Hawaii’s “Big Island” is big in size and huge in beauty. (Photo: iStock)
Flying into Hawaii Island is like arriving on Mt. Olympus.
Sunlight glints off the 13 domed observatories on Mauna Kea, a volcanic peak nearly 14,000 feet above sea level. The huge telescopes sit above a ring of white clouds like every storybook illustration of the seat of the gods.
These clouds, which have sailed across the Pacific to collect against Mauna Kea and her sister peak, Mauna Loa, divide Hawaii Island into the wet “Hilo Side” (with 126 inches of annual rainfall) and the dry “Kona Side” (with 18 inches).
Waterfront Old Town Hilo is a charming collection of early 20th century wooden storefronts. Among them you’ll find gems like Hilo Guitars and Ukuleles, where proprietor Ken Cameron will proudly tell you (in his Scottish accent) that he runs one of the largest ukulele stores in the world.
Another Hilo landmark is the Tsunami Museum, testament to the natural disasters that devastated the city in 1946 and 1960. That’s why modern Hilo is mostly built uphill. With rain 275 days of the year, those slopes are postcard-paradise green, bursting with brightly colored tropical plants and birds.
You need to take a day trip to OK Farms. (Photo: OK Farms)
Local guide, Benson Medina, runs agricultural tours in the hills. We visited the Green Point tropical flower nursery and spice and nut plantations (like OK Farms) that are dotted between dramatic, rocky surf beaches and gorgeous inland waterfalls.
Finally, a visit to the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center links the work of the mountaintop observatories with celestial navigation techniques used by the Polynesian seafarers, who first settled the islands, around 1500 years ago.
Many visitors to Hilo choose to stay in the bed-and-breakfasts dotting the hills, often gracious private homes with large rooms and antique furnishings. Hotel options in the area are somewhat limited. At the dated Hilo Hawaiian Hotel, the staff were lovely and stressed its recent renovation, but when I tried to open the locked sliding door onto my balcony, the doorframe came with it.
It’s about a two-hour drive to the other side of Hawaii Island. (That is the term preferred by the tourist authority, who feel that its common nickname, “the Big Island,” has been misleading visitors into expecting more development.) There, clear skies and established resorts provide a more touristy and beach-friendly experience.
But take the day and make a detour through Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, where you can not only experience lava fields left by past eruptions, but also visit the seething cauldron of a live crater.
Worth a day trip—Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. (Photo: Thinkstock)
Hawaii Island has two of the state’s three active volcanoes—Mauna Loa and Kilauea, which has been continuously erupting since 1983. During my visit, lava flows were threatening a populated area, and every day the news featured nervous residents with pre-packed cars in their driveways.
Hawaii Forest and Trail offers a comprehensive tour that combines underground lava tubes (I wish I had taken some Band-Aids for that one; those edges were sharp) and hiking on lava fields with some bird-watching in the National Park. The day might conclude with a sunset visit to the active Halemaumau Crater, or to an area where lava is tumbling, steaming into the sea.
Over in the coastal Kona-Kohala region, Waikoloa Beach is an enclave or resorts, golf and surprisingly high-end shopping.
At the elegant Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort and Spa, newlyweds seemed to sprout spontaneously from the lawn like giggling, slightly tipsy weeds. One highlight was spending time with the hotel’s “aloha ambassador,” Auntie Healani Kimitete-Ah Mow. This in-house cultural expert explained various local features, like the man-made fishponds on the grounds, which date from original Hawaiian settlement.
Nearby, a lava field is carved with historically significant petroglyphs, recording journeys made for hundreds of years. Today, you cross it to get from the golf course to the tony Kings Shops mall, which includes Louis Vuitton, Coach and Michael Kors boutiques.
A little further up the coast is the Hilton Waikoloa Village, a self-contained campus that is as much Hawaiian theme-park as hotel. Some features—like the monorail-esque tram and commuter boats which follow a track dug into an artificial lagoon—feel like pure vintage Disneyland.
There’s also a SeaWorld-y “Dolphin Quest” enclosure and, while I was there, a temporary stage and bleachers built to accommodate a week’s taping of “Wheel of Fortune.”
The Hilton gives you showbiz Hawaii, that Technicolor seaside paradise the Brady Bunch visited in 1972. While that won’t be to everyone’s taste, I have never seen more deliriously happy children than at that hotel, and none of them holding an electronic device.
Shamefully touristy but still great, goofy fun was the luau. The same toothsome dancers appeared at both hotels on different nights, performing a pastiche of Polynesian styles with athleticism and more than a little kitsch.
The luau offered heaping platters of roast pig from the fire pit, even more ham onstage, and an open bar. What’s not to lava?
Check out our original adventure travel series A Broad Abroad.