Unplugged on the Big Island

The unexpected lightness of being disconnected.

By Michael Sullivan

Photo by Michael Sullivan

Sunset at the oceanfront Royal Kona Resort.

Day 1: Vacation officially begins
Pictures: 17. Videos: 3. Facebook posts: 2. Messages/texts: 23. Checking for likes, comments: 13.

From Ventura to LAX and to the Big Island, where the air is humid and around 80 degrees, but the atmosphere is relaxed. We pick up our rental car, head to the oceanfront Royal Kona Resort and walk to a nearby restaurant for grilled fish and onion rings. Wandering back after dinner, my son wants to check out the nearby tide pools; we find a sea turtle munching on kelp clinging to the rocks, with no other people in close proximity. My son names the sea turtle Steve. 

Day 2: Decompression initiated
Pictures: 30. Videos: 3. Instagram posts: 2. Messages/texts: 29. Checking for likes, comments: 18.

From the resort, we visited two national parks, Kaloko-Honokōhau, a barren old lava flow, and Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park, with spindly palm trees and ruins of huts, totems and a burial ground on a white sand beach. Onshore is a protected sea turtle spot. Next to Pu’uhonua O Honaunau is a local public park, packed with tailgating barbecues and snorkelers; clearly Sunday is family day.

Driving around, I was interested to see that most mom-and-pop stores and restaurants are closed on Sundays as chickens literally cross the roads. Neighbors post private-property signs with no actual fences. The Big Island’s countryside speaks of a quiet life. Rustic weather-worn ranch-style houses, old rickety churches, houses buried beneath dense vegetation the likes of which Californians pay big bucks to plant and maintain. The humidity is of sauna quality: a steamy, dense mist of warm moisture that won’t dissipate. For dinner, I ate nabeyaki udon. Delish.

“I really need to unplug from Facebook, Instagram, Twitter,” I think to myself. “Everyone can just wait to see my pictures of sea turtles, foliage and lava rock. . . . Well, maybe just one sea turtle picture.”

Day 3: Settling in
Pictures: 33. Videos: 4. Instagram: 3 posts. Facebook: 2 posts plus updated profile image. Messages/texts: 10. Checking for likes, comments: 14.

Off to swim with the dolphins with tour outfit OneLoveOneSpirit — a practice drastically different from the Sea World-like swimming pools with captive cetaceans that many people envision. This experience is more akin to a snorkeling or whale watching trip. A boat delivers attendees to a spot frequented by dolphins freely swimming along the coastline looking for food. Swimmers share the environment with these playful creatures, nothing more. 

As our small fishing boat heads to the shoreline and small bays where primarily spinner dolphins search for food in the morning, we spot a Cuvier’s beaked whale coming to the surface for air. We slow down when a pod is in sight. Excitedly, I slip my phone into a Ziplock pouch, don my flippers and jump in the warm water. First one, then two, then dozens of dolphins are swimming below and around me. I catch several of them turning on their sides to gaze up at me, checking me out as I do them. One floats just feet from me, slowly circling around. My heart is overwhelmed with joy. As a bonus, we also see sting rays coasting along the bottom. It’s surreal, it’s breathtaking, it’s unforgettable.

Heading back, elated by this swimming experience, I run on the boat photographing dolphins as they race along the bow. But I misjudge my ability to balance along a slim part of deck that links bow to stern. With one unforeseen wake, I fall off the boat with my phone out of its sealed bag. On the ride home, my phone starts to glitch, not responding to touch and turning off. 

Day 4-6: Phone dead
Photos: 0. Videos: 0. Facebook, Instagram, messages, texts: 1 — courtesy of my son’s phone. Checking for likes, comments: 0.

I officially become unplugged.

Many other adventures were to follow, although the remainder of my trip is cataloged mainly by memory — I was able to borrow the family’s cameras from time to time. The Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, a former trash dump, was plush with striking orchids, ferns and countless other flora. We played fetch (really) with an octopus at Kanaloa Octopus Farm. At Ocean Rider Seahorse Farm, I cradled a small seahorse, which latched onto my fingers with its prehensile tail. Disconnected from my social media network, I forged attachments instead with the natural world around me. 

And with my family. The most precious moments on the island were our meals, talking with my family about what we had seen and experienced. One sunset happy hour at the resort was especially memorable, while brunches along the rocky coastline were also quite peaceful and comforting (although I wouldn’t venture to eat fermented soybeans again). The drive from ‘Akaka Falls State Park back to Kona also stands out. Watching the barren moonscapelike countryside pass by, I felt strangely emotional as a torrential downpour hit.

Looking back months later, the sense of being truly unplugged has stayed with me. After years of striving to be fully connected, I let go of the need to capture and share everything, and look for validation and approval from both close friends and distant acquaintances about my goings-on via my virtual reality. I experienced a strong sense of relief, understanding that no one really needs to be in that sort of constant communication. I have carried that, at least somewhat, into my personal life indefinitely.

It may have been forced upon me, but the most important experience of this trip was the ability to give myself a chance to breathe and be in the moment with nature, family and the beauty of life all around me. The memory of that is as strong as ever.

Royal Kona Resort
OneLoveOneSpirit Adventures
Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden
Kanaloa Octopus Farm
Ocean Rider Seahorse Farm

A sea turtle peeks its head above water in the tide pools next to the resort.

Pods of dolphins gather in bays around the coastline to feed, and make for some spectacular snorkeling encounters.

On the trail to Akaka Falls.

The many splendors at the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden include trails that pass through jungle canopies.

A multitude of flowers and colorful macaws in the Founders’ Birdhouse.


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