Beyond beaches on Hawaii’s Big Island

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Victor Block

Polynesians were the original settlers of the Hawaiian Islands. Extending along the lava flats of the Kona Coast, Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historic Park is home to a reconstructed Polynesian royal compound that once served as a sanctuary for people who had angered the gods.
Photo by Big Island Visitors Bureau

On beaches with white, black and even green sand, vacationers soak up the sun. Not far away, skiers speed down the snow-covered slopes of a dormant volcano. Other people check out a surreal moonscape of hardened pitch-black lava, then hike through a lush tropical rainforest.

If this sounds like a continent-wide choice of activities, that’s because the island of Hawaii in some ways resembles a miniature continent.

Since it shares its name with the state, it’s often referred to as the Big Island to avoid confusion, and with good reason. It’s almost twice the size of all the other Hawaiian islands combined — about one-third as large as Maryland.

Visitors find a miniature world that encompasses virtually every kind of landscape. Cactus-dotted desert lies near rain forests. Barren lava fields contrast with waterfalls plunging into verdant valleys. Depending upon which classification system is used, Hawaii Island possesses at least eight, and possibly more, of the earth’s 13 climate zones.

Land of volcanoes

The major attraction for many visitors is Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, where the five volcanoes that built up the island over millions of years can be found. This is one of the few places in the world where people may come face-to-face with an active volcano.

Mauna Loa has erupted 33 times in the past 175 years, most recently in 1984.

Kilauea is the world’s most active volcano. Lava flowing from Kilauea, which has been erupting since 1983, adds about 42 acres to Hawaii Island every year. Just last year, the lava flow invaded populated areas and prompted an evacuation by some residents.

Those massive mountains have another claim to fame. They measure more than 30,000 feet from their base (located far beneath the sea) to their summits, making them taller than Mount Everest.

Another volcano, Mauna Kea — the name is Hawaiian for “white mountain” — at times receives a mantle of snow during winter that is adequate for skiing and snowboarding. However, skiing there is not for the timid. There are no lifts, grooming or resort, and a 4-wheel drive vehicle is required to reach the 13,796-foot summit. Locals call the snow “pineapple powder.”

A good way to experience the park is to drive along Crater Rim Drive, which leads to several major attractions. The Jaggar Museum provides a detailed introduction to volcanoes, and the overlook outside offers a breathtaking panoramic view.

The Thurston Lava Tube was formed when an underground river of molten lava ran out of its channel, and the walls cooled and hardened. The aptly named Devastation Trail leads through an area that was buried beneath a thick blanket of cinders during an eruption of Kilauea in 1959.

Along with volcanoes and the usual sun-and-sand vacation activities, there are plenty of other reasons to visit the island of Hawaii. For fishermen, waters off its Kona Coast are famous as the best in the world for catching giant blue marlin.

Much larger examples of sea life drop by during whale-watching season, from December through May. While humpbacks have top billing, it’s also possible to spot sperm and melon-headed whales.

People who prefer to keep their feet on firm ground will find a wide choice of hiking opportunities. Volcanoes National Park alone offers 150 miles of trails.

Coffee and cowboys

Some visitors are pleasantly surprised to discover that coffee and cowboys are among the island’s unexpected treasures. World-renowned, and costly, Kona coffee has been grown there since it was introduced by missionaries in 1828.

Today, the beans are harvested at countless tiny farms crowded into a narrow strip of land along the Kona Coast. The rich volcanic soil, cloud cover and elevation of upland slopes combine to provide an ideal environment. A number of the small farms offer tours and tastings.

A farm setting of another kind more closely fits the Big Island nickname, and adds a bit of cowboy culture to the scene. This story began in 1788, when a visitor presented a gift of five cows to King Kamehameha 1, who had consolidated his rule over the eight Hawaiian islands into one kingdom. After the monarch set the animals free, they multiplied into thousands over the next two decades, wreaking havoc with farm crops and gardens.

When a Massachusetts sailor named John Parker landed on the island, he got permission from the king to shoot the wild cattle. He began selling their meat and hides, became wealthy, and eventually established a ranch that carried his name.

In the 1830s, Parker contracted with vaqueros, horse-mounted cattle herders from Mexico, to tend his large herd of livestock. The local island men they trained to ride and rope became instrumental in the growth of the Parker Ranch into one of the largest cattle spreads in the United States. Two historic homes on the sprawling property are open to the public, and the story of the ranch is told at the visitors center.


Two-thousand-foot high cliffs tower over the Waipio Valley, also known as the Valley of the Kings, where numerous waterfalls flow into rivers.
Photo by Hawaii Tourism Authority/Kirk Lee Aeder

Hawaii’s Polynesian past

For history buffs, the story of the island’s past is as intriguing as what greets visitors today. The earliest settlements were established by Polynesians who arrived after a long and treacherous ocean voyage in large double-hulled canoes. Estimated dates of their arrival span hundreds of years, from the fourth to eighth centuries.

