Big island or small, diverse skills make life in paradise possible

Daughter Lillian and her butterflies add to the colorful scene at Akaka Falls on the island of Hawaii.

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TO MY SMALL ISLAND NOBODY’S HEARD OF, I’ve just returned from nine days on a big island that everybody knows about: the island of Hawaii, home to Kona coffee, sweet papaya, Kealakekua Bay snorkeling, and one of the more active volcanic zones on Earth.

I’ve been to the island before, at least half a dozen times. I try not to consistently label it as “The Big Island,” in deference to locals who disdain that tourism-coined term for their proud and history-steeped island that gave its name to the whole archipelago, its ancient kingdom and, subsequently, the state. (I did enjoy a good snicker, however, at a T-shirt emblazoned with the silhouettes of all the Hawaiian islands and, next to this one, the slogan, “Mine is bigger than yours.”)

Daughter Lillian and I had originally booked this visit for last August as a sort of memorial to my late wife, Barbara, who dearly loved Hawaii. But then COVID’s Delta variant raged. We heeded Hawaii’s governor when he implored tourists to stay home.

Faced with a use-’em-or-lose-’em situation with the air tickets, we committed to late April for a visit that included four nights with my niece, Frances Hartley, and her family. They moved from Tacoma to the charming windward-side community of Honoka’a on Hawaii Island in July 2020, at COVID’s height. A brave couple in their 30s, they bought a home online, sight unseen.

In the subsequent two years, Fran and her husband, Arwain, and their two young children have carved a comfortable niche in the community. Another child is due in August.

Our first day we spent with their family and friends at a sunny beach park celebrating their son Bodhi’s 6th birthday.

My niece Frances Hartley, center background, with daughter True, 3, watches as Fran’s son, Bodhi, celebrates his 6th birthday with a whack at a piñata handmade by a friend for his beach party.

I enjoyed those days getting to really know my niece and her husband. There are interesting parallels to living on islands, whether on a 172-acre dot in the San Juans or a 4,000-square-mile volcanic wonder in the Pacific. On my island, with no stores, no trash disposal and lots of firewood to cut, you must be a person of many skills. Arwain and Fran’s new life is similar. With its remote location and limited resources, Hawaii is an expensive place to live. Good-paying jobs are sparse. Happily, they are well-suited to it, with multiple talents. Fran is a trained lactation specialist who helps new mothers feed their babies in the healthiest way. Arwain is a man of many skills: university-trained computer-design engineer, day trader, home builder, bartender and more.

A showy heliconia bloom hung next to the shower stall in a lava-rock grotto outside my niece’s Hawaii home.

In addition to their comfortable old Hawaiian-style home high on a hillside overlooking the ocean, they’ve acquired two parcels of property with the intent of organic farming. After wading with machetes into one acreage to hack down invasive sugar cane and other “weeds,” they discovered scores of coffee trees, obviously planted years ago. Through such serendipity, they plan to become coffee farmers, among other hats they’ll wear. They invited Lillian, recently trained as a barista, to come back and help sell their wares at farmers markets when the time is right.

I volunteered to pick the coffee beans by hand. Me and Juan Valdez.

Their coffee wouldn’t be Kona, but Hamakua Coast-grown. There’s always room for a new coffee region among aficionados of America’s favorite breakfast bean, right?

If coffee farming doesn’t work out, Fran and Arwain can grow vegetables for the island’s many restaurants. If that doesn’t swim, they’ve several other potential income streams to tap. It’s the island ideal. Want to live in paradise? Diversify.

In Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, we drove to the end of Chain of Craters Road to see Hōlei Sea Arch.

Once we left Honoka’a, Lillian and I enjoyed circling the island, gaping at waterfalls, exploring a spooky lava tube, and poking along winding roads where dangling jungle vines tickled our foreheads as we drove in our rented convertible. On a bittersweet kayak paddle on Hilo Bay, we released a sealed bottle full of memories of Barbara, written by friends and family. On a catamaran tour to Kealakekua Bay, we snorkeled among teeming schools of tropical fish. I’ve never seen so many yellow tangs, like a lemony legion of finned ballerinas pirouetting on the tidal surge.

Back on Center Island, Galley Cat and a carpet of sea blush flowers welcome me home.

I love to visit such places. Yet I’m always happy to come home to Center Island. While I was away, the wildflowers bloomed. My rocky knoll is awash with a pleasing pink wave of sea blush. Buttercups and the first spiky flowers of blue camas add to the splendid scene.

And in three weeks I’m on a 37-foot boat headed to Alaska. It’s my season for the 49th and 50th states. Better catch my breath — and pack some warmer clothing.