Adventure and Education on Hawaii’s Big Island

October 4, 2012 by

Action, Adventure & Adrenaline, North America, Things to Do, Travel Advice & Inspiration

For many holiday makers, Hawaii has become the de facto tropical getaway destination, and it’s easy to spend weeks on end doing little more than rolling over every twenty minutes to slow-roast a great tan, much to the chagrin of friends back home.

Relaxation and aloha spirit hospitality remain one of the main draws of Hawaiian tourism, but there’s so much more to this tiny island chain than an escapist agenda. For those looking for a more rounded and educational experience of Hawaii’s Big Island (or perhaps you’ve got a few kids in tow), consider these handful of learning activities that will keep you (and your kids) on your cerebral toes.


Kilauea Caldera

Kilauea Caldera

In terms of brand-new acreage (over 600 and counting since 1983), Hawaii is the fastest-growing state in the US—and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has regular tours to the edge of the ever-smoky Kilauea Caldera, the fourth-youngest of five shield volcanoes that helped form the Big Island over the years. One can feasibly drive through the park—and cover it—in a single day, but a more rewarding experience comes from being guided around the park by a volcano enthusiast who can not only tell you about pahoehoe flows, magma, and plate tectonics, but can also show you real examples.

There are over 150 miles of maintained trails within the park itself, and many of them skirt the edge of a vent or fissure, indicated by columns of steam rising from the ground. The terrain feels entirely martian, and there’s an added element of suspense in knowing that massive levels of seismic activity are happening directly under your feet. Later, take a jaunt through a lava tube (don’t worry, it’s been cool for a long time), or stand on the black cliffs that drop sharply into ocean whitewater—and realize that the ground you’re standing on is brand-new: this stuff has only been around for a few decades.


Hawaii zipline

Hawaii zipline. Photo credit: Brian Omura via Flickr.

Because of its unique position, the Hawaii Island (as is the official name of what’s commonly called “the Big Island”) is in the direct path of the trade winds, and as a result sees a huge contrast in the amount of precipitation that falls on the east side versus the west, and also—at least partly—explains how the Hawaiian hoary bat (the only endemic mammal on the island, other than the Hawaiian monk seal) arrived here in the first place.

There’s much to learn about Hawaiian flora and fauna, but before it starts to sound too much like your high school science class, strap into a five-point harness and add some velocity—and altitude—to your lesson with a zipline adventure through the Kohala Canopy treetops. Sure, you’ll get your heart pounding as you buzz by a waterfall, but in between ‘zips you’ll take a series of leisurely, contemplative hikes through the forest, and listen to rolling commentary from your guides about the fragility of Hawaiian ecosystems. Pick the right tour, and your guides just might lead you through a macadamia nut orchard, and you can fill your pockets before crossing the next ravine.

Sea life & biology

Snorkeling in Hawaii

Snorkeling in Hawaii. Photo credit: Fuzzy Gerdes via Flickr.

According to the Hawaii Biological Survey, there are over 1,100 species of fish in Hawaii—and 149 of them are endemic, which means they’re found nowhere else in the world. Snorkelers and divers have their work cut out: they need only to keep their eyes open to bear witness to some of the most colorful displays below the waterline: flame wrasse ignite surrounding coral with bursts of wriggling orange and red, and a flurry of yellow butterflyfish leave little room for doubt as to why the ancient Hawaiians regarded them as sacred.

For those looking to add a little extra thrill, consider taking a nighttime dive with the enormous manta ray. These majestic and mysterious creatures captivate their audiences under floodlight, swooping gracefully around divers as they gorge themselves on a midnight snack. On an island full of intrigue, this one tops the list as the premiere surreal adventure.


Mauna Kea Observatory

Mauna Kea Observatory at sunset

Boasting over 320 cloudless nights per year, Mauna Kea sits just shy of 14,000 feet above sea level and is the ultimate astronomical observation post in the world—collectively, the observatories here can harness more light than the Hubble Space Telescope itself. (Nearby Hilo uses special street lamps to minimize light pollution near the summit.) All of these factors work together to bring one of the most spectacular vistas of the Milky Way on the planet, and its white band bisects the sky and can be seen from one horizon to the other.

Companies on either side of the Big Island offer sunset/nighttime tours of the Mauna Kea summit via shuttle, but if you’re looking for something a little different, take a pre-sunrise tour: the morning light plays beautifully off of the eastern slope of neighboring Mauna Loa, and the crowds will be non-existent. On a clear day, Haleakala on Maui will be visible to the northwest, but let’s be honest: you came to see the stars. (Brace yourself for colder temperatures, though: board shorts and sandals won’t keep you warm atop a ridge line known for high winds and sub-freezing temperatures.)

Language & culture

The ancient Hawaiian language was one of explanation and economy. Specialist Lopaka Kenoi gave an example using the word umbrella; instead of a single term to convey the concept, he rattled off a beautiful string of syllables that sounded more like a benediction. Rough translation? “Thing blocking rain from touching you.”

Just over thirty years ago, the Hawaiian language was on a slippery slope to extinction (there were only 1,500 native speakers at the outset of the 1980s, just after becoming recognized as an official language of the state in 1978) until the emergence and ultimate success of the Aha Punana Leo program (from which Kenoi graduated), which continues today and sees thousands of fluent Hawaiian speakers graduate high school every year.

If you’re visiting Hawaii while on a cruise, take an educational afternoon shore excursion aboard a traditional Polynesian double-hulled canoe through the clear waters around the island as crewmen fascinate guests with accounts of historic Polynesian navigators and cultural hallmarks of Hawaii’s yesteryear, all the while weaving a rich tapestry of Hawaiian language and etymology. Past and present might seem like distant relatives, but the cruise directors tie yesterday’s Hawaii with the present day seamlessly—don’t be surprised to hear the captain bark out orders to his shipmates in a language you can’t understand, but wish you could. If you ask, they’d love to teach you a few phrases.

Agriculture & sustainability

Merriman's farm tour

Merriman’s farm tour. Photo credit: Derek Wolfgram via Flickr.

Because of its relative isolation from the rest of the world, city planning in many Hawaiian towns still bear the influence of an old concept that’s making a comeback: ahupua’a. The system is fairly sophisticated, but it boils down to a practice of land allotment that ensures every member of society had equal access to food and water sources. Family-oriented communities sprouted along the coast, and grew up mountain slopes for arable land & livestock (think of the communities as ribbons on the landscape, instead of grids).

Today, the Big Island is a world leader in self-sustenance and ahupua’a, and you can see its benefits first-hand in a number of ways: Merriman’s Restaurant is famous for its farm-to-restaurant code, and private tours of South Kohala farms are available (the day culminates in a Waimea-style feast). Visit a working ranch and learn about paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy) lifestyle, and then take a ride by horseback to really get a feel for the land. Alternatively, take a tour of a coffee farm just west of Mauna Loa, where the world-famous Kona coffee beans originate, and sample one of the most coveted beverages in the world in its freshest state.

With the setting charmed and the activities abounding, a visit to the Big Island is sure to be enriching–make sure you return home with more than just a tan.

– Zak Erving

The author was a guest of the Hawaii Visitor’s Bureau.

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