If you've taken our brief tour of the Big Island, you've probably found a number of places that you would enjoy visiting. And due to the size of the island, and the sad fact that your time here will be limited, it's obvious that some careful planning will be required if you're going to see all those places. The same applies to activities here. There are hundreds of things to do on this island but you must plan ahead or you may find the activity already fully booked. I talk to visitors all the time who have waited to the last minute to book, for instance, a dive boat, only to discover there will not be an available spot until the day after they leave. While there are many cool things to do in which this will not be a problem, some of the more popular activities (helicopter tours, submarines, dive trips, etc.) book up very fast. Then there is weather to consider. You could have a helicopter tour of the Volcano scheduled for the day before you leave the island and, bummer of bummers, it rains. There is now no time to reschedule. Consider this when planning your vacation here.
We've broken down some of the fun and interesting things to do here into three categories: Land, Sea and Air. This list is far from complete but should give you (at least) a starting point when planning your Big Island adventure. Advertisers are hyperlinked.
1. Tour, Hike or Camp Volcano
Plan to spend an entire day when you go to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, unless you're staying on the Hilo side. It will take you approximately 3 hours to get there from Kona. You can take the northern route or the southern one, depending on what other stops you may care to make. Start your tour of Volcano with a stop at the Kilauea Visitor Center for some great information, maps and even a short movie. This is also where you will secure your permits for overnight camping. You will definitely want to take the Crater Rim Drive (11 miles) around the caldera. There is also the Chain of Craters Road (50 miles) if you have more time. The Jagger Museum and the Thurston Lava Tube are two more great stops. For Park info and eruption updates, (808) 985-6000. www.nps.gov/havo
2. Try the Wine
Here's something you don't expect to find in Hawaii. This small winery, situated 4,000 up the volcanic slopes, produces two varieties of Symphony as well as several delicious tropical wines. Taste as many as you like and take a bottle or two home to friends. This wine is only available here. (808) 967-7479. Volcano Winery
3. See the Stars from the Top of The World
At 13,796 feet, the summit of Mauna Kea (White Mountain) is the logical place to put an observatory. So we have several. Sitting high above the clouds, these telescopes have ideal conditions for observing the night sky. When the sky is clear during the day you can see them glinting in the sun atop the mountain. In the winter, the top of Mauna Kea is snow-covered, and adventurous types ski and snowboard its slopes.
The Visitors Information Station (808-961-2180) offers free tours and you can drive up to the summit, but you must have 4-wheel drive. Also, the weather can be tricky. Winds can kick up to over 70 mph and the temperature plunge to well below freezing (yes, we're still talking about Hawaii) so we advise you to take one of several local tours. These people know the mountain and will get you up and down safely and with less hassle. Some tours specialize in sunset/stargazing trips others in day trips. This is an amazing and unforgettable trip if you have the time.
4. Golf, Golf and More Golf
If you came all this way to hit that little white ball around you won't be disappointed. We have 18 courses on the island with something suitable for every golfer, from gorgeous championship courses, to mountainside challenges to inexpensive municipal courses. Seven of the top courses on the island all lie within 15 miles of each other. The newest of these golfers' paradises is the Jack Nicklaus designed Hualalai Golf Club at the prestigious Four Seasons Resort( alas, for resort guests and invitation only).
There is the Robert Trent Jones designed Mauna Kea Beach Club, the oldest and highest rated (as well as one of the most challenging) resort course on Big Island. Next door is the Hapuna Golf Course created 4 years ago and beautifully maintained and appointed.
Head south and you come to the Mauna Lani Resort, for 8 years home of the Senior Skins Game, an amazing place of contrasting black lava and lush greens covering two 18 hole courses.
Similar in environment are the twin courses located at the Waikoloa Resort, The Beach Course and The King's Course. Proceed six miles up mauka and you come to the Waikoloa Village Course, a high-elevation and grassy (sometimes windy) course that is more forgiving for the average golfer.
