Sitting in the co-pilot seat of a helicopter that’s circling above Kilauea, an active volcano on the island of Hawaii, I’m in sheer awe of Mother Nature. There’s nothing like watching molten rock stream into the wild waves of the Pacific Ocean to remind you of how powerful the Earth is, and the island of Hawaii offers a remarkable glimpse of the awesomeness of our planet. As the smell of volcano smoke wafts in the air, our pilot Koji, of Paradise Helicopters, points out that the island is literally growing beneath us as lava hardens beyond the most recent coastline.
Over the three hours that we spend crisscrossing the island, we pass 10 different climate zones. Acres upon acres of black and red lava rock give way to the lush greenery of former sugar plantations that have since become cattle farms such as the Parker Ranch, one of the United States' oldest and largest. These fields drop into steep valleys – 600 metres deep, with rain waterfalls cascading through them. Then, like night and day, the landscape becomes bone dry as we head back toward the island’s east side.
The chain of islands making up the Aloha State was formed by volcanic activity beginning about five million years ago. The island of Hawaii is the youngest of the bunch and still going through growing pains. In recent months, visitors have been scared away by news reports of the erupting Kilauea Volcano.
But when I land on the Big Island in early August, I find that it’s business as usual, even with another natural disaster, Hurricane Hector, on its way. The arrivals area of the Kona International Airport is buzzing with tourists who are happy to be away and locals even happier to be home, including one escorting a white tropical bird on her shoulder. Kilauea Volcano isn’t exactly close to Kona or the hotels on the Kona-Kohala coast; to drive between the two is about 160 kilometres. Lava is not a concern here, and neither is air quality. More than once, residents of the island point out to me that their air is consistently cleaner than that of Los Angeles even with the vog, their portmanteau for the words volcanic and fog.
Volcanoes are part of daily life here and fall under the domain of the mighty Pele, goddess of fire and creator of the islands. Her spirit is everywhere – in the colourful murals at the airport, in the lava rocks that coat the landscape and in the hearts of the locals.
At the Ka'upulehu Cultural Center at the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai, manager Earl Kamakaonaona Regidor explains Pele’s continuing reign and patiently answers all of my burning questions about Hawaii, beginning with the basics: the meaning of the word aloha. “It can be hello; it also means goodbye and, using it in different phrases, it can also mean 'I love you,'” he says. Regidor is a kupuna, or elder, and radiates kindness and wisdom. “It’s a word that comes truly from your na'au. Na'au is deep inside of you – your qi, your chi, your gut, whatever you want to call it. It doesn’t just come from your mouth. When everything comes from here, it’s genuine.”
It’s clear that the island itself has its own very powerful na'au, evident in the lava rock that covers much of the ground and the activity at Kilauea, which is a different natural beauty from the other Hawaiian islands. Most of the time, however, that beauty shines bright in the form of lush greenery, white sands and sparkling waters. While the days of discovering secret beaches on the island may be long gone, there are nonetheless plenty of natural discoveries to be made, including some after-dark surprises. Sea Quest Hawaii has been offering rafting and snorkelling tours since 1988, including their Night Manta Experience. After a quick sunset boat ride to Makako Bay, you’ll find yourself floating above manta rays as they dance below the surface in search of tasty plankton for dinner. These gentle giants, like the famous resident known as Big Bertha, can weigh as much as 900 kilograms.
For stargazing of a more traditional sort, Hawaii Forest & Trail’s Exclusive Mauna Kea Sunrise Experience begins with a long look up at the night sky before ascending the 4,200-metre summit of the dormant volcano. Just as the sun begins to peek above the horizon, a guest on our tour gets down on one knee to propose to his girlfriend. She says yes and, in an aloha-like gesture, the sky turns from blue to pink.
The writer was a guest of the Hawaii Tourism Authority. It did not review or approve this article.