The Big Island may be big in Hawaiian terms, but when you’re that far from anywhere else the comparisons are always local. Fattest kid in a young, active family of volcanic islands, the Big Island is nearly the size of Los Angeles County. Imagine L.A. with two mountains almost 14,000 feet high and all but 149,000 people gone. A place every bit as desert-dry on the leeward side as L.A., but with drenching rain-forest jungle around the windward bend. A place that is certifiably touristy along one strip but which retains elsewhere an appealing idiosyncratic vibe—in the way of, say, Louisiana or Newfoundland. Lapped by tropical water, and with peaks high enough to hold snow, it is a funky hybrid where the locals blend Japanese cuisine with Spam, and really do give you, many times a day, the thumb-and-pinkie shaka wave.
For a cyclist, all this makes the Big Island not so much big as, in a Goldilocksian way, just right. If you crave vertical, there are brutal ascents galore. If you want variety, there are 11 climatic zones, which is one of those tourist-brochure claims that is hard to process but means that the island is a fantastic quick-change artist. Here you see a vista hinting of Scotland, there one like Bali, here Brazil, there Iceland, here a jungle chasm, there a microdesert. Along the way are hippies, cowboys, Hawaiian old-timers and recent, gung-ho émigrés—plus the global nomads who wind up on the warm sandy fringes of the world. And the place has paved back roads.
I knew none of the above, or rather I didn’t credit much of what I had heard. Hawaii had always struck me as tasty enough but highly processed, like a piece of pineapple upside-down cake. I had fished off Maui and watched champion surfers off Waimea. Good stuff, but lacking the Pacific strangeness I associate with New Caledonia or even Fiji. That it could be weird—and I like weird—seemed unlikely. A friend of mine who knows Hawaii, cycling and my penchant for oddity, all three, thought otherwise. When he suggested the Big Island as a cycling holiday, I knew the idea had at least this merit: It would be hot and pleasant, unlike Route 9 in New Jersey, my default ride, which by fall is so tedious that I would rather have a tooth pulled than do another Saturday-morning 70 there. My riding partner would be the guy who introduced me to road cycling, Peter Sikowitz, a former editor of bicycling, whom I call—not to his face—the Greyhound, or Scampering Pete, because his old racing legs kick in every time we’re passed on Route 9, and he rockets forward instinctively, leaving this pudgy writer aware that I am the “recreational riding” half of the duo. Otherwise we’re well matched as buddies: He’s neat, I’m a slob; he’s profoundly sardonic and, well, I try to keep up in that department as well.
We studied the maps and made a plan, but after a few phone calls ditched the idea of circumnavigating the island on two wheels in favor of a series of car-assisted rides. The advice from local cyclists was that killing stretches of highway by car would allow us to dip into certain scenes more deeply, into the hyperlocal flavors of Hilo: the hippie-slow deep south; the almost-deserted sugarcane back roads, and the ranch country up north. The rhythms of the island dictate that only obsessives and Ironmen ride in the noonday sun. After morning rides of 35 to 45 miles we could snorkel, tour a coffee farm run by an 81-year-old psychiatrist, whack some golf balls at one of the more oddball municipal courses of all 50 states, kill time at a beach resort or contemplate whatever else washed up on our week. As it turned out, although the rides would not be without challenges—sideswiping gusts, several 4 and 6-mile climbs, and some jet-lagged vertical in punishing humidity—we were right to balance the riding and the other stuff, because the other stuff was good. I would not have missed swimming with a green sea turtle, for example, nor watching an ancient gentleman with a 20 on the line drive a Titleist a hundred yards farther than I can.
At the Hilo Farmer’s Market you can find everything from orchids (left) to surfboards (right). (Caron Alpert)
The final decision was, for Sikowitz in particular, painful: We decided to leave our bikes at home in favor of local rentals.
The East/West Decision
Two airports on the Big Island take flights from the mainland: Kona and Hilo. Kona puts you in the middle of the dry-zone, luxury-hotel, western strip, and Hilo is in the easy-going, wet-side east. We chose Hilo: You can work off 12 hours of flying (from Newark to Honolulu to Hilo, in our case) in a laid-back coastal town, and you’re staged for two or three great rides that immediately confirm that you’re not anywhere near Kansas anymore.
