Where in the World: Hawaii’s Awe-Inspiring Big Island

Article and Photos by Noreen Kompanik

Eleven of 13 climate zones are found here, making this one of the most unusual islands in the world. One of our planet’s most active volcanoes is located here. Amd of measured from the ocean bottom, it claims the tallest sea mountain in the world-4000 feet taller than the Mt. Everest. Because of the island’s proximity to the equator, sunset times here vary by no more than an hour and a half every year. Its postcard-worthy sandy beaches come in multitude of colors, including green and black.

Each year, the island plays host to the Ironman Triathlon. And last but not least, famous British explorer Captain James Cook died here during a struggle with the native population. Close your eyes make a guess and turn the page to see if you were right.

So, Where in the World are we?

When travelers speak of Hawaii, the conversation often leads to the smaller Hawaiian isles with their natural beauty and tourist appeal. But, it’s Hawaii’s Big Island that’s the not-to-be-missed treasure of this tropical island chain. Nearly twice as big as all the other Hawaiian Islands combined, Hawaii’s awe-inspiring Big Island is the youngest and largest of the Hawaiian archipelago. Hence it’s nickname, the “Big Island.”

No place else in the world has the rich variety of terrain or climate of the Big Island. Eleven out of 13 climate zones are found here, making Hawaii one of the most unusual islands on the planet.

Visitors can leave the sunshine and 84 degree temps of an arid volcanic landscape, drive through the rain and fog of verdant green pastures through a lush tropical forest and, back up onto snow-covered volcanic summits—all in the same day.

From its pristine rain forests, lava deserts, spewing volcano, picturesque beaches and spectacular sunsets, these not-to-be-missed sights make Hawaii one of the best vacation destinations ever.

Majestic Waterfalls
With over 130 inches of rainfall per year on the coast and over 200 inches in the mountains, Hawaii’s Hilo side produces some of the most abundant waterfalls in Hawaii.

One of the Big Island’s most recognizable waterfalls can be viewed during a short half-mile hike through Akaka State Falls Park following a gently-sloped circular path weaving through a lush tropical fern covered rainforest. Often referred to as the “Crown Jewel” of Hawaii’s waterfalls; this impressive tall and narrow 420-foot flume thunders down to a massive gorge into Kolekole Stream, before it continues its journey to the Pacific Ocean. On a rainy day when the

falls are running heavily, a towering Niagara-like mist rises hundreds of feet high into the air. Unlike other waterfalls that cascade from hundreds of feet above, Umauma Falls is a spectacular and picturesque series of three smaller cataracts that are still impressive.

In native Hawaiian, Umauma means “constantly flowing” and that’s precisely the case with these waterfalls even during the driest periods in the island’s weather patterns.

The environs of Hilo are among the Big Island’s  wettest areas, and home to several stunning falls all within a short drive of one another. Wailuku, the state’s longest river, fills a divide created by lava stemming from two volcanoes.

Known as the land of rainbows, Hilo holds the magical combination of rain and sunlight.

Its Rainbow Falls is fed from waters flowing down the slopes of Mauna Kea, that makes their way to the sea. The falls draws its inspiring name from rainbows formed in the mist as the water plunges 80 feet into a large pool of water.

Parts of the rushing Wailuku River above the cascade can be viewed at nearby Boiling Pots. The massive bowl-shaped indentations in the riverbed churn and boil as the roiling waters tumble downstream. Boiling Pots are especially impressive when heavy rains increase the flow from five-spouted Pe’epe’e Falls, just a short uphill climb away.

Stunning Sunsets
Sunsets in the Hawaiian Islands are some of the most spectacular we’ve ever seen around the world, and the Big Island’s are among the very best.

The breathtaking settings of the sun are visible from just about everywhere on the western Kona coast. As the sun dips into low-lying clouds and then disappears into the horizon, the sky becomes ablaze with vivid splashes of color. It’s as if Mother Nature had Picasso paint the sky.

Because of Hawaii’s proximity to the equator, the time of the sunset doesn’t vary much from season to season, only about an hour and a half across the entire year.

But guaranteed when we’re planning our vacation, we check out the times of sunset, and then make certain we are in the right place at the right time.

Colorful Sand Beaches
Aside from its picture-perfect postcard white sand, palm-fringed beaches, Hawaii has some incredible surprises in store for visitors. And they come in shades from tarry black to olive green.

Punalu’u Black Sand Beach located just south of Volcanoes National Park, is one of the world’s most popular black sand beaches and, a perfect place to see the Honu, Hawaii’s sacred green sea turtles. It’s also the most accessible black sand beach on the island.

The sand here is made up of small course pitchblack fragments of lava. Though swimming isn’t recommended due to strong ocean currents and a freshwater springs that makes the water rather cool, it’s a beautiful place to relax under the coconut palms and watch the sea turtles sunning lazily on the beach. Papakolea, better known as Green Sand Beach, is one of four of these type colored beaches on the planet.

