by Matt JaffeTHE BIG ISLAND
The final approach to the Big Island is more lunar landing than touchdown in the tropics. Instead of flying in low over swaying coconut palms, you glide above lava flows-jagged, black, and barren-that stretch to the coast. Stepping out of the plane, you catch the first blast of hot, humid air and descend a staircase (no jetways here) to the tarmac, bound for outdoor baggage claim at America's only tiki-style international airport.Closer to New Zealand than New York, the Big Island is where America ends and Polynesia begins. More than simply a vacation redoubt for Californians, it is where Hawaii feels most like the separate kingdom it had been until 1893. There are beaches and resorts, of course-among Hawaii's best-but also heiaus, ancient lava-rock temples that predate the period in the early 1800s when local boy Kamehameha the Great united Hawaii under his rule. And what can you say about a place where the Costco has a poke bar with several selections of ahi?
The island is a continent unto itself with ten different climatic zones-from polar to tropical rain forest-and five volcanoes. The world still seems new and unfinished, quite literally, considering that lava from Kilauea Volcano has added 500 acres since 1983. The rest of Hawaii could nearly fit twice within the Big Island's 4,028 square miles, but less than 15 percent of the state's population lives here. So there's room to roam, and roam is what my wife, Becky, and I plan to do on a 300-mile road trip that circles the island.ON THE BEACH
Driving north from the airport to the Fairmont Orchid on the Kohala Coast, we follow Highway 19 for 20 miles as it travels through lava fields, where tufts of golden grasses play off the blackness. Even though Kohala is the main resort destination for the Big Island, Hawaii's aloha industrial complex is subdued here compared with Waikiki and parts of Maui.At the Orchid you can stand-up paddleboard and have your mai- tais-at-sunset Hawaii vacation. The resort's Brown's Beach House, with its waterfront setting and locally sourced Hawaiian cuisine, is ideal for that splurge dinner. For more choices Waikoloa Village is ten minutes away. Big Island native Ippy Aiona, parlaying experience working at his mother's Waimea restaurant and appearances on the Food Network, recently opened two spots at Waikoloa: the Three Fat Pigs & the Thirsty Wolf gastropub (go for the pork chop) and Ippy's Hawaiian Barbecue, a take-out counter serving such traditional plate lunches as Kalua pig and lomi-lomi salmon-with the requisite macaroni salad.
Older traditions also endure. You'll find lava-rock ponds along the shore that were built by ancient Hawaiians for raising fish. A short distance past the resort, islanders cast throw-nets into the surf, and farther on a trail leads to more than a thousand petroglyphs-one of the most extensive concentrations in Hawaii.In the morning we drive 15 minutes to Hapuna Beach for a swim before hiking the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail, an age-old coastal route. During northwest winter swells, Hapuna can go off with a beach break beloved by boogie boarders. Today, however, it's flat as a fishpond, and I float lazily, my view rotating from Maui to the white-domed observatories atop the Big Island's 13,796-foot Mauna Kea.
From Hapuna the trail climbs onto lava bluffs and passes village sites that date to the 13th century, reaching a series of megahomes that, despite their low-slung profiles, better approximate haole heiaus than home sweet homes. Beyond the manicured precincts of Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, the trail enters stands of kiawe, a type of mesquite, where we find the ruins of a stone fireplace with a crest featuring a F incised by a spear point. We're off the tourist track.Dropping into a hidden cove, we see a bikini-clad woman, who but for decades of steady Hawaiian sun worship could double for Emily Mortimer from The Newsroom. The day before, on a different stretch of trail, we also crossed paths with her. "Just jump in," she told us. "In all of your clothes. It's glorious, just heavenly."
Which is precisely what we do at nearby Mau'umae Beach, a white-sand strand backed by new growth emerging among kiawe that burned in a 2007 wildfire. Here the Big Island is a desert island, arid and hot but with turquoise waters only steps away, where sea turtles glide through the shallows. It is, in fact, both glorious and heavenly.KAUAI - it's easy to shake the crowds on an island so rich in wilderness
MAHA'ULEPU BEACHTo reach the dreamy site you can walk the four-mile- plus Maha'ulepu Heritage Trail, starting from picturesque Shipwrecks Beach at the Grand Hyatt in Poipu. Or make the 20-minute drive on the dirt road (potholes and all) that begins near Poipu Bay Golf Course. You'll know you're in the right place when halfway down the deserted sands you spot the Gil- lin Beach House, a bungalow still used by the land's owners. Just past Maha'ulepu is Kawailoa Bay, a favorite with kite surfers. Follow the slim path north (watch out for that blowhole!) to Paka- moi Point, where aquamarine waves crash against the cliffs. If you continue on for another 15 minutes to Ha'ula Beach, you can bask in the sensation of being the last creature on earth.CANYON TRAIL
It's no secret that Waimea Canyon is a wonder, a Grand Canyon-meets-Badlands display of geology gone wild. Lots of visitors trek along the Canyon Trail to see Waipoo Falls. What the guidebooks fail to say is that the "view" is of a tiny cascade atop the waterfall. But an unmarked breach in the undergrowth near the lower basins leads to some of the most spectacular views in the kingdom-a canopied walkway that constitutes the second half of the Canyon Trail. After swallowing whole vistas of rock works, you'll eventually zag into the forest, which leads to Kumuwela Road and the YWCA's Camp Sloggett; follow the signs to the Halemanu-Koke'e trail, which ends at Halemanu Valley Road a mile from your car.
