HILO, Hawai’i – It took Mark Twain ten days to cruise from San Francisco to the Hawaiian Islands on a newly launched passenger and cargo steamer in 1866. He was immediately charmed upon arrival, writing that “…no other land could so longingly and so beseechingly haunt me.”
Consequently, Twain’s travel dispatches describing “the loveliest fleet of islands that lies anchored in any ocean” published in the Sacramento Union newspaper, and later in book form as Roughing It in the Sandwich Islands, heightened awareness of the islands by Americans and launched the beginnings of what is now the Hawaiian travel industry.
Our first Hawai’i landing is not in the lovely Maui that Mark Twain wrote about, but in pouring rain on the largest of those Hawaiian Islands, the “Big Island” of Hawai’i. Receiving an average 127 inches annually, the port of Hilo on the Big Island is the second wettest spot in Hawaii, the first being in Kauai. The weather report today for Hilo was for a 65% chance of rain, which I facetiously interpreted as a 100% chance of rain that would last 65% of the day.
By the time we docked at 8AM and were on the way to the Hilo airport to pick up a rental car, a lime green Jeep Wrangler, the skies had partly cleared. For the next hour sunshine persisted until we arrived at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park.
Upon arrival we caught an informative talk on the geology of the five volcanoes on the island by Park Ranger Debbie at Kilauea Visitor Center. She described how volcanoes created every island of what are now the Hawaiian Islands, bubbling up magma over 70 million years from a vent in the ocean floor. While three volcanoes on the Big Island are now dormant, Kilauea and Mauna Loa are quite active.
Located over a hot spot as well as a magma reservoir, Mauna Loa, the world’s most massive mountain, comprises 51% of the entire island and is overdue to erupt according to scientific measurements. Most recently Kilauea, the youngest of the island’s five volcanoes, made headlines for an aggressive eruption in 2018. Fortunately, it has now settled down permitting the 505-square-mile Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park to reopen, although viewing the active Kilauea caldera is still not possible.
Following our Visitor Center visit we began the 38-mile round trip drive in a torrent of rain down the winding Chain of Craters Road that descends 3,700 feet to the steep 60-foot cliffs on the island’s current edge.
We hoped to see the famous H’lei Arch, eroded from a cliff, but access to the arch was closed. The rain, however, began to subside as we turned around to retrace our descent. On the way back up the road passing by small craters, the weather slowly improved, at least enough to view a couple of the extinct craters and contemplate the vast expanses of lava fields, and the more recent lava streams that had flowed through them.
Lava has different names in Hawaiian. Taking a piece as a souvenir is considered an act of disrespect. Should a tourist be tempted to do so surreptitiously, they should be aware that Pele, the goddess of volcanoes is always watching.
Driving back to Hilo from the park we had an opportunity to get a relatively clear view of Mauna Kea. At 13,796 feet above sea level, the summit of Mauna Kea is the highest point in the entire Pacific basin. Its forests range from tropical to alpine at higher elevations and it’s the only place on the Hawaiian Islands that has snow in the winter. At the 9,000 feet level, astronomers from 11 countries operate telescopes at the world’s largest astronomical site.
A popular, although expensive, way to see the Big Island’s volcanoes is in a helicopter or small plane. Another option is to explore the volcano with a boat trip, where often dolphins and manta rays may be seen surrounding the boat. Needless to say, both are dependent on the weather to operate and I found that renting a Jeep Wrangler is a more reliable means of transportation for viewing.
Not limited to volcanoes as an attraction, the Big Island is home to numerous tropical gardens that thrive on the island’s fertile volcanic soil. Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden is one of the unique gardens and cultivates over 2,000 species of plants. The 20-acre Nani Mau Gardens is known for its picturesque waterfalls and walking paths, and Panaewa Rainforest Zoo & Gardens showcases animals from rainforests around the world.
Unfortunately, we were unable to see one of the Big Island’s most beautiful areas, one that was once a meeting place of Hawaiian Kings. Centrally located in the heart of the Big Island’s lush rainforest, the Wai’po Valley (Valley of the Kings) matches its incomparable landscape with legendary history, a saga replete with “mighty Polynesian kings, sugar barons, and tales of war and treachery.”
Conveniently near Hilo are two picturesque falls. We were able to reach one, Rainbow Falls, before an afternoon torrent of rain interrupted a trip to the second, 442-foot high Akaka Falls. Rainbow Falls gets its name for rainbows that appear when mist from the water striking the river 80 feet below creates a prism of color in sunlight. While the rain held off during our visit, the lack of sufficient sunlight denied us the rainbow.
Dennis Cox is All Things Cruise Writer and Official Photographer (©Dennis Cox/WorldViews)