Adventures on the Big Island, Hawaii- my top 5 experiences

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Warning: this post contains nudity… OK, so just references to nudity, but still 😉 Here are my top experiences on the Big Island, Hawaii: volcanoes, green sand beaches, and the most important food groups of coffee, chocolate, and beer

In my previous article I shared my highlights of “the Valley Isle” of Maui, while here I’ll talk through my top picks on the island of Hawaii itself, nicknamed “The Big Island” (hint: it’s the largest island in the Hawaiin chain). The geography geekery is turned up to 11 as I explore the most volcanically active place on Earth, things might get a bit risque as we visit a clothing-optional beach, and yep, there’s more food to lust over…


As a warm up, here’s a short video zipping you through the top 5, plus a cheeky bonus 6th highlight at the end:



On to the highlights:


1. Volcano tourism


A large part of my trip to the Big Island was to fully geek out on volcano “stuff”! It was my dream since childhood to visit a volcano, and Hawaii is literally composed of some of the most impressive: Mauna Loa is the largest in terms of volume and area covered, Mauna Kea is the tallest sea mountain, and Kīlauea is the most active volcano on Earth. While there has been no flowing surface lava since 2018, there was still plenty of evidence that the Earth was ready to blow at any moment, and a chance to visit recent lava flows got me unreasonably excited!


The first stop was at the aptly named, Volcano National Park. A great introductory walk was to check out the nearby Kilauea Crater. The route from the Visitors’ Centre takes you past Steaming Bluff; vents where groundwater hits hot volcanic rocks and turns to steam, and the (stinky) Sulphur Banks, where carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide and hydrogen sulphide gases are released. There are yellow patches of sulphur crystals, and red and brown areas where lava has been turned to clay by the gases- science in action! It was fascinating to see this lively landscape and observe the hardcore vegetation thriving in these extreme conditions.


Sulphur vents!


A short walk later, we were confronted with the epic scale of the Kilauea crater itself, made significantly larger in the latest explosive volcanic event back in May 2018, enlarging the crater from 85m to 487m in depth and from 487m to a stonking 2.4km in width! Our walk ended at Volcano House, an historic hotel on the rim of the volcano, and we sat sipping coffee taking in the incredible view.


Kilauea crater from Volcano House- a great place for coffee with a view!


Our next adventure was my favourite- a hike through the Kīlauea Iki Crater lava lake. This was a stunning walk down 120m through lush rainforest onto and across the solidified crater floor. This entire area had been a swirling lake of molten lava in 1959, and there were wave-like shapes and ripples in the solidified lava! I loved this walk for enabling some time to be within the landscape, feel really connected to it, and fully take in the huge scale.  


Kīlauea Iki Crater lava lake – the pale line from bottom left through the centre is the 5m wide foot path!

Starting off across the crater floor…


We stopped to eat our lunch perched on a crack in the lava and marvelled that there were flowering trees growing in such barren surroundings. I did some research and discovered that these trees are called ʻōhiʻa lehua (ohi’a) and are amongst the first vegetation that can grow on fresh lava flows as they don’t need much soil.


Unlikely vegetation!


These trees also have a significant place in native Hawiian culture. Ohi’a trees are associated with Pele, goddess of fire. The story goes that Pele was in love with a warrior, Ohi’a, who did not return her affections and instead loved another- Lehua. The jealous Pele turned Ohi’a into a tree in a fit of rage, leaving Lehua distraught. The other gods took pity on her and turned her into a flower on the tree so they could be together again. Folklore states that if a Lehua flower is picked it will rain that day, representing the tears of the separated couple- how sweet!


Ohi’a lehua blossoms


These trees are also thought to be the physical manifestation of Laka, the goddess of Hula. Dancers will go into forests to collect Lehua flowers to decorate their lei headbands. Traditionally, after a dance event, they will return the flowers to the forest as a symbolic gesture, but recently things have changed: a disease called “Rapid Ohi’a Death” is killing off many of these trees and it is uncertain how this is transmitted. As a safety precaution, the flowers are now burned and the ashes returned to the forest instead- a great example of an ancient culture adapting to protect their sacred natural environments.


