Avoid the crowds and head to the Hilo side of the Big Island

December 22, 2014

Sunset off of the Big Island of Hawaii.

The idea of staying at a giant resort in Hawaii sort of gives me hives.

You can have my slot in the traffic jam of recliners on a crowded beach; you can take my place in line at the tourist-packed luau. I prefer low-key, old-school and laid-back.

That’s what we found on the Hilo side of the Big Island of Hawaii, where my husband and I, along with my two sisters and their husbands, traveled in May for a birthday celebration we dubbed the "Hawaii 5-0" trip.

We came back sunburned. One of my sisters stepped on a sea urchin and still has pieces of its spine embedded in her foot. I strained my back boogie boarding. All in all, we deemed it a rousing success.

We stayed part of the time at a three-bedroom house along a lava cliff off a dirt road in a beachside neighborhood about 45 minutes south of Hilo. We stocked up on groceries, picked up fresh fruits and unfamiliar veggies from local farmers markets (winged beans, anyone?) and cooked in most nights.

During the days, we explored. We snorkeled, visited parks and sampled local food. We rambled over dirt roads on old cruiser bicycles we found stashed in the garage. I went for long, solitary runs. I gazed at dolphins surfacing in the sea. We napped. We sipped wine and ate fish grilled on the back deck.

The bullet points?

Volcanoes created the chain of Hawaiian islands, and they’re still adding land mass. At Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, about 45 minutes from Hilo, you can see an active one.

While you’re there, take time to stroll through a lava tube so big it feels like you’re in the New York subway. Check the seismic equipment, which constantly monitors the park for pending eruptions. Hike across desolate terrain carpeted in fine gravel. Marvel at "lava trees" created when hot lava encases trees in its path, killing them but leaving behind hollow shells. After the sun sets, see what looks like molten red biscuit batter at the center of a glowing crater.

The park covers 380,000 acres, including Mauna Loa, the single biggest mountain in the world if you measure it from its base beneath the sea to its peak. For a good overview, drive along Crater Rim Drive, stopping at the pull-outs so you get an up-close look at this ever-changing place. Then get out and look for a bit of Pele’s hair, which is what the locals call the fragile strands of volcanic glass that cling to plants around volcanoes.

Another day, head for the hippie-dippy town of Pahoa. We strolled its funky streets, buying fish jerky (not so good) on a street corner, poking our heads into a few eclectic shops and dining at the amazing Kaleo’s, which serves Hawaiian-style Asian-influenced dishes.

In June, a lava flow began encroaching on the town, moving at a clip of 440 yards a day but threatening to cross roads and take out homes. According to recent reports, a finger of molten lava is headed toward the Pahoa Marketplace and could reach the shopping center sometime in late December. Some residents will likely have to move.

You’ve got to get in the ocean, too, and the Kapoho Tide Pools will make you feel like you’re swimming in an aquarium. A protective reef curls around a patchwork of pools that range in size from pickup trucks to grocery stores, and they’re teeming with butterflyfish, tangs and parrotfish. Even beginners will feel safe on all but the roughest days. The area is protected — officially, it’s known as Wai’opae Tidepools Marine Life Conservation District, although everyone calls it Kapoho after the adjacent neighborhood.

To learn more about local history, we spent a morning at Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park, situated southeast of Kona along a sheltered bay. The site once served as a residence for royal chiefs. But just across a massive wall lay the Place of Refuge, where defeated warriors and those who violated sacred laws were banished.

Today you can listen to storytellers, learn about old Hawaiian customs and stroll among the remains of the structures. You can also go for a spectacular hike along the adjacent coastline, picking your way along the lava cliffs, dodging huge blasts of water that burst through gaps in the cliffs like huge, belching washing machines. Tread cautiously.

On the other, northwestern side of Kona, we liked Hapuna Beach State Recreation Area, although it’s not exactly a secret beach. We frolicked in the waves alongside several hundred of our closest friends, and even said hi to a tire-sized sea turtle that swam within a few feet.

Other tips? Stop frequently for caffeine. I’m not even a coffee drinker, but I joined in the fun as we paused for taste tests at roadside coffee stands.

Stop for poke (pronounced po-key), too. It’s a local specialty — marinated raw fish, seasoned different ways. We liked Da Poke Shack, which has several outposts around the island. Eat it on the picnic table outside.

Even better, stop for a malasada. These heavenly bits of fried dough are the Portuguese equivalent of a sopaipilla — yeasty, deep-fried and rolled in sugar, then injected with fillings such as Bavarian cream, guava, apple or apricot. When driving from Hilo to Kona, look for Tex Drive In, which is famous for its malasadas — for good reason.

Most of all, go little, not big. Take it slow, not fast. Take off your shoes and wiggle your toes in the sand. Stay curious. Try new things. Explore like a kid.

And don’t stay in a big, touristy compound.

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IF YOU GO

Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park is located 30 miles southwest of Hilo on Highway 11; www.nps.gov/havo. Kapoho Tide Pools are located off Highway 137 south of Pahoa; www.tinyurl.com/kcsavgh. Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park is located about 20 miles south of Kona off Highway 11; www.nps.gov/puho. Hapuna Beach is located on Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway (Highway 19), 2.3 miles south of Kawaihae; www.hawaiistateparks.org. Tex Drive In is located at 45-690 Pakalana Street near Honokaa. Kaleo’s is located at 15-2929 Pahoa Village Road in Pahoa. Kapoho Tide Pools are located off Highway 137 south of Pahoa; www.tinyurl.com/kcsavgh. Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park is located about 20 miles south of Kona off Highway 11; www.nps.gov/puho. Hapuna Beach is located on Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway (Highway 19), 2.3 miles south of Kawaihae; www.hawaiistateparks.org. Tex Drive In is located at 45-690 Pakalana Street near Honokaa. Kaleo’s is located at 15-2929 Pahoa Village Road in Pahoa. Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park is located about 20 miles south of Kona off Highway 11; www.nps.gov/puho. Hapuna Beach is located on Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway (Highway 19), 2.3 miles south of Kawaihae; www.hawaiistateparks.org. Tex Drive In is located at 45-690 Pakalana Street near Honokaa. Kaleo’s is located at 15-2929 Pahoa Village Road in Pahoa. Hapuna Beach is located on Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway (Highway 19), 2.3 miles south of Kawaihae; www.hawaiistateparks.org. Tex Drive In is located at 45-690 Pakalana Street near Honokaa. Kaleo’s is located at 15-2929 Pahoa Village Road in Pahoa.

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Associated Press