You can snow ski, hike, bike, kayak, surf, paddle board, horseback ride, whale watch and zip over a waterfall on this island of marvels.
Story and photographs by Kerrick James
Well, it happened again. Mired in early-winter, cold-weather blues, I began to crave the tropical sun on my skin, but even more I craved active adventures, to go beyond my lazy beach vacations of the past. Way beyond. Now I’ve got nothing against sand, sun and surf, but this trip I needed to touch and taste wild beauty—waterfalls, whales, fern forests, stars, the pull of the paddle in my hands, salt spray in my face, and sudden injections of adrenalin to jolt my reverie.
On this trip I wanted to explore from American sands, so I looked about and ultimately chose the Big Island. I’ve been to the Hawaiian islands many times over the years, done all the beach and tourist staples, and found to my delight that the Big Island now offers a rich and challenging mix of beauty, peace and some new and compelling adventures.
After some easy research I found one can do ziplining, standup paddle boarding, hiking, sea kayaking, horseback riding, whale watching, and, if the Gods are kind, even snow skiing, all in a week’s visit, with beach time to spare. I eagerly anticipated my “magnificent seven” of sea to ski adventures. What would be my favorite? Where to begin?
Landing in Hilo, the heart of old Hawaii, I savor the flower-scented air as soon as the jet door opens. It’s so much richer than the dry atmosphere of Colorado, and redolent of rain forest and waterfalls. After filling my belly with melt-in-your-mouth Kahlua pork at a local’s favorite called Ken’s House of Pancakes, I’m energized and make straight for my first adventure. Since Hilo averages nearly 130 inches of rain a year, numerous waterfalls carve the old volcanic canyons leading to the ocean, and zipline operations are thriving nearby.
Ultimately I chose Skyline Eco-Adventures, because their website showed a stunningly high waterfall and promised I could soar over it. It seemed unbelievable that this was even possible, but I just had to try.
Driving 14 miles north of Hilo to the Akaka Falls turnoff, I enter the charming village of Honomu, and meet the friendly guides who will shepherd us through space. On this cloudy misty afternoon, eight of us risk-lovers gear up with zip harnesses and helmets, talk safety and then are transported uphill to a rigorously maintained course of seven zip lines.
Unlike other zip courses I’ve descended, the idea here is to slowly ramp up the distance, speed and zip time as you descend. Smart idea for newbies to zipping as most of our group, from Australia, Oahu and Los Angeles, have never zipped before. This builds their confidence, which they’ll soon need. The first zip is a mere 100 feet through a grove of banana trees, while the last zip, the main event, is more than 3,400 feet long, giving you 80 seconds of howling time, well above a gorge split by a 250-foot scenic waterfall. If you aren’t buzzing inside when the ride finally ends, then you never opened your eyes. Believe me, I was eyes-wide-open, and what a ride!
Like most of us daredevils, I’d thrill to do that last zip again over Palau Falls. Palau means “to be engaged”—quite appropriate as when you start the seven ziplines you’re committed all the way. Note that the zip lines are designed for people between 80 and 260 pounds, and there are short easy walks between zip stations. If your back is iffy or you’re pregnant you might want to pass, but otherwise don’t miss this adventure. It’s in my top three ziplines anywhere.
It’s nearly sunset when I check in to the Castle Hilo Hawaiian Hotel, gracing the shore of Hilo Bay. This venerable hotel is comfortable and convenient and an excellent base camp for Hilo-centered adventures. Loving the view, I open my 7th-floor windows, and watch locals paddling and swimming the calm waters around Coconut Island, just below my veranda. Coconut Island, Mo Ku’Ola in Hawaiian, was the “city of refuge” for natives who angered royalty or broke taboo.
Next morning I cruise north from Hilo towards Waimea, the heart of paniolo paradise, to Dahana Ranch, where I meet up with my friend Daniel for some horseback riding at his family’s ranch.
Daniel, whose Hawaiian name has 19 letters and 12 vowels, is 24—fit, movie-star handsome and one heck of a cowboy. His name means “rope drawn taut,” fitting for a man who breaks and trains horse on their 2,500 acres of verdant grass.
On this cool calm morning, we mount up and ride across lush meadows with the telescopes of Mauna Kea clearly visible over two vertical miles above us. As we saunter about, I eventually get my steed into a gallop that gets my blood moving and I sport a smile you could see from Maui. Daniel says with a wry smile, “Didn’t know you had it in you.” I run my mount again and remember how good it feels to be in sync on a good horse. I’ll be back one day to try out my Jack Palance persona on him.
By the time I get to Hilo, the clouds have gathered and heavy rain falls as I devour the Four Cheese Pasta at Café Concerto. Best Italian food on the Big Island, some will say, and they’ll get no argument from me.
An hour later, the rain subsides and I meet Herb Namohala, a wonderful native Hawaiian man, for his stand up paddle boarding lesson in a protected lagoon just off Banyan Drive. Now I’ve had several chances to paddle board before, but the cold waters of Alaska coves and Colorado lakes always kept me in my kayak. Herb teaches paddle boarding to all ages, and when he says that women learn more quickly than men, my competitive spirit catches fire.
With Herb’s light patter helping me relax and trust my balance, before long I’m up on the board, stroking easily, loving the feeling of centering my balance and clearing my mind, gliding in a flow state. It’s almost hypnotic, and now at last I get it, the heart of why this gentle activity is exploding in popularity. We paddle all about the lagoon, and then into Hilo Bay near Coconut Island. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. Before the lesson ends I’m already thinking about buying my own board!
