A look beyond the beaches
Frostbite and altitude sickness were not exactly the sensations I had in mind when I started planning my Hawaiian vacation.
Yet there I was, listening to a safety briefing from Katie, a guide who was about to drive me and a small group of other tourists up to the 13,796-foot summit of Mauna Kea (pictured) on the island of Hawaii. Pregnant women really shouldn’t do this trip, Katie warned us. Too dangerous. Neither should anyone under 16. And older people, forget about it.
Our group of satisfactorily athletic 30-somethings should be fine, Katie said. But if any of us got a little woozy or cold - even with all the extra layers we were instructed to pack alongside our bathing suits and flip flops - she had some spare oxygen and a set of heavy winter coats in her van.
Going from sea level in the town of Hilo, where it was a balmy 80 degrees, to the thin air above the tree line where there is 40 percent less oxygen and, on that afternoon in late March, a wind chill in the teens, was going to take some mental and physical acclimation. I was glad Katie was there in case I froze or fainted.
We chose March because it straddles the line between winter and spring, and we knew there was a better chance of seeing the island’s wide range of climates on full display.
I had looked into the weather conditions on the mountain about a week before the trip and was floored by what I saw: the National Weather Service had issued a blizzard warning for the area. Six inches of snow and gusts of wind up to 80 mph were expected. Yes, in Hawaii.
This is the Hawaii that most mainlanders don’t realize exists. It’s a place of vast geographical diversity where smoking volcanoes, an alpine desert and misty tropical forests are all contained within an area not quite the size of Connecticut.
It’s a place where the hotels have fireplaces for the cold nights and outdoor showers for the hot afternoons; where the sand can be white or black or green; where the landscape is so otherworldly that there are places with nicknames like “Little Mars”; where hilly pastures and cattle ranches seem as if they could be in the American West.
This is the Big Island, where you can go from Montana to the moon in just a couple of hours in your rental car.
Often overlooked, underrated and misidentified, the Big Island is known by Hawaiians for having the most spectacularly strange landscape of any of the islands. Before leaving on this trip, I would tell people I was visiting the Big Island and almost all of them would look back at me and nod knowingly: “Oh, yeah. Where in Honolulu are you staying?”
The Big Island has no place even remotely as large and chaotic as Waikiki, which, for the record, is on the island of Oahu. At 4,028 square miles, the Big Island is large enough that all the other Hawaiian Islands could fit on its surface. The closest thing that approaches a city on Hawaii is Hilo, a town on the mossy, rainy eastern side that is home to about 43,000 people.
Hilo was where my partner, Brendan, and I based ourselves for our first of six nights on the Big Island. Its simplicity set the tone for our trip. There was a low-energy, unpretentious feel that would become pleasantly familiar most places we went.
Your only options for hotels are mostly small, local establishments. Don’t expect to find your Starwood points of much use in Hilo. We picked Arnott’s Lodge, a little compound of unremarkable but perfectly adequate apartment-style rooms that didn’t cost us more than $100 a night. Arnott’s also leads tours of the island, and that’s how we connected with Katie.
Katie drove us and another small group of tourists from the mainland up to Mauna Kea’s summit, which is entirely accessible by road, most of it paved. The drive to the top was about an hour and a half, not including a 45-minute stopover at the visitors’ center at 9,000 feet for some quick acclimation. She encouraged us to hike around there for a while to get used to what it would be like once we got to the top. We were a little wheezy but decided we’d probably be fine.
As we made the journey up those last 5,000 vertical feet in the van, we left all signs of vegetation behind. The scrubby, spiny bushes and small trees disappeared. There was nothing but rock of a rusty brown color. And then blinding white.
Even at the end of March, an ice-glazed snowpack still encrusted quite a bit of the summit. We saw fresh ski tracks on some of the mountain faces, and a group of kids using boogie boards as sleds. The snow banks on the side of the road were 4 feet high in some places. As we were far above the cloud layer, the sun was brilliant.
