Written by Jason Gould.
What does one do in a tropical paradise? The answer to that question extends far beyond just basking in glorious temperate weather and gazing at palm speckled sunsets. Hawaii’s Big Island also exudes fun and excitement for those with an appetite for diverse adventures.
We stayed at the Hilton Waikoloa Village, just fifteen miles from the airport in Kona, one of the two main cities on the Big Island. The Waikoloa Village is an immense property that stretches over hundreds of acres and is filled with countless options for enjoyment. There are three different ways one can get around the resort: a tram for those in a hurry, a ferry that traverses the length of the resort via a canal system, and a long walkway liberally furnished with a million dollar art collection.
While the resort provided enough entertainment and fine dining to satiate the most experienced traveler, we decided to explore the island and experience the culture and beauty that are the foundation of our 50th state: Hawaii proper.
Our first excursion gave us a taste of the great Pacific, literally. Some of the most humbling and amazing views of the Big Island are by kayak, a 14ft glorified canoe. We found a pleasant and affordable rental shop where we were given top-of-the-line equipment, a few tips, a kick in the right direction, and a good luck Aloha. We were off to Kealakelua Bay, or for those who have trouble with Hawaiian names (like ourselves): Captain Cook’s Cove.
Getting there is not for the faint of heart, or stomach. We snaked down the volcano-formed, lush cliff faces dotted with coffee plantations. It was a roller coaster ride for our rental. Once at the bottom, we launched into the Pacific and looked at the island we had just descended. The perspective filled us with utter amazement. The bay is lined with what appears to be a shear cliff face, hundreds of feet high.
Ancient Hawaiians used the cliffs as a sept (tombs for their dead) and from the water we could see a multitude of tiny caves and crevasses ideal for the interment of their kings. Bones were placed in their sacred burial by a “volunteer,” who was lowered via rope to place the bones into the cliff face. Once the task was completed, the rope was severed, sending the villager crashing to the rocks below. The job was considered a great honor, and the secrecy and the sanctity of the location of the bones was preserved.
We fought the ocean current and stayed near the cliff. The overwhelming size of the cliffs was comforting compared with the vastness of the ocean. However, we made sure not to stray too close. We had been informed that sometimes, suicidal cows mistakenly take a wrong turn, only to plunge into the waters below and become a tasty morsel for carnivorous fish.
Kealakelua Bay could aptly be called Dolphin Bay. Several pods of spinner dolphins were seen on our way out and back (the trip took about 45 minutes of moderate effort in each direction). Sporadically, the dolphins would leap from the water and rapidly spin in the air, hence their name. On our return trip several dolphins came to within 10 feet of our kayak. It was a bit unnerving to see untamed nature so near. We had been told not to put our hands into the water because the dolphins have been known to bite. After learning that the dolphins traveled in pods to better protect themselves from the tiger sharks that frequented the area, we decided against putting our hands into the water anyway.
Once we reached the other side of the cove, we grounded our kayak and began snorkeling. While the snorkeling wasn’t as good as that in the Caribbean, the seclusion of the spot and the adventure of making it to our destination was an ample reward. In the cove is the only plot of non-American soil on the island. Captain Cook was killed by natives not to far from this location and a small obelisk has been erected there in memory of his discovering the island for Great Britain. The land was deeded to England by Hawaii’s last queen.
The trek to the cove was one of the most enjoyable excursions we had on the Big Island. We met very few people in the cove, making us feel as though the island was ours and that we were the ones discovering it for the first time. There are boats that take tourists out to that spot to snorkel, but getting there on our own was part of the adventure. Oddly enough, the only other people we came in contact with was another honeymooning couple from Michigan.
While we loved kayaking along Hawaii’s coast, it wasn’t the only adventure we experienced. The Big Island is home to the world’s most active volcano: Kilauea. While we had wanted to take the trek through the rainforest to the location where lava was actually flowing, we were deterred by warnings of hot sulfurous and poisonous gases venting from the area where the lava flows into the ocean. In addition, we were not adventurous enough to hike for hours through a steaming rainforest on an already hot day. Instead, we decided to drive to see the original crater of the volcano, which now lies dormant.
The drive to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park where the volcano can be seen is exciting in itself. It was a few hours drive, but one that was riddled with the beauty of the island. We drove through lush, misty areas as well as arid, bare landscapes. For much of the drive we could see the black, lava-formed coastline and the strength of the ocean meeting it. The park lies in the southern end of the island, where the winds stimulate the waves and the ocean ceases to look so pacific.
After driving through many changes in altitude, we reached the park. We visited steam vents and sulfur vents and then saw the crater itself. The crater is incredibly vast, blackened, and raw.
Pele, the Goddess of Fire and primary deity of the islands, is said to have once made this crater her domicile. Now, the lava flows at the ocean’s edge where it is said she makes her summer home. It is also fortold that she will one day return to her old haunt – hopefully not while we were there.
