Coming to the Big Island and looking for the right combination of site-seeing, adventure and non-schmaltzy tourism? During our two months here, the Three Myer Musketeers have tried some things out for you (in between our beach days), and here are our Top 5.
#1: Manta Ray Midnight Snorkel Tour
This has been the highlight of our trip so far. It is an extremely tourist-y thing to do here, but since the Big Island is one of the few places on earth to be in the water with giant mantas, we highly recommend everyone do this if you are here. The best way to report this experience is actually through the Go-Pro video that Dan filmed, so I won’t wear out my thesaurus trying to come up with superlatives to describe it. “Breathtaking and magical” seem most appropriate to depict a 17’ wide giant manta ray gliding up within inches of your face as it blissfully feeds, ignoring your presence as you try not to scream into your snorkel.
Some background of the experience: mantas feed on phytoplankton at night in a couple spots here, so there are tour companies licensed to take boats out to the areas. Once there, you get into the water and hang on to a surfboard-looking flotation with blue lights that shine down into the water to attract the phytoplankton. Once they gather, the mantas are not far behind. On any given night you could see 5-6 and even up to a dozen of these prehistoric creatures. We only had two dancing with us the entire time, but one was Big Bertha, the largest manta on the island and a rare occurrence. Once back on land, the rest of the crew was very excited for us that we got to see her.
We were only in the water about a half hour, but we all heartedly agreed that it was well worth the $64 per person we spent. (Thank you, Groupon). My tip is to take the small group tour like ours (My Kona Adventures or in a outrigger canoe through Anelakai Adventures). Some tours have 30-40 people on them which would not be as fun. Our tour was limited to six so it was very intimate and serene. If you can make it, we also recommend the midnight snorkel, the last of the night, since there are no other boats out there. We did this reluctantly because everything earlier was booked and it was hard on my son and father-in-law, but it was a definitely a happy accident as we loved it. If you haven’t already, check out Dan’s video, all of it, to get a little taste of what it’s like.
#2 & 3: Place of Refuge and Snorkeling Two-Step
Two days before we went on the manta ray tour, we had our own non-guided snorkel adventure that is not be missed. These are actually two separate tourist experiences but since they share the same space on the map, we did them together for a wonderful day.
We made the early morning drive down past Captain Cook to Honaunau Bay. Captain Cook is a tiny town south of Kona and site of the Captain Cook monument where he was killed. The monument is in a bay known as the #1 snorkel spot on the island, but it is only accessible by boat tour.
The #2 snorkel spot is known as “Two Step” for the natural lava rock steps leading onto the reef. Word has certainly gotten out that it’s amazing because it was very crowded. We arrived and got into the water by 9:00am before most of the crowds, but by the time we exited at 10:30, there were lines backed up to get in and out of the water. The lava rock “beach” was littered with beachgoers, towels and umbrellas. If you go, go early!
Again this story is best told by video, and Dan and Lucas created some remarkable footage of all kinds of brightly covered reef fish and….dolphins! Two Step is where a pod of dolphins hang out, so if you’re lucky, you can swim around with them. However, under no circumstances should you actually “swim with them”—it is a federal offense. A local tipped us off on how this dolphin spot (so we didn’t have to shell out money for a tour), but warned us that you are never to swim toward a dolphin or face a fine. You may passively allow them to swim toward you and can swim parallel, but they are a protected wild animal so be smart. Sadly, most tourists are not, especially with the boat tours dropping groups off. Therefore, I can see this spot becoming more regulated as human behavior once again impacts the wildlife. Before that happens, we recommend that sensible and eco-minded travelers experience it.
After enjoying a relaxing yet energizing swim, we dried off and headed over to Pu'uhonua O Hōnaunau or Place of Refuge. The Pu'uhonua (one of many used in ancient times up to early 19th century) was a safe haven for those who broke the strict Kapu laws regulating every part of Hawaiian life (such as fishing from the chief's fishpond or eating with the opposite gender). The kapu system was based on beliefs about mana (spiritual power) and the fear of angering the gods. The penalty was death, but if you were lucky enough to make it into the Place of Refuge's giant walls, past the armed warriors or swimming through violent shark-infested waters, you were granted clemency and could live another day.
