The final approach to the Big Island is more lunar landing than touchdown in the tropics. Instead of flying in low over swaying coconut palms, you glide above lava flows—jagged, black, and barren—that stretch to the coast. Stepping out of the plane, you catch the first blast of hot, humid air and descend a staircase (no Jetways here) to the tarmac, bound for outdoor baggage claim at America’s only tiki-style international airport.
Closer to New Zealand than New York, the Big Island is where America ends and Polynesia begins. More than simply a vacation redoubt for Californians, it is where Hawaii feels most like the separate kingdom it had been until 1893. There are beaches and resorts, of course—among Hawaii’s best—but also heiaus, ancient lava-rock temples that predate the period in the early 1800s when local boy Kamehameha the Great united Hawaii under his rule. And what can you say about a place where the Costco has a poke bar with several selections of ahi?
The island is a continent unto itself with ten different climatic zones—from polar to tropical rain forest—and five volcanoes. The world still seems new and unfinished, quite literally, considering that lava from Kilauea Volcano has added 500 acres since 1983. The rest of Hawaii could nearly fit twice within the Big Island’s 4,028 square miles, but less than 15 percent of the state’s population lives here. So there’s room to roam, and roam is what my wife, Becky, and I plan to do on a 300-mile road trip that circles the island.
NEXT: On The Beach
On The Beach
Driving north from the airport to the Fairmont Orchid on the Kohala Coast, we follow Highway 19 for 20 miles as it travels through lava fields, where tufts of golden grasses play off the blackness. Even though Kohala is the main resort destination for the Big Island, Hawaii’s aloha industrial complex is subdued here compared with Waikiki and parts of Maui.
At the Orchid you can stand-up paddleboard and have your mai-tais-at-sunset Hawaii vacation. The resort’s Brown’s Beach House, with its waterfront setting and locally sourced Hawaiian cuisine, is ideal for that splurge dinner. For more choices Waikoloa Village is ten minutes away. Big Island native Ippy Aiona, parlaying experience working at his mother’s Waimea restaurant and appearances on the Food Network, recently opened two spots at Waikoloa: the Three Fat Pigs & the Thirsty Wolf gastropub (go for the pork chop) and Ippy’s Hawaiian Barbecue, a take-out counter serving such traditional plate lunches as Kalua pig and lomi-lomi salmon—with the requisite macaroni salad.
Older traditions also endure. You’ll find lava-rock ponds along the shore that were built by ancient Hawaiians for raising fish. A short distance past the resort, islanders cast throw-nets into the surf, and farther on a trail leads to more than a thousand petroglyphs—one of the most extensive concentrations in Hawaii.
In the morning we drive 15 minutes to Hapuna Beach for a swim before hiking the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail, an age-old coastal route. During northwest winter swells, Hapuna can go off with a beach break beloved by boogie boarders. Today, however, it’s flat as a fishpond, and I float lazily, my view rotating from Maui to the white-domed observatories atop the Big Island’s 13,796-foot Mauna Kea.
From Hapuna the trail climbs onto lava bluffs and passes village sites that date to the 13th century, reaching a series of megahomes that, despite their low-slung profiles, better approximate haole heiaus than home sweet homes. Beyond the manicured precincts of Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, the trail enters stands of kiawe, a type of mesquite, where we find the ruins of a stone fireplace with a crest featuring a V incised by a spear point. We’re off the tourist track.
Dropping into a hidden cove, we see a bikini-clad woman, who but for decades of steady Hawaiian sun worship could double for Emily Mortimer from The Newsroom. The day before, on a different stretch of trail, we also crossed paths with her. “Just jump in,” she told us. “In all of your clothes. It’s glorious, just heavenly.”
Which is precisely what we do at nearby Mau’umae Beach, a white-sand strand backed by new growth emerging among kiawe that burned in a 2007 wildfire. Here the Big Island is a desert island, arid and hot but with turquoise waters only steps away, where sea turtles glide through the shallows. It is, in fact, both glorious and heavenly.
