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Island of extremes

Earth, wind, and fire made the Big Island and keep it exotic

Hawaii's Big Island On Hawaii's Big Island, the Halemaumau Crater; Waipio Valley and its black sand beach. (Ron Driscoll/Globe Staff)
By Ron Driscoll
Globe Staff / December 20, 2009

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WAIKOLOA, Hawaii - We spotted the first of the messages shortly after turning onto Hawaii Route 19 out of Kona International Airport. The stark landscape of black lava that created this island stretched as far as we could see, broken only by strategically placed strips of white coral.

“You land at Kona in a barren lava field,’’ said Jessica Ferracane of Irondog Communications and the Big Island Visitors Bureau. “It’s like landing on Mars. And then you see the coral, which is our version of billboards.’’

The environmentally friendly graffiti, dubbed “Rockbook’’ by one visitor, is formed into declarations of love, shout-outs to friends, or pledges to favorite sports teams. On the 17-mile drive to our rental condo on the South Kohala Coast, we rarely went more than a few hundred feet without spotting elaborately designed turtles, sharks, or crosses. Others took a predecessor’s advice: “Keep it simple.’’

“Aloha Leah’’ read one. “Go Terps.’’ “Mahalo ohana (Thanks family),’’ and our favorite: “Out of gas.’’

You don’t want to break down on the Big Island, which got that moniker because, at more than 4,000 square miles, it is twice the size of the other seven biggest Hawaiian Islands combined. The roads can be desolate, and they lead to some of the hottest, highest, lushest, and driest places on earth. Of the planet’s 13 climatic zones, all but two (Arctic and Saharan) are found on this island.

“That’s really what blows people’s minds about the island - its vastness,’’ said Ferracane. “You really need a car to be able to see it.’’

Hot, hot, hot
The largest island in the United States is still growing, thanks to the world’s most active volcano. The lava that has been pumping out of Kilauea since 1983 has added more than 500 acres to the island. At the same time, entire towns have been swallowed by the inexorable flow to the sea.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park sits on the southeast corner of the island, and its big attraction is the spectacle of molten lava (at about 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit) meeting the ocean. The resulting clouds of steam and blasts of orange light that can reach 300 feet make for a nightly show that attracts hundreds.

We were fortunate to visit on an evening when Pele, the volcano goddess, was generous. We drove through eerie darkness for a few miles before reaching a viewing outpost, complete with people hawking volcano art, freshly-cut coconuts, and bottled water. After using flashlights to guide us as we tramped for 15 minutes over uneven lava fields, we could view the clash of lava and sea from about a half-mile away.

The next day, we descended a steep, switchback trail to walk another crater, Kilauea Iki (Little Kilauea), a mile-wide expanse with a well-worn trail through its center. Cracks and rifts in the floor hint at its own 1959 eruption, when it cranked out 2 million tons of lava an hour at its peak. Another must-see is the half-mile Thurston Lava Tube, where roughly 500 years ago, lava flowed freely; today, a pair of similar tubes deliver the oozing lava to the ocean.

The epicenter of the volcanic activity is the Halemaumau Crater, a 3,000-foot-wide pit that sits within the massive Kilauea Volcano caldera, or cauldron. If we had visited between 1825 and 1924, as Mark Twain did, we would have seen a much deeper, bubbling lake of lava. In “Roughing It,’’ Twain wrote: “I have seen Vesuvius, but it was a mere toy . . . a soup kettle, compared to this.’’ Today a constant vent of steam hints at the tumult below.

We took in the crater from an overlook at the Jaggar Museum, which gives an overview of all things volcanic, including stories of the legendary Pele and seismographs that chart the very obvious movements of the earth. Nearby, a section of the 11-mile Crater Rim Drive that nearly encircles the Kilauea Caldera has been blocked since March 2008 because of dangerously high levels of sulfur dioxide gas. Pele giveth, and Pele taketh away.

Higher than high
If you have read James Michener’s “Hawaii,’’ you know that the islands were formed by lava continuously forming and reforming from the ocean floor. As a result, Hawaii’s Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain in the world, more than 33,000 feet; even if you count only what’s above sea level, this dormant volcano stands 13,796 feet.

This is one of the best places in the world to view the heavens, and 13 observatories sit on its summit. Light pollution is minimal; the atmosphere is usually dry and clear; and roughly 90 percent of the sky that is visible from our planet can be seen from this peak.

We made a day trip to Mauna Kea to watch the sun set, but it’s not a spur-of-the-moment venture. If you go on your own, a four-wheel-drive vehicle is required. You also need to plan on an hourlong stop at the 9,300-foot visitors center en route, so you can acclimatize to the altitude. And dress warmly. When we left the condo, it was 91 degrees; at the summit above the clouds, the temperature was 38 in mid-August.

The telescopes at the summit include the twin Keck Telescopes, both eight stories tall and the world’s largest optical and infrared telescopes. The observatories, which stand like mushroom caps along Mauna Kea’s ridges, are mostly joint ventures between research and academic institutions (12 nations are represented). Their scopes are able to see billions of light-years into the universe.

