An Unusual Vacation -- Participants Get Unique View of Hawaii

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San Francisco Bureau Chief Laura Del Rosso kept a day-by-day notebook on the Backroads tour of the Big island:

Day 1: We started at the Royal Kona Resort in Kailua-Kona, where we set out in two small vans for a journey that eventually would take us completely around the 260-mile island on its main highway.

After driving past coffee farms and seeing our first old lava flows, we began hiking perhaps the easiest walk of the trip, a flat, six-mile roundtrip to Green Sand Beach near Ka Lae, or South Point, the southernmost point of the U.S.

On this windswept coast lies the remains of a World War II training camp, now a barren visitors center, and little other signs of the modern world.

Back in the vans, we took a short ride to South Point itself to see the place where the Polynesians arrived as early as 750 A.D.

That evening we donned sweaters and light rain jackets in the cool mist at the rim of huge Kilauea crater at Volcano House, the rustic, old hotel in Volcanoes National Park where we stayed for two nights.

Day 2: Bob Cogdon and Leslie Hunt, two personable, longtime Backroads leaders, laid out an attractive buffet for us to pack our lunches (several kinds of bread, a choice of sandwich fillings, fruit, cookies, trail mix and plenty of snack foods to take along). Water bottles filled with juice or water also were available.

Today we would need sustenance because the hike would be more challenging and the weather cooler and wetter than the first day.

We met with Jim Cain, a Big Island resident originally from New Mexico, who became our guide to the culture and natural history of the island during the next few days.

When he speaks of the history and legends of the island, it is with deep respect; that became evident when he requested we bow our heads and ask for permission from the goddess Pele before we entered the rain forest that led into Kilauea Iki Crater.

With a light mist falling and under heavy cloud cover, the crater seemed eery and primeval.

Cain pointed out some of the distinctive features in the landscape, such as the Ohi'a, a red-blossom flower that makes a splash of color against the reddish-gray of the lava, and told us legends about Pele.

The most infamous legend -- and the one repeated most to tourists -- is Pele's anger at those who take lava rocks from the volcano. Unfortunate things seem to happen to them. According to the Big Island office of the Hawaii Visitors Bureau, each week they receive packages of rocks from people from around the world eager to return them due to experiencing some sort of bad luck.

The eight-mile hike also took us through the Thurston Lava Tube, formed by underground lava flows, and along portions of the Crater Rim Trail.

We made it back to Volcano House in early afternoon for some free time, which allowed a visit to the Jagger Museum, where exhibits demonstrate the geological history of this most-studied volcanic region.

That evening, for many, was the highlight of the trip.

Dinner was at the Kilauea Lodge, where most of us continued our culinary exploration of Hawaii's fish and seafood, such as mahi mahi or yellowtail, broiled and topped with a mango chutney glaze and crushed macadamia nuts.

About 10 p.m., the tour leaders asked if we wanted to take a one-hour drive to the coast to see lava flowing into the ocean. Some of us hesitated, but we all poured into the vans, more ready for a good night's sleep than for another adventure.

But the sight of the red-

orange glow of lava spewing into the ocean, spectacular even from a distance, woke us up.

We sat at a lookout point near Lae Apuki, where the lava from one of Kilauea's vents, Pu'u O'o, has flowed seven miles down the slopes off and on for 13 years, adding 500 acres of new land to the Big Island.

Day 3: We were up for breakfast by 8 a.m. on a day that would forever burn into our memories.

We walked about seven-and-a-half miles, much of it over old lava fields, some over pahoehoe, which has a smooth and ropey surface, and a'a, which is jagged and rough. We preferred the pahoehoe, which was easier on our leg muscles.

The landscape in this part of Volcanoes National Park, at the Mauana Ulu area, is barren, with little vegetation amid the lava fields.

As we climbed one hill, however, we saw the most astounding site: under almost cloudless skies, 13,796-foot Mauna Kea and the steaming vent of Pu'u O'o, which was having a particularly active day.

The hike ended at a lookout point over the ocean on Chain of Craters Road, where Cogdon and Hunt broke out a welcome spread of fresh mangoes, sliced cantaloupe, cookies and juice.

Exhilarated by the view and the physical exertion -- and somewhat relieved to see the last of the a'a -- five of the women who had lagged a bit behind treated us to their rendition of "I've Been Working on the Railroad," sung to their own lyrics, "I've Been Walking on the Lava."

The hourlong drive to Hilo transported us to the lush side of the Big Island, where we spent the night at the Hilo Hawaiian. Several participants took advantage of the services of a local masseuse, who came to the hotel to ease the aches from a'a walking.

Day 4: We had looked forward to and dreaded today at the same time.

This was to be the most challenging day of the trip, and in many ways the most fun.

About a half hour from Hilo, we stopped at Akaka Falls, a 420-foot waterfall in the middle of a rain forest, with giant bamboo, bird of paradise and a variety of tropical flora lining a half-mile trail.

After driving through abandoned sugar plantations, we arrived at the lookout over Waipio Valley.

The steep trail we would take looked daunting. The 25% grade into the valley prevents vehicles without four-wheel-drive capability from making the trip.

Cain met us at the lookout and gingerly guided us down while telling us of the history of Waipio, which was an ancient Hawaiian settlement where royalty, including King Kamehameha, once lived.

Today, the population is small, but Cain is part of a movement to bring back wetland taro farming, the traditional technique for growing the plant, which is made into the Hawaiian culinary staple, poi.

After reaching the valley floor, we walked another mile to Cain's farm, at one point taking off our boots to cross a river.

There, we saw why Cain is so proud of his accomplishments. In orderly rows, in about a foot or two of water, were about an acre of large green taro plants.

A Backroads tradition has it that each tour group that visits Cain's farm plants some taro. With some trepidation and a little prayer of respect each of us stepped barefoot into the shallow ponds and stuck a few budding plants in the mud.

We then made our way to the shade of a canopy where Cain spread a Hawaiian feast, with poi; chicken and rice cooked in taro leaves; salad, and coconut pudding.

After a bit of relaxation and exploring the beach at the front of the valley, we set out for the 1,200-foot climb out of Waipio.

By this time, the camaraderie of the group was well established.

With supportive cheers onward and some sips of Gatorade, one by one we made it to the top, returning to the lookout, sweaty and with some taro mud still clinging to our legs but all smiles.

It was an hour's drive from there through the green, rolling hills of the Waimea area and Parker Ranch, the largest privately owned ranch in the U.S., to the Orchid, where we spent the final night.

Day 5: We had a picture-perfect morning on the Orchid's beach before we went our separate ways, some home, most on to an extended Hawaii vacation.

Our little group of hiking warriors put on bathing suits and joined the others guests swimming, snorkeling and sunbathing.

Although unaccustomed to simply lounging, it took little time to settle in.

When someone suggested taking a hike to see the nearby petroglyphs, no one stirred.

More walking? Well, maybe later, but, for now, could you pass the mineral water, my paperback and the sunblock, please?

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