A crater love

Sunday Times
Published: 26th October 2003

If you fear Hawaii will trap you in a picture-postcard of palm trees, think again. You can certainly have palm trees, perfect beaches, dramatic surfing, sensual hula dancing, even more sensual massages, delicate Asian food, beautiful waterfalls and continuous divine weather; but the real reason to come all this way is, in some curious way, to make you touch base.

Kilauea, the volcano that dominates Hawaii’s magical Big Island, has been erupting continuously since 1983, throwing out its molten lava to obliterate absolutely everything in its path. Your first sight on flying into the airport is a great black hand of lava, stretching out across the hillside. Kilauea is referred to as “She” by those who live in her shadow, and many combine worship of the volcano goddess Madame Pele with Christianity.

Personally, I’d settle for propitiating Madame Pele. Everywhere, there is evidence of her temperamental power — much of the island is covered with the jagged lava called a’a and the smoother, bolder pahoehoe, which glitters like black silk in the sun. “It’s such scary, pretty stuff to look at,” my taxi driver told me, “you never forget it. Anyone who wants to understand the planet has to come here, to see the youngest place on earth. Why, the Big Island’s not even done being born.”

The Big Island is the largest of Hawaii’s islands (there are eight main ones, including Oahu, Kauai, Maui, Molokai and Lanai) — and the most dramatic. It lies above a hot spot that is continually making volcanoes, so that as you stand beside hissing steam vents and huge craters, you feel you are seeing the newest place on the planet. It’s unnerving to walk on a lava flow just a few weeks old, and see the shapes of lizards, crocodiles, goblins and gargoyles writhing across the road.

Madame Pele has a fiery temper, and from day to day she’s unpredictable. The guides who take visitors to the craters and lava tubes of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, on foot or by helicopter, never know what they are going to see — from waterfalls of fire pouring into the sea to vents gushing sulphurous steam. “Some days there is nothing, then the next day it’s going crazy,” my guide explained.

It is said not to be dangerous because the lava flows slowly, and there was no active flow on the day I visited, but it all looked moody enough to me. No wonder the area has spiritual significance for the Hawaiians, whose respect for the natural world and its dangers extends not just to volcanoes, but to the mighty Pacific. They have a saying, never turn your back on the ocean; and it is bad luck to take even a single piece of rock from the slopes of Kilauea.

It would have been worth flying all that way — 11 hours to Los Angeles and five from there to the islands — just for that one day at the beginning of the world.

The rest of Hawaii could fit twice onto the Big Island. It is rural and sparsely populated, with only 150,000 inhabitants and fewer tourists than the other, more obviously glamorous islands.

It possesses no fewer than 11 of the world’s 13 climates, with waterfalls and lush vegetation on the rainy windward side, and dramatic lava fields on the other. And yet, while the Hawaiian flag contains the Union Jack, and the Hawaiian royal family was chummy with our own, relatively few British people make it here. Perhaps they are put off by its innocent 1950s image.

When I heard that Paul Theroux lived in Hawaii, I knew that image must be way off course, and I was curious to come. How right I was. Make sure you read his funny, sexy, uneasy Hotel Honolulu, a good introduction to the strangeness of these islands.

Much of the magic is about an attitude. As one of the islanders told me, in that liltingly peaceful Hawaiian voice: “The lifestyle here moves at 25mph, but our attitude is, we don’t care. I got my shack on the mountain, a rainforest, a clean ocean; I’ve even got an active volcano in my back yard. There’s a little more traffic here than there used to be, but not like the world.”

Indeed, 2,500 miles away from the nearest landmass, these islands seem not to be attached to the world at all, but a place from which to view it more clearly.

We returned from our all-day volcano visit so energised that we went dancing at the On the Rocks club in Kona, to a girl group called Hot Lava 808. Then it was on to Lulu’s club, across the street, which is the place to go on Fridays and Saturdays. The restaurant there, Huggo’s, is one of the finest on the islands. Don’t for one moment think the Big Island is nothing but geo- logical wonders and astronomy anoraks.

The next day we drove to the heights of the dormant Mauna Kea volcano. If anything can clear the head, it is standing nearly 14,000 feet above sea level and watching a breathtaking sunset, followed by darkness dropping like a black veil. There is virtually no light pollution, and it is said to be the best place on earth for viewing the night sky. There are 13 observatories here above the clouds, and the silver-domed observatories look like parts of an eerie space station.

In the dark, it grew even colder, and we were grateful for the parkas we’d been given. Our guide set up his telescope, and we drank hot chocolate and gazed at a night sky so perfect, it made the London Planetarium look blurred. Our guide talked of looking into the ocean of time, of the birth and death of stars and planets, and pointed out the arrow of Sagittarius using his flashlight like a laser pen at a slide show — and for once I could see it. “There ‘s Aquarius,” he continued, and there he was.

Next day, we drove through barren lava fields to join a snorkelling cruise to Kea-lakekua Bay, where the solemn white obelisk is a monument to the death of Captain Cook on a small patch of British territory.

Cook was the first Westerner to discover the islands, in 1778, when he was greeted as a god. But when he returned a year later, his ship battered, the islanders decided that maybe he wasn’t a god after all, and attacked and killed him here in this beautiful bay.

On the way back from swimming by the monument, we were joined by some dolphins jumping and splashing through the water. The island also has green sea turtles who don’t appear to mind if you take a dip with them, and powdered-sugar beaches such as Hapuna Beach and Magic Sands. Our hotel, the Waikoloa Beach Marriott, was beautiful, with airy public areas opening onto endless ocean, ancient fish lagoons and, of course, a perfect beach.