Kona has the 30 year old Ocean Course at Kona Country Club in Keauhou as well as the newer Ali'i Mountain Course. There is also Makalei 2,500 feet above the airport on the slopes of Hualalai in the ohi'a forests.
Two more upcountry courses are the Waimea Country Club in Waimea, only recently opened and the oldest course on the island, the Volcano Golf and Country Club, 4,000 feet (didn't know you could hit it that far, did you?) up on Kilauea.
In the southern coastal region you will find Sea Mountain and Discovery Harbor. There are also the "Muni" and the Naniloa Country Club (9 holes) in Hilo and the 9-holer at the Hamakua Country Club in Honoka'a.
Obviously, Big Island is a golfer's dream. Just don't forget the rest of the island activities.
5. Giddy-Up, Kimo
One of the best ways to see our fabulous island is on horseback, and there are several tours in various areas to help you do this. There are trail rides that take you deep into Waipio Valley, through streams and dense valley foliage as well as some that allow you to ride the range like a real paniolo in the grasslands of the Kohala Mountains. Another takes you down the back way to The Captain Cook Monument at Kealakekua Bay for a morning of snorkeling. Yet another offers you a real cattle drive in Waimea, complete with the suitable western get-up.
It's a good idea to ask some questions when booking a horseback trip, such as what level
of experience is required, where are you going, what will you see, and what kind of horses will you be riding. Also some trail rides provide grub, others don't.
Kings' Trail Rides
6. Born to Be Wild
Okay, you're an insurance agent in Minnesota. You sold that bike years ago and the kids think you're a boring, old fossil that has completely forgotten how to have anything resembling fun. Well, here's your chance to show them they're only part right. Rent a Harley at one of several spots (by half-day, day or week), cruise the Big Island and let that pent up bad boy biker in you back out for a couple days. (Send a picture of that back to the kids -- Mom and Dad in leathers squattin' on a hog!) Hawaii is perfect for motorcycling, with nice, curvy roads and perpetual summer weather. Of course you must be licensed and still remember how to drive a bike (and have fun). By the way, helmets are not required gear in this state, so it's your choice how daring you care to be and whether you want the wind to blow in any remaining hair you may have.
7. Pedalers Welcome
If you're the kind of biker that enjoys pedaling through this life, Hawaii has got whatever you want, from flat shoreline rides to mountain bike trails to high altitude tours. It all depends on how adventurous you want to be. Most of the main thoroughfares have ample shoulders for cyclists (if you've seen the Ironman Triathlon, you're aware of this) and the island is very bike-friendly. There are several places to rent the kind of bike that suits you. If you're interested in mountain biking, The Big Island Mountain Bike Association (BIMBA; lucky they used Association instead of Organization, huh?) has put together a trail map, available at most bike shops and the Hawaii Visitor's Bureau.
8. Make Mine Macadamia Nut Ale, Bartender
Touring Hawaii is certainly warm and thirsty work, but some one has to do it and it may as well be you. To counter your systems liquid depletion, we suggest a stop at our island microbreweries.
In Kona, across from the King Kamehameha Mall in Kailua, you should head for Kona Brewing. This family run brewery produces some delicious ales and lagers and they will happily give you a taste of Pacific Golden Ale, the heartier Fire Rock Pale Ale or the Lilikoi (passionfruit) Wheat Ale. Try 'em all. Heck, you're on vacation for crying out loud.
Directly on the other side of the island in Hilo town is the Mehana Brewing Company, producers of two enjoyable German-style beers: Mehana Red Ale and Mehana Beer. Check them out. It can make you forget, or at least not care, that it's raining again (I did say Hilo).
9. Mr. Natural Would Love This Place
Just outside Kailua town and south of Keahole Airport is The National Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority (NELHA, thank God for acronyms), our ocean research and technology park, the goal of which is, "To develop and diversify the Hawaii economy by providing resources and facilities for energy and ocean related research, education and commercial activities in an environmentally sound and culturally sensitive manner." Home to the world's only operational Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) plant, NELHA also houses several other companies and research programs including Cyanotech's Spirulina Pacifica, Kona Gold Lobster,Ono Take's shitake mushrooms and Taylor United clams. Self-guided tours are allowed, but on Thursdays the facility offers a guided tour and presentation. Call (808) 329-7341 for reservations and more info.
