The island of Hawai’i is also known as the Big Island not just because it’s the largest of the Hawaiian Islands at over 4000 square miles, but all the other islands combined would fit into the Big Island! As large as it is, it only has 13% of Hawaii’s population but in ancient times it was a powerful place both militarily and spiritually with a somewhat larger population than the other islands.
The Big Island is said to be the first Hawaiian island inhabited by polynesians. Carbon dating shows evidence of human habitation occuring around 450 A.D. but there may have been settlers here, and on other Hawaiian islands, before that. As waves of migration from the Marquesas Islands to the south continued, villages formed and chiefs emerged. By 1100 A.D. new immigrants from Tahiti began to arrive overtaking the original inhabitants to establish a warrior religion that many times enforced brutal governing laws known as the “kapu” (meaning “obey or die”) system. Ali’i (chiefs) were worshiped as divine and each island with their various family bloodlines battled among themselves for some 600 years until western discovery tipped the scales in the Big Island chief’s (enter Kamehameha) favor.
The first European to discover Hawaii, and inform the rest of the world, was British explorer Captain James Cook. It is speculated that Spain had known of the islands (Cook was using Spanish maps to traverse the Pacific) but kept it secret to dissuade pirates.
Cook got lucky when he unexpectedly found Hawaii on his way to the Pacific Northwest from Tahiti. Cook anchored off Waimea, Kauai in 1878 and found a thriving people with plenty of resources, which they shared without request for trade. These friendly people impressed Cook and he pondered their similarities with the people of the more southern Pacific islands from which he had just left.
The Big Island was Cook’s third Hawaiian Island where he dropped anchor. After leaving Kauai he continued north to explore the northwest American Continent and Alaska. He returned in December of 1878 and anchored several times off Maui. He and his crew of 70 men on two ships, the Resolution and the Discovery, met Maui’s King Kahekili at Kahului and later Hawai’i Islands King Kalaniopu’u and his nephew Kamehameha offshore of Hana, Maui.
By January 1779 his ships had anchored at Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island. He was welcomed as a god and treated as royalty. However Cook eventually had several disagreements with chiefs and priests over provisions and when one of his shore boats was stolen he attempted to arrest the King, Kalaniopu’u, to hold until the boat was returned. He was killed by the king’s attendants in the skirmish that followed. Today the Cook Monument sits on the north side of Kealakekua Bay commemorating his death here over 200 years ago. This is but one of the many stories and legends of the Big Island of Hawai’i!
Volcanoes National Park
The Big Island consists of five separate volcanoes. The largest is Mauna Loa at 13,796 ft elevation and the most active is Kilauea along with Kohala, Hualalai and Mauna Kea which are inactive. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park encompasses two of these volcanoes – Mauna Loa and Kilauea.
A visitor could spend days exploring the park but the most popular are listed here. Whether it’s interesting drive up spots and overlooks, or taking hikes – both short and long, there is plenty to see and do.
Kilauea caldera and the volcanoes’ lower east rift zone in the Puna/ Kapoho areas have just seen the largest eruptive phase in recorded history. The volcano is quiet now and the park re-opened in September of 2018 since destructive lava flows and massive collapses from earthquakes of Halema’uma’u Crater changed the landscape dramatically during the May to August eruption.
Kilauea is the most active volcano in the world and although over 700 homes were destroyed along the east rift zone during the 2018 eruption, no lives were lost thanks to the early warnings and daily updates from Hawaii Volcano Observatory scientists. Most of the park is now open and all but the Jaggar Museum and Halema’uma’u Crater overlook are accessible. However there is much recovery work to do on roads and buildings so check the park service website for updates on road closures.
The Kilauea Visitor Center is the first stop upon entering the park and the center gives the public a wonderful overview of the parks environmental, cultural and historical features. From here you can learn exactly what’s accessible and where it is safe to explore this beautiful and expansive national park. From here continue up the road to Kilauea Iki overlook with beautiful views. Consider hiking the fairly short but steep trails into this small caldera. Get there early to avoid the crowds.
