01 June 2009

Places You've Never Heard Of: Mauna Kea

By Delia DeLeest

When people go to Hawaii, they think of the island of Oahu: Waikiki, Magnum's Ferrari, and the skyscrapers of Honolulu. But I know and love a different Hawaii.

Confusion sets in immediately when I tell people where I live and I say Hawaii. Their response is, what island? To which I repeat, Hawaii. The island of Hawaii is the southernmost island in the Hawaiian archipelago, it's commonly just called The Big Island. This is not an exaggeration, the Big Island is about as big as the entire state of Connecticut and contains just about any kind of climate you would like.

The island contains the tallest mountain in the world. While Mt. Everest is the highest in the world above sea level, if you measure from its underwater base, Mauna Kea tops it by a good 4000 feet. You can see its snow covered peak while lounging on the beautiful sandy beaches a mere 30 miles away. Along the way to the mountain, you can travel through vast wastelands of lava, rain forests, woods, beaches and, in the cattle town of Waimea, you'd swear you were in the middle of North Dakota. Waimea is the home of one of the United States' biggest privately-owned cattle ranches and the town is crawling with paniolos--Hawaiian cowboys.

Mauna Kea isn't the only mountain on the island. I live on the slopes of Mt. Hualalai, smack dab in the middle of coffee country. The island district of Kona is famous for its gourmet coffee, the lava enriched soil making its beans some of the most sought after in the world and Hawaii's most profitable export.

The east side of the island is the beautiful tropical paradise you see in the movies. The landscape is covered by flower-covered foliage, rocky cliffs, breathtaking waterfalls and scenery that just doesn't quit. Of course, this is negated by the huge amounts of rainfall that side of the island receives. But, go to the windward side on a sunny day and you'll see a vista you won't soon forget.

Between the warm heat of the west side and the tropical dampness of the east, lies Waipio Valley. The series of gullies nestled in between the islands mountains can only be reached via a deep, four-wheel drive access road that takes you to a pristine wilderness inhabited by wild horses and the occasional nomadic hippy along with a few hardy souls willing to live a basic life relatively undisturbed by the bustle of what most people consider everyday life.

An hours drive away and you'll find the haunting, moon-like landscape of the volcanoes. The air is heavy with the scent of sulfur, steam rises from cracks in the lava and the ground feels warm on your bare feet from the heat generated from the hot magma surging beneath its surface. If you wait for dark to fall, you can take a seat and watch the light show put on by the active volcano. Hot, orange lava travels down the hillside, hitting the ocean with a burst of steam that can be seen from miles away, the island gets bigger before your eyes.

These are only a few of the sites you can find on my beautiful island. I haven't even mentioned Hupuna--voted on of the most beautiful beaches in the US--or the City of Refuge, or the many artist colonies pocket throughout the island. If you even plan a trip to the Big Island of Hawaii, make sure you give yourself at least a week to see all that it has to offer. Too many people, not realizing the scope of the island, plan for only a day or two and then realize that they won't have time to even scratch the surface of this gem of the Pacific. It would take a lifetime to discover all its treasures.