The pine- and eucalyptus-filled Halawa forest, site of the island’s newest zip line tour.
Photo: Courtesy of Kohala Zipline
Eye to eye with a manta ray.
Photo: Steve Dunleavy
A pro surfer paddleboards off a vent tube of Kilauea volcano (looks cool, but not advised).
Photo: Kirk Lee Aeder/AP/Corbis
Hilo’s Shipman House Bed & Breakfast.
Photo: Almany images
Black lava fields in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
Photo: Die Bildagentur
A Big Island resident chuckled as he told me the story of a surfer who came to visit because he wanted to ride the waves where the lava flows into the ocean. Foolish he may have been (ocean temps near lava can be as high as 155 degrees), but it was the sentiment that mattered: The surfer had rightly come seeking thrills.
Hawaii Island may be known for its size (4,028 square miles), but its 11 ecosystems are what make it an adventurer’s delight. On any given day, you can hike onto lava fields, stomp through rain forest, traverse the alpine slopes of 13,000-foot volcanoes, or dive to coral reefs. Visits used to require long drives or painful choices, but United Airlines’ new direct flights to Hilo mean you can touch down in the verdant east, work your way across the island, and leave from Kona’s sunny western coast.
From Hilo, it’s a short hop to both Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and the twin peaks of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. (Make your base Shipman House, and don’t miss breakfast.) You can tag the summits of each peak as a day hike, but for a look at an active volcano, head to the park. Kilauea has been erupting continuously since 1983, currently through the eastern rift, and with luck, lava will be pouring into the Pacific when you visit. Four years ago, the volcano erupted in a second spot, this one in the summit. You can peer into the enormous crater from Jaggar Museum, but since daylight masks the glow, go at night, when the lava burns bright, and spend your day on the trails. The four-mile Kilauea Iki loop deposits you first into chirping rain forest and later onto the still-steaming crater floor of the volcano that leveled the forest 53 years ago.
On the other side of the island (a two-hour drive), check in to the retro-chic Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, which sits on prime waterfront real estate, Kaunaoa Bay. Snorkel near the rocks on both sides of the bay; paddle (stand up or kayak) north to a private cove; and hike south on Ala Kahakai Trail, a coastal path flanked by lava rock and million dollar homes, complete with ancient settlement sites and unobstructed ocean views.
The island’s newest zip line tour, Kohala (located in Hawi 30 minutes north of the resort), jacks up the energy level with nine lines, five bridges, and two rappels through eucalyptus and salt pine. When the sun sets, the place to be is Garden Eel Cove off the Kailua-Kona coast, where the manta ray night dive lives up to its hype. Divers watch from below and snorkelers angle for a spot from above as rays with 8- to 20-foot wingspans charge and turn and do backflips and somersaults, often within inches of your belly. For the rays, it’s all about grabbing dinner (the divers’ lights attract food). For you, it’s an adrenaline rush, courtesy of the sea.
When you're ready to slow down
TUCK INTO AHI POKE, praline and macadamia nut–crusted scallops, or other regional dishes at Hilo’s only must-experience restaurant, Hilo Bay Café.
BOOK A NIGHT (or two) at Waianuhea, an inn hidden in a eucalyptus grove upland from Honokaa (in the east): You’ll find roaming wild turkeys, Mauna Kea summit views, massage rooms, a Bali-inspired lounge, and an outdoor hot tub for stargazing.
TREAT YOURSELF to Mandara Spa. During its renovation, the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel brought this leading spa company to the property. Enjoy massages onsite, in your room, or in an ocean-view cabana.