Land of Contrasts.

Kona airport on the Big Island of Hawaii is unexpected in its simplicity. Stone-flagged pathways wind through groves of palm trees and flowering bushes, and shuttle buses to hotels and car rentals wait patiently by the sidewalk.

Driving on the Big Island is enjoyable. Highways are excellent and tributary roads bring out to areas of historical and scenic interest. “Saddle” roads cross the heart of the Island, but are off limits to most rental car drivers.

Most spots along the coast are within an hour or ninety minutes drive from Kailua Knoa, the largest town on the Kona coast. Hilo on the eastern side of the Island is about 77 miles from the airport, while the road to the Volcanoes National Park sweeps southward and east for a spectacular coastal drive.

On my first day in Hawaii, my sister, her husband and I head out along the Queen Kaahamanu Highway which stretches along the Kohala coast to Upolo Point, the northern-most point of the island. Past Waikoloa we swing off the highway to Hapuna beach – a panoramic travel brochure picture come to life. Golden sands stretch out to an incredibly deep blue sea.

But it is November and windy, so we decide against a picnic lunch and drive on to Lapakahi State Historical Park – site of a ghost fishing village now left with only its legends to whisper on the sea breezes.

As we continue north, hardened lava rock reduces the landscape to a barren, treeless waste. But past Hapuna, the vegetation changes dramatically: the scenery is lush, with papaya, banyan, banana and palm trees, tangled creepers, vivid flowering bushes and thick undergrowth flanking the road.

The road winds and climbs a few hundred feet to the Pololu Valley Lookout. A gale is blowing as we arrive at the Lookout and an iron-grey sea curls in white-foamed spray against sheer cliffs. It starts to drizzle and unexpectedly a rainbow materializes, touching a craggy rock out at sea and surrounding it with radiance.

The return to Kailua-Kona takes us across a high plateau and through rolling cattle ranch country dotted with cactus plants. We drive past tortured trees, their trunks and branches permanently twisted by the force of winds whipping across the open landscape. Far below us the Kohala Coast road winds like a black thread, and the ocean merges into the evening sky.

South of Kailua-Kona, we travel through the coffee plantation belt to the town of Captain Cook. A side road leads to an unpretentious little cove from which we sight a slim, white monument marking the place where Cook was ambushed and killed.

Fifteen minutes later, we are in Pu'uhonua o Honaunau – the Place of Refuge. This was once a royal settlement with its own temple, fishing cove, outrigger repair shop and burial ground. Beyond the walls of the royal enclave lies a shelter for the sick, maimed, tired and transgressors who flaunted traditional codes of royal etiquette. It is a serene spot with fine, pale sand, thatched huts and water courses winding under flickering palm trees.

On the way back to Kailua Kona we branch off the main road towards the Painted Church, famous for its cleverly painted illusion of a concave bowl dome towering over the altar. The road makes its way between low walls showered with bougainvillea. Lavish clusters of poinsettias, the size of plates, spring out at us as we drive by and the church's garden is exuberant with hibiscus bushes. Behind the church, we climb a small pathway to a grove of papaya trees and listen to the chatter of birds and the rustling breeze – the only sounds besides our voices.

But the day's most awesome sight is the Kilauea Caldera on Mauna Loa mountain. Hawaiians call it the abode of the beautiful and capricious goddess Pele, whose glowing orange eyes are molten rock, and whose hair is the wild and fiery swirl of lava cascading over her shoulders. As she tosses restlessly deep within the mountain, her hot breath escapes in steamy wisps at the Kilauea Caldera.

The Caldera lies before us like a steaming pie-crust, its circular rim stretching two miles into the distance. But, instead of the smell of baking cinnamon and apple, the air reeks of rotting eggs from hot sulphur rocks along the crater's edge.

During eruptions, the volcano spews ash and rock for miles into the atmosphere reducing the sun to a dull smudge for weeks afterwards. Lava flows down to the sea in mighty rivers of fire, some up to half a mile wide.

The Kilauea Caldera observatory is well worth visiting. Photographs and sketches show the volcano at various stages of its life cycle. Instrument needles quiver and spill jagged inky patterns on a huge revolving drum as they measure the activity churning below the earth's surface.

On the eastern side of Mauna Loa, Pele's presence is more real. Helicopters carrying tourists, hover over the Pu'u O'o and Kupalanaha vents where volcanic activity heaves fiery ash into the air and generates a live lava flow, which has closed down the coastal road. We stand, binoculars in hand and watch the distant lava-covered cliffs gleam molten orange in the sunlight as an enormous pillar of steam billows skywards where it meets the sea.

The Big Island lends itself easily to clichés – lush, tropical, spectacular. But it is more than that. It's a mood, a shift of perspective. Time is slower, sights unforgettable. Here the past whispers to the imagination, and the present is gentle.

USA Travels