It is now a national park and has a wonderful self-guided walking tour. Lucas acted as our tour guide and took video narration of each of the sites within the park, so you could follow along (once he gets that uploaded). It doesn’t take much more than an hour even at a leisurely pace, but we all agreed it was an insightful peek into ancient Hawaiian ritualized life. We never learned the odds of someone making the journey successfully, but Lucas spent much of the ride back scheming ways that he would avoid the perils of the sea and the warriors. The rest of us did not have the confidence of an 11 year old boy and decided we were grateful we don’t live under such an oppressive kapu system.
#4: Pololu Valley Hike
This is soon to be Lucas’s #1 highlight; we have done it four times so far. It is 20 minutes from our house in Hawi, at the far east end of the northernmost road in Kohala district of the island.
It is a short and doable 1-mile roundtrip hike, but it is straight down and straight back up, so it is a good butt buster to work off the kalua pork and shave ice treats. The awe-inspiring scenic trail over the valley leads to a black sand beach. We have seen brave (or stupid) people in the surf, but it has violent rip currents and shore break so we have stayed out of the water.
Instead, the highpoint of this hike is the makeshift playground that has been created by locals throughout the hills and forests near the beach. So far we have found about a dozen rope swings and slack lines. Lucas can spend hours playing and swinging, especially if he has buddies with him. Even mom has braved a couple of them, swinging out over trees with stunning views of the ocean below.
The trail gets busy on the weekends and it a killer in the hot afternoon sun, but it is well worth it. Don’t let the steep grade intimidate you. We have seen very small children, older (not in great shape) people, and many tramping in flip flops. This trail doesn’t discriminate, so take your time if you need and enjoy the views. Pack a light picnic lunch and plenty of water to enjoy the area. However, don’t overstay because there are no bathrooms down there, so plan your bladder accordingly.
#5: Guided Petroglyph Hike and Other Free Cultural Offerings
Many of the Kona and Kohala coast resorts and shopping areas offer free weekly cultural opportunities for kids and adults. You definitely want to check these out. There is lei-making, ukulele lessons culture “talk stories,” hula and slack key guitar performances, and the Waikoloa Beach Resort Kings Shops offers one-hour guided tours of the ancient petroglyph trail three times a week. We showed up one scorching Tuesday morning and had a great time with our funny and eccentric Hawaiian guide Michaela share her wisdom and stories of the petroglyphs (drawings) carved into the lava field. It is a short but hot hike so bring hat, sunscreen, closed toed shoes and plenty of water.
We are so glad we had our guide’s knowledge with us because trying to decipher the drawings ourselves would have been nearly impossible. Who knew that circles with a dot in the middle meant “person”? Closed circle=male, open circle=female. (You can ponder the significance of that difference.) The bigger the dot in the middle, the bigger the “mana” or spiritual power the person had. It was another brief fascinating peek into Hawaii’s past and well worth the time. It is also right in the middle of a modern luxury development, so it nice to see that perhaps the two can co-exist.
Well, there you have our Top 5…so far. STAY TUNED for the next Trip Report: “Battle of the Beaches” to see where we recommend you spend your relaxation time on the Big Island.
Disclaimer: I hope our website subscribers are also following our Myers of the Move FaceBook page because that is the only place we have been consistently posting pictures and short info on what we have been doing during our time on the Big Island (primarily by Dan). In my defense, this first part of the trip has vacillated between super chill beach vacay with little to say, to simply settling/living in Hawaii with even less to say . We leave our six week “home” in Hawi in two weeks and will begin six weeks of travel, so we know there will be more trip reports to share. Thanks for continuing to journey with us!