One of my favorite islands lay across the water, growing larger through the Cessna's windshield. I wondered what the unsung, overlooked, but always surprising Hawaii had in store for me this time. Hawaii, you never let me down, I thought. Others may flock to Oahu, Maui, and Kauai, but you bring out the best in us outnumbered and slightly contrary travelers.
Hawaii, also known as the Big Island, it being twice the size of the others combined, is a massive, sprawling place that may not inveigle you right off but wears well with age, like a favorite old cardigan. In fact, a sweater may be of use if you plan to ascend the 13,796-foot Mauna Kea, where a rugged form of skiing can be practiced in its white summit in winter. And blankets and a log fire await you at the 38-room Volcano House on the edge of the smoldering 4,000 -foot Kilauea Crater.
My destination, however, was the toasty Kona Coast, where snow is but a dream and 80-degree sunshine a year-round reality. As the Royal Hawaiian Air Service plane bobbed across the 29-mile channel from Hana, Maui, in the approaching dusk , I had the sensation we were commuting home from a day's work. And in a way we were. Kona always feels a bit like home to me, and Capt. Don Brandy -- alone with me in the little Cessna -- has chosen to live on the Kona coast, though most pilots of the Honolulu-based airline are stationed on Oahu.
"Kona," he said, "has the best and calmest weather in the state. My wife wanted me to live on Oahu, so I looked for a condo at 3 o'clock one afternoon around Honolulu and I couldn't even take the traffic at that hour."
We landed at the almost deserted Keahole airport, which Brandy -- a waterfall of information, as are all Royal Hawaiian pilots -- noted lay in a blackened lava field that has had no plant growth since the eruption of 1801. We parted on the tarmac, he supplying me with a list of Kona restaurants (the Ocean View, the Kona Ranch House) and I attacking my next priority: lodging for the night. I phoned the Manago Hotel, a little upcountry gem I had discovered on previous visits but hadn't yet slept in, and this typical Big Island conversatin ensued:
"What have single rooms with private bath for $18 and up."
"What is the highest?"
"I'll take it," I said expansively. I remembered to ask about dinner, remembering the Manago's good and reasonable cafe with its million-dollar view of the Pacific.
"We are running out of fish and about to close. Please hurry."
With her words spurring me on and the sun sinking in the far Pacific on my right, I hastened my rental car through the town of Kailua-Kona -- still a sleepy marlin-fishing port despite the influx of myriad T-shirt and muumuu stalls -- and headed up Route 11 to the village of Captain Cook. I scarcely had time to appreciate the little two-chair lanai in my $21 ocean-view room before sitting down in the circa 1920 Manago dining room.
There was no akum (bonito) left, so I had the fried ahim (tuna) along with the Japanese-flavored side dishes: large bowl of rice, trays of potato salad, boiled garbanzo beans and seaweed, all for just $5.50. May postprandial choices on this quiet Kona summer night were: watch the Phillies-Astros Monday night baseball game in the Manago TV room ("TV will be turned off nightly at 10 p.m.," said one sign, and another: "This TV room for hotel guests only,") or stroll across the road to the lit-up Arthur L. Greenwell Park. In the park's almost empty bleachers I watched a spirited local softball battle between the Soda-Holics and the Centrals. In this farflung corner of the land, settled by Japanese and other Pacific cultures, I again realized that a haolem (Caucasian) is a notable minority. Yet while the faces on the field were swarthy and exotic , the gestures and the cires (though pidgin-influenced) were warmly familiar.
Next morning I pushed off from Captain Cook, but not before inspecting the weathered but tidy old wing of the Manago, which has rooms with ocean views (but community bath) for just $14 to $17. If you want to shoot the works, the dearest accommodation costs $35, a Japanese-style room that Harold Manago has dedicated to his parents, complete with furom bath, sliding shojim doors and windows.
I had a date at South Point to take a highly novel tour, so I headed southward on Route 11, one of my favorite drives in the islands. it may not be the scenic equal of the Hamakua Coast out of Hilo on the other, rainier side of the Big Island, but it has its subtle virtues. You pass by little coffee plantations, larger macadamia groves, and great spreading lava fields. Hawaii Visitors Bureau signs indicate the dates of the eruptions (1950, 1919, 1907) that sent the lava down from 13,680-foot Mauna Loa, the twin peak to the snowy, skiable Mauna Kea. I passed in and out of eucalyptus and paperbark thickets, and the smell of ripening, falling mangoes scented the air.
At the sign to South Point i turned off Route 11 and drove through hot, sear cattle country. Hawaii is like that: It can resemble Bora-Bora one minute, Wyoming the next. On the slopes of Mauna Kea sprawls the 200,000-acre Parker Ranch, said to be the largest privately owned ranch in the United States. Now, six miles from the misty sea, I pulled up at a mere 12,000-acre cattle ranch and was met beneath a stand of eucalyptus by Florence Schultz. She and her husband, Dick, operate the ranch, and in her spare time she takes visitors on rumbling, bouncing jeep tours to nearby South Point, the southernmost tip of the US.
Except for the sight of the ocean from their front window, the Schultzes could as well drive to Laramie, and not Hilo, for supplies. They have a four-family party line and a generally isolated life in this Hawaiian outback, but the wide open spaces can be cheering, and so can the affable Mrs. Schultz at the wheel of her jeep. At South Point on a lonely bluff she pointed out a National Historic Landmark plaque that indicates the southermost point and showed me a curious fishing colony: small tuna boats adrift on the sea, tied to rugged lava cliffs by 300 yards of yellow line.
We rumbled through rock and brush past signs of ancient Hawaiian settlements, and we stopped on a bluff to see a secluded green-sand beach, the color caused by an excess of olivine. Florence Schultz also pointed to some huge, pocked logs she said had drifted across the Pacific from Oregon or Washington, and she would have showed me more, but I had another Cessna to catch in Hilo and more of the Big island to see before that -- a tree Mark Twain had planned in 1866, the log fire in the lounge at the Volcano House which hasn't been doused, according to Ripley's "Believe It or Not," in 40 years. And there would be other, unexpected treats. You never let me down, Hawaii.