A writer and his 2014 Escape experience the lush valleys, active volcanoes and white-knuckle thrills of the Big Island.
By Jeff Wise
Photography by Jonathan Kane
WARNING! PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK! the sign says. I peer over the edge of the viewing area. Far below, the Pacific Ocean crashes onto a black beach at the head of Hawaii’s Waipio Valley, a verdant cleft flanked on either side by emerald-green cliffs up to 2,000 feet high. The road down dips sharply as it curves around the shoulder of the mountain to my left. The gradient ranks among the steepest of any public road in the world. To emphasize the point, another sign stands next to the first one: ONLY FOUR-WHEEL DRIVE VEHICLES PERMITTED!
I’ve been on the Big Island long enough to know that when you come across signs like these, you’d better take them seriously. The largest of the Hawaiian Islands has a diverse and rugged landscape. This is the state’s wild backyard, a place so sprawling and full of superlatives that you can think of it as four or five radically different places all mashed together.
Fortunately, I have an SUV that’s both comfortable enough for long-distance jaunts (the circuit around the whole island is more than 200 miles) and tough-hearted enough to get in and out of rugged spots. The 2014 Ford Escape sports not only Intelligent 4WD that automatically senses road conditions but also a brawny 240-hp,* 2.0-liter EcoBoost® power plant.
I start my descent into Waipio tentatively, with my foot on the brake and the shifter in Sport mode. A low rock wall is all that stands between me and the drop to my right. Where the road narrows to a single car-width, signs direct descending drivers to stop until ascending drivers are clear.
The Waipio Valley is well known as an important site for Hawaiian history and culture. Hemmed in on three sides by towering cliffs, Waipio remains a world apart. “The valley is filled with spirits,” an ethnic Hawaiian friend has told me, and I can feel it. There is no gift shop, no welcome ceremony, just a scattering of taro fields, waterfalls, rivers and swathes of jungle that conceal the remains of ancient temples and grave sites. At the end of the valley hangs the steep Hi’ilawe Falls, stretched thin as thread by its 1,300-foot plunge. Two horses emerge from the roadside vegetation, graze for a while and disappear.
The drive out is even more pulse-quickening than the drive in. The Escape’s hood angles steeply upward, and I feel my grip on the steering wheel tightening. When at last I reach the top the overcast has thickened into a steady drizzle. Most places, the weather changes with time; in Hawaii, it’s pretty much the same all the time, but differs from place to place. As I climb from the tropical coast to the central highlands, the rolling verdant pastureland reminds me of Ireland; beyond, I cross scrubby grassland that reminds me of Montana, then a vast sun-baked tumult of lava that looks like some barren alien planet. Higher still, I pass the tree line and find myself navigating a landscape of subarctic tundra.
Measured from its underwater base to the summit, Mauna Kea is the world’s tallest mountain, taller than Mount Everest, soaring so high above the weather that its peak is frostily cloud-free 325 nights a year. That’s a godsend for astronomers, who’ve turned the barren, rocky summit into the world’s most exclusive address for star gazing: Two of the planet’s three biggest optical telescopes are located here. When I finally reach the visitors center, near the 9,000-foot elevation mark, a burly volunteer wearing a vest against the chill invites me to try one of the more human-sized instruments on the terrace. Through the eyepiece, I see a pair of dots standing out against the disc of the sun’s surface. Though the sunspots look like pinpricks, each is wider than our planet.
From this spot it’s 5,000 more feet in elevation, and eight miles of steep dirt road, to the actual summit. USE YOUR FOUR-WHEEL DRIVE! a sign says. I’d take it as an invitation, but I’m already light-headed from the thin air. Time to head back to planet Earth.
My lodging for the night will be Volcano House, a hotel whose name does not lie. It perches on the rim of a volcano—Kilauea, one of Earth’s most active. From my room I can look out over a blackened landscape from which steam and volcanic gas waft like wisps of cotton in the wind, and a giant column of white rises up to form a cloud above the Halema’uma’u Crater. Deep within lies a lake of lava that Hawaiians believe to be the home of the volcano goddess, Pele. At night, its glow turns the towering cloud of vapor a luminous orange.