NEXT: Into the Ancient
Into the Ancient
Bound for a stay at historic Puakea Ranch in North Kohala, we stop at Hale I’a, aka Da Fish House, to see what fishermen in Kawaihae Harbor have brought in today.
Kanoe Peck, the always-patient owner, smiles when I ask her for a recommendation. “Well, it’s all good,” Peck says as we look at fillets of opah and ono, ahi, monchong, and mahimahi. “They had a good morning out there. But try the mahi. Cook it up with coconut oil to bring out the sweetness.”
With a pound stashed in a cooler, Becky and I follow the highway as the landscape transitions to a Hawaiian green near Hawi and Kapaau. They’re former sugarcane towns now filled with galleries that are popular with travelers destined for black-sand Polulu Beach at the island’s northern tip.
In Kapaau you’ll see a Kamehameha statue that, not unlike the man himself, has its own epic story. Cast in Paris in 1880, the nine-foot-tall monument spent time on the bottom of the ocean near the Falkland Islands after the ship transporting it sank. Once salvaged, according to one account, the statue did a stint as a cigar store Indian of sorts in front of a Falklands shop, before a Portuguese sea captain brought it to Hawaii with a cargo of cane field-workers.
Off the highway we park at tiny Upolu Airport. From there we hike a rough road along cliffs and through windswept pastures to Kamehameha’s birthplace and the remains of a 1,500-year-old temple, Mo’okini Heiau, where walls of stacked, lichen-frosted stones enclose a central courtyard. Considering Kamehameha’s prominence and Mo’okini’s age, there’s little explanation (in Kawaihae, Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site offers a fuller look at Kamehameha), just weathered wood signs and a National Historic Register plaque on which someone has scratched out “United States.”
Even lacking any explanation, you might feel the haunting sense that something serious went down here. At the heiau (still used for ceremonies), a flat, hollowed-out stone and a standing rock used to strip flesh from bodies mark the site where thousands of human sacrifices occurred following a Tahitian high priest’s ascension to power around 1370.
After the return hike, we settle into Cowboy House, one of four bungalows scattered around Puakea Ranch. The building was a bunkhouse for Hawaiian cowboys, known as paniolos, who lived on the property when it was a cattle ranch. Befitting a structure that dates to 1890, the floors creak, and no doubt a sash-and-door guy would kill to update the windows.
But there’s a working Wedgewood stove and pictures of paniolos, a long lanai for watching ocean sunsets and a mango tree with a rope swing in front, plus a private wood-and-stone bathhouse with a rain shower out back. We are our own room service, foraging a salad from the ranch’s garden to go with the mahi and plucking eggs from the chicken coop for breakfast.
NEXT: Going Up-Country (and Down to Hilo)
Going Up-Country (and Down to Hilo)
Tough as it is to drag ourselves out of Puakea’s lava-rock pool, we pack up for the east side of the island and take Kohala Mountain Road through rolling ranch lands that resemble Northern California in a wet spring. The road climbs above 3,000 feet, where clouds race through at eye level and rainbows easily form, before it descends into Waimea.
Home to Parker Ranch, which once covered an area larger than Maui, Waimea is Big Island as Big Sky country, a crossroads and agricultural center with touches of sophistication. Located in a onetime schoolhouse, the Isaacs Art Center Museum and Gallery showcases a major collection of Hawaiian art, including Herb Kawainui Kane’s monumental painting Cook Entering Kealakekua Bay in 1779, which portrays the rapturous greeting that British explorer and navigator Captain James Cook received on the island.
It’s also a good eating town, known for Merriman’s, the cottagelike dining destination where chef-owner Peter Merriman pioneered farm-to-table Hawaiian regional cuisine. Along the Mamalahoa Highway, the Fish & the Hog roadhouse serves fresh catch from its own boats, plus barbecued ribs and pulled pork smoked over kiawe wood and basted with a sauce made from li hing mui, a Chinese plum.
