Big Island, Hawaii
The most asked question to anyone who travelled to Hawaii is if he/she surfed. Yes, this US archipelago is really a surfers paradise, but the options go far beyond surfing.
Distant more than 3,000 km (1,900 mi) of the continent, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the Hawaiian state is formed by 136 islands, being eight main islands. Among them, the one with the greatest landscapes diversity is Hawaii Island, better known as Big Island to avoid confusion between the island and the state of the same name. The nickname is due to the fact that the other seven islands together are smaller than Big Island, as shown in the map below.
It is amazing how there can be so much variety of climate and scenery on an island with only 10,506 km² (4,056 mi²), with 129 km (80 mi) from east to west and 150 km (93 mi) from north to south. While in Hilo, on the east side of the island, the annual average rainfall is 328 cm (129″), in Kailua, on the west coast, it is only 58 cm (22″) annually. This huge difference happens because the prevailing winds come from the east, and when the clouds arrive on the Big Island, they are trapped by an enormous wall formed by two volcanoes over 4,200 meters high (over 13,000 feet) (see map above), holding clouds over the region of Hilo. What at first seems a disadvantage, in fact makes this side of the island an fantastic place to visit waterfalls, in addition to allowing the growth of lush vegetation not found on the dry side.
Even with many rivers flowing to the sea and the wavez being bigger than in Kailua, it is possible to do good shore dives on the coast of Hilo, such as at the Beach Parks of Leleiwi, Richardson and Wai’Olena, only 5 minutes from the city. After swimming a few meters to get away from the surf, there is 20 meters of visibility, corals, lava arches and turtles, many turtles. I stopped counting them after the 15th in Leleiwi! Some were big, some were huge but almost all of them were very calm. One stopped in front of me like if it was in a cleaning station and wanted that I removed the parasites from its shell.
Despite being the second largest city in the state, losing only to Honolulu, on the Oahu island, Hilo has only 43,000 inhabitants (2018), and since it is not a tourist town, its leafy streets and parks are always calm, as are its population.
There are only a few beaches in Hilo or very close to the town, definitly this is not the highest quality of Hilo, but on Coconut Island there are some very beautiful and with easy access via a pedestrian bridge.
Every year Hilo hosts one of the most prestigious Polynesian dances festivals, the Merrie Monarch Festival, which also has an arts fair and a parade in the streets of the city.
In the winter, the Hawaiian Islands are home for the humpback whales who migrate from Alaska to care for the calves in warmer waters. There are whale watch tours in both sides of the Big Island, but Hilo has one more attraction because of dozens of beautiful waterfalls that plunge into the sea. In fact, even on a day without whales it is worth doing the boat trip, especially in a beautiful sunny day.
Kailua and its dives
The west side of the island, protected from rain and strong winds, is what offers the best diving options. The most famous is undoubtedly the night dive with the manta rays. Despite their enormous size, sometimes over 5 meters (15 feet), these rays only feed on plankton and small fish, being harmless to divers. To attract them are placed powerful flashlights in the sand, pointed to the surface, causing the light to attract the plankton, which in turn attracts the mantas. The dive is very easy, you only have to kneel in the bottom to enjoy the beautiful swimming of the rays, which sometimes pass scraping the divers’s head.
Another exciting dive is with the dolphins. In several touristic cities around the world, dolphins are trained to interact with tourists in exchange for food, but in the Big Island, the encounter is done with truly wild dolphins when they return to the coast after a night of hunting in the open sea . As they usually go to the same resting point, it is easy to spot them, but to get interaction, not so much.
As the diving is done without tanks, it is necessary to be a good free diver to swim with them in the bottom, but even if you can’t, the water is so clean that it’s possible to see them swimming slowly, calfs being fed and, with some lucky, a dolphin can even play with those people in the surface.
The ideal is to be with a boat, because if they pass quickly by you, it is easy to find them again or go out to look for another group. If you want to try it yourself, go early to Lava Java Café at Alii Drive, and look for jumping dolphins, maybe it’s your lucky day!
Although stingrays and dolphins are Big Island’s biggest underwater attractions, there are several dive sites with a wide variety of tropical fish, coral, turtles, beautiful lava formations and even sharks, although they are much rarer.
The charming and little Kailua offers everything a good tourist town needs: good hotels and restaurants, bars for those who want to enjoy the night and, of course, a seaside mall where it’s hard to leave without spending a few bucks. The climax of the movement takes place during the Ironman Hawaii, the world’s most famous triathlon event, which takes place annually on the first full moon of October and brings around 1,500 athletes.
One of the most beautiful spots on the island is Kealakekua Bay, on the southwest of the Big Island, which in addition to being beautiful out of the water, is also one of the best places for free diving and dolphin watching. Access can be made by a very steep trail or by boat, whether it is a motor boat from Kailua or renting a kayak and paddling for about an hour. During my visits I opted for the kayak, not only because I like to paddle but also to be free to stay in the bay for as long as I wanted, without being tied to the schedule of tour boats. Besides, having a kayak I had freedom to go where the dolphins were and not scaring them with the approach of a large boat. Unfortunately I did not take pictures of the landscape out of the water, but in both times that I went to Kealakekua I found the dolphins, so either I was very lucky, or it’s really easy to find them.
