Where bigger is better
On my first trip to Hawaii after collage graduation, I was stunned at how the accounts of travel brochures paled before the actual white sands of Waikiki and the mammoth ridge skirting Diamond Head, the state’s monumental 475-acre crater. It was the start of a love affair that has taken me back to Oahu, the “Big Island” and other Hawaiian islands time after time. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned so far, it is that the biggest of the archipelago’s islands offers the most genuine experience of Hawaii.
The Big Island – which despite its popular moniker is actually named “Hawaii,” after which the entire state is named – has at least two features that make it uniquely Hawaiian: An unmatched geography and a fascinating history. Both are as awe-inspiring as the island’s ever-present volcanic origins and legendary volcano goddess, Pele.
This is the home of Mauna Kea, the world’s tallest sea mountain, towering 13,796 feet above sea level (more than 32,000 feet from the ocean floor); Mauna Loa, the world’s most massive mountain; and Kilauea, an active volcano – believed to be the home of Pele – which spews magma that continues to increase the island’s mass today. This is also the first Hawaiian island said to be inhabited by Polynesians, and is the birthplace of King Kamehameha, who conquered and united the Islands into the Kingdom of Hawaii in the 1800s.
Tour packages for the island of Hawaii abound, and given the destination, it is hard to go wrong. That said, there is no better way to get a feel for the majesty of the Big Island than to get behind the wheel and – with a good map in hand – explore at least some of its natural and cultural wonders at your own pace. I can say from personal experience that you will not regret it. So, in no particular order, here are some of my best finds:
From Kona International Airport, drive south on Route 19 to the Kona Coast, where you’ll find a small yet popular tourist town called Kailua-Kona.
On the way, I recommend that seafood lovers with a kitchen or grill at their disposal stop for fresh-farmed lobster from Kona Cold Lobsters, Ltd. or abalone from Big Island Abalone at the NELHA (Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority) complex, just one block south of the airport. www.nelha.org/tenants/commercial.html>
In Kailua-Kona, there are small shopping malls, restaurants, resort hotels, vacation rentals and condominiums along the coast. Most accommodations in this area are famous for their panoramic views, but due to perilous rocky shores, direct beach access from them is prohibited. Nonetheless, you can enjoy the kind of gold and crimson sunsets that can only be seen on an ocean horizon and watch surfers in the distance master the waves. Those wishing to play in the ocean will not have to go far.
Magic Sand Beach is the only white sand beach on the Kona Coast, and it’s a haven for bodyboarders. The tide there is too rough for swimming, so for that I recommend Kahalu’u Beach Park, where there is a lagoon surrounded by a coral reef, making it perfect for snorkeling amid countless colorful tropical fish.
A little inland is the Kona Coffee Belt with farms, factories, retail shops and cafés to visit. Some coffee factories have tours with tastings of freshly roasted 100% Kona coffee. Most “Kona coffee” sold in shops is a blend with only about 10% Kona, so this is a rare chance to savor this very tasty (and pricey) delicacy.
For beer drinkers, I recommend a tour of Kona Brewery. You can taste original brews such as Longboard Lager and Pipeline Porter at the brewery, and have a meal and more beer at its adjacent pub.www.konabrewingco.com>
Kona also offers historical and cultural attractions. Pu’uhonua O Honaunau (“Place of Refuge”) National Historical Park is rich with Hawaiian heritage, including ancient temple ruins and an array of authentic tiki totems. The area is named for its past role as a sanctuary for those accused of crime who were lucky enough to elude the authorities and make it there. It also includes royal grounds. Today, it offers audio tours along historic trails, a model village of the 1800s, traditional wood-carving demonstrations and more. (As of March 2011, many attractions were closed pending post-tsunami assessments, so confirm they are open before going.) www.nps.gov/puho>
St. Benedict’s Roman Catholic Church is a rare architectural attraction that dates back to 1899. A mix of medieval European- and Hawaiian-style artistry, it was hand built by the Rev. John Velghe over a period of four years. It is nicknamed “The Painted Church” on account of the beautiful Hawaiian designs and Catholic religious images adorning its walls and ceiling. www.thepaintedchurch.org>
South Kohala Coast
An alternate route from Kona International Airport is to head north on Route 19, viewing scenic lava fields on your way to the South Kohala Coast, a massive resort area.
There are four famous gated resorts here: Mauna Kea Resort, Mauna Lani Resort, Waikoloa Beach Resort and Hualalai Resort. These resorts were developed on lava beds, enhancing as well as highlighting the unique terrain. From the balcony of timeshares at Waikoloa, for example, you can enjoy a spectacular view of the ocean as well as lava fields. Whichever of these resort areas you choose, you cannot go wrong. Each is its own oasis with a private beach, golf course, shopping mall and a variety of restaurants and accommodations to ensure you can enjoy your vacation without leaving the area. Those wishing to do so, however, will not be disappointed.
The most popular beach on island is on the South Kohala Coast: The half-mile-long Hapuna Beach State Park has been dubbed one of the best beaches in the U.S., with its crystal clear water, serene tides and abundance of opportunities for such activities as snorkeling, swimming and boogie boarding. It is the perfect beach for the whole family. Green sea turtles often swim by, too (but please follow local rules and stay at least 12 feet from this protected species).
Kohala and Parker Ranch
Northward along the coast from South Kohala on Route 270 is northern Kohala, home of Puʻukohola Heiau. Rich in history, there is an old temple here for which the site is named; it is also the site of a bloody battle led by King Kamehameha, who had the temple built. The remnants of Hale o Kapuni, a temple dedicated to sharks, are also submerged in nearby Pelekane Bay. Today, Puʻukohola is a largely undeveloped national historic site with a visitors’ center offering whale, shark and bird watching and hiking as well as tours, with the actual temple site closed to the public. What’s left of the shark temple is not visible above the water. www.nps.gov/puhe/index.htm>
Kohala also offers an original bronze statue of King Kamehameha and the panoramic Pololu Valley Lookout, which offers amazing views of nearby cliffs. However, I usually opt to continue on Route 19, bypassing 270 and the island’s northwestern tip for the historic town of Waimea and beyond.
