On Hawaii Time

Road-tripping on the Big Island offers an entirely new view of L.A.’s favorite archipelago

Pololu Valley and its black sand beach on the Northern tip of Hawaii’s Big Island. Photograph by Andre Nantel.

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

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