GROVE FARMSugarcane, once the smoky giant of Kauai, has gone the way of the kamao: extinct. What most visitors think of as cane is actually guinea grass, a pest, which you'll learn on the Grove Farm tubing expedition offered by Kauai Backcountry Adventures. AOL chairman Steve Case bought the defunct Lihu'e plantation in late 2001 but allows small groups to ride inner tubes along two- and-a-half miles of waterways that once irrigated the crops. During the 30-minute van trip to the launching point, guides dole out facts about the farm's new pursuits (cattle, coffee, corn) and its use as a research station. But lazily floating through five tunnels and a set of rapids is a certain kind of bliss.INTO THE ANCIENT
Bound for a stay at historic Puakea Ranch in North Kohala, we stop at Hale I'a, aka Da Fish House, to see what fishermen in Kawaihae Harbor have brought in today.Kanoe Peck, the always-patient owner, smiles when I ask her for a recommendation. "Well, it's all good," Peck says as we look at fillets of opah and ono, ahi, mon- chong, and mahimahi. "They had a good morning out there. But try the mahi. Cook it up with coconut oil to bring out the sweetness." With a pound stashed in a cooler, Becky and I follow the highway as the landscape transitions to a Hawaiian green near Hawi and Kapaau. They're former sugarcane towns now filled with galleries that are popular with travelers destined for black-sand Polulu Beach at the island's northern tip.
In Kapaau you'll see a Kamehameha statue that, not unlike the man himself, has its own epic story. Cast in Paris in 1880, the nine-foot-tall monument spent time on the bottom of the ocean near the Falkland Islands after the ship transporting it sank. Once salvaged, according to one account, the statue did a stint as a cigar store Indian of sorts in front of a Falklands shop, before a Portuguese sea captain brought it to Hawaii with a cargo of cane held-workers.Off the highway we park at tiny Upolu Airport. From there we hike a rough road along cliffs and through windswept pastures to Ka- mehameha's birthplace and the remains of a 1,500-year-old temple, Mo'okini Heiau, where walls of stacked, lichen-frosted stones enclose a central courtyard. Considering Kamehameha's prominence and Mo'okini's age, there's little explanation (in Kawaihae, Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historic Site offers a fuller look at Kamehameha), just weathered wood signs and a National Historic Register plaque on which someone has scratched out "United States."
Even lacking any explanation, you might feel the haunting sense that something serious went down here. At the heiau (still used for ceremonies), a flat, hollowed-out stone and a standing rock used to strip flesh from bodies mark the site where thousands of human sacrifices occurred following a Tahitian high priest's ascension to power around 1370.After the return hike, we settle into Cowboy House, one of four bungalows scattered around Puakea Ranch. The building was a bunkhouse for Hawaiian cowboys, known as paniolos, who lived on the property when it was a cattle ranch. Befitting a structure that dates to 1890, the floors creak, and no doubt a sash-and-door guy would kill to update the windows.
But there's a working Wedgewood stove and pictures of paniolos, a long lanai for watching ocean sunsets and a mango tree with a rope swing in front, plus a private wood-and-stone bathhouse with a rain shower out back. We are our own room service, foraging a salad from the ranch's garden to go with the mahi and plucking eggs from the chicken coop for breakfast.
MAUI - the East and West side of the isle are hemispheres apart; which is for you?WHY THE EASTSIDE IS BEST
Because you expect an island paradise to look like one: green, remote, pulsing with life. The drive along the Hana Highway-52 miles of narrow bridges and curves that snake through mist-shrouded forest and past plunging waterfalls-will give you that by the kilo. Pull off the road at mile marker 9 for an easy three-quarter-mile tropical quest along the Waikamoi Nature Trail. Farther up the highway is Coconut Glen's, a blink-and-you'll-miss-it kind of shack that serves coconut ice cream right in the shell. Pi'ilanihale, an ancient Polynesian place of worship, hides in Kahanu Gardens. At mile marker 32, closer to the tiny town of Hana, you'll find Wai'anapanapa State Park, known for its black-sand beach and sea caves. From there it's a quick jaunt to Travaasa Hana, a historic hotel dating to the '40s that was rebranded two years ago and has sprawling, high-ceilinged cottages to rest in and a slew of activities on tap, from ukulele classes to horseback riding. Up the road Charles Lindbergh's grave shares a bluff with Palapala Ho'omau Church. With the sea below, it's almost as though the site itself is airborne.