10. Wagons Hou!
Maybe you're the type of person who wants to take things a little slower and just enjoy the sights. Maybe you're the type that should learn to. Either way, here on Big Island we have several companies that offer horse-drawn conveyances through some of the best scenery around.
You might start with a tour of Kailua town in a Belgian or Clydesdale drawn white, velvet-upholstered carriage, driven by friendly and knowledgeable ladies in costumes befitting their occupation. These folks run 7 days a week starting at four in the afternoon. Sunset's and after dark can be quite romantic.
There is also a great tour of North Kohala in an old fashioned cedar wagon pulled by a team of Belgium horses, through the outback, pasts scenic lookouts and culminating in an ono picnic lunch.
Yet another set of hardy individuals operate the wagon tour of Waipio Valley. This mule drawn wagon (complete with shock absorbers) takes you through the valley's center, past waterfalls, over streams and through dense valley greenery, complete with a lively commentary from your driver.
11. It's All in the Hip
It seems corny to a lot of folks to do something as predictably touristy as attend a resort luau. Having gone to many private luau here, I always thought so, too. But eventually I went to one of the professional productions and guess what? I had a great time. Not only was the entertainment topnotch, the food was killer. I also enjoyed the open bar. All in all it was a great deal and an evening well spent.
There are several luau on Big Island and the one you choose will depend mostly on where you are staying. Most of them are priced about the same, $40-$50 per person, and you really get your money's worth. Remember, this includes a professional show, all you can eat, and all you can drink in a spectacular locale.
All the dancers and musicians at these feasts will be pros and really put on a good show. Usually they will take you through many different Polynesian Island styles and you will see the difference between, say, Tahitian hula and Samoan or Hawaiian. The men are as good as the women and usually the performance culminates in the Fire Knife Dance. Definitely bring your camera. Did I mention that the female dancers are so gorgeous it almost hurts?
Then there's the food. This is your best opportunity while here to sample a lot of different Hawaiian foods. The main course at any luau is the kalua pork, a whole pig stuffed with hot stones, wrapped in ti leaves and baked in an underground oven (imu) all day. Then of course there is poi. I can tell you right now that you will find it pretty uninteresting unless you were raised on it. But be a good sport and taste some, especially with the other foods. You will also find laulau (pork and butterfish wrapped in luau leaves, hence the name of this feast), lomi salmon, kalua turkey, fish, shrimp, dozens of salads (Hawaiian potato/macaroni is da best), and desserts. Try the traditional Hawaiian dessert, haupia, a coconut pudding.
Incidentally, everything goes with a Mai Tai.
Royal Kona Luau – Lava, Legends, & Legacies
Enjoy an authentic luau produced by Tihati Productions at the Royal Kona Resort. Learn the culture and history of the South Pacific Islands.
12. Feets Don't Fail Me Now
Sometimes you want to see the sights without looking through the window of that little red subcompact you're renting. In that case, why not put on some comfy shoes and take the Hilo or Kailua Historic Walking tours?
Downtown Hilo, still retaining the flavor of an old Pacific port town, has a couple different walking tours. A self-guided tour is available at the Hilo Mainstreet Program Office (808-935-8850) and takes you to 17 different sites of historic and architectural significance. The Lyman House Museum also offers a guided walking tour one Saturday of each month, with rotating monthly themes (808-935-5021).
In Kailua your tour will take you from an ancient heiau to an 180 year old church to the King's summer home, Hulihe'e Palace. This is a wonderful walk. The Hawaii Visitors Bureau has a simple to follow map with historical notes and info that takes you on a self-guided tour. The Kona Historical Society offers a guided tour with colorful local tour guides.
