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Much more than beaches: The Big Island of Hawai’i 2023

When we realized we were not going to be making an April trip to Europe during spring break at the school where my husband volunteers, we decided to visit Hawaii. We chose the Big Island because I have always wanted to visit the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. As I knew from doing research in advance, there is much more to this island than beaches—it is almost the size of Connecticut and incredibly diverse because of the altitude variation from sea level to almost 14,000 feet and the fact that the large volcanoes shield the leeward side from rain. We used The Big Island Revealed Guide and various websites (especially the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park site) to plan the trip.

We are not frequent visitors to Hawaii—we’ve only been to Kauai once and Maui twice. This is the island we would be most likely to visit again. The national park is fascinating, and we enjoyed the contrast between the volcanoes, rainforest, grasslands, rugged coast, sandy beaches, and lava fields, as well as the Hawaiian historical and cultural sites.

We flew into Hilo, on the windward side, and flew home from Kailua-Kona on the leeward side of the island. We opted for flights that required us to change planes in Honolulu in order to be able to leave from our nearby Oakland airport at very reasonable prices.

Our 8-night trip was split into two parts:
4 nights based in Volcano Village, just a mile or two from the entrance to the National Park.
4 nights based in the Waikoloa Beach area of the Kohala Coast.

I've divided this report by day, and will continue below.

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Day/night 1 (Wednesday) —Arrival: We arrived at the Hilo airport on Wednesday, March 29, at about 1:45 pm. After picking up our car, we went to a nearby Safeway to get some food for our Airbnb in Volcano. We then drove about 45 minutes to our 2BR 2BA house just a few minutes from the entrance to the national park. Volcano village and the park entrance are at about 4,000 feet elevation. We chose to stay in a house because there are few outdoor dining options at that elevation, and we avoid indoor restaurants—and I had an Airbnb gift certificate from my recent retirement that covered the rental. The weather in Volcano and the park was generally cool (mid- to high 60s) and misty, with occasional light rain and occasional sun breaking through the clouds.

Day/night 2 (Thursday)—Hawaii Volcanoes National Park: When we entered the Visitor Center parking lot at about 9 am there were very few cars. We checked out the Visitor Center and finalized our plans for the day after briefly consulting with a park ranger. We began by touring the Crater Rim road, stopping at viewpoints for the Kilauea Caldera. We chose three short, easy, and very rewarding hikes for our first day: Steam Banks Trail, which took us by many steam vents, Bird Park Trail, which goes through typical rainforest and flora for the area, and the Thurston Lava Tube. I had packed my hiking poles, and they were helpful, but not essential, for these walks. As the day went by, the Visitor Center became crowded, but in general we had no problem with crowds or parking. If you have any interest in geology and/or volcanoes, this park is an amazing experience. In the evening we relaxed at the rental house and made a simple dinner.

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Day/night 3: (Friday)—waterfalls, the Hawaii Tropical Botanic Garden, and Hilo Bay. We drove down the mountain towards Hilo and turned north in order to visit the beautiful Rainbow Falls (free) and Akaka Falls (not free). Rainbow Falls is right next to a parking lot. While the lot is small, people are constantly arriving and leaving, so the parking spots turn over quickly. Akaka Falls also has a small paid parking lot, but most people park along the road before the lot. There is a fee to enter, and you have a choice of a short walk through the Falls or a half-mile or so loop through rainforest. My knees are not the greatest, but I was able to navigate the loop trail.

Next we went to the Hawaii Tropical Botanic Garden, just a few miles north of Akaka Falls via a scenic diversion from the highway. This was a highlight of the trip, and is perhaps the best Botanic Garden we’ve ever visited, well worth the $25 entrance fee. You enter the park via a steep downhill boardwalk, so my knees were challenged for a second time in one day and I was grateful for my hiking poles. In addition to beautiful plants there are several good views of the ocean from the garden. Before heading back to Volcano, we stopped in Hilo. We were surprised by the beauty of Hilo Bay, and enjoyed a stroll around the Lili’uokalani Park and Gardens.

On Thursday we had discovered one Volcano Village restaurant with some outdoor tables and made a reservation for Friday at 7. We thought we might be cold, but we were comfortable dining on the porch of the Ohelo Café, a very popular restaurant in Volcano.

