PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAEJA FALLAS
They donu2019t call Hawaii u201cThe Big Islandu201d for nothing. At 4,028 square miles, it is more than twice the size of all its archipelago-mates combined, comprising tropical rainforests, black-sand beaches, barren deserts, and even snowcapped volcanoes. Along with being the chainu2019s (and the countryu2019s) largest island, Hawaii is also, in geological terms, its youngest. Itu2019s like a brash teenager, constantly growing and changing and flaunting its youth. This isnu2019t a process measured in millennial increments, eitheru2014itu2019s a pyrotechnic display of cracking earth and oozing lava. But what else would you expect from the home of Pele, the feared and fickle goddess of fire?
Scoping out new land and an old town
We should probably stop first and ask Peleu2019s permission.u201d Itu2019s early morning in MacKenzie State Recreation Area, a park of ironwood trees and volcanic cliffs on Hawaiiu2019s quiet eastern coast. Iu2019m here with Mark Frost, who owns the Kipuka guesthouse, where Iu2019m staying; his dog, Cosmo; and his friend Kanani Aton. Before we enter the forest, Aton pauses to chant a passage from an ancient saga. u201cI love when we ask permission,u201d she says, u201cbecause then things just unfold beautifully.u201d
As we bounce across spongy pine needles, Aton points out medicinal fruits, ferns that she weaves into leis, and lava alcoves that were once believed to house pixie-like Menehune. Like the rest of the island, the area is perpetually being reshaped by lava, a danger thatu2019s quite a boon for tourism. u201cYou know that saying, u2018If you build it, they will comeu2019?u201d Aton asks. u201cWell, Peleu2019s building, and theyu2019re all coming!u201d
After an hour of exploring, we return to Kipuka, four off-the-grid bamboo houses built in a palm garden with more than 5,000 trees from 350 species. Frost brews me coffee with beans from Kau2018u, a burgeoning coffee destination on the islandu2019s southern flank. Enlivened, I head out for a drive up the coast.
This island is two-faced: The windward Hilo side, where Iu2019ve started my trip, is all mist and rain, lush jungles and crashing waterfalls; the leeward Kona side is white-sand beaches and sun and big resorts. About an hour after my start, Iu2019m driving into Hilo, the islandu2019s biggest town, at about 50,000 residents, and one of Americau2019s wettest, with nearly 200 inches of rain per year. The onetime sugarcane center feels a bit like a Wild West boomtown or some tropical Twin Peaks.
I stop at the 110-year-old Suisan Fish Market for poke, the local dish of raw marinated fish thatu2019s having a moment on the mainland, and order a heaping mixed plateu2014marlin, salmon, ahi, and hamachiu2014topped with umami-rich furikake. I make sure to save room for a shave ice at Wilsonu2019s by the Bay. The friendly woman behind the counter packs vanilla ice cream into a paper cone and tops it with a softball-size mound of ice, fresh-shaved by a vintage contraption, plus coconut, lilikoi (passion fruit), and li hing mui (salty dried plum) syrups. Outside, an old man solemnly wishes me good luck, but I still end up licking syrup off my forearm.
Next, Iu2019ll be exploring the island from a different perspective, with Blue Hawaiian Helicopters. I check in at Hilou2019s pint-size airport, where Iu2019m asked to step onto a scale like a piece of luggage (maybe I didnu2019t need that shave ice) to ensure inflight weight distribution. On the chopper, to a soundtrack of Enya and the Jurassic Park theme, we dart around like a dragonfly, buzzing up the Hamakua Coast, past waterfalls carving troughs through fertile valleys, and then south, over neat grids of macadamia trees.
