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The Big Island of Hawai'i

Feb 01, 2015 01:34PM ● By Jennifer Neys

Story and Photos by Christopher Vardas 

            As the plane touched down on the final leg of the journey to the Big Island of Hawaii, I felt as though I were living a page from a Michener novel. Here I was, after a nearly all-day crossing of the great Pacific, in search of a new culture, strange natural wonders, sunshine, and the opportunity to wear shorts and sandals for an entire week. What I did not expect was how amazing the next ten days would be. My wife and I discovered new foods, a new language, strange plants, beautiful and majestic wildlife, truly wonderful people, and a lot about ourselves.

            We landed at what seemed to be a rural airport’s facilities: no gates, automated walkways, or buildings, per se. The feature of “open-air” would repeat itself later in the trip; restaurants, churches, and even some stores were all open to the elements. What a concept. This was another clue that life here was going to be pretty favorable.      

            We were positioned nicely in a medium-size condo complex just two miles south of Kona. Our residence had a lovely “partial” view of the ocean, a pool, and access to a private beach; we were witness to a string of beautiful sunsets, palm trees and all. We felt a lot like John Steinbeck's Cannery Row character, the Seer, who said, “ I have come to believe the sun won't set without me.” And so it went for ten lovely days and ten lovely sunsets.

            The Big Island of Hawaii is so big you can fit all the other Hawaiian Islands twice within its borders and still have land left over. It possesses nine of the eleven major climate zones of the world, lacking only the arctic and sub-Saharan environments. Mona Kea, the northern most mountain/volcano, is the tallest mountain in the world when measured from sea floor to its peak elevation, totaling over 33,000 ft. The newly renovated Daniel Inouye Memorial Highway, connecting Kona to Hilo, bisects the island, reaching an elevation of 7,000 feet. We drove it from warm sun, through clouds, past snow covered mountain peaks, and then into fog and rain showers in a matter of ninety minutes.

             In the late 1780s, the large rolling hills at the base of Mona Kea became home to what would later become the largest cattle ranch land in the world. Mexican vaqueros were hired to manage the large herds of cattle. Later becoming known as “paniolos” (Hawaiian cowboys), the vaqueros were responsible for what has since become a major cultural presence on the island. Today, the cowboy ranch lands and BBQ/hoe-down experiences have become a major tourist draw. It was on just such an excursion that we met a pet razorback pig, authentic Hawaiian cowboys, and a rescued military dog that served as a bomb sniffer in Iraq.

            Not unlike Hwy 1 north of Marin country, travel on the island is generally slow. There are few four-lane “highways.” A trip from Kona to Hilo, though only some 50 miles, requires at least 1.5 hours; traveling to the volcano region south from Kona will take two and a half to three hours each way. We twice visited the area just 15 miles south from Kona, stopping at Kealakekua to explore the variety of local candy, fabric, antique and dress stores, and coffee plantations that dot the roadside. We met islanders, visitors, and transplants, all of who had great stories to tell. We encountered many transplants who had surrendered their mainland life for a chance to carve out some time here, “doing what one must do to live in paradise.” The younger folks admitted that life was hard in that it often required working multiple jobs to pay the high cost of living. But everyone agreed that living the island life was worth the sacrifice, even if for just a few years.

            We spent many days at the local farmers’ markets (very popular everywhere on Hawai'i) where you could buy fresh produce and just about any kind of tourist trinket imaginable. People watching is a favorite past-time at the markets. Vendors are generally very amiable and willing to share their personal “island” story. Open-air markets can be found in nearly every neighborhood, and attending them is a major tradition here.

            Along the highway toward Cook's inlet, south of Kona, is the Paleaku Gardens Peace Sanctuary (, a garden complex of trees, plants, flowers, plaques, and viewpoints dedicated to the major religions of the world. Travel here to experience unobstructed ocean views, quiet, and calm unlike anywhere else on the island. A short distance away is the “Painted Church,” a local, open-air Catholic church that houses stunning paintings of church-themed images that are translated using island motifs and figures. A few miles further, we came to one of the more sacred sites called the “place of refuge,” Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Historic Park. Part of the National Park system, it is in a lovely location along the water and protects the original structures and lands of the native culture ( Many of the rangers are natives and take great pride in explaining the traditions and history of their culture. The south Kona coast is popular for growing a relatively new crop, coffee. This region of the island has a unique volcanic soil that lends itself well to the cultivation of a much sought-after quality coffee, prized around the world. There are many coffee plantations along the remote roads that offer short tours and good explanations of coffee growing and processing. Do your homework ahead of time though, as some of these tours are expensive and do little more than offer you the opportunity to buy very expensive coffee. 

Next up: Pele's unforgiving beauty

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