Day/night 4 (Saturday): A return to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park—We returned for a second wonderful day of exploration. We began by viewing the Kilauea Iki crater, which formed from a massive eruption in 1959-1960, and walked the Devastation Trail, which highlighted the contrast between the nearby forest and complete devastation from the eruption. While there is a very popular trail into and across the crater, we decided that my knees weren’t up to the climb back out of the crater. We then drove the full 18 miles of the Chain of Craters Road to its end at a beautiful sea arch. The rest of the road was destroyed by the 2008-2018 almost continuous eruption of the volcano. Along the way to the sea arch, we stopped at several viewpoints to observe smaller craters from various eruptions of Kilauea and to view the descent of the mountain to the ocean. On our way back up the road, we stopped to hike on the Pu’uloa Petroglyph Trail to view some of the best-preserved and most extensive petroglyphs in Hawaii. Although the trail is not steep, it traverses pahoehoe lava fields and is a bit rough, so once again my hiking poles were helpful. The sun came out and it was hot and windy, but well worth the trek to see the petroglyphs. We returned to Kilauea Caldera and the Halema’uma’u crater for sunnier views than we were able to see on Thursday. The Halema’uma’u pit crater within the Kilauea Caldera collapsed and deepened by more than 1,000 feet over several months in 2018. The parking lot and viewpoint slumped into the crater, and the park closed for several months. The most recent eruption was earlier this year—we missed it by only a few weeks.

Most people who visit the national park do a quick half-day or day trip from the Kona side of the island. We were very glad we decided to spend more time to really explore the park and to visit Hilo and nearby sights.

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Day/night 5 (Sunday): Driving to the Kohala Coast via Hilo, the Hamakua Coast, and Waimea— We stopped to explore Hilo via a self-guided walking tour I found online. Hilo is a bit run down, but it is on a beautiful bay and the tour gave an interesting glimpse into its history. We found a great seafood restaurant with sidewalk tables for lunch. This unplanned meal was possibly our best overall for value and food on the island.

As we drove up the Hamakua Coast we decided to take a diversion to Laupahoehoe Point Beach Park. We loved the wild feeling of the waves crashing onto rocks. Many local families were enjoying the picnic areas in this beautiful park.

After driving across the grassy highlands near Waimea, we descended into the lava fields and views of the ocean as we drove towards the Kohala area of the island, where most of the mega-resorts are located. We have never stayed at a resort like this before, but we hadn’t taken a real vacation since 2019, other than local trips in California, so we decided we could splurge on the Marriott at Waikoloa Beach. Yup, it’s overpriced and kind of bland in décor, but it’s a very short walk across fishponds to a beautiful and swimmable beach (after crossing a few rocks, which was easy during mid to high tide). We will probably never stay at a resort like this again, but it made sense for us on this trip. We were tired and ate at the resort restaurant, which was at least as good as the more highly recommended restaurants in our guidebook and online (see later). While restaurant prices in Hawaii are shocking for some, they weren’t generally much higher than in the SF Bay Area. However, the quality was generally not as good.

Day/night 6 (Monday): Waikoloa Beach and Lapakahi State Historical Park—It quickly became clear during our time there that mornings tended to be sunnier than mid-afternoon, and that chances were good that the sun would come out again, at least partially, in the late afternoon. Since we typically avoid the mid-day sun and don’t like to bake on the beach for hours anyway, we settled into a routine of going to the beach early to swim and read, leaving at noon for lunch and a drive, and returning to the beach from around 4 or 5 pm until the 6:30 sunset. The beach was gorgeous and usually not crowded, as most people tended to hang out at the much more crowded swimming pools. It makes sense to me if you have young children, but otherwise I don’t get it.

Edited to add: We saw sea turtles at the beach that morning. A girl was playing in waist deep water when she called to her family that there were turtles. I waded in to just above my knees and was able to watch them for a few minutes. Then one of the swam up to within about 8 feet of me, so a got a great look.

On this day, we drove north along the Kohala Coast to Lapakahi State Historical Park, the site of partially restored ruins of an ancient Hawaiian fishing village. We walked the 1-mile loop trail and enjoyed the sights and more great views of the ocean. After sunset back at the resort’s beach, we walked to the very popular Lava Lava Beach Club for a good (but not great) dinner. But then we knew we weren’t in Hawaii for the food.

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Day/night 7 (Tuesday): Waikoloa Beach and a drive up the spine of an old volcano: This was a glorious, sunny day. After our relaxing morning at the beach and a quick lunch, we headed up the spine of the Kohala volcano. It was a beautiful drive, with views of Haleakala on nearby Maui, and led to the village of Hawi, which had an excellent ice cream shop and a gift shop that made my souvenir shopping a breeze. We returned via the road along the Kohala Coast, where we stopped at the Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site, where Kamehameha the Great built a heiau (temple) that has become a symbol of the unification of the Hawaiian Islands.

