Roadtripping On Hawai'i's Big Island
The Island of Hawaii is more commonly referred to as "The Big Island" to avoid confusion with the entire state of Hawaii. The Big Island is Hawaii’s southernmost, easternmost and largest island... nearly twice the size of the other principal islands put together. Although less visited that Oahu and Maui, the Big Island has a very robust tourism industry. The two major tourism centers are Kona on the west and Hilo on the east. The island has two massive mountains, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, both with summits over 13,000 feet above sea level. These mountains, both volcanoes, are not jagged peaks like the Rockies, but massive, gently sloping mountains, both frequently capped with snow. Measured from its base on the ocean floor, Mauna Kea 33.476 feet to its peak. Using this measure, Mauna Kea would be the world’s tallest mountain.
The dry side of the island, the western Kona Coast, is home to several beautiful resorts. Frequently voted the best beach in the US, Hapuna Beach features extremely soft white sand, great swimming and boogie boarding, easy access and outstanding scenery.
For snorkeling, one of the best spots is Kahalu’u Bay, just south of Kona. It’s very rocky, but it is protected by a rock jetty which keeps the water from being churned and becoming cloudy. Snorkeling at Kahalu’u Bay is like swimming in an aquarium. Large and small colorful tropical fish are everywhere in the crystal clear water. We saw at least 10 or 15 sea turtles. They don’t seem to mind sharing the water with snorkelers. I had the privilege of swimming right next to one of the 100 pound beasts for several feet.
The eastern Hamakua Coast is on the Big Island’s rainy side. Although rains just about every day, the showers are typically of the fleeting 15-minute variety, quickly yielding to sunshine and often times, rainbows. Several Botanical Gardens and scenic drives treat the visitor to some outstanding rainforest scenery.
Dramatic waterfalls are plentiful on the east coast, but one not to miss is Akaka Falls (pictured left), about 30 minutes north of Hilo. At 442 feet, the island’s second-tallest waterfall is easily accessible by highway and is reached by a short hike on a paved trail through dense rainforest.
The Big Island’s largest city, Hilo (population 41,000) is situated on a beautiful bay on the eastern coast. Hilo is home to Rainbow Falls, the Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Corporation, and the beautiful Queen Liliuokalani Gardens, featuring a reflecting pond, exotic flowers and trees and Japanese sculpture and architecture. Hilo also fell victim to two major tsunamis in the 20th Century. Hilo’s Pacific Tsunami Museum commemorates these disasters and educates the public about these killer waves.
For the automobile adventurer, the southern tip of the Big Island is the southernmost point in the United States. Ka Lae, or South Point, can be accessed by a grueling 30-mile side trip down a poorly-maintained pothole-ridden road that has long sections of one-lane traffic. Some car rental companies still prohibit traveling on this road. South Point visitors are treated to beautiful cliffs overlooking the ocean. Because South Point is located at the confluence of two major currents, the water is choppy and inhospitable. Swimming or falling into the water here has frequently been deadly. A three-mile hike from South Point will take you to Puu Mahana, a green sand beach formed of the volcanic mineral olivine.
It CAN be done, but touring the entire island by automobile is difficult to do in just one day. Hawaii Belt Road circles the island and provides easy access to most of the islands attractions, including Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. But the entire loop is 260 miles. Your mileage could easily top 300 miles with just one or two side trips. - Mike Bechtol 2008