Gareth’s Blog

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Hawaii – Hawaii

The Hawaiian Islands attract nearly eight million visitors each year. With the proliferation of resorts available to tourists it’s often hard to decide where to actually spend time while in the state. While it’s almost inevitable that you will spend at least one night in or around Honolulu, there is absolutely no reason to spend your entire visit on Oahu. The neighbouring islands can offer equal appeal. Hawaii has two major inter-island airlines, Aloha and Hawaiian, and these offer taxi like flights between the islands on a daily basis. Having travelled as far afield as Hawaii it would be criminal not to take the opportunity to investigate the lesser travelled areas. While over there I chose to visit Hawaii.

Sea on fire

This would probably be the perfect juncture to explain the eternal confusion that is the island of Hawaii, the furthest east of the inhabited islands of Hawaii. Generally referred to as the Big Island, Hawaii is the largest of the Hawaiian Islands and it continues to get larger on a daily basis. As home to a continually erupting volcano, Kilauea (or “constant spewing” as it is so aptly named), the Big Island edges ever further into the ocean. An event highlighted by the steam rising hundreds of feet into the sky above the meeting point of the lava and salt water; a sulphurous plume that disappears on the leeward breeze.

Our base for this excursion was the Hilo Castle Hotel. High quality accommodation by local standards, this was no comparison to the splendour of the Kahala Mandarin Oriental on Oahu. The rooms were larger and nowhere near as pricey, but the décor was more seventies estate than millennium minimalism. The hotel itself has a reputable restaurant and good service. It is set in the mangroves on the outskirts of the small Big Island town and a short drive from the airport. A drive we had made in our football pitch sized rented Lincoln Navigator (it really was all that Hertz had left when we got to the airport).

The flight from Oahu had offered clear views of a number of the other islands of Hawaii: Molokai, Lanai, Maui. It was the sight of these views, and those of the Big Island itself, that inspired us to head straight out upon arrival in search of the jungles and waterfalls we had seen accessorising Hilo.

Taking the island’s circumference road, we headed north. We soon stumbled upon an enticing “panoramic views” sign directing us down a narrow lane. The glimpses of cascading falls and sky scraping jungle trees reminded us exactly why Lost was filmed in Hawaii. Had a giant polar bear come lumbering out ahead of us I would have only been mildly surprised.

mini pineapple

Turning a corner, we found ourselves outside the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens, which, for a small donation, offer the freedom to wander aimlessly through their multicoloured horticultural displays. From lobster claws to midget pineapples, the sheer range of vegetation will even intrigue the least green fingered visitor. And if that fails to fascinate, there is the barbaric coast at the bottom of the enclosure. The ocean here crashes violently into the remnants of valley walls and foams out across the charcoal sand.

stormy beach front
It was here, while snapping away like a panoramic paparazzo, that Hilo’s secret was revealed to us. Despite appearing a tropical paradise, Hilo’s tropical truth has earned it the reputation of being the wettest city in the States. Not only is it wet, but it doesn’t play games when it comes to rain. Unlike the European drizzle, to which I am so accustomed, the rain in Hilo falls all at once. They have five minute flash floods that don’t even allow you time to scurry for shelter. Although it may be raining, you are in Hawaii and its raining. It’s pretty hard to complain.

Hilo and its surroundings are undoubtedly beautiful, but it does appear to need its beauty sleep. Be it because of its lack of mass tourism or of the advancing age of the tourists it does attract, this is not a party town. The restaurants are few and their menus are limited. Surf ‘n’ turf is the staple diet and early is the acceptable time to eat. Even the hotel bar called time at 9.15. While Honolulu may be the United States’ west coast playground, Hilo is more like its nap corner.

The early end to our day was a blessing, however, as we had an early start the next morning. Our excursion was my soul reason for visiting the Big Island. We were taking a helicopter tour over Kilauea. Not only was this going to be my virgin helicopter flight, fulfilling a childhood dream, but I was going to witness the unique raw beauty of one of nature’s fiercest demonstrations of power.

We flew with Blue Hawaiian Helicopters, the island’s leading helicopter tour operator. Never was the kid in a sweetshop comparison better drawn than when I stood facing a row of Eco Star helicopters awaiting my turn. When the time came I was embarrassingly excitable. Initially just enjoying the new flying sensations I peppered the pilot, who you are in constant communication with via the headsets you are wearing, with the same questions he answers every day. He answered them all as if they were insightful and original.

Our flight took us out over Hilo and across the open land and ranches on the island’s windward face. As we flew we drew ever nearer to the wispy topped crater that looks down upon the inhabitants of Hawaii. The closer we got, the narrower my vision became, until all I could see was an orange cauldron sitting in the grey rock. An orange unlike any shade I had ever seen, the lava was unmistakable. As it sat there, scalding hot, then ran down the plethora of flow chutes, visible occasionally through the “skylights,” it was all you could focus on.

As we flew from tip to toe, following the veins of fire through the landscape, we could see scattered fields of inhabited land. More worryingly, we could see the tops of submerged cars and homes surrounded by inexplicably surviving forestation. Boar and wild horses apparently still roam the lava-locked land. Although what they survive on remains a mystery to me. A thought that followed me back to the airport as our journey came to an undesired conclusion.

The west of the Big Island is home to Kailua, Hilo’s party-loving big brother. It spends the day surfing and shopping and then stays out late. Navigating your way from Hilo to Kailua is not the most challenging journey on which to be co-pilot, which means that you get to look out upon some of the planet’s most beautiful scenery. As we travelled anticlockwise round the island we were treated to occasional glimpses of beach, some gleaming yellow and some charcoal grey. Despite the cinematic beauty of the empty sands, it was the raw landscape with its short down of gun-metal grass ascending to the explosive peak that was stealing the show.

Kailua was, in retrospect, the place we should have stayed, making Hilo a full day trip. Although Kailua is, to people staying on other islands, often a day trip or one night visits in itself. Flights to and helicopter tours from the island’s Kona Airport are organised from most of Hawaii’s major tourist areas. With a long main strip offering views of sea and surfers from every restaurant, it is easy to feel relaxed and entertained in Kailua. After evening drinks in a beach front bar we dine on the balcony of the Hard Rock Café overlooking the darkening ocean and groups of people playing floodlit beach volleyball.

The Big Island is not the first thought for most visitors to Hawaii, simply because of the paradise reputation of other islands like Maui, but it offers something different to most holiday destinations. You can have beach, tropical jungle, sunshine, spectacular rainfalls, party town, sleepy town and one big volcano all in one place. The magnificence of Kilauea is reason alone to put Hawaii (the island, not the islands) on your itinerary when you visit Hawaii (the islands, not the island). Unlike the luxury offered on Oahu, the Big Island doesn’t seek to pamper you. And it is all the better for this. Spending a few days on the Big Island is a great way to break up a longer holiday in Hawaii and will really reward you for making the effort to visit.

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