Driving across the island
One thing to r’ber about driving across the island is that there are a considerable number of scenic spots and tourist attractions that can ONLY be reached by a 4WD. It probably makes sense to rent one for a couple of days and make the most of it before switching to a regular car, if you do not want to have a 4WD for the entire length of the stay.
We drove from Kona to Hilo and back, along the coast for the most part, making pit stops on the way to take in some of the Hawaii’s most spectacular sights. There is more than one route to do this drive, but we picked the one that we found most adventurous. What follows is a brief description of the drive, the most important stops on the drive and what we saw. We broke our journey at the Volcanoes national park where we found a small little cottage to stay. There are a good amount of cottages and houses around the park entrance that rent out for visitors to the park since many times the early morning view of the volcano is best.
Take Highway 19 from Kona and head south. You can follow the road for the most part since the only turns are to be made when you want to make a stop. Hwy 19 becomes Hwy 11 and continues to the South.
1. South Point
This is the southern most point in the United States, and not the Florida keys as many people are given to understand. The turn off to South point road is located between marker 69 and 70 on Hwy 11. It is a single lane road and goes out to the end of the point which is a mooring place for boats that local fisherman use. About 5-6 miles down if you see a host of windmills to your right and cows grazing around them, you’re in the right direction. Continue less than a mile and you will see the ocean before you.
This was one of the times when we were glad we had a 4WD. The roads are laid out upto a certain point and after that, its volcanic rock and mud that you have to wade through. What starts off as a muddy trail ends on a short cliff over the ocean and going any further would mean going off road. You can clearly see the meeting of the windward and leeward sides of the island at South point. Its almost feels like a line going through the ocean: one side is calm, peaceful and seems like a great day for a swim; the other side is choppy with huge, splashy waves. The water is azure – blue and the orange-red sky makes for a perfect background for a pic! However, do NOT swim here: currents can be swift and dangerous.
2. Punalu’u Black Sand Beach:
Punalu’u Beach Park, in the district of Ka’ū, is a delightful stop, just moments off highway 11 between the towns of Nā’ālehu and Pāhala. The county park is open 24 hours a day and there is no park fee. Get back on hwy 19 and continue south until MM 57 where you make a right and drive past the golf course and condos. The beach will be right ahead.
We were made to understand that a lot of turtles bask on the black sand beach along with the people. We got there when the sun was still out and saw a turtle – A huge one. They have signs prohibiting you from getting too close to turtles in the interest of the turtle’s well being, and it only seems fair. The water is not too cold, and this beach makes for a nice sunset walk.
3. Volcanoes national park:
Ah! The most talked about park on the island. Opportunity to watch a live volcano in eruption is something that not many people would want to miss (given of course that it safe to do so)
This park has a lot to offer and can take anything from 2 hours to 2 days to do a complete tour.
Crater: (Night view is best)
Right behind the Jagger museum inside the Volcanoes national park, you can see the vent within Halema‘uma‘u crater spewing ash and gases in its best form. Sometimes, there is red lava/fire that the vent chooses to throw out, which is what makes for picture perfect sights against a night sky. Its almost incredible that you can be so close to an open vent yet so safe. The park has an overlook right behind its museum bordered by rocks and chains and this point makes for a great view of the vent. The last eruption was in March of 2008 after a gap of nearly 26 years. It is recommended to not get too close to the crater (like walking over and past the viewing area) as such adventures have often proven fatal.
Thurston lava tube:
Lush green plants/trees, lava once flowed through this tube like structure. Part of it is lit up and cleaned for visitors. Another part of it is the tube in its natural state (no lights, no flattened ground) and park welcomes visitors to explore it. Flashlight absolutely necessary.
Chain of craters trail:
A 18 mile road where you can explore the East rift and coastal area. The road is flanked for the most part by lush green forests (initially and then lava rocks and mud, and often has scenic points overlooking the ocean. This road descends 3,700 feet in 20 miles and ends where a lava flow crossed the road in 2003. Sometimes, you can see fumes on the hillside or steam clods on the ocean as you drive down.
To see Lava flowing:
When we were here (Last week of Aug, 2010 – 1st week Sep, 2010), lava could be spotted at Kalapana. To get there, continue on Hwy 11 until the intersection of Hwy 130 & 11. Make a right and go South on 130 at the end of which you will walk on uneven terrain to reach the lava viewing sites. Just walk in the direction of the cloud of smoke and ash and you will see lava, if you’re lucky. Chances of seeing lava or a glowing flume cloud largely depends on forces of nature and is uncontrollable. Make sure you bring water, wear closed toed shoes and if you’re going at night (when the sights are the best!), a flashlight.
4. Mauna Kea Summit
At 13600 ft above sea level, this is technically the largest mountain in the world. Another of those times when a 4WD is an absolute must. You start ascending the mountain off of and follow the road for upto a few miles until you see the visitor center on your right. Most people spend about 45 minutes to an hour here to acclimatize to the elevation and the temperature (It can get cold!) You probably want to get your winter wear if you plan to drive up to the summit – it can get freezing up there! The visitor center has some exhibits, a giant screen, gift shop which has some ridiculously over priced winter wear and rest rooms.
The drive up from the visitor center requires some amount of skill. The first 5 miles are completely unpaved, full of gravel and narrow. Many points on this road do not have a barricade at the edge of the road which can sometimes be scary. Also, when I say skill I don’t mean you have to be a truck driver but that you should be able to meander through mud trails ascending at a rapid rate with every turn. One other issue we had driving up was the sun. We chose to ascend just prior to sunset, and every time the mud trail turned west, the sun would completely blind us out, ensuring that we covered that stretch very, very slowly mostly relying on on the flashes of non blinding moments, which were few, if not none. Come 5 miles and road is now completely paved, and you can see the observatory at the summit. The air gets crisper, thinner and its only moments before you reach the summit, in time for the sunset. The time up on the summit is best spent watching the horizon, and all around – its not often that we get to stay at 13700 ft and watch the sunset.
Drive down: is much, much easier than the drive up, make sure you are on 1st gear and go slow. The visitors center has hot chocolate to warm up as we wait for the star show before the moon rises. On a starry night, you can see a host of constellations, sometimes planets, all through some powerful telescopes set up by the center. They’re all free, and one of the guys there does a fantastic star show where he points out the stars through a lazer light and explains little tid-bits about the stars and the moon and space, you almost forget the freezing cold you’re standing in. Once you’re warm enough, its time to head down and back to where your next destination is.
The big island has the most diverse forms of nature to offer: it has 11 of the 13 climate zones, has active, dormant and extinct volcanoes, dive sites and marine life that is featured as the world’s top ones, beaches that come in different sand colors from powdery white to sun-kissed golden, lava-affected black to mineral-affected green. One of the most breathtaking places to be, the big island is a vacationer’s paradise.