Having visited 3 of the 6 “visitable” Hawaiian Islands this past August, I can confidently say that it’s impossible to pick a favorite, and that’s because all of them are my favorite. Each island has something completely unique to offer, so each is my favorite for different reasons.
The Big Island is my favorite for its variety. It’s the only place in the world you can drive from a lava field extending for miles in all directions, to a tropical rainforest, to a mountain nearly 14,000 feet in elevation and covered in stargazing equipment, to beaches with crystal clear waters and all different colors of sand–and all within the same small 4,000 square mile island!
Although there are obviously more than 5 remarkable things to do on the Big Island, I thought I’d share the attractions that made the biggest impressions on me and the things that I believe should to be included on every Hawaii itinerary.
Manini’owali Beach is one of the prettiest beaches I’ve ever seen. The water is clear as glass and comfortable like bath water. The sand is white and powdery and fish can be seen from over the surface. There are moderate waves (not too strong at all) and it can be a bit of a challenge to get down the rocky outcrop to the beach area for anyone with mobility issues. There are bathrooms provided and parking, although arriving early is recommended, as the large parking lot is notorious for getting filled up and parking becoming quite the rat race later in the day.
We had visited this beach quickly and as an excuse to rinse off in the showers provided there before going to dinner (we had done a lot of hiking that day), and I most definitely wish we would have allowed more time there. If I go back to the Big Island, I’ll spend an entire afternoon there after a sweaty hike and love it!
2. LAVA BOAT TOUR
This one is definitely an investment but it is an absolute jaw-dropper. Let me explain. I have travelled all over the world, taken part in countless adventure activities, stood atop many mountains, experienced various world wonders, and never have I been as awestruck as I was on the Lava Boat Tour on Hawaii’s Big Island. The cost for this tour is $200-$220 per person, but it was worth absolutely every penny.
Before reserving, I was skeptical. How could it be worth $400 for an excursion that lasts just a few hours? What about safety? I researched, asked around, and even contacted the owner of our AirBNB and after many reassurances, we decided we’d try it. You only live once, right?
We took the sunrise tour that started around 4:30am. During the safety orientation we were told how the tour would be similar to class 4 rapids white water rafting and some nervousness crept up in me. But I sucked it up, left my camera in the car (I’m bummed about that now but didn’t want it to get drenched), and we set off. The boat speeds out to the lava viewing area in the stars and it’s absolutely gorgeous. I’ve never seen stars anywhere else like the ones we saw in Hawaii. That in itself, before even seeing any molten hot lava, was a treat.
When we got out to where we could see a speck of orange glow in the dark, the boat just kept speeding closer and closer to it and it was difficult to tell how close we actually were to it in the pitch black surroundings. The orange speck grew larger and larger until I was a little nervous at how close we were seemingly getting. The boat ended up resting only some four feet or so from the lava tube! Molten lava rocks glowing bright orange could be seen rolling over the waves, splatters of lava like the ones you see in the movies sprayed up into the air, and billows of smoke didn’t impede our view because of the darkness. We could feel the heat from the lava and hear rocks hitting the bottom of the boat from the underground eruptions. Our guide even filled a bucket of water from the ocean and allowed us to feel its heat. It was all a simply breathtaking experience.
If you are prone to motion sickness, definitely take precautions. The water is very choppy and the boat stops atop the waves, letting them take you for a ride, and sits near the lava for best viewing. It stays there for about an hour. I took precautions and still got sick, which in most cases I would say is miserable and should be avoided at all costs, but in this case I can’t tell you how worth it it was.
3. VOLCANO NATIONAL PARK
Allow a full day to explore everything Volcano National Park has to offer–maybe even two. After a stop at the Visitor’s Center, you’ll see that there is a ton to do there. There are two different circuits you can follow–one is if you only have a few hours to spend and the other is a full day driving tour with stops/points of interest along the way. Map guides for these can be picked up at the Visitor’s Center.
What I love about VNP is that it can be completely explored on your own. You don’t need a tour group or a guide to get the best of it. There is simply a $25 fee to get into the park and that allows you three consecutive days of entrance. Grab a cooler with some sandwiches and your good hiking shoes and enjoy a full day exploring to your hearts content. There’s an inactive lava tube cave you can walk through, ancient petroglyphs, sulfur spots, and a lava overlook, among so much more.
There’s also a restaurant at the Volcano House hotel that has some great local Hawaiian foods and an awesome view over the lava fields and smoke from the volcano–get a table by the window and unwind after a long, exciting day.
4. PAPAKOLEA (GREEN SAND) BEACH
Not as many people know about the green sand beach in Hawaii as they do the black sand beach. I think the reason for this is that the green sand beach is harder to get to and more off the beaten path. You have to drive into what seems like the middle of nowhere in the southern part of the island, through farmland, cow pastures, and on a one lane road that is not in the greatest of shape. When you get there it can be a little disconcerting, seeing as the parking lot is simply a patch of dirt with chickens and critters hopping around everywhere and lots of beat up trucks and disheveled locals.
What I was to find out later is that the beat up trucks are the “shuttles” to the beach. To hike to the beach, it’s about three miles each way. I’d recommend going this route if you can, but be prepared. It is full sun, no shade whatsoever, and no water. It’s basically like walking through a desert with the ocean on one side of you. As long as you’re stocked up on water and sunscreen and are comfortable hiking on rugged terrain, you’ll be good. I think hiking there made the arrival at the beach that much more spectacular.
An alternative option would be to pay the locals to shuttle you out to the beach. Just keep in mind it’s a bumpy ride and we saw many people crammed into the bed of a pick-up truck. The drivers drive slow, so it seemed safe “enough”. Not many people seemed to conquer the hike, so maybe they didn’t have as much time as we had or didn’t feel like being in the sun that long–I could see that.
At the beach, you have to climb down a narrow trail (with railings) into a horseshoe-shaped valley type landscape to get to the beach. The water is a shade of turquoise that is otherworldly and the sand is more of a dirty olive color than a true green. The waves are strong, so I wouldn’t recommend letting small children swim, but a few brave souls ventured into the water while we were there and seemed to enjoy themselves. Even adults have been reported to have been overtaken by the undertow there, so use extreme caution if going in the water–the only thing beyond the beach is rocky cliffs that don’t appear to be very inviting.
I’d say the biggest draw to this is definitely the views and not the swimming. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. I love the adventure and the remoteness of it.
5. PUNALU’U (BLACK SAND) BEACH AND BAKE SHOP
This beach is cool because the sand is actually black. I’ve been to black sand beaches in Iceland and Puerto Rico whosE black sand beaches are beautiful but are more grayish sand. The sand at Punalu’u Beach is the blackest black, so it makes for a unique experience. There are also a ton of sea turtles in the area and one of them decided to wash ashore and sun himself for a while while we were at the beach, which was pretty cool. There are waves but they aren’t as strong as in some areas, so this would be a good place to swim. I’d recommend going early in the morning to avoid the large tourist buses.
There is also a pretty pond near the parking lot that reminded me of Monet’s Water-Lily Pond. Right after sunrise, this coupled with the black sand in the background was a sight to behold.
After leaving the beach, we stumbled upon the Punalu’u Bake Shop about 10 minutes driving distance away. The sweetbreads there are mouthwatering and we even saw some cool birds and geckos while enjoying them in the little outdoor gazebo there. I’d recommend you give their famous guava sweetbread a try!
These are the spots that I’ll always remember about my trip to the Big Island. What are the most memorable attractions or moments of your own trip?
CAITLYN WITHOUT A COMPASS