Both towns need to be explored on foot to really get the feeling of life here on the Big Island. Take the time to experience it. End this informative and enjoyable walk by rejuvenating your tired dogs in the ocean. It's right over there.
13. The Bean That Would Be King
If you are a coffee lover, Kona is as close to nirvana as you can get. And to let you sample various farms and see the production from the ground up, the County of Hawaii sponsors the Kona Coffee County Driving Tour. The self-guided driving tour takes you through coffee country to historic mills and working farms where you will see the entire coffee process and taste the best Kona coffees. A fun and different way to spend an afternoon.
14. Garden of Earthly Delights
You know there's a good reason they call this place The Orchid Isle and if you travel the Hilo side you'll quickly find out why. There are dozens of orchid farms and tropical nurseries throughout the area as well as several botanical gardens to visit. The themes of these gardens range from dignified Japanese style to wild jungles and are definitely worth a visit if you're at all interested in beautiful, exotic flowers and plants. Some of these gardens cover dozens of acres, so wear some good walking shoes. The nurseries are visitor friendly and are happy to send any plants you purchase to the Mainland for you.
1. This Place is a Real Dive
If you think Hawaii is beautiful, you ought to see it under water: huge corals, millions of colorful fish and other wonderful creatures in a terrain created by flowing lava. Scuba through canyons and caverns, caves and tubes with something marvelous at every turn. Add to this the fact that our water here is warm and extraordinarily clear and you have a diver's paradise.
Getting out to the best dive sites is no problem as there are plenty of dive companies on Big Island (though you never want to wait until the last minute to book), all of which know the island waters and perform safely and professionally. Don't be surprised, however, when asking where a particular boat goes if the answer is somewhat vague. This is because your dive guides will take you to where the conditions are best on any given day. Also, special consideration is always given to a guests personal experience and level of expertise.
On the Kona side, there are some spectacular sites, with names to match: Kona Cathedrals, Golden Arches, Plane Wreck Point, Aquarium, Chimney, Keahole Cove, Pyramid Pinnacles, Fantasy Reef, Red Hill, and Hammerhead Point.
The Hilo side also has its share of diving, most of which is doable from the shore. For scuba, though, Kona is unbeatable.
If you have never scuba dived, there are several companies in Kona that will teach you and it is a relatively quick and easy way to experience the underwater world first hand. Usually the company will offer what is called an "introductory dive" and it takes about half a day, most of which is familiarizing you with the equipment. Your instruction will culminate in a shallow boat dive, usually 20 to 40 feet, with your instructor and one or two other students. This is a great way to see if you enjoy diving and is vastly superior to doing a first dive in a murky, cold lake somewhere. The greatest danger is that you will get totally hooked on scuba and wish you had started years ago.
2. Don't Hold Your Breath
If scuba just doesn't fit in with your plans, try snorkeling. It is simple to learn and we have some excellent locations for the beginner and the experienced snorkeler here on Big Island. Equipment can be rented very inexpensively at several locations and there are enough easily accessible locations that this can be you only expense (see the Beach Guide).
Some of the best snorkeling on the big Island, however, requires a bit more effort to reach. My favorite spot is the Captain Cook Monument at Kealakekua Bay. Unfortunately, the monument area is across the bay from where you park, but there are a number of ways to get to it: tour boat, kayak or hiking down the mountain trail. This last is inadvisable unless you are in good training. There is, however, Kings' Trail Rides which takes you down for snorkeling via horseback.
If you have never snorkeled, and plan to do so on your own, familiarize yourself with your equipment in an easy location, like Kahalu'u Beach Park, before venturing out too far. Also, always make sure when renting facemasks and fins that your equipment really fits. There is nothing more annoying than a leaky mask. There is also quite a range of quality in the equipment itself. The better your gear, the better your experience will be.
Several companies in Kona provide snorkeling tours and this is the easiest way to get to the best sites. There are a couple large catamarans as well as several smaller and more intimate zodiac type boats to choose from. Some provide a tour of more locations as well as offer lunches or snacks. Most tours will either go to Kealakekua Bay or Pawai Bay.
