Hawaii Island is, by definition, a superlative destination. It’s the biggest and youngest island of the Hawaiian archipelago; the youngest land on Earth, the first discovered by Polynesian explorers; and contains all but two of the world’s climate zones, from barren desert to ice and tropical rain forest.
Generally referred to as “The Big Island,” Hawaii Island lives up to its nickname — all the other islands combined could fit into Hawaii Island with room to spare. Anything short of two weeks is woefully inadequate for a thorough investigation, unless the only objective is to sit by a resort pool (and there is nothing wrong with that!).
With so many superla-rific places to see, perhaps multiple visits should just be worked into the calendar. Use this “Hawaii Island Yearbook” to navigate through the many must-see experiences.
Technically, there are three active volcanoes located on Hawaii Island, but one is really active. Kilauea has been in a continuous eruption since 1983. Lava has alternately oozed, spewed, and surged from its molten belly, creating new land, destroying roads, and even threatening Hilo once in a while. Billed as “the world’s only drive-in volcano,” the Halemaumau Crater atop Kilauea used to be a lake of lava that has since drained. A night visit is recommended to see the lava glowing from within. Volcanoes National Park offers a huge range of activities, from the Jaggar Museum to a walk through the Thurston Lava Tube, 150 miles of hiking, and — if Pele permits — an up-close encounter with liquid lava from the Pu’u Oo vent.
Southernmost Point in the USA
Hawaii the state is the “westest,” and Hawaii Island is the “southest.” You’d think something like “Southernmost Point in the USA” would deserve more commemoration than a poorly maintained road off the highway, but there is not even a sign at the main event! The nearby cliffs inspire some foolish souls to jump, though the notoriously powerful offshore currents should be seen as a major deterrent. From here, there is nothing but ocean until you reach Antarctica.
Another few miles east from South Point on Highway 11 is the “Southernmost Restaurant in the USA” — Hana Hou — a yellow-clad old-timey diner replete with lazy ceiling fans and open shutter windows. The Formica tables and teal-vinyl chairs harken back to another era, but the grass-fed beef and locally caught fish are as fresh as it comes; the bakery items are other-worldly good (chocolate coconut macadamia bars as big as two packs of cards and pies to write home about). Sure, the Punaluu Bake Shop across the street turns out sweet, steaming Hawaiian bread by the pallet, but all that fame means tourist buses crowding the parking lot and, well, tourists clogging the checkout line.
Wettest City in the USA
This is maybe not Hilo’s best selling point, considering most visitors expect sunny beaches in Hawaii, but 150 inches of rain per year cannot be brushed under the rug. Lush rainforests, palm-anchored cliffs, and tropical foliage saturate the landscape. Just north of Hilo town is the Four Mile Scenic Drive — an absolute must-see. Words like “primeval” and “Eden” would not be amiss to describe this slice of the Hamakua Coast. It is also the location of the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, featuring 40 acres of pristine flora in more than 2,000 different species.
Driest City in the USA
OK, OK; so the driest city is Las Vegas, with an average of 4.2 inches of rain per year, but Hawaii Island’s leeward side, especially the Kohala coast north of Kona, averages only about 5 inches per year. The ample sunshine inspires lazy days by the pool and swinging in a hammock near the surf. The landscape is desolate driving north out of the Kona airport, which definitely takes the “Most Disappointing First Impression” award, but suddenly palm trees appear, giving travelers hope that their Hawaiian vacation plans weren’t a scam. Kohala Coast resorts have moistened the lava desert into gorgeous waterfront golf courses and stunning beachscapes.
Big hotel chains like Hilton, Marriott, Four Seasons, and Fairmont dominate the coast. Toward the north end of resort row is the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows, offering an array of historical and cultural engagement opportunities, including an on-staff historian, children’s programs, and traditional Hawaiian fishing ponds. Sure, the well-appointed fitness center, spa, and pair of 36-hole golf courses are great, but don’t miss out on the “Secret Pond” hidden near the cliffs and fed by a crystal-clear spring where tiny fish give natural Japanese-style pedicures; the lava tube cave, where you can photograph your aura when the sun is directly overhead and filters through a hole in the ceiling; a super calm keiki beach perfect for newbies to stand-up paddle-board.
Biggest Crashing Waves
Prepare to be mesmerized for hours by the massive waves shattering on jagged lava rocks at Laupahoehoe Point, located about 25 miles north of Hilo on the Hamakua Coast. The view is beautiful, but the memories are tragic — in 1946, 21 schoolchildren and three adults were swept away by the April Fools’ Day tsunami. Stay out of the water here!
Another 20 miles up Highway 19 is the remote Waipio Valley, hemmed in by the steepest of rock walls, teeming with waterfalls, abundant taro fields, and a mile-long black sand beach. But to get there requires 4WD, no exceptions. The road pitches down at a 25 percent grade — that’s a 45-degree angle! Shuttle rides are available if your rental car lacks the guts (again, do not attempt in a 2WD car or you will likely be paying for said car out of pocket … or out of your estate should you not jump out in time).
