Hawaii, the 50th state of the Union and once known as the Sandwich Islands, is an archipelago comprised of eight major islands, each island has a distinct vibe.
The Big Island of Hawaii is unique because Mauna Kea (more about Mauna Kea below) divides the island into three distinctly different environments – the Kona side, the Hilo side, and Mauna Kea.
Hawaii: The Kona Side
The Kona side of the island is warm and dry with temperatures in the mid-80s year-round and annual rainfall averaging 18”. There are many beaches suitable for sunbathing, snorkeling, and golfing.
Kona is popular with both locals and tourists. On this side of the island, you will find the majority of resorts – casual and high end as well as many AirBNBs, long term rentals, and golfing communities (my inlaws are particularly fond of Waikoloa Village). Many of the resorts on the Kona side host cultural events such as luaus and non-denominational church services on the beach.
Kona has a “main street” that follows the beach and is lined with shops, art galleries, restaurants, and last-minute tour booking locations (plan and pre-book tours here). There are many tours that do a splendid job showcasing the beauty and diversity of Hawaii. A couple of my favorites are moonlight snorkeling with Manta Rays, Kealakekua Bay snorkel with BBQ lunch cruise, and the Atlantis Kona Submarine.
Hawaii: The Hilo Side
The Hilo side is much cooler with average summer temperatures ranging in the mid-60s and is substantially higher rainfall amounts averaging over 250” a year. The Hilo side is known for towering prehistoric fern forests, Volcano National Park, and one of the largest farmers’ markets on the island.
If hiking through a lava field is on your bucket list, here is a word of caution – BE PREPARED! The Kalapana Lava Field is one of the best hiking locations. You can hire a guide or go on your own. Wear a backpack with several bottles of water for each person, lunch, good sturdy shoes with thick soles (you will be walking over very sharp lava rocks with steam vents of molten lava beneath), and pack a bright flashlight with a wide beam (this is a must). Consider the hike an all-day event as it is several miles long round trip.
The hike is best started in the morning and finishing after dark to view any underground lava flows. Being semi-near slow-moving lava is mesmerizing like staring into a campfire. You can feel the heat from several feet away and hear snaps, pops, and crackles from the cold lava as it comes in contact with the molten lava as it slowly bubbles up from the ground like molasses.
The Hilo side is also home to Hawaii’s only winery on all of the islands. Volcano Winery creates its fruit-forward wine from guava combined with grapes as well as a tea-infused sweet wine. The wine has a very unique and distinct flavor that I have not found in other wines. If you are a wine-lover then this winery should definitely be on your list to not miss.
Mauna Kea divides the two sides and offers frigid high-altitude temperatures with spectacular stargazing at the Mauna Kea observatory. I have been to several observatories and they all offer wonderful views of celestial worlds that can start a person to wonder if there really is “other life” out there.
The night view from the Mauna Kea Observatory is nothing less than absolutely stunning. The stars looked so close I truly felt that I could reach out and pluck one from the inky-black sky. Most tropical destinations all have sand and ocean to offer visitors, but none can also offer an observatory.
Stargazing is not open to the public every night, so be sure to check their website for availability. You can drive to the observatory or book a tour. A word of caution about the altitude, the observatory is located at over 13,000 feet above sea level, so if you have physical issues with high altitude you will want to take this into consideration. Also, people have been known to burn their breaks on the trip down. Drive with caution.
Whichever part of the island you choose to visit or if you decide to split your time between the two sides, you will not be at a loss of things to do. Sit on the beach and read a book or schedule a tour or two, just keep in mind that Hawaii has its own time – island time. The pace is slow, relaxed, and comfortable encouraging you to sit a spell with a cold drink while you watch the waves lap at the shore. When it is time to get on the plane and go home, it is never goodbye. It is A HUI HOU (ah-hoo-wee-ho-oo-uu) – until we meet again.