About a million years ago, spewing lava broke the surface of the central Pacific Ocean and began an island-building process that’s still going on today. The Big Island of Hawaii is literally a work in progress. About the size of Connecticut, it’s a land alive with volcanic activity, where steam rises from the heated ground like morning fog in a mountain field and regular lava flows continue to extend the borders of the land mass, while sometimes leaving a trail of blackened scar tissue in its wake.
The Big Island is also a study in contrasts. With two colossal volcanoes practically scraping the sky at close to 14,000 feet, its climate, vegetation, and very personality can swing from one extreme to the other in mere miles. The northeastern side, for instance, catches the clouds drifting in off the Pacific, backs them up, and wrings out their moisture to the tune of about 120 inches of rain a year. Under this almost perpetual umbrella of precipitation have sprouted areas of primordial rainforest, alive with an eclectic assortment of exotic, pampered vegetation, accented with plunging cliffs and thousand-foot waterfalls, and emanating a virgin, untouched beauty that conjures up the paradise of every Hawaiian dreamer.
Cross over the island’s rocky spine, however, and you enter the “rain shadow,” where the dripping clouds can’t reach. Here, the island’s temperament changes dramatically to that of an arid, sunbaked semi-desert, where scrubby brush and cactus replace the green ferns and leafy palms, great swathes of black, rocky lava reach as far as the eye can see, and, as the song goes, “the sky is not cloudy all day.” This is the Kona coast, and because of its sunny, fair-weather disposition, this is also where most of the popular resorts-with their lush, rolling golf courses and sandy lagoons-are carved out of the moon-like lava fields.
The best way to get to know all sides of the Big Island’s schizophrenic personality is to do a lap of the island by road. It’s an easy, sometimes captivating drive that leads you to most of the major points of interest and invites you to explore the subtleties within the extremes. We began our trek from the Kona side. As you cruise along the northern part of this region, you may be tempted to add to the environmentally friendly graffiti on the roadside lava. Here hundreds of visitors have left their names and/or messages in the otherwise jet-black landscape by creating letters and numbers out of white coral picked up from the beach.
If the weather gods are in a good mood, you may be able to see the peaks of 13,796-foot Mauna Kea and 13,679-foot Mauna Loa, the twin volcanoes that have almost single-handedly created the island. Mauna Kea is not only the highest mountain in the Hawaiian chain, but when measured from its base deep down on the ocean floor to its summit-some 32,000 feet-it’s also the world’s tallest peak. In addition, because of its thin-air altitude, easy accessibility, dormant volcanic status, and ultra-clean Pacific air, it’s also one of the world’s prime star-gazing spots and is currently home to some 20 observatories. Meanwhile, Mauna Loa, containing a staggering 10,000 cubic miles of rock within its softly sloping contours, has earned the title as the world’s largest (or most massive) mountain.
As you crest over the northern part of the island, be sure to take the short side trip to Waipio Valley. Known locally as the Valley of the Kings, because it was once a favorite spot of Hawaiian royalty, this rainforest-filled gorge is surrounded by sheer cliffs and spiced with brilliant greenery, plunging waterfalls, and a rugged sand-and-rock beach. The steep, winding road that leads down into the valley is recommended only for four-wheel-drive vehicles with low range, but tours are available. By the way, a neighboring valley, Waimanu, inaccessible by land and even more pristine, provided the setting for some of the scenes in “Jurassic Park” and “Waterworld.”
As you wind over to the eastern coast north of Hilo, another short side trip worth taking is to Akaka Falls State Park. Here, a short nature trail leads you through lush ferns and dense bamboo groves on the way to a picture-perfect view of 442-foot Akaka Falls. Hilo, considered the wettest city in the U.S., is an ideal stopover point for the night and offers many interesting sites of its own. In fact, Banyan Drive, where most of the hotels are located, is dressed with rows of the fascinatingly writhing Banyan trees, each planted by a different celebrity, such as Babe Ruth, Amelia Earhart, King George V, and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
About an hour south of Hilo, you come to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, offering a surreal beauty unique to the Big Island. Here, Kilauea, the world’s most active volcano, has been in virtually constant eruption since 1983. In this park, visitors can often get a close look at a fiery volcanic display or see glowing-red, 2000-degree lava spewing into the sea amidst billowing clouds of steam.
Finally, as you curve around the south side of the island, take the turnoff to Ka Lae, where in addition to enjoying the aquamarine water and nearby green sand beach, you can also boast that you stood at the true southernmost point in the U.S., almost 500 miles farther south than Key West, Florida. Of course, this is only a temporary status, in effect only until Loihi, the newest volcanic member of the Hawaiian chain, breaks surface sometime in the next 100,000 years.
While In The Area:
* For a different perspective on the Big Island, drive to the top of 13,796-foot Mauna Kea, where the observatories are located. The partially unpaved Mauna Kea Road rises over 7000 feet in its 15-mile length and is recommended only for four-wheel-drive vehicles. And bring warm jackets as you might encounter snow.
* Ancient petroglyphs abound on Hawaii, and one of the largest sites, the Malama Petroglyphs, is on the Kona coast next to the Mauna Lani resort.
* Routes 250 and 270 create a fun-to-drive scenic loop through the northwest stretch of the island. Route 250 winds along high up on the slopes of Kohala Mountain, past green pastures and bucolic farms, and provides some spectacular vistas of the Pacific. Route 270 brings you back south along the scenic coastline. At the farthest stretch, a short but rugged dirt road takes you to the Kohala Historical Sites State Monument, birthplace of Kamehameha the Great, Hawaii’s most famous warrior-king and the man who united the Hawaiian islands. Also nearby are the remains of the Mookini Heiau, an ancient stone temple built around 480 A.D., which was the site of human sacrifices.
Hawaii (Big Island) Visitors Bureau:
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park:
Side TripDiscount Travel, Courtesy Of Motor TrendSpeaking of getting away from it all, here’s as good a place as any to plug the travel benefits of the new Motor Trend Driver’s Association. Best of all, you don’t have to be in your car to take advantage of them. For instance? How about 15-30 percent off any of over 4000 hotels, including Travelodge, Days Inn, Howard Johnson, and Ramada? Call a toll-free number for any of these chains, give them your special Motor Trend Driver’s Association number, and reap the rewards. Need a rental car to check out the recommended drives of this month’s destination? Flash your ID code again, and Avis will give you 5-25 percent off, while Alamo will drop its rate by up to 20 percent. You say you can’t drive to Hawaii? Another call will reap a return of $25-100 off a domestic round-trip ticket with six major airlines.
If you’ve got your eye on a complete vacation package-whether to Walt Disney World or the Mediterranean-a MT Driver’s Association membership will get a minimum 5-percent discount on over 120 vacation packages, including such destinations as the Bahamas, Bermuda, the Caribbean, Florida, Hawaii, Canada, Europe, and world-class ski resorts. Do your plans include a cruise? Membership entitles you to a low member rate plus an extra 5-percent rebate on cabin fares on Royal Caribbean International, Carnival, Holland America, Princess, and Celebrity Cruise Lines. A single cruise fare covers meals, transportation, stateroom, professional entertainment, and use of shipboard facilities. In addition, members get a free two-category cabin upgrade on selected sailings.
Not bad, considering that membership will cost you only $24.95 for a year as a founding member. And when you’re behind the wheel, the association’s emergency roadside assistance program will give you added peace of mind. For information or to sign up, call 800/777-0547. Meanwhile, to learn all the benefits of the program, see the ad elsewhere in this issue.
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