Though some of the observatories have limited visitors’ hours, the summit was virtually deserted when we arrived, a couple of hours before sunset. We found out later that it costs about $30,000 a night to operate the telescopes, so they are not in constant use. A ranger advised us on where best to park to view the sunset, since the tour vans that regularly roll in just beforehand “can get aggressive.’’

On cue, the sun began to cast a wide glow on the clouds below, the vans rumbled in, and a few observatories noiselessly swung their roofs open for business. On the highest ridge, a small shrine reminded us that this is Hawaii’s sacred mountain, the place where islanders believed that the earth and sky pulled apart to create the heavens.

It’s a dry heat
The coast is an arid land, receiving fewer than 10 inches of rainfall annually. It also has one of the world’s top-rated beaches, Hapuna Beach State Park, a 200-foot-wide stretch of white sand nestled in a half-mile crescent between resorts.

North of Hapuna is one of the most sacred places in Hawaii, the Pu’ukohola Heiau, a temple constructed by King Kamehameha in 1791 to honor the war god Ku. A prophet had advised Kamehameha that only by building this huge structure would he attain his goal of unifying Hawaii under his rule.

The temple sits on a hill (“pu’ukohola’’ means “hill of the whale,’’ and humpbacks often surface in the nearby bay), and measures 225 feet by 100 feet, with walls up to 20 feet high. By 1810, through a series of treaties and conquests, Kamehameha was ruler of all Hawaii, and the island of his birth earned fame.

“It’s because Kamehameha unified the islands that they are called Hawaii,’’ said Ferracane. “That’s why people call this the Big Island, to differentiate it from Hawaii as a whole.’’

From Waikoloa, it’s less than a mile to Anaehoomalu Beach, known as “A Bay.’’ We spent a half-hour snorkeling one late afternoon as a green turtle paddled just a few feet away. Sunset here, with ancient fish ponds feeding into the bay and classic palms framing the crystalline sea, is a spectacle that nearly matches Mauna Kea’s.

Lush life
“The diversity of the island is pretty stunning, even to people who travel a lot,’’ said Ferracane. “In just a short drive, you can go from a warm, dry, manicured resort to a wet, muddy, yet beautiful waterfall-laden trail.’’

Our drive along the Hamakua Coast yielded just such a contrast, starting with one of the island’s most stunning sights, the Waipio Valley lookout. At one time, this 6-mile-deep valley with sheer 2,000-foot cliffs and a black-sand beach was home to thousands of people, including the highest “ali’i,’’ or royalty. Nicknamed “Valley of the Kings,’’ it was mostly abandoned after a devastating tsunami in 1946, and only about 40 taro farmers live there now.

No lives were lost in the tsunami at Waipio, but that was not the case at Laupahoehoe, several miles away. Near a frothing harbor where we watched boogie boarders attempt to stay upright for at least a few seconds, a memorial marks where a schoolhouse once stood, and a wooden board nearby labeled “The tragedy’’ displays old news clippings. On April 1, 1946, four adults and 20 children were swept away in a 30-foot tidal wave known as the Laupahoehoe Point disaster. The town, once a place where interisland boats landed, moved uphill in its wake.

Our coastal tour ended at Hilo, considered by many to be a truly Hawaiian town, far from the resorts on the opposite coast near Kailua-Kona. In a wide park near the harbor we found a small tented headquarters of sorts for a protest movement that urges people to join the effort to restore the independent Kingdom of Hawaii, which was lost when Queen Liliuokalani was deposed in 1893 by US business, political, and military interests. One banner read, “Oh say can you see, America is a thief!’’

Now we understood why we hadn’t seen any large-scale celebrations to mark the occasion of Hawaii’s 50 years of statehood, which coincided with our visit.

Ron Driscoll can be reached at rdriscoll@globe.com.

If You Go

Where to stay

Waikoloa Beach Resort

Fairway Villas

Waikoloa Beach Drive, South Kohala Coast

www.waikoloabeachresort.com

We reserved a two-bedroom, two-bath condo through home away.com for $150 a night. 17 miles from Kona airport, 77 miles from Hilo airport.

Where to eat

Hawaiian Style Café

Hayashi Building, Kawaihae Road, Waimea

808-885-4295

A perfect stop en route to Mauna Kea with plate lunches and huge breakfasts. Entrees $5-$11.

Tex Drive In

Highway 19, Honokaa

www.texdrivein.com

808-775-0598

On Hamakua Coast on the way to Hilo; famous for its stuffed pastries called malasadas. Breakfast and lunch, $8-$12.

Café Pesto

308 Kamehameha Ave., Hilo

808-969-6640

www.cafepesto.com

Original is in Kawaihae; we ate in the location near Hilo Bay, with high ceilings and an open kitchen. Entrees $8.95-$24.95.

What to do

Mauna Kea Observatories

www.ifa.hawaii.edu/mko/ visiting.htm

The Onizuka Center visitors station at 9,300 feet hosts free star-gazing nightly. You can visit the summit on a guided tour or with a four-wheel-drive vehicle (required), and the only option on the island is Harper Car & Truck Rental, Kailua-Kona, 808-969-1478 ($150 for one day, www.harpershawaiii.com).

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

808-985-6000 (808-961-8093 for lava hot line)

www.nps.gov/havo

Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site

62-3601 Kawaihae Road, Kawaihae

808-882-7218

www.nps.gov/puhe