By Patricia Canole
Twice the size of all the other Hawaiian Islands combined, the Big Island is home to 11 of the world’s 13 climatic regions—not just tropical rainforests and arid desert lands, but also verdant upcountry and snow-capped tundra at the summit of Mauna Kea. Amazingly, you can experience the Big Island’s micro-climates in a single visit—all you need to do is go holo-holo (that’s Hawaiian for “take a spin”). Here, some adventures that will take you through most of the climate changes.
SUN ‘N’ SURF
One of the things that makes the Big Island so unique is that you can choose a beach according to the type of waves you like (rolling waves, perfect for surfing, or more placid ones, ideal for snorkeling) or the color of sand you fancy—white, green or black, for instance. The western portion of the island is home to a corridor of white sand beaches, which stretch from the Kailua, just south of the Kona airport, up to the Kohala coast, home to the isle’s most luxurious resort properties, including the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai (fourseasons.com). It’s no wonder it’s here: The Kailua-Kona region is sunny and warm, with just enough breeze to keep the temperature comfortable.
The drive along Kaahumanu Highway (Highway 19), from the airport towards the resort area, takes you through an eerie landscape of arid black lava fields. Although the twisted branches of scrub brush and ohia trees sport spiny, bright red blossoms, visitors invariably compare the area to a desert moonscape. Not exactly what you’d expect, but that’s the beauty of the Big Island. A quick left onto intersecting access roads leads to the shoreline and the island’s prime beaches.
Hailed by locals and visitors as one of America’s best beaches, the state protected Hapuna Beach is a great spot for boogie boarding and body surfing. The sand at this palm-protected cove is so soft; you’ll feel as though you’re walking on powder. Windsurfers flock to Anaehoomalu Beach located near the Waikoloa Beach Marriott, while the expanse of Ka’Upuliehu Beach is perfect if you’re looking for a secluded spot. Some of the island’s best snorkeling can be found at Kahaluu Beach Park, located at the southern end of Kailua-Kona.
On the Big Island’s southern coast, you find the black and green sand beaches that this island is famous for. Spread a blanket beneath a towering coconut tree and lounge with the friendly Hawaiian sea turtles that come to sun themselves on the volcanic black sand. If you’re looking for a more active beach day, tackle the four-mile roundtrip coastal hike to Papakolea, one of the only two green sand beaches in the world.
TAKE A COFFEE BREAK
Just a few miles from the sunny beaches of Kailua-Kona, but a world away, lies the island’s jungle-like coffee-growing region. The java beans produced here are among the world’s most delectable—and expensive. The shaded areas on the verdant slopes of Hualalai and Mauna Loa, boast the perfect conditions for coffee producing: in the morning the sun shines brightly on the wide green leaves of the coffee plants, and in the afternoon humidity and rain hydrate the roots. Java junkies armed with a Kona Coffee driving map (available free online at Konacoffeefest.com/driving tour) can take a self-guided tour of the more than 600 specialty coffee farms concentrated along a scenic 20-mile stretch of winding back roads. Even better—buying some beans straight from the source may save you a few bucks.
Sign up for a nature tour with Hawaii Forest & Trail (hawaii-forest.com) and you’ll explore various terrains and all kinds of weather. The five-and-half-hour Kohala Waterfalls Tour takes you across the dry, sunny resort corridor and leads deep into the lush, wet windward of the island. The tour starts with a van ride from Kona up Highway 19, where cactus and scrub grass give way to guava trees and thickly growing ferns. As the road edges closer to the coastline, you’ll see double rainbows hovering above the shoreline and the splashing of spinner dolphins or, in the winter, humpback whales. Then you’ll pass through towns like Hawi, where a sleepy atmosphere belies its past as a sugarcane boomtown. Today, the laid-back village is home to art galleries, small shops and restaurants. As the road winds farther up the slopes of the Kohala Mountains, the temperature cools and you’ll notice the heavy mist, fog and rain that are constant in the air. After a brief stop at the old mule station on a windswept hill that affords a spectacular view of the surf crashing against the rocky coastline, you’ll transfer to an all-terrain vehicle for the bumpy trip across the green of private ranch land to the trailhead. The rolling hills, grazing cattle and swaying grasses make it feel as though you’ve been transported to the set of a Hollywood western. After donning a rain slicker, you’ll set out on the one-and-a-half-mile hike, following a trail that snakes across wooden bridges built over old irrigation tunnels and then goes deeper into the impossibly green, improbably lush forest. Thick stands of ferns and guava and Brazilian pepper trees crowd the edges of the trail. Along the way you’ll pass several picturesque waterfalls, including one where you can swim in the chilly pool and pose beneath the cascading waters for a quintessential honeymoon photo op.
BIKE DOWN A VOLCANO
The most ecologically diverse part of the Big Island is found in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, located on the eastern side of the island. The park area is exposed to moisture-laden trade winds and extremes in rainfall; as a result, seven ecological life zones (seacoast, lowland, mid-elevation woodland, rainforest, upland forest and woodland, subalpine and alpine/Aeolian) all flourish within the park’s protected boundaries.
Sure, you could see the volcanoes and steam vents from your car, but the best way to experience volcano country is on two wheels. Bike Volcano (bikevolcano.com) offers a Hawaii Volcanoes National Park & Wine Tasting Bike Tour that takes you from the steaming smoking rim of Kilauea, the world’s most active volcano, to the dramatic coastline. During the five-hour excursion, you’ll be treated to panoramic views of the Ka’u coast, where waves crash around a huge lava-formed archway and a molten lava shelf continues to grow, thanks to constant volcanic activity. And you’ll whiz along the mostly downhill 15-mile path through the rainforest, past volcanic steam vents, pit craters and vast lava fields. After a picnic lunch overlooking the restless Pacific, you’ll be escorted to a trail that cuts through a jungle of giant ferns and leads into the Thurston Lava Tube, a 30-foot-high, 450-foot-long tunnel formed by an underground lava flow. Then it’s time to stop at the Volcano Winery to toast all this amazing beauty. Hint: Try the specialty varietals, which feature a blend of traditional grapes and tropical fruit like yellow guava.
REACHING FOR THE STARS Did you know it snows in Hawaii? Yes, it’s true. During the winter and spring months, the steep slopes of Mauna Kea, rising 13,796 feet, can be covered in six inches or more of powder. With daytime temperatures hovering around the freezing mark and nightfall ushering in a sub-zero chill, the alpine climate at the summit is the least thing you’d expect on a tropical island. But that’s what makes a trip to the top a must-do experience. Book a stargazing tour with Mauna Kea Summit Adventures (maunakea.com), and you won’t have to worry about packing your parka with your swim suit; the company provides all the cold-weather gear you’ll need, including gloves. They also escort guests to the summit in heated vans, provide hot drinks and a light dinner. Shortly after your arrival at the peak, the sun dips into the clouds below you. You’ll watch in awe as the sun sets, bathing the sky in streaks of pink, orange, purple and red. After sunset, the astronomer/guide set up powerful telescopes to give you spectacular views of the Milky Way, constellations, planets and distant galaxies.