Living it large in lava land
First, we need to get this straight. Hawaii, the 50th state of the US, is an archipelago of seven inhabited islands and hundreds of uninhabited isles in the central Pacific.
President Barack Obama was born there, surfing was invented on its shores, and it is world-famous for pineapples, hula dancers, vivid printed shirts, steel guitars, honeymoons and Hawaii Five-0.
Hawaii the island, on the other hand, is the largest island in the group, so large that all the other islands easily fit into it. It's 335 kilometres south of O'ahu, the island where the state's capital, Honolulu, is found. The locals, to avoid any confusion, call Hawaii "the Big Island".
Spread over 10,000 square kilometres, with 10 of the world's 15 climate zones, the island is home to organic farms, cattle ranches, coffee plantations, hippie colonies, historic sites, national parks, unpopulated beaches, deserts, rainforests and five volcanoes.
With a population of 190,000, including native Polynesians and ethnic groups that arrived from Asia and Europe in the 19th century to work the now-vanished sugarcane fields, it's laidback and a bit quirky. (It's also where Captain Cook was killed in 1779.)
The Big Island's geography is striking. It is presided over by five volcanoes. Three are active, one is dormant and one is extinct. Kilauea, the world's most active, has been continually erupting since 1983, and its lava flow hisses violently into the ocean not far from the East Coast town of Puna, renowned for its alternative lifestyle and the production of a certain illegal weed. Kilauea's lava flow has added about four cubic kilometres to the island's topography during those 30 years.
Of the other volcanoes, Mauna Loa is the most massive mountain on Earth, and Mauna Kea is the tallest, if measured from the seabed. Their mass not only dominates the landscape but also the psyches of the island's inhabitants.
The locals revere Pele, the Polynesian goddess whose "home" is in the fiery caldera of Kilauea. Traditional Polynesian belief has it that the eruptions are her outpourings of love and the fountains of fire her violent temper tantrums. The lava rock that lies in huge dollops on the lava fields was believed to be strands of the goddess' thick black hair. Even Hawaiians who aren't of Polynesian descent often finish sentences with phrases such as "Pele willing."
At Kona Airport, we're collected by a driver for the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai, which is about 20 minutes away in an oasis of golf courses and tropical gardens. The scenery en route couldn't be more different from the lush resort. The lava flows have created a blighted landscape, through which the occasional grasses and mesquite trees manage to struggle.
It's all a bit apocalyptic but it's also intensely beautiful, with the crystal-blue sea sparkling magically where it meets the black lava plain.
The next day, we join Garry Dean from the tour operator Hawaii Forest and Trail for an excursion to the waterfalls that tumble down the valleys of the Kohala volcano, which last erupted 120,000 years ago. We drive north past Mauna Kea, the highest point in the Pacific, which is covered in observatories and is often topped with snow in the colder seasons. This is astounding, given that its 4205-metre summit rises above tropical jungles and beaches where the seawater is usually a warm 25 degrees.
This is the steepest rainfall gradient in the world, going from zero centimetres of annual rainfall on the lava flats to 250 centimetres in a very short time. In the cool rainforest, we trek through private land to reach jungles of wild orchids, guava bushes, palms, taro plants and pepper trees.
The trails take us over bridges that cross an irrigation system built through the mountain in 1906, and to swimming holes where freshwater crustaceans lurk. We stop for a picnic on a farm on a high cliff looking down over the valleys and secluded black sand coves.
Hiring a car is the best way to potter around the island and its 428 kilometres of coastline. If you drive north to Waimea, the landscape changes once more to lush pastures of happily chomping cattle and dairy cows.
Kamehameha I, the king who unified the Hawaiian islands, gifted huge tracts of fertile land to settler John Palmer Parker in 1847, making it one of the oldest ranches in the US and among the largest, having measured 220,000 hectares at one time.
When the last descendent died in the 1990s, the Parker Ranch was given in trust to four beneficiaries, and it funds many community-based activities. It also keeps alive the tradition of the Hawaiian cowboy, or paniolo.
