A visit to Hawaii Big Island: there's so much to see and do! Part 1 of 2

A line of palm trees
View of palm trees

Hawaii used to be an almost mythical destination for me when I used to live on the U.S. East Coast, and my travels took me either south or east towards Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, but rarely west.

Now that I'm on the West Coast, it's become easier... and finally, this year, I went to visit dear friends who had moved to Waimea at the beginning of this year.

All I knew to expect was the iconic beaches and palm trees, "aloha," and volcano activity. That was indeed provided; but also much more. I'll break down the week into places and activities, along with a couple of tips.

  1. Beaches for swimming and walking

Ahhhh! After years of freezing northern California Pacific Ocean, what a joy to behold the white coral sand and swim in warm water. We went to two beaches: Mauna Kea and Hapuna. Mauna Kea is actually part of a resort hotel, but hotels have to provide access to the beach to the general public, and there is a dedicated parking lot with a set number of parking spaces.

At Hapuna, you can walk through the water to a hidden grotto (towards the left when you're looking out to the ocean).

I was told that even in December, the water may be cooler, but it will still be pleasant.

2. Snorkeling and a historic area

As I don't own a waterproof GoPro, I can't share photos of snorkeling in the state park. I was slightly terrified of suffocating; I only snorkeled once before, probably when many of you were little! However, once I got the hang of it: breathe in, breathe out, through the tube in your mouth, it was fine, especially with the joy of being able to see the coral reef and beautiful fish. I saw many smaller yellow ones, one longish yellow one with a long "snout," what appeared to be an eel (all the other fish scattered at its arrival and then regrouped), one black with some pretty turquoise and white stripe. I didn't see the polka dot ones I heard about. It was wonderful to behold. After I climbed out (this location is called two-step, as you literally go down two rather slippery steps and you're swimming), I was informed that I had been in the intermediate area and not the beginner beach!

We dried ourselves off and went to a sort of outdoor museum area, the City of Refuge.

There we read about how the Polynesians came to Hawaii, and how this location was sacred, a place for healing; we viewed displays of everyday objects. The lava stone walls were a feat of engineering.

3. Climbing 13,700 ft to visit observatories and learning about indigenous flora The Big Island boasts a plethora of telescopes to observe space, far up on the Mauna Kea mountain. On your way up, you are encouraged to stop at the Visitors Center to get used to the high altitude before you climb even further up. When we parked, we had the great fortune of speaking with a caretaker who was trained to watch over the local plants, some of which are almost extinct. Above left is the local poppy. The Silversword plant is extremely endangered, and is in an enclosed garden.

Mauna Kea Observatory
Mauna Kea Observatory

Visitors clean their shoe soles before entering and upon exiting the garden.

The Visitors Center hosts a small exhibit, as well as the usual souvenirs for sale.

After speaking with a guard and answering a few questions, we were allowed to continue our upwards climb towards the Observatory. Unfortunately, nothing has been open to the public since Covid, not only to avoid disease transmission but also to protect the highly sensitive telescopes from variations in temperature.

It was incredible to behold these buildings, some of which are very high! We didn't remain long, though, as started to feel somewhat lightheaded.

On the way down - the road is quite steep - we had to be careful not to use the car brakes too much, and the guard checked the temperature of the brakes when we returned to the Visitor Center.

4. Waipi'o Valley... and malasadas

Waipi'o Valley view from above
Waipi'o Valley

Waipi'o Valley was once a royal residence for the kings of Hawaii. In 1946 it was the site of a terrible tsunami after which few residents remained.

Nowadays it is difficult to access it, but you can see it from an overlook.

On the way back we stopped at a well-known place, Tex Drive-In, for malasada, a type of Portuguese beignet. These were filled with fruit compote (there were so many flavors, including chocolate which admittedly is not a fruit!) and were much too delicious; you need to eat them fresh.

Along the roads, almost everywhere, there is sugar cane (wild now). Sugar cane was imported, as so many other species, into Hawaii, as an income-producing crop, but the plantations are not in operation any longer. It's just about impossible to remove the plants at this point.

5. Into the rainforest at Akaka Falls

Akaka Falls is something like a park, except that you follow a path (including stairs). We thought at first that the plants were indigenous, but found out that many were imported. The waterfalls are beautiful, and the plants too - even if they're not originally local.

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