When we first made plans to visit the Big Island of Hawaii (nee Hawai‘i), we didn’t know much about the place, like the fact that you put an upside-down apostrophe between the last two ‘i’s. But we’d been to Honolulu before and thought we’d gotten the gist of the 50th state: Hot sun, lots of flora and fauna, sprawling beaches, bars, and Barcaloungers. So it came as a shock when our plane touched down in the Proterozoic Era.
The first thing you notice about the Big Island of Hawaii is that it clearly wasn’t where they shot Hawaii Five-O, Magnum P.I., or Lost—though it could have been the set for Space: 1999. Hawaii lacks the lush, green landscape that people (like us) expect from a Hawaiian vacation. Instead, it’s like visiting an island in the Sea Of Tranquility.
Now, don’t get me wrong, Hawaii is no hellish wasteland by any stretch of the imagination. It’s just not what most people picture when you tell them you’re going to Hawaii. Most people “going to Hawaii” really mean they are going to Honolulu, Maui, Oahu or another older Hawaiian island. And had we known what we were in for we probably would have chosen an older island, too. Because, unlike humans, islands get prettier as they age: Their foliage fills in. Their beaches get all sandy smooth. And their Starbucks-to-tourist ratio multiplies algorithmically.
After a surprisingly brutal 5 hour flight to Kona International Airport (KOA), we arrived to learn that our rental company didn’t have the economy car we’d requested. To avoid our righteous, jet-lagged wrath, they wisely upgraded us to a Chrysler Sebring convertible. (Great rental tip: Always order the smallest car—they never have them in stock and they have to upgrade you.) Dropping the top, we made tracks to Kailua-Kona, a 10-minute drive straight south.
We stayed at the Castle Kona Reef, a resort that was more of a condo so it had a kitchen, laundry and a decent pool but, sadly, no swim-up bar. Still, it was clean and located in Kailua-Kona along the water, convenient to a stretch of touristy bars and ‘bacon grease’-themed restaurants.
The Big Island is actually the real Island of Hawaii. It’s just that someone decided to name the entire chain of islands “Hawaii,” too—probably the same genius who thought naming New York’s biggest city “New York” was a good idea. As a result, travel agents call Hawaii “The Big Island” to avoid confusion and end up sounding like a 4-year-old telling time.
Going to the Big Island? Read the guidebook the locals like: “Hawaii, The Big Island Revealed.”
Not only is Hawaii the largest island, it’s also the youngest, making it Hawaii’s version of the Wild West. Covering about 4,000 square miles, this rock in the ocean has a roughly hewn, lava-oozing look that’s not exactly ugly, but it ain’t pretty either—kinda like Clint Eastwood before his face became wrinkly enough to frighten small children.
Originally called the “Sandwich Islands” by Captain Cook—who was obviously hallucinating from starvation—the entire chain of islands was believed formed by the Hawaiian Hotspot, a massive blowtorch-like fissure below the Earth’s crust, that periodically burst up through the continental plates causing a volcanic shower of hot, molten lava. As the lava cooled, it built up leaving behind nutrient-rich land which would, over the eons, become home to wildly flourishing flora, fauna, and McDonald’s restaurants.
Hawaii is already the largest island in the United States, yet it’s still busily belching out more fresh lava-land in places. As a result of all this volcanic activity, the Big Island looks like a road construction crew high on Red Bull® and Meth tried to pave the whole island.
Not surprisingly, Hawaii isn’t exactly teeming with indigenous life forms. In fact, it isn’t teeming with any. Evidently, every single non-microscopic life-form (with the exception of birds) was brought to the island by boat or plane, including cows, goats, horses, and mongooses. (Yeah, I said mongooses, not mongeese.)
It seems that the island had a rat problem back in the day, and someone’s brilliant solution was to bring over mongooses to kill them. That probably seemed like a good idea until they found out that rats are nocturnal and mongooses are diurnal. So now Hawaii has a rat AND mongoose problem. (Watch out for them, as mongooses are mean drunks).
The first beach we visited was right nearby but involved a spine-crushing 30-minute drive on a road that stretched the definition of the word “road.” The barely marked path over treacherous, pothole-riddled lava nearly tore the oil pan out of our Sebring convertible while simultaneously shaking the car down to its tiny, ill-fitting component pieces. At the end of the “road,” we found a parking lot full of SUVs and 4x4s driven by much smarter people.
