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. Though there are many ways to experience the magic of the Big Island, here are a few of our favorites:
- Floating, Swimming, Diving, or Exploring the Most Exotic Beaches in the State. For the island's best swimming, snorkeling, and bodysurfing head to Hapuna Beach, a 1/2-mile crescent of gold sand. Families will love Kahaluu Beach, on the Kona Coast, where brilliantly colored tropical fish convene in the protected, shallow reef. The most exotic beach in the state is Green Sand Beach, where tiny olivine pieces in the sand give the beach its shimmering green shade.
- Walking Back in Time. Discover the ancient culture of Hawaii by walking through Puuhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park, a sacred site that was once a refuge for ancient Hawaiian warriors. Or marvel over the mystery of the Puako Petroglyph Archaeological District, home to more than 3,000 petroglyphs.
- Discovering Island Cultures Through Eating & Drinking. To really get to know a culture, you have to digest it -- literally. Go to a luau and partake in a Hawaii feast of the island's delicacies -- including laulau, kalua pork, lomi salmon, squid luau, and kulolo. Good soil, creative chefs, and rich cultural tradition combine to make the Big Island a culinary destination today. High end restaurants are concentrated in the Kohala Coast, while those for all budgets can be found in Kailua-Kona. In Hilo you'll find Japanese and other ethnic restaurants that provide delicious, simple offerings in low-key surroundings.
- Seeing the Island from the Ocean. The Big Island does not end at the end of land, but extends into the ocean, take a catamaran tour and learn to snorkel or treat yourself to a whale-watching adventure. Afraid of the water, then take a submarine ride beneath the waves.
- Marveling at an Erupting Volcano. The chance of a lifetime -- don't miss the volcanic eruption at the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. See the park during the day, then return at night when red rivers of molten lava flow, inching down the mountain and pouring into the Pacific. You'll never forget it.
- Stargazing from Mauna Kea. A jacket, beach mat, and binoculars are all you need to see every star and planet in this ultraclean atmosphere, where the visibility is so good that 11 nations have set up telescopes (two of them the biggest in the world) to probe deep space.
- Creeping Up to the Ooze. Since Kilauea's ongoing eruption began in 1983, lava has been bubbling and oozing in a mild-mannered way that lets you walk right up to the creeping flow for an up-close encounter.
- Savoring a Cup of Kona Coffee. It's just one of those things you have to do while you're on the Big Island. For a truly authentic cup of java, head upcountry to Holuakoa Café, on Mamalahoa Hwy. (Hwy. 180) in Holualoa.
- Hanging Out in Waipio Valley. Pack a picnic and head for this gorgeously lush valley that time forgot. Delve deep into the jungle on foot, comb the black-sand beach, or just laze the day away by a babbling stream, the tail end of a 1,000-foot waterfall.
- Chasing Rainbows at Akaka Falls. When the light is right, a perfect prism is formed and a rainbow leaps out of this spectacular 442-foot waterfall, about an 11-mile drive from Hilo. Take time to roam through the surrounding rainforest, where you're sure to have close encounters with exotic birds, aromatic plumeria trees, and shocking red-torch ginger.
- Gawking at the Day's Catch in Honokohau Harbor. Every afternoon between 4 and 5pm, local fishermen pull into the fuel dock to weigh in their big-game fish: 1,000-pound blue marlins, 150-pound yellowfin tunas, plenty of scale-tipping mahimahi, ono (also known as wahoo), and others. Sit in the bleachers and check out these magnificent creatures.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.