Top five: Big Island, Hawaii
Feeling out of touch with the spirit of life? Need to reconnect with yourself or your loved ones? One of the best places to shed the hard edges of city living and embrace the softness of nature is Hawaii’s big island. Get some sand between your toes, sun on your skin and head off on adventures worthy of a National Geographic photographer.
1. Snorkel with manta rays in Keauhou Bay
From above the surface, all you’ll see is a motley collection of snorkelers clinging to the side of a lit up surfboard but below, time stands still as giant manta rays swoop up from the ocean floor to feed on plankton that is attracted to the floodlights. Enormous dark shadows take shape and suddenly there’s a ray right there, backflipping, mouth agape. Tourists aren’t allowed to touch the rays but that doesn’t stop these gentle creatures from brushing past exposed bikini bellies.
The best way to experience the rays is with Eka Canoe Adventures who will take you out in a traditional Hawaiian sailing canoe. The hidden benefit? This tour operator has a youth program where they teach local kids about Polynesian boat building, sailing and navigation so booking with this crew helps keep Hawaiian culture alive.
2. Go stargazing on Mauna Kea
Did you know that Mauna Kea on Hawaii’s Big Island is the tallest mountain in the world? The astronomy community has cottoned on to this fact and the summit of Mauna Kea is home to numerous observatories and telescopes. In addition to these alien objects, the landscape on top of the mountain is barren and the air is chilly; a wholly unusual experience in ‘tropical’ Hawaii.
A little way down the mountainside is where the amateurs do their post-sunset stargazing. Most tours stop and set up a telescope (and sometimes dish out homemade brownies and hot chocolate –also totally weird in tropical Hawaii but it’s an alpine climate up there). This is when visitors have the chance to learn about how the ancients came up with the symbols of the zodiac and the Gregorian calendar. You’ll also witness meteor showers, shooting stars and loads of satellites making their way across the crystal clear, inky black night sky. Hawaii Forest and Trail run daily tours.
3. Eat at Da Poke Shack
Prepare to queue at this ultra-popular local haunt. There’s a reason for the line of people out the door; everyone is there to get their hands on the day’s freshest poke (pronounced poke-ay) made from raw ahi ahi (tuna), sesame oil, Hawaiian rock salt and various other Asian and island-inspired condiments.
This is the Kona version of the plate lunch. You can get sides of kim chi, edamame, brown rice and potato salad, and there’s also Huli Huli chicken and slow cooked pulled pork on the menu for people who aren’t into fish. Healthy, filling, cheap and delicious, the food at Da Poke Shack is definitely worth waiting for.
4. Go on the Sheraton Kona Cultural Tour
The Sheraton Kona is built next to a heiau (ancient Hawaiian temple), a canoe house and fishing shrine so, out of respect to the site, the hotel offers tours with its cultural director, Lili.
On the tours, Lili explains what the sites were used for and gives a brief lesson on Hawaiian mythology and community. If you’re lucky, she will also perform an oli (a Hawaiian chant) that will leave you tingling. The best part of this experience? Lili’s explanation of what the concept of aloha means to the Hawaiian people; patience, kindness, humility, openness to learning and willingness to share.
5. Fly over a live volcano
The Hawaiian people believe that the volcanoes on the Big Island are ruled by an angry goddess named Pele. While it would make perfect sense to avoid her most of the time, it’s worth getting up close with her on a helicopter flight over the island. Not only will you look straight into Pele’s beating heart – the cone of a live volcano – you will also get to see the extent of her devastation. There are miles of lava fields that run into the sea, as well as prairies on the dry side of the island. On the wet side, there’s rainforest, waterfalls and staggering cliffs that the chopper weaves through with the utmost grace. If you travel to Big Island during winter, there’s also a very good chance you might spot a pod of migrating humpback whales. Paradise Helicopters run daily flights.