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.