Larger than all the other Hawaiian Islands combined, the Big Island truly deserves its nickname. Its 4,028 square miles—a figure that’s growing, thanks to an active volcano—contain 10 of the world’s 13 climate zones. In less than a day, a visitor can easily traverse tropical rainforest, lava desert, verdant pastures, misty uplands, and chilly tundra, the last near the summit of Mauna Kea, almost 14,000 feet above sea level. The shoreline also boasts diversity, from golden beaches to enchanting coves with black, salt-and-pepper, even olivine sand. Above all, the island home of Kamehameha the Great and Pele, the volcano goddess, is big in mana: power and spirituality.
For the island's best swimming, snorkeling, and bodysurfing head to Hapuna Beach, a 1/2-mile crescent of gold sand. Families flock to Kahaluu Beach, on the Kona Coast, where brilliantly colored tropical fish convene in the reef. Green Sands Beach is a spectacle to behold -- tiny olivine pieces in the sand give the beach its shimmering green shade.
Things to Do
Be sure to visit Puuhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park, a sacred site that was once a refuge for ancient Hawaiian warriors. Or discover the Puako Petroglyph Archaeological District, home to more than 3,000 petroglyphs. A jacket, beach mat, and binoculars are all you need to see every star and planet from Mauna Kea.
Eating & Drinking
Good soil, creative chefs, and rich cultural tradition combine to make the Big Island a culinary destination. High end restaurants are concentrated in the Kohala Coast, while those for all budgets can be found in Kailua-Kona. Most of the island's delicacies -- including laulau, kalua pork, lomi salmon, squid luau, and kulolo -- can be found at a luau, the best of which is at the Kona Village Resort. In Hilo you'll find Japanese and other ethnic restaurants that provide delicious, simple offerings in low-key surroundings.
Take a catamaran tour or treat yourself to a whale watching adventure. Carve through the jungle and experience Waipio Valley. After dark, don't miss the volcanic eruption at the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park's Kamoamoa Fissure. Red rivers of molten lava flow, inching down the mountain and pouring into the Pacific.