The volcanic Big Island of Hawaii is a bubbling mass of natural beauty in the Pacific Ocean. Here's my advice on how to find the best waves and waterfalls – and the tastiest banana pancakes
In Hawaii, the archipelago of Pacific islands that make up America's 50th state, it is said that locals don’t run away from volcanic eruptions but towards them. Nowhere is this truer than on the youngest and biggest island in the chain – Hawaiʻi (with its slightly different spelling) or the "Big Island". Here, Pele (the goddess of fire, lightning and volcanoes) is worshipped – and her white-hot majesty continues to send lava flowing into the sea every day, making the island even bigger.
The Big Island has two very distinctive sides: Hilo, also known as the rainy side, and Kona, the dry side.The island is made up of five shield volcanoes, of which only two are still active – Mauna Loa and Kilauea. Spectacular shows of molten lava dancing into the ocean can be seen at Kilauea’s ocean entry point, which is on the Hilo side.
There is a very strong sense of humanity in Hawaii, a very close connection to the earth – an awareness that offers a gentle and individual spirit. Going to Hawaii and staying in a chain hotel is a popular choice, but seems criminal when you can unzip your tent right on the beach and discover all the amazing things nature has whipped up. You will never feel the priviledge of being on this earth quite so acutely as you do when you clamber out of your tent and see incandescent ocean to your left and magnificent volcanic mountains to your right, not to mention amazing trees, flowers, plants, waterfalls, turtles, fish, waves and grey clouds decorated with rainbows.
Over in Hilo, you can stay at the Hilo Bay Hostel (101 Waianuenue Avenue) – full of friendly staff and in the centre of the town, so very convenient for getting to places. You can also stay closer to the top of the volcano, near the National Park, with great access to various tracks, trails and lava tunnels. After a particularly active spell, the volcano puts on a great night-time lava glow.
When it comes to food, the one essential place to eat in Hilo is Ken's House of Pancakes (http://kenshouseofpancakes-hilohi.com), open 24 hours a day since 1971 – no lie. It is absolutely amazing and boasts a menu of catalogue proportions. It's an excellent place for a giant post-surf breakfast but also offers "all you can eat" spaghetti and taco nights plus a full range of traditional Hawaiian dishes such as the Loco Moco.
There are markets in the centre of town on various days of the week, offering everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to souvenirs and Venus Fly Traps. The centre is quite small, but there is a central bus station where you can get buses to all over the island. From the town, you can travel further away from the volcano towards Rainbow Falls and Boiling Pots on the Wailuku River. Hit the falls at the right time of day, and rainbows appear before your eyes in the mist.
If you are travelling between the two sides of the island, it's an ideal opportunity to go via the Mauna Kea summit. At 13,796ft (4,205m), Mauna Kea is actually taller than Mount Everest from the base of the mountain. Up at the 9,200ft point is the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy (www.ifa.hawaii.edu/mko/visiting.htm#vis) where you can learn about the volcano and the telescopes in use. As night falls, the sky is transformed into a natural glitter ball as a million pin-pricks of light dance in the dark. Visitors are permitted to view some of these stars through the many telescopes set up by the centre. A stargazing program is held every night between 6pm and 10pm.
Kona offers more for those of a sunnier disposition – including white sand beaches, which are pretty much non-existent in Hilo. It is also an easier ride for surfers, especially those with little or no experience as the black beaches on the other side of the island are less forgiving and the waves are often a lot bigger. Harpuna beach, on the Kohala coast, is a great example. Among its facilities are parking, picnic areas, bodyboard hire and showers, and the conditions can be so on the right side of paradise as to be ridiculous.
There are, of course, other ways to explore Hawaii, if you fancy something a little more unusual. WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms; www.wwoof.org.uk) is popular all over Hawaii and offers a perfect way to see more of the islands and meet local people to help you explore them. It is also an excellent way to make your money go further if you are on a budget, as hours worked on farms are often exchanged for accommodation and/or food.
Aloha means hello and also goodbye, but it also means love – and in Hawaii, there is a lot of Aloha to go round. Hawaiians are among the most friendly and brilliant people in the world… so once you get talking to them, you'll have no problems hitting all the good spots.