Note: This is the sixth of fourteen parts. Click here to read from the beginning.
There are only a few major roadways here that cover the 4,000 square miles that make up Hawaii’s Big Island. Route 11 covers the southern hemisphere, cutting the path all the way around the perimeter of the island, from Kona on the west side to Green Sand Beach to the south and to Hilo on the east. Route 19 covers most of the island in points north. Minor highways include 130, which takes you to the Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, or 180, which cuts across the mid-island to Hilo.
Because Molly and I stayed in Captain Cook on the southwest side of the island and also explored Hilo side, we got most familiar with 11. When you’re heading south on this highway on the Kona side, all roads to your right head down to the ocean or into the bustling Kona center with shops that range from little touristy places to Sears and Goodyear Tire. Roadways to the left head up to traditional residential neighborhoods in which everyone lives on the side of the mountain and has a shore view or to farms up in the clouds, like the one we are staying on.
In the most inhabited places, and on 11, the roads feel safe and unchallenging; speed is not tolerated, though, and speed limits range from 15 to 55 even on major roadways. If you are headed to the farms or to the beach, you will also be driving slowly. These are no-radio, no chitty-chatting, two-hands-on-the-wheel driving zones.
Even in San Francisco, where I visited in the 80s for my brother Jeff’s wedding, I have not seen such steep and winding roads. And what’s treacherous here are the lack of shoulders; there are an alarming number of deep gullies where the shoulders should be—some that could swallow our rented Nissan Versa up.
On the way to the beach in our first week here, I kept remarking at the deep ditches on the sides of the road; some were at least 10 feet deep.
“We fall in one of those, and it’s not going to be pretty,” I kept saying to Molly, who has made the traveling easier by being a terrific navigator. I imagined a sideways Versa with volcanic rock through the windshield in our faces.
Heading from 11 to the farm is most interesting. The mountain roads are steep and pitched at what feels like a 90-percent grade. They wind up and down, literally like a roller coaster. Add to that that the roads are narrower than the bike paths in Western Mass, and, remember, there is no shoulder. When a car comes at you from the opposite direction, the local rule is that the guy climbing uphill has the right of way. The downhill vehicle has to work to find a place to pull over and get out of the way.
On these roads, the Versa, let’s just say, doesn’t really cut the mustard. There should be a rule: four-wheel drive rentals only. Four-wheel drive would be especially helpful in our driveway, which I don’t attempt to climb in the Versa. It has two concrete strips the width of a car’s axle, but that all falls apart and becomes a series of deeply pitted ruts and jagged stone just before the parking area. I park down the hill and walk up; I did not buy the add-on insurance for the Versa and don’t want to risk pulling off the exhaust system!
The farm’s owner did give us access to an older Subaru, which we have used several times to get into beaches on roads made of volcanic rock, again, with deep rocky pits the Versa could not begin to navigate.
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