Imagine loading your family, your small tribe, on to a boat along with livestock, vegetables, and water, then rowing 2000 miles. Randomly, hoping you’ll find someplace else to stay because the place you came from was constantly threatened by very bossy other tribes, with bigger machetes. Rationing the food, day by day, slowly wondering if you’d die of thirst, massive waves in the sudden squalls, or in a fight with your neighbor who won’t stop talking about how everything had been better back home. Then, you finally see a shadow to the north that isn’t just another ocean storm.
Even today, the most comfortable direct flight from San Francisco to Hawaii takes five hours, flying over clouds and water and more clouds, more water, until suddenly this brilliant green farmland dotted with windmills suddenly springs beneath. The green turns to a long stretch of black rock and tan scrub that looks recently fire-scorched, then the runway. Out you go from your chilly northern home and air-conditioned plane into that tropical air, refreshing at first, but just you wait. It will soon suck out all your energy, but you won’t care. Palm trees and water will weave their mystical glamor on you. Welcome to the Big Island.
We have come to the islands for a week squeezed in the off-season between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The next few blogs should make you hear the roll of surf, the rush of air across the palm fronds, the endless morning birdsong, the morning hedge clippers…. well, there are a lot of hedges and they are always growing.
A Ways Away
The Hawaiian island chain, the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, encompass 124 that stretch across the Pacific ocean from southeast to northwest. The southernmost–the youngest, the biggest, the grandest (certified by me)–is roughly 2000 miles north of French Polynesia. The Big Island of Hawaii is the first that those island explorers landed on. It’s nearly 2500 miles from California and 3900 miles from Japan. These are the “most remote” islands in the world.
The Polynesians–French Polynesians–with “poly”+”nesia” being a Greek word meaning “many” + “islands”… the French Polynesians who were neither French nor Greek were also originally not from those many islands. The ancient Han people, first from the Asian mainland, then from Taiwan, traveled down throughout the Pacific, covering one little dot after another from Fiji to Tahiti. The earliest explorations happened during the rise of Egypt; the latter who ventured further south and west from the Malay Peninsula traveled closer to the time of Charlemagne and Muhammad (800-1000 CE).
Scholars originally thought Hawaii might have been discovered while Rome still flourished. But recent studies based on more precise dating suggest a far later and more specific date range: from 1219-1266 CE, Magna Carta territory. Why so specific? Science. (And a whole nother blog.)
Although the land was fertile, virtually all the foods we call “native” Hawaiian were originally brought by someone else. Coffee, bananas, breadfruit, and even pineapple came from someplace else but loved the ashy soil.
The people liked it here, too. Further, while some bird species might have traversed the long distance, they didn’t evolve into chickens or pigs, no matter how much Darwin they read. Nevertheless, chickens were brought, and they now claim it their turf. At the Ulu La’au Nature Park in Waimea, it is clearly a Big Island ritual to hang out with the chickens.
Many have traveled long distances, like me, like the Polynesians. Some have stayed.
The Vent in the Earth
Plenty ended up on Honolulu and planted roots in the natural harbor of Oahu, now the governmental capital of the island group. Lots regularly travel to Maui, where everywhere are beaches, or to Kauai, where everywhere is beauty. But the first island where explorers landed, the closest by a few miles to all the islands in the south, is the island of Hawaii.
The Polynesian explorers named this first landings spot Hawai’i: “land of the gods.” This might have been after the two giant gods, the two 13,000 mountains that tower over its shores, Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. Or, perhaps because of all the bounty found and all the fertile, volcanic soil which would produce more. Eventually, all of it, all 124 of the island dots, were called Hawai’i . This one then took the simple nickname, the Big Island.
I have also been to Maui and Honolulu. But once I came here, this is where I keep coming back.
The Bleak Black Land Over the Vent in the Earth
Much of this island– which encompasses Kona, Kilauea, Waimea, Kohala, and Hilo– doesn’t seem much to look at. The airport sits on the Kona side, so when you fly in, it is over a long bleak, black desert. Black rock and black sand everywhere here. Kona isn’t especially near the volcano, which lies south, below Mauna Loa. But the lava rock everywhere is a reminder that all of it is volcano. Because all of Hawaii is volcano.
The 124 islands of the Northwest Hawaiian chain are reminders that they were once magma, emerging from a vent deep below the Mid-Pacific Ocean. These islands are not part of the Pacific Ring of Fire which circle the wide waters, from Mount St. Helens to Java, along all the coasts of the American and Asia.
This vent mid-ocean created volcanoes over millions of years. As the continental plates slowly flow over the vent, volcanoes burst out, one after the other. They eventually cool, and the rock sinks, so that there are now a string of atolls running from the Aleutians (between Alaska and Russia) all the way down here. Put another way, the string rocks are like beads that tell time and reveal the path of the continental plates, moving over the vents from the deep. The magma flows; the land moves.
The Big Island is just the end of the chain. Youngest because it emerged most recently and biggest because it hasn’t yet finished cooling and sinking. Kauai is oldest of the chain where people live; Kure atoll is oldest farthest to the north.
Terrain to Every Liking
Thus, the live volcano activity is still here, subject perhaps for another planned traipse. Meanwhile, just driving a half hour north to the Kohala coast, where the land rises a few thousand feet, the vista shows the whole black coast of Kona spread out. South below that mist are the beaches and the tourists, the bars and surf shops of Kailua-Kona, the condos and golf courses of Keahou Bay.
The volcano shows off its fine pebbles as black sand across several beaches, this one in the Pololu Valley. Punaluu Beach is more famous as an accessible swimming beach, but Pololu also sports a stunning view of Waipi’o Valley and cliffs towering across it. If you are a real hiker, there are trails galore. If you forget and leave your poles in the condo, after remembering to put them in the suitcase in the first place, then you can only scrabble down a few hundred feet. But it’s still spectacular.
Weather for Every Taste
The reason I keep returning to the Big Island is because of this Everything. There is snow on the two mountains and fire bubbling out below one of them. Mist and tropics on the east side, desert and beaches on the west side. Black sand, pink sand, green sand, and soft white sand beaches–reefs for snorkeling and much more for the intrepid scuba divers. There are cowboys (paniolos) herding the cattle in the north, coffee and cacao plantations to east and west.
Plus, if it’s too hot for you where you are, traverse to a tree-covered spot on the beach where the breezes blow, or wander up in the heights of Waimea where the weather is cooler. If you drive from Kona to Hilo, there will be busy traffic, then remote roads; shimmering heat and cactus, then mist and rain on the mountain; sweltering heat under the banyan trees in Hilo and a cool sunset on the dry side, back in Kona.
Mark Twain said, “if you don’t like the weather in New England, wait five minutes.” My version is:
If you don’t like the weather on the Big Island, drive for a few minutes.Kajmeister, after Mark Twain
It’s kind of ironic, because Mark Twain visited Hawaii in 1866, before he came into his own as a writer. But that’s for the next story.
The Big Island has all of what the Hawaiian Islands have and more. But of course all the islands also share the same thing to the west, those sunsets that stretch out across the water wherever you are, whether the Big Island, Oahu, Maui, Kauai, or the Kure Atoll. Those glittering clouds that cause all the diners to pause and sigh. Glad we found this place.