Another early start to watch the sail in to Hilo, our final port of call on our cruise :-( And well worth getting up early for! First there was the gorgeous sunrise over the ocean, with the rays shining through the scattered clouds. Then there were the views of the island, with the Mauna Kea volcano towering over the coastline, it's top capped with snow, but best of all - there were whales!!! Scattered all around the harbour were water spouts, shortly followed each time by the diving body of a beautiful humpback whale. They were everywhere! I saw a few pairs of mothers and babies, and some that were very close to the ship. It was definitely one of the highlights of the whole cruise for me! :-)
We pulled into the harbour and the ship docked, and we could still see spouts in the distance, so we had breakfast with the most wonderful view ever! We eventually pulled ourselves away from the windows to go and meet for our tour - Best of Hilo. This was a full day tour and we set off at 8.45am in order to pack it all in. We firstly drove through Hilo itself, the second largest town on the Big Island of Hawaii, and yet still quite a small place (population around 43,000), and a lot less built up than Honolulu. We drove along the coastal road for a while, through the pretty Liliuokalani Gardens with their ponds and statues, past all the trees of Banyan Drive, viewing the small island in the harbour here, then soon arriving at our first stop - the Big Island Candies Store! Which was full of chocolate! Despite only just having breakfast, I managed to eat the free samples that we were given of various chocolates and cookies, and very good they were too! You could also see into the workroom where the chocolates were made which was interesting. After everyone had made their purchases it was time to go to the next stop - the statue of King Kamehameha in central Hilo. It was very similar to the one we saw yesterday in Honolulu, but apparently this one was a true reflection of his size - 6 foot 9 inches!! It was surrounded by pretty gardens, with a pond and more ducks! The next stop was the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens which were truly incredible! We had an hour there to explore independently, but we could easily have spent two! The visit started with a very steep walk down into the gardens, and then we had a map to follow with various different themed area. There was a wonderful gushing waterfall at the start, statues representing various traditional figures, enormous spiders webs (although we couldn't see the spiders!), ponds with lilies and fish, and of course plants and trees as far as the eye could see. There was a lovely orchid garden with flowers with more colours and patterns than I have ever seen in my life! At the end of the trail we emerged into a clearing by the ocean where we overlooked a gorgeous bay with palm trees, rock formations and secluded coves. The path then curved round in a different direction past some other types of plants, including the cannonball tree that I had so liked yesterday, eventually taking us back to the steep path up to the entrance. We had a little time to browse the interesting gift shop before getting back into the coach.
Our next stop was lunch, which was served at the Nani Mau restaurant which also boasted a botanical gardens. So after we had filled up on the buffet, we spent a while wandering these gardens, which although nothing like the ones we had just let, were still very pretty. We saw a mongoose and a baby mouse which was very exciting! We then boarded the coach again and headed for the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. We were visiting the Kilauea Volcano (which is the world's most active volcano - erupting continuously for the past 20 years), and as we drove into the area we could immediately see the steam vents alongside the road in a clear area - no large plants can grow because once their roots get too deep they get burnt by the magma under the ground. The road took us around the crater rim to the Thomas A Jagger museum, where we saw exhibits informing us about volcanoes and stories and pictures of the goddess Pele. From here we also had our best views of the crater itself. For safety reasons people are kept a certain distance back, so we could mainly just see steam, but it was still very exciting! After spending a while observing the Halemaumau crater, we drove to the nearby Thurston Lava tube, which is a tunnel formed by a large lava flow which cooled and solidified on the top and then the still hot liquid contents flowed out, leaving an open space. We walked through a small area of lush rainforest to access the tube, and then spent some time inside it (not too much time though - it was cold!) Hanging from the ceiling were roots of trees growing above.
The final stop of the tour was the Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Factory, which allowed us a glimpse of how these nuts are processed and made into various products (many incorporating chocolate!). There was a large shop (of course!) and a small botanical garden which we had a little look round. On the way into and out of the factory grounds were macadamia nut trees galore, and also a large number of papaya trees.
We got back to the ship at around 5.00 after a very enjoyable day. We had a quick turnaround and then dinner; as if to say goodbye, as we were eating, a big humpback whale came alongside the ship right next to our window and played for a while and then she was gone! What a way to end our last port of call on the ship! Then to a crew special called A Song for Europe, which was part entertainment, part quiz - some of the entertainment team sang a range of previous winners of the Eurovision Song Contest, and we had to name the song/ artist/ country/ year. (JL decided not to go to this one!) We then went to the theatre to see Colin 'Fingers' Henry who is a comedy pianist - the best bit was when he stood on his head and played a tune! Then to bed, exhausted!