As I settle in, a hula group, or halau, begins performing on the grass outside my bedroom. More than just a dance, hula originated as a show of reverence for the goddess Pele, so as part of their pilgrimage to the Big Island each halau treks to the rim of the volcano to perform in honor of the great goddess. Once, halau groups would dance at the Halema’uma’u Overlook—on the crater’s edge—and leave offerings for the gods, but in 2008 an explosion wiped out the viewing platform.
If there’s anything more Hawaiian than volcanoes, it’s surfing, so I make my way to the island’s dry northwestern coast—referred to as the Kohala Coast—and rent a board at Hulakai, within the Mauna Lani Bay resort. One of Hulakai’s burly Hawaiian watermen points me to the shelf in the reef a few hundred feet from the hotel. The break is so regular there, he says, that I should be able to catch a ride every time.
It’s been a few years since I last rode, and I’m not sure I still have the skills. I also wonder if the locals waiting for the next set are going to welcome the arrival of a city-pale outsider. But as soon as I paddle out the guys on lineup start offering me tips. While the Big Island can be a wild and untamed place, the people tend toward the friendly and mellow. “This is a great place for people who find Oahu and Maui are too fast paced,” one surfer tells me. A wave looms. I paddle furiously, then feel a surge of acceleration as the wave rolls in on itself to my left. I’m on my feet, the board trembling like a living thing as the coral heads zoom past below me.
I paddle and surf myself to exhaustion, then replenish my energy stores at Three Fat Pigs, the brand-new gastropub opened by Chef Philip “Ippy” Aiona, the 24-year-old islander who rose to celebrity status as a finalist on the show Food Network Star. “A lot of Hawaii’s most famous chefs come from the Big Island,” Ippy’s dad, Max, tells me as I tear into a succulent hunk of roasted pork belly. “It makes sense. We’re the breadbasket of the state. We have 11 of the world’s 13 climate zones here, so you can grow just about anything.”
Now my adventure to-do list is down to one essential item. On a remote stretch of the southern coast, molten lava is at this very moment flowing into the ocean inside the boundaries of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park—the only place in the world where this is happening. I’ve got to get to Kalapana, a community on the southern shore that was easy to reach until a massive and sustained lava flow buried the road in from the national park. So the next day I take the long way around, heading east almost all the way to Hilo, then doglegging west again until the road dead-ends in a wall of hardened lava. There I find a rickety kiosk where I sign up with a professional guiding outfit and head out with eight others on a vigorous two-hour hike.
Geology is generally thought of as an unthinkably slow-moving process, but in this corner of the Big Island it operates on a human timescale. In the past 30 years, volcanism has added more than 500 acres to the island. As we pick our way across the rugged expanse of a recent flow, we see once-fluid rock stopped mid-motion into fantastic forms that resemble gnarled tree roots, dripping candle wax or poured pancake batter.
At last we come over a rise and there it is, the roiling plume rising from the base of a black cliff, its base glowing orange. The veil of steam parts to reveal a glowing rivulet, then cloaks it again beneath swirling vapor. A wave crashes, and with its impact glowing hunks burst upward and arc into the sea. The receding surge carries away steaming chunks of pumice, only for the next wave to deposit them, still shedding white streamers, on the smooth black sand of a newly formed beach.
As the darkness thickens, the show grows more luminous. We are all hushed, frozen in place by the intense power of this otherworldly spectacle. The world is full of wonderment, this ecstasy of fire reminds us. And here we can watch it being made.
*Horsepower achieved using 93-octane premium fuel.
THE 2014 ESCAPE
EASY ACCESS Load groceries or gear without pulling out a key fob with the available hands-free foot-activated liftgate.
HIGH TECH Available SYNC® with MyFord Touch®* technology provides hands-free calling, easy navigation and the best infotainment system in the business.
GREEN MACHINE Its highly efficient EcoBoost® engine and a variety of interior materials from recycled sources make for the most eco-friendly Escape yet.
SMART DESIGN Available Active Grille Shutters and an aerodynamic design cut down on wind resistance and improve performance across the board.