Clues to the lifestyle of the ancient Hawaiian civilization abound throughout the island. They include remnants of villages, temples (heiau), agricultural mounds and other archeological remains.

Some relics — such as royal fish ponds constructed to satisfy noble palates and lava rock carvings called petroglyphs — have been incorporated into the grounds of hotels.

The chiseled images depict humans, birds and other recognizable forms, as well as undecipherable lines and dots. Their precise meanings are unknown, but scientists believe that they record births, deaths and other major events, and perhaps include astronomical symbols.

One of the more intriguing sites is the Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historic Park, a reconstructed royal compound. Known as the “City of Refuge,” it served as a sanctuary for people who angered the gods in some way.

Transgressors who were able to reach this sacred place were absolved by a priest and allowed to go free. The compound encompasses temples, sacred burial places, petroglyphs and other reminders of ancient times.

Another chapter of island history comes alive in the Waipio Valley, a six-by-one-mile gash in the land rimmed by 2,000-foot high cliffs over which numerous waterfalls cascade. The meandering river they create gave the valley its name, which means “curved waters.”

Also known as “Valley of the Kings,” it once was home to many rulers, and contains remains of important temples. Visitors may view the valley from a small overlook, or take a guided tour into it.

When not taking the opportunity to look down into deep valleys or across wide panoramas, visitors also have the ability to look up at the stars as few people have seen them.

Hawaii Island is home to one of the most renowned astronomical sites on Earth. Perched above the cloud cover on the Mauna Kea volcano, 13 powerful telescopes are trained on the sky. Because of the high elevation, clear air and minimal light pollution, at night the stars overhead resemble sparkling glitter. Guided tours to the observatory include transportation, warm parkas and dinner.

An opportunity to peer at stars in a way that few people ever have isn’t the major reason why most people visit Hawaii Island. It’s but one in a long list of attractions that appeal to various interests well beyond the beaches, no matter what the color of the sand.

Where to stay and eat

When deciding where to stay on Hawaii Island, the perplexing but pleasant challenge is choosing from an abundance of hotels. The Kohala Coast on the northwest corner is known as the “Gold Coast” because of the string of luxurious resorts set amidst the lava landscape.

While many of these properties offer similar attractions, the Hilton Waikoloa Village and Beach Resort stands out for immersing its guests in varied touches of local lore. A stretch of the 175-mile King’s Trail — which linked ancient communities, temples and other historic sites — skirts the hotel grounds. A petroglyph trail winds through a field of early rock carvings.

The intriguing mile-long Museum Walkway is lined by more than 1,800 pieces of art from areas whose cultures influenced that of Hawaii. The resort offers classes in lei making, stone bowling and other traditional activities. Even the spa gets into the act with treatments that include cane sugar, coconut milk and other traditional local ingredients.

Rates at the Hilton Waikoloa begin at $199 per night. For more information, call 1-800-445-8667 or visit www.hiltonwaikoloavillage.com.

A very different setting awaits guests at the Volcano House, the only hotel located within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Situated on the site where the first hotel, a small thatched structure, was built in 1846, today’s lodging is perched on the rim of the Kilauea caldera — a crater-like depression that was formed following a past volcanic eruption. 

The small hotel (33 recently refurbished rooms) is designed to take full advantage of its location, with oversize windows overlooking barren lava fields and numerous steam vents, which glow reddish-orange at night.

Photographs that line lobby walls and a continuous video depict volcanic eruptions from the past, and daily guided walks provide close-up introductions to various volcano-related features.

Rates to stay in this unique setting begin at $285. For more information, call 1-866-536-7972 or see hawaiivolcanohouse.com.

At meal time, a virtual cornucopia of locally grown, caught and raised ingredients awaits hungry diners. Fruits and vegetables grown in rich volcanic soil share menus with the freshest of fish and grass-fed beef.

The aptly named Rim Restaurant at the Volcano House serves ample portions of stir-fried veggies from a nearby farm ($19) and pineapple-wrapped fish ($26). Budget-stretching items available in the lounge include pork and pineapple pizza ($12) and grilled prawns ($13).

The imaginatively named, multi-award-winning Kamuela Provision Company offers gourmet fare along with breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean and spectacular sunsets. Among its surf-and-turf choices are sesame seared ahi tuna ($45) and beer and wine braised shortribs ($42).

For more information about the Big Island, call 1-800-648-2441 or visit www.gohawaii.com/hawaii-island.

The least-expensive flights to Honolulu in early December start at $631 on American Airlines and Alaskan Airlines, from Dulles and BWI airports.