By Lena Katz
The Big Island of Hawaii has only approximately one-fifth as many permanent residents as Oahu (the most populated island in Hawaii, and site of the capital city Honolulu), but it’s twice the size of all the other Hawaiian islands combined. Not only is the island comparatively massive, but its terrain is incredibly varied, with an active volcano, a rainforest, thousands of acres of working ranch land, sea cliffs, and black and white sand beaches. Of the world’s known climate zones, the Big Island has all but two (Arctic and Saharan, and locals say they don’t miss either a bit). Unique adventures and unforgettable experiences await on a Hawaii vacation on this vast, diverse, largely undeveloped island.
Visitors know that for sheer spectacle, the active volcano Kilauea outdoes every other sight on the island. The question is, how do you get a safe but satisfying view of the volcano in action during your Hawaii vacation? Though some fly over in a helicopter and others drive in to dedicated viewing spots around sunset, some in-the-know locals swear the best viewing is by sea. Lava Ocean Adventures takes a boat out from Pohoiki Boat Ramp in coastal Puna, to see the lava come down from Kilauea and pour into the ocean. One particularly lyrical passenger remembers, “The heat of the steam is like Pele’s breath.”
Coastal Puna has more to recommend it than easy access to lava flow, though. Though the Puna district is still “the wild east,” with parts that remain completely off the grid, the sunny coastal region is developing into quite the offbeat-but-upscale travel haven for Hawaii vacations. In particular, the gated community of Kapoho attracts visitors looking for seclusion, dramatic natural beauty and luxurious digs (usually vacation homes and small inns; never big brand-name hotels). It’s known for its hot ponds filled with fish; in fact, some vacationers get their very own private mini-lagoon for snorkeling, right out in front of their rental.
An underwater phenom that’s somewhat well known but not, in my opinion, nearly as famous as it should be, is the manta ray nighttime viewing off the Kona Coast. Many companies offer a manta ray night-time SCUBA dive , but the lesser-known fact is that snorkelers can do it too, floating face-down and shining their flashlights over the graceful, mysterious mantas who come out en masse to feed on plankton. I think Kona Honu Divers is a reliable and experienced tour provider.
However sometimes you don’t even have to get your toes wet to see the manta rays. The Sheraton Keauhou offers VIP ocean views from its Crystal Blue Lounge. The property’s “grandfathered in” as one of the only resorts that can shine lights into the ocean. This attracts plankton, which in turn attract hungry manta rays (year ’round, not seasonally like whales). And if you’re interested in more ocean viewing during your Hawaii vacation, travel just south of Keauhou during the day to visit Kealakekua Bay Marine Life Conservation District (also the site of the Captain Cook Memorial).
A peninsula juts out on the very northern tip of the Big Island, a 45-minute drive away from the major Kohala Coast resort area. This is North Kohala, a unique Hawaii vacation destination just coming into its own. Cultural attractions include Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Park and Mo’okini Heiau State Monument. The Pololu Valley offers great hiking trails. There are also ATV riding tours and a new zip line.
The Hawaii Island Retreat in North Kohala is the newest property of its caliber to open since the Four Seasons. This eight-room eco-retreat is located on 50 oceanfront acres. The Lokahi Garden Sanctuary has been around longer, and is more of a vacation rental than a resort, but it’s also very eco-friendly and grows lots of produce on the grounds — great for guests who enjoy having a garden at their fingertips.
Lena Katz is the author of SUN: California and SIP: California, part of the Travel Temptations series published by Globe Pequot Press.