Hilo is a sprawling, hill-to-shore town gathered around a little bay; it manages to feel more lived-in than served up for tourists despite a growing concentration of tropical-tchotchke shops near the water. There’s a whiff of Colonial grandeur and Deco modernity, but mostly it’s a low-built, local sort of town, and it’s smartly pushed the big-box stores to the periphery. (Trust these sleepy bay towns to have a history: Hilo was hammered by tsunamis in 1946 and 1960, and threatened by lava in 1984.)
Flying in on a Friday night, as we did, made a visit to the Saturday Hilo Farmer’s Market mandatory. There’s plenty of Asian-Pacific fusion feel here, in the messy, tarp-covered tropical plenitude; in the jumble of local ginger, hairy rambutan fruit and coffee; in air perfumed with citrus, durian and other earth-and-flower smells. Here too was the first of many chances to try Spam musubi, a Twinkie-size puck of sushi rice and Spam, belly-banded with dry seaweed—as bland as it sounds, but not bad. Across the road are tables of local market crafts (mostly crud), but also Ratana’s Green Papaya Salad stall, serving what may be the best version east of Thailand, a lime-and-chili slap on the palate. This pair—bland musubi and vivid Thai salad, cheek by jowl—touch on something essentially Hawaiian. You can eat across from the market under a giant banyan tree; the banyans in Hilo’s parks are magnificent: giant, sprawling umbrellas that give, beneath, a gloomy live oak sanctuary.
Off then to get our bikes at Gerry Hollins’s shop, Mid-Pacific Wheels. Hollins started his business not long after coming to the Big Island 33 years ago. Originally from the Birmingham, Alabama, area, he raced in college and later palled around with Dale Stetina and Davis Phinney. “When I came over here there was nothing to do,” he told us. “Nothing going on for jobs except the pot-growing scene or the [sugar] plantations. We decided on a bicycle shop instead.” (Pot-growing remains a career choice; the sugar is gone.)
Whether it’s simple, beautiful churches (right) or breakfast at the Shipman House (left), you’ll find plenty to give thanks for. (Caren Alpert)
Today, at 55, Hollins is a genial evangelist for cycling, still averaging 120 miles a week, including his ride home: 17 miles with the last 2.5 miles climbing to 1,500 feet. Cycling here, other than the Ironman training season in Kona, has been mostly about mountain biking. With road biking beginning to take off, Hollins is mindful of the burgeoning traffic conflicts.
“The general attitude of drivers on this side is they don’t harass you unless you’re trying to take the lane,” he explained. “They’re not belligerent, it’s that they don’t understand road biking.” Nor do bikers respect the cars: “I irritate a lot of the cycling community because I say everyone has to follow the rules.” This is more than locally interesting: Mainlanders need to know that Big Island highways are narrow, sometimes shoulder-free, and not infrequently driven by drunks, according to Hollins. Certainly, they are dotted with flower-strewn roadside crosses marking the fatalities.
After a relaxed yak, Hollins fetched his touring bikes, oldie—but-goodie Cannondale R300s that he and his ancient, bone-thin assistant, Randy Brekke, set up with little hurry and a lot of patience to get the fit right. Hollins had advised that we bring our own pedals, shoes, helmets and seatbags; we also brought our Cateye computers. So pleasant was the bike pickup that even Sikowitz, who loves his Dura-Ace-equipped Litespeed beyond measure, and maintains it at a Formula One level, underwent a Rental Conversion Experience for three reasons: First (as he later opined), “It’s a hassle to disassemble a bike, reassemble and repeat; second, you risk damage to, or loss of, your regular ride with all that rigmarole; and third, although I had never spent much time thinking about granny gears, I was damn glad that the R300s had them.” Or, rather, I was, and he on my behalf, when we ran into the vitality-sucking combination of terrain, humidity, temperature and sun.
