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December 3, 2003 -- It's not called the Big Island for nothing, and this 800,000-year-young island is getting bigger every day courtesy of Kilauea's red-hot lava flows. The state takes its name after this largest of the islands in the Hawaiian archipelago, and you should expect to do some driving to see even a fraction of what it has to offer. Here you'll find the southernmost point in the United States; surprisingly vast and eerily stark black lava beds; the pristine glory of Mauna Kea's snowcapped peak; and the very heart of the Hawaiian spirit -- it's the birthplace of the islands' unifier, King Kamehameha. If you're planning a trip to Hawaii, the Big Island, here are some of our suggestions.

Mark Your 2004 Calendars

  • March 12-14: the 5th Annual Tahiti Fete of Hilo, with performers of Tahitian and Polynesian dance and music from all over; call 808/935-3002.
  • March 21: the 7th Annual Big Island International Marathon takes place with the course running along the Pacific; 808/969-7400.
  • May 30: For those hoping to qualify for the Ironman World Championship, the Keauhou-Kona Triathlon takes place; 808/329-0601.
  • June 24-26: Check out Dolphin Days with food, wine and jazz in honor of the Shriners Hospital for Children and the Pacific Marine Life Foundation. See www.dolphindays.com or phone 808/886-1234 for more information.
  • November: Islanders hold the 34th Annual Kona Coffee Cultural Festival with a parade, plantation open houses and much judging and tasting of coffee, of course. For more details, go to www.konacoffeefest.com.

Must Sees, Must Dos

To get some insight into the resurgence of interest in ancient Hawaiian culture, simply visit the petroglyphs in the Puako Petroglyph Park -- practically in the front yard of the splendid Mauna Lani Resort (www.maunalani.com). You can pick up an excellent, free brochure covering the ancient drawings and other historic sites around the property -- ask at the concierge desk for "A View Into the Past." You'll take a short hike across a lava field between gnarled trees that form a grotesque jungle gym. Be sure to wear sturdy and comfortable walking boots and pack plenty of bottled water. You see some recently added imitation glyphs at the entrance, but to see the real deal, you'll need to keep on walking -- about 15 minutes or so.

To earn some bragging rights, go up to the summit of Mauna Kea this winter. You'll spend about 30 minutes climbing up a 1,300-foot slope at a nearly-90° incline. Then you can take only a few minutes to zip back down via snowboard on the slope known as Warrior's Run for some concentrated fun.

If the weather is cooperative, you should consider a helicopter tour of the island. We recommend Blue Hawaiian, which carries more than 100,000 people annually on its 15 different six-passenger craft. Phone them at 808/961-5600 or go to www.bluehawaiian.com.

Above all else, you must go to the Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, named by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1987 and an International Biosphere Reserve in 1980. It's an amazing altar of nature, possessed of flora and fauna found nowhere else in the world, capped by snow for several months of the year, and guarded by the goddess of the volcano, Pele. You can get park information by calling 808/985-6000 or visiting www.nps.gov/havo.

This island is ideally suited for stargazing, and the Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel can make a memorable night of it. Since the atmosphere is so clear here, scientists maintain one of the world's most valuable observatories atop Mauna Kea, and you can learn how they spot new galaxies, novas and other phenomena (weather permitting). Astronomers are on hand to instruct the audience and demonstrate just what's going on up in the heavens through infra-red image intensifiers, low-light video systems, binocular viewers and other exotic glass eyepieces. The one-hour, multimedia session is held at 8PM every Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Thursday evening at the Hapuna Beach; on Fridays a session is held next door at Mauna Kea. Admission is $25 for adults, $12 for children under 6-14 and free for those 5 and under. They use a Celestron 11-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope that collects 1,600 times more light than the human eye. You get an astronomy kit with a Planisphere, an LED Chart lite, assorted postcards and a full color Starmap with current Deep Space Object listings. You can find information on the Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel online at www.hapunabeachprincehotel.com; for reservations call 808/880-3155.

And please, don't overlook the coffee while you're here. You can take a Coffee & Garden Tour at Mauka Meadows, the only coffee estate on the Big Island with its own tropical garden, complete with fruits, flowers and spots for holding a barbecue. Adults can get in for just $7; children are admitted at half price -- including free soft drinks and coffee as well. If you want to plant a coffee tree, it's $80 plus tax. Contact them at 808/322-3636 or e-mail doutor@attglobal.net. Also check out the Coffee Times, a free biannual magazine, online at www.coffeetimes.com.

For fun on and off the beach, you might do well at Big Island Water Sports, phone 808/324-1650, www.bigislandwatersports.com. You can get schooled in snorkeling, scuba diving, kayaking and snuba -- their word for combined snorkeling and scuba diving. It's snorkeling, but with an air regulator. A one-and-a-half snuba lesson on shore costs $69; off a boat, the price for one three-hour dive is $110, for two dives $135.

