Here’s an informative article from Hawaii Top Ten on the Big Island. Sea Paradise is a fun way to get out on the ocean and enjoy the west side of the island.
The Big Island consists of five shield volcanos – (Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa, Kilauea, Hualalai, and Kohala) – three still considered active. As the island chain moves over the “hot spot” in the Earth’s mantle that created these volcanos, each successive island grows in height and area, and then slowly sinks and erodes away over hundreds of millions of years to again sink beneath the waves when the life giving volcanic activity ceases. The Big Island is still in the growing phase, and is presently the largest and youngest.
It can be said that each Hawaiian Island has its own unique personality. However, the Big Island is so large, and its mountains so tall, that there are distinct differences between East and West, North and South, and Mauka (mountain) and Makai (coast). In fact, the Big Island contains a record number of 13 climate zones in a relatively small area.
So while it is true that all the other islands can fit within the Big Island two times over, so too do large areas exist that are as distinct as separate islands. Hilo, on the East side, is the wettest city in the U.S.A. And along with a general lack of beaches, it has avoided the onslaught of tourism that most of the rest of Hawaii has experienced. It is the seat of Hawaii County, and has it’s own international airport, yet remains little changed over the last few decades – still sleepy and laid-back, quaint, and with a lot of the character of “Old Hawaii.”
The West (or Kona) side, consists of a hundred mile long westward facing coast with three districts – North and South Kona and the Kohala Coast. With its perfect weather and best beaches on the island the West coast has attracted several very fine resorts, golf courses, and the second and third homes of the wealthy. However, there is so much land and open space it remains uncrowded, friendly, and a uniquely relaxing part of Hawaii for tourists and residents alike. Here is some of the best fishing and diving anywhere, as the ocean and weather is generally benign – being protected by the huge volcanos and the Kohala Mountains. And away from the hotel hot spots, and the main town of Kailua-Kona, there is country living, Kona coffee farms, and enough space to take long scenic drives.
North and South Kona are perhaps steeped in more Hawaiian history than any other areas in all of Hawaii. This is due to the repeated voyages of Captian Cook to Kealakekua Bay, and his killing there – to the Ali’i (Hawaiian Royalty) making this area home – specifically King Kamehameha I. Don’t miss the mystical Pu’uhonua o Honaunau (Place of Refuge) National Historic Park, or Painted Church in South Kona, or the many Heiaus (Ancient Hawaiian Temples), if this interests you.
In North Kona, King Kamehameha’s “home,” the Ahu’ena Heiau, can be seen at a prime location along side the pier in Kailua Bay. Moku’aikaua, the first Christian church, is in Kailua town. And across the street is Hulihe’e Palace, a 19th Century vacation home for the monarchy. Ali’i Drive along the water from Kailua Town is well worth a day of tourist wandering – offering something for everyone.
Upslope Kona is another world. The climate changes drastically in a short distance. The dry hot seashore gives way to a wetter cooler environment. Many locals live up mauka in this pleasant climate requiring no heat and no air conditioning. 10-15 mins upslope is the old Mamalahoa Hwy and the small town of Holualoa that has become a quaint artists’ retreat town. On the slopes of Hualalai volcano the coffee belt continues, and it is a pleasant unique place to get away from it all.
Proceeding north and leaving Kailua town you will pass Honokohau Harbor. This is where you will most likely be taking a boat if you plan to try any of the world class fishing, or diving. If you are a diver, you probably already know about the Manta Ray Night Dive. Now snorkelers can enjoy the spectacle equally – andthis warrants looking into for those so disposed.
The finest beaches begin just outside of Kailua town and extend north, some adjacent to the fabulous resorts, but also isolated and unspoiled. See more under “Big Island Beaches.” If you are looking for plush resorts, and fine golfing, it is here, in South Kohala, where you will find the answer – an easy drive to the airport and almost guaranteed perfect weather.
The coastal road continues and ends quite a way northward as it passed through the pleasant town of Hawi and ends at Polulu. A drive well worth exploring. Weather permitting, you will be rewarded with the fabulous view of the coastline from Polulu. And if you are up for a slightly strenuous hike down to the beach and back up, you will not be disappointed. On your return trip back to were you are staying, there is a mountain road that you may wish to consider, that will take you close to Waimea town.
The area of Waimea and Kamuela is Paniolo (cowboy) country, with ranches and farms in this fertile cooler flatter area of the island. It is the largest town outside of Hilo and Kailua-Kona and you will pass through it if you drive between Hilo and Kona via the Hamakua Coast.
Waipio Valley and Honokaa town marks the northern end/beginning of the Hamakua Coast that stretches all the way to Hilo. It is a lush magnificent coastline with valleys and waterfalls worth exploring – with Akaka Falls probably at the top of the list. This is old sugar cane country, and in not so past days, there would be fully loaded cane trucks crawling along this highway, and getting anywhere quickly was never a priority or possibility. As you near Hilo Town there is a short scenic drive at Onomea Bay, and one of the nicest Botanical Gardens in the Islands.
In Hilo town, there are not a lot of places to stay, but there is plenty of places to eat and purchase anything you might need. There is some history and an immediate recognition of what the several tsunamis must have done to this beautiful bay and flat land surrounding it. Most of it has been relegated and maintained as a very nice park. Rainbow Falls is a short drive up the Wailoa river and worth experiencing.
The Puna district, south of Hilo, has quite a reputation. The word to describe it is indescribable. There is some very affordable land here to to the vastness of the area and slight chance the volcano could reclaim your land. It is unique in that it houses probably every cross section of society you can imagine. It is untamed, with many residents still off the grid. As of this writing (Aug 2014), it was hit fairly hard by tropical storm Issele, and because of the many tall trees, and because no major storm has hit here in modern time, the damage was considerable. But the people here are tough. In fact, this is the only area of Hawaii that King Kamehameha did not conquer. So its unique reputation persists.
Living in the shadow of a volcano allows one to enjoy the beauty of a rugged coast, black sand beaches, tide pools, and hot springs. The town of Pahoa has an old time charm, while the town of Kalapana was covered in lava in 1990. But the people are as rugged as the coastline and you can see some houses already sprouting on top of the new lava, and hundreds of new coco palms laid out to sprout and reforest the coastline.
Driving from Puna West takes you to the main volcano at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, and through the town of Volcano. Kilauea volcano may be the most visited tourist destination in all of Hawaii. And is the most prominent “laboratory” for volcanologists around the world. Don’t miss it and the many activities and sights surrounding it.
Continuing West and around South Point you will pass easily accesible Punalu’u Black Sand Beach, sometimes called the best in the world, and Green Sand Beach as well – but not nearly as accessible. Kalae at South Point is the southernmost land in the U.S. and the entire South Point area is a vast expanse of untouched beauty. It is a treat to drive through such awe inspiring countryside.
This southern route around the island is the longest drive between Hilo and Kona, followed by the Hamakua/Waimea route. The newly redesigned Saddle Road is the fastest now. And what used to be a forbidden route for rental cars, and an adventure all its own, is now a first class safe and interesting drive through the saddle between the the volcanoes of Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa, and Hualalai. This is the road you will take to get to the Mauna Kea Observatory or to the Mauna Loa summit.
There is no way to see it all, so plan your time wisely. And don’t forget to engage in what may be the most rewarding experience in all of Hawaii – just “hanging loose” at the beach, around the pool, or at a luau.