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For Sand, Sea, Fire and Ice, Head to Hawaii’s Big Island


Toss your hiking boots, a windbreaker and some winter clothes in with your swimsuit when you pack for Hawai’i Island. Aptly nicknamed “The Big Island” at more than 4,000 square miles, Hawai’i’s beaches are just part of its allure. You’ll also want to take in its active volcanoes, cascading waterfalls, snow-covered mountaintop and otherworldly landscapes.

Get wet 

Let’s start with the obvious: Hawai’i Island is dotted with beautiful beaches. The west side of the island—Kona and the Kohala Coast—is hotter and drier than the Hilo side, and is also home to most of the island’s resorts. Our condominium at Wai’ula’ula gave us access to the lovely beaches and amenities at the Hapuna Prince Hotel Resort and the Mauna Kea Resort. 

Marine life is so colorful and abundant that, as my husband said after a scuba trip, “I felt like I was in an aquarium screen-saver!” Snorkelers and divers can expect to see countless fish, including Hawai’i’s state fish, the humuhumunukunukuapua’a—or reef triggerfish. It’s a special treat to spot a honu, or green sea turtle. Keep a lookout for the acrobatic displays of spinner dolphins, too, and whales, especially in winter. 

Boats of all types and sizes offer excursions, including night dives with manta rays. We had an excellent daytime experience with Kawaihae-based Kohala Divers. 

If fresh water is more to your liking, explore some of the island’s waterfalls. The best place to see these is along the Hilo and Hamakua coast. The 80-foot Rainbow Falls is a short distance north of Hilo. Continue to Akaka Falls State Park where you will find Kahuna Falls and the dramatic 442-foot Akaka Falls. 

Feel the heat 

Plan on a full day and evening at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and be prepared for a variety of weather conditions. It can be hot and windy near the coast, cool and misty at higher elevations. Bring snacks and water. Start at the Kilauea Visitor Center to get oriented, then go for a hike. You might want to traverse the crater floor on the Kilauea’iki Trail, where the ground is warm to the touch. The nearby Thurston Lava Tube is an easy walk inside an interesting geological formation. 

Next, drive to the coast along the Chain of Craters Road, stopping at the Pu’u Loa Trail. A hike over this approximately 550-year-old lava field leads to an area with thousands of petroglyphs. 

(Heed all closures and warnings throughout the park; this is an active volcano zone, and sometimes eruptions or vog—smog or haze containing volcanic gases and dust— make an area unsafe.) 

If your spirit is adventurous and your wallet is full, take a “doors off ” helicopter ride for an unprecedented view of flowing lava. We were unable to indulge in this memorable experience, but Paradise Helicopters was frequently recommended. 

End your day at the park’s Thomas A. Jaggar Museum. The exhibits are informative, and the gift shop is well stocked. Even better, the museum’s location offers a spectacular view of the Kilauea Caldera after the sun goes down. It’s amazing to think that Hawai’i Island is still being created right in front of you. 

Canoes lined up on shore. Photo courtesy of Hawaii Tourism Authority/Tor Johnson.

Canoes lined up on shore. Photo courtesy of Hawaii Tourism Authority/Tor Johnson.

Look skyward 

At 13,796 feet above sea level, Mauna Kea dominates the landscape. Clear air and lack of light pollution make it an ideal place for star gazing. On a cloudless, moonless night you can see the Milky Way, planets, and more stars than you thought existed. 

The Visitor Information Station (VIS) at 9,200 feet is the place to start. Watch a video about Hawaiian reverence for the mountain, modern scientific practices, and how—if—the two are reconciled. Outdoors on the patio, a telescope for safely viewing the sun is available daily; after sunset, additional telescopes are rolled out. A Stargazing program is held Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday from 6 to 10 p.m. Even without magnification, though, the night sky is astonishing. 

Now the caveats: Parking is scarce and vehicles can be turned away. It’s crowded. Temperatures regularly dip below freezing, snow is not unusual, and winds can blow at gale force. The night we visited, the road to the summit was closed due to snow and wind. Altitude sickness is always a threat. There is no fuel on Mauna Kea, and cell phone service is sketchy. 

My advice is to arm yourself with information, bring lots of extra clothing, and hire a tour service like Arnott’s—they provide parkas—to take you from the VIS to the summit if you really want to go. If you’d rather not risk the crowds, weather or altitude on Mauna Kea, you can get a pretty impressive view of the heavens from less challenging spots on the island. 

There’s more 

Leisure time activities abound: Play tennis or golf, ride, or paddle an outboard canoe. Enjoy fresh fruit at the Hilo Farmers Market, ice cream in Hawi or dine on baby back ribs alongside the locals at The Fish & The Hog in Waimea.