Its unique rich hue is derived from large deposits of the  semi-precious gem Olivine from an eroded cinder cone crushed by the ocean surf.

Located near South Point, the southernmost point on the island (and in the United States), access to this secluded majestic beach is by a 4-mile round-trip hike through lava fields. It’s not an easy trek but, it’s more than worth it to go early in the morning to see this unique stretch of crystallized sand.

Waves here are usually at full-strength; the azure waters can be very turbulent so swimming is not recommended. But a picnic lunch on the beach against a backdrop of breathtaking sea cliffs was unforgettable.

Volcanoes and Lava Tubes
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is home to Kilauea, one of the Big Island’s five volcanoes, and one of the most active in the world.

After we stopped at the Visitor Center for maps and a quick orientation, we headed to the Steam Vents. For miles and miles, white plumes of smoke rising into the atmosphere cover the air—the result of rain seeping down to hot volcanic rocks and then returning to the surface as steam.

A trail leads to an enormous caldera with incredible views of Steaming Bluff at Kilauea Overlook, the highest point on the caldera’s edge. If not for the volcanic activity, the crater appears much like a barren lunar landscape.

At night, there’s nothing more exciting than red flares shooting from a volcano spewing 2000-degree molten lava into a pitch-black night sky–a surreal spectacular light show. “Oohs” and “aahs” can be heard from every spectator. A Hawaii National Park ranger aptly remarked “Our Hawaii is paradise born of fire.”

Another must-do stop in the national park is taking a trail through a lush rain forest to Thurston Lava Tube. Gigantic ferns along the route seemed right out of a Jurassic Park film.

Lava tubes are one of nature’s more unusual creations. Like veins leading from the central heart of the volcano, lava tubes direct molten rock toward the ocean. As lava flows, the outer crust hardens while the inner lava continues to move. Once the flow stops, the hollow tunnel formation remains.

The tube is well lit and the hike is an easy one though having shoes with a good grip came in very handy.

Kona Coffee
Just the mention of Kona coffee and most coffee aficionados know that java from Hawaii’s Big Island is premium—and for a darn good reason. One of the most expensive coffees in the world, its fine reputation is well-earned.

Big Island’s rich soil, climate and elevation make it ideal for planting and harvesting coffee. Hawaii’s

southwestern volcanic slopes with clouds sweeping in during the afternoons and ocean breezes tempering the sun make for the perfect growing environment.

Today, hundreds of coffee farms dot the island. One of our favorites is the Ka’u Coffee Mill on the south side of the island from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. It was here where we toured the picturesque groves and processing facility and learned about the coffee production process.

Here, hand-picked coffee beans are pulped, dried, hulled then processed, roasted and packaged on site. It was surprising to learn that it takes seven pounds of coffee cherries to produce one sellable pound of coffee beans.

When a bean fails to divide in half, a natural mutation of the coffee bean inside its cherry is known as a Peaberry—a highly prized coffee bean often called the champagne of Kona Coffee. This rare mutation happens in only 5% of the coffees; hence these beans carry a higher price tag.

Peaberry beans are cherished for their smooth full flavor and low acid content. These and other award winning coffees Ka’u Coffees can be sampled in their gift store.

Colorful hand-painted murals adorn the walls of the gift store beautifully illustrating Big Island’s fascinating coffee plantation history.

Dining with a View
There’s nothing like having dinner outdoors with tables overlooking the beautiful Pacific Ocean. Brown’s Beach House has always been one of our favorites. With its beach side lagoon location, impeccable service, and creative top-notch sustainable cuisine, dining here at sunset is like experiencing a slice of heaven. And yes, our sunset was awesome. We love the laid-back feel, toes-in-the-sand atmosphere of Lava Lava Beach Club.

Pupus, or Pu pu platters here (Hawaiian appetizers) are popular and delightful. Live Hawaiian ballads

accompany hula dancers on the beach and entertain happy, relaxed restaurant patrons. And, it isn’t Hawaii without a Mai Tai to celebrate another magnificent sunset with balmy breezes blowing through our hair.

Famous Hawaiian singer Don Ho once said “I believe Hawaii is the most precious jewel in the world.”

For us, it’s a magical slice of paradise that beckons us to return again and again.

Of note: On VRBO, Big Island, Hawaii has over 300 vacation rentals listed.


Noreen L. Kompanik is a Registered Nurse and published freelance travel writer and  photographer based in San Diego, California. Traveling with her husband, children and grandchildren is her absolute favorite pastime. Her articles include inspirational writing, sustainable, healthy living, family travel, history, wine and food. She is a member of the International Travel Writers and Photographer’s Association and International Food and Wine Travel Writers Association. She maintains a Facebook page What’s In Your Suitcase? where readers can find her published articles.




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