Thurston Lava Tube
Around a half mile from Kilauea Iki overlook is Nahuku, also known as Thurston Lava Tube. Set in a lush forest, the surrounding area is an excellent place to hear and see native Hawaiian birds. This cave-like lava tube is a 20 minute walk through a tree fern forest and into the cave. The lava tube is illuminated and quite large although there are spots you may need to duck somewhat. The trail loops back to the parking lot making this an easy and convenient stop. The lava tube is also open at night but not illuminated for adventurers wish to experience the total darkness. Bring a headlamp or flashlight. Using a phone as a light is not recommended.
Chain of Craters Road
This road takes you from the entrance and follows through the park past many scenic points a volcanic craters. The 23 mile long road ends down near the ocean at a lava flow that covered the road in 1986 and again in 1996. It is one of the most popular scenic roads on the island.
Hiking in the Park
With more than 100 miles of hiking trails, there are over 10 day hikes possible within the park. Rainforests, lava tubes, flows of old and new lava and interesting thermal oddities make for memorable adventures. You can get a map at the visitor center or check out the park’s hiking webpage. The park also organizes ranger led hikes.
The reefs of Hawai’i are some of the most beautiful in the world and snorkeling spots are in great supply on all the islands, but the Kona side of Hawai’i Island has some truly unique snorkeling opportunities! On the Kona side there are some 14 beaches to choose from but here are the top three:
Kahaluu in Kona town
This tiny beach park is a sheltered cove right in the town of Kona. It is shallow, calm and loaded with reefs and curious fish. It’s conveniently located and perfect for beginner snorkelers!
Pu’uhonua O Honauanau, or the City of Refuge, is about 40 minutes outside of Kona.
This historical park is an authentic example of the ancient Hawaiian religion. For hundreds of years this was a place of refuge for those who broke an ancient kapu law. Offenders could avoid certain death if they made it to Pu’uhonua. Here they would be absolved by priests and freed to leave. Defeated warriors and non-combatants could also find safe refuge here during times of battle. The ground outside the walls were home to generations of powerful chiefs and several hale (Hawaiian houses) can also be seen here. The reef along this shore has excellent snorkeling.
Kauana’oa is about 47 minutes outside of Kona
One of the best snorkel spots from shore is Kauna’oa Beach, also known as Mauna Kea Beach. It sits in front of the Mauna Kea resort and this beach has great snorkeling reefs at both ends. You can also stroll over to the resort restaurant for lunch or a cold beverage after snorkeling! Parking is limited so get there early and keep in mind that during the winter months high surf, strong shorebreak and rip currents can make for hazardous conditions. At night the resort turns on flood lights towards the bay, attracting plankton which attracts Manta Rays which can be seen from shore!
If you really want to see the Manta Rays up close, try doing one of several night dive tours! A floating neon light array attracts the Manta’s right up to you. These graceful and harmless creates seem to fly like birds underwater as they feed on the plankton!
Snorkel and Dive Boat Tours
Most snorkeling and dive tours originate in Kona and probably the most popular location is tours to Kealakekua Bay. This massive one mile wide bay is home to spinner dolphins, sea turtles and an extensive reef. It is also were Captain Cook, who discovered Hawai’i in 1778, was killed in 1779 after his third trip to the islands in a year. The Captain Cook monument sits across the bay and is difficult to get to on your own, which makes a boat tour perfect for exploring the pristine reef in front of the monument.
There are several other locations along this coast that boat tours like to frequent which allow guests to swim with wild dolphins, explore sea caves and other historical areas as ancient Hawaiians have been living here for over 1000 years! Tours include food and beverages and can run from 3 hours to all day.
Ziplining is popular on all the islands but the Big Island has some of the longest and fastest courses around. Soar over waterfalls and through valleys, traverse sky bridges and repel from rainforest canopies on these family friendly excursions that can include lunch and swimming in waterfall pools. Four courses are located near Hilo and one near Waimea on the Kohala Coast. Single line, side by side and canopy tours (tree to tree) make ziplining one of the most popular adventures in Hawai’i!
