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Natural marvels and aloha spirit shape Hawaii's Big Island

Created date

July 20th, 2015
Halema'uma'u Crater, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Halema'uma'u Crater, Hawaii Volcanoes National Par

Pausing at an intersection on foot, I look left and then right, contemplating my next step down Alii Drive, the main street that passes through the ocean-front village town Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. A bearded man in a Harley-Davidson shirt takes notice. 

“Anywhere you go is okay,” he says knowingly.

About the size of Connecticut, Hawaii’s “Big Island” truly has it all—beyond the “aloha spirit” of the locals: white, black, and even green sand beaches; active volcanoes; marine life; star-gazing; and a splendid array of the world’s climate zones.       

On the drier west coast of the island, Kailua-Kona, or “Kona,” is an excellent home base, close to the northern Kohala Coast and 96 miles from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in the southeast. 

If beaches are your end-goal, paradisiacal options abound. Visit white sand Manini’owali Beach (also known as Kua Bay), toting your beach umbrella (shade is sparse), mask, and snorkel (schools of fish can be seen just off shore). Waialea Beach (also known as Beach 69 per its mile marker), offers trees for shade, similarly soft white sand, and turquoise water.

Where natural forces collide  

Visitors are hard-pressed to imagine the natural fury that created Punalu’u Black Sand Beach in the southeast corner of the island. The beach’s black sand was formed by lava that flowed to the ocean and then cooled in an explosive encounter. Sea turtles now frequent this peaceful spot to rest. 

The southeast route to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park from Kona passes large expanses of terrain covered in jagged black volcanic rock, the unmistakable remains of lava flow. The national park comprises two active volcanoes, Kilauea and Mauna Loa. Hiking trails are plentiful, with more than 150 miles of trails, many traversing dense rainforest and passing steam vents, a stark contrast from the dearth of plant life in the crater below. Car-friendly routes are available on Crater Rim Drive and the longer Chain of Craters Road. 

Kilauea has been erupting since 1983, and this spring, lava flow from the Halema'uma'u Crater was visible from the park’s Jaggar Museum. Nature presents an awe-inspiring spectacle, and it is well worth staying post-sunset to view the glowing lava. Don’t forget to bring warm layers and binoculars, and look up from the fiery scene below to appreciate the seemingly limitless stars above. 

Above the clouds  

For more serious stargazing, visitors can brave the cold and altitude for a trip up Mauna Kea, one of the island’s dormant volcanoes. At 32,000 feet from the ocean floor (13,796 feet above sea level), Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain in the world and home to the world’s largest astronomical observatory. Tour companies offer trips up the mountain, with a stop for dinner at the visitor station before viewing sunset from the top. It is a heavenly scene, above the clouds and among the telescopes. After sunset, groups return to the visitor station to view the stars and planets through a telescope.

Down at sea level the next day, enjoy a sunset dinner or simply a lilikoi (yellow passion fruit) martini at Royal Kona’s Don’s Mai Tai Bar, where assorted boats weave before the setting sun and everything at once is okay.