The spirit and energy of creation surrounds you everywhere on Hawaiian Big Island. Polynesian legend claims the goddess Pele gave volcanic birth to the Islands of Aloha. The Big Island of Hawai’i is her latest and greatest creation. One island. Still warm from its fiery birth. Larger twice than its sisters combined and growing every day as its active volcano, Kilauea, sends new land to a steamy meeting with the ocean 4.000 feet below. Countless waterfalls feeding rain forests of botanical wonder add a fantasy flavor to the landscape. Massive black lava fields hint at the islands’ relative youth. And multitudes of uncrowned beaches let you catch your breath under the watchful eye of a snow-capped mountain. It’s thrilling.
The best way to glimpse Hawaiian Big Island is in small pieces. Each area has its own character, and often a distinct climate. Let’s go for a drive and see what the island has to offer.
Well begin in the island’s capital city of Hilo. Hilo has one stately foot rooted in its plantation past and the other in the present. The rains here have the courtesy to wait mostly for evening and are responsible for the rich greenery that colors everything. Check out the Suisan Fish Auction early each morning down by the bay or the Farmer’s Market on Wednesdays or Saturdays.
The Hamakua Coast starts north of Hilo. Vertical cliffs adorned with wispy waterfalls are broken by a series of deep valleys. At the end of the Hamakua Coast Highway is Waipi’o, the only valley accessible by road, if not by car. Hike in. The beauty is worth every step.
From Waipi’o, drive upland to the cool, country town of Waimea. You’ll find Parker Ranch, the largest single-owner-ship cattle ranch in the country. As you might expect, there’s a cowboy feel to the town complete with a 4th of July Rodeo.
Approach Mauna Kea from Waimea or Hilo via the Saddle Road. At 13.796 feet, you’ll be on top of the world and probably very cold unless you brought warm clothing. Mauna Kea means “white mountain” for the snow that paints the summit with its array of power-full observatories.
Down the hill from Waimea is the North Kohala Coast, the Big Island’s sumptuous playground. This shore, always sunny, boasts numerous white sand beaches perfect for sunbathing, swimming and snorkeling. Lush, green golf courses carved from black lava present a beautiful, unearthly contrast.
Down the coast is the lively harbor town of Kailua-Kona with its labyrinth of shops, restaurants, hotels and condominiums. Leave from here on deep-sea fishing charters or stroll along the shore and watch the action. In October, Kailua-Kona welcomes world-class athletes here for the Ironman Triathlon.
Drive south from Kailua-Kona and you’ll be in coffee country where small plantations produce the world’s best coffee beans. Many growers host visitor centers and offer samples of the delicious brew. Stop in at the Kona Historical Society in Kealakekua to learn more about the region’s history. Kealakekua Bay was the site of Captain Cook’s death in 1779. Today, the bay is a marine preserve and one of the best snorkeling sites on this part of the island. One of the Big Island’s most sacred sites is preserved at Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park, where you can walk among the heiau that served as a place of refuge for Hawaiians.
Continuing south to the Kau district is Ka Lae, or South Point. This is likely the spot where the voyaging Polynesians first landed in Hawai’i about 1.500 years ago. Indeed, it’s the southernmost point in the United States. Gaze out at the Pacific’s vastness from here. It is not hard to imagine the feelings of the first Hawaiians who sighted these shores after months at sea in a canoe.
Bordering Kau, at Kilauea Volcano, is the Puna district. The lava flow has claimed a town or two and covered some beaches, but life goes on for the orchid and flower growers in this chiefly green and forested part of the Big Island. In Puna, you can soak in a volcano-heated thermal pool. Find them at Ahalanui Beach Park and Isaac Hale Beach Park located near the colorful town of Pahoa.