The road was not especially steep, just winding. The local officials take safety very seriously, much to the irritation of some residents. They often close the road because of bad conditions, making what Hawaiians consider to be the realm of the gods inaccessible. It has to accommodate a lot of traffic, surprisingly enough, because the summit is home to a number of observatories. That’s another point of contention with locals, who consider construction there a sacrilege.
The high elevation, lack of man-made light sources and usually clear weather make for some of the best stargazing conditions on the planet. Geologists say that this is actually the tallest mountain on Earth. When measured from its base on the sea floor, it is more than 33,000 feet high, nearly a mile taller than Mount Everest.
We reached the top a few minutes before sundown and then set out into the cold, our hoods up and our hands plunged deep into the warmth of our jacket pockets. It was about 35 degrees. It dawned on me that this was the only car ride in my life that had begun with the air-conditioner blasting and ended with the heat cranked all the way up.
Something other than the scenery caught our eyes: Japanese tourists, throngs of them, all clad in orange parkas that looked like prison jumpsuits.
Katie said that the tour companies that cater to the Japanese do this, probably so their charges are easier to spot in case they wander off. Feeling a little lightheaded and woozy myself, I started to imagine how it might not be so difficult for someone to just disappear in a high-altitude mental fog.
Photo: The entrance to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
Tor Johnson/Hawaii Tourism Authority
Since we were some 7,000 feet above the clouds, there was nothing but open sky all around us. As the wind howled and our faces froze, we watched the sun sink into the horizon just to the west of Maui, which loomed in the distance. I couldn’t help but think of the people watching the same sunset from the beach in their sandals and swim trunks.
One fact about the Big Island that seemed inescapable as we drove from town to town was how nature seemed so stubbornly intent on keeping anyone from getting too comfortable. I was reminded of this when I heard the civil defense reports on the radio every day alerting islanders to the latest movements in lava flow.
I saw it in the smoldering forests that were slowly being engulfed by the lava’s creep, and in a patch of asphalt that was all that remained of a destroyed road in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. There were the constant reminders of tsunamis, too - with distinctive disc-shaped sirens along the road in coastal areas and the signs pointing the way to the safest evacuation route.
For some people on the Big Island, the ability to go on living life as they know it is dependent on the whims of what’s melting deep inside the earth. This is especially true for the Hawaiians who live in the path of Kilauea, an especially active volcano that is threatening to overtake the town of Pahoa on the island’s southeastern horn.
One of the best vantage points from which to absorb the Big Island’s continuing destruction and creation is from a helicopter. It’s not cheap, just to get that out of the way. Brendan and I paid around $270 each for a tour through Paradise Helicopters in Hilo that lasted about an hour. I was initially skeptical. But looking back, I can’t imagine doing the trip without seeing what an active volcano looked like from the air.
We did the “doors-off” option, which is exactly what it sounds like and probably even more terrifying than you’d think. I was a complete wreck - so tense as our pilot, Joyce, dipped and weaved over the smoking, sulfurous vents that I was afraid to inhale too deeply because I feared I might somehow burst my seat belt and go tumbling out. But I think that looking through a window with the doors on would have been much less memorable.
To explore the park, we based ourselves in the village of Volcano, just outside the boundary. At an elevation just shy of 4,000 feet, Volcano is a good 10 degrees cooler than sea level. It’s also in the middle of a rain forest and feels like a world away from the beach or the snowy summits above.
We put our heads down for the night at the Volcano Rainforest Retreat, a collection of Japanese-style bungalows shrouded by lush ferns and bamboo.
The property was in perfect harmony with the free-spirit, arty ethos of the village. A little sign in our kitchenette said, “Peace is our gift to each other.” The shelves were lined with books with titles like “Castrating an Ego” and “Loving Yourself.” There was a tiny flat-screen television, but it was covered by a quilt, as if to suggest that no one should need to watch TV in a place so beautiful and disrupt a place so serene. (We never even thought about turning it on.)
