Getting to know the Big Island of Hawaii inside and out

Jan 13, 23
Getting to know the Big Island of Hawaii inside and out

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With flowing lava, rich agriculture and miles of beach-lined coast, Hawaiian identity is inextricably linked to key aspects of the state’s biggest landmass: the Island of Hawai‘i.

Embraced by thousands of miles of the Pacific Ocean, Hawai‘i has a unique, come-as-you-are attitude expressed in its aloha spirit. A warm welcome is all but guaranteed as you arrive to experience all the delights this special island has to offer.

Halema'u ma'u Crater under stars of Milky Way in Volcanoes National Park © Matt Munro / Lonely Planet

Commune with Pele

Since its latest eruption began in 1983, Kīlauea Volcano in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has sent forth a steady stream of red-hot activity, eliciting not too few oo’s and ahh’s and creating an extra 500 acres of land on the Big Island.

The most common way to experience the heat of the island is to head to one of the several viewpoints overlooking Halemaumau Crater, which at night glows with the fiery orange of the lava just below the crater rim. But in the summer of 2016, a lava flow dubbed 61g sent a breakout across the south side of the park and into the sea. Hikers and bikers can access the flow via a gravel road extending off Chain of Craters Rd. Although the park prevents visitors from getting too close to the ocean entry, hiking outfitters such as Hawaii Outdoor Guides (hawaiioutdoorguides.com) can take people into the lava field to see lava breakouts upstream.

Pahoehoe lava oozing from within the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park © Ron Dahlquist / Getty Images
Pahoehoe lava oozing from within the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park © Ron Dahlquist / Getty Images

Kona coffee farms

With a predictable weather of sun-filled mornings, overcast or rainy afternoons and mild evenings, the west side of the Big Island is ideal for agriculture. Add to that the right mixture of rich, volcanic soil and you have some of the best java-growing locations in the world. Indeed, the beans grown in Kona yield some of the priciest coffee (with prices that can go as high as $34 per pound), so swing by one of the active coffee farms to see what all the fuss is about.

Just south of Captain Cook, the Kona Historical Society operates the Kona Coffee Living History Farm, which brings to life a working coffee farm and an original 1920s Japanese farmhouse. Interpreters guide visitors through rows of coffee plants, showing how the beans go from cherry-red fruit to a morning cup of joe. Wander inside the farmhouse for a demonstration of how the Japanese family who started the farm actually lived.

Green coffee beans after the cherries have been picked, processed and dried © Alexander Howard / Lonely Planet

Akaka Falls

Half a mile through a tree-shaded, paved pathway and visitors to Akaka Falls State Park can begin to hear the distant roar of rushing water as it echoes through a deep cleft cut through this region of the Hamakua Coast. Across an emerald-hued gorge, Akaka Falls empties a steady, free-falling veil of water before nearly disappearing into a pool far below. At 442ft, Akaka Falls stands over twice the height of Niagara Falls (although Niagara wins points for width and volume of water), and it’s a certain crowd pleaser. After gasping at the sight of the falls, walk through dense, orchid-filled rainforest, snapping photos of Hawaiian plants and animals along the way.

Akaka Falls can draw a crowd, so head there early. Fog often rolls in early in the morning, but this is Hawaii, and the weather can change at the drop of a lei. Stick around long enough and you’ll have a good chance of seeing one of Hawaii’s most iconic waterfalls.

Due to consistent rainfall on the east side of the island, Akaka Falls is always surging © Alexander Howard / Lonely Planet

Snorkeling and diving

Graced by high mountains that shield the Pacific’s strong winds from the east, the west coast of the island features pristine, calm waters. With the porous, volcanic soil of the Big Island soaking up rainwater like a big sponge, there’s also less particle-filled runoff entering the sea. The combined result is some of the best diving and snorkeling conditions on any of the Hawaiian Islands.

Dive sites pepper the waters just off the west coast of the Big Island, including Suck’em Up Lava Tube, which features swim-through lava caverns at relatively shallow depths – if you time your exit on the other end right, you can get ‘sucked’ out with the surge. This is also a great site to spot colorful reef fish, moray eels and reef sharks. Reputable dive charters can be found all over the island, providing a full range of necessary gear and dive guides. Many also offer discovery dives for uncertified divers.

The Big Island's volcanic activity gives divers plenty of caves to explore © Tammy616 / E+ / Getty

Snorkelers also have a sea of options for exploring the Big Island’s waters. Just off the beach near Kona, Kahaluʻu Bay features a sheltered cove that is home to a wide array of marine life including moorish idol, parrot fish and humuhumunukunukuapua‘a (Hawaii’s state fish and final-round spelling bee word). Honu (sea turtles) also congregate here, so keep your eyes out for them sunning on shore rocks or feeding on seaweed.

Rafting the flume

For centuries, life in Hawaii has been a balance between human needs and what the land could (or could not) provide. Seeking irrigation for sugar plantations that dominated the fertile areas of the Big Island during the 19th and 20th centuries, agriculture companies set about changing the landscape in their favor. Carved out of the North Kohala countryside in 1906 by Japanese laborers, the Kohala Ditch brought water to these plantations through a series of hand-drilled tunnels and wooden flumes. As Hawaii’s sugar industry came to a close in the late 20th century, the Kohala Ditch became a key adventure for kayakers.

Inflatable kayaks await passengers in the Kohala Ditch © Alexander Howard / Lonely Planet

Much of the original infrastructure still stands today (albeit heavily repaired after a pair of 2006 earthquakes), and kayakers can paddle through a network of rock tunnels and flume aqueducts. Flumin’ Kohala (fluminkohala.com) is the only company that offers trips down the flume.

Alexander Howard traveled to Hawai‘i with support from Island of Hawai‘i Visitors Bureau (gohawaii.com/big-island). Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.

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