The northwest coast of the island is not only the driest area, but it is the one where are the most popular beaches, being Hapuna the most famous. It was elected several times as one of the best beaches in the USA, but I have to say that it is far from the top in my ranking . In the other hand, Makalawena, a beach reached by a 1.5 km (1 mi) lava trail, is gorgeous! There is no bathroom, no snack bar, nor easy access like Hapuna, but for those who like the beaches with almost no people, it is perfect! Before arriving in Makalawena, after walking only 500 meters, is Mahailua, another beautiful and calm beach, so calm that even serves for turtles to take a nap.
In an island made up by volcanoes, black sand beaches are obviously quite common. The most famous, because of its beauty and ease of access, is Punalu’u, on the south coast. In addition to people, its sands are also visited by turtles and, at least according to the signs, by the hawaiian monk seal, an endemic seal that is endangered of extinction, with only 1,100 remaining individuals.
On the north coast, two beaches deserve your attention. One is in the Waipio Valley, a valley protected by cliffs over 200 meters (600 feet) high that was inhabited by more than 4,000 Hawaiians and was home for their ancient kings. The history of Waipio changed dramatically in 1946, when the worst tsunami in Hawaiian history devastated the valley, and the few who continued to live there still had to face a flood in 1979 that covered Waipio in one meter (three feet) of water. Today, only 50 people live in Waipio and they avoid contact with tourists, who in turn are advised to leave them alone. As the road is very steep, it is only allowed to go down with 4wd vehicles or on foot, which makes the beach be almost empty.
Another beautiful beach of the north coast, this one only accessible by trail, is Pololu. Its strong waves and constant currents make people stay in the sand, but the untouched scenery and the sight of the waves breaking in the cliffs are worth the short walk.
On the coast near Hilo, the most visited beach is Kehena, but just go there if you have an open mind, as nudism is allowed (unofficially, but nobody cares), just as it is very common to see people smoking pot. The beach is beautiful but the waves can give a hard time to those who want to get into the sea. If it’s not very rough, it is a good spot for free diving, as you can see in the photos below.
Of all the beaches I visited, the most beautiful was Green Sand, in the far south. Not by the color of the sand, which has a greenish tinge and made it famous, but by being sheltered in a small bay, framed by cliffs and bathed by a sea that varies between shades of green and blue.
Access is not easy as you only can get there with a 4wd or walking almost 4 km (2.5 mi), but at least the land is flat.
Many hotels offer, even for those who are not hosted, a luau with typical food and dances. Although I was warned not to get too excited about the food, I decided to take the risk and experience what they claim to be the best on Big Island. First they show how the pork was roasted by the ancient Hawaiians (interesting), then everyone serves up in a very varied buffet with such typical foods (and other very common ones around the world) and finally there is a show of Polynesian dances. Thankfully I had already been warned about the food, as it is not seasoned for my taste, but the dances worth the night, with hula presentations, the famous Hawaiian dance, and other beautiful Polynesian dances.
Diving with giant rays, dolphins, incredibly clear water, beautiful beaches, climate and vegetation contrasts, friendliness of the inhabitants, wamr weather all year round … There are several reasons why people come to Big Island, but the volcanoes are even more impressive than the others. After all, where else in the world is it possible to see (from very close!) lava flowing into the sea? Only here, and thanks to Kilauea, the most active volcano in the world!
You can choose to see everything from a helicopter, a boat or even on foot, but it is at your own risk because the open area is a little distant from the lava flow, for obvious reasons. If you want to see up close, you must go at times without supervision, ignore the warnings that you will be arrested if caught and be very careful. However, considering the rarity of observing such an event, many people think it pays off.
At the top of Kilauea is the visitor center of the Volcanoes National Park, with lots of information about volcanoes, gazebos and trails for those who want to walk in a crater and observe the curious lava formations. There are also lava caves, one of them lit and with a lot of tourists, another without lighting and much more beautiful, but that it is only possible to be visited with scheduling. In addition to these there are many others around the island, and the most beautiful I visited is Emesine, accessed by a one-hour trail starting at Saddle Road.
The top of Mauna Kea, the island’s highest volcano with 4,205 meters (13,795 feet), can be reached with a 4wd or on foot, on a long walk from the Visitor Center, at 3,000 meters (9,842 feet). The view from above is very interesting, with its observatories, very arid soil and, during the winter, it can even snow. Snow in Hawaii? Yeah, when I said on the beginning of this article about landscape diversity, I was not exaggerating.
The southernmost point of Big Island is also the southernmost tip of the US, being quite frequented by Hawaiians as a great fishing spot. But tourists visit South Point because of the beauty of the place and to jump from the cliffs. If the sea is very calm and the forecast is good, it is a great place for scuba dive, in fact the best of the island. The problems are the currents and waves, since if a current drag the diver, the next land is thousands of miles away. And if the waves increase in size during the dive, it will be extremely dangerous to get out of the water without being thrown against the seawall, so just go if you are a very experienced diver and know what to do in adverse situations, it is no wonder that I dived four times in South Point and in none of them there were other divers.
Kapoho Tide Pools
IMPORTANT: Kapoho tide pools were buried by the Kilauea eruption that occurred in the first half of 2018, I left the photos in this article to show how it was before the eruption. Maybe new tide pools will form with the end of the lava flow and all this life diversity can be seen again.