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The Island of Hawaii, most often referred to as the “Big Island,” offers a little bit of what each of the islands in the archipelago boasts, including everything from cascading falls and colorful flowers to long, white sandy beaches and lush rainforest. As the largest island by far, with 4,028 square miles of terrain, it can difficult to decide which places to visit, but this list will give you a good head start.
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This paradise-like valley on the northeast coast of the island has been described as a kind of “Shangri La,” practically cut off from the outside world. The valley dissects the Kohala Mountains, and is difficult to reach due to the powerful waves on one side, and steep cliffs on the three landward sides. You can view it from the coastal Waipio Valley Overlook at the end of the Hamakua Heritage Corridor Drive, or, hike, take a horseback ride or guided tour to explore its hidden wonders like the long black sand beach where the valley meets the sea.
At Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, you’ll be mesmerized with the landscape that changes right before your very eyes. Home to Kilauea volcano, one of the most active volcanoes in the world, this is your opportunity to watch the primal process of creation and destruction as well as to learn more about how the Hawaiian Islands were formed. It encompasses some 330,000 acres, from the summit of Maunaloa to the sea, with 150 miles of hiking trails that wind through rainforests, desert terrain and volcanic craters. It also boasts a walk-in lava tube, a museum and petroglyphs. After taking in a gorgeous sunset, or sunrise for that matter, visit Jaggar Museum at the edge of Kīlauea Volcano to marvel at how the summit lava lake lights up the night sky.
Pure Kona coffee is relatively rare as it’s exclusively grown in north and south Kona, right here on the Big Island. The high elevation, constant cloud cover and rich volcanic soil found in its upland slopes create the ideal environment for harvesting this unique Hawaiian coffee bean. While there are countless coffee farms here, Kona Coffee Living History Farm provides one of the best visitor experiences, offering the chance to learn about locally grown coffee as well as sample lush Hawaiian fruits like guavas, passion fruit and Kona oranges.
While there are “swim with dolphin tours” on the Big Island, those options can be harmful to the animals as well as incredibly pricey. If you’re a strong swimmer, head to Kehena Beach on the east side of the island where you can stand on the cliffs above and watch for the wild pod of dolphins that frequently swim by the rocks. Take the steep trek down to the hidden, black sand beach and jump in. There’s a good chance of meeting up with the dolphins here on your own, again, provided that you’re good shape, as the waves here can be get rough.
One of the best open markets in all of Hawaii, the Hilo Farmers Market hosts over 200 vendors that gather here every week to hawk seafood, produce, clothing, crafts and more. It draws a mix of locals and visitors seeking everything from typical Hawaiian products like bananas, pineapples and papayas to more unique items like bongo drums and jaboticaba. There is an especially colorful selection of locally grown exotic fruits and vegetables as well as macadamia nuts, island jams and jellies, delectable baked goods, large buckets of orchids and anthuriums. Arrive early for the best choices, and don’t be afraid to bargain.
History and culture lovers will appreciate a visit to Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park, a 180-acre national historic park that was once the home of royal grounds and a place of refuge from the death penalty for ancient Hawaiian lawbreakers. It boasts picturesque palm-lined beaches, wooden carvings, a huge lava rock wall and reconstructed villages. You can also view the many ki’i, or carved wooden images, that surround the temple and house the bones of the chiefs.
This small, historic town is often referred to as Hawaii’s “biggest little town.” It was once the busy hub of the sugar industry in North Kohala, and today, the colorful vintage buildings lined along the streets serve as restaurants, cafes, boutiques and art galleries that make it fun to wander through. The Hawi Gallery is a must-visit with a fascinating collection that includes everything from ukuleles to a Cuban model made from a cigar box.
Kealakekua Bay is one of the top spots for snorkeling on the island. It can be accessed by taking a boat tour, via kayak or with a rather challenging hike. Once you’re there, you’ll find calm, clear waters, a host of tropical fish, lots of coral and often, spinner dolphins. This is also an important historical location as the place Captain James Cook landed on Hawaii and was later killed by the natives.
If you want to enjoy a night or two camping under the stars, Laupahoehoe is an ideal spot to pitch a tent. Situated on a peninsula on the northern coast, this scenic beach is covered with black lava, and provides jaw-dropping vistas for every camper. The lava rocks along the shoreline make a striking contrast against the deep blue waters of the Pacific, and on a sunny day, you’ll see the ocean transformed into an especially intense blue shade.
Don’t miss taking a drive to visit the Kalapana Lava Refuge after dark. This is when you can witness the active lava light up the night’s sky. Getting so close to an active volcano is an experience few can say they’ve ever had.