We decided to take a look at the lava’s trail to the sea and followed a pleasant, winding road southward. The road was peppered with signs to drive slowly because we were in nene (nay-nay) breeding areas. The nene is Hawaii’s state bird and is unfortunately endangered. We wound down toward the ocean through mists created by altitude and humidity. The landscape was a fascinating mixture of plants and blackened lava trails and at the coastline sea arches formed where the lava met the sea. We reached the road end, literally, not far after: the road had been swallowed by a lava flow. The sights were other-worldly. As we made our return, we could only talk of how amazingly odd was the landscape and how nothing on earth looked anything like it.
We made one last stop before returning to our hotel: a lava tube. These tunnels through the earth were formed so long ago that plants now grow in and around them. We walked through the dark, moist tube and were amazed, not only at the power of lava to carve out tunnels, but also at the strength of plant roots to infiltrate the blackened rock. Indeed, we had already seen many of the treasures the Big Island has to offer.
So far, our two adventures on the Big Island proved spectacular. Our next excursion would be to the opposite side of the island from our stay in Kona.
To get to this other main city, Hilo, a traveler has two options: a leisurely and winding road through the northern, rainforest-like part of the island (which is about a two hour drive) or a twisted, rough road across the center of the island, (only about 45 minutes). Since our goal was to see the rainbows of Rainbow Falls, which require getting to Hilo while the sun is early in the sky, we decided to take this less comfortable, yet quicker route through the island: The Saddle Road.
Originally the Saddle Road was built to connect Hawaii’s two main cities, Hilo and Kona, in case of Japanese invasion in 1942. At the time no other road cut across the rough terrain of Hawaii’s interior so the Army Corps of Engineers hastily built it in a matter of months. Currently, the Saddle Road is still the only road to go through the island and serves as a highway of sorts for locals commuting to work at the resorts on the opposite sides of the island. The road is wrought with many sharp turns and is primarily single-laned. It has been hastily paved and is by no means a smooth ride. We learned that car rental companies banned the use of their vehicles on this road, yet feeling rebellious we took no heed of their words.
It proved wise to drive slowly on this trail as cars would come suddenly around the corners (probably local drivers used to its hazards) and inevitably one or the other of us would need to pull over to make room. It is not wise to play chicken with the locals!
About midway through the island we found ourselves in between the island’s other two major volcanoes: Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. This is where the name Saddle Road is derived – the shape the ridge between the two volcanoes forms a saddle. Here, the ride becomes a bit smoother, though we did enter some heavy mists that required us to turn on the vehicle headlights – even though it was a sunny morning.
Shortly thereafter we found our destination: Rainbow Falls. Unfortunately, our caution on the road through the island delayed our arrival and the sun was nearly overhead. We didn’t see any rainbows, but the falls were beautiful and captured by our camera nonetheless. It was the dry season, being summer – so the water flow was not too big, but the waterfall was accentuated by lush vegetation, making it a worthwhile attraction to visit.
We still had time before lunch, so we decided to go further upstream from Rainbow Falls to see Pe’e Pe’e Falls (pronounced pay-ay pay-ay, not pee pee as it may appear) and the Boiling Pots. These attractions were not far down the road and they gave us another of our favorite Big Island adventures.
Pe’e Pe’e is a quiet and serene series of falls that flow into a big pool. No doubt this pool and its contributors are not nearly so docile during the wet season. The pool flowed out through the Boiling Pots, a succession of small pools that ride down a rocky ravine. The Boiling Pots are so called because of the bubbling rapids they create in the wet season. Our guidebook told us that these falls had to be visited up close to be truly appreciated, so we parked and set off for a closer look. It took about a half hour of bolder and crevasse hopping to get a closer look at Pe’e Pe’e.
We had the pool and the many small falls all to ourselves and spent many hours basking in the sun and solitude. Here we noted that the water fell among lava formed rock that looked like monstrous black noodles. Everything about the pool was magical and made us truly feel as though we were in a tropical paradise. If you go to the Big Island,do not miss this amazing and secluded spot!
Reluctant to leave, we decided to head back to Hilo for lunch. While in the slow-moving town we also stopped at a local craft fair and browsed through the goods the Hawaiians had to offer. One of our favorite sights in Hilo was the banyan tree, a tree whose branches sprout roots that dangle in the air and reach for the ground. Some of the rootseven come together to form what appears to be a completely separate tree.
Reluctant to leave, we returned to Kona along the more pleasant northern road. Along the way we met gigantic trees and rainforest mists. We passed the sleepy town of Waimea and the ranches of the northern island where the largest cattle ranch in the United States can be found.
If you haven’t been to the Big Island, you don’t know what you are missing. Its charm is found in its serene towns and villages, a far cry from metropolitan Maui or Oahu. Its beauty is expressed by its temperate diversity (10 of the worlds 15 climate zones can be found on island – only the 5 arctic climates are missing). In addition, the history of the island and its peoples can be found everywhere you look. From lava fields to rainforests, a journey to the Big Island of Hawaii reveals a tropical paradise with many fun-filled adventures.