The Polynesians first spoke of a mystical island paradise to the north called "Hawai'i." When they finally set foot on Hawaii's Big Island around a.d. 600, they discovered an enormous, lush land mass, with thousand-foot waterfalls, thriving reefs, fertile valleys, and volcanoes exploding with red lava.
The Big Island, which is almost four times the size of Rhode Island, looks much the same today. Unlike the other more developed islands in the chain, the Big Island feels primordial and wild. And for health-conscious travelers, it's a favorite. Activities like hiking, windsurfing, fishing, diving, and snorkeling play a big part in local life, which is primarily lived outdoors in the warm but tradewind-cooled breezes. If you're looking for a low-key, outdoorsy holiday in Hawaii, the Big Island is the tropical sanctuary you seek.
Where To Stay
Although Hawaii's Big Island offers an array of large, showy resorts, there's an abundance of smaller, more interesting options. Try the cozy Victorian-style Hale Ohia Cottages ($95 a night and up; 800-455-3803), set amid misty botanical gardens just a mile from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. In Hilo, stay at the Wild Ginger Inn (877-212-8276), a wooden hotel built in the 1940s, where banana bunches hang in the open-air lobby and simple, quiet rooms start at $45 a night. Go to www.bestbnb.comfor even more options.
Lovers of the outdoors can choose from any number of remote camping spots that dot the coastlines of the island (Click here for more information). For the slightly more amenity-minded, the Kalopa State Recreation Area (808-974-6200), located in a lush rain forest of native ohi'a trees on the Hamakua Coast, offers "indoor camping." Roomy cabins with eight beds cost only $55 a night, regardless of the number of people staying, and come with hot showers, linens, towels, and access to a communal kitchen.
Best Kona Coffee
Kona coffee, grown in the Big Island's rich volcanic soil, is renowned for its vibrant taste. As you drive along the Big Island's western flank, you'll spot scores of coffee trees dotting the landscape. They're especially picturesque from March to May, when the trees are covered in white blossoms of "Kona snow." Gary Bell and Rob Hanson, owners of the Kona Pride Coffee Farm (808-327-1488), in the tiny coffee town of Holualoa (near Kailua-Kona), offer tours of their property, complete with harvesting and roasting demonstrations. There's also coffee for sale for $18 a pound―a bargain compared to the $25 most commercial farms charge.
Because Hawaii has the clearest skies in the United States, the summit of 14,000-foot Mauna Kea is home to the world's most powerful land-based astronomical telescopes. Although the telescopes are not open to the public, the Onizuka Visitors' Center (808-961-2180), located more than halfway up the mountain, holds sunset planetary viewings through smaller telescopes. If you haven't seen the rings of Saturn or the spot on Jupiter, here's your chance.
Best Fun in the Sun
The Pu'uhonua O Honaunau, or Place of Refuge National Historical Park (808-328-2288), is the best-preserved historic site in all of Hawaii. Before European contact, and even after, breakers of the kapu (taboo laws) would flee here to have their crimes absolved by kahuna (priests). Huge remains of Hawaiian lava-rock temples dominate the park, while the adjoining bay offers the best reef snorkeling on the island―free of charge. Yellow tangs, surgeon fish, rays, and eels ply the water here.
The Big Island is also called the Orchid Isle, and sure enough, you'll spot dainty species gingerly blooming along the highways like weeds would grow elsewhere. The Akatsuka Orchid Gardens (888-967-6669), near the town of Volcano, display some of the rarest and most stunning orchids in the world, and their nurseries are open to the public. They can ship especially delicate or expensive species and other tropical floral varieties, including anthurium, bird of paradise, and plumeria.
Best Waterfall Hike
Waterfalls are common in Hawaii, but Kapoloa Falls in the electric-green Pololu Valley is unique in that you can actually walk under and behind the cascading water (using a cliffside trail 1,000 feet above the valley floor). Not for the faint-hearted, this three-mile hike is offered through the ecotourism company Hawaii Forest and Trail (800-464-1993), whose guides will also explain the flora, fauna, and history of the region.
Hula has been called the lifeblood of the Hawaiian people, and the famous Merrie Monarch Festival (808-935-9168) held every April in lush, verdant Hilo is the grand Olympics of the dance. Competitors come from far and wide to strut their stuff in both modern and ancient forms of the hula and mele (chanting), while live nightly television broadcasts ignite the entire state during this exciting festival. Tickets can be nearly impossible to obtain, so order them early. If you won't be there in April, try the Hulihe'e Palace (808-329-1877) in Kailuna-Kona. This museum and one-time home to Hawaiian royalty presents free hula shows on the third Sunday of every month. Or learn for yourself. The following hotels offer free hula lessons for guests and nonguests alike: Four Seasons Resort Hualalai (888-340-5662), Hilton Waikoloa Village (800-445-2667; ), and Orchid at Mauna Lani (800-845-9905).
Best Remote Beach
The Big Island is home to white, black, and even green sand beaches. One of the few green sand beaches in the world can be found at an uninhabited cove near the island's South Point (the southernmost point of the United States, at about the latitude of Mexico City). The lone crescent of perfectly olive-green sand is given its color by the semiprecious stone olivine, a by-product of volcanic eruptions. Park your four-wheeler on the eastern part of the point; follow a dirt trail north, and an hour's hike over grassy, windswept fields will bring you to this one-of-a-kind beach. It's worth the trek.
Best Ocean Adventure
For a unique experience and great workout, try Ocean Safari's Kayak Adventures (808-326-4699). The Kona Coast, which hugs the arid western half of the island, is riddled with lava tubes. Many of these sea caves can only be explored via kayak, and Ocean Safari is the only outfitter that can take you to them. Paddle into the shade, go snorkeling, dive off the rocks, or enjoy a picnic while you're there.
Best Lava Viewing
The Pu'u O'o Vent at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is the only active lava vent in the world that can be viewed via helicopter tour. Peering down into this churning, pulsing home of Pele―the volcano goddess―is an opportunity not to be missed. Tropical Helicopters (808-961-6810) offers the best tours and prices on the island ($99 per person), complete with pilot narration via headphones and a window seat for each passenger.
Best Hawaiian Lunch
The staple Hawaiian "plate lunch" traditionally consists of a heavy fried meat, rice, and macaroni salad. Instead, try the light, inventive meals prepared with fresh local products at Bamboo Restaurant (junction of Highway 270 and Highway 250, 808-889-5555). Located on the northern tip of the island in the old sugar town of Hawi, the restaurant is housed in a former hotel and dry goods store that dates from 1911. It's home to the best chicken pot stickers and organic salads in the state, served by gracious staffers who often break into an impromptu hula right in the middle of the dining room.
Fresh Tropical Fruit Picks
Hilo, with its sleepy streets and weathered storefronts, has an atmosphere all its own. Stock up on healthy local pickings at the colorful Hilo Farmers' Market (corner of Mamo and Kamehameha streets) every Wednesday and Saturday morning. Piles of the juiciest and most exotic fruits fill the open market with sweet smells. You'll find locally grown papayas and mangoes, as well as more uncommon fruits, such as rambutans and durians, plus flowers, crafts, and souvenirs.
Best Island Seafood
The pierlike Huggo's Restaurant (808-329-1493) in Kailua-Kona is the only eatery on the island built directly over the ocean, and its tasty fresh catches of ono, mahimahi, and opah can't be beat. Enjoy the seafood as live Hawaiian music floats on the breeze at sunset.
Matthew Link, associate editor of Frommer's Budget Travel magazine, is a former Big Island resident and author of the guidebook Rainbow Handbook Hawai'i (Missing Link, 1999).