Hawaii in a Lexus Hybrid

March 23, 2015
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Many people get ready for a car trip by packing lots of snacks, maybe a nice selection of CDs and certainly a good map. They also tend to have some kind of plan. My travel companion, Sergio, and I, on the other hand, have none of these things. The only thing I know for sure is that on this, my very first trip to Hawaii, we will spend the better part of a long weekend driving on some of America’s great roadways—the scenic Queen Kaahumanu Highway as well as long, winding roads that cut through a diverse landscape of jagged lava fields, coffee plantations, lush forests and immaculate golf courses. Best of all, we will be driving on these roads in the sleek new Lexus GS 450h.

All together, the Hawaiian Islands extend 1,500 miles across the Pacific. The islands are, in fact, the summits of a gigantic volcanic mountain range that stretches almost 4,000 miles along the ocean’s floor all the way to Russia. The second largest volcanic island in the world (Iceland is the first), the Big Island has the planet’s largest and tallest mountains. The early Polynesians, whom arrived well before Captain James Cook “discovered” the Hawaiian Islands in 1778, had sailed the uncharted ocean in canoes using only the stars and winds as navigational aids.

Our Hawaii journey will be a little less challenging. Instead of maps, the wind and the stars, we might just use the hybrid’s enhanced navigation system with voice address input, an Adaptive Front Lighting System that helps illuminate the curves as we steer into them, Bluetooth wireless telephone capability and a handy back-up camera that provides an extra margin of confidence by projecting an image of what the lens can detect behind the vehicle onto the navigation screen when we’re in reverse. (If parallel parking is not your forte, you’ll love the GS’s Intuitive Park Assist.)

Our base from which to explore the Big Island’s Kohala Coast is the solar energy powered Mauna Lani Bay Hotel. Once the home to Kevin Costner while shooting the horrific Waterworld, the hotel is not only set within 27 acres of historic parks with walking trails but also features ancient fishponds and cultural activities such as ukulele lessons and hula dancing. It also claims to have the most solar electric generating capacity than any resort in the world. (The hotel’s solar systems spare the environment from tons of harmful emissions.) Because of our hotel and the hybrid, which “gives more to the driver” and “takes less from the world,” we dub this our eco-friendly vacation.

On our first morning, we skip the traditional Japanese breakfast of fish and miso soup offered at the Mauna Lani’s Bay Terrace restaurant and opt instead for something a little more familiar, i.e. some coffee, fruit, croissants and jam. Eager to finally hit the road, we arm ourselves with nothing but a couple of bottles of water and lots of sunscreen. Before stepping inside our mercury metallic Lexus, Sergio and I take a few minutes to admire the car’s sporty but powerful façade¬—the 450h features a long hood, a wide rear and a pulled-back cabin with sling-shot rear side windows. Our plan, make that mission, for the next few days is to get a taste of the real Hawaii while traveling along the Kona-Kohala coast. We’ll pull over at roadside tables for sweet white pineapple and shaved-ice cones, tuck a scented flower behind one ear and take leisure strolls in one of the island’s quaint towns or black beaches. “That all sounds great,” says Sergio, “but how about first testing out how much power this baby really has.” And with that, and the push the power button—who needs a key when you’re driving a hybrid?—we’re off.

It takes us a few minutes to really appreciate the scenery around us because we’re still admiring the car’s interior: the regency leather black seats, the wood and leather-trimmed shift knob and the coordinating three-spoke steering wheel with multi-information controls. This being a hybrid, the instrument panel does without the tachometer and instead provides information about everything you’d want to know about what your car is doing. Right. Now.

“Check this out,” says Sergio. “The gauges show not just the temperature and speed but also whether we’re using the V6 engine, electric motor or both.” I give him a blank look so he goes on to explain that while other hybrids require constant gas engine operation, the new Lexus is a “full hybrid.” What I immediately notice is that though we’ve accelerated to 75 miles in a matter of seconds (zero-to-60 in around 5.2 seconds, to be exact), the cabin is incredibly quiet. Lexus engineers have managed to greatly reduce cabin noise by completely redesigning fans and motors as well as engine noise and vibration.

As the first shaft of sunlight breaks through the gray clouds above us, I quickly open the sunroof, roll down the windows and scan through the local radio stations, most of which are playing bad R&B, smooth jazz and other horrors before I settle on some Hawaiian music.

Soon we find ourselves in the sleepy town of Kapaau in northern Kohala and then drive on to Pololu where the road ends with a spectacular view of the Hamakua coastline. As we park the car, an old woman and her grey dog approach us, and for a moment I think she’s going to ask us for directions. “It’s a hybrid,” I tell her when I catch her staring suspiciously at the subtle “h” above the Lexus logo on the rear bumper. The duo ignores us and simply stares at the car.

Cutting across a trail through low-lying lands and higher mounds, we end up on a black-sand beach where the Waipio Valley meets the ocean. “This would be a perfect spot for a picnic,” I sigh and think that there’s something to be said for a little planning. But in less than a minute, a midday cloudburst has us running back to seek shelter in our “silver h,” as I’ve affectionately dubbed our loaned Lexus. Driving away, the rain-sensing wipers adjust—wiping leisurely at first and then hastily—as the gentle drizzle becomes a downpour.

Back at the hotel, we have a table waiting at the CanoeHouse restaurant. The East-meets-West menu features dishes such as sake island fish with ginger scallions and steamed vegetables in a Chinese broth and, my favorite, a grilled rack of lamb with Meyer lemon and macadamia nut crust, purple potato and coconut curry puree. Sipping a nice Shiraz from Australia, we wait for the sun to set on the Kohala Coast. For dessert, I order the lychee mousse and strawberry blancmange with mango culis.

The next day, as we drive on the long wide stretches of roads that cut across lush coffee plantations, I finally get to experience how powerfully torque is delivered when I step on the gas and accelerate from 30 to 50 miles per hour to pass the slower traffic. I’m surprised to find how super-snug and responsive the car feels, preserving my connection to the road thanks to the rear-wheel drive platform.

We make a quick stop in town to get shaved-ice cones drizzled in rainbow-colored syrup (the locals prefer to dust their ice with li hing mui, a pungent Asian powder). Sergio gets a big paper cone while I opt for the keiki, or child size. We also pick up some star fruit and home-roasted macadamia nuts and make a beeline to the beach. Back at the hotel we were told that some of the most beautiful white sand beaches were to be found along the Kona coast. I guess we miss a turn and instead end up at Kaloko-Honokahau National Historical Park, the site of an ancient settlement featuring fishponds, petroglyphs and a religious temple. We follow the short path to a wide rocky beach and Sergio immediately gets in the water. After much coaxing, I slowly and carefully step around and over the sharp and slippery rocks and into the water. With only one pair of goggles, we take turns passing it back and forth to look at the marine reef where colorful fish play hide and seek between the rocks.

Back on the Queen Kaahumanu Highway, we get out of the car to take some photos of the hypnotizing lava fields and end up searching for a clear mound on which to leave our own bit of eco-friendly graffiti. Thousands of people before us have pulled over the side of the road and, stone by stone, carefully spelled out tender, naughty and silly messages in white coral rock. Right next to MARRY ME JEN and slightly below GO RED SOX, Sergio and I leave our mark on the Big Island. I’d tell you where to find it but you might need a map. And where’s the fun in that?

Lava flow. Flickr Photo by Sathish J.

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