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Photo: dbking

Whether you’re in the mood for exhilaration, relaxation, or education, Hawaii’s Big Island delivers.
See an Active Volcano

The Big Island is home to one of the most active volcanoes in the world, Kilauea, which has erupted a total of 40 times since 1924.

The current ongoing eruption began on January 3, 1983, and wiped out several housing developments. It shows no signs of stopping.

By air

The best viewpoint to appreciate the true power and size of Kilauea is from above. Helicopter tours fly directly over the mouth of the crater itself, allowing you peer down into the violence of steam, sulfur, and lava.

A helicopter tour also affords views of Hawaii’s other natural attractions, such as cliffs, waterfalls, macadamia nut and coffee farms, and rolling green hillsides.

Blue Hawaiian Helicopters offers first-class tours and the highest ratings for safety, employing some of the most experienced pilots. The company’s been featured in National Geographic, and Hollywood film productions like Jurassic Park, The Lost World, and Pearl Harbor have hired its services.

By sea

Photo: PlassPhoto

The lava itself is best seen from the sea, as day turns to night and the newest land in the world begins to glow with an inner fire. The lava flows from the caldera more than 3,700 feet to the coast, where it drops into a steaming ocean.

Just before twilight, spectators gather in the dozens and sometimes hundreds on a nearby cliff to watch the spectacle. But nothing gets you as up close and personal as an ocean-bound vessel.

Captain “Lava Roy” Carvalho is an experienced boat tour operator who has been in business since 2005. He’ll expertly navigate you to within a hundred yards of shore, where you can clearly watch the liquid lavafalls meet the surging sea.

By land

The expense of a helicopter or boat tour isn’t necessary, however, to have a volcano experience. At Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, visitors can view the Kilauea crater from a prime overlook, as well as tour the adjacent Thomas A. Jaggar Museum with its geologic displays, working seismic equipment, and videos of previous eruptions.

Excellent hiking trails run throughout the park, one of which leads through the Thurston Lava Tube, an extinct lava tunnel created by flow from Kilauea.

For the car-equipped, the Chain of Craters Road is a forty-mile drive taking about three hours round-trip, with spectacular vistas of both the volcano and the surrounding rainforest.

Guests can stay overnight at Volcano House Hotel, and campgrounds are also available within the park.

Get on the Water

From its unique selection of beaches — with sand of the white, black, and even green varieties — to its diverse range of water sport activities — surfing, kayaking, sailing, diving, snorkeling, and more — the Big Island delivers for ocean fans.

Photo: Mr.Thomas

Combining some of these into a multi-sport adventure makes for an incredible day.

A popular trip is to kayak the mile and a half across Kealakekua Bay to the Captain Cook Monument, which marks the spot where the first European visitor to the Hawaiian Islands died.

With its sheltered waters, extensive coral reef, and abundance of underwater life, the bay provides superior snorkeling and diving year round. It’s also inaccessible by car, so the only people you’re likely to encounter will be your fellow kayakers. Spinner dolphins and green sea turtles like to hang out here too.

Just off the Kona Coast, a community of the giant manta rays feeds on plankton each night, drawn by the lights that spill over the water from the Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort. The Travel Channel has called a night dive/snorkel with these creatures one of the “Top 10 Things to Do in Your Lifetime.”

The rays are gentle and non-territorial, with no barbs or teeth, simply gliding silently through the waves as if flying (their wingspans can measure up to twelve feet).

The phosphorescence of the plankton gives an eerie bluish-white glow to the graceful rays, their whale-like mouths open wide as they filter feed.

Experience Hawaiian Culture

You don’t come to Hawaii and miss a luau, so head to the above-mentioned Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort, just meters from the manta rays’ feeding spot. It offers dinner and a show called Firenesia every Monday night.

Photo: Paul Kehrer

With great drama and exhilarating dance, the performers demonstrate their skill and grace as you dine on traditional luau dishes at the water’s edge on Keauhou Bay.

The birthplace of Hawaii’s great King Kamehameha III, Keauhou Bay is rich with historical sites.

Just a few miles south, Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park — meaning “place of refuge” — protects 180 acres of ancient homes of the chiefs, royal palaces, and temples. Beautiful at sunset, this sacred place gives visitors an important glimpse into Hawaiian culture.

Further north in Kohala, you can hike through the Valley of the Kings, known as Waipio, where waterfalls rush over the edge of steep green cliffs and drop into the ocean.

Or, walk the 1.5-mile Malama Trail to view the 1,200 petroglyphs found at Puakõ Petroglyph Archaeological Preserve. A total of 3,000 designs have been identified, including paddlers, dancers, animals, and deity symbols, providing a fascinating view into the lives of pre-colonial Hawaiians.

For more, visit Hawaii’s official tourism site,

Community Connection

Surfer? Don’t miss Top 10 Surf Spots (for Mortals) in Hawaii. Stargazer? Find out which Hawaii locale made our list of World’s Best Stargazing Destinations.

BNT also has the scoop on Hawaii Car Rentals: How To Score Wheels In Paradise.

About The Author

Shelley Seale

Shelley Seale is an author and freelance writer. When not in Austin, she's usually traipsing around the world whenever possible. Her new book, The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children of India, follows her journeys through India and tells the stories of many amazing children.

  • Sandy Seale

    I was with Shelley on this awesome trip to the Big Island; it is everything she has written about and more. This was one of the most diverse and beautiful experiences of my life. We were fortunate to be able to actually participate in each and everyone of these activities…and then some. It has been my lifelong dream to visit Hawaii, but little did I know that so much was available. I had the typical tunnel vision view of what it would be like. Indeed all those pre-conceived images & experiences were there, but it was sSO much more than I had ever dreamed. Shelley has done an excellent job of showing all of those options in this relatively short article; but to truly experience it you must see it first hand for yourselves. I enjoyed being on the Big Island rather than Oahu, not that it doesn’t have its own pleasure & sites, but I enjoyed the less commercialized and more diverse elements of the Big Island. Thanks to everyone who made this trip a “once-in-a-lifetime” experience. Can’t wait to return….Aloha & Mahalo

  • Hal Amen

    I’ve been to Hawaii twice but haven’t made it to the Big Island. What was I thinking!?

  • hawaii activities

    I have not seen a volcanic eruption or later consequences of that thing ever. Explanation of different views of the volcanic mountain left a strong desire to see that thing. And I think view by air is the best one to do.

  • Amanda, traveling wedding photographer

    I’ve been to Hawaii three times and have never done the Big Island either ! The lava a Manta ray ideas are definitely must-dos.

  • Hawaiian Luau

    Totally agree that attending a Luau is a must to Experience Hawaiian Culture. Cannot wait to get back to the islands for some surfing!

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