Big Apple to Big Island

WT Writer
Feb 13, 2018
On the search for paradise, Richard Jenkins heads on a honeymoon to Hawaii’s Big Island, via the city that never sleeps

Part One: New York

Everyone says it, and it’s true – your wedding day really does fly by. After a ceremony that passed in a blur, my new wife and I had the last (and, don’t tell her, most exciting) part still to come. We’d spent weeks planning our honeymoon getaway, to a destination that for most still feels like a step too far – all the way to the USA, then double the distance to reach Hawaii? Even for a honeymoon, that’s a lot of plane travel. We found out that getting to paradise was worth every minute in the air.

The usual way to reach Hawaii, after a whirlwind wedding in the UK, is to fly to the west coast of the US, normally exploring lively San Francisco or Los Angeles before a short hop over the Pacific. We’re not really ones for normal, so we decide our stop in the mainland US would be New York City.

The first perk of honeymooning is a Virgin Atlantic upgrade to Premium Economy, which is a revelation. It may not sound like much, but over the course of nine hours the more comfortable seats and service really make a difference – I’ve been in upper class on some airlines that felt less luxurious. After touching down, a yellow cab takes us from JFK through the city’s endlessly breathtaking skyline to our destination, The Peninsula 5th Avenue.

A perennial favourite among business travellers and holidaymakers due to its proximity to New York’s unrivalled shopping as well as Central Park, the friendly staff and personalised touches (like a complimentary chauffeur-driven MINI Cooper S Clubman for suite-staying guests) put The Peninsula’s hospitality on a level all of its own.

Picnic in Central Park, arranged by The Peninsula New York

Even after several visits, there’s plenty that New York can offer. Sombre reflection can be found at the memorial museum dedicated to the events of September 11, 2001. Neatly split into two distinct sections – a timeline of the events on that terrible day, and how New York and the US as a whole has rebuilt – the memorial offers a poignant and humanised view of the day’s loss. Thoughtfully designed on the ground where the Twin Towers once stood, it may not seem like an obvious destination for tourists, but as a museum and a memorial, it is both inspiring and humbling. The Freedom Tower, which stands alongside it, is a symbol of hope, with the observation deck a new rival to compete with the Empire State Building for views of the famous old city.

Somewhat emotionally drained, a light-hearted walk is just what the doctor ordered – so we meander from the south of Manhattan to the west, trying to find the High Line. This overground garden is built on an old railway line, and runs for several blocks up and down the Meatpacking District, and on our visit it’s densely populated with office workers basking in the unseasonably warm spring weather. In a city as busy as New York, it’s an incredible oasis of greenery and even tranquillity, and has a thriving market of coffee stalls and vendors selling t-shirts and postcards. Nearby is the hipsters’ paradise, Chelsea Market, a bright and spacious indoor market that makes you feel at least 50% cooler just by dint of being inside it.

New York is truly a city for sports nuts. It’s home to the official headquarters of the NBA, NFL, NHL Major League Baseball and even its newest obsession, Major League Soccer. Venerable sporting venues like Madison Square Garden and Brooklyn’s Barclays Centre are tourist destinations in their own right, but depending on what sport you follow you’ll need to book your trip accordingly. Baseball season begins in April, and basketball starts in October. In early March it’s ice hockey time, with New York’s rival sides the Rangers and the Islanders doing battle with each other and local enemies from Pittsburgh and New Jersey. We call in at an Islanders game to catch some of the action, as well as buy foam fingers and novelty hats – and as an alternative to a Broadway show, a night on the ice offers just as much drama, with the home side running out with a narrow 1-0 victory. Battling jetlag, the main event of the honeymoon is still to come. Paradise is just an 11-hour flight away…

