They don’t call Hawaii “The Big Island” 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 chain’s (and the country’s) largest island, Hawaii is also, in geological terms, its youngest. It’s like a brash teenager, constantly growing and changing and flaunting its youth. This isn’t a process measured in millennial increments, either—it’s 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 Pele’s permission.” It’s early morning in MacKenzie State Recreation Area, a park of ironwood trees and volcanic cliffs on Hawaii’s quiet eastern coast. I’m here with Mark Frost, who owns the Kipuka guesthouse, where I’m staying; his dog, Cosmo; and his friend Kanani Aton. Before we enter the forest, Aton pauses to chant a passage from an ancient saga. “I love when we ask permission,” she says, “because then things just unfold beautifully.”
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 that’s quite a boon for tourism. “You know that saying, ‘If you build it, they will come’?” Aton asks. “Well, Pele’s building, and they’re all coming!”
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 Ka‘u, a burgeoning coffee destination on the island’s southern flank. Enlivened, I head out for a drive up the coast.
This island is two-faced: The windward Hilo side, where I’ve 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, I’m driving into Hilo, the island’s biggest town, at about 50,000 residents, and one of America’s 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.
The landscape drains of color and turns to black as we fly over miles of hardened lava
I stop at the 110-year-old Suisan Fish Market for poke, the local dish of raw marinated fish that’s having a moment on the mainland, and order a heaping mixed plate—marlin, salmon, ahi, and hamachi—topped with umami-rich furikake. I make sure to save room for a shave ice at Wilson’s 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, I’ll be exploring the island from a different perspective, with Blue Hawaiian Helicopters. I check in at Hilo’s pint-size airport, where I’m asked to step onto a scale like a piece of luggage (maybe I didn’t 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 it’s 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 I’m happy to keep a healthy distance. After all, on New Year’s Eve 2016, about 17 football fields’ 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. I’m 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 York’s Nobu Fifty Seven, and his wife, Soni.
“I love the combo of high and low,” Pomaski says. “I want to elevate the humble soul food dish and bring the avant-garde back down to earth.” I order seared beef tataki dressed with a tapenade made from mushrooms grown up the coast, plus a meaty collar of local hapu‘upu‘u 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 that’s been smoked with kiawe (Hawaiian mesquite). “Chili pepper water and soy sauce are like salt and pepper here,” Pomaski says. “This is like my childhood and my adulthood on a plate.”
I finish up with a custardy slice of lilikoi pie from the nearby Papa‘a 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, Please—And Hold The Accent Mark
Centuries before Western contact, Hawaiians were dressing chopped reef fish with sea salt, limu (edible algae), and roasted kukui nuts—local 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 “to cut crosswise into pieces”) 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 Japan’s largest coffee companies, you can tour a working plantation and roast your own beans. Bonus: They’ll 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 Hawaii’s most memorable experiences happen before sunrise. A case in point is Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, located an hour’s drive west of Kipuka, where I awake to a chorus of invasive coqui frogs outside my window.
It’s still dark when I arrive at the park, which takes its plural name from Mauna Loa, the planet’s 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 Halema‘uma‘u Crater, where a lava lake flickers red and spits up mini molten geysers. There are only five or six other visitors, so it’s silent except for the rumbling and hissing of roiling lava. “This is my favorite time to visit the park,” Wiggers whispers. “We practically have it all to ourselves.”
As the sun rises, we climb into a truck and head off to see the park’s greatest hits, including the Thurston Lava Tube, a subway tunnel–size 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. That’s 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 (it’s surprisingly chilly out here). “It smells just like boiling pasta,” 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. “This is called Pele’s hair,” Wiggers says as he drops the glass back onto the ground. If you’ve ever seen the Brady Bunch Hawaiian vacation episode, you know it’d be bad luck to pocket anything from the park. (Plus, it’s a federal offense.)
We continue along Chain of Craters Road, which is flanked on either side by endless expanses of hardened lava. “You’ll notice two types,” says Wiggers as we trek over a crunchy lava field. “Pahoehoe, the hotter lava, is flat and easy to walk on.” To me, it looks like a pan of overcooked brownies. “A‘a is chunky and impossible to walk on.” More like a bulldozed pile of Oreo chunks.
As we drive, mongooses and pheasants dart across the road, but I’m 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 didn’t 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. I’m 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 Café, where I order pan-seared ono—the Hawaiian name, meaning “good to eat,” for the game fish wahoo. Southwest of here, the landscape changes, opening up into the Ka‘u Desert, which is deprived of vegetation by Mauna Loa’s rain shadow, the only precipitation being acid rain caused by volcanic gases. I skirt the coast, pulling over to dip my toes at Punalu‘u black-sand beach, where green sea turtles bob in the surf, munching algae from the rocks.
Fifteen minutes down the road, I reach Punalu‘u Bake Shop, America’s southernmost bakery (in these parts, everything is America’s 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.’s southernmost point (it’s all ocean from here to Antarctica) and start to head up the coast, past hillside coffee farms.
Soon, I’m emerging on the island’s resort-rich Kona side and pulling into the Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay, which is known for its manta ray–related activities. The wildlife viewing started as a happy accident: A spotlight shining from the hotel’s 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. They’re harmless (no teeth, no barbs), but they are intimidatingly large, with wingspans of up to 14 feet.
My body is still on mainland time, which comes in handy as many of Hawaii’s most memorable experiences happen before sunrise.
Our boat, the Hula Kai, putters out a few hundred yards as our guide rattles off the rays we might encounter—Sugar Ray, Darth Ray-der, Big Bertha—each 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 zooplankton—a catch-all term for minuscule, sea monkey–like creatures—and 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 Sheraton’s 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: Tips from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park public affairs specialist Jessica Ferracane
1. “Get 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.”
2. “Remember to dress in layers—it’s much colder at 4,000 feet than you think, despite the proximity to molten rock!”
3. “The 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.”
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 it’s 1:45 a.m. and I’m getting dressed in the dark. I’m about to be picked up by the tour company Hawaii Forest & Trail to witness sunrise on the summit of Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano that’s so tall it’s 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 plateau—which many Hawaiians think is a bit like measuring a basketball player’s height while he sits on his teammate’s 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 ascent—a doozy for the human body even if you’re 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 Venus—the morning star—peers 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. We’re 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.“Your body is redirecting resources to vital organs,” she says, meaning motor skills, eyesight, and speech will take a back seat. “We call it ‘the two-mai-tai effect.’” I mumble a garbled question, and she responds, “See!” I can’t 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 I’ve ever had.
I wander along a path that skirts the beach, watching Pacific golden plovers dart in and out of the surf.
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-night’s-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, pañuelo, or it could be a version of español.) 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 can’t 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 King’s Pond, a 1.8-million-gallon aquarium.
Later, at the hotel’s chic ‘Ulu 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. “I didn’t even know how to walk yet, and I knew how to eat oysters,” he says. “Everything here is related to the ocean. I feel like I’m back home.”
They take the locally sourced thing seriously here. “We’re raising our own oysters,” Bellec says, “in a pond on the 15th hole of our golf course.” We start our meal with buttery Molokai sweet potato bread and hummus made from ‘ulu, or breadfruit, one of the staple “canoe plants” 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 pairings—and the fact that I’ve been awake for what feels like a week—have 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 don’t look like much, but they’re 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 I’m sure I’ll be brought back into its orbit soon.
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