We’ve spent this past week on the Island of Hawaii, commonly referred to as the Big Island or Hawaii Island. Hawaii is our favorite vacation destination, and I’m grateful that we are able to visit often. From California, a flight to Hawaii is a doable 5 hours.
This was my third visit to the Big Island, all on the Kona side of the island. The weather was temperate and rather than mostly pool or beach time, on this visit we did some exploring.
Hawaii Island Geography
Hawaii is the largest island in the United States. It is the southeasternmost of the Hawaiian Islands.
The island is often referred to as the Island of Hawaii, the Big Island, or Hawaii Island to distinguish it from the state.
The island of Hawaiʻi is built from five separate shield volcanoes (a type of volcano named for its low profile, resembling a warrior’s shield lying on the ground) that erupted somewhat sequentially, one overlapping the other. These are (from oldest to youngest):
- Kohala (translation: cherished land) – extinct
- Mauna Kea (trans.: white mountain) – dormant
- Hualālai – dormant
- Mauna Loa (trans.: long mountain) – active, partly within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
- Kīlauea (trans.: much spreading or spewing) – active, part of Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park
Because Mauna Loa and Kīlauea are active volcanoes, the island of Hawaii is still growing. Between January 1983 and September 2002, lava flows added 543 acres to the island.
Beware of Pele’s Curse
The hardened lava rock and expanse of lava fields in the area where we stayed on the Big Island was impressive. In some places, the lava fields seem to go on for miles. And the lava rock that inhabits the area is beautiful, majestic, ruthless in the jaggedness of its points and edges. The depth of the color spectrum, from red to brown to gray to black, sometimes shimmering in the sunlight, is mesmerizing. So much so, that I considered bringing a rock home as a remembrance. But I didn’t dare because of the curse of Pele.
Pele is the goddess of fire and volcano and the island’s matriarch. She resides in the crater of Kilauea and, as legend tells it, has been the cause of volcanic eruptions and lava flow. Pele’s fierce protectiveness of her lands and her “children,” the lava rocks and the sand on the island, is the genesis of the curse of Pele. If anyone “steals” the rocks or sand, they invite the vengeance of Pele. Apparently, the wrath of Pele, according to legends and supposed accounts, is serious and a person who takes from the island is not relieved of the curse until the stolen property is returned.
The origin of Pele’s curse is not well documented, but one popular explanation speculates that the myth became popular in the 1940s. At the time, park rangers were frustrated by tourists who kept taking lava rocks, so they invented the curse. The myth spread and scared people into believing it was real. As a result, people would relate misfortunes in their lives with the rocks or sand they took home from Hawaii. But, really, couldn’t it be a coincidence?
Whether the curse is true or not, it has deterred many tourists from stealing these items, which is illegal in Hawaii. It certainly deterred me! No way was I going to test whether the curse is myth or fact.
(Apologies for the multiple lava photos below. I was fascinated by this landscape and the myriad of forms of the volcanic lava.)
Kona Coffee – More Than You Ever Wanted to Know
We visited a coffee plantation (pictured above) – a surprisingly interesting and fun little excursion. Kona Joe Coffee was began in 1994 by an orthopedic surgeon and his wife. Following the practice of trellising grape vines by wine growers, Kona Joe began to trellis their coffee trees to allow the coffee cherries to have more uniform sun exposure. They are known for award winning Kona coffee.
Kona coffee is arguably the most iconic coffee in the world. I didn’t know why.
In order to be identified as Kona coffee, the coffee must be grown within the North and South districts of Kona on the west slopes of the island of Hawaii. The Kona Coffee Belt is roughly 1 mile wide by 30 miles long, situated on the western slopes of two volcanoes, Hualalai and Mauna Loa, at an elevation ranging from 500-3,000 feet. Kona Coffee has been grown on these dark volcanic lava rock slopes of Kona since the early 1800s.
Currently there are only about 3,500 acres of Kona coffee in production, which helps us to understand why it can be expensive.
100% pure Kona Coffee is distinguished from all other coffees by its unique island microclimate and extra care taken by coffee farmers. Bright sunny mornings, cloud-covered rainy afternoons, and mild nights create an ideal growing condition for the Kona coffee trees. The trees thrive in fertile volcanic soil and natural shade provided by avocado, mango and macadamia nut trees.
Kona coffee comes from a type of coffee tree unique to the Kona region. Coffee trees produce only one crop a year. The fruit grown on the coffee trees are called cherries and the seeds inside the cherries are what becomes what we commonly refer to as the coffee bean.
I didn’t realize that only coffee grown in the Kona coffee region can be called Kona coffee. Coffee grown anywhere else in Hawaii is Hawaiian Coffee, not Kona coffee.