The landscape drains of color and turns to black as we fly over miles of hardened lava. We keep our eyes peeled for new breakouts, like kids on a road trip playing the license plate game. Lava is slow, but itu2019s no laughing matter: This flow swallowed up the village of Kalapana less than three decades ago, incinerating everything in its path and forming acres of new land. The grand finale is the Kamokuna ocean entry, where red-hot lava pours into the sea, kicking up great plumes of steam. Some visitors choose to approach the area on boats, or even by foot or bike, but Iu2019m happy to keep a healthy distance. After all, on New Yearu2019s Eve 2016, about 17 football fieldsu2019 worth of newly formed land came crashing down into the Pacific.
Back in Hilo, I stop into Sig Zane Designs to browse the collection of upscale aloha shirts while entertaining thoughts of growing a Magnum, P.I. mustache. Iu2019m also thinking about dinner, which is at Moon and Turtle, the passion project of Hilo-born chef Mark Pomaski, who worked as a sushi chef at New Yorku2019s Nobu Fifty Seven, and his wife, Soni.
u201cI love the combo of high and low,u201d Pomaski says. u201cI want to elevate the humble soul food dish and bring the avant-garde back down to earth.u201d I order seared beef tataki dressed with a tapenade made from mushrooms grown up the coast, plus a meaty collar of local hapuu2018upuu2018u sea bass, flash-fried and served with a savory ponzu garlic butter. The highlight is raw kanpachi (yellowtail), dressed with extra virgin olive oil, chili pepper water, and soy sauce thatu2019s been smoked with kiawe (Hawaiian mesquite). u201cChili pepper water and soy sauce are like salt and pepper here,u201d Pomaski says. u201cThis is like my childhood and my adulthood on a plate.u201d
I finish up with a custardy slice of lilikoi pie from the nearby Papau2018a Palaoa Bakery, and begin the hourlong drive back to Kipuka. The roads are dark, with nothing but the distant glow of lava to guide me home.
Poke, Pleaseu2014And Hold The Accent Mark
Centuries before Western contact, Hawaiians were dressing chopped reef fish with sea salt, limu (edible algae), and roasted kukui nutsu2014local flavorings still found in markets across the island. By the late 1800s, ahi had emerged as a tastier go-to base, and poke (Hawaiian for u201cto cut crosswise into piecesu201d) became a symbol of the changing face of Hawaii: Westerners added onions and chili peppers, Asian workers brought soy sauce and sesame oil, and 21st-century Americans added the unnecessary accent mark you see on the mainland.
The Roast With The Most
Thanks to near-perfect growing conditions, Kona coffee is one of the most prized and expensive varieties on the planet. At the UCC Kona Coffee Estate, which is owned by one of Japanu2019s largest coffee companies, you can tour a working plantation and roast your own beans. Bonus: Theyu2019ll even print your proud face right on the label.
Hiking among volcanoes and diving with manta rays
My body is still on mainland time, which comes in handy as many of Hawaiiu2019s most memorable experiences happen before sunrise. A case in point is Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, located an houru2019s drive west of Kipuka, where I awake to a chorus of invasive coqui frogs outside my window.
Itu2019s still dark when I arrive at the park, which takes its plural name from Mauna Loa, the planetu2019s largest shield volcano, and Kilauea, one of its most active. In the pitch-black visitor center parking lot, I meet Tours by Locals guide Scott Wiggers. He ushers me to a point overlooking the Halemau2018umau2018u Crater, where a lava lake flickers red and spits up mini molten geysers. There are only five or six other visitors, so itu2019s silent except for the rumbling and hissing of roiling lava. u201cThis is my favorite time to visit the park,u201d Wiggers whispers. u201cWe practically have it all to ourselves.u201d u00a0 u00a0u00a0
As the sun rises, we climb into a truck and head off to see the parku2019s greatest hits, including the Thurston Lava Tube, a subway tunnelu2013size cave through which lava once flowed, and the Kilauea Iki Overlook, which offers views of a crater that produced 1,900-foot molten fountains during an eruption in 1959. Thatu2019s about 100 feet higher than One World Trade Center.
