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Most volcanic islands have had a million or more years to blanket their massive flows with lush green foliage but the crusty black lava surrounding the Kailua-Kona airport on the big island is still too fresh for that. But fresh is what we’ve come to see.

TurtleWe were not disappointed. We did see lava pouring down the flanks of Kilauea, the world’s most active volcano, but we also experienced lush tropical rainforests, snorkelled in virtual salt water aquariums with turtles, held our breath watching surfers taking on the ocean and poked around craft markets.

The Big Island offers one of the world’s most diverse climates and that is a good place to begin thinking about how to plan a trip there. The west side of the island, anchored by the town of Kailua-Kona is the sunny side of the island. The resort belt towards the north experience as little as 25 cm of rain a year. Compare that to areas around Hilo on the east coast which get as much as 419 cm of rain a year.

HiloKnowing that, you will understand what the ramifications are for your plans to return home with the customary Hawaiian tan. But there is a great deal more to lying on the beach in Hawaii and all that sun in the north-west quadrant of the island has its price – a drier, yellower landscape.

Lush tropical jungle, exotic flowers and spectacular waterfalls are found on the other, rainier coast. In fact, locals claim that the breathtaking opening and closing scenes of Jurassic Park were shot in the Waipi’o Valley on the remote north-east side of the island. The valley certainly looked enough like the Garden of Waipio ValleyEden to make me a believer.

The only drivable route into the valley is a one-lane track that winds down the cliff at a steep 25% grade. Rental cars, even 4WD rentals, are forbidden. There are no services in the valley so should you risk it and find yourself stalled in a mud-sucking, mosquito-ridden wet river crossing, you are on your own.

Fortunately, several shuttles ($50 to $60 round trip) operate out of the town of Kukuihaele at the top. The shuttles are actually tours. A local fellow who claimed to have been born in the valley took us down, drove us around for an hour and filled our ears with all the local lore. He deposited us back at the souvenir shop where we were encouraged to pick up lathe-turned wooden bowls at $800 each. They get a lot of cruise traffic through here.

The north-eastern quarter of the island also offers awesome waterfalls. Chief among Waterfalls - Hawaiithese are Rainbow Falls just outside of Hilo, Akaka Falls between the 13 and 14 mile markers and Umauma falls at the World Botanical Garden. All of the parks and sights are clearly signed and easy to find from the highway. The falls were all very easy to access – just a few minutes walk from the parking lot.

Also worth mentioning here is the scenic 4 Mile Route, a diversion onto the old highway. The route runs between Mile 7 and 11. We thought it was so beautiful with its lush foliage, old wooden bridges, streams tumbling over rocks and views of the coastline that we re-traced the route three times.Scenic Old Highway

Hilo is just another big town with its share of shopping centres, strip malls and chain eateries. Keep going unless you have an urgent need for mosquito repellent and umbrellas. Then you will be thankful for Walmart and its $3 umbrellas.

To the south of Hilo is one of the most interesting and beautiful parts of the island, the Puna region. Judging from the foliage, this area is not nearly as wet as the north-east, but obviously still gets enough rain to grow big trees. The trees themselves are not overly remarkable, what is are the Jurassic-Park sized split-leaf philodendrons that use them as a launPuna Regionching pad for conquering the landscape. Obviously maintenance crews hack them back but even so, the vines tendril down over passing cars, predatory vegetation that look plenty capable of gobbling up an econo-sized rental. Think I saw a Venus Flytrap lurking in the shadows.

The coastline here is rugged, offering magnificent surf. We just sat there, jaws agape, incapable of tearing ourselves away from a display of raw power that was astounding. I must have run my videocam on the same stretch of coastline for half an hour. An admission that will no doubt lead to line-ups for the premiere of our Hawaii Ocean SprayHome Movies.

We also happened onto what is loosely termed, a ” farmers market” . If you ever wondered what happened to all the Haight Ashbury hippies when San Francisco gentrified, we found them. Them and their crystals, herbs, incense sticks, hookah pipes, yoga gurus, Reki practitioners, chakra readers, and sure enough, some of them have even become “organic” farmers.

It was an intriguing scene, the hippies plus an interesting collection of FBI fugitives, Rasta wannabees, devotees of far eastern religions with a sprinkling of Hells Angels and some earnest snowbirds singing Elvis karaoke. Actually read somewhere that Puna is where the greatest concentration of people enrolled in the Federal Witness Protection Program have been resettled. Guess now that’s public we can expect the mob to turn up next. Then again, some of those hairy hippy chicks in saris could’ve been fellas in drag.

Heading west from Puna the volcano is next.

The flanks of Mauno LoaAll of the Hawaiian islands were built by volcanoes, most of which ceased activity a million years ago. The exceptions are Maui’s Haleakala which last erupted around 1790 and of course Hawaii, where the volcanoes are still erupting.

The big island was actually built by five volcanoes. None are considered extinct yet, but only Mauna Loa which last erupted in 1984 and Kilauea which has been erupting since 1983 are considered active. Kilauea is the most active volcano in the world, but unlike other volcanoes is actually quite friendly. No doubt that isn’t how the nearly 200 residents who lost their homes in a massive flow just a few years back would describe it, but the volcano and it’s lava flows are easily observed. In fact, Kilauea is often called the “drive in volcano”.

