The Big Island is home to some of the world's most breathtaking natural splendours. With rolling green hills, scores of majestic waterfalls and active volcanoes, the Island of Hawaii is alive and still growing in landmass. With lava spilling from the side of Kilauea Volcano and sizzling along its rugged coastline, the Big Island is the place for intrepid travellers to take on Hawaii’s backcountry.
1. Volcano and Lava Tours
Awe-inspiring with a hint of danger, getting up close to the molten lava flows near one the island’s active volcanoes is not your average walk in the park. Four out of five active volcanoes in Hawaii are all found on the Big Island.
Local guided tours can help hikers navigate closer to the path of the lava, or to watch its glow at nighttime. It’s also possible to see the lava flow into the ocean by taking a boat tour or to get a bird’s eye view of the rising smoke plumes by helicopter tours.
2. Visit Coloured Beaches
Every beach on the island is unique and visiting one is like being transported to a different side of the world altogether. On the Island of Hawaii, there is no such thing as a run-of-the-mill white, sandy beach.
From the postcard-perfect Hapuna Beach, where turquoise water laps against its pristine, pearly shoreline, to sea turtles crawling on Punalu’u’s dramatic black volcanic sand, each location has its distinct personality. Adding to that uniqueness, the Big Island has one of the only four green sand beaches in the world, Papakolea, where volcanic minerals deposited along the shore gave it an olive-coloured tint. Up close, the sand resembles tiny grains of diamonds and crystals. Although a bit off the beaten path, with a bit of planning, it’s entirely possible to see all the locations in one trip.
3. Golf on the Island of Hawaii
Home to some of the world’s most incredible golf courses, the Big Island takes golfers around some of Hawaii’s most diverse landscapes. From volcano golf courses thousands of feet above sea level, overlooking lava fields, to sandy white bunkers juxtaposed by the glittering blue waters of Hapuna Bay, playing a round of golf on the Island of Hawaii is on par with a religious experience.
4. Water Sports and Activities
The Island of Hawaii’s rocky coastline, long stretches of immaculate coral reefs and thriving marine wildlife, make it an underwater paradise for snorkelers and divers. Places like Kealakekua Bay and Kona beckon with tropical wildlife, turtles and dolphins, perfect for divers to spend the day exploring.
The calm and shallow waters of Kahalu’u Beach Park make it easier for snorkelers to interact with the environment. If you are feeling more adventurous, try discovering your own favourite spot by driving along the Kona side the island.
5. Helicopter tours
Given the island’s mountainous terrain, it’s difficult to get the full picture of some locations from the ground. The solution: flying by helicopter.
With places like Waipio Valley so densely populated by forests, circling above is the best way to see all the waterfalls. Getting a panoramic view of lava flowing into the ocean beyond the thick white smoke plumes of Kilauea Volcano is clearer from the air.
Helicopter tours depart from both Hilo (east side), and Kona (west side) International Airports, and some could last a full day. Tour operators like Paradise Helicopters fly from both airports. Due to its proximity to active lava flows, flights from Hilo are usually cheaper, but Kona tours cover more ground and give visitors the option of circling the entire island.
6. Hiking in Waipio Valley
Known as the “Valley of Kings”, Waipio was once the seat of power for early Hawaiian royalty. Raw and verdant, the valley’s rugged terrain can only be traversed by four-wheel drive vehicles. The roads are steep and run through the impenetrable brush of the rainforest. Here, nature reigns supreme.
With Hiilawe Falls plunging from 4000 metres (13,000 feet), tallest anywhere on the islands, and Muliwai Trail zigzagging through the heart of the valley, this is Hawaii’s wild country. Spend the day hiking on the valley’s secluded trails, through patches of taro fields, tropical fauna and soaring cliffs, before emerging on the other side at Waimanu Valley, and its black sand beaches.
The journey can be strenuous, but the trek is a once in a lifetime experience to explore the Island of Hawaii in its truest form.
7. Kona Farm Tours
Balmy sea breezes, a temperate climate, and fertile volcanic soil on the Island of Hawaii create ideal conditions for growing coffee plants. But not just any regular java, Kona beans are highly coveted by coffee connoisseurs.
What’s all the fuss about? For one, the Kona district on the Big Island covers a thin 50-kilometre (32-mile) stretch of the volcanic slope along the western coastline. The limited harvest means less than one percent of the world’s coffee can be considered true Kona coffee. A cup of freshly brewed Kona is undeniably mellow, with subtle notes of fruit, nut, and spice. Although the best time to view coffee plant blossoms is around early March, touring the plantations can be done all year-round.
Some Kona farms, like Uchida Coffee Farm, provide guided tours of their historic farmhouse, bathhouse, coffee mill and drying platforms. Coffee tastings are available at a few different plantations, leaving many with pounds of Kona coffee beans at the end.
8. Hiking in National parks
From creeks to lava fields, palm trees to craggy coastline, trekking across Big Island’s national parks will take you across some of the most diverse geology in the world.
There are four major national parks on the island. The Hawaii Volcanoes National Park centres around Kilauea Volcano and allows hikers to get close to its dramatic lava fields. The grounds of the park were shaped by volcanic activities over thousands of years, and range from sulphur banks and craters to lava tubes.
In stark contrast, Kaloko-Honokohau National Historic Park and Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historic Park are both by the coast, enjoying a tranquil beachside atmosphere of palm trees against a more traditional island setting.
Near the northern tip of the island, Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historic Park proudly displays the founding of the Hawaiian Kingdom with an impressive stone temple (Heiau). It stands as a symbol of King Kamehameha’s determination to unite the islands. It’s also a perfect lookout point for whale watching.
9. Manta ray night dive
There are manta ray dives in popular resort destinations all over the world, but then there are manta ray dives in Hawaii, the only place where it’s done after dark.
What’s so unique about diving with manta rays at night? For one, it’s a bit like going to an underwater drive-in theatre. Rather than being just a spectator, however, you are thrust into the middle of the action, sitting on the ocean floor watching manta rays dance gracefully across the spotlights cast by tour operators. Some describe the experience as “ethereal”, as manta rays are extremely agile swimmers, capable of doing somersaults while gliding through the water.
Most of the diving spots available are “feeding zones”, where manta rays come to feast on plankton attracted by the lights. Besides diving, night snorkelling is also possible while floating near the water surface.
10. Whale watching
Every year, from November to May, humpback whales journey south from Alaskan waters to Hawaii to breed and raise young calves. Along the coast of the Big Island, there are several vantage points for whale watching.
Sightings are most frequent from beaches along the Kohala Coast, especially in January and February. The Hilo coast also enjoys numerous sightings, along with Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historic Park, which means “hill of the whale” in Hawaiian. Boat tours are available throughout the year and can get pretty close to whales, dolphins, and other ocean wildlife.
There are so many things to do on the Big Island, but first, check off this one item on your to-do list: contact Flight Centre!