WHY WEST IS BESTBecause Maui's western side offers family-friendly convenience along with its powdery beaches and cushy resorts. Wailea is home to several high-end properties, including the all-suite Fairmont Kea Lani, where each of the rooms comes with a lanai. (The hotel's restaurant Ko is worth a stop, with dishes like spicy soba noodles: seafood and chicken paella; and veggie tempu- ra with Moloka'i sweet potato, kabocha pumpkin, and Maui onion.) Between beach bouts tour the island's farms. O'o Farms grows the gamut, from asparagus to coffee to nasturtiums; after a stroll of the grounds, it's time for a stunning luncheon featuring locally caught fish and the farm's finest greens. In the up-country town of Kula, the 13-acre hillside Ali'i Kula Lavender Farm offers tours of its fragrant purple fields as well as a garden overflowing with olive trees, hydrangea, and giant protea. Grab the lavender lemonade and a jar of body scrub on your way out. In the former whaling village of Lahaina, the Maui Brewing Company serves pints of Coconut Porter, which is true to its name.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 king 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."ATOP THE VOLCANO
Soon, as we drive toward Kilauea ourselves, Becky and I pass the Kurtistown Samoan Seventh-Day Adventist Church, where the stained glass shows a dark-skinned Jesus standing before what looks like a volcano. I'm still fixated on the description of the park as desolate. Granted, there are plains of skin-ripping rock. But the ground is alive. Steam pours from vents and fissures, while in some areas molten lava bubbles barely 300 feet below where we hike. Geologic time is real time here: When I traverse the caldera on the four-mile Kilauea Iki Loop, the park's best day hike, I'm walking on rock that's the same age as I am.At Volcano Village Lodge near the park, tree ferns on the edge of stands of native ohia envelop our room. The cedar space, with its expansive beamed ceiling, seems like an extension of the forest, and opening the windows, we hear calls of apapane birds singing from the high branches. The night is cool at 4,000 feet, chilly enough that we bring in soup and curry from Thai Thai, one of Volcano's few restaurants, then dine on our deck as a delicate patter of rain drips from the ohia.
The best time to experience Kilauea's ongoing eruption is before sunrise, hours ahead of the tour coaches from Kona, when you can witness an undulating orange glow and hear boulders banging around in the molten lava. So I make the quick drive into the park amid the early-morning darkness to the overlook of Kilauea's Hale- maumau Crater, said to be the dwelling place of Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess. Halemaumau has been erupting since 2008, sending a huge plume of steam, ash, and gas into the air.On this morning it's just me and Pele for about 20 minutes, until a trio of kids runs up shouting, "LAVA LAVA LAVA!"
TO SOUTH POINTBeyond the national park, Highway 11 descends from Kilauea and through Ka'u, a remote region with coffees that rival Kona's best. In the far distance at the end of an arrowhead-shaped peninsula, we catch glimpses of South Point, the southernmost spot in the United States.
In Na'alehu we pass the country's southernmost bakery, restaurant, and bar as well as the wreck of the 1940 Na'alehu Theater, which I hope will become America's southernmost zigzag moderne theater restoration project. We lunch with the geckos that hang out on the lanai at Hana Hou, a bakery and restaurant that cooks up surprisingly tasty macadamia-crusted chicken with papaya chutney and a fabled mac-nut-cream pie.Then, having detoured into the tin-roofed shack that houses the Once Upon a Story Community Book Store (presumably the country's southernmost bookstore), we reach South Point Road in a mile. The road runs for 12 miles through gusty grasslands, where scattered trees grow lopsided and parallel to the ground.
With no photo op marker at South Point, tourists pose before a tower that survives from an old navy facility. Meanwhile we set out on two-and-a-half miles of deeply rutted Jeep roads to the rare green sand beach at Papakolea. The beach sits in an amphitheater formed by a collapsed cinder cone. Technically Papakolea may not be where the country's destiny is fully manifest, but it is land's end as land's end should be, roiling and romantic, with the next landfall thousands of miles to the south in Antarctica.INTO COFFEE COUNTRY
Back on the highway, we twist into Kona coffee country and arrive in Holualoa-a great gallery destination. After looking for prints at Studio 7 Fine Arts, a onetime pool hall run by owner Hi- roki Morinoue's father, we escape the rain at Holuakoa Gardens and Cafe. It's too early for the celebrated Hawaiian-style brisket, but the fresh-caught ono is just about perfect, both in a salad and a sandwich.We're staying at the Holualoa Inn, which spreads out at the end of a long driveway below the main road. It's an exotic, tropical sanctuary of polished eucalyptus floors and Balinese artwork collected by owner Cassandra Hazen. We climb to the second-floor Ginger Room, where a large Japanese fan and prints adorn walls stained a rich red. A walkway leads to a rooftop gazebo that looks out to the Kona Coast 1,400 feet below. Enormous magenta-colored ginger flowers unfurl in the gardens, and walking among the inn's thousands of coffee plants, I pick a crimson cherry, peeling away the fruit to reveal the pale green bean inside.
