SOUTH POINT, Hawaii - Next stop, Antarctica, I muttered, as my little rental car swayed along the lonely, narrow road.
I was on my way to the southernmost point of the United States, a wind-pounded swath of grassland and rocky shore that juts into the Pacific Ocean at the tip of Hawaii's Big Island
I hadn't planned to make the 12-mile, backroad detour to South Point. But when I saw it marked in tiny print on a map, I just had to go to this geographical extreme.
After squeezing onto the grass to let oncoming pickup trucks pass me on the single-lane road, I finally reached the end of South Point Road, parked in the dirt and walked out to a wave-sprayed boulder at land's end. I stared out at the utterly empty ocean stretching thousands of miles south to Antarctica, the next landfall (all right - you might bump into a tiny Polynesian island along the way).
The off-the-beaten-track South Point turned out to be one of the most captivating places I visited in a recent trip to the Big Island.
It's not the island's most dramatic sight; the craters and oozing lava at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park claim that distinction. It's not the most beautiful; the island's white-sand crescent of Hapuna Beach gets my vote for that.
Yet South Point, also known as Ka Lae, is desolately enchanting. Miles of grassy plains slope down to the ocean, punctuated only by a few herds of grazing cattle. A scattering of scrubby trees grows horizontally, contorted by ceaseless trade winds. A cluster of high-tech windmills captures the wind to generate electrical power, lonely sentinels on the big-sky horizon. The turquoise ocean swells and pounds along the rocky shore.
South Point also appeals for what it doesn't have. In an island full of tourists, South Point has few people and nothing but sea, sun and that magical feeling of being at land's end, a place where you can go no farther.
There are no buildings, no souvenir shops, no signs. Just the whistling wind, sheer volcanic cliffs, the surging sea - and a glimpse of local life.
"You're not going to jump, are you?" I asked a local teenager at South Point in one of my stupidest questions ever. Why else would he be standing, in his bathing suit, on the edge of a volcanic cliff with his toes hanging over the sheer drop to the ocean, 40 feet below?
He grinned, flung open his arms and leapt, howling with glee as he cleaved the water, so clear I could see the bottom dozens of feet below him as I peered gingerly over the edge.
Only locals who know the ocean currents and conditions should even think of trying such a plunge; tourists could find themselves swept off in the strong currents toward ... Antarctica.
This is the locals' playground and has been for centuries. It's thought that the first Polynesians to settle the Hawaiian islands may have landed at this narrow point thrusting out to the sea; some artifacts have been dated to around 300 A.D.
While South Point's land is windswept, dry and barren - used scantily for grazing and into the 1970s as a U.S. military missile-tracking station - its waters are rich, teeming with marlin, tuna and clouds of smaller tropical fish. Old wooden hoists, once used to lower and raise small fish boats, perch on the edge of the cliff; the daredevil swimmers use the hoists' access ladder, bolted to the rock, to scamper up the cliff and leap again and again into the sea.
Other young men and women followed the teens' lead, jumping with excited yowls off the cliff or through a chasm-like slot into the sea.
I retreated to sit on a sun-warmed rock, studied my map and realized I wasn't yet at the true southernmost point of the country. It was a few hundred yards away, where the cliffs slope down to a boulder-strewn shoreline near a Coast Guard navigation beacon.
Walking toward land's end, I passed a dozen impromptu campsites. Groups of locals had settled in to fish for the day and camp for the night under the stars. Long fishing rods were anchored in the rocks, with lines stretched down the cliff to the sea below. Kids and coolers sheltered in the shade of awnings lashed to pickups.
At the southernmost point of land, there's no marker or signpost, just the semi-graffiti of visitors who have spelled out their names in white coral pebbles on the black volcanic rocks.
Ancient Hawaiians left their mark, too, in the remains of a small, centuries-old temple, the Kalalea Heiau. It sits a few yards from the shore, a hip-high square of rock walls enclosing a grassy area not much bigger than a living room.
I stood on a beach rock as close as I dared get to the rough surf, with the warm, strong wind buffeting me. Some people climb very tall mountains, driven by the urge to get to the top, to the endpoint; I simply drove and took a short walk to the southernmost tip of the United States.
Back in my car, cruising along the one-lane road as the sun set, I fiddled with the radio, searching for Hawaiian music to go with the stark beauty of South Point. No luck. I could pick up only one AM station, with patchy, scratchy reception. That's when you know you're way out there, when the radio dial's almost empty. So I rolled down the car window and made my own music, singing along with the whistling wind.
IF YOU GO:
GETTING THERE: From Kailua-Kona, the main visitor area on Hawaii's Big Island, it's a 2-to-2 1/2 hour drive to South Point.
Look for the turnoff to South Point Road off Highway 11 (the main road on the southern part of the island) near mile marker 69. South Point Road starts as two lanes and passes a few houses. For most of its length, however, it's one lane; if you meet an oncoming car, one of you will have to veer off onto the grass. While narrow, the road has been repaved and is not nearly as rough as it used to be. However, some car-rental agencies still may declare the South Point Road off-limits, so check your policy.
There's only one fork in the dozen-mile road, almost at its end; stay right and keep going along the shore to a dirt parking area by the small-boat hoists. Unless you have a high-clearance vehicle, don't go any farther on the dirt roads.
_If you want to stay near South Point, Kalaekilohana is a country inn on South Point Road, about a mile off Highway 11. It's a spacious, sugar-plantation-style house with four bedrooms with private baths; it opened about a year ago. The hosts offer workshops focusing on Hawaiian culture and arts. www.kau-hawaii.com or 808-939-8052.
_The Macadamia Meadows Farm Bed & Breakfast is also nearby. It's a country home/working farm with macadamia trees and free-range chickens. www.macadamiameadows.com or 888-929-8118.
MORE INFORMATION: An excellent guidebook - with details on South Point, beaches and sights all over the island - is "Hawaii: The Big Island Revealed" (by Andrew Doughty, Wizard Publications, $15.95).
TRAVELER'S TIP: By the time I got to South Point, it was too late in the day to continue on to Green Sand Beach, also called Mahana Bay. By all accounts, I missed a unique place. Green Sand Beach is about a 2 1/2-mile, windblown hike east of South Point (some four-wheel-drive vehicles can make it on the dirt tracks). The sand at the isolated beach is greenish, due to erosion of a cinder cone containing the mineral olivine that colors the beach. See the U.S. Geological Survey Web site for background on the beach: http://wrgis.wr.usgs.gov/parks/coast/sand/index.html