This is a blog about building a home on the Big Island of Hawaii, but it starts 4,906 miles away, in New York. That’s where I was born and grew up, and it’s where my wife and I live today—on another island, Manhattan, 600 yards from the Hudson River, and three miles from where it courses into New York Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean. My wife, Paula, grew up in Mendoza, Argentina, in landlocked semi-desert at the foothills of the Andes. From there, Hawaii is 6,736 miles away.
This is also a story about doing something crazy, which everyone should do at least once, although possibly a finite number of times. And it's a story about doing something big. Sometimes when I think of our project it reminds me of Fitzcarraldo, the Werner Herzog movie about an Irishman who tries to portage a 320-ton steamship between two rivers in the Amazon, by pulling it up a steep and muddy hill. (Spoiler alert pertaining only to the movie: Klaus Kinski’s character, Fitzcarraldo, fails.)
It’s the first time either Paula or I have built a house. I’ve only lived in apartments, and the most we’ve ever done is renovate two bathrooms and a kitchen. I built a model of a house from cardboard in sixth grade, so this one’s going to be bigger and sturdier, with plumbing and real trees.
This blog is going to last a year. It starts right now, and will keep on going until Paula and I can walk in through the front door and spend the night. Our contractor says that will take a year. So this is also a blog about faith.
Likewise, this blog is also about discovery. Other than New York City, I’ve only lived in upstate New York and in Bologna, Italy, where I once taught English to schoolchildren and translated lyrics for a rock group. But I earn my living day to day as a travel writer, so…I get around. Paula and I thought a lot over the years about where we’d want a second, or different, home—Tuscany, Uruguay, Zanzibar, the Caribbean, Costa Rica, Cape Town, Bali, all of them coastal and far away. So inherently Hawaii feels right. Thirteen years ago, I visited Hawaii for the first time for a magazine assignment, and the islands got under my skin. Then more assignments followed—although it’s true they followed because the subjects were my ideas and I’d pitched them to different publications—and each time I visited I liked Hawaii more.
Two years ago my father died—the second of my parents to pass away—and my sister and I sold his apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, our ancestral home of medallion cabs, skyscrapers, and sesame-seed bagels. She’d already moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, where she was midway through raising three children. She’s also a beach-lover, so she bought a home on Bald Head Island, just south of Wilmington and North Carolina’s Outer Banks. It took her about a minute to do it, and she hasn’t ever looked back.
Paula and I considered getting a home on Long Island, in the Hamptons—or even in the wine-producing North Fork—both of which are only two hours away, and would have been an easy and obvious choice. But we decided on adventure, plus we don’t have children or the kinds of jobs that would fix us to our desks Monday through Friday. Paula’s also a writer, horticulturist, botanical illustrator, and a graphic designer. You’ll meet her here.
In February 2014, we flew to Hawaii (that’s the Big Island’s official name, and we chose it over the other islands because it’s bigger, with all the opportunities for land and discovery that size entails), and started visiting homes and lots with an agent we found online. It took a while to figure out what part of the island we wanted—Hawaii is 4,038 square miles, after all—the largest island in the United States, nearly the size of Connecticut.
That’s when we settled on buying land and designing the house ourselves. We chose an area called North Kohala in the island’s very north that’s known for its lush pastures and sweeping ocean views, and found a lot near the towns of Hawi and Kapa’au, not far from where King Kamehameha I, the unifier of Hawaii, was born in 1758. Our agent helped us find our architect, Paul M. Donoho, a Tulane-trained Coloradan whom we immediately liked, who’d moved to the island in 2004 after working in St. Croix and Colorado, and who’s also our project manager.
Paula says our land reminds her of Patagonia, although there aren’t penguins, rheas, or guanacos, and it’s always warmer. What I like about it is that there are whales and cows—usually just the one or the other. The cows come every two months, when Pono von Holt, the rancher we have a deal with lets them loose to feed and mow our grass. The humpbacks come in the winter, between late December and early April, to calve and mate. I’ll show you photos when they arrive. Our lot is 39 acres and starts through two cattle gates, and ends about 300 feet from the coast, at an easement that lets us walk those last feet to the coastal path that runs alongside it, and overlooks mesmerizing cliffs. From the path, you can keep walking in either direction, with views of Maui across the Alenuihaha Channel, 26 miles away. Or you can climb down to rocky coves, and not see anyone else all day.
In this blog I’ll show you photos and videos, and talk about our experience from grubbing the land to building what will be a completely off-the-grid house, powered by solar panels and a wind turbine, with a buried 13,300-gallon catchment tank for collecting rainwater. But I’ll also talk of the Hawaii we find along the way. The people, places, the ‘āina as Hawaiians say—meaning the land, of which they’re fiercely proud, with understandably good reason. And I suppose, as these things go, this blog will also be about thrills, about building frustrations, and discoveries about ourselves. Our plan—mine and Coastal Living’s—is to follow up every two weeks. There’s going to be lots to talk about.
I’m just getting started.