Chris and I are restless travelers. For us, exploring is more relaxing than sitting poolside with a mai tai. We’d rather be on a road trip than trapped in a resort. And if there’s a crowd, we can usually be seen walking in the opposite direction – unless it means we’ve found a really good farmers market.
So this is why we choose the island of Hawaii, also known as the Big Island, when we crave a tropical sun break.
What is the Big Island?
Before I explain why we love the Big Island, I should clear up any confusion. People often think that the term “the Big Island” refers to the island of Oahu, presumably because Oahu is home to the state’s biggest city, Honolulu, with its touristy Waikiki strip. But the term “the Big Island” is actually a nickname for a different island: The island of Hawaii.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that the island of Hawaii and the state of Hawaii share the same name.
The island of Hawaii really lives up to its “Big Island” nickname. Its land mass is larger than all the other Hawaiian islands combined. The terrain is diverse and includes arid lava fields, snow-capped mountains, tropical rain forests, high-country ranch lands, lush plantations, and Volcanoes National Park.
You may have heard that the Big Island isn’t for everyone, and that is true. Some folks cite its shortage of white sand beaches as the reason to visit Maui or Oahu instead. There are long drive times between sites (for example, the drive between the city of Kailua-Kona and Volcanoes National Park takes two to three hours).
And the Big Island’s acres and acres of lava fields can seem barren and unwelcoming.
But we’ve learned to love the lava fields because hiking them can lead to some beautiful and secluded black sand beaches, snorkeling coves, or other natural treasures.
Since we just returned from another trip to the Big Island, I thought I would share the top five things that we look for when we visit.
1 Historic Sites
On the island of Hawaii, learning about native culture rarely includes a visit to a stuffy museum. Heritage sites are fun and fascinating. One of my favorites is a National Historic Park called Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau – or the Place of Refuge. I won’t give away why it’s called that, but it’s a gorgeous and peaceful place to visit.
2 The Green Flash
On the west side of the island, the sun sets over the water. Sunsets are legendary here, so much so that in Kona it’s not uncommon for restaurant patrons to applaud after seeing a particularly spectacular one.
Ever since our first visit to the Big Island, we’d heard about a phenomenon called the green flash. Apparently, when atmospheric conditions are just right, the sun gives off a quick green flash just before it disappears into the horizon.
But try as we might, we’d never seen the green flash for ourselves. Never, that is, until our most recent visit. So now I can say with confidence that the green flash is not a legend. It is real!
Looking for the green flash is only half the fun. Whether on a beach, a seawall, the deck of a condo, or a fun outdoor restaurant, sunsets are a wonder to take in.
3 Coffee Farms
The Big Island is the land of the coffee bean. Over 650 coffee farms, large and small, occupy the hillsides above Kona. Many of them welcome the public, and we try to find a new one every time we visit the island.
In addition to coffee plants, fruit trees and flowering shrubs keep things interesting.
Yes we love coffee. But most farms, by virtue of the where they are situated, also have sweeping views down the hillsides to the ocean. They are lovely, relaxing places to visit – and to sample coffee.
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Whether a beautiful deserted road, a beach where turtles stop to sun themselves, or a deserted cove with good snorkeling, it is possible to find peace and solitude on the Big island.
Some places are easier to get to than others. We find ourselves hiking over lava fields much of the time. But how do we even know about these out-of-the-way treasures?
On our first visit, we discovered the book Hawaii The Big Island Revealed by Andrew Doughty (make sure to find the most recent edition).
To us, “the book,” as we call it now, is like having a local tell us, in hushed whispers, where we can find the island’s hidden treasures. And more than that – entertaining us with backstories, history, and amusing anecdotes.
In pursuit of out-of-the-way gems, the book sometimes suggests hikes on (to put it mildly) uneven terrain, and it sometimes suggests activities, such as kayaking, that are dependent upon ocean conditions being safe enough. So we are careful and make sure not to bite off more than we can chew.
(By the way, Andrew Doughty has written similar guide books for the islands of Oahu, Maui, and Kauai.)
5 Farmers Markets
I always look forward to visiting the farmers markets. We like to be adventurous and buy fruits we haven’t tried before – even the ones that look prickly and menacing. Vendors are usually good about describing a fruit’s taste (sometimes samples are available) and advising us on the best way to enjoy it.
Farmers markets are also great places to get locally made art and gifts. There are several nice farmers markets, but my personal favorite is the one in Hilo. Wednesdays and Saturdays are the best days to visit.
And this time we discovered the Pure Kona Green Market, which takes place on Sundays in Captain Cook and features many local artists and live entertainment.
Til Next Time
Missile scares notwithstanding, we had a lot of fun on our recent visit to the Big Island. We’ve since left the land of sunshine and pineapples behind and returned to our home of rain and pinecones. And while there is a certain charm to the pinecones, we’re always looking forward to our next escape to the Big Island.
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What I read on the plane:
Prarie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser. I may have been headed to and from Hawaii, but I was completely immersed in the frozen prairies of the Dakotas in the 1800s. Using the writings of Laura Ingalls Wilder and others, Caroline Fraser fleshes out the harsh reality behind the softened stories told by Laura Ingalls Wilder in her Little House books.
I read about half of the book during our plane rides. Because of the hardships that the Ingalls family (and all farmers in the Dakotas at that time) had to endure, Prairie Fires was not always an easy read for me. But I marvel at the strength and endurance of these early settlers. Let’s just say I won’t be so quick to grumble the next time there is too much foam in my latte or my laptop is a little slow.
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