Explore & Learn ~ Big Island, Hawaii

The culture and character of the Big Island is unique, with elements of both old and new Hawai’i found everywhere: in quaint upcountry towns like Volcano Village, in the coffee estates and cattle ranches on the Kona side, in the revival of small former sugar towns along the scenic Hamakua coast, in the remote villages of the Ka’u district and in the colorful Puna district south of Hilo. 

Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park

Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park was established in 1916. It comprises more than 333,000 acres of land and stretches from sea level to the summit (at 13,679 feet) of Mauna Loa, the world’s most massive volcano. Admission to the Park is $30 per vehicle. The Park is open 24 hours a day, year-round, and attracts more than 2.5 million visitors annually. Kilauea, the park’s main attraction, has erupted continuously since 1983 and is one of the world’s most active volcanoes. Other features of the Park are the 11 mile Crater Rim Drive that encircles Kilauea’s summit caldera, Nahuku (the Thurston Lava Tube) which is open daily to the public, and the Thomas A. Jaggar Museum which provides real-time data on Kilauea’s activity and fabulous day-and-night views of the new eruptions in Halema’uma’u crater, the ancestral home of Madame Pele, the Hawaiian Goddess of Fire. 

Eruptions frequently occur at the summit crater of Halema’uma’u and ash and sulfur dioxide laden plume can wreak havoc on farmlands downwind towards Kailua-Kona. Hot lava entering the ocean is a spectacular sight, but very real dangers exist. Molten lava enters the ocean at 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit, causing seawater to explode into steam and super heated rocks to blast skyward. Check with Park officials before venturing out to view the lava flows. Information on current conditions can be found on two websites: www.nps.gov/havo/ and/or www.hvo.wr.usgs.gov/ or contact the Park Service by phone at 808-985-6000. 

Mauna Kea Observatory

Mauna Kea (White Mountain) was named by Hawaiians for the snow that often covers its barren slopes leading up to the summit at 13,796 feet. Standing on the summit is a profound, silent experience – an otherworldly adventure unlike any other available in Hawai’i. Most visitors stop at the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy located at the 9,000 foot elevation to acclimate to the dry, thin atmosphere. Mauna Kea’s summit features 13 working telescopes housed in white dome-shaped structures which are operated by astronomers from around the world. It is the world’s largest observatory. There is a hiking trail from the Visitor Center to the summit, but children under 16 years of age and people with weak respiratory systems or heart conditions are not advised to continue upslope. The last 30 minutes of driving (4-wheel drive vehicles are required) takes place on narrow, mostly unpaved, winding and dangerous roads. Guided tours are the safest and most educational way to experience the summit adventure, and several companies conduct tours which generally last seven or eight hours. 

Hilo, New and Old

Hilo is a picturesque city encircling sparkling Hilo Bay like a necklace, and is situated on the lower slopes of three volcanoes: Kilauea, Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. After major Tsunamis wiped out much of the bustling city center and port areas of Hilo in 1946 and 1960, the center of government and commerce shifted mauka (inland and towards the mountain). Revitalization of the old waterfront and city center continues with an emphasis on the preservation of its historical character, and Hilo today is a very unique and appealing destination despite being one of the wettest cities in the world with an average annual rainfall of 128 inches. In town, visit the Pacific Tsumani Museum or the Lyman Mission House & Museum or spend a day at the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center. Shop for fresh flowers, fruits, vegetables and local handicrafts at the Hilo Farmers Market. Hilo serves as the gateway to numerous natural attractions on the Big Island. 

‘Imiloa Astronomy Center

This state-of-the-art planetarium complex, located on the University of Hawaii campus in Hilo, is dedicated to the linkage between ancient Hawaiian culture and the secrets of stars and planets as revealed by astronomers at Mauna Kea Observatory. The centerpiece of the Voyages Hall is the ‘Imiloa, a large scale model of a Hawaiian voyaging canoe. Inside the Planetarium Dome is a 120 seat theater with cutting edge stereoscopic 3D theater technology. “Mauna Kea: Between Earth and Sky” is the planetarium’s signature show, presented Tuesday through Sunday at 11 am and 2 pm. An on-going evening show and special features are also included on the planetarium calendar. The Center’s extraordinary historical content is complemented by the worldwide acclaim for its distinctive architecture: three titanium covered cones representing major Big Island volcanoes, and construction with 75% recycled materials. The Sky Garden Restaurant provides tasty meals along with sweeping views of Hilo Bay.

Lyman Mission House & Museum

The oldest wooden frame building on the Big Island was built in 1839 by Calvinist missionaries David and Sarah Lyman. It is furnished with the furniture, household items, tools and artifacts used by the Lymans and other early missionary families. The Mission House is adjacent to the Lyman Museum, the only Smithsonian-affiliated museum in the State, which showcases the story of Hawai’i and its people. The Earth Heritage Gallery focuses on natural history, showcasing the Big Island’s volcanic origins and unique ecosystems. The Island Heritage Gallery concentrates on the people of Hawai’i, their history and culture, ancient artifacts (pre-European contact) and the impact of numerous immigrant groups. Special exhibits are mounted on a regular basis. 

Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Corp.

Native to Australian rainforests, macadamia nuts thrived in Hawai’i after being introduced by a Big Island sugar plantation manager over a century ago. Today over 60 million pounds of these delicious hard-shelled nuts, which are high in the ‘good fat’ content that helps reduce cholesterol, are produced annually. The Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Corp., located six miles mauka of Hilo (off Hwy 11), welcomes visitors who want to learn more about macadamia nut growing, harvesting and processing. At Mauna Loa there is a 2,500 acre orchard, a nut processing plant and a chocolate factory. Chocolate covered macadamia nuts are a traditional souvenir and gift item for visitors to Hawai’i. 

Pana’ewa Rainforest Zoo & Gardens

If you want close up views of the endangered Nene goose (the State Bird of Hawai’i) and other indigenous species of birds, animals and plants, a visit to Hilo’s Pana’ewa Rainforest Zoo & Gardens is a must. Native Hawaiian species include gallinules, pueo (owl) and ‘Io (hawk). Also in residence are feral pigs, whistling tree ducks, giant anteaters from South America, Binterongs (Asian bear cats), two-toed sloths, black-handed spider monkeys, green iguanas, wide-eyed lemurs from Madagascar and a 500 pound white Bengal tiger named Namaste. The Zoo is located four miles mauka of Hilo (off Hwy 11) and is open daily. Admission is free.