Hawai'i Island: Adventures on a Grand Scale
Hawai‘i Island is a land of superlatives. Both the biggest and the youngest of the Hawaiian islands, it is home to the largest mountain on Earth (Mauna Loa) and the most active volcano, Kilauea. The opportunities for adventure and exploration in this most diverse of landscapes are equally superlative.
FUN FACT: The Island Flower of Hawai`i Island is called the “Pua Lehua.”
From mauka to makai (that is, mountain to sea), memorable encounters with the natural world are virtually inevitable. The sunny Kona side of the island offers amazing snorkeling, stimulating coffee plantation tours, the shopping and nightlife hub of Kailua town, and postcard sunsets. The lush windward coast is overflowing with waterfalls (literally) and filled with epic valleys to explore on horseback, hidden swimming holes inviting the daring to leap in, plus the historic town of Hilo, which offers a glimpse into old Hawai‘i.
O Captain, My Captain
On the far side of Kealakekua Bay, a flawless half-moon of crystalline water where spinner dolphins frolic in the early morning and kayakers happily dart around the rest of the time, you’ll spot a stark monument to Captain Cook, the great explorer who met his fate in this bay. You’re likely to have a better time than he did in what might be the finest snorkeling spot in all of Hawai‘i. The monument is surrounded by colorful coral reef and even more colorful tropical fish. On a typical day, you might see yellow tang, pinktail triggerfish, exotic wrasse, and the psychedelic-looking parrotfish. You can get here by joining a snorkeling excursion by boat, paddling a kayak, following a steep path down from the road, or simply swimming across the bay. Note that to kayak in, you’ll need to work with a licensed operator; private kayaks can’t land at the monument. However you get here, you may be reluctant to leave.
Really Old Hawai‘i
Near another great South Kona snorkel spot, Two Step, is a reconstructed ancient Hawaiian village called Pu’uhonua o Honaunau, more commonly known as the Place of Refuge. This is the spot where, in ancient Hawai‘i, lawbreakers could flee to receive amnesty for their crimes. Today, the 180-acre park provides an immersive vision of what life in pre-contact Hawai‘i was like, with a temple, various thatched dwellings, and an ancient fishpond, all situated on a starkly beautiful lava coastline.
For the closest thing to an alien encounter available here on Earth, suit up for snorkeling or diving with giant manta rays along the Kohala coast. The tours depart in the evening, because the best (and only) way to commune with mantas is by using flashlights to attract plankton, which in turn attracts these gentle giants. Kona mantas can have wingspans up to 14 feet, and travel through the water with extraordinary, balletic grace. They often approach within inches of divers to scoop up plankton, but they are utterly harmless: no teeth or stingers to worry about. Watching a manta execute a dreamy backflip inches away from you in the warm, dark sea is the experience of a lifetime.
The Original Log Flume
If you’ve ridden Splash Mountain at Disneyland, then you know what it means to flume. In the sunny northern reaches of North Kohala, near the pleasant town of Hawi, you’ll find Hawai‘i’s own version of a log flume, but instead of a ride at an amusement park, this is an authentic ride through history. Visitors float in kayaks along several miles of an irrigation canal built by Japanese laborers at the dawn of the 20th century. Winding across bridges and through hand-carved tunnels, the journey is simultaneously a tranquil drift through pristine jungle and a compelling history lesson.
Hawai‘i conjures a lot of mental images, but cowboys wrangling a herd of cattle on the open range is probably not at the top of the list. Yet the Waimea region of Hawai‘i Island boasts one of the largest cattle ranches in the country, and a tradition of Hawai‘i cowboys dating back to a gift of cattle presented to King Kamehameha I in 1798. By the early 1800s, Hawaiian cowboys (known as paniolo) were herding, roping, and riding with the best of them. It’s a tradition that’s very much alive in Waimea town. Waimea is also one of the origins of the Hawai‘i farm-to-table movement, with several options for world-class dining.
You can still get a taste of winter at the Mauna Kea Visitor Center, more than 9,000 feet above sea level on the Mauna Kea access road. This is the same road that scientists travel to conduct research at the Mauna Kea observatories, home to some of the most powerful telescopes on Earth. The time to stop by the Visitor Center is after dark, when the crystal-clear sky comes alive with stars. Friendly astronomers are on hand with portable telescopes to give impromptu lectures on whatever celestial bodies happen to be visible on the night you visit. We’re not kidding about the winter wonderland, however: The temperature hovers around 30 degrees. If you’re lucky, you may even catch a glimpse of Hawaiian snow.
The Mauna Kea observatories are an independent collection of facilities located on the summit. For more information visit: ifa.hawaii.edu/info/vis
They say life is about the journey, not the destination, and that’s certainly true on the Hamakua coast, the lush, winding drive that carries you from rain-blessed Hilo town up toward the northeastern corner of the island, past some of Hawai‘i’s most spectacular waterfalls.
You’ll want to make a stop at ‘Akaka Falls State Park, a nature preserve surrounding the park’s namesake 442-foot-tall waterfall, which is easily viewed from a paved nature path. As you continue northward, every curve in the road promises a new discovery, whether it’s another waterfall, an ocean vista, a botanical garden, or a tiny country store offering something delicious. At the end of the coastal drive awaits the most incredible valley you’ve ever laid eyes on. Waipi‘o Valley—home to a few dozen residents and a herd of wild horses—is a mile wide, 5 miles deep, and fringed by a stunning black-sand beach. In this case, maybe the destination is as good as the journey.