As you approach Waimea, the lava plateau will gradually give way to rolling hills and pastures. This is the hub of cow and horse ranching on the Big Island and is home to its paniolo, or Hawaiian cowboy, culture. Here, Parker Ranch started in the 1800s with 250 acres – it has since grown to engulf the town of Waimea, now surrounding it with 225,000 acres.
Parker Ranch was started by an American sailor who jumped ship, married into local royalty and was eventually tasked with taming the area’s wild cattle population. (Ironically, the rangy beasts were the offspring of gifts from earlier Western visitors.) The ranch now offers horseback-riding tours, big game hunting and a unique island slice of the old West. parkerranch.com>
Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa
Centrally located, the mountains of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa can be accessed easily by touching down on the Big Island either at Kona Airport on the west coast or Hilo International Airport on the east coast.
To get to Mauna Kea from either direction, you must take Saddle Road (Route 200), an east-west highway whose overall condition is not for the faint of heart. I recommend joining a tour for this leg of your journey; be aware that if you decide not to let a tour guide do the driving, you will definitely need four-wheel drive to get to the mountain’s summit.
If you do drive all the way to the top of the world’s tallest sea mountain, it is best to stop at Onizuka Visitor Center for a short break – and to get used to the high altitude. It is also important to dress appropriately and check weather conditions at the summit in advance. The ideal time to visit is April to November.
There are 13 observatories owned by 11 countries atop Mauna Kea, and stargazing here is a must. I recommend reaching the summit in time for a breathtaking sunset, then returning to the visitor center for the free nightly stargazing programs organized by Mauna Kea Observatories Support Services. www.ifa.hawaii.edu/info/vis>
I have so far only been able to view Mauna Loa from a distance on my way to Mauna Kea. With an estimated volume of 18,000 cubic miles, Mauna Kea offers both hiking as well as four-wheeling to its summit with similar views as Mauna Kea (though, no observatories) – and precautions. www.instanthawaii.com/cgi-bin/hawaii?Hikes.loa>
From either the east or west side of the Big Island, you’ll start by driving south on Route 11 and then follow the signs to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
Once you get there, stop by Kilauea Visitor Center for essential information and maps before approaching the volcano. You can drive along Kilauea Caldera and observe steam coming from Halemaumau Crater – which lore says is the home of the goddess Pele.
There are several places you can visit related to the volcano such as the Thomas A. Jaggar Museum and Thurston Lava Tube, near the caldera. If you have three to four hours to spare, take Chain of Craters Road – a 23-mile winding paved road through an active-volcano wonderland – all the way to the coast. You will literally drive over lava flows and see more craters along the way. You can also stop to see the Pu’u Loa petroglyphs created by ancient Hawaiians.
Eventually, you will come to a point where the road abruptly ends due to a 2003 eruption which left a lava flow that seems frozen in time. When you get to the end of the road, walk to the point of the road covered by the flow; you can actually walk on the hardened lava from there. The experience will convince you of Mother Nature’s awesome power. The steam ascending on the other side of this roadblock is from magma flowing into the water at Kalapana, where you can approach the obstruction on the same road from Hilo.
You can also visit South Point – the southernmost point of the U.S. – on your way to or from Kilauea, depending on how you plot your course from either side of the island. To get to the shoreline, take the narrow12-mile South Point Road from Route 11. Then head for Ka Lea, or South Point, after taking in the picturesque scenery of white windmills against a backdrop of emerald fields and azure sky.
Geography aside, however, two nearby beaches are real must-sees: Black Sand Beach, where people not only bathe in the sea off the naturally black shores, but many green sea turtles sunbathe ashore, and Green Sand Beach, a 3-mile walk from South Point, which offers an even more amazing sight – a naturally light- and olive-green sand beach that makes for a surreal getaway.
Unlike the west side of the island which is dry and sunny, the east-side region, or Hilo Side, is wet and cloudy. Because of that, it is blessed with waterfalls, rainforests and botanical gardens.
Rainbow Falls is near historic Downtown Hilo (the entire town’s name), and if you are lucky you will see a rainbow along the way. There is also Akaka Falls State Park in the scenic town of Honomu, where you can visit Kahuna Falls and its neighboring lush gardens, tropical forests and picturesque fauna-lined walkways. Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, www.hawaiigarden.com>, and World Botanical Garden and Waterfalls, www.wbgi.com> are also great options.
Mauna Loa Macadamia Nuts, one of the world’s largest macadamia nut factories, its farm and visitors’ center are also here. You can take a self-guided tour aided by strategically placed video stations and glass panels around the factory’s exterior, and sample products at the retail shop. www.maunaloamacadamianuts.com>
The local beer of choice on Hilo Side is Mehana Beer. Its maker, Hawaii Nui Brewing, also offers tours, and you can sample such original brews as Volcano Red Ale and Tsunami Lager. web.me.com/hawaiinuibrewing/HawaiiNuiBrewing/Aloha_.html>
Of all my excursions to Hawaii, Hilo is where I have felt the most “Aloha Spirit.” The locals are very friendly and do not hesitate to offer help. It is also more laid-back and time just seems to go slower there than any other place on Earth.
I look forward to my next trip to Hawaii – especially the Big Island-not just because there are many more places I crave to explore, but because I also look forward to that sense of awe and relaxation that can only be found in a true tropical paradise – one that offers a genuine experience of Hawaii. www.gohawaii.com/big-island>