Waimea ends quickly, and the highway travels through grazing lands before arriving less than 20 minutes later on the Hamakua Coast—where tangled jungles fill deep gulches and veils of rain drift across a vast expanse of ocean. Descending into one of those gulches, we travel beneath dangling vines and over fallen mangoes on the way to Laupahoehoe Point.
Waves pound against a shoreline of lava boulders, some pointed like shark’s teeth. Set on a rise and guarded by tiki figures, a marble memorial honors 24 students and teachers from Laupahoehoe’s school who were killed in 1946 when a tsunami surged ashore.
Becky and I are examining the offerings along the memorial’s base—a plastic lei, puka shells, oxidized pennies—when a tsunami warning siren begins to wail. It’s only a monthly test but still eerie enough to send us on our way. Thirty minutes later we’re in Hilo, where the Pacific Tsunami Museum commemorates the 1946 disaster as well as one in 1960 that inundated Hilo, killing 61 people and destroying more than 500 structures.
The mix of vintage clapboard and art deco buildings that survived the tsunamis, with skinny palms dancing before them, lends downtown Hilo a South Seas vibe somewhere between Somerset Maugham and From Here to Eternity. When I picture my dad on leave in Hawaii during World War II, I imagine him in a place that looks like this.
Hilo’s not slick, even with contemporary Hawaiian designer Sig Zane’s shop on the main drag selling his updated aloha shirts. Some structures appear as if they’re dissolving with every drop of Hilo’s 130 inches of annual rainfall (it’s the country’s wettest city).
I don’t want to see Hilo crumble, but I’m not eager to see it change much, either. I feel the same way about Nori’s Saimin & Snacks, a noodle house near downtown, where the udon wonton soup is part of our Hilo ritual. Hello Kitty merchandise fills shelves near the cash register, and in the booth beneath an incongruous Gustav Klimt print, a Honolulu family is clicking through pictures of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The son, in his late twenties, shakes his head as he looks at his camera. “You know,” he says gravely, “I liked seeing the volcano, but it’s all a bit desolate.”
NEXT: Atop the Volcano
Atop the Volcano
Soon, as we drive toward Kilauea ourselves, Becky and I pass the Kurtistown Samoan Seventh-Day Adventist Church, where the stained glass shows a dark-skinned Jesus standing before what looks like a volcano. I’m still fixated on the description of the park as desolate. Granted, there are plains of skin-ripping rock. But the ground is alive. Steam pours from vents and fissures, while in some areas molten lava bubbles barely 300 feet below where we hike. Geologic time is real time here: When I traverse the caldera on the four-mile Kilauea Iki Loop, the park’s best day hike, I’m walking on rock that’s the same age as I am.
At Volcano Village Lodge near the park, tree ferns on the edge of stands of native ohia envelop our room. The cedar space, with its expansive beamed ceiling, seems like an extension of the forest, and opening the windows, we hear calls of apapane birds singing from the high branches. The night is cool at 4,000 feet, chilly enough that we bring in soup and curry from Thai Thai, one of Volcano’s few restaurants, then dine on our deck as a delicate patter of rain drips from the ohia.
The best time to experience Kilauea’s ongoing eruption is before sunrise, hours ahead of the tour coaches from Kona, when you can witness an undulating orange glow and hear boulders banging around in the molten lava. So I make the quick drive into the park amid the early-morning darkness to the overlook of Kilauea’s Halemaumau Crater, said to be the dwelling place of Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess. Halemaumau has been erupting since 2008, sending a huge plume of steam, ash, and gas into the air.
On this morning it’s just me and Pele for about 20 minutes, until a trio of kids runs up shouting, “LAVA LAVA LAVA!”
To South Point
Beyond the national park, Highway 11 descends from Kilauea and through Ka’u, a remote region with coffees that rival Kona’s best. In the far distance at the end of an arrowhead-shaped peninsula, we catch glimpses of South Point, the southernmost spot in the United States.
