Ruaridh Pringle, 2004
In the darkness, thirty divers with torches kneel around powerful spotlights, as though awaiting a sign from some neoprene-clad god. This bizarre submarine ritual is Kona’s famous manta ray dive, where huge rays swoop from the gloom to scoop up plankton attracted by the lights. Alas, tonight the rays have other plans, but there’s an unexpected compensation.
Oblivious to the rubber monster pursuing it with a torch, the big moray negotiates the coral maze like a predatory missile. This is nothing like the placid eels I’ve seen in daylight. It pounces with shocking ferocity, swallowing a surgeonfish larger than its head. The seabed’s alive with eels going about their macabre business.
For the variety of spectacular experiences offered by its environment, the island chain of Hawai’i is unmatched. Here, geography and geology conspire to cram clear seas, relentless winds, huge surf, Earth’s most hyperactive volcanism and nearly all of its climates into just a few thousand square kilometres.
But let’s rewind a few days. Like most visitors I’ve flown to Oahu, the third largest island, home to three quarters of Hawai’i’s 1.2 million people. A night amidst the tacky neon of high-rise Waikiki is enough to send me flying onwards to the archipelago’s youngest island, 150km south-east.
When warlike king Kamehameha the Great united the islands in 1810, he stamped the name of his home island on the whole archipelago. The original Hawai’i, which could swallow all the other islands twice, is now called simply ‘the Big Island’. Kona International Airport occupies lava flows from Hualalai: one of five volcanoes which form this lonely scrap of land. Assimilated by the USA in 1898, Hawai’i will frustrate car-less visitors. I hire a Chevrolet, pausing on the drive south in Kailua-Kona: a balmy sprawl of hotels and shopping malls. At the dive boat-crowded harbour, King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel looms over the reconstructed palm-thatch huts of Ahuena Heiau; historically a temple of human sacrifice.
Returning to Kailua-Kona from my B&B in the village of Captain Cook, I’m gridlocked: evening rush hour on an island with one main road. I board a 4WD van for Hawai'i Forest and Trail’s ‘Summit and Stars Adventure’. On roadside lava, graffiti is written in white coral: ‘John and Amy happy’, ‘sweet Kylie,’ and ‘Aloha’, the Hawai’ian word encompassing love, welcome and goodbye.
The road climbs through thin grassland sprouting volcanic cinder cones. Human contact has done Hawai’i few favours. ‘Forest blanketed this island to 3000m,’ explains driver Lisa, who left Montana to study Natural Science at the University of Hilo in 1993. ‘It’s vanished largely through grazing and trampling by livestock.’ Eminent Scottish botanist David Douglas died on the Big Island in 1834. ‘When Douglas visited this area, he described the forest as “impenetrable but for the cow tracks.” Introduced predators and diseases have devastated our native fauna.’ All Hawai’i’s flightless bird species are extinct.
We climb through clouds to the sunny high saddle between the island’s two dominant volcanoes. Skiing’s sporadically possible on 4205m Mauna Kea, highest peak in the Pacific Ocean. Forming most of the Big Island, marginally lower Mauna Loa extends another 5½km beneath the sea, making it the world’s largest mountain.
A road snakes to Mauna Kea’s summit where the world’s greatest collection of astronomical telescopes take advantage of dark, clear nights. Southwards, Mauna Loa recedes into sunset clouds. As darkness falls we flee freezing winds for a lower car park where Lisa shows us nebulas, galaxies and colourful binary stars through a smaller telescope before moonrise sends us to warmer altitudes and our beds.
Next morning I descend a hot trail to Kealakekua Bay, where Captain Cook died in a scuffle with islanders in 1779. There’s a tidal commemorative plaque, and a memorial below the cliffs of Pai-kapu-o-Keoua, whose caves entomb Hawaiian Royalty. Snorkelling, I find dazzling fish patrolling a reef above warm blue depths.
