I was sitting poolside at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel watching a perfect vacation day draw to a close on Hawaii Island, aka the Big Island. The sun slipped below the umbrellas, which made me think of the miniature, multicolored versions unfurling at the beach bar just steps below, and I pondered the merits of the happy hour favorite, the “Pahoehoe,” a blended beauty of passion fruit, rum and ice. I could almost taste its grainy, citrus-y sweetness when my partner and traveling companion interrupted. He had a “better” plan: We would drive up the Kohala Coast around the northwest tip of the island, 18 miles to the town of Hawi (“Ha-vee”), and then on to the little Eden at the end of the road, Pololu Valley.
Naturally, I offered a modest protest to the idea of hiking down a remote canyon at sundown instead of staying put, sliding a straw down a tropical drink and watching the sun take a similar course into the sea.
But I lost that debate, and soon we were in our car heading up the coast. The light had begun to define the hillsides to the right and hammer out the brass-tinted sea to the left. We passed the movie-set storefronts of Hawi and followed the curves leading to Pololu Valley, where we parked the car among a group of locals and tourists. A stream of sweating hikers bearing the pride of a day’s accomplishment reached the top of the trail just as the sun crouched behind the mountain. We were instead about to descend said trail.
I was still clinging to the idea of a relaxing, end-of-day ritual involving stemware. That notion was swiftly dispelled as I found myself, instead, clinging to branches smoothed by hikers, like us, attempting to glimpse the valley without falling into it. But, after two easy switchbacks, my thirst for a frozen cocktail melted away as I saw the valley evolve in the soft-focus of early evening. We stared at the hillsides as they rolled and folded into a cascade of green that met a silver-blue sea and black sand beach.
The twilight seemed suspended in time as we descended, while a handful of surfers assembled their boards around a beach campfire. We could smell the sweet, salty smoke as it drifted toward us. The trail ended, unceremoniously, on a carpet of pine needles that formed an airy divider between the valley and the beach. A tree swing is the first required stop along this direct line to the sea. Nearby, at the end of a gentle creek, a pond had formed, pooled against a slab of sand that prevented it from continuing to the sea beyond. The ocean waves sent salty puffs into the air like smoke signals, warning the fresh water to stay back.
The surfers, meanwhile, had secured their campsite on the beach. A girl stepped gently into a patch of light reflecting on the pond. I snapped a photo with my iPhone and looked to see if I had caught her in that perfect moment. As I checked the camera roll, everything around me—the sand, the trees, the rocks—became illuminated in a warm rose tone. I turned to see an armada of pink clouds floating over the ocean as the sky glowed in the day’s last salvo of light. The air became cooler as it merged with colors into a breathable blend of calm and exhilaration. The campfire glowed against the graying sky, leaving a wedding-dress train of smoke proceeding toward the valley.
We let the surfers have the evening beach to themselves. They’d earned it riding those daunting waves (swimming is not recommended in Pololu because of strong currents and undertows). The hike back up was easier than expected, and it was still bright out, as if there were party lights strung along the trail. We easily reached the top but were breathless over the view.
Balancing in a one-legged yoga pose, a young local guy stood on the low stone wall that lined the parking area. His car lights illuminated the palm tree that soared from the bluff below. I was relieved when he came out of his perilous pose and approached us. “You like fruit?” He opened the door of his red-dirt-coated car to reveal mangos, papayas, lilikoi, star fruit and even jackfruit, piled on its once-elegant plush maroon leather seats. Some mangos spilled onto the pavement and rolled, like escapees hurrying to freedom in the darkened valley. We caught most of them. Grinning and tan, he said, “Here, take all these and enjoy.” Then he piled a bounty of lilikoi, mangosteen and star fruit into our hands. “Where’re you from?” “LA,” we replied with a hint of apology. “Yeah? Well, no farmer’s market in LA will have anything like these! I just picked ’em from those trees up the road.”
With a hug, we bid him aloha and headed back on that road, wondering which of the trees had produced our colorful new passengers. We could smell the sweet wonder of the fruit as it rolled around on the back seat. We followed the curves back to the Mauna Kea, where even the hotel’s celebrated beachside blenders couldn’t come close to rendering what we had just savored at the edge of Eden, in Pololu Valley.
SLIDESHOW: Exploring Hawaii's Pololu Valley
(All Photos ©Haines Wilkerson/Huy Chau)