After the best sunset of our trip and another sea turtle sighting as they popped up to breathe, we went to another popular area restaurant, A-Bays. It was a disaster—possibly the second worst restaurant experience of our 50 years together. The food took well over an hour to arrive and was bland and cold. There was some issue in the kitchen, so perhaps our experience was unusual. Our waiter did his best and brought us free drinks, but we really didn’t need more alcohol at that point.

Day/night 8 (Wednesday): Our last day at Waikoloa Beach—Our final day’s excursion after another relaxing morning on the beach was a drive south to Kailua-Kona. We thought we might visit the national historic park south of Kona, but we never made it because there was more traffic in that direction, and we wanted time to return to our beach after a short stop for ice cream. We saw another beautiful sunset, and had a simple dinner at the hotel.

Day 9 (Thursday): Return home—Our flight home on Day 9 was uneventful. Within three days I’d ordered a photobook to help us remember this fabulous trip.

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Wonderful trip report, Barbara. Yes, I agree that the Big Island has so much more than just beaches. How was the air quality in Volcano?

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Thanks, Tammy and Christine. I have some photos to show you next time we meet. Christine, the air quality was fine when we were there.
Edited to add: The Volcano side was reasonably priced--if we had shared the house with another couple it would have been very reasonable--but the resorts on the water on the leeward side are crazy expensive. If you are willing to stay inland, you can find fairly reasonable accommodations, but with only three days and not that much time for advanced planning we decided to splurge.

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Barbara N, another national park visit!! It sounds like you had a lovely trip. You caught my attention with your mention of the botanic gardens. I'll spend hours in a tiny little scrap of a botanic garden. It sounds like I could make a day of the Hawaii Tropical Botanic Garden!

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I just edited my report because I forgot to mention that we saw sea turtles on Monday morning and Tuesday evening. They were frequently at our beach on A-Bay, and on Monday morning they were very close to the shore. One of them swam within about 8 feet of me as I stood in water just slightly over my knees.

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Tammy: I will be sure to do that. I think it is possible we will return, as there is more to see and do on the island.

CWSocial: We spent 2 hours there plus a picnic afterwards near the entrance. You could easily spend most of the day there, especially if you took your picnic with you to eat at the picnic tables out near the ocean. And after you get back out of the garden, you can buy a delicious frozen fruit bar made in nearby Kamuela/Waimea.

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Barbara, the Big Island has a lot to see and is the least inhabited in relation to its size. My wife had to drag me there 20 years ago. Since then, we have been back almost every other year. After all of those visits, we still find new things to see. I strongly recommend that you rent an SUV or something that rides higher than a small car. If you did not visit the following places on your most recent trip, I would recommend a look.
When staying in Waikoloa Beach area or Kailua-Kona:
Take route 250 from Hawi to Waimea. Great overlooks of that part of the island.
Waipio Valley overlook. Take a paid tour down to the valley floor. I recently read that private vehicles are no longer allowed. Our tour guide actually lived in the valley and was full of information if you asked.
One place we have not visited on foot is Captain Cooks monument. A boat tour may be for you.
South Point with a side trip to Punalu'u Bake Shop
Kiholo State Park Reserve. There is a round house on a pedestal that was once owned by Loretta Lyn. A few years ago we were told that the plan was to turn it into an information center for that area.
You made a smart choice by spending a few nights up near Volcano Village. In that area:
Boiling pots overlook:
Drive through the neighborhood that got hit by the lava flows in 2018-2020. They were still steaming when we went through there in 2022.
South of that neighborhood, where the chain of craters road would have went through, you will find a neighborhood built on an old lava flow. The residents do not have any utilities supplied to them.
You have already touched on other points of interest I would recommend.
The beauty of the big island for us is that we get in the Jeep and drive. If there is a sign that says beach access, we will turn down the road to see where it takes us. We visit in February or March during whale season. If we spot a whale or whales, we enjoy following them up or down the coast.
My reason for recommending an SUV or higher vehicle is that some of the roads that take you to a beautiful part can be a bit rough. We did see evidence of someone ripping open an oil pan going down a bumpy road. Tourists tend to leave common sense at home at times.
We are heading back next year and can't wait to see what we may discover next.

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John, thank you for all of these suggestions. I was aware of some, but not others. We had really hoped to get to the black sand beach, but we didn't have time. I didn't realize there were tours into Waipio Valley--I have heard as you have that it's closed to non-residents. I'd be interested to hear who you used for that tour. Also, do you have any recommendations of places to stay?

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Hi Barbara, I’m glad you had the Big Island Revealed book - so helpful! We’ve been to the Big Island two times and like it as well as the others - in some ways better.