Waimea, the hub of the northern community, is also known colloquially as "the home of horizontal rain". These hills were once covered with sandalwood forests, but now small farms, growing organic vegetables and flowers, have sprung up in their place.
Most of the island's food was once imported from the mainland, but in the past 20 years, a strong farm-to-table movement, started by chef Peter Merriman, has promoted the best of what the local farmers can offer. Merriman's eponymous restaurant in Waimea is crowded with diners who go there to sample the tasty tomatoes and artisanal products such as creamy goat's cheese.
The Volcanoes National Park is the major tourist attraction of the island. The park contains the glowing caldera of Kilauea volcano, as well as a number of related sites, including the 500 year-old Thurston Lava Tube and the Jaggar Museum of Volcanology, with its working seismographs, where you can learn all about the formation of the volcanoes.
The park also offers a fantastic range of spectacular landscapes for walkers, such as the Devastation Trail across land that was completely buried in cinders during the 1959 fountain eruption.
We stayed a night at the only guest house right on the crater, the Volcano House, where in the evenings there's competition for the lounge chairs that offer a panoramic view of the glowing caldera as it turns pink in the dusk, one of the world's great sights. From the guest house, we took walks along the crater rim, through bushland studded with eucalyptus, tree ferns and wild ginger.
They say you can identify a person from the Big Island's county seat, Hilo, because they always carry an umbrella. Situated on the lush windward coast, the town gets about 300 centimetres of rainfall a year, but two-thirds of it falls at night.
Hilo is full of funky little cafes, some excellent casual restaurants, fashion boutiques, lovely beaches and a tented farmers' market where you can sample the island's diverse selection of ethnic cuisines, from coconut curries, sushi rolls to delicious poke ahi, a spicy raw tuna salad.
We stayed at the historic Shipman Inn, where owner Barbara-Ann Anderson provided an extensive dossier of where to eat and what to do on this side of the island. You could happily fill a week.
During my visit to the Big Island, I visited friends who live on the coast south of Puna. This corner of the island is different once more, featuring dense coastal jungle and a jagged coastline of volcanic beaches popular with surfers.
It's idyllic, as there are few people in this part of the world. Perhaps that's not surprising - the 1983-86 eruptions of Kilauea spewed molten lava for 12 kilometres down to the beach. It has hardened into beautiful swirls of rock and sharp outcrops that are brittle like glass, creating some of the most gorgeous landscapes I've seen anywhere.
The writer travelled as a guest of Hawaiian Tourism, Hawaiian Airlines and the featured hotels and resorts.
MORE INFORMATION gohawaii.com.
GETTING THERE Fly to Honolulu and then to Kona or Hilo airports (about 1hr). See hawaiianairlines.co.nz.
STAYING THERE Four Seasons Resort Hualalai; see fourseasons.com/hualalai;
FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO
TAKE A HIKE Small-group nature tours in a customised 4x4 Pinzgauer are guided by passionate, eco-minded local experts with a deep insider knowledge of the Big Island, its customs, history and environment. See hawaii-forest.com.
LOVE THE LAVA Kilauea erupts into the sea at a certain point along the coast, and you can hop on a lava boat cruise that takes you close to the flow. When the tours don't operate, consider the challenging 12-hour hike to the source of the flow - a walk around the crater at Volcanoes National Park. See seelava.com.
COFFEE BREAK Some of the finest coffee in the world is produced in the rich volcanic soils of the Kona coffee belt. Many plantations, such as Greenwell, are still run by local families and are open to visitors, with free tours of the coffee-making process and plenty of samples of coffee. See greenwellfarms.com.
FLAT OUT The beautiful oceanside park along the black lava flats of the southern Kona coast once housed the royal residence; now it illustrates the traditional island way of life. See nps.gov/puho.
COCONUT COWBOYS This two-day event each February is the place to find local cowboys, paniolos, a vibrant part of Big Island life. See hawaiirodeostampede.com.