Working in the service industry with tourists I hear it all the time: “…and then we went down to take a tour of the Volcano…isn’t that place just remarkable?”
“It sure is” I casually reply. “It’s something pretty magical to watch Earth being created in front of your eyes”.
“You must be able to see it whenever you want living so close here on Maui. When was the last time you visited Kilauea?”
“Nineteen years ago”.
It was time to get back to the Big Island
Of course, it has not been nineteen years since I last visited the Big Island completely, simply that past trips have been for a purpose other than spirited exploration. Whether it was work or sport related, little time was left for poking my head about the serene little corners of this otherwise enormous location.
The very first stop straight out of the airport was the Hilo Farmer’s Market, an open air arena of fresh local produce and crafts with vendors from seemingly all over the island. Open every Wednesday and Saturday “from dawn ‘til it’s gone”, the market offers a fantastically vibrant atmosphere in a tranquil downtown setting, and is the perfect place for picking up some unique handcrafted goods and help support the local artisan community at the same time.
After feasting on some mouthwatering, cheap local fare at Café 100 off of Kamehameha Ave. (ask any local and they’ll steer you to the legendary loco moco and plate lunch stand), it was time to finally pay another visit to Madame Pele at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The current irony is that the best lava viewing is not actually available within the confines of the park. Rather, the current status of the eruption is that the majority of the flow is located on the coast south of Kalapana, which lies outside of the park’s boundaries. Only visible by night, the lava viewing outside of Kalapana crosses over private land, and is made accessible to the public from the hours of 5-10pm daily. Unfortunately, still being a member of the United States of America, a massive cloud of liability rivals the nearby cloud of sulphuric steam, and the viewing must be performed from a substantial distance from the actual flow. For those visitors wanting to get an incredibly up close encounter, it is more prudent—and costly—to book either a boat or helicopter charter that can place you right in front of Mother Nature at her finest. Potential viewing is also available via lengthy hikes inside the park, but to do so is frowned upon by park personnel and is definitely at your own risk.
Regardless, this is not to detract from the breathtaking expanse of land that is Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. While the current eruption flows slowly on the outside edge of the park, the park itself is a monument to generations previous of formidable seismic activity and geothermal wonder. Halema’uma’u Crater, the summit caldera of Kilauea and a former lake of molten lava, to this day still violently steams and casts an eerie red glow on certain nights. The land and steam vents throughout the park create an arid moonscape of both a’a and pahoehoe lava that has never made such an area so fresh with death seem so vibrantly alive. Under the shadow of nearby Mauna Loa, the seismograph inside the Observation Center slowly drizzles its delicate ink on massive scrolls of paper, exhibiting in real time that while an all encompassing silence grips the barren Earth, it is still teeming with pulses of life beneath our very feet. While visits to Kilauea are obviously variable and unpredictable, there is no doubting its history, power, and deserved respect.
Traversing the windswept south side of the island, past the quaint little town of Na’alehu, the black sand beaches of Punalu’u, and the barren plains of Ka Lae, the southernmost point of the United States, we finally round back to the west side of the island and down to Pu’uhonua National Historic Park, a former place of refuge and current snorkeling haven. In the days of old Hawaii, the Pu’uhonua served as a place where those who had broken traditional kapu could seek refuge and forgiveness inside its sheltered walls. Situated on an idyllic bay, the serenity and peace that once existed inside of these walls now obviously spills over into the turquoise waters that shelter and protect an underwater world teeming with corals and marine life. Though tranquil, the spot is not exactly a secret, as witnessed by the large “ALOHA” spelled out in sunken cinder blocks on the sand bottom amidst the reef.
It was on this afternoon while headed away from the Pu’uhonua and north towards Kona that I realized the sheer enormity of this island in relation to the rest of the island chain. It wasn’t due to the distance we traveled, or the excessive amount of time between stops, but rather it was in questioning the local Kona populace where would be a good place to camp for the evening. Place names such as Puako, Miloli’i, and Punalu’u were enthusiastically suggested. When situated in Waikoloa, however, Punalu’u is nearly a two hour drive south! If a young couple in Ka’anapali asked me a good place to camp for the evening, and it was already 5pm, I probably wouldn’t send them to Nahiku as the first thing that popped into my mind. This is the ingrained mindset of those living on the Big Island however; where seemingly long distances by neighbor island standards are but a shot down the road when you live on Hawaii’s largest island. It was a very interesting, and somewhat refreshing dynamic to behold.
After a less than perfect nights sleep at a less than perfect campsite, we rose determined to skirt the modern amenities and locales of the Waikoloa Coast (although we did bask for a moment on sugar-white Hapuna Beach), and absorb as much of the historical culture of the region as we possibly could. Checking off a longtime desire on life’s ever-present to do list, we paid an early morning visit to Pu’ukohola Heiau outside of Kawaihae. Non-descript in its surroundings, Pu’ukohola holds incredible significance in Hawaii’s history as a massive heiau built by Kamehameha from 1790-1791. Constructed by rocks from as far away as Pololu Valley via a 20 mile human chain, the heiau to this day stands guard over the bay at Kawaihae and serves as a stoic reminder of the region’s strong historical ties.
Further up the Kohala coast near ‘Upolu point, we continued paying historical respect to the region with a visit to Kamehameha’s birthplace. Situated down a weaving dirt road near the ‘Upolu airstrip, the trail meanders slowly along the salt-crusted boulders out towards Mo’okini heiau and the birthplace, believed to have taken place in 1858. With the exception of a few men carrying overflowing bags of opihi from the rocks, we are the sole observers of the historic site. No cars, no parking lot, no people. Arguably one of the most significant sites in the greater scope of Hawaii’s history, and nothing seems to make a sound save for the gently crashing surf and the gusting wind. It was genuinely refreshing knowing that this exact spot most likely stood now as it did 250 years ago, and with the incessant development taking place in our islands these places still exist I would have expected it no other way.
After being swamped with small-town artsy charm in Hawi, passing through the rolling green pasture land of Kohala, and reconnecting with paniolo roots in Waimea, the final day was spent delving into Waipio Valley to get lost in its simplicity and calm. Hiking down the road into the valley, described locally as being “one mile down and three miles up”, the land slowly stretched out before us in a gentle patchwork of taro fields and simple seaside homes. Home to a breathtaking black sand beach reaching out to an endless sea, wild horses roam the studded dirt roads and beg the visitor to simply leave the world behind. Waipio seems to exemplify everything we all love about Hawaii, yet are unable to describe or put into words other than simply existing in such a serene sliver of our magnificent state.
While the entire trip was a memorable experience—as it would be for any visitor to this expansive isle—the final day spent there really summed up what makes the Big Island one of the most unique and diverse places on the entire planet. After a sun-drenched morning in Waipio, we climbed our way from the shores of the black sand beach nearly 14,000 ft. up into the sky towards the snow-covered peak of Mauna Kea. After a few frigid minutes of throwing snowballs atop the state’s highest peak, we scurried back into the vehicle and drove hastily back down the eastern flank of the mountain for some last minute late-night lava viewing at Kilauea before our early-morning flight out. In the span of mere hours the island had presented itself in the form of lush tropical rainforest, glistening alpine tundra, and free-flowing volcanic splendor. I am hard pressed to think of another location where such extremes can be attained by such casual visitors, and how lucky I feel to be a resident of these beautiful islands where spontaneous adventures as such are a mere inter-island flight away.