When I started reading your report, I thought you landed in Hilo, headed towards the volcano park and weren’t returning to see the highlights in the Hilo area. Very happy that you returned to see the botanical garden! It’s my favorite one of all botanical gardens I have enjoyed.

The last time we stayed at a B&B very close to the Volcano National Park, we were awakened in the middle of the night by an earthquake! We both looked at each other and said, “Let’s get back to the park as soon as it’s daylight!” We found the rangers there to also be very helpful and enthusiastic about their work & the park.

Hopefully you can return and spend more time in the Kailua-Kona area, too.

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Barbara, we went on the this tour
We use a timeshare in the Waikoloa Beach area when we go. Or, for a night or two, the Waikoloa Hilton. In the Volcano Village area we have stayed at Tutu's Place which can be found on VRBO. I'm not sure if it has the same owner. In the past, the owner also owned the Kilueala Lodge in Volcano Village (nice restaurant). The last time we stayed in Tutu's place they had sold the Kilueala Lodge and kept Tutu's and an additional 2 houses as rental properties.
If you have not been down to the southern point, the green sand beach is nearby. However, it was a bit of hike so we took a Jeep to the area.
I saw that you went to Lava Lava Beach Club. If you like Italian food, there is a great restaurant in Waikoloa Village named Pueo's Osteria. We actually saw them making their pasta by hand and the pizza is very good.
If I can find the name to the last place we stayed in the Hilo area I will let you.

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FYI, I believe every car rental agreement in Hawaii states that you are not allowed to drive on unpaved roads, even with a jeep or SUV. Therefore, if you suffer any damage, your will probably not be covered.

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Barbara, it is so nice to hear about your visit to a favorite island of mine. I lived there with my family from 1985 to 1996 before moving to Seattle, My son still lives in Kailua-Kona and I have close friends in Hilo and Pepeekeo to this day. Recently on a visit in February, my friend and I enjoyed a wonderful day at this gorgeous tropical/botanical reserve that you toured, located about 3 miles from the friends home in Pepeekeo. The water view is actually called Onomea Bay. As she and I were looking out toward the water, she relayed several stories of her youth telling me that she and her brothers would fish and pick opihi (limpets) out in this Bay. She grew up on the sugar plantation very nearby and showed me around the area. We topped off the day with shave ice from a little general store just up the hill from the Reserve. Nice memory to take back to Seattle.

Thanks for posting a great trip report.

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John, Thank you for the information. If we return, I will definitely book the Waipio Valley tour! And we love Italian food.

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Jean, thanks for commenting. Do you have a favorite place to stay or things to see in Kailua-Kona?

Linda, how lucky you are to have friends and relatives on the Big Island!

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hey hey barbara
so happy you got a feel of the BIG island. i'm from hilo/waimea/hamakua coast with my family still there to visit yearly.
like you say so much more than beaches. this is a BIG rural island with much more to investigate.
many people don't really care for hilo side, "like you say run down" or because of rainy side. hilo has been thru alot with hurricanes, tsunamis, eruptions and lava flows. it is a historic artsy farsty town with many local restaurants and shops plus many friendly people. water activities around the bay and port of hilo, budget friendly places to stay, botanical gardens/plants/flowers/, waterfalls, streams, home of merrie monarch hula festival (happening now after easter) home to anthiriums/orchards, many farms.
it was a huge sugar plantation with many different nationalities coming to work on the fields and live in camps. since sugar closed, many bought acre/acres along the coast, puna/pahoa and ka'u that do many tours. since land was good for growing cane it turned out well for other things, some built BnB's, honomu goat dairy selling fresh chevre, sea salt caramels & chocloate fudge, (a hole in the wall) selling exotic/local fruits jam/jellies sauces picked nearby, drive down some old plantation camps that homes were offered for $1500, country store, airbnb up on the hill overlooking ocean.
surprised you went to laupahoehoe beach park, old stomping ground for family party/picnic. my brother born at old hospital there in 1950. mom was a cowgirl on private ranch nearby, got cowboy & country in my blood plus you'll see handsome cowboys LOL
learn all about working on the sugar plantations, (hamakua,hilo, puna, ola'a, ka'u, and kohala) and living in the camps.
botanical gardens were owned by plantation, a couple bought the land and took about 15 years to clean out the "jungle" and make it a tourist attraction. always took the gorgeous scenic ride back to hamakua. read up about the couple that bought it and the hard work they did to come to where it is today.
after garden continue north to whats shaking for fresh smoothies, sit and relax on benches then continue north.
any questions ask me or message me, lots of info and maybe "hidden gems" you don't hear about. everyone wants to see same thing for that instagram photo/social media post to cross off bucket list.