Driving round the southern coast next day I visit Pu’uhonua o Honaunau: a place of absolution for transgressors of the draconian ‘kapu’ (taboo) system which once governed Hawai’ian life. Amongst the palms, thatch buildings and a temple are guarded by fierce ‘ki’i’: figures of carved wood. 70km eastwards at one-time sugar port Punalu’u, green turtles bask in tidal pools. Protection has made them remarkably tame.
Perversely for the world’s most active volcano, Kilauea, 45km north east, supports lush forest and a winery. Following lunch in nearby Volcano village, I take the ‘Crater Rim Drive’ through a landscape which belched lava as recently as 1982. More recent eruptions, through Pu’u O’o, a vent 15km eastwards, have extended the coastline by 600 acres, engulfing forests and villages.
In the island’s east, the coast road south of Pahoa ends beneath the lava. Here, spectators park for the nightly spectacle of lava meeting the ocean. Following a marked trail, I find a hushed audience at the viewing area. This coastline is explosively unstable, and viewing is supervised. As dusk advances the lava hisses into the sea in increasingly spectacular crimson clouds of sulphuric acid.
The island’s quiet capital Hilo boasts the world’s largest raindrops, which burst on my windscreen like fruit. In the morning I join Hilo-based Arnott’s Adventures, hiking across Pu’u O’o’s outpourings seeking flowing lava. Tramping east from the abrupt end of the eerie Chain of Craters Road, the lava becomes increasingly shiny and brittle. The sky is sullen; the landscape surreal. I could be on a set for an Alien film. ‘I never tire of these hikes,’ says guide Ian Smith, from Carolina. The air grows sulphurous. After seven kilometres, telltale heat shimmers lead us to our first active flow.
The lava oozes forward in rustling fingers, clinking like breaking china. I can tolerate the heat just long enough to stir it with my walking pole. Under a fibrous crust it’s like mousse. Feet broiling, we climb uphill over lava whose crevices glow orange. I ask Ian if we’d survive here without the wind. ‘Oh no! We’d be barbecued.’
We find a lava river a quarter kilometre long. By the time we’ve crossed the tunnel it’s gushing from, it’s swamped our approach route and cooled sufficiently to form angular blocks called aa aa. Ian’s grinning as we trudge reluctantly back. ‘That’s the best I’ve seen it.’
Next day in Kailua-Kona I chat to Amanda Steenman, Dutch co-owner of Eco Adventures, about diving off the Kona Coast. ‘It’s why I came here,’ she explains. ‘Some visitors are disappointed we lack spectacular corals, but we’ve lots of fish - thirty two percent endemic… Whale sharks, schooling hammerheads, lots of moray eels…’
My first dive site’s called ‘Golden Arches’ after its lava formations and swarms of yellow tang (an endemic fish once threatened by the aquarium trade) which are visible from aircraft. The visibility’s extraordinary: 25m down, the surface seems touchable. There are iridescent boxfish, bizarre shoe-like slipper lobsters, and innumerable other creatures beautiful and weird. Mike Farmer proves an outstanding guide, exploring every crevice for animals to indicate with his torch and pointer. Minutes into our final dive I’m watching scrums of blueline surgeonfish and yellow tang ‘grooming’ a turtle, its head raised like a petted cat’s. A playful octopus entrances me for fifteen minutes; textures and patterns racing over its skin.
Neighbouring Maui is perhaps the most evocative of the Hawai’ian islands, and was second after Oahu to develop tourism. There’s no ferry, so I fly to Kahului, in the island’s central conurbation. Public transport here is an alien concept. I hire a ruinous old Honda and clatter off to rent windsurfing equipment.
Though famous for surfing, reefs and gigantic waves make Maui an island for experts. Less known is its globally pre-eminent windsurfing. My ambition for the week is learning to water-start, where a fallen windsurfer ‘flies’ the sail from the water, rather than climbing on the board to haul it exhaustingly up by hand.
