Travel

Exploring the Big Island, Hawaii’s Most Dynamic Isle

The Big Island's ever-changing landscape offers a different experience no matter how many times you visit.

Krishnaswami Alladi contributed to this blog post 

The first thing you notice as you descend into Kona is that the island is caped in black, unlike the lush, green layer carpeting the others.

It’s lava rock, and the island is covered in it.

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The Big Island of Hawaii is the youngest island in the Hawaiian chain, playing home to four active volcanoes: Mauna Kea, the least active, and the tallest mountain in the world when measured from the ocean floor; Hualalai, the third-most active, located on the western edge of the island; Mauna Loa, the second most-active, and the largest volcano and mountain on Earth by land mass; and Kilauea, the most active, and appropriately named in the Hawaiian language as “spewing,” as it is the youngest and most active volcano, most recently having erupted in 2018.

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Glowing Halema’uma’u fire pit within the Kilauea Caldera, as seen from the Jagger Museum in 2016. The Jagger Museum was later damaged by the 2018 volcanic and earthquake activity, and subsequently closed. 

That’s what makes visiting the Big Island so exciting: Each time, it has changed, so no two visits are the same, and you’ll never tire of it. There are new lava flows, new rock formations, new stories cocooned in the charcoal crevices of what it tore down in its path.

I visited the Big Island in 1995, 2003, 2012, and 2016, and you can sign me up to visit again, as each visit is unique. The earliest experience I can remember included a visit to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in 1995, the images of which are still painted in my memory. It brought to life — and within 7 feet of me– geological phenomenon I had only read about in textbooks. As a 7-year-old, it was thrilling to walk over hardened lava rock, scrape my knees on its glassy shards, and see Kilauea’s molten innards seep into the Pacific, releasing a toxic plume of steam.

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As a 7-year-old, it was thrilling to be just feet away from live, molten lava. My fashion sense was questionable, but this is one of my favorite pictures. (Photo credit: Krishnaswami Alladi)
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In 1995, lava falls into the Pacific, releasing noxious steam. (Photo credit: Krishnaswami Alladi)

A visit to the volcanoes park is the main attraction on this island, and must not be missed, but it isn’t the only activity worth exploring. Embrace the island lifestyle, taking it one day and activity at a time using the itinerary below. Through the years, that’s how I’ve spent time visiting both Mother Nature’s and man-made attractions by the land and sea of Hawaii’s youngest isle.

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Day 1 – Relaxing on the grounds of the Hilton Waikoloa

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The peaceful views from the lanai of condominium unit at the Waikoloa Village – Kohala Suites in 2012.

For my family, a visit to the Big Island means a stay on the grounds of the Hilton Waikoloa Village–both the resort and surrounding condominiums. The closest airport to this property is in Kona, where the airport’s landing strip sits atop a bed of lava rock– courtesy of an 1801 flow from Hualalai.

Driving from Kona to Waikoloa where we stay, the midnight embankments to either side of the road sprout tufts of brown grasses and the occasional tree. It’s both dismal and, ironically, chilling, to see the layers upon layers of solidified lava, coiled into patterns that give you a view into how a smoldering river must have poured down the mountains’ slopes. The roads have merely been carved into the river’s former path, but what’s to stop Hawaiian fire goddess Pele´ from burying them once more?

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Our stays at the resort have offered new experiences each time, as there are countless activities to try. Staying at any of the neighboring Hilton condominiums, such as the Bay Club, Kings Land, or Kohala Suites at Waikoloa Village, grants you access to the main resort’s amenities. The property includes three pools (one with a waterfall), a saltwater lagoon where you can swim with tropical fish and green sea turtles, a dolphin sanctuary where you can touch, feed and swim with dolphins, numerous restaurants and two luxury golf courses.

As a kid, in 1995, I spent most time splashing around in the many pools at the hotel (Pro tip: Stand under the pool’s waterfall for a free back massage). In 2003, my sister and I played tennis with my dad, and table tennis with our grandparents.

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One of the many pools at the Hilton Waikoloa resort includes a waterfall, which provides a nice back massage if situate yourself directly underneath.

As a working adult in 2011, I got my down-dog on with an outdoor yoga class, and read by the poolside.

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Working away the work stress with lawn yoga by the coconut trees (2012).
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Enjoying the shade of the cabanas by the poolside of the Waikoloa Village – Kohala Suites in 2012.

In 2016, a year into my marriage, I swam and snorkeled in the saltwater lagoon with my husband, had cocktails by the pool, and went for jogs with my dad (to help burn off the cocktails).