It is a long way to Hawaii, and certainly worth visiting more than one island. Any time is good, but the best months are January, February and September, when the light is especially lovely.

On the main island, Oahu, Honolulu and the resort area of Waikiki are wedged between two volcanoes, the dormant Diamond Head and the probably dormant Punchbowl, which rise up like dangerous guards above the city as if to remind us to enjoy ourselves while we can. Nearby Pearl Harbor apart, Waikiki is all about surfing, designer shopping, stretch limos, and young Japanese couples getting married at every turn.

Yet after a few days, even here it gets to you — the lilting music, the lisping ocean, the bright Hawaiian shirts. You forget those old Elvis beach movies, you stop expecting Bob Hope to emerge from behind a palm tree, and you begin to be entranced by this beautiful place where the sky blends into the ocean and the ocean into the sand, and the people ride the waves. The ocean is warm, the surfing easy (after one lesson, I was up on my board, being carried towards the beach) and the pineapple sweeter than any you’ve ever tasted.

I slouched in to have a “lomi lomi massage” at the Royal Hawaiian hotel, and was virtually swept up into the capacious smile of an enormous Hawaiian lady, who said a prayer before reverently and deliciously setting about my body. We are all family, she said, and that is why she always treats everyone’s body with respect.

Her honey voice was as undulating as the soft hula dances that the Hawaiian women perform; hula dancers are some of the most respected women on the islands. A fellow guest had a male masseur, and later persuaded herself that the man loved her. Maybe he did. It is a romantic place.

In Waikiki, I stayed at the 100-year-old Sheraton Moana Surfrider, the first luxury resort in the area, and had tea while lolling on a shaded veranda beside a banyan tree and watching the surfers. The waiter soothingly said “Take your time” when he brought each exquisite item of food, and again there was that feeling of peace.

From the lush island of Maui, I took a catamaran trip to the small island of Lanai, to visit the hotel where Bill Gates got married (the lavishly chic Manele Bay Hotel) and to snorkel over the coral reef in the bay. But the best moment of my Maui visit, apart from food so spectacular that it converted me to sushi, was standing at the top of the 10,000ft dormant volcano Haleakala, huddled against the cold, and watching a heart-stopping dawn break over the crater. The clouds nervously blushed for nearly an hour before all of a sudden the sun exploded, a molten ball, giving us a fierce sense of the turning world.

Apocalyptic sunsets and dawns, the birth and death of stars... it was all a far cry from Hawaiian shirts and cocktails with parasols sticking out of them. But they had their place, too, and by the end of the fortnight I was sold on hula dancing and had been entranced by the luau — the traditional Hawaiian feast — showcased on the beach at sunset.

Everyone we met was extraordinarily kind, as if the famous spirit of aloha, meaning love and friendliness, was something real. We became used to being greeted with kisses and wide smiles, and islanders going out of their way to explain things to us; we even got used to the wonderful custom of greeting visitors with a garland of sweet-smelling flowers, a lei.

When a cab picked me up at Heathrow on my return home, I found myself dis- appointed that the driver didn’t throw a garland of frangipani and orchids around my neck, and wish me aloha. It seemed dark in London, and I remembered what someone had told me — that Hawaii gets to you, that it’s something about the quality of the light, and the touch of the air on your skin. 

Need to Know

Sally Emerson travelled as a guest of Jetsave and American Airlines.

Getting there: all journeys from the UK and Ireland to Hawaii involve a plane change. Trailfinders (020 7937 5400, www.trailfinders.co.uk has flights from Heathrow with American Airlines via LA for £498, and with Air Canada via Vancouver for £485. Connecting flights from Manchester, Newcastle or Glasgow start at £61 extra. Or try Opodo (0870 241 7051, www.opodo.co.uk , Travelbag (0870 890 1450, www.travelbag.co.uk , Flight Centre (0870 566 6677, www.flightcentre.co.uk or Virgin Travelstore (0870 066 4477, www.virgintravelstore.com. In Ireland, Trailfinders (01 677 7888) has flights from Dublin to Hawaii and Oahu with American Airlines via London and LA; from 850 between November 1 and December 18.

Where to stay: on Big Island, the Waik-oloa Beach Marriott (00 1 808-886 6789, www.marriotthawaii.com/waikoloa.html; doubles from £133) or the Hilton Waikoloa Village (886 1234, www.hiltonwaikoloavillage.com ; doubles from £113). In Honolulu, try the Sheraton Moana Surfrider (922 3111, www.moana-surfrider.com; doubles from £193) or the Royal Hawaiian Hotel (923 7311, www.royal-hawaiian.com; doubles from £227). On Maui, try the Royal Lahaina Resort (661 3611, www.hawaiianhotels.com; doubles from £81).

Tour operators: Jetsave (0870 060 1220, www.jetsavetailormade.co.uk offers 10 nights in Hawaii for £1,999pp, room-only, in November, flying with United Airlines. This includes four nights at the Sheraton Moana Surfrider, three at the Royal Lahaina Resort and three at the Waik- oloa Beach Marriott. Or try Trailfinders (020 7937 5400, www.trailfinders.co.uk, United Vacations (0845 844 4777, www.unitedvacations.com, Kuoni (01306 742888, www.kuoni.co.uk or Page & Moy (0870 010 6212, www.page-moy.co.uk. In Ireland, contact the newly opened Austravel office on 01 642 7000.

Best guidebook: Hawaii: The Big Island, Oahu and Maui (Lonely Planet £9.99). www.visit.hawaii.org