A good place to start is at the Visitors Centre of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Fill up your water bottles, use the restrooms and look at the 3D depiction. Ask the rangers some questions, collect some brochures, then be on your way, circling the Kilauea Caldera on the Crater Rim Drive. There are a variety of lookouts and things like steam vents and sulphur banks to stop and look at.

Driving over the Kilauea CalderaThe Kilauea Caldera itself does not look like the classic volcano. It is massive and sits at over 1,200 meters but so many lava flows have spilled over its rim that the caldera itself has taken on a flattened out, moonscape appearance. In recent years, most of the activity has been coming out of vents or craters that have erupted out of its flanks.

One of the most accessible is the Halema’uma’u Crater which you can peer into from a lookout platform. From the parking lot it is a ten to fifteen minute walk to the platform. The path is relatively flat, but somewhat rough and uneven with rocky outcroppings and vent holes. The vent holes certainly gave me pause. Steam pours out of them. Not hot enough to burn anyone, but vivid evidence that what we were walking over is a live volcano. Made me wonder what the bearing load of the crust is.

It could change at any moment, but when we were there the Pu’u ‘O’o Crater was the vent that was generating the active lava flow. It is not possible to drive to the Pu’u ‘O’o Crater at this time. However, the Chain of Craters Road, winding down the 32 km from the summit to the ocean, delivers park visitors to the edge of the current flow. It Pu'u'O'o Ventis here one is most likely to actually see the lava flowing into the ocean.

Where the road ends changes day by day. Sometimes the lava is flowing right over the road, sometimes you have to hike in to see it. When we were there the active lava flow was about 4.5 km from the end of the road.

Another option, including a great view of the Pu’u ‘O’o Crater is to book a helicopter flight over the volcano. Trips leave from both Kona and Hilo but as the volcano is so much closer to Hilo, the trip from there is much cheaper and reportedly more interesting.

Being an enthusiastic photographer, my husband decided we should take a “doors off” flight so he wouldn’t have to contend with shooting through reflective glass. This sounded good in theory but it is a tad disconcerting to find yourself strapped into a narrow ledge of a seat with NOTHING to your left. Just air. Once airborne I asked the pilot through our headsets, how high we were.
“ Nineteen hundred feet.”

“Okaaaaaay. I feel better now.”

The advantage of course, is an unobstructed view of the active vent, lava streaming down its loins. The lava flowing beneath us registered 2000° F. Even with more than 1000 feet between us\Where Kilauea meets the  sea., it radiated like a blast furnace.

Helicopter tours leave from either Hilo or Kailua-Kona. From Hilo our 1-hour flight cost us $144 each. It would have been $249 but we opted to save $105 each by sitting through a 90-minute timeshare presentation the day before. This is the way it is done in the islands. Helicopter tours, horseback riding, ATV rentals, dive trips ....whatever you can think of. Sit through the timeshare presentation and you receive a discount card that offers substantial enough savings to make it worthwhile.

I did check this out by attempting to book a flight without the discount card and the savings were real enough. The timeshare presentation was not onerous and not high pressure, unless you call highly sentimentalized movies of families sharing quality time at the company’s quality developments high pressure. The thrust of their presentation hinged on proving how much money we could save by buying into their timeshare. Their strategy was to multiply the least amount we had ever paid for a hotel room times the weeks we wanted to holiday thereby showing us how much money we would save.

As budget travellers we didn’t fit their profile very well. The least amount we had ever paid for a hotel room was not the $100 per night they expected, but $8 a night in Central America. We didn’t make it easy on the young lady and I felt so sorry for her I even started wondering if maybe we should buy something? Fortunately my husband read the look on my face and kicked me under the table.

Hawaii certainly has its share of pricey resorts but that doesn’t mean it is off the menu for budget travellers. There are many B&Bs, homes and suites for rent that offer substantial savings and an opportunity to rub up against the locals.

We were able to rent a very nice room with ensuite, freshly refurbished and complete with all amenities including boogie boards, coolers, beach chairs, beach towels and snorkel equipment for $56 per night for the first week, $44 per night for the second night. This also included access to a shared kitchen that was fully equipped. Everything was spotlessly clean, the housBig Island Sunsete was in a very nice neighbourhood on the outskirts of Kailua-Kona and the landlord living upstairs was congenial.

Hawaii offers travellers a lot: a west coast blest by endless sunshine and bejewelled with sparkling beaches; an east coast lush with tropical rainforest jungles; and a visitor-friendly volcano offering up unforgettable lessons in the natural history and evolution of the earth. I’d recommend it.


Don’t forget to take:
- reef shoes
- waterproof sunblock
- snorkel gear (although rentable there)
- sun hat
- rain jacket and umbrella
- flashlight for lava tubes and night hiking
- mosquito repellent for highly-foliaged areas like Waipio Valley
- warm clothes for higher altitudes


Hawaii Centre for Volcanology

Hawaii National Park Service Volcano Site

Kilauea Eruption Update

Hawaii Visitor and Convention Bureau

Homes and Suites for Rent

Carolyn Usher

This trip was taken in 2004 by Steve and Carolyn Usher. Unless otherwise noted, costs are quoted in Cdn$. Info and contacts were updated as of August, 2005.