10 Reasons to Visit the Big Island, Hawaii

Couple walking through the Waipio Valley. Photo: Tor Johnson / The Hawaii Tourism Photo by Tor Johnson/The Hawaii Tourism Authority
By Alexis Lipsitz Flippin

With 12 of the world's 14 climate zones, the Big Island of Hawaii has one of the most dynamic landscapes on the planet. Take a drive and in no time you'll go from palm-fringed beaches to New Zealand-style pastureland to rain forests dripping with dewy orchids. Snow dusts the volcanic peak of Mauna Kea, the world's tallest mountain when measured from the sea floor to the tip. And if it's lava you're after, the Big Island has miles and miles of it, a rock-solid sea of rippling black as far as the eye can see. Not so long ago, this was red-hot magma on the move. Now it's the stuff of which islands are made.

The Big Island is the biggest of the Hawaiian islands by a long shot, nearly double the size of the rest of the islands combined. The island -- largely unscathed by the recent tsunami -- is also the most sparsely populated, with only about 170,000 residents. For travelers, this means fewer crowds and more space for spreading your towel on one of the beaches.

Photo Caption: Couple walking through the Waipio Valley. Courtesy Tor Johnson/The Hawaii Tourism
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Beautiful green sand beach, Papakolea Beach. Photo by Frommers.com Community
Among the island's sprinkling of black-sand beaches, the most striking may be the shimmering strand at Punaluu, just south of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. But only one beach is made of green sand -- a phenomenon caused by the accumulation of semi-precious silicate crystals known as olivine (aka "the Hawaiian diamond"). The ongoing erosion of the collapsed volcanic cinder cone that forms the half-circle bay washes the crystals back up on the sand. It takes a bit of doing to reach the green sands at Papakolea Beach (a 2½-mile drive up a cliff, followed by a rocky 20-minute walk down), but it's worth the trip.

Photo Caption: Beautiful green sand beach, Papakolea Beach. Photo by LySandra/Frommers.com Community
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Hello from the Big Island. Photo by brad.coy/Flickr.com
The Big Island, at first glance, is not the tropical paradise you see on postcards: The runway at Kona international airport has been literally carved (well, dynamited) out of rock-hard black lava. You drive from the airport on a two-lane road surrounded by an ocean of lava flats, frozen in mid-undulation. Along the way, you'll see proclamations of love and memorials -- Hawaiian-style "graffiti" -- spelled out in white coral on the black stone. Keep in mind that it's considered bad luck to take lava rocks home: many Big Island hoteliers have received packages of returned rocks from remorseful visitors on a losing streak.

Photo Caption: Hello from the Big Island. Photo by brad.coy/Flickr.com
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Lava from Kilauea Volcano meets the sea. Photo: Kirk Lee Aeder/The Hawaii Tourism Authority Photo by Kirk Lee Aeder/The Hawaii Tourism Authority
One of the world's most active volcanoes, Kilauea has been spewing fire and smoke since 1983, 23 years longer than the eruption was predicted to last. A key attraction in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, this bubbling life force has consumed forests, beaches, and historic villages, and has also built up some 500 acres of new land in the process. Be sure to drive along the Chain of Craters Road to see where massive lava flows have overtaken roads and forest; stand on black-rock sea cliffs crafted of lava; watch streams of superheated lava pour into the sea; and return at night for views of the flaming caldera. Don't forget to leave an offering for Madame Pele, goddess of volcanoes. Highly recommended are the volcano tours with the expert guides at award-winning Hawaii Forest & Trail (tel. 800/464-1993; www.hawaii-forest.com).

Photo Caption: Lava from Kilauea Volcano meets the sea. Courtesy Kirk Lee Aeder/The Hawaii Tourism Authority
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Montage of a breaching whale off the Kohala Coast. Photo by: Ken Ellis Photo by Ken Ellis
Every year, from December to April, humpback whales migrate to the Big Island's Kohala coast to breed. Stare at the ocean horizon, and you may spot the spray of a blowhole or a gray behemoth in full breach: leaping in the air and finishing with the thump of a mighty tail. Whale-watching tours get you close to the humpbacks and their offspring. Ocean Sports (tel. 800/724-5924; www.hawaiioceansports.com) offers terrific morning and afternoon whale-watching expeditions out of Anaehoomalu Bay.

