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4 Reasons Why the Big Island Is the Best Hawaiian Island

Stephanie Launiu is a Native Hawaiian lifestyle and cultural writer. She has a degree in Hawaiian Pacific Studies. She lives in Hilo.

Orchids grow profusely on the Big Island

Orchids grow profusely on the Big Island

The Big Baby of the Hawaiian Archipelago

At over 4000 square miles in size, Hawai'i is the largest of the Hawaiian islands and has more acreage than all of the other islands put together. It is also the youngest of the islands.

The Island of Hawai'i, commonly called the ‘Big Island’, is also known as the ‘Orchid Isle’ because of the abundance of the tropical flower that grows effusively here. The Island of Hawai'i shares its name with the entire state of Hawai'i, which can be confusing to those who don't live here. The word “Hawai'i” has sacred meaning in the Native Hawaiian language and has no literal English translation.

Native Hawaiians call the island—Moku o Keawe—The Island of Keawe. A chief in the 17th century, Keawe‘īkekahiali‘iokamoku, was renowned for the peace and prosperity of his reign, and his name will be remembered forever after in the traditional name for the island.

The artist, Herb Kawainui Kane's painting of King Kalaniopu'u welcoming Captain Cook into Kealakekua Bay, 1779.

The artist, Herb Kawainui Kane's painting of King Kalaniopu'u welcoming Captain Cook into Kealakekua Bay, 1779.

Hawai'i is the southernmost in the Hawaiian island chain. It was on the southern shores of Hawai'i that the first Polynesian settlers made landfall in their outrigger canoes several hundred years after the birth of Christ. And it was into Kealakekua Bay in the island's Kona district, in 1779, that Captain James Cook of Great Britain sailed the HMS Resolution, revealing Hawai'i to the rest of the world.

Notice I didn't say that Captain Cook 'discovered' Hawai'i, as most of the history books say. Obviously, the Polynesian settlers discovered it because they were there when Cook landed.

1. Live Volcanoes

The Big Island has grown over the years as Kilauea Volcano's eruptions added new land onto an already large island. The most recent eruption in the Puna District from May to August 2018 was particularly destructive. Flowing lava covered over 14 square miles and destroyed more than 700 homes. But it also added 875 acres of new land when molten lava reached the ocean and hardened.

A trip to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is a must for any island visitor, and many residents visit the park regularly for the many special events that are held there throughout the year. Before you make a trip to the park, be sure to check out their website for park hours, advisories about weather conditions or ongoing eruptions, and how you can visit the Volcano Art Center, the Thurston Lava Tube, the Kilauea Visitor Center, and other natural attractions in the park. There is also lodging at the national park at the Volcano House or campsites that can be reserved in advance.

Volcanic eruptions and flowing lava are miraculous natural wonders. This is one of the best guides on how to safely view lava when you visit the Big Island: Lava Viewing Guide for the Big Island.

2. Spectacular Natural Beauty

Hawai'i is such a large island that it takes 6-8 hours of straight driving to get around it without stopping. The best advice is to allow yourself at least 2-3 days to travel around the island—a week is better.

Wherever you’re headed, make sure you do it in daylight because Big Island roads are not always well-lit at night in some areas and there are places where your cell phone may not pick up a signal.

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Hawai'i is simply a gorgeous island. Three huge mountains dominate the island scenery and slice through the island landscape.

  • Mauna Kea (meaning ‘white mountain’ because of the snow that covers its peaks during winter),
  • Mauna Loa ('long mountain') and
  • Hualalai (named after the wife of Hawai'i Loa, an ancient Hawaiian navigator).

Hawai'i is so geologically diverse that on an around-the-island visit, one might experience heavy rainfall in the east, snowfall on Mauna Kea, the Ka’u desert region in the center of the island, and drought conditions in the west. Hawai'i tends to be lush, green, and humid in the eastern Hilo side and drIer on the western Kona side.

Hawai'i has 4 out of the 5 major climate zones present in the world:

  • Humid tropical climate - present islandwide at various times
  • Dry climate (arid and semi-arid) - present in Kona, Ka'u and Kohala districts
  • Temperate climate
  • Polar climate - snow caps present on highest mountains in winter

Your time on the Island of Hawai'i will best be spent reveling in the natural beauty that is everywhere. Waterfalls like Akaka Falls and Rainbow Falls. Deep valleys like Waipi'o where people still grow taro and where King Kamehameha was raised as a boy. Tropical rainforests and the Pana'ewa Rainforest Zoo with its display of tropical plants and flowers. Wonderful beaches with lava rock shorelines and sand that can be white, green or black.

Hawai'i is known for its agricultural products. Much of the local economy is linked to growing coffee, macadamia nuts, tropical flowers, bananas, and papayas. Small farms specialize in growing vanilla, oranges, cocoa beans and cultivating honey.

Kids on the Big Island love the ocean, even if many shorelines are rocky.