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i know there are all kinds of problems with big resorts like this, but we really enjoyed our stay at he Hilton Waikiloa. Of course, we were using Hilton points. We enjoyed riding the boat around the grounds and there was a pond-like area with fish for snorkeling. We also enjoyed the art located in display cases along some of the walkways. One of my all-time highlights at Volcanoes National Park was walking out on the lava at night and seeing the lava flow from a distance.

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Princess Pupule, I should have thought to contact you before we left for suggestions! I'll be sure to do that if we have a chance to return again to the Big Island. We just loved Lapahoehoe Point, and would take a picnic there if we ever return. We were able to drive by Richardson Beach, but didn't have a chance to swim there. And we liked Hilo too, and would like to check out the Lyman museum. So more time on the windward side would be welcome.

Cala, The next time there is a major eruption, I might just hurry up and book a trip so we can see the lava flowing!

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We try to go to Hawaii every year--really missing it now that we haven't been since 2021. The Big Island is our favorite, with Kauai in second place. Love Hawaii Island for the range of environments and less people (though Molokai had the most sense of solitude that I have had out there). We have always stayed in the Kohala area at either Mauna Lani or Mauna Kea (though these are now a bit pricey for us as our jobs have changed since our resort days!). We stayed one night at the Waikoloa Hilton on one trip. The nice thing about that hotel is that it is right down the beach from our favorite restaurant, the Lava Lava Beach Club. We have never actually stayed in Hilo or done anything in that immediate area. We just passed through to get to the Saddle Road to head back to Kohala after Volcanoes National Park. Still need to do that area between Hilo and Honoka'a. Yes--love the Hawaii Revealed Guide Book series.

Best snorkeling/kayaking: Kealakekua Bay (with Kona Boys outfitters)
Best animal encounter: manta ray night snorkel at Mauna Kea (with Manta Ray Advocates--very science/animal behavior/LNT based)
Best hike at Volcanoes: Kilauea Iki Trail
Best stroll and historical experience: City of Refuge

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We still have the The Big Island Revealed Guide, 3rd Edition from our trip in 2004!

Back then, we met up with a friend of our son, Dorian Weisel, who took us on a great tour. Dorian, who still lives on the island, is a retired photographer who spent more than 20 years documenting Kilauea Volcano's activity.

Thanks for your report. It reminded me of how much I enjoyed that trip.

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Hi, Barbara. Great trip report, it almost felt like I was there! You were able to fit in so many activities in your time there. It sounds like you had a great time!

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Thank you for this detailed report! I hope I get to visit Hawaii someday, but the world is a big place and 8,000 mile journey and the high costs are a significant hurdle. So for now I will stick to reports such as yours ☺️!

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Loved reading your report…thank you! That must have been thrilling to see the turtles so close to you. 😊
When we visited Hilo as a day trip from a cruise, we hired a local driver to take us to some beautiful spots for a few hours. One place he drove us to was his old neighborhood, which was sadly now a lava field. He was allowed entry as a former resident. We could see clearly how the path of lava had wiped out many houses, with some parts of the structures still standing. It was sobering. When we walked across the lava, it felt like we were on the moon, it was so otherworldly. I don’t think our kids will ever forget that experience. I know I won’t!

You’ve given me lots of new things I’d like to see the next time I get a chance to go to the Big Island! For starters, I know I’ll rent a car…

Thanks again!

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hey hey everyone
loved the posts from people who have been to the BIG island.
anyone planning to go to the island can ask or message me for places worth seeing all over the island, not just the resort area of waikoloa/"money lani"/south kohala. prices have gone thru the roof there and other places that are not resorty/dizzeyland.
spend time on the hilo/volcano side that is old hawaiian style/laid back relax, and budget friendly. nothing fancy but family owned accomodations. yes a car is defintely needed.
have a feeling that Laurie went to the puna/pahoa area, below the volcano. we use to call this area "hippieville" for it's bohemian lifestyle. many built "shacks" to live off the grid with generators & water catchment tanks. much of the produce like papayas, apple bananas, anthiriums, orchids, coffee etc are grown here for farmers market. visit the puna/pahoa district puna region hawaii road trip: enchanted red road in puna
this is a day trip from hilo, many subdivisions in this area, traffic can be busy/bumper to bumper with only one way in and one way out, then head back to hilo and spend the night, next day see places in hilo.
under hawaii guide click big island and learn about areas of the island
under archives, click past articles and click any or all. some of the articles are old but it gives you info. learn about hawaiian monarchy with gods/goddesses.
mahalos "thanks" everyone and enjoy