Hollins pored over our topographic map of Hawaii, suggesting rides, and then bid us good-bye with one last bit of advice: SPF 50 sunblock, not the 30 we had. “Trust me on that—my wife is a redhead. Make sure the sunblock is waterproof because you don’t want to sweat it off.” We spent more than an hour finding the stuff, and then rode for a week without a hint of sunburn.
The ride to Akaka Falls has great flow. (Caron Alpert)
Ride 1: Akaka Falls
By now it was early afternoon, but we decided to do the short warm-up ride to Akaka Falls State Park we’d planned for the following morning; the notoriously rainy local weather had broken, pouring sun onto steamy Hilo green. The ride caused me, the spectacularly less fit, to believe that cycling would now kill me.
It began innocently in Hilo with a flat few miles on Highway 19, then a right along Scenic Drive at about mile 5. What a great introduction to the island this drive is, as if you’ve pedaled back in time 30 years, onto an old country-coastal byway. You pass simple, Old Hawaii houses, deserted craft galleries and the occasional big estate. The road is quiet and lovely, pinched here and there by old stone one-lane bridges, with lots of gentle ups and downs and blind turns. The first stretch is mostly in woods, and the pavement is perfumed and slick here and there with fallen guava. We stopped on a bridge to watch kids jump 30 feet into a roiling cauldron of water. Soon the road moved into open land, an almost English-countryside view but for the palm trees. Hills gently sloped down to the brazen blue water.
You rejoin Highway 19 for a couple of busy miles until the left turn to a road that heads up to Akaka Falls. This is where the trouble began. On my jet-lagged and dehydrated body, the half hour of climbing turned out to be a bit more than a warm-up. There is something about steamy air that can induce a sensation of not being able to breathe, even as you’re sucking it in.
We stopped, Sikowitz looking fresh, me bright red. I eventually decided I was not dying and resumed the last few hundred meters to the falls. It had been a good reminder: We’d trained plenty in 90/90 weather (Fahrenheit/humidity) in New York, but the sun has a bullying force at latitude 19 that it lacks at 40.
Akaka Falls consists of a needle-thin cascade dropping several hundred feet against a distant green-black cliff; it’s worth the brief walk in, on the paved path, for the view, but you need one person to watch the bikes in the parking lot.
The ride back begins with a spectacular plummet toward that crazily blue sea, then hooks back to the Old Onomea Road with a stop advised at the What’s Shakin’ smoothie stand, which served the best smoothie we encountered on the Big Island. A detour is also advised at the Alea Cemetery, on Highway 19 near town, which is ruled by a solemn banyan and divided into ethnic and religious sections: Mormons here, Japanese there, Chinese there, a portrait in death of a town much more casually integrated in life.
Accommodation in Hilo was the magnificent Shipman House, a 19th-century mansion run by a descendant of one of the island’s big families. It is, like any B&B on the National Register of Historic Places, a rather rules-based sort of place, but the owners are gracious and well-informed, and the breakfast—toasted Portuguese sweet bread with passion-fruit butter, and one of the greatest tropical fruit platters in the Americas, mostly from exotics grown on the house’s acreage—is world class.
As our author says, the Big Island’s culture is “hyperlocal.” (Caron Alpert)
Ride 2: The Lava Coast of Puna
The next day was supposed to be our own Ironman event: a 20-mile, 3,700-feet-of-vertical ride from the sea to the famous Kilauea Caldera, via Chain of Craters Road. We planned a 6 a.m. start to avoid the worst of the heat. However, without actually calling us insane, Gerry Hollins had said that this was a climb that begins with the rider looking at bleak, black lava flow in a state of wonder regarding the glory of volcanic phenomena; you then spend hours climbing and looking at the same lava flow, bored out of your sun-pounded skull. Much better, he advised, to tour the hippie-dippy heart of the Big Island, the southeast extreme of the region of Puna. (If you do this via the Pahoa—Kalapana-Kapoho triangle, as we did, it’s only 35 miles, but easily more than double that for those who choose to start and finish in Hilo rather than the town of Pahoa. We parked in the lot of a local mini mall where Highways 130 and 132 meet, then rode.)
