|by Kaeli Conforti||Art + Culture, Food + Drink, Historical Travel, Mountains, Nature Appreciation, Pop Culture and Travel, Romance, Wildlife Appreciation, Hilo, Kailua-Kona, Photography, Travel Photography, Family Travel, Food + Drink, Girlfriend Getaways, Women's Travel||0|
When I was 12 years old, my family was living in Hawaii on the island of Oahu, and we decided to branch out and explore the other islands—we started with Maui, and eventually visited the Big Island and Kauai before the summer was over. I remember being especially excited to visit the Big Island since we had just finished learning about volcanoes in my middle school science class a few weeks before our trip, and couldn't wait to see the real thing up close. I recently wrote about the best things to do on Oahu, and offered my tips for visiting the island of Maui—here's my list of places you shouldn't miss on Hawaii's Big Island. (Special note: you will need a car to reach the places mentioned, as most Big Island hotels are centered around the towns of Hilo and Kailua-Kona.)
Get up close to an active volcano
Remember all those earth science classes you took about volcanoes and lava rocks? Visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to see the real thing in action. Not only will you get the chance to drive right up to the caldera—don't miss the Crater Rim Drive, an 11-mile road that passes through the various volcano landscapes from tropical rainforest to the desert-like crater itself, with scenic overlooks all along the way—there's also the opportunity to walk inside the Thurston Lava Tube, no longer an active part of the volcano, that allows you to walk 1/3 mile inside Kilauea where lava once flowed a few hundred years ago. Expect to pay $10 per vehicle that enters the park, or $5 per individual if you enter by foot, bicycle, or motorcycle. Don't forget to get a park map from staff on your way into the park, and stop by the Kilauea Visitor Center and Jaggar Museum to learn more about what you're viewing. Free camping and hiking opportunities are also available, as are park ranger-led walking tours, but be sure to check the website for updates on volcanic activity in the park before you head out. Always stick to the marked paths and never try to get closer to the lava, no matter how great you think your photo might turn out. You're still on an active volcano, after all.
Walk on dried lava at Kalapana
Just outside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is Kalapana, or more accurately, the remains of Kalapana, a town overrun with Kilauea's lava flow back in 1990. Miraculously, everyone survived the eruption that destroyed 182 homes, as locals had already evacuated the town, taking the Star of the Sea Church with them. Now, Kalapana serves as a reminder of how powerful nature can be. Free hikes are offered daily from 2 P.M. to 10 P.M. with the last cars allowed to park at 8 P.M. Just keep driving down Highway 130 in Puna until the road in front of you is stopped by a wall of hardened, black lava. Wear sturdy shoes and tread carefully as the hardened lava rocks can be sharp if you fall. As you walk, you'll see street signs and other parts of the former town break the surface of the rock, and you'll be rewarded with views of a beautiful black sand beach at the end of the hike, although it is considered unsafe for swimming due to the proximity of the volcanic activity. Kalapana is also an excellent spot to view the active, molten lava that flows from Kilauea's Pu'u O'o vent into the sea in the distance, causing clouds of smoke to rise out over the ocean as the hot lava meets the cool Pacific. As always, stay on the marked path, and check for updates before you go.
Don't take lava rocks as a souvenir, it's bad luck
There are any number of souvenirs you could buy and take home from the Hawaiian Islands, but taking lava rocks from their natural place is considered a major no-no. Tourists from all over the world have been known to send back lava rocks to the Hawaii Visitor's Bureau with letters saying they've had an unusual streak of bad luck lately, which locals claim is just a little dose of revenge from Pele, the goddess of the volcano. Some Hawaiians say not to buy souvenirs containing fragments of lava rocks, and even go as far as shaking out their shoes after a hike so as not to accidentally take any lava dust home with them. Even if you're not the superstitous type, don't say I didn't warn you.
Live like a Paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy)
For a uniquely "only in Hawaii" experience, visit Parker Ranch, near the center of the island, for a taste of Paniolo life. Back in 1809 when Captain James Cook first visited the Hawaiian Islands, one of his men, John Parker, abandoned his duties and hid among the Hawaiians, eventually being charged with important jobs by King Kamehameha I, and starting Parker Ranch in 1815. The ranch later served as a U.S. Marines training ground from 1942 to 1945 as they prepared for Pacific battles against the Japanese in World War II. Nowadays, tourists can visit the working ranch for a chance to see what it's like to live as a Hawaiian cowboy, and take in great views of the island since it's located between two impressive, though dormant, volcanoes, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. Try a two-hour long horseback riding tour of Parker Ranch for $79 per person for a more authentic feel. Rides start at the Blacksmith Shop on Pukalani Road, and are available Monday thru Saturday at 8:15 a.m. and 12:15 p.m. for anyone over the age of seven.
Visit the Hilo Farmers Market and nearby Akaka Falls
You can't visit the Big Island without stopping in Hilo, home to the Hilo Farmers Market, named by the Huffington Post as one of the top ten farmers markets every food lover should visit. Every Wednesday and Saturday from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m., over 200 local farmers and crafters share their goods with locals and tourists alike, offering the best deals on local produce, arts, and crafts around—coupons are also available on their website for more discounts. A wide selection of Hawaiian food vendors, clothing, coffee and tea, honey, and fresh flowers are also available, and keep an eye out for free live musical performances offered twice a week. Just a 25-minute drive north of downtown Hilo is `Akaka Falls State Park, home to one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the islands. Admission is a mere $5 per vehicle and the photo-ops are endless.
Go stargazing at Mauna Kea
At 14,000 feet, Mauna Kea is Hawaii's highest point and home to the world's biggest telescopes at the Mauna Kea Observatories. Drive 90 minutes from Hilo on Route 200 up the twisting, winding, Saddle Road, and stop at the Visitor Information Station of the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy to learn more about the dormant volcano, see the giant telescopes, and buy souvenirs. Brace yourself for cold temperatures and the occasional snow drift at such high altitudes (yes, it does sometimes snow in Hawaii), and if weather and road conditions permit, drive to the 14,000-foot summit for a view of the main observatory. For $200 a person, Mauna Kea Summit Adventures will pick you up from certain locations in Kailua-Kona, and loan you cold-weather parkas and gloves for an educational trip to Mauna Kea's summit, and the stargazing opportunity of a lifetime using their large portable telescopes. The tour can last anywhere from seven to eight hours, and includes dinner at the Mauna Kea Visitors Center.