3. A Good Paddling
You might want to explore the coastline and various snorkeling spots under your own power. Kayak rental is available in many spots on Big Island, especially the Kona side. There are also several companies offering guided kayak tours as well.
The kayaks are either the one or two-man oceangoing type, easy to maneuver and carry, and unsinkable. Most of the rental companies will provide you with the necessary bungee straps to mount the kayaks on your car top. The workout you get will depend how hard you paddle and how far. Take it easy at first and you'll get the rhythm down.
Adventures in Paradise Snorkling & Kayak Tours
Guided tours to less-traveled spots on the Kona and Kohala Coasts of the Big Island. For novices or the experienced paddlers and snorklers.
4. Voyage to the Bottom of The Bay
Some people just aren't comfortable scuba diving or snorkeling but want to see all the fish in our sparkling underwater gardens. Some just don't want to mess up their hair. Whatever. Then how about a submarine? We've got one here in Kona and it's a blast. Reaching an ultimate depth of 100 feet, this air-conditioned sub takes you to places only an experienced diver would reach in total comfort as you watch through large round portholes.
There is also a semi-submersible and several glass bottom boat tours. All will take you over reefs where you will see dozens of varieties of coral and marine life. You won't even need a shower when you get back.
5. Try and Catch the Wind
This section could be titled "I've fallen and I can't get up", but I don't want to discourage you. If you've always had the desire to windsurf, head for Anaeho'omalu Bay between the hours of 10:00 and 2:00 and take a lesson. Actually, it's not that tough, especially with professional guidance. They start you out on land using a simulator, showing you how to tack, steer and most importantly, stop (better than my method of jumping off I bet). The Bay is prime for learning as the winds are usually fairly gentle and the sea calm. It's also one of the prettiest beaches on the island so even if windsurfing doesn't turn out to be your talent, you'll be finding out in a beautiful place. Ignore the laughing.
6. Call Me Ishmael
If you've only seen an 80,000 pound humpback on TV, seeing one breach right in front of you is a sight you'll never forget. Every year, generally between the months of December and April, Kona hosts thousands of vacationing humpbacks who come here to mate and give birth in our warm waters. You can watch huge pods right off shore (OTEC at Keahole, Keauhou, and Kohala are prime spots) or you can take one of several whale watching boat tours.
Even if you're visiting in the off months, there are still whales to be seen and people who will take you to see them. Pilot whales, sperm whales (even bigger than the humpback), as well as false killers abound year round. And the spinner dolphins are everywhere. This is a great way to spend a morning and an activity that is a must during humpback season.
7. You Can Call Me Ray
One of the coolest things to do in Kona is a night dive with the giant manta rays. These gentle and graceful creatures are quite used to humans, sharing the night waters with them as if we were just another fish. Plankton eaters, they are totally harmless, though imposing at 8 to 12 feet wing to wing. Several dive companies offer manta dives and most of them allow snorkelers if you don't scuba. Actually, you will see just as much this way so don't feel like you'ld be missing something. This is a truly an experience of a lifetime.
8. These Ain't Bass, Bubba
You want to do some serious fishing? This is the place. Kona, home to The International Billfish Tournament, always has good fishing, whether you,re going after the big guys, the 1,000 plus pound Blue Marlins (Granders) we're world-famous for or some feisty Mahimahi, Spearfish, Sailfish, Ahi (Yellow Fin Tuna) or Ono (Wahoo).
There are dozens of boats at your disposal here in Kona, ready to take you where the action is. Most leave from Honokohau Marina just north of Kailua town and can be charted for half days, full days or more.
There are also captains that specialize in bottom fishing for some of the best eating fish in Hawaii, like my favorite, the Opakapaka (Pink Snapper). Though this is arguably less exciting than fighting a big game fish for hours, it is nonetheless fun and rewarding (also really, really good to eat).