What great advice. The ride began on fairly busy but well-shouldered Highway 130, which heads 10 miles southeast, and about a thousand feet down, to the northern side of a lava flow that wiped out a long chunk of coastal road in the 1980s. That flow is now more forlorn than spectacular, a smudge of glassy and pockmarked lava with sprinkles of green. A brief jog south on 137 takes you to Kaimu, a tiny end-of-world settlement nearby. This is just a cluster of houses displaying an almost totemic fascination with Beware of Dog and Keep Out signs—but worth the tiny detour. Situated so close to Pele’s handiwork (Pele is the goddess of the volcano), Kaimu seemed “edgy” in a very precise way. At that point you can go no farther, so turn around and begin the 11-mile ride northeast on 137, the sea at your right.
It is superb going. The land is made of young, chunky, sharp lava that looks freshly turned over by Pele’s own backhoe. Dark trees hunker against sun and wind, and a few Cook pines lend an incongruous elegance; the houses have lava-rock yards and lava-rock fences. What earth there is is red. There’s a tiny graveyard along this stretch, with monuments set among the lava chunks and festooned with beach balls. Then the road begins to head into tropical forest, offering stretches of cool, cathedral-effect cover and groves of wispy ironwood pines. Here and there are lookouts where big surf pounds against black volcanic cliffs.
This will go on forever, you hope, but soon enough you roll into Isaac Hale Beach Park on Pohoiki Bay: local families enjoying a Sunday swim to the right, glimpses of some serious surfing on the stretch of water to the left. It smacks of any number of end-of-the-road island backwaters, in the best possible way. We bought salmon burgers from a friendly stall cook named Jorge (Panamanian via Alaska and New York) and hauled the bikes over the brutal lava-rock “beach” to watch the Hawaiians, rastas, girls and kids throw themselves into growing waves.
From Pohoiki Bay, the main road continues a few miles up to Kapoho, famous for its tide pools, but our search for ever-smaller back routes took us instead up the old Pohoiki Road. This is as local a stretch of road as you’ll find, winding through low forest and fields of marginal-looking agriculture; absent the ocean breeze, the heat was suddenly terrific. As Pohoiki approaches Highway 132 you see what appears to be a dark hill ahead; it turns out to be the high canopy of a glorious grove of monkey pod trees, and leads to Lava Tree State Park (which is known for rock stumps that show what happens when hot lava enrobes a big tree). From there it’s an easy ride back to Pahoa, whose cute old main street looks like a frontier town reimagined by the sarong, massage, patchouli and sensimilla brigade. Definitely stop at the shop with the pink Ice Cream Boulevard sign, which sells Hilo Homemade Ice Cream: tangy ginger, chewy coconut, cocoa-rich chocolate macadamia nut and more.
We fetched the car and drove up to Volcano House, a National Parks hotel perched on the edge of the enormous gray caldera of Mount Kilauea, with views of the steam vents. Great view, but you have to look hard for any Parks charm in what is basically an old, boxy two-story motel with a wheezily archaic dining room. We hiked the caldera in the morning (no lava flows are on the visible side of the mountain right now, for the first time in years) and then drove down to the starting point for ride 3.
Hairy, red—and tasty: the rambutan fruit. (Caren Alpert)
Ride 3: The Old Cane Roads of Kau
Several locals told us that cyclists bent on circumnavigating the Big Island mostly favor the main highways. In the third week of October we saw few road bikes at all—maybe 10—and none on the back roads. But it is the back roads that offer nearly miraculous rides without killer traffic. Case in point: the old cane plantation route in the region of Kau.
The slopes of Mauna Loa, the volcano that forms the entire southwest of the Big Island, are ribboned by lava flows. Since the island’s birth they have poured from the peak and are marked, on topo maps, by name and, in some cases, year. But we saw nothing of the 13,680-foot volcano above its first 5,000 feet; clouds hugged it without cease. The lower reaches of Mauna Loa’s slopes, from sea to about 2,000 feet, are or were agricultural. Sugar dominated here, but the last plantation closed in 1996. The wide roads that once handled sugar trucks are returning to soil, but remain excellent for long stretches. And they are barely traveled; we saw no more than 20 cars in a 41-mile ride, and zero bikes.
