Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site is a platform temple finished in 1791 with lava-stone walls 100 feet long and up to 20 feet high in places. King Kamehameha the Great himself joined his people in the building of it to appease the war god Ku, and then sacrificed a rival chieftain here to seal the deal. It's not striking: It'll never give the Parthenon or the Pyramids reason to fear their place among the world's must-sees. It is, however, important in the Hawaiian scheme of things. The best view of it is along the coastal path, a short walk from the parking lot of Spencer Beach Park next door.
As for Spencer Beach, it's not the best the Big Island has to offer. But it is a bona fide beach-with-sand on an island so new, geologically speaking, that it hasn't had time to make very many. It's relaxing, as long as the tent city that has sprung up here doesn't make you nervous. There's a makeshift security station, also in a sort-of tent.
Everyone says the best beach on the island is Hapuna Beach State Recreation Area and they're right: a loooong stretch of clean, honey-blond sand and adequate parking, facilities and rentals -- water tricycles seem especially popular. Get there by taking the Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel exit.
At Mauna Lani, past the shopping center with the Ruth's Chris Steak House and the Tommy Bahama's Restaurant, past the Fairmont Orchid Resort, lies a field of petroglyphs believed to have been etched here before Westerners arrived. Getting to them means a three-quarter-mile hike through a Halloween forest of gnarly tree branches. The reward is looking at human stick figures that, from the viewing area, look to be at least 18 inches tall. Many of them are drawn in pairs and are holding hands.
Absorb the petroglyphs, and the modern rock-art messages along the highway between Mauna Lani and Kailua don't seem so out of place. These are a recyclable graffiti -- "Happy Birthday Brenda," "Kyle + Julie 12/'06" -- posted in bleached-white coral that stands out against the earthscape of black lava. Robbing stones from someone else's message to create your own is part of the tradition.
There's another beach of soft, brown sand at Anaehoomalu Bay, adjacent to the Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort & Spa. Maybe it's the competition from the designer retail and dining at the Kings' Shops, but nobody seems to pay any attention to this picturesque spot or the ancient fish ponds here.
CAPT. COOK AND THE SOUTH
South of Kailua, Hawaii Highway 11 leaves the coastline and strings together several hillside towns so closely that there's no telling them apart: Honalo, Kainaliu, Kealakekua and Capt. Cook. Browsing their historic storefronts is more intriguing than in Kailua -- H. Kimura Fabrics, for instance, seems to have been here from day one -- and less expensive than at the coastal resort hotels. These shops aren't overcrowded. Neither are the snack bars, such as Sandy's Drive-In, that are a local mainstay. It's also easier to find a parking place.
Really, there are only three reasons to leave this stretch of highway: coffee farms, old churches and ancient sites.
To be specific: The aroma at Kona Joe Coffee Co. is outdone only by the flavor of its beans and the view from its cafe out over trellis-trained coffee trees all the way to the sea. The scenery at diminutive St. Benedict Catholic Church is mostly indoors. Clouds and palm branches spread across its ceiling. Biblical tableaux cover its walls. This wedding-chapel-size landmark built at the turn of the last century is remembered by all as the Painted Church.
Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park takes a little more explaining. It's actually two ancient sites in one. The first part was once a royal resort off limits to commoners, with fish ponds, reconstructed huts and an exclusive canoe-landing beach where these days endangered Hawaiian green sea turtles come to sun themselves.
The second part is more esoteric, a stark peninsula of black lava, cut off from the rest of the island by a wall 17 feet thick and accessible only by sea. It was set aside as a place of refuge for soldiers and civilians on the wrong side of a war, for example, and certainly for lawbreakers. Anyone able to reach this place would have been not only safe, but forgiven.
Park rangers say some visitors stay for hours and feel something profound and that others walk through in a few minutes and leave shrugging their shoulders. Most don't leave, though, without taking a picture of the reconstructed thatched-roof temple and its clutch of wooden gods, especially the two large ones, called Kii, whose fierce, grimacing faces have become the icons for the Big Island.
Continuing south, Hawaii 11 finds its way through hardwood stands, macadamia nut groves, real estate for-sale signs and Naalehu, America's southernmost pleasant spot in the road. When the trees give way to grassy hillsides there are thrilling views of the coastline.
A side road leads down to Punaluu Black Sand Beach, where a ragged company of palm trees take whatever punishment the winds decree. The sand is a little too much on the coarse side for bare feet, but you have to try it anyway. It really is jet black: lava that's taken a pounding by the surf long enough to be pulverized into this state. In fact, the wave action keeps most people out of the small bay and on the shore at water's edge, a respectful distance from the Hawaiian green sea turtles that come ashore here.
There's a progression on Hawaii 11 where pastures give way to a forest of dead trees, then lava fields supporting a stunted growth of vegetation. Then a warning comes into view. "Caution. Fault zone. Watch for cracks in road." It's a sign that the volcano, the active one, Kilauea, is just ahead.
Rental car rates at the Kona airport start as low as $245/week (taxes included) for an economy car from Thrifty. In Kailua-Kona, you probably won't be lucky enough to find street parking. The attended lot at King Kamehameha Hotel charges $1.50 per half hour. Unattended lots are less. Most hotels and resorts in the Kona/Kohala corridor charge $9 or $10 per night for parking. Parking in Hilo is plentiful and free. When I was on the island in January, gas was $3 a gallon.
See the "Where to stay on the Big Island " sidebar..
In Kailua-Kona: The eggplant Parmesan is homemade at Basil's Pizzeria Restaurant on Alii Drive. That dish plus soft drink and tip comes to just under $16. A shave-ice all the way -- that is, a snow cone with ice cream and azuki beans -- comes to $5.25 at Beach Dog Internet Cafe, off Alii Drive.
In Honokaa: Jolene's KauKau Korner serves a vegetable tempura plate or a hamburger steak plate for the same price: $7.75. Add a coconut 7-Up -- a house specialty -- and the bill comes to $9.64 before tip. A hot malasada (Portuguese doughnut sprinkled with sugar) costs 99 cents at Tex Drive In.
Along the Kohala Coast: Waikoloa Resort counts a Roy's Waikoloa Bar & Grill (Pacific Rim fusion) in the Kings' Shops shopping plaza. The chain restaurant is one of the stars in chef Roy Yamaguchi's crown and a regular stop on the foodie circuit. The takeout deli at Merriman's Market Cafe, from celebrity chef Peter Merriman, always seems to attract long lines. The shopping center at Mauna Lani has a Tommy Bahama's Tropical Cafe & Emporium (808-881-8686) that serves tortilla soup ($9 for the bowl) and chicken satay ($13 for six) with equal finesse. The breakfast buffet at Hapuna Beach Prince hotel's Ocean Terrace costs $29.17 with tax.
South of Kailua-Kona: Breakfast at Kona Joe Coffee farm comes with a view from its carefully tended hillside all the way to the ocean. A slice of warm chocolate bundt cake and a cup of coffee total $5.72, tax included. Sandy's Drive-In is as good a place as any to sample a loco moco (a stack of rice, hamburger patty, eggs and gravy, all in a takeout bowl) and medium Coke, all for $4.64 tax included. At the Sheraton Keahou Bay, an omelet ($13.50) and coffee in Kai restaurant come to $17.17, including tax. In Naalehu, Hana Hou Restaurant, southernmost restaurant in the U.S.A., will charge you $9.63 for a grilled cheese sandwich, Diet Coke, peanut butter cookie and coffee, tax included.
Contact Big Island Visitors Bureau at 808-961-5797 or www.bigisland.org.