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Best Visitor Attractions On The Big Island : Hawaii


Best Visitor Attractions On The Big IslandWe call it the Big Island because the island of Hawaii has the same name as our state.  Our ancestors called it Hawai’i.  Here’s a tour of some of the best visitor attractions on the Big Island – Hawaii.   The wonderful black beach above is Punalu’u Black Sand Beach Park (image taken by Kevin Parekh, used with his permission). 

It’s a great beach!  In my family for beach, we say kahakai … some say kawakai.  Some say the white sand beaches of Hawaii are the most beautiful, but I have a love of black sand and black rock beaches!

The Big Island is a volcanic island , and we will visit volcanos in the story below. 

Hawai’i is the most easterly and most southern of all the Hawaiian Islands.  With an area of 4,028 square miles, it’s bigger than all of the other Hawaiian Islands combined and is the largest island in the United States. The Island of Hawaiʻi is administered as the County of Hawaiʻi within the state of Hawaii. The county seat is Hilo.

Best Visitor Attractions On The Big Island

The Hawaii Island Retreat

Sometimes a stone is not just a stone.

"These are sacred stones," explains our silver-haired innkeeper Jeanne Sunderland, pointing to a circle of large boulders. "King Kamehameha I and his council sat on them in this secret valley when they met, while warriors guarded the site from those pine trees up there. He was the king who set off in 1795 with 1,200 war canoes to conquer the other Hawaiian islands, and later united Hawaii."

Captivated, I move in closer to inspect a particular rock.

"Careful you don’t sit on that one unless you want to get pregnant," warns Jeanne. "It’s a fertility stone. My niece accidentally jumped up on there and was pregnant six months later."

Jeanne is the charming owner of the Hawaii Island Retreat, an eight-room inn tucked away off the beaten path on the northern Kohala coast of Hawaii’s Big Island. When we drove up to check in the day before, she was immersed waist-deep in a garden pond in her bathing suit, tending to her water lilies.

The lodge is decidedly eclectic, modelled after a Hawaiian-style palace with a Mediterranean feel. Slightly weathered, its outdoor corridors sprinkled with ironwood needles carried in on the breeze, it’s not a Four Seasons (and I’m a Four Seasons kind of girl). But in spite of myself, I love this place.

It’s partly the handsome rooms with their Tigerwood floors and handcrafted king-size beds. And partly the organic breakfasts — starfruit smoothies, curried scrambled eggs and fresh-baked banana bread are examples.

But mostly it’s that we’re exposed to an intimate slice of Hawaii (its land, culture and people) that we wouldn’t otherwise get to experience if we only stayed on the island’s more touristy west side. Here we learn legends of the land, explore the tiny historic village of Hawi, and hike down into the emerald Pololu Valley, where we’re treated to eye-popping cliff views before ending up at a little-visited but magnificent surf-swept black sand beach.

Hilo City On The Eastern Shore

While blue sunny skies, white sandy beaches and a black lava landscape are found on the west side (along with most visitors), this side is lush, often rainy and very local in feel. It’s also where Volcanoes National Park is found. Bedding down at a B&B — the Hilo Honu Inn (where the cheerful owner dances the hula for us) — means we can devote a full day to exploring the park.

We go with Bike Volcano, which offers guided bicycle tours of the vast 333,000-acre park. The 20-kilometre ride is not so much about cycling as it is about learning about the geological features of the UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Anyone interested in best visitor attractions on The Big Island will be sure to visit Bike Volcano.

Kailua Volcano

One of the most startling sights is the six-kilometre wide caldera of Kilauea Volcano. An active volcano, Kilauea has been erupting daily for the past 27 years. From our viewpoint, we see huge clouds of smoke and steam spewing out of the Halema’uma’u Crater within the scalded grey-black caldera. We’re lucky to be blessed with good conditions; some days, volcanic fumes (known as "vog") choke the air and make it hard to breathe.

Equally astonishing is the Thurston Lava Tube. To get there, we walk through a thick forest of six-metre high tree ferns — a starkly visual contrast from the barren fields of jagged and twisted lava that predominate in the park. It’s believed the cave-like lava tube was formed some 500 years ago, when an underground tunnel of molten lava drained away from a cooled layer of lava around it.

With flashlights handed out by our bike guides, we make our way through a winding section of the tube that is dimly lit. Water drips on us and tree roots dangle from the wet ceiling, which in some places is almost four metres high; it feels like we’re walking through the belly of some giant prehistoric monster. There’s an unlit section of the tube visitors can continue walking through with flashlights, but we climb up stairs to exit through a "skylight" or natural hole punched through the roof.

In Hilo, we also taste different brews at the Hilo Coffee Mill (Hilo coffee is less well-known than the island’s west side Kona coffee, but just as good), snorkel with sea turtles at a black sand beach park, browse the Hilo Farmers Market, and learn about the early Hawaiians’ knowledge of celestial ocean navigation at the fascinating Imiloa Astronomy Centre (funded by NASA).

West Side Resorts On The Big Island

Continuing on with our Big Island exploration, we enjoy our last days on the west side. Three luxury resorts are all worth booking.  Without question, these are some of the best visitor attractions on The Big Island.

The AAA-Five Diamond Four Seasons Resort Hualalai is in a class of its own. Its design really pays homage to the natural environment. Lava rock flagstone pathways, flanked by gnarled driftwood railings, connect low-rise oceanfront buildings housing huge deluxe rooms and suites. But it’s not on a postcard-perfect white sand beach. That’s offered by the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel — along with gorgeous spa bathrooms and Zen-inspired rooms with marble floors and spacious walk-in closets (in the Tower building). Less expensive is the old-world style Fairmont Orchid, which has a delightful Spa Without Walls (palm-thatched massage cabanas are tucked in around waterfalls and koi pools).

A special experience offered on this side of the island is snorkelling with spinner dolphins in the ocean. The premier dolphin swim operator Sunlight on Water believes in the safety and sanctity of these lovely creatures, and so our boat trip starts with a Hawaiian ceremony where the captain asks for the ancient gods’ blessing and permission to swim with the dolphins.

An advance boat radios in the location where the two resident pods are hanging out along the Kona coast. After we spot the dolphins, our small group of snorkellers quickly slides into the water. As the dolphins zigzag around, we’re supposed to swim in the same direction as them. But they’re fast — keeping up with them is hard work.

Some swim so close beneath me I could pet them if I reached out. (But I don’t, as we’ve been told we could pass along human bacteria that may make them ill.) Looking into the dolphins’ eyes, I wonder if they know how magical it feels to swim with them, wild and free, in their natural environment. I think they do — several leap up out of the water and twirl around in the air.

Back on the boat, we’re elated. But there’s sadness too at leaving our new-found marine friends.

Humpback Whale Season In Hawaii

So it’s almost as if on cue to console us that three humpback whales make their appearance on the watery stage in front of us. (Humpbacks are seen in the Hawaiian islands from November to April, when they migrate here to mate and give birth.) The female breaches, then a male admirer starts slapping his tale on the water’s surface to entice her. One. Two. Three… We stop counting after 30. But the tail slaps keep going. Just like the Big Island’s wonders keep unfolding, one after the other.

This concludes our brief tour of the best visitor attractions on the Big Island.

If you are interested in whale watching, the Big Island is a great place to take a whale watching tour.  Check out my previous article on Humpback Whale Season In Hawaii.

~~ Aloha nui loa

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