The village has a few bed-and-breakfasts and cafes, all along a single mile-long stretch of road. We had a lunch of miso soup and vegetarian lasagna at Café Ono, which doubled as an art gallery and had a resident goat named Ernest tied up in back.
Photo: Visitors to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park stand atop an old cinder cone to watch an ash filled plume of sulfur dioxide gas and ash rising from the Halemaumau crater of Kilauea volcano. David Jordan/AP
The park itself was just a few more minutes down the road. During the day, we drove all the way down to where the park ends at the ocean. We wound our way through lava fields that looked like the set of an alien movie, barren and brown with few signs of life. We were struck by how young the landscape was. A sign alerted us to the date the lava flow we were driving over began: 1974, which, Brendan noted with amazement, made it just a few years older than the two of us.
Seeing the park in the day is one thing. But many visitors don’t realize that returning at night can be just as breathtaking. From an overlook not far from the main visitors’ center, you can watch the caldera glowing in the distance. That smoking crater you see by day illuminates the sky at night in a blaze of orange.
You can even do this the civilized way, with a cocktail in hand. Brendan and I stopped at the Volcano House, a hotel inside the park with a restaurant and bar with panoramic views of the crater.
There was a chill in the air. A fire in a big stone fireplace crackled. The lulling strains of Hawaiian music in the background were really the only reminder that I was on a tropical island in the middle of the Pacific. It’s nothing fancy. You’re in a national park, after all. But that $11 lychee martini was certainly worth it for the views.
While the Big Island is really not all that big relative to the distances most mainlanders are used to driving on vacation road trips, it can seem like a daunting surface to cover. Considering how long it takes to get to Hawaii in the first place - five hours from the West Coast and twice that from the East - who can blame you for wanting to park yourself in immobile bliss at the beach?
We decided to try a little of that for two days. And ultimately we realized that while that might be fine strategy for other beach vacations, say, to Waikiki or Maui or the Caribbean, it would be an injustice to hole yourself up in a Big Island resort for a week.
Photo: Sunrise at King's Pond at the Four Seasons at Hualalai. Photo: Don Riddle/Four Seasons
Description: For two nights we stayed at the Big Island’s priciest resort, the Four Seasons at Hualalai on the warmer, drier western coast. Maybe its exorbitance seemed too out of place for two travelers who had spent the last several days discovering the unpretentious beauty of Hawaii. Or perhaps it was that with a $1,300 per night price tag, we were a little more on alert for things that didn’t quite work.
But for a nightly rate that equals a month’s rent in many places, the resort was unforgivably stingy and frustratingly unaccommodating in some ways, we found. I emailed the concierge two weeks before our arrival to ask for help in securing a dinner reservation off property. They assured me they were on top of it and then never followed up, but they did apologize. There were little annoying disclaimers warning us that we would be charged a $30-per-person fee if we did not show up for our dinner reservation. If we wanted faster Wi-Fi in our room, that would cost us an extra $25.
When we went to the Tranquility Pool, which is off-limits to anyone under 21, staff members acted as if they were doing us a favor by finding us a pair of empty chairs. “We’re really busy” were the first words out of the attendant’s mouth - much to our amazement since we looked around and saw ample room to add a couple of chairs and even a few scattered empty ones. My tranquility was quickly dissipating.
The bartender could barely be bothered to make eye contact with the patrons. And he displayed a little sign at all times - “Hours 11 to 5” - that read like an admonishment not to dare ask for a drink if it was too close to 5 o’clock. And sure enough, at just a few minutes to 5 on both days we were there, he moved the sign over to the front of the bar to ward off any pesky, thirsty violators of his last-call diktat.
That’s not to say we had an awful time. Hardly. Our room was elegantly done in dark woods with a high gabled ceiling. It was steps from the beach, and we would fall asleep to the sounds of the thumping surf. The bath products were sumptuous. I’ve never smelled so good after a shower.
