ROAD TRIP

The Big Island of Hawaii

Now is the perfect time to experience the Big Island’s impressive volcanoes, adorable sea turtles, black-sand beaches, and amazing helicopter rides.

By Brad Tuttle, Tuesday, Jan 16, 2007, 12:00 AM

Waipio Valley, Hawaii

Waipio Valley, Hawaii

(Pljvv / Dreamstime.com)

Pretty Hapuna Beach

(Susan Seubert)

Day 1: Kona Airport to Keauhou Bay

The warm breeze as we walk across the tarmac is a godsend. Yesterday, we flew from the East Coast to Oakland, Calif., spent the night, and boarded a morning flight to Kona. My wife, Jessica, is pregnant, as we discovered a few weeks ago. Our 2-year-old son William's days as an only child are numbered, and I threw the trip together in a hurry, knowing we won't have a chance to get away like this anytime soon.

The Big Island is Hawaii's most volcanically active, which is obvious from the moment we leave Kona Airport. Bizarre, craggy piles of black lava run from the hills to the water, interrupted only by the slice of road and the occasional palm tree.

Ten minutes south of the tourist hub of Kailua-Kona, past a mishmash of condos, thick greenery, rocky coast, and strip malls, we arrive at theOutrigger Keauhou Beach Resort, an off-white high-rise that kind of resembles an ice-cube tray on its side.

We briefly admire the ocean view from our sixth-floor room, then head right back down, past the pool area, toKahaluu Beach Parknext door. It's a black-sand beach--my first ever, which is thrilling, even if the "sand" is actually gray and feels a lot like gravel. I'd heard the snorkeling was good, and sure enough, dozens of people are floating face-down in the water, occasionally popping up to point out something to their neighbors.

I hold William's hand and approach the shoreline to dip my toes in next to a statue of a sea turtle--only it's not a statue. The turtle opens its eyes a crack and quickly shuts them, like any other sunbather. I manage to pull my son away before he has a chance to hop on the turtle and ride it like a horse. We stroll over to the edge of a concrete barrier wall where we can watch turtles fishing in the shallows. As they angle their jaws deeper, one flipper pops up like they're waving, and Jessica and I can't help comparing them to Crush fromFinding Nemo.

A park vendor rents snorkel gear for $8, and I wrestle the mask over my eyes and the fins over my feet while awkwardly skipping across the beach and into the water. Fluorescent, oddly shaped fish are everywhere. I experience 15 of the most peaceful yet exhilarating minutes I've had in a long time, then swap positions with Jessica, who has been kneeling in the water while William tosses pebbles and splashes around.

William and I sample the resort's kiddie pool, and then we all change clothes and drive back toward Kailua-Kona as the sun inches toward the horizon. From his car seat, Will stares at the water and says, "Beach?" Jessica tells him it's dinnertime, which prompts him to reply with "Pool?" followed by "Pool!" and "Beeeach!" His mood changes when I draw his attention to the enormous cruise ship floating offshore. However, he couldn't care less about the gorgeous sunset behind the ship, which we get a great view of from our picnic table atIsland Lava Java. We share salad, pork tacos, and fries, all of which hit the spot, as the sky turns orange, then black. The homemade blueberry cheesecake ice cream I order is so good that once Will gets a taste, he loses interest in his bowl of chocolate. We trade, and everybody's happy. Stuffed and exhausted, I strap William into his car seat. "Beach?" he mumbles, eyes already at least half closed.

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Day 2: Keauhou to Volcano

Even as Highway 11 drifts inland and up into the mountains, the amazing ocean views keep on coming--because the drop-offs to the water are so dramatic. I'd love to stop and appreciate the scenery from the patio of a roadside coffee shop, but Will is sound asleep in the backseat. Besides, before I have time to consider the repercussions of pulling over and waking him up, giant raindrops are pounding the windshield.

The sky remains gray and spooky as we turn off forHawaii Volcanoes National Park. About one quarter of the way around Crater Rim Drive, the 11-mile loop circling the 400-foot-deep Kilauea Caldera, we stop to check out the Thomas A. Jaggar Museum. There we learn that back when Mark Twain visited, the crater regularly spewed orange lava into the air. Today, the crater is a forbidding black hole, nearly three miles across--pretty impressive, even without the lava show.

Further around the loop, I run up to the edge of the Halemaumau Overlook for another view of the caldera. Yellow-green gases billow from wrinkles way down in the crater, emitting a powerful rotten-egg smell. (By now, we've seen signs saying that pregnant women and small children should avoid exposure to the fumes, so Jessica and Will hang out in the car.)

Still further on, we navigate steep stairs across a fern jungle to walk through the Thurston Lava Tube, a natural tunnel formed by lava hundreds of years ago. Sparsely lit, with rounded rock walls and water dripping from above, the tube looks like a place theScooby-Doocrew would wander into.

The weather is clearing, so we double back and turn onto Chain of Craters Road, which drops from 4,000 feet to sea level in about an hour, zigzagging through three distinct landscapes: vibrant green rain forest, low shrubbery and grasses sprouting from old lava, and bleak sections where everything's covered in newer, molasses-like layers of jet-black lava.

Will is asleep again by the time the road runs into a makeshift ranger station; a few hundred yards later, the road really ends, because in 2003 lava flows covered it. Jessica insists that I go solo for a closer look. I follow a marked path and scramble over hardened, uneven lava, snapping pictures of a NO PARKING sign jutting from below. I'm sure the ground feels hot simply because it's black and the sun is beating down, but I can't get the thought out of my head that red lava is working its way to the surface below me, and I hightail it back to the car.