Coffee was first planted on the Big Island in 1817 and through some 200 years of ups and downs today Kona coffee is world renowned as one of the very best coffees in the world. With over 650 coffee farms of all sizes scattered for 20 miles along the slopes of Mauna Kea and Hualalai volcanoes, Kona coffee has become one of the top gourmet coffees in the world!
You can find a cup of Kona coffee everywhere on the island including roadside coffee shacks and restaurants but you can also go on a farm tour. These tours typically show visitors the processes needed to go from bean to cup as well as coffee growing in the field. Several tour companies stop at these farms on land tours that include historical parks, beaches and bays. Try to do these tours in the morning as rain often gathers in the afternoons in the upper elevations were the coffee grows. Dozens of farms do self guided or group tours in the Kona area.
Another unsung delicacy on the Big Island is honey. Beekeeping farms are big here and the honey is produced in many varieties of flavors depending on the blossoms the bees collect from throughout the year. A combo of coffee and honey as well as fruits and veggies from farmers markets make this island one of the tastiest places to visit in Hawai’i!
The oldest established city in the state, Hilo resides on the lush eastern shore of the island. Nearby waterfalls, forested mountain slopes, jungle trails and a beautiful bay surround this town which is the most populated on the island. This is due to the rainforest climate which makes Hilo the fourth wettest city in the US with an average of around 126 inches a year. Some weather stations above Hilo have measured annual rainfall above 200 inches!
Along with several shopping centers, cafes, restaurants, hotels and farmers markets Hilo has Hawaii’s only tsunami museum dedicated to the victims of the 1946 tsunami that devastated Hilo and led to the creation of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center located on Oahu.
An inland harbor and park at Hilo Bay displays a replica of the same Kamehameha Statue that can be seen in Honolulu.
Another notable attraction is Banyan Drive at Lili’uokalani Gardens were banyan trees have been planted by celebrities starting in 1933. Plaques on the trees bare the names of famous visitors such as Cecil B Demille, Babe Ruth, Amelia Earhart and Richard Nixon. The thick canopy of named trees include famous authors and local Hawaiians making this garden a favorite place for a stroll along nearby Hilo Bay. A small footbridge nearby leads to Moku Ola, also known as Coconut Island.
Hilo is also home to the Merrie Monarch Festival (dedicated to King Kalakaua who championed the revival of hula in the 1880’s) which is a week-long celebration of ancient and modern hula that takes place every spring after Easter. The University of Hawai’i at Hilo and the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center make Hilo one of the world’s most important centers for ground-based astronomical studies at nearby Mauna Kea volcano and Observatory. The town is also home to Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Corporation, one of the world’s leading producers of macadamia nuts.
Waterfalls Near Hilo
The Hilo area is the waterfall mecca of the Big Island. Within the town runs the Wailuku River and along this river are multi waterfalls with easy access. The largest is Rainbow Falls. Get there early to see the rainbow in the spray of the falls. Pe’epe’e Falls is about 1.5 miles upstream from Rainbow Falls at the end of Wailuku Drive. There are other falls beyond here but the trail is dangerous and swimming here has proven fatal. It’s best to use your swim time for the calmer ocean beaches of the south shore.
Further north of town lie several spectacular falls along the jungle laden coast. Akaka Falls State Park boasts one of the largest falls north of Hilo – 422ft Akaka Falls. A half mile hike through the fern draped rainforest and bamboo groves is pleasant and short adventure with a stunning waterfall as payoff. Easy enough for the whole family, this is a popular stop along this lush coastline. Admission is $5 dollars to park or $1 if you walk in.
Circle Island Tours
If all these things to do seem overwhelming, consider a circle island tour or volcano tours. Several companies specialize in small group tours originating in both Hilo and Kona. There are a lot of advantages exploring with a certified tour guide who knows the mo’oleo (stories) and legends and culture of both ancient and modern Hawai’i. Tours explore Volcanoes National Park, waterfalls and rainforest valleys, Kona coffee farms, botanical gardens, historical parks and black sand beaches.
While doing all the driving, a guide also knows where to go and how long to stay at a given place, making for a relaxed and entertaining way to see and learn about the island and its history.
Well there you have it. It’s a big list of things to do, but that’s just another reason it’s called the Big Island!
Aloha Nui Loa