Few corners of the world offer so much variety in so little space as Hawaii’s Big Island. If you can get yourself to the middle of the Pacific, here are a few tips to make the most of your time:
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is not only a must-see travel destination, it should be one of the first places you visit when you’re on the Big Island. There are two reasons for doing this at the start of your trip:
1) The visitor’s center shows a short film which provides an excellent orientation to the unique geology, flora and fauna, and culture of the Hawaiian islands. This will provide context for your entire trip.
2) Conditions at an active volcano can change quickly and drastically. Sometimes there are spectacular views of the caldera, or of glowing lava flowing into the sea. At other times you can’t see half a meter in front of you. Parts of the park may be closed for safety reasons when sulfur dioxide levels are too high. However, your entrance fee of $10.00 per vehicle gives you access to the park for 7 days. Making Volcano one of your first stops means you’ll have time to go there again if Mother Nature foils your initial visit.
We may all be looking at the same sky, but trust me, it looks better from Hawaii. I’m not the only one who thinks so. Mauna Kea, the tallest mountain in the world (9,750 meters from it’s base under the sea) is home to multiple world class telescopes. The air atop Mauna Kea is thin and clear, and there is little light pollution in the middle of the ocean.
Stargazing at Mauna Kea is an unforgettable experience. Constellations which you may be able to find easily from you home become difficult to spot, because of all of the “extra” stars around them. You do not need to pay hundreds of dollars to go stargazing at Mauna Kea. The visitor center at (2,800 meters elevation) offers free viewing through their telescopes Friday through Sunday evenings. Dress warm- I’ve seen it snow up there, and if possible, schedule your visit for a night when there is little or no moon.
If you reach the summit (four wheel drive required), you may be able to tour the University of Hawaii telescope and the ingeniously designed (made of multiple hexagonal mirrors) Keck. And of course, the view, looking down on the clouds, is spectacular.
Obviously, splashing around in the Pacific is one of Hawaii’s main attractions. Three of the west side’s best known snorkel spots are not to be missed:
– Kahalu’u Beach (around mile post 5 on Alii Drive)
It’s convenient location, protected waters and all the amenities make this perfect spot for novice snorkelers, or experts snorkelers wanting a quick dip before setting out for other activities. There are bathrooms, snacks for sale, gears for rent and shady trees. The abundance of turtles and colorful fish make you feel like your in an aquarium. The only downside is that everyone knows about it so you’ll see a lot of humans too.
– Kealakekua Bay
Famous not only for it’s beautiful waters, but also as the place where legendary explorer James Cook met his death in 1779, Kealakekua Bay lies a little south of Kailua. The waters are crystal clear and a natural drop off makes for a spectacular coral-covered wall. Getting here can be tricky. You have a choice between signing on with a snorkel cruise and coming by boat, hiking the 3.2kms down from Napoopoo Road (remember to save energy for hiking back up), or renting a kayak and paddling across the bay. All are good options, but if you choose the latter, you may find yourself in the midst of playful spinner dolphins.
Adjacent to Pu’uhonau o Honaunau (Place of Refuge) National Historic Park, which is definitely worth a visit, this is another undersea paradise. Lovely coral, occasional dolphins and an underwater sign saying, “Aloha,” welcome snorkelers. In spite of the “two steps” for which the site is known, I sometimes find getting out tricky. If you’re having trouble, check for safety and use the boat ramp.
If you can’t pronounce the Hawaiian names, you can use the “haole” place names; Snorkel Beach, Captain Cook, Two Step (respectively).
Onomea Bay and the Hamakua Coast
The big Island has several botanical gardens. My favorite is the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden just north of Hilo as you head up towards the Hamakua coast. Access the garden by taking the Onomea Bay Scenic Route turn off. (Do this anyway, even if you’re not interested in the Botanical Garden). Literally thousands of tropical plants are displayed and labeled, and the scenery is spectacular. After you leave Onomea Bay and continue north, stop at Akaka Falls. The water cascades down some 400 feet and your experience at the Botanical Garden will allow you to recognize some of the jungle flora you’ll see while hiking to the viewpoint.
The Big Island Revealed by Andrew Doughty is an indispensable resource. (There’s an iPhone app too.) It will give you access to hiking trails, pristine beaches, and many things you might not discover on your own. Don’t leave home without it.