Cowboys, Moonscapes, and Amazing Stargazing
The Big Island of Hawaii – the most primal of the spectacular 1,500-mile Hawaiian archipelago – is a unique place of contrasts and superlatives. It’s the largest island in the Pacific and the youngest and one of the least touristed in Hawaii, a place of black-lava deserts and dense tropical rain forests. It’s home to five volcanoes (including Kilauea and Mauna Loa, two of the world’s most active) and eleven of the earth’s thirteen primary climate types – if you wanted to, you could ski and surf in a single day.
At 93 miles long and 76 miles wide, the Big Island is big indeed – twice the size of the other islands combined and approximately the size of Connecticut, with some 250 miles of encircling roads that require seven hours to drive. King Kamehameha the Great was born here in 1758, uniting the island kingdom between 1785 and 1810 and inviting foreign traders to settle on the islands; today, kings of commerce come to play golf on world-class courses known for their beauty.
From the black-sand beach at its mouth, the lush Waipio Valley sweeps back 6 miles between thickly jungled walls that reach almost a mile high. Once considered the sacred “Valley of the Kings,” its cool rivers, tumbling waterfalls, and wild horses encourage the feeling that this is the valley that time forgot. Nearby, ½ -mile-high Waimea (also called Kamuela) is the island’s upcountry, where about 50,000 head of cattle graze on the 225,000 acres of 200-year-old Parker Ranch, one of the largest privately owned cattle ranches in the United States. Those with a mind to can hire one of the ranch’s 400 horses and explore the area’s magnificent terrain in the hoofprints of Hawaii’s famous “paniolo” cowboys.
Below is the black-lava Kohala Coast, exceptional for the dazzling white-sand stretch of Kaunaoa Beach and the close-by Hapuna Beach State Park, stellar exceptions to the young island’s beach-challenged reputation.
This is the location for the perfectly situated 60-acre Mauna Kea, the trail-blazing super-resort that started it all and set the standard. Built in 1965 by Laurance Rockefeller, it’s welcoming, understated, and surprisingly lush considering its desert-like location. It’s also home to an 18-hole Robert Trent Jones Sr. golf course, one of the state’s oldest, best, and most photographed. Throughout the resort, a 1,600-piece collection of Pacific and Asian art is on display.
The Kohala Coast ends where the serrated Kona (“leeward side”) Coast begins. Its oceanfront town of Kailua-Kona has generally been known for superb snorkeling beaches (such as Kahaluu) and especially for big-game fishing – its Pacific blue marlin, called “granders” here, can weigh up to 1,000 pounds. Less-than-extravagant accommodations are the norm, with the prime exception being the exquisite
Four Seasons Resort Hualalai, a spare, breezy, plantation-chic oasis with low-rise bungalows and secluded swimming areas. Open only to resort guests, the 18-hole Jack Nicklaus-designed Hualalai Golf Course lies atop an 1801 lava flow produced by its now extinct namesake volcano.
For a traditional luau, head to the tiki-torch-lit Kona Village, whose Friday-night lagoon-side luau is the island’s oldest and most authentic, managing to hold onto the spirit of Old Hawaii and escape corniness. The retreat’s clutch of rustic thatched-roofed hales (cottages) are fashioned after the cultures of the Polynesian peoples, from Hawaiians to Fijians and Samoans, and have interior decor to match. Regardless of where you stay on the western coast, watch for summering humpback whales (December to April) and the sunset’s legendary “green flash,” both best seen from the Kona area.
The island’s real show, where Mother Nature pulls out all the stops, is at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, home of Pele, the volcano goddess. Mount Kilauea (meaning “spreading, much spewing”) has been erupting since 1983, adding hundreds of acres to the island in the longest continuous eruption ever recorded. From the rustic Volcano House, the only hotel within the park, you can access the 11-mile summit Crater Rim Drive (which takes you around the Kilauea Caldera) and the Chain of Craters Road, a 28-mile drive from the Visitors Center down 4,000 feet to the coast.
Both lead you past a surreal moonscape of raw power, hissing fumaroles, and both oozing and petrified lava flows. On the snowcapped peak of neighboring Mauna Kea (“White Mountain”), the highest point in all of Hawaii, ten nations have built state-of-the-art telescopes: thanks to unusually clear skies, it is possible from this lofty perch to view 90 percent of the heavens – though the oxygen-starved might prefer an only slightly compromised view from their hotel’s beach hammock.