Stop in at Waterfront Row in Kailua to view The Grander Wall, a photographic record of the over 1,000 pounders caught here. You will also see many of the record fish mounted and displayed in various Kailua restaurants and businesses. The King Kamehameha Hotel proudly displays a 1,0625 pounder that won in 1986.
9. Baby Let Me Take You on a Sea Cruise
Of course with a big, beautiful, blue ocean around you you're going to have plenty of cruises available. You can take sunset cruises on big, glass bottom yachts, party boats, sailboat cruises and even sunset dinner cruises, complete with Hawaiian entertainment. There are also many boats that can be reserved for private parties and tours. The water here is calm most of the year, but if you are susceptible to seasickness, plan ahead. The Big Island coast is definitely worth seeing from the ocean perspective. Take a camera. You never know when a whale may pop up and say aloha.
10. Got to Boogie
Here's something you should try: boogie boarding. Really it's not at all difficult if you start out on small waves and it's more fun than just sitting at the beach and baking. You can rent boards everywhere (they aren't expensive to buy, either) and we have plenty of good spots to learn. Hapuna Beach and Magic Sands are two great places to get the feel of the waves. Before long, you'll be looking for bigger stuff and riding like an old pro. Tons of fun.
11. Discover Your Special Porpoise
There has been quite a lucrative little cottage industry started here in Kona over the past several years. It involves taking large amounts of gullible peoples' cash in exchange for a chance to swim with our frisky little spinner dolphins. I've always found this a bit presumptuous since the dolphins aren't getting a percentage and nobody I know of has the rights to them. If you want to swim with them you need no guide, guru or dolphin spirit channeler. You don't have to pay for this experience. There were no turnstiles at the ocean the last time I checked. Just go down to a likely spot, like Kealakekua Bay, early in the morning and look out at the water. If you have a kayak, paddle out to where those cute little guys are jumping out of the water. If not, swim. It's that simple.
1. I Love the Smell of Papaya in the Morning
One of the most thrilling ways to see Hawaii is from the air by helicopter. There are several companies here to choose from, but book early because this is a very popular activity and weather can ground these birds.
The great thing about touring by helicopter is their inherent ability to hover over one particular place of interest. If the volcano is erupting, they can just park, so to speak, right over it. They can also fly quite close to waterfalls and other natural wonders.
Most of the companies operating on Big Island offer a volcano tour since this is the one place most visitors really want to see. It is also often the only way to see the lava flowing, as reaching these locations by foot has become pretty difficult and unsafe. The least expensive way to do this tour is to catch it in Hilo. There are volcano, as well as Kohala and Hamakua tours from Kona as well but because of the air time, they will cost more for the volcano flight.
If you have never flown in a helicopter before, you might want to try the 45 minute / 1 hour tour first and see whether you can handle a longer flight.
Big Island Helicopter Tours
Fly with Safari on a helicopter ride above Hawaii's only active volcano.
2. Wing it
If helicopters aren't your thing, we do have several small planes that offer tours, from flights to volcano to complete circle-island tours. Like the helicopters, these can book up early so plan ahead. There are also several companies that allow you to charter their aircraft for flights to locations of your choosing.
3. Curse You, Red Baron!
Maybe helicopters and regular planes just don't get your blood pumping. Then how about putting on a cloth helmet, some goggles and a white silk scarf and climbing into a 1935 WACO biplane replica for some loops and rolls high above Hawaii? You can do that here and it's a blast! Besides, how many of your friends have seen Hawaii upside down?
4. Get High as a Kite
Imagine soaring noiselessly 800 feet above the crystal blue waters of Kailua Bay, your feet dangling in the air. You can do just that on the parasail boat. In fact, two of you can do it together provided you don't weigh over 350 lbs. combined. These rides are operated with total safety in mind and the winches used for raising and lowering you on your parasail are so controlled you won't even get wet feet, unless you specifically ask to dip your toes. Got some guts? Ask for a free fall.
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