“Watch your head,” Jericho says, as our kayak enters the tunnel. We duck as we float into a 1000-foot-long tube dripping with spring water. It’s dark, but we have plenty of headroom.
My husband, Benjamin, and I are deep in the hills of North Kohala on the Island of Hawaii, drifting down the hand-dug Kohala ditch system built more than a century ago. Jericho is a guide with Flumin’ Kohala, an adventure outfitter in the town of Hāwī. Their guides are locals, and Jericho knows the region well. As we float through lush green hills, across flumes, and through tunnels, he tells us about King Kamehameha, who was born near here, and about life on the Big Island.
Big Island or Island of Hawaii?
The island’s name is Hawaii, but it’s called the “Island of Hawaii,” “Hawaii Island,” “Hawaii’s Big Island” and its nickname, the Big Island.
No matter what you call it, this isle offers a diverse experience for travelers. Twice as large as the other Hawaiian Islands combined, it takes eight hours to drive around. The youngest in the island chain, the Big Island’s volcanic roots are easily seen in vast lava flows.
The runway at Kona International Airport is built on an 1801 lava flow. Landing on a sea of volcanic rock can be a shock. But visitors needn’t fear; Hawaii’s colorful flowers, coconut trees, and beaches are just a few minutes’ drive away.
The island’s five volcanoes—Kilauea, Mauna Loa, Mauna Kea, Hualalai, and Kohala—create many different climate zones on the island, from wet tropical to hot desert to polar tundra. If you don’t like the weather, drive a little way and it will change.
The biggest draw to vacationing on the Big Island is the variety of experiences it offers—and we plan to explore as much of it as we can. Like many visitors, we choose to stay in Kailua-Kona, a busy seaside town 15 minutes south of the airport. Once a sleepy fishing village, it’s home to resorts, shopping, dining, and nice beaches.
Others stay in Waikoloa Village, a newer resort area with top hotels, fine dining, upscale shopping, and golfing on the northwest coast of Hawaii, about 25 minutes from Kailua-Kona.
Though both regions have a lot to offer, we want to see more of the island. We throw beach towels, water bottles, and some beach chairs into our rental car and hit the road.
Evening at Kahua Ranch
Not far from North Kahala is Kahua Ranch, a working cattle ranch that welcomes visitors to a sunset dinner every Wednesday night.
The Big Island’s ranching roots run deep. George Vancouver, an explorer who traveled with James Cook, gifted King Kamehameha with five longhorn cattle in 1793. When the king’s herd grew large, he invited paniolos (Mexican cowboys) to the island to manage them. Today, Hawaiian cowboys are still called paniolos, and ranching plays an important role.
Perched high on Kohala Mountain, Kahua Ranch covers 8,500 acres in six different precipitation zones. Their “Evening at Kahua Ranch Sunset Dinner” served every Wednesday includes a steak and chicken dinner, live music, line dancing, s’mores, and even a local astronomer, who shares his telescope with guests. Local Sue Foat hosts the dinner and makes every guest feel like an invited friend.
Kahua Ranch provides bus transportation to the event for those want it. The cost for adults is $115, children 6–12 half price, under 5 free of charge. Cost including transportation is $139 per adult.
Spa Without Walls
The next day, we sample a different side of Hawaiian culture—a traditional Lomi Lomi massage at one of the island’s top spas. Hawaiian spas often use outdoor settings—and the Spa Without Walls at the Fairmont Orchid on the Kohala Coast is a perfect example. Spa services are provided in cabanas beside a waterfall or the ocean.
I choose the Awa Earth Fire treatment, a Hawaiian detoxifying treatment that begins with Lomi Lomi massage, an ancient Hawaiian healing practice that uses long, flowing strokes. The soothing treatment had me so relaxed that I almost fell asleep, but we had one more memorable experience on tap—a sunset dinner on the beach at Brown’s Beach House. This upscale restaurant at the Fairmont Orchid is known for its fresh seafood, locally grown produce, and inspired cuisine. The romantic setting gets even better as the sun begins to sink below the horizon, painting wide swathes of orange across the sky.
Punaluu Black Sand Beach
Later in the week, we head south to Punaluu Black Sand Beach. The island has white, black, salt and pepper, and even green sand beaches. Punaluu is one of the most beautiful. Its black sand bay is ringed by tall coconut trees. We’re delighted to see four large Hawaiian green sea turtles resting on the shore, and spend the afternoon relaxing at the beach.
Puuhonua o Honaunau
Next, it’s on to Pu’uhonua o Honaunau, also called the Place of Refuge. Pu’uhonua o Honaunau holds an important place in Hawaiian history and culture. This 180-acre national historic park was once the royal grounds and place of refuge for ancient Hawaiian lawbreakers.
If someone broke sacred laws, their only chance at redemption was to make it to the place of refuge. The site possessed the mana (spiritual power) of the 23 al’i (chiefs) whose bones were protected in the Hale o Keawe temple. Today, the area remains an important part of Hawaiian cultural life.
Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park
The Island of Hawaii is home to one of the world’s most active volcanoes, and Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park is a huge draw. It’s been just over a year since the historic Kilauea eruption. In April 2018, the floor of the Pu‘u ‘O‘o vent collapsed, followed by earthquakes. The molten lava that was in the summit lava lake drained and disappeared, then reappeared heading toward the sea and several neighborhoods below. More than 700 homes were lost, and the park was closed for 134 days.
Happily, Kilauea is quiet once again and most of the park reopened in September 2018. Visitors have returned, eager to see how the landscape has been changed. The Kilauea caldera quadrupled in size and is now more than one square mile. Currently, there is no molten lava on the surface in the park.
One of the most popular hikes in the park is the four-mile Kilauea Iki Trail, which starts in the rain forest and descends 400 feet to the crater floor. We only have time for a short hike along Crater Rim Trail. It’s fascinating to hike the boardwalk trails along the steam vents, their pungent hot steam seeping from the earth below.
More to See
We’ve spent a week on the Island of Hawaii and there is still so much to see. Like many vacations, though, this one is over too quickly. So, we pull out a calendar and start planning our return.
Janna Graber has covered travel in more than 45 countries. She is the editor of three travel anthologies, including “A Pink Suitcase: 22 Tales of Women’s Travel,” and is the managing editor of Go World Travel Magazine.