After a tour of Honolulu and the O’ahu island, we now fly 45 mins south east to land on the Big Island, the nickname for the Hawai’i island. At 4.028 square miles (10.432 km2), as its nickname indicates Hawai’i is by far the largest island in the archipelago but also the largest in the entire United States. A lot less industrialised, it is however home to just 185.000 souls compared to just under one million in O’ahu. If the ambiance in O’ahu was particularly chilled compared to the mainland, the Big Island takes it up a notch further.
The Kona airport “huts” have no walls, every building apart from the restaurant is exposed to the light breeze and the locals are decidedly welcoming, such as Greg, the owner of the big-wheeled 2010 Jeep Wrangler I rented through private rental app Turo. Greg offered free delivery through the app even though he lives in Captain Cook, a good 35 mins drive from the airport. A relaxed handover and I was off in my Jeep, that I have decided to baptise Charlie – after Albert the Ram 1500 from my U.S. Coast to Coast 2014 Reports and Bob from my U.S. North to South 2015 Reports.
Within the first five minutes of driving, I had already spotted two new generation Toyota Tacoma, a frankly higher ratio than in more developed O’ahu where I had to wait for my third day there for this to happen. More rugged, the Big Island is an even better terrain for the Tacoma to flourish in the sales charts. In fact, there are three main nameplates on the Big Island, all reaching similar ratios within the local car parc but for wildly different reasons: the Toyota Tacoma, here too the locals’ favourite, the Toyota 4Runner is the default SUV in the island and this was a surprise at such a high level, and finally the Jeep Wrangler, putting in the numbers on the Big Island to compensate for a relative weakness in O’ahu. The Wrangler is absolutely everywhere on touristic spots such as the Mauna Kea National Park, which indicates a very high take-up rate by rental companies.
Having organized this trip only a couple of weeks in advance, I couldn’t find any 4WD available on the “traditional” rental channels, which was my first motivation to try private rental app Turo. After a much steeper bill than expected in O’ahu for my 2014 Ford Mustang, I was determined to keep costs down this time and made sure I took the Wrangler through a carwash before returning it, which cost $10. The $85 per day advertised price transformed into $111 once the 30% taxes and Turo’s cut were added, or $333 for three days, $343 with the carwash. If in O’ahu the additional fees uppd the one-day rental rate to almost the same level as a traditional car rental, here the situation is vastly different because if it were not for Turo, I couldn’t have rented a 4WD full stop.
And that would have considerably cut what I would have been able to do on the island. The unsealed road ascension to the Mauna Kea summit, peaking at 13.796 ft or 4.205m, is indeed only accessible with a 4WD. That didn’t prevent a valiant Nissan Versa to make it to the summit, but it was the only 2WD vehicle up there.
Being an active volcanic island, Hawai’i is never flat: you are either climbing or descending a steep road at almost any moment you find yourself driving here. A tough ask for the cars streaming along the local roads, and another proof that Toyota and Jeep have what it takes to convince local buyers once the conditions get tough.
A friend of mine recently described driving a Jeep Wrangler offroad as akin to pushing a shopping trolley on an uneven track. I chose to dismiss this opinion as overly dramatic. I shouldn’t have. Switching to 4WD once the road became unsealed, the overly rigid Wrangler’s suspension made sure every single bone in my spine noticed the tiniest bump in the road.
And when hundreds of vehicles go up and down the same track each day, bumps in the road there are. Millions of them. Two weeks after this trip I can still feel the rattling in my bones (nearly). All the cars I followed had their wheels doing the hard work with the cabin oblivious to it, I was all too conscious the road was unsealed.
Hopefully Jeep has improved this stiffness in its later models. If not, I am not driving a Wrangler again. Ever. Despite this, the ascension to the top of Mauna Kea, effectively taking you from sea level to 4.205m in 90 minutes (30 of them unsealed), is as magical as these figures let you imagine. The weather has time to change multiple times as you pass through clouds and reach well above into the sky.
The view is on adjacent island Maui but the sides of the Mauna Kea volcano are so steep that you don’t really see that much landscape below you. The information center at the Mauna Kea National Park entrance warns against altitude sickness and is absolutely right to do so, even advising to stop mid-way through the ascension which is actually impossible, the unsealed road only just able to contain a two-way traffic at times.
On top, 3 different observation sites house various scientific teams, and as it was the case in another godforsaken U.S. location I visited recently (Prudhoe Bay), Ford fleets dominate: the Ford F-250, Expedition and Explorer are the favourites, as well as the Nissan Xterra.
If O’ahu showed a very strong heritage of mid-size pickups, Hawai’i builds on this with more full-size pickups as well, notably the Honda Ridgeline, omnipresent on the island, the Ram 1500-3500 and Nissan Titan. On top of the Jeep Wrangler, successful vehicles with rental companies include the Ford Edge, Jeep Compass and Chrysler 200 while the locals seem to also have a weakness for the Nissan Quest and new generation Honda Pilot.
That is all for our Hawaii Photo Reports, stay tuned for the next iteration of our China exploration shortly.
The Big Island Photo Report continues below.