THE COLUMN OF LASTING INSIGNIFICANCE

THE ISLANDS – WHERE LIFE SPRINGS FROM THE UNDERWORLD

Hawaii’s Big Island is big enough to contain all the other islands with space left over, so visitors can endure a little marathon of their own by taking the 250-mile roundtrip in one day. It’s a Japanese-sized tour that can take up to 12 hours but introduces you to such Hawaiian specialties as Kona coffee (be sure to get the packets labeled 100% Kona, the guide advises); gorgeous orchids; and yummy (but expensive) macadamia nuts.

First stop is the tongue-twisting Pu’uhonua o Hõnaunau, better known as “the place of refuge,” literally a sanctuary whose residents are safe from pursuit or arrest, or were back in the days when intertribal warfare put most people at risk. It was a self-contained community with its own temples and living quarters where refugees could stay until it was safe to leave. Interestingly enough, although the old customs disappeared a century ago, along with kapu, the prohibitions of the old religion, a youth evading arrest after a demonstration in the 1970s fled here and sought sanctuary. The park rangers refused to allow police access and neighboring sympathizers brought food and supplies until the youth agreed to leave and accept some minor penalty.

The highway continues south, past Ka Lae – which surprisingly is the southernmost tip of the United States – and then east, with a stop at a coffee plantation for a free cuppa. It takes 500 pounds of the reddish beans to make 100 pounds of coffee and a good picker can pick three 100-pounds bags in a day. There are 600 coffee farms on the island so until they invent a machine that can tell when the beans are ripe, there’ll be plenty of work.

Magma Mounts

Onwards through the Volcano National Park, home of Kilauea, continually active for the past 23 years. We see only clouds of steam blanketing a rocky, black moonscape. Like most Hawaiian volcanoes, this one spews out lava not just from the top, but also from random breaches in its sides.

I had lunch at the historic Volcano House, at an earlier version of which Mark Twain stayed in 1866, exclaiming about the volcano: “Here was room for the imagination to work.”

To the northeast, the world’s biggest volcano, Mauna Loa, has erupted at least 15 times in the past century. Its bulk – it is 100 times the size of Mount Rainier – together with that of its northern neighbor, Mauna Kea, takes up almost half of the island and indeed, these and other volcanoes are responsible for the entire chain of Hawaiian islands, which grew and expanded over the course of millions of years. The lava spewed from miles under the sea and gradually became the bedrock that underpins everything else. In addition to being the world’s most active volcano, Mauna Kea, at 13,796 feet, is the world’s tallest mountain if you count the fact that – like an iceberg – there is even more beneath the surface of the sea than above it.

Since Mauna Kea began its continuous eruption in 1983 it has blocked roads, destroyed 200 homes and added 600 acres to the island where its 2,500-degrees fiery rivulets poured into the 78-degree waters of the ocean. In the kind of statistic that tourist brochures love, we are informed that the 2 billion cubic yards of new rock are enough to pave a highway around the earth 50 times. It’s very un-cool to take away lava rock. In fact, legendarily it’s bad luck and park authorities often receive returned rocks in the mail. Don’t make piles of it, either.

It takes 1,000 years for lava to break down into soil, but long before the process is complete, lichen begins to grow between the cracks, and as the years go by more and more plants and trees sprout. Evidence of this early transition can be seen at the famous black sand beaches along this southern coast, a region which has been known to endure 100 inches of rain a year, providing fertile ground for the feathery tree fern (whose soft fronds were once used to stuff pillows) and the growing of millions of flowers for export.

Kings and Flora

Orchids are abundant at the namesake gardens of Miroyasu Akatsuka, who claims to have 100,000 blooms on display. Contents of the hangar-sized room do, indeed, look gorgeous, but oddly emit almost no aroma. Delicate pink cattleyas are his specialty, but orchids of 30,000 species grow throughout the world. Vanilla comes from a type of orchid after it has been hand-pollinated.

The coastal town of Hilo is where the missionaries first landed after the last king banished the old religion, providing an opening for Christianity – a mixed blessing, some people suggest. A wood-framed house occupied by missionaries and a 1925 Art Deco theatre are local attraction, as well as two stupendous waterfalls just out of town. Although potential volcanic eruptions are a perpetual hazard, Hilo’s most recent disasters came from seismic waves (triggered by undersea eruptions), which almost wiped out the town in 1946, 1960 and 1975.

One thing that thrives in abundant rain is the macadamia nut, first implanted in Hawaii in 1881 from Australia and now a huge export crop for several companies; it lines the shelves of just about every shop on the island. At the biggest factory, that of Mauna Loa, where visitors are handed a single nut on arrival, macadamia nuts are offered in packets large and small, candy bars, medleys and flavors ranging from simply roasted to garlic and onion. The nuts are said to be heart-healthy, high in antioxidants and “good” fat.

Macadamia trees, which flourish in soils and climates similar to that of coffee bushes, grow as high as 40 feet but need eight to 12 years to mature. Their shells need immense pressure to break open and at Mauna Loa, at least, these shells are burned to provide power to run the factory.

There’s always time for a stop at Hilo Hattie’s, the cheery department headquarters for all things Hawaiian, especially the garish shirts that for some people define the islands. The ubiquitous flower lei, with which all visitors to the islands were once draped, are here made from shells but elsewhere you can find leis constructed from tiny liquor bottles, packets of chewing gum, as well as orchids.

Between Mauna Kea and northernmost Waimea, the sprawling 175,000-acre Parker Ranch claims to be North America’s biggest. (Texas’s King Ranch has a fancy website on which it is curiously coy about its size.)

The earliest cowboys were summoned to Hawaii by King Kamehameha I (‘the Great’) to tend his cattle and horses. By the 1830s, these paniolo were selling beef to prospectors bound for the California goldfields. Don’t expect to see to see any cowboys today, though; they’re miles away. The mandatory stop is at the glitzy Parker Ranch mall.