We spent an afternoon strolling through the town of Hawi (pronounced Hah-vee). Hawi is a small, low-key town with a bit of boho personality in the region of Kohala on the northern tip of Hawaii island. One of its claims to fame is that just north is the home of King Kamehameha I (the town of Kapaau). Today, the town is a destination of eclectic boutiques and restaurants set in colorful and lively plantation buildings. The town is even a stop along the annual IRONMAN™ World Championship’s bike route!
Drive to Hilo
We spent an adventurous day driving to and from Hilo. Our plan was to check out the farmers market in Hilo. There are two ways to get from Kona to Hilo: over the “saddle road” that crosses the island or the “belt road” that encircles the island. Once we arrived, it was fun to quickly explore the farmers market – there are two sections: a crafts and art section and a produce section. It’s not a big market and we didn’t spent that much time there. Downtown Hilo is historic and laid back (well, it is Hawaii!). The day we visited was rainy and didn’t invite a lot of exploration. We lunched at Hilo Bay Cafe with a pleasant view of Hilo Bay.
I’d say the drive over and back were the highlights of the excursion. Going over the saddle road was a little wild! We had high winds and, in some places, rain so heavy that visibility was challenging. We headed back to Kamuela by way of the belt road, which allowed us to experience a variety of landscapes along the route. The Big Island offers lush tropical vistas that quickly become almost desert-like and then, just as quickly, turn to expanses of volcanic lava fields. It was fascinating to move from rain forest to prairie to volcanic in the space of an hour.
Malasada – A Treat!
A malasada, sometimes called “Portuguese fried dough,” is a Portuguese confection. They are very popular in Hawaii – although I can’t tell you the background of why. I can only vouch for the decadence of it.
It’s a fried type of doughnut, made of flattened rounds of yeast dough, flavored with lemon zest and coated with granulated sugar and cinnamon.
We stopped by the roadside mobile “malasada hut” just up the road from where we were staying. It was delicious!
I was surprised to see goats – everywhere – climbing among the lava fields and munching on the grasses that grow there. It turns out that they live on the island – a lot of them. They’re cute but troublesome. They aren’t native to Hawaii, and they have destroyed native plants and continue to create destruction on the island.
“Prior to 1778, there were no goats on any of the Hawaiian Islands. It was upon the arrival of Captain Cook and Captain Vancouver that goats were introduced to the islands.
“It is believed that the first goats were brought on shore in the Kealakekua Bay area of Kona.
“Originally given as gifts to the Hawaiian people, these domesticated animals eventually escaped and rapidly reproduced, creating large populations of wild goats that live in the semi-barren lava fields or mountain slopes on the islands.
“They can now be found on all major Hawaiian Islands.
“Goats can live anywhere from sea level up to the 9,000-foot elevation.
“Preferring the dryer habitats, they can be easily spotted as you drive over the Saddle Road or on upper and lower roads on the west side of the Big Island.”
Read more here.
The State Flag of Hawaii
Interesting fact: The flag of the State of Hawaii is the only US state flag to include a foreign country’s national flag. The inclusion of the Union Jack of the United Kingdom is a mark of the Royal Navy’s historical relations with the Hawaiian Kingdom, particularly with King Kamehameha I.
I’ve been a fan of mai tais since my first visit to the island of Oahu when I was 21. My quest for the best mai tai continues this many years later! Haven’t tested enough yet to make the call.
Quick Packing Note
I’m notoriously terrible at packing light. I vowed that for this six day trip I’d cut down on the number of outfits I’d bring. In the week or so before packing day, I pulled out some of my go-to vacation pieces and hung them on a free standing clothing rack. This makes it easy for me to see what I’m packing and even plan outfits. As I took in the assortment of vacation wear I was struck by something that would make packing a little easier. Can you see it?
There’s a common color in all of the clothes hanging, except three pieces: BLUE! Aside from the realization that I apparently buy a lot of blue for summer and vacation clothes, I realized that by going with the “blue tide,” I’d be able to streamline my packed clothing a little.
The non-blue pieces didn’t make the cut.
I won’t fib and say I packed in a small suitcase, but it did make creating outfits easy since everything coordinated.
Packing Cube Ready!
My preferred packing method is packing cubes. I organized my clothing (below) so I could pack in packing cubes by category. Although I love using packing cubes (it makes unpacking and keeping things organized easy), I’ve found that if I am trying to maximize the space, the rolling method preserves the most space (roll each piece of clothing individually).
A new packing tip courtesy of my sister-in-law: she uses gallon size zip lock bags as a kind of compression packing cube. Genius! I’m going to try it next time. By removing the air from the zip lock bag once your clothes are inside and then sealing the bag after the air is out, your suitcase will definitely have extra room.