Hawaii, the Big (and rocky) Island

Ka Lae (south point) fishermen cast lines for big eye tuna, braving rouch ocean and 50 foot cliffs!

A five day visit to Hawaii, the Big (and rocky) Island…

Ka Lae is the southern mosst point in Hawaii and all 50 states.

We have only five days on this huge island; on our first day we head south from Kona, targeting old Ka Lae (meaning “the point”), at 19° north of the equator, the southernmost point of both Hawaii and all 50 states. It’s the place where historians believe the islands were settled, dating back as early as 750 CE. Most tourists zip past the lonely 12 mile road to South Point, off the Mamalohoa Hwy., on their way to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

South Point Road winds initially through light forest, before descending through a tawny, golden plain to the ocean.  Past assorted farm houses, several huge cartoonish satellite dishes, we find evidence of earlier civilization around the point – several abandoned commercial buildings, and a number of old foundations and heiaus (early native gathering places).

Nearby is popular Green Sand Beach, one of only four in the world. It gets its greenish hue from olivine crystals that collect at the base of Pu’u Mahana, a cindercone thousands of years old. As it erodes, it sheds gemstones the size of sand.

Along the rocky South Point the ocean stands out as king, with lava flows pounded by relentless surf. In most places the rocky lava bluffs drop 20 to 50 feet down to surging ocean, while local fishermen cast lines or a few nets seeking bigeye tuna and other delicacies. At South Point, a local fisherman tells us to stop by Hana Hou Restaurant and Bakery, the southernmost restaurant in the US, in the town of Na alehu. We’ll check it out on our way back from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park; we later find it jammed that night, with musicians serenading diners as patrons make for the bakery’s famous lileleko’i bars.

Kilauea Caldera during a hazy day, seen from Jaggar Museum.

We retrace our path back to Mamalahoa Hwy., headed to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. We climb steadily to over 4,000 feet, crossing ancient and more recent lava flows and evolving forest, lusher and greener as we climb higher on the volcanic peak.

After entering the national park (free with our federal senior pass), we stop first at the visitor center to get a feel for the layout of the expanding land. We learn that, in recent years, lava flowing out of the Kilauea crater has added hundreds of acres to the size of this island.

Two miles away is the the Jaggar Museum, near the edge of the steaming Kilauea Caldera, with molten lava bubbling and churning just below sight-line. We learn the crater has filled almost to the rim recently, though the molten lava lake descended about 100 feet, just out of easy view.

Kilauea Caldera at night, where the lava lake casts an angry, orange hue into the dark sky.

We follow the 19 mile long Chain of Craters Road, with hikable lava tubes and pull-outs overlooking relatively recent lava craters. The lower portion of the road continues through older and more recent broad lava flows, looking like the top of miles-square baked brownies, before descending to the oceanfront.

Thurston Lava Tube extends thousands of feet into the lava beds.

The road ends where molten lava recently flowed over it; we’re left with a 5 mile hike (one way) along the old road and across those lava flows to see where the active volcano pumps daily lava into the ocean, steadily adding land to the island’s shoreline.

Just steps from the parking area is the Holei Sea Arch, the result of the ocean steadily pounding away at the 50 foot-tall lava coast line. The current eruption began in 1983, with the vent eight miles up the volcanic slope constantly spewing lava bound for the sea.

Visitors watch molten lava thunder into the Pacific (though a 5 mile hike is required to reach close-up views).

Our visit to the park seems solemn by the realization that, behind us, rise 13,617 foot Mauna Loa Volcano, and across the island, 13,796 foot Mona Kea Volcano, which produced this vast, rocky island anchoring the Hawaiian Island chain.

The next day we sleep in and then head north to the Hilton Waikoloa, for a late lunch and tour of this huge resort. We took the monorail and the gondola through the grounds – an impressive place. And, we are rewarded with our first dramatic sunset.

Holei Sea Arch shows evidence of the ocean's power against endless Hawaii lava cliffs.

The next day the island’s east coast and Hilo are our destination. Highway 200 yields a long, pretty drive up and over the saddle between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, striated with black lava flows, high desert tundra inhabited by wild goats and thick rain forest as we head down towards Hilo.

Hilo was the undisputed sugar capital, now a bit down on its luck with end of the sugar industry. We walk the six block stretch of the historic downtown across from Hilo Bay, admiring vintage buildings like the Kress 5 & 10 and the S. Hata Building, circa 1912. Inside is the Café Pesto, open since 1992, serving fresh fish and local produce right in heart of old Hilo. It’s a town hammered numerous times by huge tsunamis in the last 100-plus years, killing over 200 people; we keep an eye on the waterfront. Just south, a big farmers market and crafts fair operates daily!

Kona offers a Bike Share program, making it easy to cruise the town's main drag along the ocean.

A pleasant day involved touring our host town of Kona, developed for the resort crowd with a main drag along the ocean studded with outdoor restaurants and bars, interspersed with bed and breakfasts, condos, hotels and all variety of shops.  Each Wednesday, a big Carnival cruise ship anchors just a half mile off shore and disgorges hundreds of tourists on Kona; by evening, those visitors and the ship are gone to their next port-of-call.

A popular tour near Kona is the Kona Coffee Plantation, with a 200 year heritage on the island. The town has a bike-share program, with a number of locations where visitors can check out a bike for a nominal sum. Our final morning, a seaside breakfast at the Fish Hopper – Bloody Mary’s and a split of eggs Benedict over local Ono – is a fitting send-off for our short whirlwind tour.

For more information: Hawaii visitor info, gohawaii.com/islands/Hawaii; for Hawaii Revealed phone-app, hawaiirevealed.com.

Read more from Tim Viall’s travel blog, follow him on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter; or, email him at tviall@msn.com.

A marvelous pizza with goat cheese, spinach and tomato, at Cafe Pesto in Hilo.

 

 

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  • Blog Author

    Tim Viall

    Viall is a local travel writer who retired in late 2012 after 10 years as executive director of Stockton, CA's, Emergency Food Bank and six years with the Downtown Stockton Alliance. Previously, a 21-year career in daily newspapers helped shape his ... Read Full
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