Hawaii- Our adventures in American PolynesiaHome
Chris and I started our 2004 World Tour with a fortnight in Hawaii. It had been a long standing ambition to visit the Big Island, the largest, youngest and least populated island in the Hawaiian chain. An American friend, Daron, whom we'd met at Autumn Farm in Takaka, invited us to stay with him, and no further enticements were necessary to route our flights via Hawaii.
Our stay started with a couple of days in Honolulu - a big American city seemingly out of place in the Pacific. Most of the population of the Hawaiian Islands lives on Oahu, and most of them live in Honolulu, so its a good place to escape from. We spent a day with some paraglider pilots on the far side of the island. It was too windy to fly, so we joined them on a sandbank out to sea, where we watched them kite surfing. It looked fun, but I don't think I'd want to do it in the cold seas of NZ!
The next day we went to the Big Island. Flying in, I could see the two shield volcanoes that make up the bulk of the island (Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa) rising to nearly 14,000ft, but looking surprisingly unmountainous (as the slopes were shallow and uncraggy all the way to the summits). We landed at Hilo airport, and picked up our hire car. We had ordered a compact car (for price!) but were offered a convertible Ford Mustang instead - much nicer!!
Daron lived about 40 minutes drive from Hilo, by the coast. He wasn't there - we made ourselves at home in his house - a beautiful octagonal Indonesian style dwelling. Kahena beach was only a few minutes walk away - a popular spot with the island's hippies (Sunday was 'beach party' day, though we managed to miss these). We later found that pods of spinner dolphins frequented the waters off the beach, and it was a particular pleasure to have an early morning snorkel with the dolphins in the crystal clear water - it was easy to get within a few feet of them.
The local town of Pahoa was a bit like Takaka - a beautiful small town full of organic grocery shops and good cafes, supported by the ex-hippy population, though it also had lots of poor people and a crime problem, we were told. There was plenty to explore in the area - steam vents, rainforest, the 'Green Lake', an old caldera, coastal reefs and beaches....
We did want to see the rest of the island, though, so decided to do a 'Round the Island' tour The Hawaii Belt Road passes the active volcano of Kilauea, and reaches Kona after about four hours driving. The Kona coast couldn't be more different. On the slopes of Mt Hualalai (an extinct volcano), it has rich volcanic soils, ample rainfall, and is sheltered from the regular destructive lava flows from Mauna Loa - and as a result grows the world's best coffee (Kona coffee, surprisingly!). The whole area is lush, full of flowers, and a popular holiday spot. One of the main reasons I wanted to visit here was the opportunity to dive with manta rays. We chose to go with a dive business called 'Jacks Dive Locker'. They put on an excellent trip - two dives, one during the day on the reef (when we did see a manta, though that is unusual!), and the main dive after dark. We all had torches, and sat at the bottom with our torches shining upwards to attract plankton, which in turn attracts the rays. Only one turned up (usually more appear), but what a sight! Probably the best dive I've ever had - the 3 metre wingspan monster would glide overhead inches away, do a loop and repeat the performance, with its dustbin sized mouth gaping to catch the plankton. Here are some photos!
We initially stayed at the Manago Hotel, a cheap and wonderfully dated establishment in the town of Captain Cook, at 1500ft a cooler more pleasant place to stay than the touristy coast. However, after contacting the local paraglider pilots, and flying a couple of times with Charlie Crocker, he invited us to stay at his coffee farm. He and his wife Ellen were fantastic hosts, and their home grown coffee was the best I've ever tasted - brewed strong, it had no bitterness at all! We struck a deal to send Ellen some NZ greenstone in exchange for some coffee.... The flying wasn't great, though. The weather refused to cooperate, and the landing was a tiny sloping field (10m by 30m) with a coffee shed at the end - you needed good spot landing skills!
After Kona, we headed around the island back to Daron's place again - this time Daron was in residence - though we still didn't manage to spend as much time with him as we would have liked! We based ourselves at Daron's for day trips to the major tourist attractions of the island: Kilauea volcano, and Mauna Kea. Kilauea is the youngest, most active volcano on the planet, sending out 600,000 cubic metres of larva per day. It's the one you always see on TV, fountaining larva. It doesn't do that all the time, though - there were no larva fountains when we visited! The Hawaiian Volcanoes National Park protects the landscape around Kilauea - the caldera, and larva flows down to the sea. The caldera is an awesome place to visit - a moonscape of steaming craters in places, lush forested crater rims with solidified larva lakes in others. At dusk, we made the long drive down to the (former) coastal road, and walked over the larva flows that blocked the road and destroyed a village in 1984. Bizarrely, signs saying 'No parking' and 'Speed limit 30mph' protrude from the lumpy larva flows! We reached the active larva flow as the light was fading watching the glowing rock flow into the sea with clouds of steam was a fantastic experience!
Mauna Kea, at 4,205m, is nearly 500m taller than Mt Cook, but has a road to the top! The shallow angle of the shield volcano sides make this possible. The internationally important Keck Observatory is perched on top - taking advantage of the clear air at that altitude in the middle of the Pacific to get some of the best views of outer space on the planet.
Our hire car was not allowed on the saddle road up to the mountain, an exclusion we ignored, as I wasn't going to miss this mountain! We drove up through beautiful mamane forest (a close relative of NZ Kowhai), to the visitor centre at 10,000ft, where tourists are advised to acclimatise for half an hour. Hawaiian silverswords (a rare threatened plant) grew here, protected from grazing goats in wire cages! The last 4,000ft to the summit was largely a dirt road, except near the top, to control dust which could interfere with the telescopes. The car struggled in the thin air, as air pressure is only 2/3 of sea level pressure. We felt a bit light headed, too, when we walked around! We were well above the cloud layer, in a desert environment of cinder cones and observatories. Watching the sun set was a wonderful experience - the shadow of the volcano was projected onto the lower cloud layer! On the way back down we stopped again at the visitor centre, which had an astronomy programme - with several optical telescopes trained on various planets, nebulae and galaxies. A very interesting experience!
The journey back to Hilo at the coast was 40 miles of coasting downhill (I didn't touch the accelerator once!). Oh for a bike.....
Our Hawaiian journey was a great experience. It was so Polynesian/Pacific in some ways - for example much of the plant life was similar to New Zealand (the dominant tree in Hawaii, the Ohio, is almost identical to our Pohutakawa, the Mamane tree is like our Kowhai, and Ake Ake and Ngiao grow in both countries). The Hawaiian language is more similar to Maori than any other Polynesian language, too (Maori legend tells of a mythic homeland 'Hawaiiki'- is this Hawaii?). In other ways, it was definitely American, but the worst aspects of that society were left behind in Honolulu. One day we'll return!