Packages and Roomrates

Cosmos has an all-state Hawaiian Islands tour, priced from $1,499 (airfare from the mainland's west coast included), lasting 13 days (12 nights). Before visiting the Big Island, you take in Honolulu and Kauai. On the Big Island, you visit Volcanoes National Park, then relax on the Kona (sunny) side of the island. Afterwards, you fly to Maui, then home. Globus, the higher-priced sister of Cosmos, charges a minimum of $3047 for a similar experience, but staying at fancier hotels and with more activities included. Contact either at their respective websites, www.cosmosvacations.com or www.globusjourneys.com.

According to a survey by Hospitality Advisors, the average room rate for a room in early November on the Big Island was $126.60, while that on neighboring Maui was $158.42. The average throughout the US, however, was only $84.51. Bearing that in mind, consider some of the following lodgings for what they are -- good values, but not necessarily budget rates.

Until December 21, 2003, you can get a deal at the Waikoloa Beach Marriott with its "Retrofit Rates" that are 42% to 47% off normal rack rates, which include:

  • a garden view room for two persons is just $169, normally $315
  • a partial-ocean view is $199, normally $350
  • $234 for an ocean view, normally $400
  • $269 for an oceanfront room, normally $485

Daily breakfast for two is included in all room rates except that for the lowest-priced garden view room. The hotel is famed for its Hawaii Calls Restaurant (closed for repair from December 1 through 12). During this Retrofit Rate period, a new $600,000 automatic fire sprinkler system will be installed in the resort's public areas. Work will be done from 9 to 5 on weekdays, when guests are on the beach, at the pool or out sightseeing, so the hotel feels the work will not affect the guest rooms at all. The resort is surrounded by 17 acres of flower-filled gardens and lava fields, with its own crescent of golden sandy beach. Contact them at 800/922-5533 or visit www.waikoloabeachmarriott.com.

The most interesting property on the Big Island is the Mauna Kea Resort, now owned by the Prince Hotel chain and matched with its newer partner, the Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel next door. Its rack rates start from $360 per room per night, but it has some packages that can make that price seem sweeter running through most of 2004 from January 2 through December 22.

  • The Splash package includes a $100 per day resort credit for golf, dining and resort activities.
  • The Family package starts from $360 and provides that if you book one room at the published rate, you can reserve up to three additional rooms at 50% off. The children's program is also 50% off.
  • A Spa package from $449 per room includes daily spa therapy treatment and fitness classes for two.
  • An Unlimited Golf package offers just that for two persons at either of the two golf courses on the properties, priced from $459 per room.

For all these, a three-night minimum stay is required. And don't forget, daily buffet breakfast for two is included. Basically, you stay at the Mauna Kea for its traditional Hawaiian charm and its ambience, consistent with respect for nature. Their website is www.maunakearesort.com, call them toll-free at 800/882-6060 or locally at 808/882-7222.

At the neighboring Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel, the packages are similar, but the dates are from January 2 through December 18, 2004. This hotel is new and glorious, with big views, a huge lobby and atrium, and a perfect location. Their Hakone restaurant has what may be the best Japanese cuisine on the island, and there are four other places to eat, as well. Amenities include two golf courses, tennis courts, a fitness center and a shuttle to and from the Mauna Kea. Stay at the Hapuna Beach if you like your resorts new, impressive, and smart. Contact Prince Hotels at 866/PRINCE-6 or the Hapuna Beach at 808/880-1111 or visit www.princeresortshawaii.com.

At either the Mauna Kea or the Hapuna Beach Prince, you get a two-for-one package from now through December 22, 2003. It means you book the first room at published rates (which start at $360) and get the second room free. A minimum three-night stay is required.

Coupons

Activity World, big on discounts, has coupons in more than one of the free handout publications available at most Big Island stores, restaurants, hotels, motels, attractions, gas stations and so on. These coupons can help you save big bucks, and the ones listed here do not involve the torture of having to sit through a hard-sell for timeshares. (They proudly note this fact in print to reassure skeptical customers.) The coupons in This Week Big Island include discounts on airplane rides, snorkel cruises, luaus and parasailing. According to the firm, you save from $5 to $10 per person when you book as a couple. Contact them at 808/329-7700 or visit www.hawaiiactivityworld.com. Other such freebie publications include the Big Island Visitor (monthly, with TV listings, too), and 101 Things to Do on The Big Island (quarterly).

For Kids

Kids stay free at the King Kamehameha Kona Beach Hotel until December 19, 2003. Two adults share a room with children 18 and younger for free, when existing bedding is used. Room rates start at $135 and discount rates for a second room, if needed, start at $87 per night. Phone 800/367-6060 or visit www.konabeachhotel.com.

Do you have a favorite spot, a cherished memory or a stellar activity on the Big Island? We'd love to hear about it. Just click here to post your message.