Trip Coach: September 23, 2008
Conner Gorry, author of "Lonely Planet: Hawaii The Big Island," answered your questions about the Big Island.
Conner Gorry: You've got a great strategy, Jo Anne—renting a house and using it as a homebase is the way to go for a shorter trip. Many people make the mistake of moving 2 or 3 times during the week to see all the Big Island has to offer. Since that's impossible anyway (and gobbles precious time packing, checking in and checking out), it's better to define what sites and activities are most exciting to you, find lodging you like, and fan out from there. But don't forget—on the Big Island, size matters. This is a big island and driving times can be long, so consider geography when choosing a place to stay so that you can maximize your quality time here.
So to your question. You're clear about what you want to do: be near the beach, have family time and dive a bit too. The last defines the rest: you'll want to be within easy striking distance of Honokohau Harbor, where almost all the dive companies leave from. For my money, that means Captain Cook or Kealakekua Bay since it puts you near the Captain Cook Monument, the island's top snorkeling spot accessed on a kicking kayak trip, the inspirational (and kinda spooky) Place of Refuge, some terrific lesser-known beaches (Ho'okena and Miloli'i farther afield), plus some terrific restaurants. Two good sites for combing the homes for rent are vrbo.com and alternative-hawaii.com.
Incidentally, sweet Honokohau Harbor has some cool doings that you shouldn't miss—whether you're diving or not. Happy hour schooners (18 ounces of ice cold beer for $2.50!) at the Harbor House Restaurant where the local gossip is as entertaining as the boat traffic passing below your harborside table; Honokohau Beach with its salt-n-pepper lava and coral shoreline, ancient heiau and unbeatable sunsets; and the coastal Ala Hele Ike Trail to Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park. You can also watch the boats coming in to weigh their catch for the day here—if you're lucky, someone may have landed a grander (over 1000 pounds)!
P.S. The nightime manta ray dive is a must for the kids and even if you don't dive, you can go on the same boat and snorkel with these gentle giants.
Pine Bush, N.Y.: We are going to be on the Big Island in July and would like to find the best snorkeling spot in Kona. Can you help?
Conner Gorry: Hey, Barb. I have to be honest, I was totally skeptical about what all the guidebooks and brochures called "the best snorkeling spot" in the whole island, Ka'awaloa Cove (usually referred to as Captain Cook Monument/Kealakekua Bay). Sounded like a bunch of hype to me and I was sure it would be packed with loud, splashy tourists scaring all the fish away. But, wow! This is it. In the kayak paddling across the cove (should take about 30-45 minutes on the way there, but you're fighting a bit of a headwind; it's faster on the return) you'll probably be escorted by dolphins. A wickedly exciting experience but keep your distance—100 feet or so—since they rest in this bay and they need it. Upon arrival, gently pull your kayak up on the rocks, don the gear and ease on in. Right there off the rocks in three feet of water, is teeming with tropical fish. There's some nice coral too, but it's the variety and quantity of fish that are the big draw. If you're an experienced swimmer/snorkeler, swim out about 150 feet to where there's an underwater cliff and everything drops away and you're hovering over the deep blue abyss. It's possible to see whales farther out here too. Bring a picnic, lots of liquids and an underwater camera if you've got it. Kayak rentals are available all along Hwy 11 heading towards Captain Cook—rent the night before to get an early start. This is a popular spot, so please follow local conservation advice to keep it clean and alive for everyone!
South Lake Tahoe, Calif.: We were on the Big Island several years ago and I had some throat irritation and mild breathing problems and was told that it was caused by the "vog" from the volcano. It reminded me of the irritation I experienced working in the inner city of LA in the 70's from the smog. I know that the volcano doesn't follow a set schedule but is there any way I can find out when it is more or less active before I plan another trip? Like a volcano update site? And what could I have done to counteract the effects? Thanks.
Conner Gorry: Hi there, Tahoe. Well, seeing as you're used to that crisp, clean mountain air, I can see how the 'vog' would be irritating. And you're right, there's no set schedule on the volcano. Having said that, Kilauea is very active lately and oddly so: Halema'uma'u crater was closed earlier this year when it erupted, shooting rocks and gases into the air. This is the first time there was an eruption at this crater since 1982. The stretch of Crater Rim Dr between the Jaggar Museum and the Chain of Craters Rd is closed as a result of all this activity and the high sulphur dioxide levels. There's not much you can do to protect yourself but to steer clear of the areas with the most sulphuric activity. To learn what part of the volcano is active, the exact levels of SO2 in the air and how to visit the volcano safely, see these helpful websites: