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Best of coasts and islands

Top 10 experiences on Hawaii's Big Island

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Island fever may happen elsewhere, but it's almost unheard of on Hawai'i. The aptly named Big Island is fantastically diverse, with miles of highways and - better yet - byways to explore. From age-old fishing villages to modern mega resorts, from snow-capped peaks to sandy beaches, you'll experience tropical splendor backed by an epic history. Hawai'i is twice as big as the other Hawaiian islands combined, and its dramatic terrain will surprise you and take you to extremes.

Where to start? Try these 10 can't miss Big Island experiences:

1. Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park

The eerie glow of a lava lake, secluded palm-fringed beaches, ancient petroglyphs pecked into hardened lava, and miles of hiking trails through smoking craters, rainforest and desert – what’s not to love about Hawai’i’s number one site? For a singular experience, try and snag one of the 12 coveted spots on the weekly Secret Lava Tube Tour. This is one of the island’s top places to experience Hawaiian culture including hula on the crater rim, annual festivals and lecture series. All this and more found in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

2. Mauna Kea star party

It is breathless and breath-taking in the rarefied air of Mauna Kea, Hawaiʻi’s most sacred location. Once the sun goes down, the stars come out, and with them telescopes for your viewing pleasure.  The world’s clearest stargazing is here – what you see through those telescopes, you won’t soon forget. For a real trophy experience, head here for both the sun- and moonrise.

Mauna Kea Star TrailMauna Kea star trail, by Justin McWilliams. Creative Commons Attribution No Derivatives license.

3. Snorkeling in Kealakekua Bay

It’s all true – from the teeming, Technicolor fish in knee-deep water, to the spinner dolphins lazily circling your kayak or catamaran. Tourist brochures hype Kealakekua Bay as the best snorkelling in the state and, in this case, you can believe it. Even new rules regulating kayak use can’t tarnish the luster of this must-see spot. If kayaking doesn’t float your boat, hike down to this historically significant and naturally brilliant bay. Hard-core environmentalists might consider other less-trafficked bays – this one is almost too popular for its own good.

4. Waipi'o Valley

Legends begin here, where the road ends overlooking this magical valley. You can linger at the scenic viewpoint however; the waterfalls, wild horses and wilder black-sand beach tend to beckon explorers. Choose from hiking, horseback or even a mule-drawn wagon to get you there. The very experienced can kayak in – when conditions are just right. The most spectacular views, of course, are from the most grueling switchbacks of the Muliwai Trail – head up, up and up some more for the money shot.

Waipio Valley, Big IslandWaipi'o Valley, Big Island by SF Brit. Creative Commons Attribution No Derivatives license.

5. Pu'uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park

Dotted with ancient temples, and hangouts watched by menacing teeth-baring idols, a visit to this Pu'uhonua O Honaunau known as the Place of Refuge, makes a memorable introduction to traditional Hawaiian culture. In fact, there’s no better place to gain an understanding of the kapu system that governed ancient Hawaii. Look for heads of honu (sea turtles) bobbing in the bay; foreshadowing the underwater wonders to come at the nearby snorkelling haven of Two-Step.

6. Lava chasing

If you’re lucky (lava is fickle, don’t you know?) you may get the chance to see live lava flowing over and under the land within Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park; ending with a magnificent plunge into the sea, sending a steam plume over a mile skyward, as hot lava is mixed with roiling surf. Feel the heat, on a walking, or boat tour out of Puna. Kids love the latter – even willful teens will ooh and aah audibly during the volcano’s full sensory show. However you experience lava here, make a point of it.

7. Hapuna Beach

Rock up to this half-mile of powdery white-sand beach with a rented umbrella and boogie board, and one of Hawaii’s most iconic beaches becomes your playground. Whether you are armed with a surfboard, lounge chair or water wings – this beach has something for the whole family. While the basic A-frame cabins here are not for the finicky, the island’s best beach is your front yard – pretty hallucinatory.

Hapuna Beach, Kohala Coast. Photo by Lonely Planet Images / Getty Images.

8. Merrie Monarch Festival

What did you see at the luau? That’s to hula what Velveeta is to cheese. If you really want to see how a hula, halau (school) invokes the gods and legends through chant and dance you need to make time visit this state-wide hula competition. Book early; people fly in from all over the globe for this one. Unless you’re an intense hula fan, you are likely to enjoy the inaugural invitational more than the structured head-to-head competitions of subsequent days.

9. Manta ray night dive

Diving at night is a thrill in itself, but once you turn on your lights and attract a corps de ballet of Pacific manta rays, with wing spans of 10ft or more and tails like javelins, your life becomes segmented: before diving with mantas and after. Snorkelling with them can be even better because you’re closer, but it’s so popular don’t be surprised when you get head-whacked by someone’s fins. Bring your own dive light and swim into center stage with these graceful animals.

'Akaka FallsAAkaka Falls, by Yinghai. Creative Commons Attribution License.

10. 'Akaka Falls State Park

This 420ft waterfall crashing through the rainforest choked with fragrant ginger and giant philodendrons is no less spectacular for its easy access. Drive up, stroll a half mile through what feels like Hollywood Hawaii and there you are. Like all waterfalls on this part of the coast, 'Akaka Falls are most impressive during seasonal rains, when they spill violently over the verdant cliffs. Don’t miss poking around the little town of Honomu once you’re done ogling these towering falls.