became very shallow and we needed to be careful to stay in the narrow channel. We then headed past the isle Lazzaretto Vecchio, passing many sail boats that were motoring towards the inlet to the Adriatic Sea. Along the way were people out practicing paddling their gondolas and crewing shells. To the south of where we spent our first night in Malamocco, we temporarily got the wrong side of a bricole and dragged bottom slightly, stirring up the mud. Soon afterwards, we stopped at an unused commercial dock at Alberoni for lunch on deck before continuing our journey towards Chioggia. Once we arrived, we moored the boat in one of our Charter Company’s slips, and made our way to old town Chioggia to locate a sports bar in which we could watch soccer (EPL). This was a non-trivial exercise, and, after 45-minutes of strolling about, we found a little pizzeria and watched the Italian league, instead. Then we headed back to Sottomarina, stopping for drinks at the Budapest Caffe, before arriving at the beach at the Havana Club, where we ate dinner and watched Arsenal play. On the way back to the boat, we stopped at the grocery and bought chocolate, palinka, and limoncello, which we sipped that evening while playing cards.

Viga Bridge in Chioggia

On Monday, May 13, we arose early, finished up our eggs, toast, and coffee, and “checked-out” with the Charter Company staff. All was well, and we left on our reserved taxi at 9:00am and headed to Marco Polo Airport where we dropped off Peter for his early flight. We then had the driver take us to our hotel for the night that was located in Quarto d’Altino, about 10 minutes from the airport. Although we were very early to check in, we were greeted with cappuccinos and cookies, and then given a room in about 40 minutes. We left our belongings in the room and we went walking around, exploring the town. The Train station is only a block away, and the Town Center is a short 10-minute walk. There we found a pizzeria/restaurant where we ate a lunch of salads and spicy mussels marinara. Two and one-half hours later, we walked back to our hotel, showered, and prepared our bags for our flight back to the USA in the morning 

Tuesday morning, we were up early for the shuttle to the airport, where we checked-in and went to the lounge before catching our direct flight to Atlanta, and our connection back to our home in Melbourne, Florida. The trip convinced us that other river-canal houseboat adventures are likely in our future! Stay tuned!

Exploring the Venice Lagoon by Houseboat

Part 2: Venice and Murano

We finally pass the southern end of Venice and head to Le Vignole a small farming island divided by a small, quiet canal with lovely pedestrian bridges and footpaths. Halfway down the canal are located paline that are reserved for our Charter Company and we moored alongside the poles, and then walk to the northern end of canal where there is a ACTV Vaporetto, (water ferry), every 30 minutes to the island and city of Venice. Twenty-five years ago, large cruise ships would dock at the island of Venice, but this is no longer allowed. Given the chaos and expense of the Venice island marinas, we decide this is a more convenient way to visit the historic city.

Gondola Lessons in Le Vignole Canal
Vaporetto to Venice

Once in Venice, we walked to St. Mark’s Square, which was fairly crowded. Tourists were taking gondola rides and taking pictures on the Rialto Bridge. We were impressed at how different Venice was from 25 years ago – the canals were clean and clear, the streets and walks were clean and in excellent condition, and there were no hordes of pigeons annoying one’s every movement (feeding pigeons in Venice was outlawed with a 500 Euro fine in 2008). We stopped for a late lunch of spinach cannelloni, lasagna, and gnocchi  accompanied with G&Ts, before heading on to an Irish Pub to watch an English Premiere League match on television and to drink Irish whiskey and Guinness stout. After the game, it was back to the houseboat via vaporetto, where we were met on Le Vignole by a local farmer and purchased fresh strawberries, artichokes, and a local bottle of Prosecco. This was accompanied by a lesson in how to peel and eat raw artichoke hearts with olive oil and pepper, which we promptly snacked on. Back at the houseboat, we met some charter neighbors who had arrived and docked nearby.

A Commercial Delivery Canal in Venice
Tourists taking a Gondola Ride
The Campanile of St. Marks
The Piazza of St. Marks
A Residential Canal in Venice
Rialti Bridge in Venice
Gondoliers Practicing their Technique

On Monday, we slept-in and had breakfast before taking the vaporetto to Murano. As is not unusual in Italy, this day was appointed as “strike day” for ACTV and vaporetto service was sporadic and handled by alternative companies. By agreement, “worker transports” only were going to run focusing on the early morning and early evening routes. Like Venice, Murano consists of seven smaller islands, two of which are of artificial origin. However, they are all connected by bridges, albeit separated by canals and narrow watercourses. The town has become famous worldwide for its glass art. Once there, we explored the shops and found a glass factory where we met the manager, Fabrizio, who lives part-time in West Palm Beach. There, we observed a glass blowing demonstration, before being invited upstairs to see the higher quality items, including vases, chandeliers, aquariums, and large pieces of glass art. After window shopping, we lunched at a nearby square, where we had a set 3-course meal, before shopping for souvenirs, and heading back to the vaporetto station only to find no boats for an hour-and-a-half. While waiting, we shared a local beer and avoided a brief rain shower, before catching a vaporetto back to Le Vignole, where we greeted our favorite farmer and bought and drank more Prosecco and ate snacks while playing a game of cards.