This was not a loop but a two-parter: from the town of Pahala northeast to Wood Valley, then back to Pahala to explore the main cane road heading southwest to Naalehu. There is no steep vertical on this ride but there is a lot of rise and fall throughout, including 4 miles uphill on the northeast leg. Nor is there much shade except in the Wood Valley area; after 20 minutes of climbing we were giving thanks to those Mauna Loa clouds, which beat back the sun but never dropped any rain.
The road to Wood Valley begins with that steady, 4-mile climb through macadamia-nut plantations and a few acres of coffee; in places the road is lined by magnificent Norfolk Island pines. Macadamia nut groves have a beaconing quality; they possess the dark aspect of European cork-oak forests, but unlike cork oaks these trees have great, dense canopies. The branches hang low, and when you walk into a grove there is a churchlike darkness and a reddish glow; the nuts are scattered on the red earth where they fall and will later be gathered.
On the way to Wood Valley, about mile 4, is an old immigrant cemetery on the right. It’s easy to miss; you can just see the gate from the road. It’s a ramshackle, eerie little refuge of crumbling stones, tropical flowers and a makeshift temple with coin offerings, plus evidence that this is also a local beer-and-snogging spot.
Continuing up, the road heads into dense forest. There is a little network of small roads here, taking you past the serene (of course, everything in these woods seems serene) Wood Valley Temple and Retreat Center, then some local houses, then a ranch; and then back to the road to Pahala. In town we stopped at the Pahala Town Café for a typical local lunch: a bento box of many fishy and fried things on rice; the Hawaiians are serious carbo-loaders.
The old cane road southwest of Pahala is a revelation. It’s a high road, at 1,500 to 2,000 feet, affording stunning views of the sea below. It’s lined for long stretches with old cane that seems to be returning to a wilder state. You ride into patches of tight forest, then emerge into magnificent open vistas with cattle-dotted fields that seem to roll right down to the ocean miles away: You can see the surf crashing against the lava-black shore. There are shades of California coast, shades of the British Isles, shades of Java in the mugginess and orchids, and a general tropical funk in the fragrant guava slime on the roads. The odd open-deck truck bounces by, chock-full of mac nuts; a few ATVs are driven by farm hands. But for long stretches it’s as if you own this road, which skirts the lower reaches of the world’s largest volcano.
Apt spot for a final rest before reaching Wood Valley: the cemetery en rout. (Caren Alpert)
Ride 4: Waimea-Hawi-Hapuna Bay
At the far north of the Big Island is the mountainous North Kohala region, whose windward side we explored on ride 4. It began in the famous ranch town of Waimea, pushing north up Highway 250 for 6 miles and a thousand feet of vertical, then gradually descending along the spine of the Kohala Mountains to the town of Hawi, 12 miles away. The route back to our hotel at Hapuna Bay ran along the arid coast, on Route 270. In all: 44 miles.
One new factor on this ride: ferocious wind, making for some white-knuckle riding. At 7:30 a.m., Waimea had cracked the low 60s, and clouds were scudding with suspicious alacrity along the desert-dry brown slopes high above. At that temperature the long climb was no problem, particularly with gusts running to 35 mph at our backs. Not exactly at our backs, actually; they cut forward and across, threatening to push the welterweight Sikowitz, in particular, into the oncoming lane of traffic (which was, fortunately, very light). He appeared to be canting the bike about 15 degrees, then correcting as the wind—which at times howled like an approaching jetliner—suddenly let up. This was, he noted dryly, “technical riding. Just take it easy and get through it and live to bike another day. Tomorrow specifically.”
But glorious riding, too. The roadside is piney but the land consists mostly of dry, unpopulated cattle country, with black cows staring back at idiots on bikes. Grand views of the distant blue sea are routine, as the dry slopes fall toward the water in gradual waves. Eventually you cruise into Hawi, a pretty little town getting enough tourism from South Kohala and North Kona to support a clutch of shops, restaurants, coffee bars and a remarkably fun restaurant called Bamboo. The latter is worth stopping for, if you can stash the bikes, or returning for, if you have a car and want to sample the fresh-juice mai tais. The menu includes Vietnamese salads, sweet baby back ribs, and a wonderfully simple, rich plate of smoky pork with cabbage and steamed rice. Try the local-lime custard pie. Service is happy.