In the morning I venture out to kayak and snorkel on Keal- akekua Bay, where Captain Cook came ashore in 1779 and later died during a battle along the beach. According to the most cinematic account, the ships' billowing sails fulfilled a prophecy that Lono, the Hawaiian god of peace and harvest, would arrive in a floating temple with white banners. The villagers welcomed Cook in hundreds of canoes that were heavy with fruit, hogs (Hawaiians love their pork), and other offerings. But when Cook later returned to the bay, thefts by the Hawaiians and their growing weariness with these obviously ungodlike intruders escalated tensions, leading to Cook's death.The outfitter Aloha Kayak Co. has paired me with Sean, who grew up on Kealakekua and is visiting from the mainland with his sons-carbon copies of him minus the ink and the pack of Kools. Paddling toward the snorkeling area in front of an obelisk installed 139 years ago by some fellow Brits to honor Cook, we are greeted by our own impressive welcoming party, as spinner dolphins live up to their names with corkscrewing leaps from the water.
We go through a channel between two large boulders, landing near a modest bronze plaque in the shallows that reads "Near this spot Capt. James Cook met his death February 14,1779." The snorkeling is absurdly beautiful, a garden of corals in blues, greens, and violets, with a Pixar-ready cast of parrot fish and butterfly fish, wide-eyed puffer fish and long-nosed trumpet fish. I swim to the reef's edge, where the shelf plunges into a blue-water abyss, then kick to shore and surface along the obelisk, its whiteness jarring after the fishes' vivid hues.As we paddle back, the spinner dolphins return, swimming beneath the kayaks, then gazing up at us as they break the surface and exhale with sprays of breath that linger in the morning air.
OAHU - visiting Honolulu? How to escape the tourist traffic or WaikikiQUIETER CLIMES
Only a 15-minute beachfront walk from Waikiki, the area at the base of Diamond Head has much more of a neighborhood feel. Contemporary and tropical, with dark-stained wood floors and bronze-and-turquoise color schemes, rooms at the Lotus Honolulu take in the fabled landmark, with ocean views through wide gaps between buildings. Uncrowded Kaima- na Beach is right out the door.
HOT CHEFSBoasting two 2013 James Beard Award semifinalists, the modest Kaimuki district, a ten-minute drive away, proves that Honolulu's star chefs don't all cook in Waikiki. Quinten Frye serves such inventive small plates as a chicken-fried local rabbit in carrot butter and a bacon- and-egg sandwich with pork belly and kimchi miso at the low-key-cool Salt Bar & Kitchen. Ed Kenney's food, much like the rough-hewn interior of his restaurant, Town, combines modern and rustic- from a near-perfect poke- style ahi tartare on a risotto cake to a crisp, slow-roasted pork shoulder.WAVE ACTION
Get out early to nab parking for snorkeling at Hanauma Bay State Nature Preserve, then stop at Sandy Beach, the challenging body- surfing spot that's President Obama's favorite shorepound. In Kaiula, 13 miles on, go with lilikoi pancakes at Moke's Bread & Breakfast before hitting Kailua Beach Park.
With fish markets and lei makers, Chinatown is the anti-Waikiki. For historic Hawaiian sheet music, aloha shirts, and vintage ukuleles, Tin Can Mailman is a haven. Lucky Belly is known for ramen, but you won't regret a double- header of shrimp gyoza with an avocado-edamame mash and shrimp tempura tacos. Down the street, mixologist Justin Park preps his acclaimed Hotel Street Sour at the concrete bar of Manifest.
The glorious produce at Saturday morning's Kapi- olani Community College Farmers Market draws locals. But regional specialties, such as coffee from the Big Island's Ka'u region and chocolate made from cacao grown on Oahu's North Shore, have turned it into a tourist destination, too. Even for breakfast, the French dip with pho broth from The Pig & The Lady is revelatory, -m.j.
author Matt Jaffe is the author of The Santa Monica Mountains: Range on the Edge and Oaxaca: The Spirit of Mexico. His articles have appeared in Sunset, Budget Travel, and Arizona Highways.www.lamag.com/hawaii Nov 2013