On day two we drove the “Chain of Craters” road, following the lava flows past, you guessed it, craters, right down to the Pacific ocean. Again, the scale of the landscape was incredible! You can see huge dark stripes where the more recent lava flows have travelled down the flanks of the volcano into the ocean, while the older lava flows were starting to recover with vegetation. The end point of the road was incredible sea arches where the lava crystallizes as it cools rapidly and is eroded by the powerful waves- breathtaking!

The vast, lava covered landscape!


Lava reaching the ocean


We finished up the day by driving to the site of the latest lava flow from 2018. The single lane road surrounded by lush rainforest ends abruptly as the lava cuts through on its path. We reached the end of the road at the coast and saw where the lava had destroyed a beach, literally cutting through picnic tables and narrowly missing the showers. Fortunately, there were no deaths in this event, but 24 injuries and estimated $800 million in property damage. We saw lei and other offerings to Pele on the edges of the lava flow, and we added our thoughts and hopes for a speedy recovery of the local communities.


A new road created over the 2018 lava flows


The end of the road!


Positivity at the new beach!


2. Snorkeling with giant manta rays


While a night out for me back in London is usually partying at a Goth club or dance event, nightlife in Hawaii involved slipping on a tight neoprene suit, jumping in the ocean, and swimming with giant manta rays….so only slightly different then!


We signed-up for a night dive with Hawaii Oceanic and couldn’t have been more excited! We motored out a little way from the shore to a popular feeding area. This area was attractive for manta rays due to the large hotel situated on the cliff with spotlights pointed into the ocean. The light has the unintended consequence of attracting plankton, creating an all-you-can-eat buffet for the rays! Our tour adopted a similar clever trick: we all jumped into the ocean and swam to a floating raft with lights pointing downwards and handrails around the side. After a few minutes the light attracted plankton and then the rays came…


A giant manta ray! (photo from our dive by Hawaii Oceanic)


I’ve met some 1m stingrays at an aquarium in Cornwall, so I thought I knew what to expect. I was very wrong: we were suddenly faced with manta rays of at least 6m in width!! They were truly stunning creatures, each with different markings and colouration and startling white undersides. They moved with ease and grace through the water, and a sense of lightness like a gliding bird. 


They had perfected their movements for effective feeding: one would fly through the water up towards us from the depths, then flip into a loop-de-loop movement as it neared the surface, scooping up the plankton with its giant open gills, before diving once more. I was amazed at how close they were to us at times- only a few centimeters!


A manta ray- big and very close! (photo from our dive by Hawaii Oceanic)


We climbed back on to the boat, buzzing from what we’d just experienced. We popped a bottle of champagne to celebrate the occasion when we got back to our AirBnB- definitely my revised idea of a  fantastic night out! 


3. Beaches of many colours


If you like beaches, then you’re going to be spoiled for choice in Hawaii! Not only can you pick between those more suitable for certain activities like surfing, or whether you’re more likely to see dolphins or sea turtles while snorkeling, but you can also pick a color of sand! There are classic golden sand beaches on the coast north of Kona (handily where the weather is usually the warmest), but we were interested in the more unusual ones: a clothing-optional black sand beach and a remote green sand beach.


Hawaii being a volcanic island, it’s not surprising that there are black sand beaches, but this clothing-optional black sand beach on the south east coast was a little gem.  We enjoyed it for it’s “local” and “authentic” feel- we’d visited another, much larger naturist spot on Maui and found it to be a little tourist-heavy, but this one was populated by locals and I felt more comfortable surrounded by like-minded people. I loved spending time paddling in the cool water and sitting in the sand allowing the waves to gently flow over me. Everyone was doing their own thing, some were exercising and swimming, others were snoozing, and lots were having fun in the waves, it was great! 


For those who want something even more unusual, my next hilight is the green sand Papakōlea Beach. This is one of only four in the word, the other three located in Guam, the Galapagos Islands, and… Norway.  The beach is very remote and is reached after a 2 hour hike through a striking bright orange landscape, which contrasted beautifully with the fresh green grasses and blue skies.


Orange soil on the way to the green sand beach


It was certainly worth the effort as we had our glimpse of the beach: it is a semicircular area surrounded by what looks like a crashed spaceship right out of the Alien movies! The green sand is olivine, a silicate heavy in iron and magnesium. This has been eroded from the “tuff ring” surrounding the beach, a crater formed from an explosive, ash-rich volcanic eruption. The climb down to the beach was through tunnels in the lava, and we could see up-close the rock strata – very cool! 