Kids on the Big Island love the ocean, even if many shorelines are rocky.

3. The People

The people of the Big Island are hard to describe, but easy to love.

  • They are scrappy and tenacious. They jump into the ocean from lava-rock beaches. They enjoy life while the volcano erupts miles away.Their kids play soccer and adults run marathons in the pouring rain.
  • Some still live "off the grid" by choice—foregoing electricity, cable TV, refrigeration, running water and flush toilets—just to enjoy a debt-free existence and a simpler lifestyle. In the Puna District where lava has flowed recently, they have learned to farm on land that has the shallowest dirt and an underbelly of hard lava.
  • The Big Island is home to the 'paniolo' culture—the Hawaiian cowboy. Nestled between Hilo and Kona is Waimea, a small town with a big cowboy heart where Parker Ranch is the largest working cattle ranch in the state.
  • Many Big Islanders are descendants of Japanese, Chinese, Filipino and Portuguese plantation workers who lived and worked in the shadows of sugar mills that dominated island life for generations. On a drive across the island, you will still see the remnants of the old sugar mills that belched acrid smoke in towns like Pahala, Hakalau, Kea'au, Honoka'a, Hawi.
  • They are "keepers of the flame". Many Big Islanders protest the encroachment of commercial development like the type that has taken over large parts of O'ahu. TMT—the thirty-meter telescope proposed to be built on Mauna Kea—has been a hotbed of debate between astronomers and the Native Hawaiian community who consider Mauna Kea a sacred site. You won't see high rises or freeways here. There are no Super Walmarts. And there is only one modestly-sized covered mall on the island.
A family protesting construction of the thirty-meter telescope on Mauna Kea's summit.

A family protesting construction of the thirty-meter telescope on Mauna Kea's summit.

The modern "keepers of the flame" make sure that Native Hawaiian culture is perpetuated. The University of Hawai'i at Hilo is well-known for its Hawaiian language program, and was the first institution in the U.S. to offer a doctorate in an indigenous language. For more than 50 years, the Merrie Monarch Hula Festival has been held in Hilo during the spring. It draws thousands of visitors and is streamed live around the world.

Hula schools (known as hālau) dance each year at the Merrie Monarch Hula Festival in Hilo.

Hula schools (known as hālau) dance each year at the Merrie Monarch Hula Festival in Hilo.

Edith Kanaka'ole (1913-1979) is credited with much of the re-emergence of education in Hawaiian language and culture on the Big Island.

Edith Kanaka'ole (1913-1979) is credited with much of the re-emergence of education in Hawaiian language and culture on the Big Island.

The Big Island has given birth to generations of cultural icons who have laid the path for today's re-emergence of native language and culture.

  • Helen Desha Beamer (1882-1952), a gifted songwriter and hula master.
  • Mary Kawena Puku'i (1895-1986), a scholar, dancer and composer. She co-authored the definitive Hawaiian-English dictionary with Samuel Elbert, and translated and published books of Hawaiian folk tales, legends and proverbs.
  • Edith Kanaka'ole (1913-1979), dancer, chanter, composer and advocate for Hawaiian cultural education.
  • 'Iolani Luahine (1915-1978) considered to be a high priestess of the ancient hula.

Just like the volcano that continues to birth fresh lava, the Big Island continues to birth fresh talent in a young generation that loves their island.

Downtown Hilo

Downtown Hilo

4. There's Nothing City-Like About the Big Island

After you’ve spent time on O'ahu there is nothing city-like about the Big Island.

The two main towns on the island are Hilo in the east and Kailua-Kona in the west. There are decent sized airports at each location. Hilo International Airport kept the 'international' in its name even after international flights stopped. Only United Airlines has a direct flight to and from Hilo to the continental U.S. Most visitors take an interisland flight from Hilo to Honolulu and get on a mainland flight there to return home. Unless you are flying on United directly to Hilo, you will probably stop at Honolulu before transferring to a Hilo flight. Both Hawaiian Air and Southwest have interisland flights between Honolulu and Hilo.

At the Kona International Airport, international flights come in from Vancouver and Japan. At this writing, there are domestic and interisland flights in and out of Kona on Alaska Air, American, Delta, Hawaiian, Makani Kai Air, Mokulele, Southwest and United.

Visitors to Moku o Keawe will be immersed in a rural island setting. Although there are a couple of Wal-Marts on the island, a Costco in Kona and an adequate number of grocery stores, pharmacies, fast food establishments, restaurants and service businesses, it is nothing like O'ahu. And that’s exactly the charm of the Big Island. Like the early Polynesian settlers and Captain Cook found, the Island of Hawai'i is there to be discovered…

Kona sunset

Kona sunset

My Favorite Guide to the Big Island!

Detailed map of Big Island of Hawai'i

Detailed map of Big Island of Hawai'i

© 2012 Stephanie Launiu

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