Somewhere amid cartoon-ish stereotypes of endless beaches, tropical vegetation, pineapples, hula skirts, talking tiki statues, surfing and kitschy souvenirs, I always knew Hawaii must be a real place. Until my recent visit, however, it was all pretty vague and some of my imaginings were pretty silly.
Andrea and I had to postpone our honeymoon for a couple of months, but we finally got away on a trip to the Big Island of Hawaii at the end of June. I’m writing about it here because we had such a great time that I wholeheartedly recommend it as a destination for anyone who enjoys the great outdoors.
The island’s official name is Hawaii, but it is usually referred to as the Big Island to make it clear a specific island is being referred to rather than the island chain. Oahu is the most visited and most urbanized of the islands and is home to the capital (Honolulu).
Before planning this trip, I assumed that it and the Big Island must be one and the same, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m not the only person who had that misunderstanding.
While an endless white sand beach was the first image that came to mind when I used to think of Hawaii, beaches are only a small part of what the islands have to offer. The Big Island is special because it boasts almost every other kind of outdoor experience you could be interested in.
According to one system of classification, it has 11 of the 13 major climate zones in the world. It’s almost like a miniature continent – no matter where you are staying on the island, you can be in any of the other zones in less than two hours. During the winter months, it even offers skiing.
Despite being one of the world’s most isolated island chains, Hawaii is easily accessed by direct flights from the mainland. Weather is excellent all year round, and travel prices tend to be cheaper from September through early December and after Easter through late May.
For a bit of orientation, the Belt Road (Highways 11 and 19) circles the island. Cutting across the middle of the island between the summits of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa is the Saddle Road (Highway 200). This used to be a dangerous, roughly paved 11/2 lane route but was rebuilt recently to provide a safer shortcut across the island.
Additional highways provide access to the northern and eastern tips of the island in addition to other population centers and points of interest. This road system makes for generally easy access to anywhere you might want to go on the island.
Most visitors stay in the Kailua-Kona region on the dry western shore of the island, although lodging is available in every population center and especially in Hilo, on the rainy eastern shore. Kailua-Kona and Hilo offer a wide range of stores and restaurants with excellent budget options.
For the remainder of this column and continuing next week, I’m going to share 10 of the best things we did on the island. These things make it one of the best destinations in our nation for those who love exploring the great outdoors.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park – All of the Hawaiian isles were formed by volcanic activity, but the Big Island is the only one with active volcanoes.
The most accessible is Kilauea. Within the boundary of the park, you can drive and walk along the rim of the crater. You can also follow Chain of Craters Road over recent lava flows to the ocean, where the road dead-ends at lava flows that covered it in 2003.
The Kilauea Visitor Center and Jaggar Museum provide excellent exhibits about volcanic activity and the island’s history and ecosystem. At night, the Jaggar Museum is the best place to view the orange glow from Kilauea’s crater. Although you currently can’t see lava flowing, the unearthly glow is impressive and only visible at night.
You can also marvel at the glow from the restaurant and hotel rooms at Volcano House, the historic lodging facility on the rim of the crater. Meals are expensive, but this is a fun place to splurge. If you’re looking for a good hike, there is an extensive network of trails in the park. For information about Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, go to http://www.nps.gov/havo/index.htm or call (808) 985-6000.
Waipio Valley – On the tropical eastern side of the island, the Waipio Valley is perhaps the quintessential green tropical valley with waterfalls that many people imagine when they think of Hawaii. Because much of it is privately owned, still farmed in traditional small plots, and inaccessible without four-wheel drive, one of the best ways to see it is on horseback. We enjoyed it on a 21⁄2-hour ride. For information, go to http://www.naalapastables.com/waipio.html or call (808) 775-0419.
Adam Blauert is a Sun-Star correspondent. He can be reached at email@example.com.