We try to eat at restaurants when they're least crowded--with a toddler, that works out best for everyone--and we're the first group for dinner at Kiawe Kitchen. William wants a closer peek at the restaurant's brick oven, and it's slow enough that the two cooks smile and chat as they slide our pizza inside. Turns out they're from New Jersey and Long Island, home turf for much of my family, and we play the "Do you know . . . ?" game. The ingredients are fresh, everything is delicious, and we get the check paid right as the place is filling up.

I'm a little concerned about theVolcano Inn, where I booked a room earlier in the day, because the rate is a below-market $69 and the man I spoke to requested cash. I'm even more worried when we struggle to find the place, which is across the highway from the other shops and hotels outside the national park. But upon inspecting our room, the Hapuu Cottage, I realize the inn is just a simple, small operation, and a bargain at that. Huge windows look into dense rain forest, and there's a fridge and plenty of space on the floor for William's inflatable mattress. Rain on the tin roof seems deafening at first, but soon lulls us all to sleep.

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Day 3: Volcano to Hawi

First thing in the morning we go to Hilo, a port town with ramshackle old factories on one block, upscale stores and restaurants on the next. While scrutinizing the many bear paintings at friendly, laid-backBear's Coffee, we dig into waffles and "bear-sized" cinnamon rolls.

There are last-minute openings forBlue Hawaiianhelicopter rides over Volcanoes, but they're pricey and it doesn't make sense for all of us to go. Jessica wins out, seeing as the fumes kept her from seeing much inside the park. We drop her off at the airport and head back to wander under the tarps set up for theHilo Farmers Market. I want to buy some fresh produce, but then wonder what I'd do with a pineapple. Will and I instead split amalasada, a traditional, sugar-covered, hole-less doughnut first brought to the islands decades ago by Portuguese immigrants.

Back at the airport, Jessica is jazzed about the helicopter ride, speaking a mile a minute about oozing streams of lava and waterfalls as she scrolls through pictures on our digital camera. North of Hilo, Highway 19 squiggles along with ocean on one side, mountains and unruly forests on the other. I thought we'd spend the night in Honokaa, but the options are limited. A nice woman at theHotel Honokaa Clubdoesn't think it's a great idea for us to stay with a toddler--the walls are super thin, she admits--and recommends a hotel a couple of hours away, in Hawi (pronounced "ahvee"). I'm again concerned that the hotel, theKohala Village Inn, costs too little ($65) to be up to snuff, but I make a reservation nonetheless.

Honokaa's main street is cute, with a handful of cafés and secondhand stores, but we get back on the road in the hope of putting William to bed by nightfall. As we zip through Waimea and see plenty of places to stay, I regret booking a room in Hawi. But the drive north of Waimea is another marvelous one, with lime-green hills and cactus-like plants around every bend, and 13,796-foot Mauna Kea rising above the clouds to the south.

A shuttered restaurant in front of our inn has handwritten signs that read KEEP OUT! and DANGER! Odder still, the parking lot is lined with mounds of rocks and what appear to be tombstones. In the lobby, a woman named Annie explains with a warm smile that the hotel restaurant is being renovated and recently served as a haunted house for local kids. The plantation-style hotel, with palms and grass in the courtyard and wood floors and ceiling fans in the rooms, is more charming than I thought possible for the price.

That evening, a cloud parks itself in front of the sun, and rays of light dramatically shoot around the cloud in every direction. The scene is improbably beautiful, like one of those posters with an inspirational line of scripture at the bottom.

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Shopping

Day 4: Hawi to Kona Airport

For breakfast, we walk 50 yards from the inn to the main drag of Hawi, an old sugar-industry town that has been rehabbed in recent years but still feels hidden and unspoiled. In another setting, I'd probably find the section of dilapidated, vacant storefronts west of Highway 250 depressing; on this quiet morning in Hawaii it somehow seems quaint.

We sit outside with coffee and muffins at theKohala Coffee Mill, then drive west to road's end and the Pololu Valley Lookout. A horse is posing in a meadow speckled with purple wildflowers, with the dramatic lookout--sheer, hunter-green cliffs, with waves crashing between a few rocky islands--in the distance. The trail leading to the water is too steep for my sandals, let alone my 2-year-old, so we settle for hanging out and watching the surfers.

With a view of Haleakala, Maui's volcano, to our right, we round the Big Island's lush, green northern tip. We have a few hours before our flight and stop atHapuna Beach State Recreation Area. They don't have state parks like this where I come from: The beach is wide and the water's a translucent blue, but what stands out most is the sand--as soft as flour, it massages my soles as I chase William toward the mellow surf. Later, Will shamelessly stares at a pail and shovel until Lilli, a 2-year-old Hawaiian girl in a pink bikini, shares.

No one wants to leave, but with our departure time approaching I drag Will from his new friend and strip him naked as we all rinse off in the outdoor shower. The road to the airport slices through black fields where, tradition has it, people use white coral to spell out messages: everything from BILLY LOVES JENNIFER to the symbol for the band Weezer. I consider leaving a message but don't have any coral. Besides, Will is yet again sound asleep in the back seat.

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Finding your way

Most Big Island visitors stay in Kailua-Kona town or at nearby resorts, and make a day trip to Volcanoes National Park. The drive takes about two hours each way, so consider spending the night at the park instead. Other than the Saddle Road (Rte. 200), a dangerous cross-island stretch that's off-limits to most rental cars, roads are easy to navigate but slow going because of hills, traffic, or both. Factor in extra time, and use it to savor the views.