The astonishing jet-black beach at Kaunoamoa was created in 1990, when several million shiny shards of volcanic glass were washed ashore into a coconut grove after a major lava flow hit the ocean. It was destroyed by another eruption in 1992, but I was lucky enough to see it in 1991. Though I walked gingerly down to where the towering white waves were crashing against the black rocks, the sheer blackness completely defeated my attempts to photograph its beauty.
When I visited 92-year-old Albert Solomon's tiny "museum" in Waimea, he was motionless, apparently asleep, in the corner. Only when I stepped within a few feet of him did he suddenly snap his eyes open, and start to "talk story", as the Hawaiians say. I didn't get a word in for over two hours, I didn't even manage to change my body posture, as he reeled off an endless stream of tales, flourishing Franklin Roosevelt's slippers as he described riding in the President's motorcycle escort during a visit to Honolulu in 1934, and producing mysterious magical artefacts that he'd found when he stumbled upon ancient Hawaiian mummies, guarded by poisoned booby-traps, in nearby caves.
The Kona Village Resort is among Hawaii's oldest luxury hotels, but it perfectly encapsulates every fantasy of a South Seas hideaway. Each "room" is a separate, lavishly-appointed thatched hut, all arranged around a pristine lagoon that's home to giant sea turtles and manta rays. There are no phones, TVs or radios, but there are two superb restaurants, and you even get a coffee-making alarm clock that wakes you up by grinding the beans.
That surfing isn't as easy as the locals make it look. I've twice had lessons, which consist of lying on a surfboard the size of a door while your teacher pushes through the waves, and then leaping to your feet for a few seconds of transcendent bliss. When I've tried to go it alone, however, catching a wave turns out to be a very different story.
It took me a while to succumb to the sentimental charms of Hawaiian music, and I must admit I tried to hide from an obligation to eat in Uncle Billy's restaurant in Hilo, where the owner's extended family provides. "Polynesian Entertainment" as you dine. Once caught, however, and seated next to the elderly Uncle Billy himself in front of a vast pile of fresh seafood, I had the time of my life, and soon joined him in sobbing my heart out to the strains of the "Hawaiian Wedding Song".
The first time I saw Kilauea - the world's most active volcano - erupt, I was so excited that I stayed out on the lava field after sunset. Picking my way back across the jagged wasteland of razor-sharp rock - even touching fresh lava to steady yourself is like grabbing sandpaper - was nightmarish. Every now and then the ground shook beneath my feet, and a ball of molten lava shot into the air to illuminate the pitch darkness. Knowing it was somewhere above me, but not daring to take my eyes off my unsteady feet, I just had to hope it was going to miss me.
On any Hawaiian island, there are only two directions that count - makai, towards the ocean, and mauka, towards the volcano. Until you've got those two Hawaiian words sorted out, you won't be able to find anything. Aloha, which means "Hello, I love you", and "goodbye", covers most other situations you'll require.
The only airline to fly direct to the Big Island is United (tel: 0181 990 9900), which offers daily services to Kona from both San Francisco and Los Angeles. The timings make it impossible to get all the way from London in a single day, though on United and several other carriers you can get as far as Honolulu on the day you set off, and fly on the next morning. Typical return fares on either route range from around pounds 450 between January and March up to perhaps pounds 650 in July and August. Car rental on the Big Island is relatively cheap, at around pounds 100 per week; public transport is all but non-existent.
Where to stay
The Kona Village Resort is on Queen Kaahumanu Ilwy, Kailua-Kona 111 96745. (tel: 808/325 5555). Rooms start at $425 per night. Uncle Billy's is in the Hilo Bay Hotel, 87 Banyan Drie, Hilo HI 96720 (tel: 808/961 5818). A full meal costs around $20, the entertainment is free, and a room for the night is about $60.
Greg Ward wrote `The Rough Guide to the Big Island of Hawaii'. Keep up with the latest developments in travel by subscribing to the free newsletter `Rough News', published three times yearly. Write to Rough Guides, IoS offer, 1 Mercer Street, London WC2H 9QJ. A free Rough Guide to the first three subscribers each week.