Entrance to the Canal in Murano
Commercial Canal in Murano
Glass Factory in Murano
Island in Venice Lagoon

Exploring the Venice Lagoon by Houseboat

Part 1: Chioggia to Le Vignole

We last explored Venice ~25-years ago, and although the town was magical, the canals were fouled, the piazzas were filled with pigeons, and the crowds of people were suffocating. Since then, we have spent a good bit of our holiday time exploring places on the water that are accessible by chartering sailboats, and these adventures have taken us around the world. However, there are interesting places along riverways that are too difficult to visit via sailboat. Therefore, when our friends pointed out that there were now houseboats available for charter in Europe, so that one can explore the riverways and coastal lagoons, we decided to “test the waters” and charter a houseboat to explore the Venice Lagoon.

The Venetian Lagoon, Laguna di Venezia; is a shallow bay of the Adriatic Sea in the north of Italy, in which a number of islands are located, including the city of Venice. The Lagoon reaches from the River Sile in the north to the Brenta River in the south. It is only ~8% land, 11% open water and dredged canals, with ~80% of the area covered by mud flats, tidal shallows, and salt marshes. The Lagoon is connected to the Adriatic Sea by three inlets: at Lido to the north, Malamocco centrally, and Chioggia in the south. The Lagoon is subject to large tidal variations (~1-meter) with extreme tides common in the Spring season.

Map of Venice Lagoon & Route

We would fly into Marco Polo Airport located just north of Venice on the mainland, and then travel via chartered car to the southern extent of the Lagoon to the city of Chioggia, (pronounced “Chioggia”), where our charter would begin. The town of Chioggia is important and is known for its harbor, fishing, salt pans, fruit and vegetable crops and its cuisine. Chioggia is often called “Little Venice” because of its alleys, squares, palaces, and canals. The most important canal is the Vena Canal, which is crossed by nine bridges, and is guarded by the Vigo Bridge that separates the lagoon from the Piazza Vigo, where the town’s landmark, the San Marco Lion is located. Chioggia has a long and exciting founding and history, as its seafood resources and salt pans were fought over and historically generated great wealth. During World War II, the town was saved from Allied bombing when a revolt by the locals drove the German occupying forces to surrender.

We arrived on Thursday, May 2nd, in preparation to pick-up our charter boat the next day, and stayed in a hotel in Sottomarina, a short walk from the beach located on the most eastern extent of the barrier island that protects the lagoon and stretches north to the first inlet. The area is clearly a summer resort town that is just gearing up for their busy season. We checked-in to our hotel, were greeted with cappuccinos & Prosecco, and then explored the area locating grocery stores, the boat charter offices, and houseboat itself. We then returned to the Sottomarina area and stopped at a local pizzeria for a beer and homemade “spicy salami & sausage pizza” cooked on massive sheet pan with 8 other orders and then our part cut for us. That night, we returned to the hotel and visited the rooftop for a view of the city at night where we enjoyed a glass of wine while watching the ships that move along the coast in the Adriatic.

Entrance to Sottomarina Hotel
View of the Adriatic & Beach from Hotel Rooftop

On Friday, we enjoyed a beautiful, classic, Italian breakfast buffet at the hotel before checking-in at the Boat Charter Office and finalizing our charter details. We then checked-out of the hotel, dropped our luggage at the boat office, and proceeded to explore the town of Chioggia. After lunch at San Marco’s, we explored the “old town”, the wharfs, the stores, and the fish market until 3pm when we gathered our belongings and boarded the houseboat for our official briefing and check-out. After a review of the boat’s systems and a short check-out trip out to the Chioggia Harbor entrance and back, we unpacked; gathered minimal supplies at the grocery stores, and returned to old town Chioggia for dinner. After dinner, it was back to the boat for drinks and preparing for our shipmate, Peter, who had been delayed via airline issues, but who arrived at 12:30am.

Chioggia Fishing Vessels
Chioggia Canal
Chioggia Fish Market
Chioggia Residential Old Town

Peter was originally scheduled to come with his wife, but an untimely accident and leg injury prevented her from accompanying him on the trip. However, we all viewed this as a “check-out” trip to evaluate potential houseboat charters in Europe in the future and he wanted to evaluate the experience firsthand.

The Leo – Our Houseboat

Saturday morning, we enjoyed coffee and croissants onshore and, after a brief tour of the beach and Sottomarina, we embarked toward Venice. In order to navigate the shallows of the Venice Lagoon, we pay close attention to the bricola that are located every 100-300ft apart from each other. A bricole is a group of three wooden poles that are in the water of the lagoon and the canals. The three pole make a sort of triangular pyramid with one taller pole that has white reflectors on one side. The bricola indicate to boats the limits of the navigable channel, so that the boats do not end up in shallow water and run aground. The white reflectors face the deeper waters indicating which side of them to stay on. Today there are over 90.000 of these bricola, which are principally made up of oak posts that must be replaced every 5-10 years. Single poles in the lagoon which are often colored at the top or marked, are called paline and these poles can be used for docking one’s boat to.