We pull over and walk to a series of steam vents, formed when rainwater gets trapped in the porous rock and superheated, and warm our hands in a plume of fog (itu2019s surprisingly chilly out here). u201cIt smells just like boiling pasta,u201d Wiggers says with a laugh. He bends down and rummages around for a few seconds, and then picks up a strand of glass. Lava from the crater gets caught in the wind, stretched, and spun like cotton candy, landing all throughout the park. u201cThis is called Peleu2019s hair,u201d Wiggers says as he drops the glass back onto the ground. If youu2019ve ever seen the Brady Bunch Hawaiian vacation episode, you know itu2019d be bad luck to pocket anything from the park. (Plus, itu2019s a federal offense.)
We continue along Chain of Craters Road, which is flanked on either side by endless expanses of hardened lava. u201cYouu2019ll notice two types,u201d says Wiggers as we trek over a crunchy lava field. u201cPahoehoe, the hotter lava, is flat and easy to walk on.u201d To me, it looks like a pan of overcooked brownies. u201cAu2018a is chunky and impossible to walk on.u201d More like a bulldozed pile of Oreo chunks.u00a0
As we drive, mongooses and pheasants dart across the road, but Iu2019m on the lookout for the state bird, the nene. In the early 1950s, this cousin of the Canada goose was close to extinction, with only about 30 birds left (it didnu2019t help that the old Volcano House hotel used to have them on the menu), but a captive breeding program has returned their numbers to about 2,500. Iu2019m happy to check them off my bird-nerd bucket list after I spot a pair foraging by the side of the road.
I say goodbye to Wiggers and head to Volcano Village for lunch at Ohelo Cafu00e9, where I order pan-seared onou2014the Hawaiian name, meaning u201cgood to eat,u201d for the game fish wahoo. Southwest of here, the landscape changes, opening up into the Kau2018u Desert, which is deprived of vegetation by Mauna Loau2019s rain shadow, the only precipitation being acid rain caused by volcanic gases. I skirt the coast, pulling over to dip my toes at Punaluu2018u black-sand beach, where green sea turtles bob in the surf, munching algae from the rocks.
Fifteen minutes down the road, I reach Punaluu2018u Bake Shop, Americau2019s southernmost bakery (in these parts, everything is Americau2019s southernmost something) for pillowy taro sweetbread and fried malasadas, doughnuts brought to the island by 19th-century Portuguese sugar workers. I drive past the U.S.u2019s southernmost point (itu2019s all ocean from here to Antarctica) and start to head up the coast, past hillside coffee farms.
Soon, Iu2019m emerging on the islandu2019s resort-rich Kona side and pulling into the Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay, which is known for its manta rayu2013related activities. The wildlife viewing started as a happy accident: A spotlight shining from the hotelu2019s seafront restaurant attracted light-loving plankton, which in turn caused hungry mantas to turn up in droves. Now adventurous types meet at sunset on a nearby dock for a Fair Wind Cruises night snorkel with these balletic behemoths. Theyu2019re harmless (no teeth, no barbs), but they are intimidatingly large, with wingspans of up to 14 feet.
Our boat, the Hula Kai, putters out a few hundred yards as our guide rattles off the rays we might encounteru2014Sugar Ray, Darth Ray-der, Big Berthau2014each identified by its unique markings. Snorkels and fins on, we plunk into the water and line up along a floating platform, our feet buoyed by foam floaties, which makes us look like rows of Supermen in flight. Lights on the bottom of the platform draw a cosmos of phytoplankton, which in turn attract zooplanktonu2014a catch-all term for minuscule, sea monkeyu2013like creaturesu2014and the mantas turn all of the above into a buffet.
We wait five minutes, 10 minutes, lulled into a meditative state by passing fish. Suddenly, the peace is broken by a chorus of snorkel-muffled screams, whimpers, oohs, and aahs. People, it seems, have varying responses to Volkswagen-size sea creatures. Below me, an immense manta is gliding upward. It flips onto its back, skimming inches from my mask, scooping up plankton with its gaping mouth. For the next half hour, we watch rays loop in and out of the light, snacking on bucketfuls of microscopic critters.