The resort is so extensive that there is a tram and canal system to help get you easily from one end to another.

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Getting in our cardio workout with a morning jog on the ground of the Hilton Waikoloa with my dad in 2016. (Photo credit: Jis K. Joseph)

Day 2 – Horseback riding in the Pololu Valley

However, in 2003, my sister and I wanted to do more than lounge around the resort grounds. To explore the island in more depth, we took a guided horseback ride through the Pololu Valley, against the backdrop of the now extinct Kohala volcano. This adventure gave us an idea of what’s left once a volcano ceases to rumble: Fecund farmlands and verdant valleys that hide waterfalls within their folds.

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My sister on horseback in the Pololu Valley in 2003.

At the age of 15, this was still pretty fun and exciting, and it was nice to be able to explore parts of the island that we couldn’t see by car.

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Exploring the hidden waterfalls of the Pololu Valley on horseback in 2003.

In adulthood now, after a more recent mule ride along the edge of the Grand Canyon in 2015, I feel much more comfortable using my own two feet to explore rather than rely on any animal.

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We passed a few ranches during our horseback adventure to the Pololu Valley in 2003.

Day 3 – Snorkeling at Captain Cook’s Point

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My 2012 visit to the island was soon after my two-year stint in Guam, during which I had grown to love snorkeling.

Yet in many places along the coast, it can be tricky to walk directly into the water to try to view fish since you’d have to get past jagged lava rock and dark sand beds first. After failed attempts in past years, this time I booked an excursion with “Fair Winds” to get to Captain Cook’s Point, considered a prime snorkeling spot.

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I boarded the boat at Keauhou Harbor to set sail to Kealakekua Bay, the site where British explorer Captain Cook made landfall into Hawaii, marking the first European arrival in 1787. Cook was later killed by the locals a few months after his arrival to the island.

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Visiting Captain Cook’s monument in 2012.

The overcast skies told me that I probably wouldn’t get to see the bright colors of fish or coral during my snorkeling trip, but thankfully the rain didn’t make an appearance either.

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Snorkelers in Kealakekua Bay in 2012.

The water was colder than I would have liked, but the prospect of seeing fish encouraged me to ease into the water without hesitation. This part of the bay couldn’t have been any more than 30 feet deep. There certainly were fish, and some fluorescence of coral or sponges here and there, but it was nothing like the schools I had seen at the reef drop-off in Guam’s Tumon Bay, or the striking underwater seascapes in Ritidian and Rota. Perhaps if the sun had been more cooperative, the bay’s colors would have shown more luminously.

I swam in circles around the boat for about a half-hour, feeling the cold and warm undercurrents. My pruning fingertips eventually convinced me to get out of the water and snap photos as others made their way back onto the boat as well. We rounded back toward the harbor and were lucky to spot a pod of dolphins in the distance.

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In the evening, having rejoined my family, we caught the sunset at Waikoloa. By this time, the skies set ablaze like the torches that illuminated the meandering footpaths of the resort. By 7:30 p.m. the sun had slipped away entirely, leaving behind only the torches … hints of the searing glow we’d see from the Kilauea Caldera the following the day.

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Day 4 – Experiencing live volcanoes  

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By far the most spectacular attraction on the Big Island is Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

From Kona, the landscape along the road that cuts across the island towards the park  provides a preview that slowly builds up your excitement for the natural wonder you are about to witness.

Heading towards Hilo, you get views of Mauna Kea. This shield volcano, like Kilauea, doesn’t seem large upon first glance because it slopes gradually, compared to a cone volcano. However, one must consider their rise from the ocean floor.

Once in the park, we’ve typically started with the smaller sites first, and then built up to the piece de resistance — the formidable Kilauea Caldera.

When you start along the Crater Rim Drive, like throughout much of the Hawaiian islands, you might be tempted to roll down the windows to get a better view or let the tropical breeze tousle your hair. But this is one place you’ll want to keep those windows rolled up lest you smell the pungent odor of rotten eggs–the gases emanating from the Sulphur Banks.

To experience the volcano with all of our senses, we typically start at the Steaming Bluff to feel the vapor that is heated by the ground, while managing to catch an unwelcome whiff of the sulphuric emissions from across the street.

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Feeling the steam vents in 1995.

From there, we head over to the massive tunnel left behind from an old lava flow – the Thurston Lava Tube.  The trail down to the lava tube goes through a lush fern forest that has blossomed in the ripe soils around the volcano.

