Motorcycling in Paradise |
by Jim Hambleton
The first week of this year Audrey & I visited the Big Island of Hawaii. We'd been to other islands in our 50th state in the past, specifically Oahu & Kauai. Never rode motorcycles on them, though. So this was a new experience all around. It's not called the Big Island for no reason; it's larger than all the other islands put together. Still, for riding around there aren't a lot of roads, since a large percentage of that land mass is inaccessible. This is because the island, also the newest in the Hawaiian archipelago, is composed of three volcanoes, two inactive and one still quite active.
About the first thing that strikes a new visitor, at least it struck me, is the color of the island. Or should that be 'colors?' since there are two basic ones; green (which you'd expect in the tropics) and black, as in lava. It's a kind of natural blackness that defies description. There are other colors, of course, like brown for older lava flows that have been exposed to sunlight for a couple hundred years, but the Stygian black lava contrasted with the green where plant life exists, and especially around the golf courses with their imported grasses, is quite remarkable. Near the roads some locals (I assume) have taken white rocks and created signs on the black lava. Enlightening messages like “Hawaii 2010” and missives like “Jason (outline of a heart) Jessica.” It can be distracting to drivers and is probably considered a taboo of some sort. Since there are very few local white stones, I'd speculate that a lot of them have been soaked in whitewash before being strategically placed. Most aren't long enough messages for Audrey to correct their spelling and grammar.
So renting a motorcycle: Apparently there's only one place to do so on the Big Island, and that would be “Big Island Motorcycle Co.” located in the King's Market shopping center in the Waikoloa Beach resort area. That resort also happens to be where we stayed, and the shop, such as it is (it reminded me of the colloquialism about cats swung by their tails), was less than a 5 minute walk from our condo. I'd emailed the contact address on their web site www.BigIslandMotorcycleCo.com and received an immediate response. Basically I wanted to know if I'd need a reservation or could I just show up one day the first week of January and hope something would be available. The answer was “just show up” and it was correct. Big Island has a small but tasteful selection of motorcycles for rent; three Harleys of varying Harleyness, a couple of Japanese (“metric” in their parlance) cruiser-styled bikes, and one Yamaha FX-6. They rent for 4 or 8 hours, and the shop closes at 7pm, so if you're inclined to rent for a full 8-hour day you might need to plan ahead a bit. (There are also mopeds and bicycles to rent, as well as snorkeling gear if you're so inclined.) The proprietor, Dustin Edwards – the guy who answered my email effectively immediately – is a very nice person and quite helpful in giving route suggestions, explaining the rules and getting one started on the road. Insurance coverage is included in the rental, and the boilerplate forms seemed, well, reasonable enough. Dustin is also quite reasonable about damage, waiving any dents that might arise from rocks being kicked up on the road.
After looking over the selection I decided on the Kawasaki Vulcan 1300. It seemed the best option; since I have all my teeth and no tattoos I figured the Harleys were out of the running. Dustin will loan helmets as part of the rental, and we availed ourselves of them, even though Hawaii, like Arizona, is not a helmet-mandatory state. The asphalt there, on inspection, seemed to us to be just as hard as it is on the mainland, however. Dustin also has jackets he'll loan you, but we had packed ours, plus gloves, and boots. I figured about 4 hours of riding would do for me, and with Dustin's expert advice we picked a route. Actually I picked the route and Audrey didn't have a lot to say about it. The Vulcan was not a motorcycle I'd be likely to buy, ever, but for that locale and that amount of time it worked just fine. For one thing, and it's my only complaint, the shifter seemed – not to be too unkind, just honest – rather agricultural. Plus it's a boatload compared to the bikes I own, weighing in at something like 700 pounds. But it handled fine (at highway speeds) and wasn't too loud, and was comfortable enough.
Our route first took us up the west side along the coast, then inland (east) for about 10 miles, where we turned off the main highway onto a road that traverses part of the northernmost inactive volcano, and ends up on the north shore in the little hamlet of Hawi, the birthplace of King Kamehameha The Great who unified the islands in the late 18th century. From Hawi we rounded the coast road heading south along the very northwestern edge of the island, then doubled back to where we'd turned north over the mountain road, and instead turned south onto a connecting road that runs north/south through the western center part of the island. The full length of this road connects the towns of Waimea on the north end and Kona on the south end. The only other way to get from one place to the other is take the coastal road, which suffers from a fair amount of traffic (comparatively; this is Hawaii after all) and has a number of stop lights. We didn't go all the way down to Kona, but turned westward onto a minor (but quite good and entertaining) road which carried us back toward the resort where we'd started. However, instead of heading straight back to the shop, since we had some time on the clock to spare, we turned back north again and explored a couple of beaches, or what passes for beaches on the big Island. (Because it's so relatively new geologically speaking, there aren't many sand beaches on Hawaii, unlike Kauai or Oahu, and what beaches there are are relatively small.) We had to double back again on the coast road to get back to the resort. After gassing up the bike in the Shell station practically right next to the shop, we returned the bike and the helmets and bid adieu to Dustin.
The roads on the Big Island are generally well maintained and mostly pot-hole-free. There are a couple of interesting features, though. To start with, the numbering system for the roads seems to have been a random selection of King Kamehameha's favorite hymn numbers. For another there aren't that many flat stretches on any of the roads. The three volcanoes which dominate the island mean that in all cases you're either going uphill or downhill, since the land slopes quite radically from more or less the center; the tops of the two highest volcanoes are well over 13,000 feet. At times, in the outskirts of Kona in the famous coffee belt area, it seemed we were going vertically and we'd need the car equivalent of crampons. (The constant up and down action also exposed what I think is a major flaw in the Ford Fusion we had as a rental; the automatic transmission had difficulty making up it's mind about which gear to be in and this caused the whole car to shudder and shake rather violently.)
What roads there are can take you all the way around the island, if you've a mind, and even though that distance is not great, the fact that it's mostly two-lane blacktop means it could take awhile. We didn't do that. We did hit all the major sites in the course of a week (did I mention a rental car was included in our package deal through Costco?) but for the half day I rented the Kawi Vulcan, we only put about 120 miles on it. One of the other problems with the roads, aside from the gradient, is that in most places there are no shoulders and absolutely no run-off room. And not a lot of left-turn lanes, which means that anyone wanting to turn left into a driveway or onto a minor road can tie up traffic for quite a ways. On several occasions we were overtaken by emergency vehicles hurrying somewhere, but never saw any direct evidence of a car crash, so maybe someone had a heart attack climbing the hills; we don't have a clue.
In summary, there's a lot to do and see on the Big Island, and if you're there and inclined to take a spin on two wheels, luck favors you. Just tell Dustin where you heard about it. And you probably don't need to bother emailing him first, but if you do, he'll surely answer.