When you think about “my city,” it is sometimes easy to forget that very touristy areas also have residents: lucky people who live their year-round. In my case, it is only part of the year. And the touristy spot? Hawaii. Specifically, the Big Island (which, just to make things confusing, is technically named “Hawaii”). Although Hawaii is a tourist mecca, there are also just over a million people who live here.
The Big Island is the youngest of the chain of Hawaiian Islands. It is also (you guessed it) the biggest. It is around 4,028 square miles (about 6,482 square kilometers). So to visit here definitely takes some planning. Most things are expensive in Hawaii because they must be shipped in. In 2020, gasoline was averaging about $3.50 per gallon. With prices like that, you do not want to spend a lot of time retracing your steps. You need to figure out what you want to see and plan your driving around it. Without planning, you can easily put 2,000 miles on a rental car.
Kiluea is a highly active volcano and is located in Volcano National Park. Depending on what it is doing, you can actually get pretty close. Lava flowed in some manner from the 1980’s until 2018. Yes, it can be dangerous, but if you obey the signs (and the Park Rangers), you will not have any problems. When lava is flowing into the ocean, you can take a tour boat out to see it. Hawaii is the only U.S. state that is growing: the volcano is literally making more land. To watch the lava flow into the ocean is an absolute jaw dropping experience. The visitor centers also offer fascinating information about this highly studied volcano. The Park Rangers are also great sources of information. They are friendly, and are willing to tell you all about the scientific study going on.
What is the best thing about the Big Island:
One thing that you will hear a lot about is the “Aloha Spirit” of the Big Island. Aloha is the Hawaiian word for “hello” and “goodbye,” and you will hear it used often. But Aloha means so much more than just a greeting. It is very much a way of life on the Big Island. This means mutual regard, and affection. It is an extension of warmth and caring, with no expectation of return. People here really do live this lifestyle, and you will find them very welcoming, and loving. It’s also very easy to slip into this mode. Visitors here find themselves relaxing quickly. Speed limits are largely set very low, and even in traffic, you won’t hear people honking their horns.
In Kailua-Kona, you will find Ali’I Drive: a small coastal road that is full of restaurants, shops, and boutiques. You can easily spend an afternoon wandering through the dozens of little shops. And those restaurants? They are all positioned facing the ocean. And because you are facing west, you are treated to amazing sunsets. The sun seems to turn to a brilliant red liquid as it moves below the horizon. It is magical, and something you cannot miss.
All of the Hawaiian Islands have something weirdly special when it comes to restaurants. In most places, hotel food is terrible. Even at resorts, it is often better to wander away from the property and try something local. Not so on the Big Island. The resorts on the Kohala coast boast some amazing restaurants. And this is not your generic Holiday Inn meal. Impressive, fresh caught seafood is everywhere. Try Brown’s Beach House, or the Napua at Mauna Lani Beach Club. These are located within the resorts, but you don’t have to be staying there to sample the restaurants. In Hawaii, you should never be afraid to try out a restaurant at a resort.
Here’s another little trick when it comes to resorts: they have to let you get to the beach. All of the beaches in Hawaii are public. Resorts built on the shoreline are required to provide a bit of parking so other visitors can get to the beach. They’re usually not hard to find. If you have to use a pay parking lot at a resort, check to see if they validate parking at the restaurant.
Best Music Festival:
You’re in Hawaii, right? You’re looking for Hawaiian things to do, right? Yes, the Big Island has a variety of music festivals throughout the year. The Jazz & Blues Festival is especially fun. But, if you really want to experience Hawaii, you need to go the Waikoloa Ukulele Festival (held each March). The Festival is a celebration of an instrument unique to the islands. I get it: most people are not going to take the ukulele seriously. But this is an incredibly fun event, and something that truly represents the Aloha Spirit.
Overall, Hawaii tends to be quiet after dark. You can always find a luau (which is often pricy), but you are not going to find Honolulu-type clubs with huge crowds. On the Kona side of the island, you can hit up Ali-I Drive. There are several bars that are definitely fun. It is a subdued sort of fun though. Most people are very active during the day in Hawaii: there are just so many outdoor activities, it can easily burn a visitor out. Maybe that’s why the club scene is so mellow.
The real fun for nightlife comes in an absolutely different form: you can visit with Manta Rays in the ocean. There are multiple tour companies that will take you offshore just after sunset. You will be given snorkel gear, and your group will hang on to something like a surfboard with handles. Lights shined down into the water attracts plankton, which attracts the Manta Rays. These absolutely beautiful creatures can be up to about 15 feet (4.5 meters) wide. They are completely gentle, and only eat the tiny plankton. If you are lucky, one come straight up at you, and turn right below you. The first time I did this, I really went in with a, “Yeah, whatever…” attitude. I was absolutely stunned by the beauty of these creatures.
Best day trip out of the city:
The Big Island does not really have any big cities. Hilo has about 43,000 people, and people are scattered around the rest of the island. Many of the resorts are positioned on beautiful beaches around the island. But if you want a nice drive, and an only slightly challenging hike, you need to head to the Polou Valley. The valley is on the north side of the Kohala Mountains (and on the northern side of the island). You park your car at the top of the valley where you are presented with a stunning view of the small valley and the ocean. There is a fairly steep (and rocky) hike down to the bottom, where you’ll find an isolated beach. This is one of those spots that screams, “Hawaii!” It is beauty beyond compare, and worth the hike down. You can spend a relaxing day at the beach here. It’s not exactly isolated: there is a steady stream of visitors coming down all day long. But most people hike down, look around, and then leave. Feel free to relax, eat a picnic lunch, and splash around in the water. Be careful in the water! As with all of the Hawaiian Islands, there can be dangerous currents and riptides. Never go in deep water unless you are a strong swimmer, and know what the currents are doing. Besides, it’s probably more fun to splash around at the water’s edge anyway. Oh, and you do have to hike back up. No pressure though: you can rest all you want.
What most travellers would not know about
Mauna Kea is one of the Big Island’s dormant volcanos. It is also technically the highest mountain in the world. It beats Everest because it is measured from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean (which is very deep here). At the top of Mauna Kea are several astronomical observation telescopes. You can seldom get into the telescopes, but there is a visitor center. After dark, a staff member will point out various astronomical sights. The last time I was there, we saw a satellite pass by. I don’t mean we saw a moving light: we saw the metal object pass by.
Southpoint is the southern-most point in the United States. Key West, FL lays claim to the southern-most point in the continental U.S., but the true southern-most point is here in Hawaii. There is not much out here in the way of civilization, but you’ll find rock cliffs, with endless waves crashing against the shore. It’s rough, and violent, but surprisingly peaceful. Plus, there is a secret green sand (yes, green sand) beach if you’re willing to hike to it. The sand is green because of how it’s reacting to the nearby volcano.
The Big Island is wildly diverse. There are 12 different climate zones (you could actually drive to the top of Mauna Kea, fill the bed of your truck with snow, then drive down to the beach, where you can build a snowman). Here, there are snowcapped mountains, jungles, vast areas of old lava flow, and quintessential Hawaiian beaches. Every Hawaiian Island is very different. Truly, no two are the same. But the Big Island has a sort of magical ruggedness. There is stark beauty here