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Special Travel Issue | Hawaii

Big Island Bohemia

Well Off the Beaten Tourist Track, Hawaii's Stunning Waipio Valley Offers a No-Frills Alternative--Especially If You're Into Adventure and Ancient Spirits

March 30, 2003|Joe Glickman | Joe Glickman is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is the author of "To the Top: Reaching for America's 50 State Summits" (NorthWord Press), to be published this spring.

You goin' down?" The question came from inside a battered pickup truck to my right. Inside, a scruffy guy in his 40s, with a bushy auburn mustache and a ponytail protruding from a sun-bleached baseball cap, sat drinking Smirnoff Ice and smoking a clove cigarette. He had serious dude written all over him.

I was at the Waipio Valley Lookout, a small parking lot at the end of a road, staring down at jungle treetops, taro patches, a black sand beach lathered in white surf, wild horses, a few rusted metal roofs and a handful of spectacular waterfalls. Once home to thousands of ancient Hawaiians--it's where the first inhabitants settled--Waipio was devastated by tsunamis in 1946 and 1960 and is so prone to flooding that developers have yet to arrive. Today there are a few dozen rustic homes and a full-time population of less than 60--taro farmers, disgruntled Vietnam vets, New Age seekers and an eclectic assortment of funksters who'd happily subscribe to High Times if they had a mailing address.

The dude's name was Barry. He'd moved from Alaska to Hawaii 10 years ago one February when he could no longer bear the cold. A builder by trade, Barry seemed as spiritually inclined as a compass, but 10 minutes into our conversation he said, by way of a warning, "The mana in the valley is heavy. Very heavy." Mana, which means the spiritual force that energizes everything in the universe, is a word I'd heard a lot during my first two days on the Big Island. By the time I arrived at the lookout on the rugged northeastern coast, I'd heard so many stories about supernatural shenanigans that I felt as if I'd wandered into The World According to Shirley MacLaine--but from a guy drinking Smirnoff Ice?

Barry launched into a story about Shark Rock, a sculpted stone as large as a wheelbarrow that sits on a rise near the beach. "It was sacred to the old Hawaiians. They used to cut people's heads off there." A few years ago, he said, his business partner, Pete, tied the stone to his all-terrain vehicle and with great difficulty dragged it a quarter mile to his property. A week later, Pete's wife was diagnosed with cancer. "How is she now?" I asked.

"Dead." He paused, blew smoke through his nostrils and pulled a beer from the cooler in the back of his pickup. "There's mana down there," said Barry. "It's just a question of being in tune with it or not." I asked what happened to the rock.

"He moved it back."

I made a mental note to give Shark Rock a wide berth and headed nine miles back to the Hotel Honokaa Club, a clean, unpretentious place in the sleepy town of Honokaa. The next morning, as I availed myself of coffee and local fruit served on the porch, I chatted with Kathy Kenyon, the hotel manager at the time. She had seen scores of Waipio pilgrims pass through. "Few find what they're looking for," she said. "A few have never returned."

Known to triathletes and armchair fans of abject suffering for the Ironman Triathlon World Championship and to coffee devotees for its ultra-smooth Kona bean, the island of Hawaii is the youngest, largest and most geologically diverse of all the Hawaiian Islands. Of the 13 climate zones on Earth, 11 are found on the Big Island. Less than a million years old, the island is still growing; Kilauea, an active volcano, has been erupting continually since 1983.

The west (or Kona) coast is dry and sunny, dotted with world-class golf courses and luxury oceanfront resorts. The windward coast to the east is wet, rugged, mountainous and tropical. In the middle, usually shrouded in clouds, are Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, the world's largest volcanoes. In short, the Big Island is one of the wildest and most wide-open, sparsely populated and diverse islands in the Pacific. For my money, the most intriguing spot is the valley that the ancient Hawaiians called Waipio--"curving water."

I left my rental car at the lookout, donned a day pack and started down the lone road into the valley. Surrounded by cliffs on three sides and fronted by the ocean, the valley receives more than 80 inches of rain annually. Imagine a giant hand pressed 1,000 feet into leprechaun-green dough, making an impression a mile wide at the wrist and six miles deep at the middle finger, and you've got the basic lay of the land. A four-wheel drive vehicle is required for the rutted, 25% grade road.

On the valley floor, the towering waterfalls, "Jurassic Park"-sized foliage and din of the crashing waves miniaturize everything that's man-made. I walked toward the beach on a dirt road, skirting giant puddles. An ancient burial mound was nestled under a grove of ironwood trees posted with "No camping" signs. This had been the site of Pakaalana, a huge temple, or heiau, built in the 12th century and left largely intact until the 1946 tsunami dismantled and buried its massive stone walls.

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