The Big Island is actually built out of five volcanos:
- Kilauea (currently in eruption, and probably the major tourist draw on the island)
- Mauna Loa (active, but not erupting right now)
- Mauna Kea (dormant, fortunately for all the observatories atop it)
- Hualalai (dormant and probably extinct for the past 200 years)
- Kohala (extinct)
That last one — Kohala — is long extinct and basically is the entire northwest corner of the island, a huge and ancient shield volcano about 5000′ (1600 m) high that itself forms one of the island’s many distinct climate zones. It is now as much a region as a singular mountain, and worth a dedicated visit or two. So we struck out this morning to do exactly that. It’s about an hour and a half north of our house, and so we cruised up the coast, our local palm-lined streets soon giving away to the wasteland of lava and scrub that I described earlier. Here’s the view looking inland from the coast highway.
The view in the other direction is a sea of rippling black hard lava, reaching down to the sea.
Being at higher elevation, Kohala is cooler than the coast and also catches some of the trade winds blowing from the east, the result being that it supports more temperate types of vegetation: grasslands and coniferous trees. It is even cattle country, and it is a common sight to see herds of cattle grazing on the grass-covered volcanic slopes. Those domes in this landscape photo are old volcanic cinder cones.
The architecture of Kohala’s few small towns reflects the history of cattle grazing and has a charming and slightly offbeat Wyoming-meets-Hawaii vibe, with a dash of Sedona, as you can see here. But cattle are definitely part of the culture: there is even a Hawaiian word for “cowboy”: paniolo.
The “Sedona” part is not obvious in this picture, but as you walk or drive slowly through the towns of Hawi and Waimea the “warmed-over hippie” gestalt emerges pretty quickly, as about two-thirds of the businesses are notional antique stores or one form or another of local crafts. There are many bandannas in sight. The towns are small and charming. But aside from the tropical flowers, such as the birds of paradise plants that you see above, the pine trees and rolling grasslands stand in odd conjunction to the overgrown cinder cones, and if you were blindfolded and surreptitiously transported here you might well have a very hard time guessing that you were in Hawaii. There’s not a palm tree or a coconut in sight.
Hawi with its 1500 residents is sort of the spiritual center of Kohala, the northernmost town on the Big Island. Because it sits at the northern end of the peninsula that is Kohala itself, it is a reliably windy place and thus unsurprisingly the site of what has to be the world’s most picturesquely-situated wind power farm.
You can see some cinder cones in the background . More spectacularly, the wind far overlooks the Alenuihaha Channel, which is the narrow piece of the Pacific separating the Big Island from Maui, the next island up in the chain. So here is the view from the road just above the wind farm.
That’s Maui sticking out of the clouds, about 1/3 of the way in from the left. You can see one of the windmills at lower right.
We made a driving loop around the peninsula, then headed back down the coast to home. But no such trip would be complete with sampling some local food, and so we stopped at a poke (pronounced “pokey”) house, poke being by itself a reason to visit Hawaii. It is marinated sushi, usually ahi though other fish are used as well, seasoned in various ways such as with sesame, or soy, or hot sauce. You generally want to get a bowl of it over rice with a side of sesame seaweed salad, served over rice in a downtrodden-looking place like this one. If you have never tried this, do so. You can thank me later.