A lava tube is created as lava flows and the outer layer exposed to the air cools faster and hardens while the core flowing lava continues to stay hot from within. Over time, this creates a tunnel where unique, adapted species of plants and insects can thrive in the dark.

For me, walking through the Thurston Lava Tube was awe-inspiring because it reminded me of just how small and short human presence on Earth is in relation to the geological wonders that have taken place over millennia.

From there, we continue down the Crater Rim Drive to the Kilauea Iki Overlook for views of a former lava lake and to catch a glimpse of the plume from the Halema’uma’u fire pit just beyond. In the distance, on a clear day, you can see the peak of Mauna Loa as well. There’s a 4-mile trail available from this viewpoint down into the Kilauea Iki crater, but I’ve never tried it, though I hope to next time.

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Lava rock offers a prime backdrop for a dramatic photo shoot (2016).

Instead, on our last visit we took a short detour to the trailhead at the Kau Desert for a dramatic photo shoot against the backdrop of lava fields, and then started down the 19-mile Chain of Craters Road towards the Holei Sea Arch. 

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It was at the end of this road during the 1995 trip that we were able to walk over former flows right up to a syrupy new one, and see it dribble into the ocean. Since then, I have never been able to witness as thrilling a view. In recent years, I’ve only seen the glow of Kilauea’s lava bounce off of the vents emanating from the Halema’uma’u fire pit, which can no longer be viewed from the rim road. Alternatively, helicopter tours can take you closer and give you aerial views over the crater.

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View of the Kilauea Caldera from the Jagger Museum in 2016, within which lies the gurgling Halemaumau fire pit, or “crater within a crater”

Day 5 – Driving & hiking the scenic northeastern coast 

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Waipio Valley, as seen in 2011.

It may seem, after the volcanoes park, that all other sites would pale in comparison, but I promise you there’s still more to explore on Hawaii’s youngest isle. We usually carve out another full day for a scenic drive to the spots on the northeastern coast from Hilo to the Waipio Valley. I have only ever beheld the view from the top of Waipio, but I plan to hike through it one day to check out the black sand beach at the bottom. I’ve heard the trail into the valley can be quite steep, but the views from the valley floor are worth it.

Chasing waterfalls in tropical rainforests

Since the trail into the valley and back shouldn’t take more than 2-3 hours, you should have time to cool off by the waterfalls on this side of the island, too.

Like many tropical islands blessed with mountains and regular rainfall, the Big Island has its fair share of waterfalls, easily accessible from short trails. We’ve never missed a chance to visit the falls, but it was on the trip in 2016 that I did the short and easy trails around them.

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Visiting Akaka Falls with my husband in 2016.

Along the northeastern side of the island close to Hilo is the 442-foot tall Akaka Falls, which has a 0.4-mile scenic and easy loop. Walking the trail is pretty relaxing and easy for all ages, but for those who are looking for more of a rush, ziplining is available.

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The flowers surrounding Rainbow Falls are a sight to behold in and of themselves.

Much closer to Hilo and more accessible is Rainbow Falls. At 80 feet, it may not seem as impressive as the Akaka Falls, but the mist from its spray can create a rainbow if you catch it in the right light.

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Rainbow Falls, as seen in 2011.

There’s also a banyan jungle at the top of Rainbow Falls. In fact, on this side of the island, people can see many banyan trees in the state parks, with Banyan Tree Drive being among the most popular places, and where trees are named after the famous historical figures that planted them.

Wish We’d Done It

Clearly, there are various ways and vantage points through which to experience the Big Island’s beauty.

During my latest visit in 2016, I was excited to show my husband places my family had visited as I was growing up, though their forms may have changed over the years due to the ever-changing nature of the island. I also wished I could have explored more of it on foot.

However, based on the previous visits at various stages of my life, I’m confident another visit is on the horizon, during which I plan to do the hike into the Waipio Valley and some of the trails at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

I’m not too worried though. I anticipate more visits, with new experiences, and perhaps a couple new travel companions to join us for the journey.

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Walking through a former lava field along the Chain of Craters Road in 2016, with my husband. Next time: It’ll be with Baby Sahana in a backpack carrier!.

Which is your favorite Hawaiian Island? I want to hear from you!

Which is your favorite of the Hawaiian Islands, and what makes it so special? Share your stories in the comments below.

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1 comment on “Exploring the Big Island, Hawaii’s Most Dynamic Isle

  1. Krishnaswami Alladi

    Amritha, your article is beautifully written. The Big Island of Hawaii takes your breath away and you have
    brought out the excitement very well.

    Like

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