Hawaiians usually refer to the Island of Hawaii as “the Big Island” to avoid confusing it with the entire state. The state bears the name of the island because Kamehameha the Great, the warrior who conquered the entire archipelago, was born on the Big Island and named his kingdom after it. “The Big Island” is a very apt name for Hawaii because it’s larger than all the other Hawaiian islands combined.
The Big Island is a mini-continent with a variety of scenery ranging from the lush tropical east side to the barren dry lava of the west side. In between are Mauna Loa (“Maw-na Low-a,” meaning long mountain) and Mauna Kea (“Maw-na Kay-ah,” meaning white mountain), volcanic mountains so high (nearly 4200 meters) that in the winter they accumulate enough snow for skiing. Hawaii is the youngest of the Hawaiian islands, with volcanoes that are still erupting and making the Big Island even bigger.
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Hawaii’s tropical trade winds blow from east to west. Because the mountains at the center of the islands trap moisture, the western or “leeward” sides are hot and dry while the eastern or “windward” sides are wet and rainy. Kona, on the west coast of the Big Island, has all the resort development, high-rise hotels, and traffic jams that a sun-worshipping vacationer could want. (The trade winds also occasionally blow the ash and sulfurous gases from the Kilauea volcano toward Kona, creating vog— Hawaii’s natural version of a smog alert.)
But I think Hilo (“Hee-low,” meaning the first night of the new moon), on the east coast of the island, is a far more interesting base for exploring the Big Island. Rainy, cloudy Hilo has never attracted the crowds who visit Hawaii to broil on a beach. Thus, Hilo has a genuine Hawaiian character you won’t find in Kona— or in many other places in Hawaii, for that matter. While Hilo doesn’t have any real beaches, along its bay you’ll find a very nice Japanese-Hawaiian garden as well as a bay-front walk with a nice view of Mauna Loa in the background.
The abundance of “liquid sunshine” in Hilo has its compensation in the
form of many flowers. Hilo is a prime growing area for orchids,
anthuriums, hibiscus, and other tropical delights. A number of nurseries
and gardens are open to the public.
The rain also creates some rather nice waterfalls. There are two major ones near Hilo, both easily reached. Waianuenue Falls (“Why-a-new-way-new-way”) is within Hilo city limits. 25 meters high, it’s more commonly called Rainbow Falls— the Hawaiian name means rainbow in the water.
Just north of Hilo is Akaka Falls (“A-ka-ka,” meaning clarity). A
short walk on a paved path through a genuine tropical jungle takes you to the
30-meter-high falls. If you’re lucky enough to visit either waterfall on a (rather rare)
sunny day, rainbows are supposed to be visible in the mist.
Hakalau Gulch (“Ha-ka-l’ow,” meaning many perches) will
give you a taste of “wild” Hawaii off the beaten path (it’s off Highway
19, about 5 kilometers north of Honomu). Like all the “gulches” on the
Hawaiian Islands, this one is the local version of a river or
stream— the only real, navigable river in Hawaii is on
Kauai— at the bottom of a
canyon cut by rainwater as it rushes to the ocean at Hakalau Bay. Most
people who see this picture guess that I took it somewhere in southeast
Further north along the east coast is Laupahoehoe Beach Park (“L’ow-pa-hoy-hoy,” meaning smooth lava tip). While it’s a scenic and tranquil peninsula today, Laupahoehoe was the scene of tragedy in 1946, when a tsunami completely destroyed the adjacent village and did significant damage to Hilo. Also on the peninsula is an abandoned wharf for the inter-island boats that carried workers to sugar cane fields.
The road along Hawaii’s east coast ends at the cliffs that form the southern end of the Waipio Valley. Ten kilometers long and half a kilometer wide, Waipio (“Why P.O.,” meaning curved water) was once the Big Island’s prime real estate. It was a sacred place with several heiaus (stone temples). High-ranking chiefs lived there, along with possibly 10,000 commoners who worked on the island’s most productive taro fields. It’s reputedly where Kamehameha the Great received the war god Kukailimoku’s imperium to begin his conquest of all the islands.
The 1946 tsunami inundated the valley with seawater, destroying the taro fields and forcing the evacuation of residents. About 50 taro farmers live there today.
You can visit Waipio by hiking a steep trail, or on a commercial tour that drives in and out of the valley in a jeep and then transfers to a mule-drawn wagon that bounces along muddy rutted roads.
At the right time of day, the cliffs along the east coast of the Big Island can practically glow with brilliant greens and blues. Other parts of the coast are rugged, with old lava flows sculpted by waves and lined with lush vegetation.
Rounding the northern tip of the island and crossing the Kohala
(“Ko-ha-la”) Mountains, the scenery begins to change. The Kohala
coast, approaching the dry western side of Hawaii, has extensive horse
and cattle ranches that are gradually giving way to residential
subdivisions. It’s dry enough for cactus. I took this picture in winter,
when the weather is wettest; during the summer the grass is brown.
The dominant natural feature of Hawaii’s west coast is the seemingly endless barren lava that hasn’t had time (or moisture) to sprout vegetation. But it still has some interesting scenery.
Near Captain Cook, red and yellow poinsettias grow “wild.” Like most “wild” vegetation in the Hawaiian islands, the poinsettia arrived with humans; it’s actually native to Central America.
North of Kona are several fields of petroglyphs ancient Hawaiians carved into the lava
flows. I don’t know if anyone has definitively deciphered the meaning of the carvings.
But some of them look like they’re warning visitors not to walk barefoot on
the sun-heated lava during the day.
In Old Hawaii, kapu (“kah-poo,” the Hawaiian form of the familiar Tongan taboo) regulated all aspects of life. Even seemingly trivial violations of any of the hundreds of kapus carried the death penalty, ostensibly because the infraction risked the wrath of the gods. Many of the kapus prescribed the conduct of commoners toward alii (“ah-lee-ee”), the Hawaiian nobility. So it might be more accurate to say that any failure to show proper respect for authority incurred the wrath of the alii.
The only way to escape execution was to flee to a puuhonua (“poo-oo-hoe-new-ah”), a sacred place of refuge. There priests would perform the appropriate ceremony to appease the gods, and the offender could then return home. The puuhonua was also a refuge for defeated warriors, who were similarly subject to summary execution. But it wasn’t easy to get to a puuhonua. Alii and their warriors lived on the land surrounding it; setting foot on royal land was itself a fatal kapu violation. So the only access was by swimming through shark-infested open ocean.
The Big Island had two puuhonuas. One was in the Waipio Valley
on the east coast. The other is now Puuhonua O Honaunau
National Historic Park, 35 kilometers south of Kona. You’ll still
often see the word kapu on signs throughout the Islands. It’s the
Hawaiian term for “forbidden” or “keep out.” Violators might face
criminal or civil penalties for trespassing, but fortunately the death
penalty no longer applies.
The Big Island is home to the only currently-active volcanoes in Hawaii. The Kilauea (“Key-la-way-ah,” meaning spewing and spreading lava) volcano pours its lava into the ocean to make billowing clouds of steam.
In Hawaiian mythology, the goddess Pele (“Pay-lay”) is responsible for volcanic fire. She lives in active volcanoes, and over the years has moved south down the island chain from Kauai into her present Big Island residence. This myth parallels the actual source of the Hawaiian islands and their volcanoes: A fixed plume of magma in the Earth’s mantle over which the crust of the Pacific Plate has slowly moved.
Pele has a fondness for flowers— and for gin. Many visitors leave her offerings of flowers, leis, or gin bottles next to the Kilauea crater, or throw them into one of the fissures or steam vents.
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