In Na’alehu we pass the country’s southernmost bakery, restaurant, and bar as well as the wreck of the 1940 Na’alehu Theater, which I hope will become America’s southernmost zigzag moderne theater restoration project. We lunch with the geckos that hang out on the lanai at Hana Hou, a bakery and restaurant that cooks up surprisingly tasty macadamia-crusted chicken with papaya chutney and a fabled mac-nut-cream pie.
Then, having detoured into the tin-roofed shack that houses the Once Upon a Story Community Book Store (presumably the country’s southernmost bookstore), we reach South Point Road in a mile. The road runs for 12 miles through gusty grasslands, where scattered trees grow lopsided and parallel to the ground.
With no photo op marker at South Point, tourists pose before a tower that survives from an old navy facility. Meanwhile we set out on two-and-a-half miles of deeply rutted Jeep roads to the rare green sand beach at Papakolea. The beach sits in an amphitheater formed by a collapsed cinder cone. Technically Papakolea may not be where the country’s destiny is fully manifest, but it is land’s end as land’s end should be, roiling and romantic, with the next landfall thousands of miles to the south in Antarctica.
NEXT: Into Coffee Country
Into Coffee Country
Back on the highway, we twist into Kona coffee country and arrive in Holualoa—a great gallery destination. After looking for prints at Studio 7 Fine Arts, a onetime pool hall run by owner Hiroki Morinoue’s father, we escape the rain at Holuakoa Gardens and Café. It’s too early for the celebrated Hawaiian-style brisket, but the fresh-caught ono is just about perfect, both in a salad and a sandwich.
We’re staying at the Holualoa Inn, which spreads out at the end of a long driveway below the main road. It’s an exotic, tropical sanctuary of polished eucalyptus floors and Balinese artwork collected by owner Cassandra Hazen. We climb to the second-floor Ginger Room, where a large Japanese fan and prints adorn walls stained a rich red. A walkway leads to a rooftop gazebo that looks out to the Kona Coast 1,400 feet below. Enormous magenta-colored ginger flowers unfurl in the gardens, and walking among the inn’s thousands of coffee plants, I pick a crimson cherry, peeling away the fruit to reveal the pale green bean inside.
In the morning I venture out to kayak and snorkel on Kealakekua Bay, where Captain Cook came ashore in 1779 and later died during a battle along the beach. According to the most cinematic account, the ships’ billowing sails fulfilled a prophecy that Lono, the Hawaiian god of peace and harvest, would arrive in a floating temple with white banners. The villagers welcomed Cook in hundreds of canoes that were heavy with fruit, hogs (Hawaiians love their pork), and other offerings. But when Cook later returned to the bay, thefts by the Hawaiians and their growing weariness with these obviously ungodlike intruders escalated tensions, leading to Cook’s death.
The outfitter Aloha Kayak Co. has paired me with Sean, who grew up on Kealakekua and is visiting from the mainland with his sons—carbon copies of him minus the ink and the pack of Kools. Paddling toward the snorkeling area in front of an obelisk installed 139 years ago by some fellow Brits to honor Cook, we are greeted by our own impressive welcoming party, as spinner dolphins live up to their names with corkscrewing leaps from the water.
We go though a channel between two large boulders, landing near a modest bronze plaque in the shallows that reads “Near this spot Capt. James Cook met his death February 14, 1779.” The snorkeling is absurdly beautiful, a garden of corals in blues, greens, and violets, with a Pixar-ready cast of parrot fish and butterfly fish, wide-eyed puffer fish and long-nosed trumpet fish. I swim to the reef’s edge, where the shelf plunges into a blue-water abyss, then kick to shore and surface along the obelisk, its whiteness jarring after the fishes’ vivid hues.
As we paddle back, the spinner dolphins return, swimming beneath the kayaks, then gazing up at us as they break the surface and exhale with sprays of breath that linger in the morning air.