Lava meets the sea on Hawaii
Published March/April 2011

Big Drama on Hawaii’s Big Island

Explore the diversity of America’s 50th state

BYStephen M. Wheeler
Temperamental Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess, simmers in the Kilauea Caldron near the south shore of the Big Island of Hawaii, the namesake of the state. Since 1983, molten lava has continuously trickled down the slopes of Kilauea in a thirst-quenching quest for water, reaching the ocean and birthing new land in a billow of steam. The lava still smolders and glows underwater as it adheres itself to the island base, a process that has grown Hawaii by more than 500 acres. A lava flow is both an act of destruction and creation.
As a “young” island, the terrain of Hawaii is constantly changing. Fourteen of the 16 major climate zones are found here, from the desert plains of Ka’u to the rainforests above Hilo, to sometimes snowcapped Mauna Kea. You could circumnavigate the globe and not see as much ecological diversity; or, like us, you could simply rent a car and experience it all on the Big Island.

Twin volcanic peaks, each nearly 14,000 feet high, are the keys to the numerous climate zones. Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa together form a massive wall, disrupting the trade winds that race across the Pacific and forcing moist air up where it cools, condenses and falls over the east side of the island. In fact, some parts of the island receive more than 300 inches of rain per year, while other areas receive virtually none. Driving north from the Kailua-Kona region, lava rock blankets the ground from up high in the east down to the shoreline west of the road. But in just a short distance, the lava rock begins to gray, and shrubs and grasses begin to grow. Short drives give way to secluded coves of turquoise blue water and crystal white sand beaches (though more famous beaches feature coarse black and green sand!).
While many of these coves and bays are now preserved as parks, others have given rise to exceptional resorts. Though situated on the west or dry side of the island, the Mauna Kea Resort offers lush foliage and visitors should take the opportunity to walk along the seaside golf course.
In Kohala, the northern part of the island, dramatic cliffs overlook the ocean below. Kohala is also famous as the boyhood home of King Kamehameha I, the unifier of the Hawaiian Islands. On the front lawn of Hawi’s town hall stands the original commemorative statue of the king, forged in France, lost at sea, and eventually recovered by salvage divers.
Well above sea level, the terrain in Kohala is forested and ripe. Rainfall over Mauna Kea and the Kohala Mountains forms countless streams and waterfalls intent on cascading to the sea. Large tracts of land have been privately preserved here, and tour companies reveal a more intimate side of the island. After a short ride up sloping terrain in World War II-era Pinzer jeeps, a not-too-strenuous hike rewards us with multiple waterfall discoveries and a refreshing dip at the base of one fall.
Driving east past the Kohala Mountains and around Mauna Kea, we are tempted (but opt not) to ascend Mauna Kea. At nearly 14,000 feet, Mauna Kea is arguably the best place on earth to view things not on earth. Nested at her summit are 13 mammoth telescopes and observatories — but they are reserved for scientists. At the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy (9,300 feet up Mauna Kea) visitors can star-gaze through portable telescopes, including a daytime solar telescope with protective filters. Far below, in the seaside town of Hilo, the Imolia Science Center connects the science of astronomy to Hawaiian cultural traditions — how the ancient Polynesians navigated the great Pacific and discovered and settled hundreds of islands, including the Hawaiian chain.

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