Our next stop was Hapuna Beach State Park, one of the few white-sand beaches on the Big Island and once voted the “Best Beach in America.” Frankly, after our previous beach experience, the fact that the road to Hapuna was paved made it one of our favorites, too. The beach spanned a full sixty acres of sandy goodness only twenty of which were occupied by pale, overweight tourists. Still, it wasn’t any more picturesque than the beaches along Florida’s Gulf Coast, so after exhausting ourselves by lying perfectly still for a few hours, we moved on.
Bored with relaxing comfortably in this Earthly paradise, “we” then had the brilliant idea of having “me” drive all the way around the island. It was only supposed to take about 4 hours, so we put the Sebring’s convertible top down and headed North on HI-19, also known as the Queen Kaahumanu Highway. After about three miles we stopped and put the top back up to prevent our skin from being burned off by the sun.
The next 30 miles or so of highway was flanked by sprawling fields of black lava which local graffiti “taggers” (and love-struck youth) used as a kind of canvas. Bright white rocks were arranged on the black lava to spell words and symbols. Presumably, they call these graffiti artists, “stoners.”
Instead of driving up to the Kohala Forest Reserve, we veered East at A Mamalahoa Highway and an hour later we were climbing to Honomu, a quaint town on the side of the thankfully inactive Mauna Kea volcano. As we rose in altitude, the temperature dropped to a nippy 40-degrees with a cool mist that made wearing shorts and flowered shirts seem not only tacky, but potentially life-threatening. Surrounded by cattle ranches and farmland, Honomu’s moist. foggy climate stood in stark contrast to the dry, arid parts of Hawaii we’d seen thus far. We made a brief stop at the town’s downtown commercial area only street for a snack and a souvenir before heading on to somewhere hopefully more dry and arid.
Continuing our clockwise journey around the island, we marveled at the surprising lushness and beauty of the Eastern side until that became monotonous. Shortly, we arrived at Akaka Falls State Park. We couldn’t find a way to get down to (or to swim in) the pool below it, but we figured water falling from 422 feet would likely give us concussions anyway. So, after a few photos, we were back in the car for the long, arduous twenty minute journey to the island’s next picturesque waterfall, Rainbow Falls.
This 80-foot waterfall south of Akaka Falls was certainly pretty, but we were getting bored with Nature’s immense and limitless beauty. So we snapped a few “Yeah, we saw that” photos and headed to Hilo, the largest city on the island.
Halfway down the Eastern side of Hawaii, Hilo couldn’t be in a worse location for anyone with dreams of getting a tan. The city gets enough rain to earn it “tropical rain forest” status. It’s considered the wettest city in the United States and one of the wettest in the world. Better yet, it’s highly susceptible to tsunamis, something you might want to bear in mind when you’re booking accommodations.
Starving, we ate at a little water- pond-front restaurant named Ponds Hilo (formerly Harrington’s Restaurant) about which we’d read good reviews. Unfortunately, the reviewers were probably mid-western tourists who consider TGIFriday’s haute cuisine. It turned out to just be average (although the pasta potato salad was surprisingly tasty).
The highway out of Hilo (Route 11) took us further South and right through Hawaii Volcanoes National Park where Kilauea is still somewhat active. We stopped at various look-out points to see the volcano fart out methane gas plumes as trusting tourists took their lives in their hands by walking around inside the caldera itself.
Knowing better ways to tempt the volcano gods, we headed to Kilauea, the volcano that’s been erupting continuously since 1983. The only reliable way to see actual lava flow is by chartering a helicopter for $400/hour, but we drove instead. Driving didn’t offer us the best odds of seeing lava as much as it offered us the best odds of hanging on to a big chunk of our money. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t let us drive anywhere near the lava.
Parking our car, we began walking down the blackest, hottest road I’d ever seen in my life. The heat coming off the asphalt was stifling. But we soon realized that the road wasn’t asphalt, it was lava. Acres and acres of formerly molten lava surrounded us in all directions. Over a distant crest, we saw the telltale puffs of white steam that get released when red hot lava comes into contact with cool, blue ocean. Clearly, there had been a massive eruption here. But there had been something else here, too—a suburb.
In 1990, a newly constructed residential development in the town of Kaimu got literally buried under 50-feet of “instant urban renewal” complements of Kilauea. The town’s citizens watched in horror as the lava simply oozed forth and slowly burned everything in its path to cinders—including their brand new housing development. This catastrophe left residents with two terrible choices: 1.) Cut their losses and move somewhere where active volcanoes don’t exist, or 2.) Stay and live on what is ostensibly still their “land.”