Na Pali Coastline, Hawaii

Part Two: Hawaii

As you’ll be on the road quite a lot on Hawaii’s Big Island, a fun game to pass the time is counting tourists driving identical Jeep Wranglers. The island is 150km across, and it takes around four hours to circumnavigate, so there’s plenty of opportunity to play – although after seeing our 50th, we decided that we had more important things to watch out for. It’s a good thing too, as the roadside scenery is utterly spectacular. On the west, where the gorgeous Fairmont Orchid lies at sea level, it’s all sunshine, palm trees and volcanic scrubland. The further east you drive, the gradual elevation as you pass over one of the island’s two active volcanoes puts you up in the clouds and into the rain. Twenty minutes after leaving blazing sunshine with stunning views over the Pacific, you’re enveloped in fog, rain battering your Jeep and imposing jungle greenery on all sides. If it looks like the set of Jurassic Park, that’s because it is – the 1993 blockbuster was filmed here, and for all the world you’d be forgiven for expecting a T-Rex to come crashing out of the foliage. Big Island has ten different microclimates, making it meteorologically unique.

the gradual elevation as you pass over one of the island’s two active volcanoes puts you up in the clouds and into the rain

There are plenty of diversions off the main roads. If you drive around the island in a vaguely clockwise fashion, you’ll pass through the town of Waimea, home to our favourite restaurant on the island, Pau’s Pizzeria. Inside is captivating artwork from local collage artist Margo Ray, as well as fresh seafood and much more. Suitably fuelled, the journey resumes. The first stop we make is one of the best of the entire trip, at the Waipio Valley lookout in the Hamakua district. Big Island is full of signs that point out scenic areas, but Waipio is one of the more noteworthy. It was the capital and home to many early Hawaiian kings in the early days of Hawaii’s settlement, and was the boyhood home of the legendary warrior King Kamehameha I. Even today, among the waterfalls and taro plantations in the valley below, a few dozen native Hawaiians still live. Set into the valley’s furthest wall is the Big Island’s tallest waterfall, Hiilawe Falls, which gushes down over 1300 feet.

Unfortunately, this incredible specimen isn’t possible to access by helicopter, since it’s almost always shrouded in fast-moving cloud and mist. Your best bet is to continue further east to the town of Hilo, which sends choppers up daily despite being the wettest city in the whole of the United States, enduring up to 156 inches of rain per year. A flight with Blue Hawaiian tours promises spectacular volcano and waterfall views, so we eagerly sign up and take our seats at the front of the helicopter. Our pilot Coleen, a cheerful Idahoan who’s lived in Hawaii for six years, keeps up a fascinating commentary as we hover over Mauna Kea, the highest mountain – and highest active volcano – in Hawaii. Contrary to what the guidebooks display, there aren’t geysers spouting jets of molten lava at the peak, but the way the lava moves is still interesting. The red-hot magma lies just beneath a thin crust of cooled rock, which slowly spreads downwards underneath the mountain, in directions that are impossible to predict. Property prices at the foot of Mauna Kea are the lowest anywhere in Hawaii because at any point Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire, might decide to send an incredibly slow-moving avalanche of lava in its direction, inexorably destroying everything in its stately path. I ask Coleen whether you can walk around on the grey crust below us. “You could once,” she replies wryly, going on to explain that in places the crust is just inches thick – which would mean a swift descent into a lake of molten lava. After a loop around Mauna Kea’s peak – where a hole in the crust allows a glimpse of the roiling, neon orange furnace beneath – Coleen swoops over a series of glittering waterfalls, before touching back down at Hilo airport. We get the chance to see some of Pele’s work in person at the nearby Volcano National Park, where visitors can walk through a ‘lava tube,’ one of the subterranean tunnels made by flowing lava hundreds of years ago that’s since cooled and solidified into something safe enough to explore. There’s also plenty of information to be found about Hawaii’s volcanic past, formed from fire in the Pacific Ocean.

For our final days we make the relatively short drive to Hawi, at the northernmost tip of the island. This hip enclave is strewn with cute boutique stores, amazing restaurants including Sushi Rocks (the nagiri with freshly caught seafood cannot be beat) and wonderfully distinct houses. Some ten miles further up the highway is the Pololu Valley lookout, similar to Waipio Valley but with a pleasant hiking path that takes you down to the black sand beach, popular with surfers. Don’t miss the statue of King Kamehameha on the way, either – another fascinating diversion on an island stuffed full of them.

Hawaii is perfect for those that want to explore, or just unwind on a hammock enjoying sunshine and birdsong. As long as you can stop counting Jeeps, that is. Paradise well and truly found.