Hawai’i: Big Island, Many Worlds
“To understand Hawai’i is to make sense of America’s most exotic outpost. It’s the nation’s last frontier, the 50th state, a string of volcanic mountains that rose from the sea to be settled first by Polynesians and later by a cultural melange of Asians and Anglos.” — Philip Rucker, Washington Post
America is often categorized as world of many worlds, and maybe no land better exemplifies that than Hawai’i. It’s the country’s newest American state (admitted into the Union in 1959), but its ground was first explored by some of the world’s oldest populations. New land on its islands are born from the mouths of volcanoes everyday, as lava pours into the planet’s oldest ocean. It’s the state farthest from the mainland and most foreign, yet has given us arguably the most cultural prolific president in a generation. It’s a land of proud statehood and patriotism (think Pearl Harbor), and yet still has a defiant independence movement.
“Hawai’i is a tropical paradise so diverse that there is no majority race, a land where residents talk so openly about identify that many call themselves ‘chop suey’ “ — Philip Rucker, Washington Post
Hawai’i as a world within worlds is more than just metaphor — its eponymous Big Island alone is famous for containing 10 of the world’s 14 unique Köppen climate zones. On just over 4,000 square miles in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, a microcosm of Earth’s different climates persists.
And so, that’s where we began our journey of “America’s most exotic outpost” — the Big Island, where we sought equal parts adventure and retreat. We found more of each than we bargained for. Captured below is our journey through the 10 unique natural worlds of Hawai’i, and the many more cultural worlds that call them home.
Dry Semi-Arid (BSh)
Our journey started like many Big Island vacations, with Kona Airport as our point of entry. The sun sucks up the rain faster than it falls here, and it’s never cold. The towns resemble coastal enclaves of California, bordered by mild beaches to the west and a rocky, Mars-like desert to the east. Kailua-Kona’s beach-desert dichotomy mirrors its cultural make-up, where you’re just as likely to bump into a local as a tourist fleeing the cold of the Lower 48.
Winter Dry (Aw)
As we made our south, we made sure to pay visit to the parts of this beach-desert paradise that remained preserved from Anglo-influence. Tradewinds are cut off by miles-high peaks, leaving warm air from the ocean to dictate the area’s feel. The hotter land temperatures help make more rainfall possible, making for a more lush surrounding. We traced the coast-line toward Pu‘uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park before swinging east toward the volcanoes.
Temperate Continuously Wet (Cfb) + Summer-Dry (As)
Here lies the corner of the island that had captured our imaginations since we were kids — the seemingly prehistoric land where volcanoes still roar and lava still flows. At the top of Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park, an omnipresent mist of the Temperate Continuously wet region resembles a walk through a rain-forest, with the chill of constant humidity to match. As our car skated down the molten path of the volcano’s destruction, this world was turned upside down into a Summer-Dry coastline, seemingly of another planet entirely.
Tropical Continuously Wet (Af) + Tropical Monsoon (Am)
If you dropped two people off on the Big Island just a two hour’s drive apart, one on the “Kona side” and the other on the “Hilo side”, they’d tell you they’re on different continents. The inescapable heat of the west’s dry, rocky hills gives way to the thick, lush moderation of the east’s forests. Iconic tan-sand beaches make way to thick black-sand beaches. Full days of beaming sunlight are replaced with intense rainfall, and no distinct dry season in sight. Where the east seemed the be the main draw for tourists, the Hilo area felt like a neighborhood many were thankful to call home. Our Airbnb host in Pāhoa tipped us off to a local favorite — the Kalapana Night Market, where Hawai’i’s indigenous Polynesian culture is celebrated like an old family get-together.
As we drove out through the northern border of this climate zone, we past through the small, 10-mile sliver of the Hamakua Coast classified as a Monsoon region on our way to the famous Waipio Valley Lookout.
Dry Arid (BWh)
Completing our circle back around to the Kona side, we landed in our self-indulgent final place of rest for the trip, the Big Island’s Waikoloa Village. This is the Hawai’i you’re sold in the travel magazines — white sand beaches, never-ending sun, and 80°F+ air cooled down by ocean breezes. We had teleported back from the rain forest to the Pacific-cooled desert, but with more piña coladas and beach chairs than last time.
Summer-Dry Warm (Csb) + Summer-Dry Cool (Csc) + Tundra (ET)
We saved our most interstellar Big Island adventure for the last day of the year, spending New Year’s Eve climbing in our car to the summit of Mauna Kea where a dormant volcano sits and the stars seem within reach. The journey to the mountain’s summit is its own climatic safari, leaving the beach towns behind as you climb through the rolling hills and pasture-lands of the Summer-Dry region, then through the parka-demanding ring of Summer-Cool around the mountain-top at 8,000 feet up, before driving through the clouds themselves to reach the near-pre-glacial, snow-friendly caps of the volcano. From the tree-less tundra and permanently frozen soil, you can watch the sun set on the entire island, before enjoying a complete darkness that makes for the best seat in the house to the rest of our galaxy. This magnificent island managed to show us much of what our planet has to offer, and a taste of other worlds far away.