First sighting of the green sand beach!


The green sand beach inside a volcanic tuff ring


4. Iconic drives: Saddle Road and Hilo to Kona 

The Saddle Road (Route 200 in boring, accurate terms) running across the centre of the island is a famous highway that saddles the backs of two of the largest volcanoes on Earth: Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. What’s so special about this route is that the extreme elevation changes take you through four different climate and vegetation zones in just a 1 hour and 40 minute journey (more Geography points here!). 


Saddle Road- cinder cones on the flanks of Mauna Kea


The road rises up through grass steppe and we spotted some of the dozens of bumpy cinder cones, the “pressure release valves” on the flanks of the volcano. Once we reached the high point of the road, the landscape changed completely- lava flows covered as far as we could see on each side of the road, and visibility reduced as we reached the cloud layer and were driving through the rain. Once heading back down the windward side of the volcano, the landscape switched from lava to arid desert, then the vegetation returned and became more and more lush until we were in the rainforest of Hilo. To travel from a desert to rainforest in 45 minutes was quite something!


Top Tip: sort out a banging road trip playlist in advance!

The Second notable and entertaining drive was from Hilo to Kona. There are many beaches to stop off at along the way, plus quite a few notable sites, including the Punalu’u Bake Shop, most southerly bakery in the United States, famous for different flavoured sweetbreads (like a brioche). We picked up some doughnuts flavoured with mango, guava, and taro root, and happily snacked on these along the way. For dietary balance, we also stopped at a fruit stall by the side of the road and ate fresh coconut, passion fruit, and a guava, and admired a ruined church which looked like something out of a post-apocalypse movie!


Church on the highway


We also stopped off at a thrift shop (of course we did!), called Mission Thrift and Vintage. I picked up a gorgeous pink and navy traditional Hawaiian dress with frilly shoulders to bring back some island vibes to London. We also ate at the highly recommended burger place with famous hot sauce made from chillies and added Kona coffee-  amazing! More food coming up next…


5. Food!

After being thoroughly spoiled with awesome food in Maui, the journey exploring local produce and specialities continued on the Big Island. My top picks were:


Kona Coffee: There are many coffee plantations on the Big Island, growing relatively small batches- we tasked ourselves with trying as many kinds as possible!  Kona coffee is characterised as mild and smooth, quite different to a powerful French roast or an Earthy Turkish style coffee.  100% Kona coffee can be quite pricey, but it is worth a treat!


As I write this, I’m sipping a rather special decaf Kona coffee flavoured with local macadamia nuts and vanilla from Kona Coffe Cafe. It is exceptional! The auroma is fantastically rich, while the Kona coffee taste is mild enough that milk is definitely optional… The company ships, so I’ll be placing an order when I run low!


Kona coffee selection


Kona Brewing Co. We visited the Kona Brewing Co brewery on the one rainy day of the trip, and it was definitely worth taking a break from the beach! The brewery has a pub and restaurant onsite (serving very tempting pizzas!), and a varied beer tasting menu so you can sample some of the more rare varieties. I enjoyed a rich, coconut infused pint… so delicious! I adore the gorgeous vintage-style packaging! You don’t need to go to Hawaii for this as, much to my surprise and delight, they actually stock it in M&S!


Kona Brewing Co beer in their lovely packaging!


Donkey Balls 

This one requires some explanation: this is a store and chocolate factory in Kainaliu, who’s staple product is chocolate covered macadamia nuts. Imagine any double entendre you can think of involving balls, and they’ve used it in their awesome packaging! Examples include: “Salty Balls”, chocolate covered macadamia nuts rolled in sea salt, “Flaky Balls” rolled in coconut flakes, and even “Monkey Balls” coated in banana infused chocolate. The product is amusing yes, but absolutely not a joke- the chocolate is super thick and delicious and the nuts are locally grown and fantastic in flavour. Well worth a try!


Donkey Balls!

This was definitely a spendy holiday that required saving up for, but I would completely recommend the investment if it’s something you’ve been thinking about-  it’s truly a magical place with incredible natural beauty and I can guarantee you won’t be bored. I can also confirm that black sand (like every other type of sand) does indeed, get everywhere 😉


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