The days are easing by and I’m clearly on island time as I meet for my next adventure with Warren Costa of Native Guide Hawaii. We leave Hilo and head south to explore the Puna District, or “laid back Puna,” as Warren calls it. Off the highway edge, we walk to a place the locals call their Steam Caves. In 1955 an eruption created 25-foot high spatter cones, a few of which were hollow, and after cooling off for a couple of decades they became known as natural wet saunas.
Warren and I wriggle inside through a crack and take the steam, resting on benches, tasting the breath of the earth as it exhales. A marvelous place and time to be had here, and something I would never have found without a native guide sharing his homeland.
Exploring Puna is all about roaming the back roads, which crisscross the myriad of lava flows from Kilaueau volcano. Close by is Kalapana, where 100 feet of black basalt buried a town. We walk across swirls of pahoehoe lava, searching for long delicate strands of silica, woven by the winds during the creation of new earth. All day we revel in quiet places, walking on rocky cliffs and trails, above crashing waves that generate ephemeral rainbows. We picnic under palms at MacKenzie State Park, devouring a locally grown mixed green salad, teriyaki beef from Big Island cows, topped with the sweetest pineapple I’ve ever tasted, sweeter than candy. These volcanic soils make for superb cuisine, and lunch is included in Warren’s guided trips to both Puna and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
Alas, the afternoon sun is lowering and after a refreshing swim in the mid-80 degree geothermal pond near the ocean at Ahalanui Park, it’s time to drive through the tunnel of trees on the famous red road and return to Hilo. Today I did a variety of short walks, but Warren offers a range of hikes up to five miles, including into the secluded Waipio Valley. Low top hiking shoes with good tread will suffice, but bring mosquito spray.
Next day I leave Hilo early, driving north with the ancient Kohala Mountains off to my right, and the widening view ahead of the north Kohala Coast, where aquamarine hues and distant beaches appear like a mirage. Today I want to get wet and wild, so I drive south past Kona and rent a kayak at Kona Boys in Kealakekua. I find a quiet place, the Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historic Park, known as the City of Refuge, and meet a friend to explore for the sea caves rumored to be hidden nearby.
We first stroke out through rolling waves and into the sheltered lagoon where a beach once reserved for royalty is now safe for mere commoners to stroll. We kayak right by a reconstructed heiau (temple), past scowling statues and into the stunning sapphire waters of Honaunau Bay. Waves crash mightily against the basalt cliffs fringing the bay, and at length we spy a sea cave. Timing the wave sets, we enter carefully into the scalloped cave, loving the Pacific waters endlessly transferring the energy of storms far distant to this tiny speck of land. And then we escape the cave!
Paddling back to the launch site means stroking hard against the late breeze and pounding waves, so after kayaking I drive tired but content back north to check into a place of dreams, the Four Seasons Hualapai. Beyond gracious living, this is a place for reflection and a haven of rest for humans—and Hawaiian green sea turtles, too.
Before 9 the next morning, I’m boarding a sleek 24-foot zodiac called the Black Pearl for a three-hour tour. (Sound familiar, Gilligan’s Island fans?) We motor north out of Kona on a brilliant clear morning in what Captain Colin calls Chasing Tail Season. A colorful rogue and veteran of these waters, Colin explains that male humpbacks are here now in profusion, playing, breaching and singing to impress the ladies, and earn a date. The trade winds have cleared out the vog (volcanic fog), and with excellent visibility we soon spy distant spouts, and then breaches with monstrous splashes. Several times we see double breaches!
Nearing the Kohala coast, we steer into waters the skipper calls Humpback Heaven and strike cetacean gold. The breeze dies down, we kill the motors and drift as a pod of five humpbacks spout, swim and play all about us. Colin drops a hydrophone into the warm water and we all listen joyously to the singing leviathans. It feels like he’s introducing us to his family, singing a chorus from another world. Magical moments, and I still can hear their sweet songs as we motor back against the freshening breeze into Kona.
Whale tours are best in the morning as waters are calmer, and Captain Zodiac offers skilled drivers and superb boats. If you bring expensive camera gear don’t forget a dry bag!
As this is my last day on the Big Island, I now head off for my last adventure, a Mauna Kea Star Gazing tour with Hawaii Forest & Trail. The journey from sea level to 13,796 feet takes several hours, winding upland through the famous Parker Ranch pastures, and then driving the infamous Saddle Road between the two great volcanoes of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, climbing through scrubby grasslands that looks like eastern Oregon. After an early dinner break in a grove of trees at an isolated ranch, the road finally soars towards the summit, as the day wanes. Hypoxia is near, and so are 13 telescopes, as well as ice fields 2.5 miles above the Pacific.
It’s supremely odd to pack fleece and down jackets for Hawaii but I’m glad I did as the temperature nosedived from the low 80s beachside to high 20s when we open the doors just before sunset, and the air is thin! Our excellent guide has detailed the history of the telescopes, the countries that built and use them, and the wonders of the cosmos they reveal, but all I’m looking for is snow—skiable snow. Truth be told, I could possibly snowboard a slope or two on Mauna Kea, but this winter it’s been too dry to create a base safe enough to ski on.
And yet, with luck and a couple of cold winter storms, you really could snow ski, hike, bike, kayak, surf, paddle board, horseback ride, whale watch and zip over a waterfall on this island of marvels, in just a few days of adrenalized discovery. Think I’ll have to go back and bring my rock skis though, next winter…