‘Try Kanaha Beach Park,’ windsurfer Dennis O’ Donnell tells me, at Hawaiian Island Surf and Sport. ‘It’s safe, and shallow way out to the reef.’ I ask if Maui’s a good learning ground. ‘The best. We’ve the steadiest strong winds, and it’s so warm you don’t need a wetsuit.’
Kanaha has a pleasant beach and tree-screened lawns for assembling sails. Unfortunately, the legendary winds don’t materialise. After two hours floundering, I treat myself to a drive up Haleakala, Maui’s 3055m dormant volcano, for sunset views over the West Maui Mountains. Having tasted delicious tropical fruit wines at Tedeschi Winery next morning I’m back in the water. Exasperated by slow progress, I borrow an instructional windsurfing video for the evening. Sunrise finds me on the little dive boat Makena Kai, bound for Molokini: the tip of a submerged cinder cone.
Makena Coast Charters is an enjoyably personal outfit run by Steve and Eve Hogan, who met while Eve was holidaying here ten years ago. Again, the clarity’s supernatural. My young guide ‘CJ’ MacKay came here from California in 1986. He’s dived ever since. Behind the cinder cone is a bottomless wall of lava and coral. From the gloom a lone grey reef shark eyes us and swims away.
Our next dive is aptly named ‘Turtle Town’. Green turtles lurk behind every rock. I find a young reef shark sharing a cave with a trumpetfish: a creature like a predatory wind instrument. In another cave nearby I watch an expensively-clad snorkeller seize the tail of the resident shark. After dragging him violently around, the bolting shark leaves the disorientated snorkeller to brain himself on a passing turtle.
The afternoons remain unseasonably calm but, aided by ever vaster sails, my windsurfing skills start to develop. Finally I’m zipping exhilaratingly between the beach and reef edge, where experts are playing in monstrous surf. Tomorrow I fly home. This concept is hard to grasp.
I jink round a surfacing turtle, and whoop as my board launches off an unexpected wave.
Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau (HVCB), Tel. 001 808 923 1811, www.gohawaii.com
When to go
High season is December-March, when accommodation is priciest. It’s also the rainiest season, with the least reliable winds.
Return flights £387+ (ex £75 tax) London-Honolulu. £50 for connections from Glasgow/Edinburgh with British Midland. Best deals Jan-March, through travel agents (e.g. STA Travel, www.statravel.co.uk). Numerous carriers, e.g. American Airlines, Air France.
Hawaiian Airlines (800 882 8811) and Aloha Airlines (808 935 5771) serve the major islands: fares £31+ (single) using coupons available at sales desks in major towns. International car hire agencies (Hertz, Budget etc.) at inter-island airports. On Maui, Good Kar-Ma (808 871 2911) rent wrecks £75+/week incl. insurance.
Places to stay
Budget accommodation is limited. Big Island: Pineapple Park B&Bs in Captain Cook and Keaau (808 323 2224/968 8170, www.pineapple-park.com). On Maui, Northshore Inn (808 242 8999) and Banana Bungalow (808 244 5090) offer rooms from £17. Banana Bungalow provide free island tours for guests. Elsewhere expect £42 upwards (bookings through HVCB).
Things to do
Hawaii Forest and Trail offer single-day tours and treks around the Big Island (£47-£86, Tel. 808 331 8505, www.hawaii-forest.com). Eco Adventures (808 329 7116, www.eco-adventure.com) provide diving trips, sea kayaking, and land-based adventures. Arnott’s Adventures (808 969 7097, www.arnottslodge.com/activity.html) provide lava hikes (good value at £24) and hostel accommodation.
On Maui, Makena Coast Charters (808 874 1273, www.mauiunderwater.com) offer scheduled/chartered diving for up to six. Expect £67 for 2 dives in Hawai’i, including equipment. Hawaiian Island Surf and Sport (808 871 4981, www.hawaiianisland.com) rent watersports equipment, and arrange lessons.
Hawai’i is costlier than the U.S. mainland. Tipping is expected. Taxes of 4-13% apply to quoted prices. Currently, 1 pound = US$1.8.