Traveller Lowdown - Hawai’i

SAM HENDERSON and her family visits the Big Island of Hawai’i, the United States’ largest isle and home to one of the most active volcanoes in the world, Kīlauea.

With a total surface area greater than all the other Hawaiian islands combined, the Big Island is the largest in its archipelago and boasts everything from sun to snow, technicoloured sandy beaches to actively erupting volcanoes, vast barren lava fields to lush tropical rain forests, and snorkeling to whale watching and even diving with manta rays. We spent ten days on Hawai’i and quite honestly it wasn’t long enough! More than anything else, Hawai’i’s laid-back enjoy-life ethos is just perfect for any family holiday.

We began our Hawaiian adventure by flying into the town of Hilo on the east coast, but everywhere we visited can be accessed just easily from Kailua-Kona on the west coast. The biggest attraction to landing at Hilo is its proximity to Volcanoes National Park which is only 30 miles from the airport. Volcanoes National Park is the location of Kīlauea – one of the world’s top 10 most active volcanoes – which sits adjacent to towering Mauna Loa, the largest active volcano on our planet. Kīlauea began erupting in 1983 and has two fascinating focal points: its lava lake in the park and its ocean entry viewpoint.

We spent three days out of ten in Volcanoes National Park. The first at the Kīlauea Visitor Centre and driving the 30km winding Chain of Craters Road, through the East Rift and coastal area of the park, past active thermal sites and across countless lava fields steeply descending to the sea, towards the ocean entry viewpoint.

We returned back to base early evening to watch the sunset and view the constantly bubbling main crater from the deck of Jaggar Museum just a mile away.

A note of caution: occasionally gas levels in the park reach dangerously high levels, resulting in rangers restricting road access to the vents. This can last up to 24 hours so it’s best to check the park’s website before planning a visit.

To stay just a short walk from Kīlauea Visitor Centre, Volcano House is an excellent choice, having hosted visitors since 1846. Deeply rooted in Hawaiian culture and hospitality, the hotel offers an authentic and warm visitor experience and boasts a rather good restaurant ideal for an evening meal. Accommodation ranges from entry level up to Deluxe Volcano Crater View rooms which offer spectacular views of Kīlauea caldera.

There are some excellent full and half-day hikes inside the park, along well marked trails with fascinating views, across and above active and dormant craters and other geological features. Information boards detail the island’s unique flora and fauna along the routes. On day two we hiked to Kīlauea Iki and along the Devastation Trail. We also explored lava` tubes, visited sites where ancient tribes buried their dead and viewed petroglyphs (lava carvings) at Pu’u Loa dating back to between 1200-1450AD. Al fascinating stuff which the kids really enjoyed.

Our third day began around noon when we set out for Kalapana, the closest town to Kīlauea’s lava ocean entry viewpoint at Kamukona. En route we stopped at Tin Shack Bakery in Pahoa for a scrummy brekkie cum brunch (@TinShackBakery). Most afternoons in Kalapana are lively, with market stalls selling food, drink and arts and crafts. The best and quickest way into the ocean entry viewpoint is on a mountain bike which can be hired in Kalapana. Or, like us, you can hike the 4 miles each way, in which case you need to set off at around 4pm with a head torch and water – across the barren lava plains.

Where the lava flow enters the ocean is a truly incredible sight, complete with towering plumes of hydrogen chloride and vivid orange-red rivers of light. This spectacle of nature is really not to missed when visiting Hawai’i. In the same place chill out on the rocks, watch the sunset and observe the entry point by night. After dark, journey back under a sea of glistening stars which will give you time to appreciate that a village used to exist before molten magma overtook the place; recently a few entrepreneurial individuals have built houses on stilts above the solidified lava fields.

The next few days we spent at beaches with a bit of a difference. Punalu’u Black Sand Beach was formed when lava flowing into the ocean exploded as it hit the water, cooled rapidly and was shattered into tiny particles by crashing waves. The ocean at the beach is cool, mainly because a freshwater vent emerges directly into the left side of the bay, mixing with the warmer sea water. The black sand is soothingly warm, palm-fringed and there is a magnificent freshwater lily pond fronting the beach, which we luckily caught in bloom. The beach’s main attraction is the Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles feeding, resting and nest there. Equipped with snorkelling gear it’s possible to dive with them close to shore and see them up close and personal.

On the way to Punalu’u and just off the road we stopped for a quick tour of the local coffee mill at Pāhala. As well as great tasting coffee, the wasabi macadamias and macadamia nut brittle were to die for! ( Three miles down after Punalu’u, on the way to Green Sand Beach, you’ll find Punalu’u Bake Shop, famed for its delicately sweet and moist Hawaiian sweetbread as well as moreish doughnuts. Well worth looking-in but note that on most days the shop closes at 5pm.

The green sand of Papakōlea Beach is an olive colour caused by eruptions from what was once a volcano. In fact, the beach itself is within what was once a cinder cone. Located at the southern tip of Hawai’i, just west of South Point, it’s an even drive from either Hilo or Kailua-Kona. You can either hike the final 2.5 miles or pay around USD10 for a ride in the back of a 4WD vehicle, since the land is government owned and visitors must use approved transport. On arrival at the beach you will need to negotiate a steep climb down via a locally built wooden ladder, but you’ll be rewarded with a wonderful swim in the clean, cool ocean.

A 15-minute drive from Papakōlea is the southern-most point of the U.S.A., Ka Lae, also known as South Point. If you’re an adrenalin junkie, a short walk west of the viewpoint is purportedly one of the best cliff-jumping points in the world. Be sure to have someone with you if you plan to take the plunge! After all that activity, you’ll want a cold bear at least, if not some tasty grub, which you can get at South Side Shaka Restaurant & Bar in nearby Nā’ālehu, America’s most southernmost village community. The food is good and the portions at Shaka are generous.

Hawai’i has easy-access snorkeling all over the island. Near Hilo at Ahalanui is a volcanically naturally heated pool and one of the best family beaches on the east side of the Big Island. Just 15 minutes on you’ll find the calm Kapoho Tidepools which are fantastic to snorkel. Half way to Kailua-Kona is Two Steps Bay (Honaunau) abundant with sea life and coral with some amazing topography to explore at a variety of depths. Swim a little way out into this safe and protected bay and you may meet a pod of spinner dolphins like we did.

A monument now marks the place where Captain Cook, thought to be the first Westerner to set sight on the Hawaiian Islands, died at Kealakekua Bay in 1779. This location has it all for snorkelling enthusiasts: coral, fish and super clear waters. It’s a bit of a mission to reach since the area is inaccessible by road, but well worth the effort if you do and the ideal place for a spot of kayaking .

If you are snorkelling in this area then you must drop into Da Poke Shack and sample some of the local specialty: small chunks of delectably marinated raw tuna, known as ‘poke’.

During our ten days on the Big Island we ate big and small. The Hawai’ian Style Cafe in Hilo is big on comfort food

While Cafe 100 is home of the ‘Loco Moco’, a local institution of white rice topped with a burger patty, a fried egg and brown gravy, and worth a visit just for the experience.

For something less casual, award-winning Café Pesto has two locations on Hawai’i and serves a range of delicious, ethnically diverse Island cuisine.

Any time spent on the Big Island of Hawai’i, whether volcano watching, sightseeing, hiking, swimming or simply eating and drinking, will imbue you with a sense of its incredibly diverse and accessible nature, whilst leaving you charmed with a warm and cosy feeling that it isn’t such a ‘big island’ after all. 

Next in Issue 18