Most Breathtaking Drive
Taking the road less traveled is what wanderlust is all about. A particularly rewarding excursion exists between the artist-hippie town of Hawi (pronounced “Havi”), at Hawaii Island’s northwest tip, and the highway junction near Waimea. Called the Kohala Mountain Road, Highway 250 tickles the spine of the very sleepy Kohala Volcano (the island’s oldest volcano, which last erupted 60,000 years ago but may still have a last gasp in the next million years or so). Double rainbows frequently adorn the crest, only reinforcing visual comparisons with Irish hillsides. Driving north sometimes bestows travelers with views of Maui looming in the distance.
Tallest Mountain in the World
Mount Everest is usually given this title, but technically the tallest mountain from base to summit is Mauna Kea, at roughly 33,000 feet tall. Of course, only about 13,800 feet are above sea level. Several companies offer summit sunset/stargazing tours, and they are spectacular. Participants acclimate to the altitude for a bit, either during a dinner stop at around 7,000 feet or at the Visitor’s Center at 9,200 feet. Then, 4WD vehicles carry passengers on a teeth-rattling ascent to the summit just in time to watch the sun set above the clouds.
Visitors often state that they feel like they are on the moon or Mars due to the rocky, barren landscape. NASA had the same thought. The terrain is actually so similar to the moon that Apollo astronauts practiced moon landings here in the 1960s. Scientists are still using the landscape to test Martian rover prototypes before they are launched on missions.
Also at the summit are some of the world’s best telescopes, sheltered in R2-D2-style observatories. Mauna Kea is the best spot in the world for stargazing because the island’s isolation in the Pacific Ocean means very little light pollution and clean air. The altitude, as well as the proximity to the equator, means telescopes don’t have much atmospheric interference. If and when the TMT (30-meter telescope; tmt.org) is installed, scientists anticipate being able to capture light that is 13.7 billion years old — roughly the beginning of time in our universe.
Just next door, the nearly 13,700-foot (above sea level) Mauna Loa claims the title of “Biggest Mountain in the World” comprised of more than 10,000 cubic miles of rock. These two mountains are so heavy that they have compressed the ocean floor by thousands of feet.
Most Beautiful Beach
Sandy beaches don’t even exist on the Hilo side of the island. The Kona side, however, has a gritty glut of “Best Beach” contenders — who could pick just one? Hapuna Beach routinely makes Condé Nast Traveler magazine’s No. 1 beach pick in the nation. And for good reason — half a mile of golden sand, clear water, and ideal swimming conditions during calm seas. It is a state park and charges a $5 parking fee. Mauna Kea Beach (aka Kaunaoa Beach) just north of Hapuna boasts a perfect quarter-mile crescent of sand, great swimming, and snorkeling reefs on both ends. At night, a light on the right end of the beach attracts plankton, which then attracts hungry manta rays — an interesting sight to behold.
First & Only Coffee-Growing Region in the USA
Though coffee is now grown throughout the state of Hawaii, Kona coffee farms were the first and are still widely considered as some of the best producers in the world. Kona coffee commands very steep prices, both because of its high quality and due to U.S. labor laws (vastly higher compensation than most coffee-growing regions globally). Greenwell Farms (greenwellfarms.com) has been family-run since 1850 and offers free daily tours and tastings. The company also purchases coffee cherries from more than 300 small local growers, processing the raw cherries into green coffee beans on-site. We were lucky enough to visit on one of the very few “Kona Snow” days, when fragrant white blossoms decorated every branch (coffee is a relative of the gardenia plant).
Toughest One-Day Endurance Race on the Planet
What does it say about our species that we have developed “leisure” activities like the Ironman Triathlon (now called the Ironman World Championship)? Though the event started in Oahu (1978) after a debate on which endurance sport produced the most aerobically efficient athletes (spoiler alert: swimming, biking, and running), the Ironman race was quickly moved to the less-crowded “Big Island” in 1981 and has been synonymous with Kona ever since. Each October, athletes test their mettle against a 2.4-mile swim in the open ocean, a 112-mile cycling course to Hawi and back, followed by a full 26.2-mile marathon ending on Kailua-Kona’s Ali’i Drive. Please pass the mai tais …
Lotus Café Fresh Express (food truck), Hawi
Big Island Booch, Hilo
Da Poke Shack, Kailua-Kona
Best Island Tacos
Ocean Bar & Grill at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel, Kohala Coast
Best Historical/Cultural Site
A Place of Refuge (Puíuhonoa O Hōnaunau), Honaunau
Most Likely to Meet a Shaman
Most Annoying Nocturnal Critter
Coqui Frog (Puerto Rican transplant), Hamakua Coast