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Sunny adventures await Alaskans on Hawaii's Big Island

Scott McMurren
Sunset on the Kona coast, Hawaii.
Scott McMurren photo
Snorkeling in the clear waters of Kealakekua Bay, an underwater park.
Scott McMurren photo
Dolphins swimming beside the boat on the way back from Kealakekua Bay.
Scott McMurren photo
Looking down on the Kilauea Volcano.
Scott McMurren photo
Pulling some "G"s in our A-Star 350 helicopter around the rim of the Kilauea Caldera in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
Scott McMurren photo
A Keauhou morning. This is Keauhou Bay in the foreground, with Mauna Kea in the background.
Scott McMurren photo

Who remembers "Adventures in Paradise," that old -- OK, really old -- TV show that ran from 1959-1962? It was the story of an American captain (Adam Troy) sailing his boat around in the South Pacific. They were having fun in the tropics, sure. But it was all about GTD (getting things done)!

To me, that's the story of Hawaii's Big Island. Sure, there are a couple of beaches for lolly-gagging and suntan-oil-rubbing. But the real action is all of the exploring to be done. There are huge volcanoes, giant coral reefs, massive tropical fish and lots of delicious food to fuel the adventure.

This is more important for Alaskans now that Alaska Airlines started non-stop service between Anchorage and Kona, on the Big Island's sunny west coast. The new flights depart each Saturday, returning on Sunday. That means you have to stay a week. Or two. The weekly nonstops will fly between now and April 2013.

On the Nov. 10 inaugural flight, a whole herd of pasty-faced sun-starved Alaskan sun-seekers boarded a brand-new Boeing 737-800 jet with the fancy new Sky interior. There are some tricky "mood lighting" effects for longer flights, but the big improvement is the massive overhead storage bins. That's good news for travelers like me who hate to check bags. 

Kona International Airport at Keahole is equidistant from the popular resort areas on the northwest coast around Hapuna Beach (Waikoloa and Kohala areas) and the town of Kailua-Kona to the south. From the center of town, there is a string of oceanfront condos and resorts along Ali'i Drive that ends at the Sheraton Kona, which sits on a promontory overlooking Keauhou Bay.

Snorkeling Kona's coral reefs

The first remarkable quality you'll notice when you land is that there is nothing but lava all over the place. The airport appears to have been chipped out of the lava to provide for a smooth 11,000-foot strip to land the big jets. That's not far from the truth. Lava is everywhere, underscoring the Big Island's place in the Hawaiian chain as its youngest island. It's definitely a work in progress -- with the volcanoes on the other side of the island making new real estate every day!

My friends who love to golf stay along the northern area around Waikoloa. It's always sunny and there are lots of golf courses. There are beautiful resorts like the Hilton Waikoloa Village. And what the resorts lack in natural beaches, they make up for in massive pools, complete with swim-with-the-dolphins options.

I love to snorkel -- and it's a popular activity along the Kona coast. There are miles of coral reefs that teem with tropical fish. We sailed on the Fair Wind II from Keauhou Bay. It's a 45-minute cruise down the coast to Kealakekua Bay. The bay is an underwater park -- and there is a monument commemorating Capt. James Cook, who died here during a battle on Feb. 14, 1779.

The Fair Wind II has a couple of water slides and all the snorkeling gear you could wish for. The water is clear-clear-clear. After getting folks suited up and in the water, the crew starts working on lunch. Snorkelers on the morning cruise (departing at 9 a.m.) have an hour in the water before lunch, then an hour to swim around afterwards. I saw moray eels, millions of yellow tangs, some parrot fish and, of course, the humuhumunukunukapua'a swimmin' by (aka "trigger fish").

If you love snorkeling during the day -- try it at night. The Fair Wind also offers an after dark snorkeling adventure to see the manta rays at Keauhou Bay. The Hula Kai goes from the Keauhou pier about 800 yards and parks just offshore from the Sheraton Kona. Then staff lowers a powerful light deck into the water, which draws the manta rays closer!

If you don't want to go swimming at night, just book a table at Ray's on the Bay at the Sheraton Kona. After the boats depart at around 8:30 p.m., the manta rays are attracted to the lights outside the restaurant. I saw one big ray slowly swimming back and forth across the lighted area of the water, casually flipping over to the collective "oohs" and "ahhhs" of folks having dinner!  

While snorkeling at Kealakekua Bay is spectacular, there are other snorkeling opportunities right at the beach, including close-in Kahaluu and the City of Refuge National Historical Park, Pu'uhonua O Honaunau.

The parking lot to access the best snorkeling at City of Refuge actually is adjacent to the national historical park. But you should make time to walk through the City of Refuge. The park is a sacred site. In old Hawaii, if you broke a law, the only penalty was death -- unless you could reach the refuge. Learn all about the carvings and the structures and the story behind the refuge.

How to see Hilo side

I talked with several folks who planned to go snorkeling, then take a day drive around the island to see Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Don't do it. They don't call it "The Big Island" for nothing. Even though it's less than 100 miles from Kailua-Kona to Volcanoes National Park, the road is skinny and they drive slower-than-slow. Never mind there are dozens of incredible spots where you have to pull over and snap a picture. It's just incredible.

So -- dedicate a day or two to drive over to the Hilo side and see the volcano. There are several volcanoes on the island, but it's the Kilauea volcano that is oozing lava. If you only have a couple of hours, take the Crater Rim Drive, where you can stop and see the Kilauea caldera and all sorts of lava. There are several trails where you can strike out on your own as well. Parts of the road are closed due to volcanic activity. Check with the rangers when you get to the park for area-specific alerts.

Bring a jacket and some sturdy walking shoes. The park is at a higher elevation and it can get cold, windy and rainy. Be prepared.

For a bird's-eye view of the lava flows, check in with Blue Hawaiian Helicopters at the Hilo Airport. It's a quick flight over to the park and our pilot got us up-close-and-personal to the hot, flowing lava. From the air, of course, you get a great perspective of the massive scale of Kilauea's incredible lava footprint. The air tour also hugs the coast and several miles of lava cliffs. Soon, park officials anticipate this latest lava flow will reach the sea!

If I had more time, I would have booked a trip to look at the stars from Mauna Kea. It's very clear, which is why all of the observatories are at the summit. Hawaii Forest and Trail offers a tour to the summit at 13,796 feet. It's a great place to watch the sunset. Afterwards, descend to the 9,000-foot level for stargazing.

The Big Island has lots of other fun activities for everyone, including fishing, bicycling. Thankfully, some of the world's best coffee comes from Kona to help you stay awake!

Online resources:

Hawaii, the Big Island (Official Visitor SIte): http://www.gohawaii.com/big-island

Kona Historical Society (including information on the coffee growing regions): http://www.konahistorical.org

Kona Brewing Company. These folks have a brewpub in Kailua. Alaska Airlines serves its "Longboard Island Lager" on the nonstop from Anchorage. http://konabrewingco.com

Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based travel marketing consultant who has lived in Alaska for three decades, spending much of that time traveling the far-flung corners of the state. Visit his website at www.alaskatravelgram.com or follow him on Twitter for breaking travel news.