A Literary Luau: Touring Hawai’i Island with Mark Twain

by Debra Smith  |  Published June 6, 2016

Mark Twain was 30 years old when he visited Hawai’i Island and for the rest of his life he longed to return. Nicknamed the Big Island, Hawai’i Island could contain the entire chain of Hawai’ian islands within its ten thousand square kilometres. It’s famous for its black beaches, lush landscapes and active volcano.

In 1866 Mark Twain visited Kealakekua Bay where Captain Cook, the first European explorer, landed in Hawaii. (Photo: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Cameron Brooks)

In 1866 Mark Twain visited Kealakekua Bay where Captain Cook, the first European explorer, landed in Hawaii. (Photo: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Cameron Brooks)

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, also known as Mark Twain, was the most popular journalist, world traveler and public speaker of his day (1835-1910). Thirty years after his visit to Hawai’i he said that he wished his house would burn down so he could return to “the loveliest fleet of islands that lies anchored in any ocean”. Equipped with a curious nature and a quick wit, he arrived in Honolulu on Sunday, March 18th, 1866 on the steamer Ajax, to visit Maui, Oahu and Hawai’i Island.

In July, Twain took a schooner to the Big Island.  His cabin was so small, he reported, that, “One might swing a cat in it, perhaps, but not a long cat.” Almost exactly 150 years later, I flew to Hawai’i Island to follow in his footsteps. I landed at Kailua-Kona airport on a moonlit night. The last of the day’s warmth was escaping from the tarmac and scents of plumeria and hibiscus lingered in the air. I picked up my rental car and headed south and it wasn’t long before the lights of the airport were left far behind. Soon there were no street lights at all. A slice of moon hung in the inky sky surrounded by twinkling stars.

The moonlit silhouettes of mop-headed palm trees, luminous road paint and well placed signs helped lead the way up a winding road to the Hale Maluhia (“House of Peace”) Country Inn, perched in the hills above Kailua-Kona. Cattle once stumbled their way to market down this steep road. The rice-paper walls of the eclectic Japanese/Hawaiian style studio kept out the weather while I drifted off to the sounds of nature – the rustle of palm leaves, the distant bark of a dog and the clucks of the ever-present wild chicken population.

Early the next morning I headed east along the island’s main highway, the Mamalahoa, following Twain’s route to Kealakekua Bay. Captain Cook, the English explorer credited with discovering Hawai’i, was killed here in 1779. Twain travelled by horseback, stopping to visit coffee and sugar plantations along the way.

There are three ways down to scallop-shaped Kealakekua Bay. Snorkelers and divers most often arrive by boat at the Captain Cook monument, which is a prime diving area. The bay is a marine preserve teeming with colourful fish but the black lava shoreline is rocky and unforgiving. There is a steep hiking trail that weaves down the green hills or you can take the slow and winding highway drive. At the beach the precisely fitted lava walls of a huge temple face the sea, a reminder of the advanced culture that Cook first encountered on these shores. Across the glittering waters, the white monument to Captain Cook shines like a tiny beacon. Guided by Twain’s account, I took a moment to reflect on the devastating changes that faced the local population in the hundred years after Cook made his first landing. Twain didn’t mince his words, “Small blame should attach to the natives for the killing of Cook. They treated him well. In return, he abused them.”

Temple walls tower above the rocky shore of Kealakekua Bay. (Photo: Debra Smith)

Temple walls tower above the rocky shore of Kealakekua Bay. (Photo: Debra Smith)

The native dwellings are long gone now but a faithful recreation exists just up the highway at Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park, the next spot on Twain’s visit. In the past this was a sacred Place of Refuge. Defeated warriors and people who had violated a kapu (taboo) escaped death and found sanctuary here. The area was in ruins when Twain visited, but it now has an interpretive trail, a modern visitor centre, reconstructed temples and workshops. The ten-foot-high Great Wall of volcanic blocks that Twain wrote about is still standing. I walked the trail tracing the landmarks that he had described and found myself at a giant stone bench. Thinking of him sitting here, perhaps taking a minute to jot down some notes, I felt closer to him at that moment than at any other place on the island.

An outrigger canoe carved at Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park (Photo: Debra Smith)

An outrigger canoe carved at Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park (Photo: Debra Smith)

Following Twain’s route to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the landscape changed from verdant green hills to a surface covered with brown rocks, as if I was driving over a giant crumbled chocolate cake. The highway crossed ancient lava flows that had ripped across the hillsides, destroying everything in their path. Here and there, gnarled ohia bushes pushed their way up through the crust. They are always the first plant to appear after a lava flow and are sacred to the volcano goddess, Pele. Fittingly, Hawai’i Island’s official flower is the red, pompom-like flower, the lehua, that bursts from their branches.

Twain made a daring trek on foot to the Halema’uma’u crater at the park in at a time of major geologic activity. He described it as “a tangled network of angry fire”; with “gleaming holes of melted lava”; and “fountains that boiled … and discharged sprays of stringy red fire along with a shower of brilliant white sparks”. Two years later, in 1868, the volcano would explode, causing mudslides, an earthquake and a tsunami.

Exploring a lava tube at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park (Photo: Debra Smith)

Exploring a lava tube at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park (Photo: Debra Smith)

Most visitors come to the park expecting to see flowing ribbons of molten rock. However, at present, the level of the lava in the crater has dropped considerably and hiking to a lava flow is illegal on the island.

Even so, a visit to the park is exciting. Trails lead to curling steam vents, through cooled lava tubes and to the geological exhibits at the Jaggar Museum.  A drive down the 19 mi/30 km Chain of Craters Road will take you close to several pit craters. I parked the car and walked across black lava fields still criss-crossed with the bleached white branches of trees that had been caught in the flow, to peer into the depths of the huge extinct craters. Following the road to the shoreline, I spent time watching the unrelenting waves pound away at a sea arch before heading back to the Volcano House for dinner.  This historic hotel has a panoramic view of the caldera and Twain also stopped here on his hike.  After dark I watched as the red glow from the crater created the same “pillar of fire” in the clouds that Twain reported 150 years ago. Some things haven’t changed.

For more of Mark Twain’s adventures, read Letters from Hawai’i and Roughing It.