On Hawaii’s Big Island, humbled by nature’s magnitude (photos)

December 20, 2017 GMT

On Hawaii’s Big Island, humbled by nature’s magnitude (photos)

HAWAII VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK -- It was our eighth full day on the Big Island, and we were in a quandary.

The island’s southeast coast was an hour’s drive away. From there, we could hike across the black, rippled terrain of hardened lava fields, in search of the point where fiery liquid flows into the sea. We were considering a trek of 9 to 11 miles, based on maps in the visitors’ center at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Every inch of me ached. We’d already traversed miles through the park, after a night of tent camping and a pre-dawn wake-up to watch the lava lake spit fire inside the Halemaumau Crater at sunrise. A heaviness lingered in my arms from kayaking and paddling a surfboard out over shallow coral days earlier. A purple bruise on my right hip throbbed, a rhythmic reminder of the thrashing I’d taken nearly a week before while bodysurfing in a treacherous cove.


I had rarely felt better, or more alive.

In a rare moment of reason, though, my husband, David, and I tempered our ambitions.

The coastal lava hike would wait – a goal for another trip. After eight days of attempting to swallow the Big Island whole, we agreed to relax. We drove back to our cottage to drink beer and sear tuna on the outdoor stove, to commune with the moths, mongooses and spiders.

We traveled to the Big Island, the largest in the Hawaiian chain, for a family member’s destination wedding in late May. The trip was a splurge: Just over $2,000 for our plane tickets. Nearly $1,300 for eight nights at an Airbnb. And $400 to rent a Jeep Wrangler for the duration.

The wedding party assembled at the Waikoloa Beach Marriott, on the island’s western coast. We visited the resort, for drinks, the rehearsal dinner and the main event. But we opted for more rustic lodging an hour away, a few steps from Kealakekua Bay.

Our teak-clad cottage wrapped around a large ficus tree. We cooked outside, showered under the stars and walked to a small waterfront park to drink our coffee and search for fins off the shore – a sign that Hawaiian spinner dolphins were congregating there to rest. We watched expert snorkelers navigate the rocky slope to water made choppy by unexpectedly high tides.

On our first morning, we ventured to Paleaku Gardens for a 90-minute yoga class in a screened pavilion. Holding lizard pose, I watched geckos dart across the walls. Afterward, we wandered through the gardens, which catalog the world’s major religions on a seven-acre property lush with fruit trees and flowering plants.

We replenished ourselves further at the Coffee Shack, an unpretentious breakfast and lunch spot precariously perched up the mountainside. It was the first in a series of simple and satisfying meals we found thanks to recommendations from locals.


Another morning, a pair of snorkelers directed us to a farmer’s market in nearby Captain Cook, where a food truck dished out green papaya salad and ginger-laced lemonade. We picked up a paper sack full of alien-looking lychee to add to the stash of fruit in our hiking bag.

That battered backpack accompanied us up and down the coast, and to the other side of the island, as we put 925 miles on the Jeep and traversed sharp shifts in elevation and climate.

Near South Point, the southernmost tip of the Big Island, we made the arid, dusty hike to Papakolea Beach. The beach, along a bay tucked inside a collapsed volcanic cone, draws its oddly green color from a mineral called olivine. We stripped down to our swimsuits and waded into the water, where the strong surf pulled at us and the waves broke ferociously at the shore.

On the trip out and back – about 6 miles – we saw countless hikers unprepared for the terrain. Tourists hampered by flimsy footwear and the heat turned back. Or they scrounged up cash to pay locals in four-wheel-drive vehicles to ferry them to and from the water. It’s possible to drive your own Jeep along the rutted roads, but we watched a few drivers get stuck.

The terrain was even more troublesome at the northern end of the island, where we hiked the steep road down to the Waipio Valley and a black-sand beach. With a grade exceeding 30 percent for stretches, the roughly paved path propelled my body forward and down.

Ambitious visitors toyed with fate – and their rental-car agreements – by attempting the road in four-wheel-drive vehicles. The scent of burning brakes filled the air. Locals, meanwhile, passed confidently. Their trucks teemed with fishing gear, coolers of beer, children and dogs. Pedestrians panted on the roadside, using the passing traffic as a chance to catch their breath.

When we arrived on the beach, we were salty with sweat and slicked with sunscreen. We dove into the ocean, taking note of its hungry outward pull. Waist-deep in the water, we looked back toward the island, where otherworldly cliffs framed the valley.

Even after that respite, the hike back up the hill felt much longer. In front of us, a man in shorts, flip-flops and a straw hat zigzagged across the pavement, making his own switchbacks to moderate the incline. In that moment, I felt our smallness in the face of nature.

We were on an island that spans more than 4,000 square miles, swaths of it smothered by crusted lava where only feral goats tread. Fewer than 200,000 people live there.

With other wedding guests, we attended a handful of activities in more bustling spots: A surfing lesson, group kayaking and night snorkeling with giant manta rays. But the most stirring moments were more solitary. At Volcanoes National Park, after pitching our tent on a $15 camp site, we strapped on headlamps just before midnight and followed a trail to a volcano overlook. In the hush, we strained to hear the crackle of rocks plunging into orangey-red lava at Kilauea.

We visited the crater viewing area again in the early morning and listened as a National Park Service employee narrated live video of the lava lake for an audience in another time zone. A few hours later, on a string of hikes, we saw relics of volcanic activity. A hollowed-out tube of hardened lava was large enough for a tall man to walk through. At the base of a rich rainforest trail, we crossed a solid lava lake perforated by steam vents that attested to the heat below.

The most striking experience, though, came once we’d acquiesced to slowing down.

It was our final morning on the island. After coffee and breakfast at our cottage, we grabbed the snorkeling gear our hosts provided and drove a few miles south, to the rocky shore just outside of a historical park and onetime sanctuary called Puuhonua O Honaunau.

Avoiding the prickly sea urchins, we slipped on our fins and masks and slid down a set of natural stone steps into clear water. We soared above coral and floated over clusters of colorful fish. As we drifted deeper, shadowy figures emerged around us. Trills broke the silence.

Earlier in the week, we’d spotted the dolphins from shore. A few days beforehand, they had approached our kayak, prompting us to pull up our paddles and wait until they passed by. Now, suddenly surrounded by a pod, we hung motionless in the water.

The dolphins swirled beneath and around us, in an elaborate, choreographed dance.

And there we hovered. Weightless. Tiny and vital in a boundless sea.