The ride back on 250 was no less windy. This time, at least, the gusts threatened only to push us off the highway, into thorny brush, rather than into the big vehicles that use this route. Here the sun was full-on and hot, the land parched, though the wind brought rain down from the mountains for a strange, clear-air spritzing effect. A local had told us the wind was “not like this” usually, but we didn’t altogether believe him. Exhibit A: the wind farm outside Hawi. Exhibit B: the leaning trees. But we were not about to complain, because we had driven the route the day before, and passed a cyclist heading north on 270, one of the few cyclists we had seen up to that point. It was a woman who had to be in her 70s (could it be the inventor of the granny gear?) cruising along, as Sikowitz said, “with no regard for wind, trucks, ascents, descents, mongooses, feral pigs, methamphetamine addicts, drunken locals or anything else.” We contemplated getting a couple of fixies instead of the Girlie Bikes we had rented.
After the ride, I retired to the driving range at the luxurious Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel and drove 200 balls into what seemed to be even stronger wind. Frail old people were being swept up by the gusts and thrown into the bunkers (well, not quite, but it wouldn’t have surprised me). Then I had a backscratcher, a very tall tropical drink accompanied, oddly, by a fully functional bamboo itch-relieving device of the same name. Beautiful sunset over the gorgeous little beach below.
Malassadas come filled or not—go big, advises the author. (Caren Alpert)
Ride 5: The Old Mamalahoa Highway to Honokaa
First bit of bad luck all week: rain. Gerry Hollins had especially recommended the Old Mamalahoa Highway east of Waimea as a primo example of back-roads riding in interior ranch country. But this morning it began to pour—the only serious, interfering rain of the trip. So we drove the route through tropical fog, not seeing much and figuring we’d bag the ride entirely. We stopped at the famous Tex Drive In on the edge of Honokaa for a very tasty grilled ahi burger with mayo, onions, Tabasco and ketchup. And lo—the rain did cease. This was a sign. We quickly unpacked the bikes and rode into another of those moderate but ceaseless 4-mile climbs—funny how you don’t notice them in a car, coming the other way—this one through modest, beautifully gardened Honokaa homes. Suddenly the road opened to a big green vista that the earlier fog had obscured. The road eases after that, and you ride through the rolling green country of the famous Parker Ranch. It was our last ride, so we charged the hills, and probably pushed things a bit on that glorious, twisty forest-shaded downhill ride that ends back at the Tex Drive In. A wise rider is careful on damp, fruit-slick roads.
With time to do more, you could add 20 miles to our 20 by taking Highway 240 to the spectacular Waipio Valley Lookout and returning. The reward at Tex is the famous malassada, a particularly delicious example of that standard in global cuisine, the fried-and-sugared dough ball. Excellent with coffee.
But we were done. We had to drive back to Hilo, return the bikes to Hollins, and play a round at the quirky Hilo municipal golf course, which was populated by ancient, arthritic Asian-American men with 40-mph swings who hit the ball long and straight and gambled like crazy back in the barrackslike dining hall while swigging J&B. We lost all but one of the balls we had—two in a banyan tree—and hit 69 and 66. Not bad, you say. Unfortunately, that was in 9 holes. If we had any doubt before, now we knew: We’re not golfers, we’re cyclists.
Do The Trip:
Before You Go uhpress.hawaii.edu).
What’s Shakin’ Smoothie Stand, 17-999 Old Mamalahoa Hwy., Pepeekeo 808/964-3080
Bamboo, Intersection of Hwys. 270 and 250, Hawi 808/889-5555
Tex Drive In, 45-690 Pakalana St., Honokaa 808/775-0598 texdriveinhawaii.com
Hapuna Beach Prince Hotelprinceresortshawaii.com
Ride 1: Akaka Falls
Ride 2: The Lava Coast of Puna
Ride 3: The Old Cane Roads of Kau
Ride 4: Waimea-Hawi-Hapuna Bay
Ride 5: The Old Mamalahoa Highway to Honokaa
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