Photo Caption: Montage of a breaching whale off the Kohala Coast. Courtesy Ken Ellis
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Coffee cherries growing in Hawaiian Paradise Park. Photo by Tommys Surfshack
The Big Island is the breadbasket of the Hawaiian islands, with volcanic soil so fertile that hearts of palm grow a foot long and 200 varieties of avocado flourish here, even growing wild on roadsides. Tour a vanilla farm, a honey farm, a coffee plantation, or a mushroom farm and enjoy a delicious farm-to-fork lunch with Earth Bound Tours (tel. 808/776-1771; www.earthboundtours.com).

Photo Caption: Coffee cherries growing in Hawaiian Paradise Park. Photo by Tommys Surfshack/Flickr.com
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Ziplining in the North Kohala mountains. Photo: Big Island Eco Adventures Photo by Big Island Eco Adventures
Fly through a rain forest canopy high in the North Kohola mountains on a zipline tour. Don't miss the canopy tour offered by Big Island Eco Adventures (tel. 808/889-5111; www.bigislandecoadventures.com), which includes eight ziplines of increasing degrees of difficulty and a raucous 40-minute off-road ride into the Albizia forest. Hold on to your hat for the last two ziplines, both jump-off-the-cliff freefalls over gushing waterfalls and steep mountain gorges.

Photo Caption: Ziplining in the North Kohala mountains. Photo by Big Island Eco Adventures
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The Hawaiian green turtle. Photo by Mila Zinkova/Wikimedia Commons
In this eco-paradise, you can explore protected bays in the company of colorful fish and big turtles. The best places to snorkel are along the island's western Kona and Kohala coasts or in offshore preserves. The endangered honu, the Hawaiian green turtle, is making a spirited comeback and can be seen along most any Kona beach, swimming in gin-clear waters or sunning on the beach. These turtles (which bear a striking resemblance to Crush in Finding Nemo) can live up to 80 years and reach 350 pounds.

Photo Caption: The Hawaiian green turtle. Photo by Mila Zinkova/Wikimedia Commons
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Sunset at the observatory on Mauna Kea. Photo: Hawaii Big Island Visitor Bureau Photo by Hawaii Big Island Visitor Bureau
You can see deep into the galaxies from the heights of Mauna Kea -- no wonder the world's most sophisticated telescopes have set up shop on its peak. In fact, the world's largest, most advanced telescope, the Thirty Meter Telescope (www.tmt.org), is scheduled to be completed here in 2020. Watch the observatories turn their big lens to the skies at sunset and then stargaze mid-mountain on one of the summit trips offered by Mauna Kea Summit Adventures (tel. 888/322-2366; www.maunakea.com).

Photo Caption: Sunset at the observatory on Mauna Kea. Courtesy Hawaii Big Island Visitor Bureau
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Couple at Waipio Lookout. Photo: Tor Johnson/The Hawaii Tourism Authority Photo by Tor Johnson/The Hawaii Tourism Authority
Green mountains split by pastureland define the "Valley of the Kings," long home to Hawaiian rulers and sacred temples. This is cattle country, where homegrown cowboys known as paniolos wrangle and ride. Play paniolo for the day on a horseback ride at Naalapa Stables (tel. 808/889-0022; www.naalapastables.com), a working ranch in North Kohala. This is no prosaic nose-to-tail trail ride; it's an open-range trot through meadows shadowed by cliffs and tumbling waterfalls.

Photo Caption: Couple at Waipio Lookout. Courtesy Tor Johnson/The Hawaii Tourism Authority
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Kohala Spa at the Hilton Waikoloa Village. Photo: Hilton Waikoloa Village Photo by Hilton Waikoloa Village
For centuries, Big Islanders have used the healing properties of heated stones and native flora. Combine a hot-stone massage with island-grown essential oils and scents for a literal immersion in the Big Island. The Kohala Spa in the Hilton Waikoloa Village resort (tel. 808/886-1234; www.hiltonwaikoloavillage.com) has a big bubbling Jacuzzi, a eucalyptus steam room, vanilla- and citrus-infused water to drink -- and transcendent body treatments using such local ingredients as pikake (jasmine) oil, Hawaiian ginger, warmed white flower lotus, and kukui nut oil.

Photo Caption: Sunset at the Hilton Waikoloa Village. Courtesy Hilton Waikoloa Village
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