5 must-do’s on Hawaii’s Big Island
It’s winter and those of us in Seattle are starting to feel the weight of the grey skies. It’s the perfect time to get away, and there’s no better place than Hawaii. Beautiful beaches, delicious food, several islands to explore… what’s not to love?
Working for an airline, I’m able to travel a lot and have been to Hawaii about 20 times – three in the last six months. Maui and Oahu are a couple of my favorites, but I have a soft spot for the Big Island of Hawaii. It’s got that wild, as-yet-untamed feel – a bit off-the-beaten-track. Here are my five must-try’s on the Big Island.
1. Makalawena Beach
Makalawena Beach, located about five miles north of Kona International Airport in Kekaha Kai State Park is a hidden gem, so it is pretty uncrowded most of the time. If you’re an experienced hiker looking for a challenge with a swim as your reward at the end, this one is for you. The water itself is blue and clear, though the waves are occasionally a bit rough (which also makes it a favorite for boogie boarders). There are some rocky patches close to the shore, but there’s enough space to steer clear and still enjoy swimming. Also, the sand here is amazingly soft and fine. When people say “powdery white sand” this is what they mean.
The most important thing to remember when visiting: bring water, also food if you intend to stay there for a day. Second: Wear good shoes. Hiking shoes work best if you’ve got them, sneakers are good too if you don’t mind them getting dirty. Finally, wear sunscreen. Why? You will cross a lava field to reach it.
To access Makalawena, one must first get to Kekaha Kai State Park, which is a bit of a rough and dusty drive. Kekaha Kai itself is an interesting and enjoyable park with a number of beaches, though most are not easily swimmable. An eruption sometime back caused lava to flow right to the water’s edge. There are tidepools to discover and turtles can also be spotted occasionally.
Once there, you have two options: go along the shore, or head immediately into the lava field (each option is about a mile). Along the shore is the more scenic route, but takes longer because there isn’t a clear path. Both paths will meet at an old abandoned set of buildings and continue past them. You will soon leave all tree cover and enter the lava field. This is the hardest part and will seem like forever (it’s really only 15 minutes). The path is clear but unpaved and the lava is of the a’a variety – sharp spiky chunks that are very uncomfortable to traverse. Eventually you will see sand again, and some vegetation … just head on until you see water. The journey is tough, but the discovery will be worth it. This hike can be hot, sunny and strenuous so isn’t recommended for small children or adults with health concerns.
Important note: there are no facilities on Makalawena Beach itself, only at Kekaha Kai. Please take all your garbage back with you so others can enjoy this beautiful beach in its pristine state.
2. Da Poke Shack
Poke and seafood lovers take note: this is the freshest, tastiest poke in all the islands. Da Poke Shack is not quite a restaurant, though they do have some tables at both their locations. Besides their base in Kona, they recently opened a second location in Captain Cook.
Their food is best taken on a picnic or enjoyed by the beach.
For the uninitiated, poke is raw seafood, usually tuna, marinated with sea salt and soy sauce along with various other ingredients. My favorite poke from the Shack is called, appropriately, the Shack Special, which is ahi tuna marinated in soy sauce and honey. There are many other kinds with fresh local ingredients like avocado, ginger, wasabi and sesame. They have good sides too — this was where I first discovered seaweed salad.
You can get food by the pound, or you can get combo plates that come with rice and a side. For those not inclined toward seafood, the Shack also has Hawaiian favorites like kalua pork and huli huli chicken.
3. Mauna Kea Visitor Center
One of the best things about the Big Island is that, well, it’s so big. You could do all the usual island activities: swim, snorkel, surf. But you can also bring your cold weather gear and go up to the for some of the best stargazing anywhere.
I highly recommend starting the drive to Mauna Kea in late afternoon, so that you can witness the sunset either on your way up at the visitor center. Or you could head to the summit where you will find some of the world’s largest infrared and optical telescopes, like the twin Kecks. Driving to the summit is only recommended if you have a 4WD vehicle, and only in safe conditions: park rangers will inform you whether or not that’s advisable. It’s also good to stop at the visitor center in order to acclimate to the elevation and watch their astronomy videos.
When the sky gets dark enough, you can enjoy the best part: stars! The sky is amazingly clear and there is no light pollution. The volunteers at the visitor center prepare the telescopes, which they’ll point at different objects, such as nebulae, planets, galaxies, supernova remnants and more, for the FREE viewing. I’ve seen Saturn, Jupiter and a couple of its moons, the Andromeda galaxy, and had a very close look at the face of the moon. This is a wonderful experience if you enjoy astronomy. And the price is hard to beat!
4. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
There is a lot to explore at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. People spend whole days here, camping, hiking and exploring. If your intent is to spot some lava, this is probably your best bet, from a safe distance.
Since there’s so much here, stop at the Kilauea Visitor Center to get an introduction to the park and learn about the many activities and sights.
Stop at Jaggar Museum and learn about volcanoes and lava, and watch some intense videos of previous eruptions. Thurston Lava Tube is also nearby. Take the Crater Rim Drive to find remnants of calderas and observe how nature recovers from volcanic destruction. You can also observe exotic birds and plants that are unique to Hawaii.
5. Honaunau Bay
Swimming isn’t the best here due to a rocky shore, but snorkeling is great. The water is mostly calm and has excellent visibility. There are lots of tropical fish and wildlife, and maybe even some turtles and rays. I’ve heard that dolphins occasionally come to visit, too.
When you get tired of the water, you can head south and visit the Puuhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park for some cultural knowledge.
Pro tip: There is no parking lot to get to the snorkeling area at Honaunau Bay, so you’ll need to park along the street. This is a popular spot, so plan to arrive early.
The Big Island has a lot more to offer, but these five things should give you a good place to start.
What’s your favorite activity on Hawaii’s Big Island, or in Kona?