When you travel as far as Hawaii, a dream destination, you need to take advantage, so I decided to stay a few days after filming for my PBS TV show Equitrekking. My plan was to drink banana daiquiris and lay by the pool at a resort, but the draw of swimming with sea turtles, seeing hot lava flows and discovering a black sand beach drew me into the car and onto the roads to explore. Though I highly recommend doing nothing but enjoying the Big Island’s beaches, if you do feel motivated, here are some of the best places to spend your precious time in paradise.
The Kohala Coast encompasses the northwest tip of the Big Island and is home to some of the island’s glitziest resorts and much scenic diversity. It’s here where you can relax on white sand beaches or snorkel beside shores of dramatic black lava rocks.
Pack a picnic and soak in the quintessential beach experience along the white sands at Hapuna Beach State Park. The $5 parking fee is worth it to enjoy swimming or snorkeling with sea turtles or chilling on the soft sand of one of the largest white sand beaches on the Kohala Coast. For a step back in time the whole family may enjoy, visit the Puako Petroglyph Archaeological Preserve, where a hiking trail winds through over a thousand petroglyphs and centuries old lava rock carvings.
For a Kohala resort experience that’s a top family pick, the Hilton Waikoloa Village has regular room rates starting at reasonable prices. Honeymooners or those looking to splurge will not be disappointed with the luxurious Fairmont Orchid, a 32-acre oceanfront retreat where you can snorkel or canoe to see Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles.
Snow is definitely not something travelers first imagine when thinking about Hawaii Island, but during winter at Maunakea, a hotspot volcano 14,000 feet above sea level and taller than Everest when measured from its base, you can experience some of the powdery white stuff, as well as some of the world’s best sunsets and stargazing.
To see some of that bright night sky on one of the best places on earth for astronomical observation, join a Visitor Information Station (VIS) free stargazing session, which is offered nightly year round. To travel from the VIS to the summit, join an escorted summit tour offered on weekends or drive yourself. If you’re highly motivated and fit for high altitudes, you can also hike to the summit, which is not recommended in the snow. Unless you sign up for a guided tour, you’ll need a 4WD vehicle to get to the summit and want to swap your shorts for ultra warm layers for this excursion.
To take in the Big Island’s paniolo (cowboy) country, enjoy a scenic drive through the Upcountry, Waimea, along Kohala Mountain Road (Hwy 250). This connects the cowboy town of Waimea, home to historic Kahua Ranch, with the small, funky town of Hawi. There are stunning vistas as you drive at higher elevations past verdant, cow-dotted, rolling pastures overlooking the Pacific Ocean and awesome views of Kohala, Maunakea and Hualalai Volcanoes. Keep driving past Hawi along Hwy 270 to hit the Pololu Valley Overlook, where you can stretch your legs by hiking down to a black sand beach and take in beautiful views of verdant cliffs cascading into the sea.
About an hour’s drive further from the Pololu Valley Overlook or a day trip from either Hilo or the Kohala Coast, Waipi’o Valley is the southernmost of seven valleys that run in a chain along the Hamakua Coast. Also called the Valley of the Kings because of the early Hawaiian kings reared here, the valley encompasses dramatic Big Island scenery, offbeat culture and lush vegetation that may blow your mind.
Sheer cliffs over 2000 feet high and a steep road that requires 4WD make getting down to this sacred valley an adventure in itself. While you could just stop by the lookout point, I recommend making the trek down. Once in the valley, fields of taro, fragrant flowers and exotic fruit abound, as do streams and waterfalls. Don’t miss the black sand beach about a half-mile walk from where the road levels off. You may run into a wild horse or two, and if you choose to take a guided tour, you can actually saddle up. Na’alapa Stables offers tours on horseback, a good way to hear insight from locals and to keep your feet dry. However you tour this island oasis, remember, there are residents in the valley, many of whom live off the grid and prefer privacy, so tread politely and lightly.
Hilo & Beyond
Hilo is just 45 minutes from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and is worth seeing in itself with its popular farmers market, historic downtown and beautiful Japanese gardens. Dolphin Bay Hotel is a short walk to downtown and a good pick for families and budget-conscious travelers. For a charming B&B experience, the craftsmen style Hilo Honu Inn offers good value in a downtown location with all the perks that chatting with local B&B owners can bring, including a plentiful hot breakfast.