virtuoso global September 2019 Five Ways to Experience the Real Hawaii Island

Five Ways to Experience the Real Hawaii Island

The sun sets over the northeast Pololu Valley Lookout, one of Hawaii Island’s most scenic seaside destinations. 
The sun sets over the northeast Pololu Valley Lookout, one of Hawaii Island’s most scenic seaside destinations. 
Photo by Larry Marshall
From performances of ancient hula to night dives with manta rays, the Aloha State’s largest island draws travelers hungry for culture and adventure.

Hawaii Island is a place of superlatives: the biggest island and southernmost point in the U.S., the world’s most ecologically diverse spot for its size, the home of both the world’s tallest and most voluminous mountains, and the planet’s newest land – the Kilauea volcano added 875 acres of new coast last summer. Even beyond these record-breaking natural wonders, there’s so much to see on Hawaii (just don’t call it the “Big Island,” a moniker that’s falling out of favor as recognition and respect for traditional Hawaiian culture grows) that you’d need at least a month to scratch its lava-crusted surface.

“People love Hawaii; they’re very excited to go back,” says Virtuoso travel advisor Rob Karp. “It’s a dramatic mix of beauty and ruggedness – lush greenery, barren volcanic rock, and white-, gold-, and black-sand beaches. You have all this on one powerful island.”

A surfer catches waves off the black-sand Pohoiki Beach.
A surfer catches waves off the black-sand Pohoiki Beach.
Photo by Heather Goodman
And the island is ever-changing, as Kilauea demonstrated when it sent rivers of lava flowing into the ocean last spring. The event ended an eruptive phase that started in 1983, and all is quiet on Hawaii Island again – at least geologically. Travelers will find that Hawaii is as dynamic and exciting as ever, and these five experiences give them opportunities to venture beyond Kona’s manicured resorts and discover the magnetic, surprising, wild – and, yes, superlative – place that it’s always been.

Honor Pele, Hawaii’s Fire Goddess

One Saturday morning each month, the Volcano Art Center in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park hosts hula kahiko (hula in the ancient style) at Kilauea, where various halau hula (hula troupes) dance close to the volcano’s edge on a sacred pa hula (dance platform) while facing Halemaʻumaʻu Crater. This is no sinuous resort hula, but rather, a powerful and ancient form of dance that tells moving (literally) stories of Hawaii’s people, places, traditions, and deities – including Pele, whose recent “work” is clearly visible at Halemaʻumaʻu. The hula platform is still intact, though, and as the dancers reenact the stories of old, you can feel the mana (spiritual power) of the volcano, which continues to provide new life for the island and its people.
Traditional hula kahiko dance incorporates spiritual chanting and precise body gestures. 
Traditional hula kahiko dance incorporates spiritual chanting and precise body gestures. 
Photo by Tor Johnson

Swim with Sea Monsters

If your idea of a good time is motoring out three miles offshore in the middle of the night, then dropping 60 feet down to float with nothing but 3,000 feet of abyss below, the Kona “black water dive” is for you. Every night, creatures of the deep migrate to the Pacific Ocean’s surface to feed and breed. Most divers jump at the chance to glimpse these astonishing animals they’d never otherwise see: rainbow-colored ctenophores, siphonophores that look like they’re from outer space, and glittering squid preying on their bounty. If drifting in the black makes you feel too much like bait (don’t worry; it’s mainly the squid that hunt at night), not-so-intrepid divers can opt for the less unnerving but still amazing manta ray night dive, where a visit from some of Kona’s resident rays is almost always guaranteed. It’s shallow enough that snorkelers can also join, bobbing at the surface as the mantas perform their underwater acrobatics mere inches from the divers below. Virtuoso travel advisors can arrange these wondrous experiences with several Kona-based dive operators.
Two resident manta rays in Kona, Hawaii.
Two resident manta rays in Kona, Hawaii.
Photo by Getty Images

Jam under the Full Moon

Picture ancient Hawaiian fishponds, a full moon rising over the waters of Makaiwa Bay, live music, hula, and storytelling by one of Hawaii Island’s most respected cultural practitioners – that’s Twilight at Kalahuipua’a, an event held monthly at Mauna Lani resort for 25 years running. Danny “Kaniela” Akaka, son of former U.S. Senator Daniel Akaka, hosts this complimentary program that includes performances by some of the biggest names in Hawaiian music. These talented artists share mo’olelo (stories) of Hawaii’s past, including songs of the island’s paniolo (cowboy) heritage, a proud ranching tradition that dates back to the early nineteenth century. Bring a chair or blanket to spread on the lawn of the resort’s charming Eva Parker Woods Cottage, at the edge of the Kalahuipua’a fishponds, and join Akaka as he ceremoniously blows the pu (conch) to greet the full moon.

Stroll across a Lava Lake

In 1959, Kilauea Iki, a pit crater next to the Kilauea caldera, was molten. Fountains of lava erupted almost 2,000 feet high (the highest ever recorded anywhere on earth), filling the crater with a 2,000 degree lake. Today, the lake is a flat, rocky plain that’s one of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park’s most rewarding and accessible hikes – one that will appeal to even the most trekking-averse. It’s a moderate, 4-mile round trip along the Crater Rim Trail, which winds through a lush forest of ferns and ohia trees, with their red pom-pom blossoms visited by endemic birds. The trail descends into the crater and runs across the lava lake, an otherworldly landscape of spatter cones and steaming vents. Park at the Kilauea Iki lot, and bring water and protection from rain and sun.
The Kilauea Iki Trail leads hikers across varied terrain, from indigenous rain forest to the cracked crater floor.
The Kilauea Iki Trail leads hikers across varied terrain, from indigenous rain forest to the cracked crater floor.
Photo by National Park Service/Janice Wei

Browse the Island’s Richest Farm Stand

The island of Hawaii is the epicenter of the state’s diversified agricultural scene – and it is diverse. Small farmers grow a dizzying variety of crops in the many microclimates on the gentle slopes of Maunaloa and Hualalai, including kalo (hawaiian taro) and everything from the usual suspects (mango, papaya, coffee, coconut, pineapple) to the unusual (pitaya, star fruit, durian) to the downright strange (snake fruit, jaboticaba, mangosteen, longan, rambutan). The heart of this flavorful epicenter is the Hilo Farmers Market in downtown Hilo, where growers converge each day from 7 am to 4 pm (Wednesday and Saturday are “big market days,” with more than 200 vendors beginning to sell their goods at 6 am). You’ll find just as many residents as visitors browsing the stalls of vibrant local produce and catching up with neighbors at the market’s food hall. Other towns host farmers’ markets throughout the week, highlighting products and produce from surrounding areas.
Visitors and locals alike can browse a wide variety of produce at the Hilo Farmers Market. 
Visitors and locals alike can browse a wide variety of produce at the Hilo Farmers Market. 

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