On Hawaii Time

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

Hapuna Beach, which the Ala Kahakai Trail, an old coastal route, passes. Photograph by Marco Garcia.

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

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