Surprisingly, a number of people chose Option 2, even knowing they couldn’t get indoor plumbing, electricity, phone or cable installed. We saw at least two entire houses rebuilt on the owner’s “land,” as well as a number of tents and portable housing put up by these suddenly nouveau outdoorsy folk. Signs along the road cautioned tourists not to “bother” the locals as they surely didn’t need to be reminded of their gross misfortune every five minutes.
Since state officials wouldn’t allow us near the cliff edge to look down and inevitably fall to our untimely deaths, we headed back to our resort.
Back in Kona, we kicked around for the next day or so partaking of the “Three Ss”: sunning, swimming, and sleeping it off. Then we booked a tour to the Mauna Kea Observatory (MKO) high atop the largest volcano on Earth. We were told that Mauna Kea is also the highest mountain peak on Earth, too—higher even than Mt. Everest if you’re measuring from the ocean floor, which nobody but Hawaiians do.
Still, the MKO is seriously up there. Situated 13,800′ above sea level—above smog, clouds and the lights of 7/11 stores—the observatory’s vantage of the Universe is only bettered by space telescopes and tripping potheads.
The peak is such a good location, in fact, that 12 other countries built remote-operated space telescopes up there as well. Why remote-operated? Because it’s crazy freezing at that altitude! Conditions are literally Arctic, and if our tour company hadn’t provided winter coats, we wouldn’t have been able to leave the heated van.
Even operating my camera had to be done in quick motions to get my hand back into the glove before another finger dropped off. Despite theses decidedly un-Hawaiian-like conditions, the peak was the highlight of the trip. It’s not often that you can go on vacation and come back with pictures of the Milky Way Galaxy (assuming you’re not Neil Armstrong).
The next day, having thawed from touching the icy cold of deep space, we realized that we hadn’t done anything foolhardy in the last few hours. So we drove to Ka Lae (South Point) as that was the only unexplored direction left.
The road south of Kailua-Kona was a fauna-lined, two-lane “highway” meandered through residential areas, past farms and ultimately into ended at a vista straight out of Mad Max (the first one, not that Thunderdome crap-fest).
South Point is a desolate, sun-scorched sand-scape where rusted 100′ tall wind-power generators stand motionless despite a constant gale-force wind blowing in from the Pacific. Getting the epidermal layer of our exposed skin sand-blasted off, we nonetheless made our way to the cliff’s edge which marked Hawaii’s Southern-most tip. From that spot, there was nothing before us but a vast, endless ocean of sparkling azure blue water, and frankly, we’d seen that before. So, we made tracks to see Hawaii’s famous Emerald Beach instead.
Papakolea Beach, we were told, lay a short 2-1/4 mile hike off of South Point Road. We were also told that emerald beaches like this one are rare (the only others being in Guam and the Galapagos Islands). And we were told that its sands appear green because of olivine crystals, a mineral common in igneous rocks and not the result of an emerald mining spill off the coast as we initially thought. Yes, we were told a lot of things. But what we weren’t told was that the trip there would likely be our last.
Without much further thought, we parked and walked. Well, “walked” isn’t really the right word, more like “slogged” (the judges would have also accepted “plodded”). Because, as it turned out, the hike was a grueling two-hour death-march in 80-degree heat, relentless wind and merciless sun, both ways. The trail itself was non-existent. Once you pass the first gate, there were no signs anywhere, just the tire-tracks of SUV rentals whose drivers were unaware that the trip violated their rental agreement. If you go, remember to keep the ocean to your right and try not to fall into one of the huge ruts because you might land on an abandoned SUV.
We eventually reached the beach without dying, but we weren’t in the mood or in any condition to take more risks, so we didn’t walk down to the water. Instead, we took some pictures from the cliffs above it and then headed back before heat stroke set in. The return trip took just as long and, by the time we reached our car, we’d watched our lives flash before our eyes in real-time.
Done trying to kill ourselves in the name of adventure, we spent the rest of our vacation sitting on our ass relaxing at places like the delightful Kona Inn Restaurant and Don’s Mai Tai Bar at the Royal Kona Resort. In between cocktails, we managed to do some snorkeling in Kailua-Kona and even saw a sea turtle, up close.
It wasn’t the vacation either of us were expecting, but we still had an incredible time. The charm of Hawaii’s adolescent island is as omnipresent as its red-hot lava. In fact, the place literally oozes the stuff. (See what I did there?)