Staying afloat in bobbing waves is a surprisingly effective core workout, and it leaves me tuckered out. Back on dry land, I grab a quick dinner of kalua pork potstickers, hearts of palm salad, and a much-needed mai tai at the Sheratonu2019s Rays on the Bay, then head straight to bed, drifting off as waves crash on the lava rocks outside my window. Tomorrow will be a big day.
Trail Guide:u00a0Tips from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park public affairs specialist Jessica Ferracane
1. u201cGet to Jaggar Museum before sunrise. When no one is around, you can sometimes hear the rumbling of rocks exploding as the lava lake rises and falls.u201d
2.u00a0u201cRemember to dress inu00a0layersu2014itu2019s much colder at 4,000 feet than you think, despite the proximity to molten rock!u201d
3.u00a0u201cThe Kilauea Iki Trail blows my mind. My favorite section is where molten rock drained back into the vent and piled up like clumps of black satin bedsheets.u201d
Getting light-headed on a mountaintop and recovering at the beach
Hawaii vacations conjure images of sunbathing and tiki drinks, but mine is shaping up differently. I know this because itu2019s 1:45 a.m. and Iu2019m getting dressed in the dark. Iu2019m about to be picked up by the tour company Hawaii Forest & Trail to witness sunrise on the summit of Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano thatu2019s so tall itu2019s been known to see snow in the middle of summer. At 13,796 feet, Mauna Kea is the highest point in the state; measured from the ocean floor, it tops out at about 32,000 feet, making it the tallest mountain in the world. (Everest rises 29,029 feet above sea level but rests atop a plateauu2014which many Hawaiians think is a bit like measuring a basketball playeru2019s height while he sits on his teammateu2019s shoulders.)
Accompanied by our cheerful guide, Kim Nichols, we exit the van at 9,200 feet to adjust to the altitude before making the final ascentu2014a doozy for the human body even if youu2019re not hiking. Far from the city lights, the stars are shockingly bright. We zip into our parkas and look up to see Orion and the Pleiades, the hazy swath of the Milky Way, the reddish pinpoint of Mars. Satellites whiz by, along with the occasional meteor. Just as Venusu2014the morning staru2014peers over the horizon, we squeeze back into the van and head to the summit.
A short, bumpy nap later, I awake on the mountaintop, surrounded on all sides by massive telescopes. We jump out to catch the first rays of sun gilding the horizon. Weu2019re above the cloudline, so the sun seems to emerge out of the ether, like a scoop of orange sherbet melting in reverse.
Nichols reminds us to take it easy. Oxygen levels are low up here; anything faster than a slow crawl will leave you gasping.u201cYour body is redirecting resources to vital organs,u201d she says, meaning motor skills, eyesight, and speech will take a back seat. u201cWe call it u2018the two-mai-tai effect.u2019u201d I mumble a garbled question, and she responds, u201cSee!u201d I canu2019t be sure if my incoherence is due to a lack of oxygen or a lack of caffeine. The return-trip nap, as the van bounces downwards, is possibly the best Iu2019ve ever had.
Back in Kailua-Kona, I drive a rental up the sunny Kona-Kohala coast, then drop off my bags at the luxe Four Seasons Resort Hualalai. Still a bit groggy, I head north for breakfast/lunch/last-nightu2019s-dinner in the village of Waimea. This is cowboy country, the land of the paniolos, who came from California and Mexico in the 1800s to tend cattle. (The name might be derived from the Spanish for handkerchief, pau00f1uelo, or it could be a version of espau00f1ol.) At Village Burger, an unassuming strip mall spot, I order my hamburger rare, served with Swiss cheese, tomato marmalade, and 60-minute onions. Perfect.
