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Exploring the Hawaiian islands

Here, Jon Underwood takes giant strides across the Big Island

You have to hand it to the Hawaiians. When they were looking for a catchy name for the largest island in the archipelago, they didn’t muck about. And so Hawaii Island became known as ‘the Big Island’. The coiffured American king of self-promotion, Donald Trump, would no doubt approve.



While it’s the big boy on the block in Hawaii, being more than twice the size of all the other islands combined, it is only 130 kilometres across and you can drive from Kailua-Kona on the west coast to Hilo on the east coast in about 90 minutes. But the journey will be memorable simply because of the diverse terrain you will be crossing.


At times authentically Hawaiian, at times reminiscent of New Zealand and at times unlike any terrain I have ever seen, the Big Island houses a multitude of ecosystems.  I’m not sure there are too many places on the planet where you can encounter tropical rainforest, snow-capped mountains, volcanic activity, barren desert, green meadows and palm-fringed sandy beaches all in one day.


Hawaii Island is significant for several reasons: it has some of the earliest examples of Polynesian settlement and was where Captain Cook met a sticky end at the hands of some unfriendly natives. Thankfully the locals are much more welcoming now so in the spirit of exploration and in Cook’s honour, I decided to spend a day uncovering a little of what the Big Island has to offer.


My journey from Waikoloa in the west to Hilo in the east would take me right through the heart of the island, but sadly not far enough south to the famous Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Here you can witness the active Kilauea volcano in action, with its lava flow still carving swathes through the landscape. The present eruption started in 1983 and experts don’t know how long it will continue to flow or when the next eruption will take place.


I still saw plenty of signs of volcanic activity on the drive to Hilo, which was itself the victim of two violent acts of nature, suffering from devastating tsunamis in 1946 and 1960, which decimated the local sugar industry. Now tourism is an important source of revenue and a refurbished hotel is scheduled to open next month to cope with the expected demand (see break out box).


I liked Hilo. The city has a laid-back, Byron Bay, arty kind of feel to it, with brightly coloured buildings, curio shops and trendy cafes. It’s a hip kind of place where life slows down to a snail’s pace and you can just sit and watch the world go by. With the decor of the buildings you could almost be in the Caribbean and the city has that same insouciant ambiance.


Appetite to explore truly whetted by what I had seen so far, I decided to return to Waikoloa via the coastal road which runs north from Hilo and across the top of the island. Half an hour later, I was pulling up at the Akaka Falls State Park, a 26-hectare rainforest famous for two of the state’s best waterfalls and chock full of trees, exotic plants and towering bamboo.


This place is an all out assault on four senses: the smells, the colours, the sounds and the textures all around you are truly extraordinary. I half expected to see a dinosaur (hopefully of the omnivorous variety) come trundling through the tangled vegetation to munch on the canopy above. A truly special place and a highlight of my trip to Hawaii Island.


Another hour up the road, I turned my Avis hire car off the highway to take in Waipio Valley, described in my guide book as the ‘spiritual heartland of ancient Hawaii’ and the local version of ‘the Valley of the Kings’. Needless to say, this massive valley that extends some 10 kilometres inland is a sacred place, lovingly maintained by the few remaining residents.


The views are impressive and you can walk down to the black sand beach below, which will also place you in some celebrity footsteps. The final scenes of the largely forgettable movie Waterworld were filmed here, when Kevin Costner and his rag-tag bag of survivors finally discovered ‘dry land’. But with daylight fading, it was time for this adventurer to make the hour-long drive back to Waikoloa.


Some 10 hours after leaving my hotel, I arrived back, having satisfied my inner explorer with some truly memorable and diverse experiences. Never mind Donald Trump – I’m sure Captain Cook would have approved.

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Written by: Jon Underwood
Published: 15 December 2016

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