The drive from Kona to Hilo/Volcano on the Big Island is a long stretch of country highway. The first leg winds through a volcanic moonscape. You’re surrounded by endless lava flows with a slice of ocean to your left. Along the Mamaloa Highway, we spotted three wild goats huddled together, posing for the sun. As you head makua, climbing the mountain slopes, the land changes on you, growing green and thick. Suddenly you find yourself in cattle country, and nothing works up an appetite more than sight-seeing ranches.
We stopped for lunch at the Hawaiian Style Cafe in Kamuela, which has blown all other mom & pop lunch plate diners out of the water. They’re special, kalua pork moco loco is enough to feed a family. It’s big flavor for big country. If you’re on the Big Island, there’s no point in visiting without stopping here. Really.
Our real purpose and mission on the island of Hawai’i was to visit near and dear family. With two lovely aunts who live in and near Volcanoes National Park, and cousins who used to be Big Islanders, its really embarrassing to say we hadn’t been here before. Under the directive of our cousins, soon as we pulled into the little town of Honoka’a, we picked up a box of malasadas at Tex Drive In, who specialize in chocolate, lilikoi, strawberry, mango, and cherry filled malasadas. They are sweet doughy pillows of goodness though, again, nothing compares to Kauai’i Bakery in Lihue. Just sayin’.
We dropped down to Waipio Valley next, and when we say drop, we literally mean “drop.” The road to Waipio is steep, poorly paved, and full of twists and turns. In fact, its the U.S.’ longest, twistiest road, and you won’t, probably can’t, attempt it unless you have four wheel drive because even after you survive the wicked incline, you still have to face some monster pools of muddy water at the bottom to get to the beach. Technically, the park signs warn that visitors aren’t allowed into the valley unless they’ve been invited, but we figure with so many local family urging us to check it out, its invitation enough. The valley, like most lush, fresh-water filled hollows in Hawai’i was basically a metropolitan for the Hawaiians. There are many sacred sites to ponder and taro farms still thriving to this day. Tread this beautiful land with respect and care.
Before climbing up the volcano, we headed into Hilo to hunt for the ever elusive Tropical Dreams Ice Cream shop, which is supposed to have the best shaved ice on the island according to our trusted guide Hawai’i Big Island Revealed. We don’t go to the Hawai’i without the aid of Andrew Dougherty. Unfortunately, Hilo’s Tropical Dream had been converted into a center for Krishna devotees. Once we arrived at the address, we found a circle of dread-locked singers chanting praises to Krishna and shaking their tambourines. No frozen treats but plenty of samādhi to go around.
We stayed at Bamboo Orchid Cottages, a clean, cozy, and friendly B&B in Volcano. Our room had a little patio that overlooked the tropically wild backyard. Our hosts were friendly dog-lovers, who made a deliciously simply breakfast of fresh papaya boats filled with golden pineapple, dried coconut, and yogurt.
The Kilauea Iki Trail in Volcanoes National Park is part of the Kilauea volcano formed in 1959 (yes, the same year when Morrissey was born!). The crater’s rim, lush, filled with wild ginger and ferns, book ends this trail. Riddled with deep cracks and fissures, the crater, like the rest of the Big Island, is a lunar landscape filled with volcanic rocks and formations. This trail ends at the Thurston Lava Tube, so you get to see the inner workings of a lava flow.
Never in my life did I ever think I’d see an active volcano, especially at night with a sky full of constellations wheeling above. Like a massive campfire, the Kilauea plume mesmerizes in the evening dark. Though the wind blows chilly, seeing this spectacular phenomenon reaches back to primordial existence.
We couldn’t have asked for better guides to the Volcano, my aunt who works at Volcano’s elementary school and her partner, a former educator and local. They met us for breakfast at the Kilauea Lodge, which serves guava and taro pancakes and some tasty eggs benedict. The Lodge also has an impressive gift shop, and the restaurant features all local artists’ work. When we were there, halfway through our breakfast, a mighty wind storm cut the power lines, which made for a real adventure.
Lucky enough to get a glimpse of local life, my aunt took us to her ukelele group’s potluck hosted by a wonderful couple who share a rich history on the Hawaiian islands. The uke group, comprised of thirty players, not only made some mean BBQ, macaroni salad, coffee cake and chocolate brownies, but hearing them play was an extra special treat.
Our guides took us on the Chain of Craters drive, which follows the different lava flows of the volcano reaching all the way down to the coast, where the lava continues to gently build earth. Honestly, you could spend weeks or months exploring all the different sites, trekking the many hikes offered on this road, but some of the highlights are the Lava Tree Formations, Devil’s Throat, a spectacularly dangerous crater that is not for the foolish or weak at heart, and the Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs. The hike to this plateau that contains about 20,000 petroglyphs is scorched by the sun and chafed by the wind, but well worth the effort since you get to meander and mull over an ancient place where native Hawaiians made offerings to the legacy of their family and their homeland.
The end of the road leads to Holei Sea Arch, where the coast clashes against a wall of lava, and, if you hoof it, about 11 miles, you meet with an active flow. Despite the ocean raging just below the cliffs, it can feel like you’re walking through a furnace, a strange sensation.
Later that evening, we enjoyed the special treat of meeting with my nina, who works for the National Park, in her hometown Pahoa, which must be the sister city of Berkeley, at least in spirit, since there’s a raw earthiness to this funky place.
As expected, time flew by, and we wish we could have enjoyed more days with family in this mystical spot. Ever grateful for the chance to explore and eager to visit again, soon, big thanks Auntie L, Auntie M, and Uncle G, who served as our Virgils on this otherworldly journey. Much appreciation to our cousins T&M who shared their great knowledge of their island, and ever grateful to Vince & Vangie for their sage counsel on this trip.
Here’s our official “Next Time Wish List,” which we hope we can tackle someday soon:
- Akaka Falls (Volcano/Hilo)
- Hilo and Puna sights (tide pools/waterfalls/towns)
- Blaine’s (Volcano)
- Hilo Farmer’s Market ~ Saturdays & Wednesdays
- Maku’u Farmer’s Market ~ Sundays…towards Pahoa
- Pawai Bay- snorkeling (Kona)
- Golden Pools of Ke-awa-i
Along with cousins’ suggestions for next time. Thanks T!:
- When you get to Hilo, off top, on your way out of ITO, get poke from Poke to Your Taste: http://www.yelp.com/biz/poke-to-your-taste-hilo
- Flea market downtown on Wednesdays and Saturdays, lots of good snacks and a good day to visit Old Hilo Bayfront. Be sure to take a look in Dragon Mama, its a Japanese textile shop, mad handmade goods.
- Nihon restaurant and Japanese culture center at Liliuokalani Gardens is pretty cool and a good place for lunch, sit on the patio/balcony. http://www.urbanspoon.com/r/37/411630/restaurant/Hawaii/Nihon-Restaurant-Cultural-Center-Hilo
And once again, a big mahalo to our family for their love and guidance. We dedicate this song to you.