I seriously got the impression that, if I walked around the streets of Honolulu at certain times, I could likely end up getting clubbed in the head. What the island of Oahu isn’t, the Big Island is – beautiful, natural, spacious and unequivocally Hawaii. Even the Kona airport is cool; no huge terminal or metal concourse. One steps off the plane directly into the warm tropical sun.
The Big Island is fascinating. Standing in one spot your eyes travel from the rocky coast all the way up to the summit of 13,700 summit of Mauna Kea. The west side is warm dry desert, the east is lush tropical forest – and the south coast is an active volcano. We always encourage first time visitors to make the trip to the southeastern coast to visit the lava flows of the petulantly active Kilauea volcano. During this trip the lava had stopped flowing; but this is usually a temporary situation. On previous visits we have seen the bright red ooze to the surface and walked on recently hardened, but still hot, flows.
This was our fifth visit to the Big Island, we come to escape the wet Oregon winters and to snorkel at one of the most remarkable places on the island, Kahalu'u Beach Park. Our daughter and her husband and kids joined us on this leg of the trip. My primary mission was to teach my 8 year-old granddaughter to snorkel. Kahalu’u is a fairly shallow bay and protected from the surf by a partial breakwater, making it ideal for amateur snorkel enthusiasts. The warm shallow water is home to a large variety of colorful fish and the likely experience of finding yourself within a few feet of a giant sea turtle. Second only to the reefs we have snorkeled in Belize, Kahalu’u bay is practically like swimming in the tank of a tropical fish store. Granddaughter took to the water immediately and soon it was all I could do to keep up with her. If you don’t own your own snorkel gear, equipment can be purchased or rented nearby. Seriously, if you visit the Big Island and don’t snorkel, you will miss half the wildlife adventure of the island.
I find the history of the Hawaiian culture fascinating. Native Hawaiians hold tightly to their cultural history and remnants of their presence everywhere. The early inhabitants built trails, left petroglyphs and rock structures throughout the island. I find it strange, though, that in such a lovely part of the earth, the ancient Hawaiians were quite a brutal lot. King Kamehameha, for example, decided to unite the assorted islands under single rule. So he invited another island king (his brother) to a sumptuous luau – after which he clubbed him to death, then set out to conquer the remaining islands.
The first westerner, Captain Cook visited the Big Island in 1779 and was hailed as a king by the inhabitants. Unfortunately, Cook soon returned wherein he and a few of his crew, after a brief skirmish, were clubbed to death. Today a monument maintained by the British government stands on the shore of Kealakekua Bay (another fantastic snorkeling location as well).
As brutal as the ancient Hawaiians were, they entertained some strange contradictory customs. One interesting spot is the Place of Refuge, now maintained by the National Park Service. The ancient Hawaiians lived under a feudal system of bizarre laws and taboos. For example, it was an offense punishable by death (yep, by clubbing) to step on the shadow of the king. Expect to be clubbed for eating fish during spawning time or for women to commit the offense of eating bananas as well. However, if the perpetrator of said taboo was able to make a successful run, arriving at the Place of Refuge, after a few days, all transgression would be forgiven and the offender could return home unscathed. Even warriors on the losing side of a battle, were they able to reach the Place of Refuge (before being clubbed to death), they were wholly reprieved.
There is far more to say about the Big Island; although several 5-star resorts have popped up in several areas, this island retains much of it’s rural and rustic charm. Some of the best beaches remain isolated, accessible only via rough trails hewn through the lava; marked only by a small grouping of parked cars along the highway.
If you haven’t yet visited our 50th state, I recommend you skip Maui and Honolulu and instead opt for the Big Island. It is the closest, in my opinion, to the truly Hawaiian experience.