Following the Bricola

After a few hours of motoring, we docked at a paline in Pellestrina for lunch (bricole #139) at restaurant Del Celeste on the Lido di Venezia, which is a narrow 12 km long island between the lagoon and the Mediterranean Sea (connected to Pellestrina), and which is only connected to the city and the mainland exclusively by boats and ferries. We dined on mussels, shrimp, and crabs before walking north towards the inlet at Malamocco and then stopping at a fine little establishment called Osteria Del Mare for gin & tonics, made with local “Ginurue” gin. After returning to the boat, we motored to bricole #7, just past Malamocco, and tied up to the bulkhead for the night. In the small village at Malamocco, we dined at Travitta Scarso, where we had a dinner of rigatoni’s, mussels, cheese, and wine sitting on the local piazza. Then it was back on to the boat for more wine and a good game of cards. 

On Sunday, we had breakfast onboard before heading back to town for a leisurely cappuccino and then disembarking towards Venice. We passed various islands: lsle Poveglia – currently undergong renovations; Isle Spirito – the last undeveloped isle in the lagoon, (last for sale in 2011 for 38M$); and Isle Clemente – now the San Clemente Palace Hotel by Kempinski; and Isle Sacco Sessioli – a man-made island built in 1870 and now a Marriott Hotel Resort. Then, we continued on to our destination at the island of Le Vignole.

Gondola Rowers on Break
Tied up at the Bulkhead at Le Vignole

Sailing in the BVI – Again – but “in comfort”

Part 3 – Back in Tortola & Jost van Dyke

Sunday morning, we made a breakfast hash out of leftovers before making another quick run to shore for some dinner items, and then setting off for nearby (3-hours sail) Sandy Cay – a small uninhabited sandy islet and National Park where we could explore, snorkel, and swim. While there, we saw a pod of dolphins swim around us and Juju saw another octopus while snorkeling at the local reef. Unfortunately, when we were ready to leave, our generator would not start, so we contacted the MOD and an engineer soon came over to us by dinghy. The problem was a broken wire in the generator box, and repairs were soon completed. We then made the short sail to the island of Jost van Dyke where we visited the famous Foxy’s Tamarind Bar for drinks. 

Julie Floating while visiting Sandy Cay

Foxy was a local, Calypso-singing jokester with an unlimited repertoire of politically incorrect riffs, who presided over his continuously-open bar for over 50-years. Although he recently passed away, there still stands a life-size mannequin of him on duty 24/7. Foxy’s is globally known for its hospitality and some of the largest beach parties ever held. After playing our respects, we grilled hamburgers, enjoyed cocktails, and enjoyed the mild evening.

At Foxy’s on Jost van Dyke
The “As You Wish” from Shore

Monday morning, we decided to have a lite breakfast before sailing back to Sandy Cay for a little more recreation in the water and onshore. After exploring and snorkeling, we sailed over to Soper’s Hole, a protected port at the eastern tip of Tortola surrounded by steep mountainous slopes. Soper’s Hole is home to a fleet of charter boats and the only other Pusser’s in the Caribbean. That evening, we shopped at the local stores, had dinner at Pusser’s, and bar-hopped having drinks with local yacht captains at Omar’s Bar and Grill.

Julie Exploring Sandy Cay
Pussers at Soper’s Hole at the West End of Tortola
Dinner at Pussers
Nightlife and Bar-hopping at Soper’s Hole

Tuesday we paid our mooring ball before setting sail to “beat” our way northwest to Cooper Island. After sailing all day, we finally motored our way into the Cooper Island’s beautiful Manchioneel Bay – a bay fronting the private Cooper Island Beach Resort which was still closed until the end of the week. This eco-friendly area does not allow anchoring, and the blossoming sea grass attracts sea turtles and considerable wildlife. After mooring onto a ball, we went snorkeling where we spotted octopi, nurse sharks, and a pod of large remora that liked to hang out below our hull. After our water sports, we grilled BBQ chicken on the grill and enjoyed our last evening aboard. 

Our Final BVI Sunset while On-board “As You Wish”

The next morning, we made the short sail back to Nanny Cay and brought the catamaran into the fuel dock about 10am where we refueled and turned the boat back into ”Horizon”, our marina Charter Company. Juju and Craig set off for the airport for their flight to Puerto Rico, and the rest of us ate lunch at the local marina restaurant, Mulligan’s, before checking into our rooms for the night at Nanny Cay Resort. That evening, the 4 of us had a light dinner at Peg Leg’s Bar before having drinks together at our rooms. The next morning everyone set off early for flights back to the United States after a great holiday sailing trip.

Children’s Sailing Lessons back at Nanny Cay

Our Airplane back to Puerto Rico – a 5 seater