Hawaii's Big Island: how to make the most of a short trip

Aptly named, Hawai'i the Big Island is BIG. Twice the size of the other Hawaiian Islands combined, they say; and packed with volcanoes, beaches, reefs and fascinating ancient cultural sites. So you only have four days to explore? Don't worry - it can be done. Here’s how I did it.

Day 1

Gazing down at the ocean on the flight over, I want in. So my first stop upon touching down is Kealakekua Bay for some early-morning kayaking and snorkeling. After gearing up with Kona Boys, I paddle out alone into the big blue. Before long, I'm joined by dozens of locals – local dolphins, that is. They dance with me all the way across the bay, where I jump into the sea for some super snorkeling.

Still salty, I hook up with Hawai'i Forest & Trail to climb the summit of Mauna Kea. I get a bit loopy from the altitude as we ascend, which might explain the goofy pictures I take with the Marvin the Martian-esque observatories at the top! But once the sun sets, I get serious and indulge in some serious stargazing. The sky has never appeared more magical.

Day 2

Next up is the otherworldly Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park. After stopping at all the viewpoints, traversing the steaming surface of the Kilauea Iki Crater and hiking across a sea of black lava toward the molten flow (which I don’t reach – it's 11 miles out and I've run out of steam), I find the day has disappeared. Though my camera's full, I can't help feeling like I’ve merely scratched the surface. The park is top of my when-I-get-back-here list.

Day 3

On my third morning, I stock up on road-trip fare and a sarong at the Hilo Farmers Market, before catching the astronomy show at 'Imiloa. Afterwards, I do some waterfall-peeping in Hilo, then make my way through Pepe'ekeo 4-Mile Scenic Drive’s lush tropical scenery toward the sacred Waipi'o Valley. At road’s end, I descend the steep trail into the amphitheater valley, where I'm greeted by some wild horses. Coming to stunning Waipi'o Beach, I watch body-boarders frolicking and whales cruising past while the black sands whip at my ankles in the sharp wind; before setting off along the Muliwai Trail just far enough to take in the amazing Waipi'o views. Heading out, I take the soft option and hitch a lift back up (like I said, it’s steep!).

Day 4

Now I want to see it all from the sky. Blue Hawaiian Helicopters take me across rural Kohala, past snowy Mauna Loa, over the fluted cliffs of Waipi'o Valley and nearly into the fiery maw of Kilauea caldera. (Using my 'comfort bag' certainly adds to this unforgettable experience!) Craving some beachy goodness to settle my stomach after the ride, I hit the jackpot with free-spirited and clothing-optional Kehena Beach. Its secluded black sands are dotted sparsely with hippies playing music, families picnicking, men practicing tai chi and me, loving it all. The rest of the day passes in a sunny, smiling blur.

Updated 9 August 2012