I drive farther up the Kohala Mountain Road, a picturesque route that zigzags through cattle pastures. A few miles past a towering roadside statue of Kamehameha the Great, the founder of the Kingdom of Hawaii, I pull into a lot overlooking Pololu Valley. A guy selling freshly cracked coconuts is telling tourists he has the best corner office in America. I canu2019t argue. His patch looks down on palm-smothered valleys and cliffs, which billow out toward the horizon like a green curtain. I hear that the real treasure is on the valley floor, so I grab a coconut and brave a series of slippery switchbacks to a secluded black-sand beach, where I lie back and take in the oddly relaxing sound of waves battering the shore.
More relaxation is in store for me back at the Four Seasons, in its extravagant pools: sipping cocktails from the swim-up bar at the Palm Grove Pool; wading in the Ocean Pool, which is protected from the waves by a lava-rock breakwater; and snorkeling with a spotted eagle ray and 4,000 tropical fish in Kingu2019s Pond, a 1.8-million-gallon aquarium.
Later, at the hotelu2019s chic u2018Ulu Ocean Grill + Sushi Lounge, I sit at the sushi counter next to executive chef Thomas Bellec, who was born and raised in Brittany. Despite the distance, Bellec sees a kinship between Hawaii and coastal France. u201cI didnu2019t even know how to walk yet, and I knew how to eat oysters,u201d he says. u201cEverything here is related to the ocean. I feel like Iu2019m back home.u201d
They take the locally sourced thing seriously here. u201cWeu2019re raising our own oysters,u201d Bellec says, u201cin a pond on the 15th hole of our golf course.u201d We start our meal with buttery Molokai sweet potato bread and hummus made from u2018ulu, or breadfruit, one of the staple u201ccanoe plantsu201d brought to Hawaii by Polynesian wayfinders. Next up is a flurry of fresh seafood, in the form of delicately dressed sashimis and sushis. Kanpachi is served seared with a slick of truffled ponzu. Local abalone is poached in dashi with a miso-mustard aioli and served on the half shell (a play on oysters Rockefeller). One standout is a twist on the classic loco moco, a hearty staple traditionally consisting of white rice topped with a hamburger patty, brown gravy, and a fried egg. Here, tuna tartare sits atop sushi rice and is paired with a quail egg, a squid ink tuille, and sweet kabayaki gravy. The sake pairingsu2014and the fact that Iu2019ve been awake for what feels like a weeku2014have me ready to try out those crisp white sheets in my room.
I wander back along a path that skirts the beach, watching koleas, or Pacific golden plovers, dart in and out of the surf. These little waders donu2019t look like much, but theyu2019re partly responsible for the discovery of the Hawaiian islands. Nearly a millennium ago, Polynesians watched these migratory birds come and go, charting their courses and mapping the entire Pacific before setting out on outrigger canoes and using the constellations to land on these shores. I may not be as coordinated as these birds (who travel 3,000 miles to their arctic breeding grounds every year) or those ancient voyagers, but the lesson is clear: Hawaii has a gravitational pull, and Iu2019m sure Iu2019ll be brought back into its orbit soon.
Where To Stay
Kapoho, on the islandu2019s secluded eastern tip, is a haven for off-the-grid types. Here, set among more than 5,000 rare and exotic palms, Mark Frost built four sustainable bamboo guesthouses. If you can tear yourself away from the hammocks and the saltwater pool, the property is minutes from teeming tidepools and geothermally heated ponds.
Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay
Perched on jagged lava cliffs, this 508-room hotel features all the perksu2014hula lessons, waterslidesu2014youu2019d expect from a big Kona resort. What sets it apart are thoughtful design touches by the king of the aloha shirt, Sig Zane, who created staff uniforms, textiles, and art for the property.u00a0
Four Seasons Resort Hualalaiu00a0
Sure, you know about the seven pools, the Jack Nicklausu2013designed golf course, and the outdoor lava-rock showers. But the greatest amenity here is the Kau2018upulehu Cultural Center, run by u201cUncleu201d Earl Kamakaonaona Regidor, where you can take ukulele lessons, learn how to make leis, or brush up on Hawaiian phrases.