The largest of the Hawaiian Islands is the original home of King Kamehameha, the landing spot of the first Portuguese explorers and the island for which the chain is named. You could call it the island that started everything. (Just don’t call it the Big Island.)
Author JACQUELINE DETWILER
DAY ONE | By the time you reach John and Michele Gamble’s breakfast table at the Palms Cliff House Inn (1), a rambling, many-porched cliffside hacienda that appears to have been airlifted straight from Charleston, S.C., you’ve already begun to forget. You’re sure you left your BlackBerry around here somewhere, but it seems that sometime between waking up to the crowing of the resident rooster and sipping a cup of creamy Kona coffee on your private waterfront lanai, you forgot to look for it. Breakfast this morning includes local lilikoi (passion fruit) juice, orange-cranberry muffins and fresh pineapple. Just when you think you’re done, leaning back with a satisfied smile and taking deep breaths of air untouched by humans for more than 2,500 miles, John emerges from the kitchen with guava sweetbread French toast and mango-chicken sausage.
You tear yourself away from the inn’s paradisiacal porch, explaining that — as much as you’d like to stay all day and watch the moody waves explode into sea spray against Hilo’s rocky shore — you’ve got to go see a man about a volcano.
Even though Rob Pacheco of Hawaii Forest & Trail is waiting to drive you to Volcanoes National Park (2), you can’t help but pull off Highway 19 when you see a sign for Pepe‘ekeo Scenic Drive (3). Given the jaw-dropping splendor of the scenery you’ve passed so far, you can’t imagine what sort of panorama might warrant its own sign. The view from the drive, of a protected lava-stone cove with a lush fringe of flowering vines and palms, is worth the extra 10 minutes. When you finally board Pacheco’s SUV, he whisks you off on a whirlwind tour of seething steam vents, glowing embers and sea cliffs made of old lava flows, the entire time recounting legends about the Hawaiian volcano goddess, Pele, for whom all hula dances are performed.
Soon you begin to fear that the rumbling of your stomach might frighten more tourists than the boiling lava lake at the center of Kilauea, so you stop for a late lunch of rabbit stew and venison with brandy and mushrooms at Kilauea Lodge (4), an unlikely German restaurant in an unlikelier village located just a mile from the volcano’s maw. Formerly a YMCA lodge that housed kids in between summer camp volcano tours, it’s now a homey respite in the woods, where saucy, meat-heavy meals fortify park visitors arrayed among thick-topped wooden tables.
After eating, you hop back into the car to race the sun to the top of another volcano, Mauna Kea (5), whose sunsets are the stuff of legend. Upon reaching a modest peak near the visitors center, you peer out at a panorama of rolling hills dotted with wisps of pink and orange clouds that reaches almost the whole way to the coast. You barely feel the cold as the sun hits the horizon and turns the landscape to gold.
Eventually, however, the weather has its way, and you hightail it back to sea level, shaking off the chill with a coconut shell of kava at Bayfront Coffee, Kava & Tea Co. (6). Halfway through your second coconut’s worth, you begin to wonder how this degree of relaxation is legal. A farmer from the interior of the island has scooted his stool closer to yours, and is explaining in detail how his family grows and prepares the kava roots. He and the rest of the murmuring patrons in the tiny café dissolve into a quiet haze, and the next thing you know, you’re back in your king-size bed, listening to the waves crash against the rocks.