“It’s really big!”
You hear that a lot, from visitors, especially first-timers. Maybe they’ve cruised the Caribbean islands, most of which are downright tiny by comparison. Or they’ve seen the other Hawaiian islands first – Maui, Oahu, Molokai, Kauai, or Lanai – before coming here to the Island of Hawaii.
In the words of the late naturalist Euell Gibbons, “This one island is considerably larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined, and rises to an altitude much higher than New Hampshire and Vermont would be if they were stacked one on top of the other.”
It covers 4,000 square miles – literally twice the area of all the other Hawaiian islands combined. And since it measures 100 miles long by 100 miles wide, you need a full two hours to drive non-stop from one end to the other. But that’s not the best way to see Hawaii. Better to take at least two days, and make a circumnavigation. There’s an airport with rental cars on each side: in Hilo on the east side, and in Kona on the west, which also serves the big resorts that are oases on the black lava fields of South Kohala.
Driving from Hilo, the “classic” visitor route is clockwise: heading first to the volcano – Kilauea has been especially active, lately – and coming up to Kona from the south; spending a night there, and going back to Hilo by way of the ranchlands of Waimea and the lush Hamakua Coast. From Kona or South Kohala, the “classic” drive is typically counter-clockwise, heading south through the coffee fields of Kona and the windswept landscape of Ka’u, to see the volcano. Worthwhile side-trips are to North Kohala, still reminiscent of its “old Hawaii” days, or to rural Waipio Valley. It takes a four-wheel-drive vehicle to cross the island over the Saddle Road, but renting one (and being very careful!) you could visit the astronomy center at 9,000 feet, and even attain the 13,900-foot summit of Mauna Kea, which is often snow-capped in the winter.
The Big Island is therefore practically a continent in miniature, with all but two of the world’s climate zones – sorry, no glaciers or sandy deserts, but everything else from tropical jungle to alpine heights.
That quote from Euell Gibbons, by the way, is from his 1967 book Beachcomber’s Handbook, which has marvelous recipes for local fruit, vegetables and fish, about which I’ll write more in the weeks to come.