Photo: Makapala, Kohala, Last Stop before Pololu. Big Island Visitors Bureau/Anna Pacheco
But extravagances like the Four Seasons are not why most people visit the Big Island. And we were reminded of this when we ventured out on our last full afternoon there on a drive to the little town of Hawi. Pronounced ha-VEE, it was about an hour away on the northern coast. The drive took us through one little ecosystem after another, from dry, cactus-covered lava fields, to hilly pastures of brilliant green grass where cattle roamed behind barbed wire fences, to pine-forested flatlands.
Hawi is like many little no-stoplight towns on the Big Island in that its architecture seems, incongruously enough, borrowed from the Old West. The stores and restaurants are built from wood and have big open porticoes looking out onto the street. They were painted in bright blues, yellows and greens. There was an excellent selection of places to get iced Kona coffee and ice cream, and an impressive collection of crafts and artwork made by local artists that weren’t trinkety or tacky. We had lunch at Sushi Rock, which serves rolls with a quirky local touch, like seared filet mignon from one of the nearby cattle ranches.
Hawi was a great place to wrap up our visit exploring the northern tip of the island. We ended up there after hiking down into the Pololu Valley, one of several deep chasms on the north end that have been carved out of the shoreline and are ringed with waterfalls and covered in lush vegetation. It took us only about 10 minutes to hike down and 15 back up. There was a black sand beach at the bottom.
What was most striking about the vegetation was how abundant the pine trees were. I’d been to palm-lined beaches before, but not a pine-lined one.
As we made the climb back up and over the mountains to return to the Four Seasons, we could see Mauna Kea’s 14,000-foot summit sprinkled in snow. Thinking of the people up there wheezing and freezing, we called the hotel and asked them to set aside two chairs in the sun at the Tranquility Pool. Some immobile bliss seemed in order.
Photo: People walk along Devastation Trail, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Big Island Visitors Bureau/Kirk Lee Aeder
If You Go
Where to Stay
Arnott’s Lodge is nothing fancy. But its spare apartments, with kitchens and ample space, are a fine place to base yourself on the Hilo side of the island. Rooms with private baths start at $75. 98 Apapane Road, Hilo; arnottslodge.com.
Volcano Rainforest Retreat is just as advertised: a sanctuary in the middle of a lush, misty forest on the edge of Volcanoes National Park. Rates from $190. 11-3832 12th St., Volcano; volcanoretreat.com.
Four Seasons Hualalai is luxury at its priciest and most elegant on the Big Island. Families can camp out by the Sea Shell Pool while adults can lubricate and relax by the Tranquility Pool. Ocean-view rooms start around $1,000. 72-100 Kaupulehu Drive, Kailua-Kona; fourseasons.com/hualalai
Where to Wander
Mauna Kea, the Big Island’s 13,796-foot summit, is a dizzying experience - for the exceptional views and the oxygen deprivation. Best seen with a guided sunset tour like the ones offered by Arnott’s.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is the kind of place that will make you rearrange your itinerary because you won’t want to leave. Allow enough time to hike the trails or drive from the visitors’ center down to the shore.
Hawi, high above the ocean, is a perfect place to refuel after hiking the Pololu Valley.
Where to Eat
On Hawi’s main drag, Sushi Rock offers an ahi poke roll served with wasabi-infused purple sweet potato. 55-3435 Akoni Pule Highway, Hawi; sushirockrestaurant.net.
If it’s Wednesday or Saturday, visit the Hilo Farmers Market for local coffee and macadamia nuts. Snack on exotic fruit straight off the branch or buy lunch from the vendors. Kamehameha Avenue and Mamo Street; hilofarmersmarket.com/index.html
If you’re driving near Waimea, Village Burger is your stop for lunch. If beef isn’t your thing, they have ahi tuna and veggie burgers. 67-1185 Hawaii Belt Road, Waimea; villageburgerwaimea.com.