Hawaii, known colloquially as "the Big Island" so as not to be confused with the state of Hawaii itself, has more than twice the land mass of the other islands in the Hawaiian archipeligo but a relatively small population. The biggest city on the Big Island is Hilo, which has only about 70,000 inhabitants and is the second largest city in the state after Honolulu. Although all the Hawaiian islands were formed by volcanic activity, the Big Island still has smoking volcanoes with actively flowing lava. It's no wonder, then, that Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is the most popular tourist attraction on the island, and a World Heritage Site. The Big Island does not have as many golden-sand beaches that other Hawaiian isles do, but it does have gorgeous coastline, plenty of black-sand beaches, sea turtles, a carefully preserved cultural heritage, snorkeling with giant manta rays, two charming small cities (Kona and Hilo), and so many exciting activities that it's been dubbed Hawaii's Island of Adventure.
Most tourists visit the Big Island in the summer and during Christmas vacation (from mid-December to mid-January), which are wonderful times to go. In the winter there is usually so much snow on Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea that locals like to drive up either mountain, fill their pickup truck beds with snow, and bring it back to the beach for snowball fights. The snow-capped mountains make a romantic backdrop to the surfing, snorkeling, and other beach-related activities your family might do. In the winter months you can also see humpback whales that swim to the Big Island from Alaska to breed, give birth, and enjoy the warm waters of Hawaii. However, during Christmas break and in the summer you can expect prices for hotels and activities to be much higher than during other times of the year. If you are looking for deals and have a more flexible schedule, prices drop the most in late May and early June, as well as in the fall.
Like all the Hawaiian islands, the weather and topography on the Big Island changes drastically depending on where you stay. The west side, shaded by the big mountains, is dry. The landscape on much of this side is the opposite of what you see on postcards: miles and miles of jagged black lava rock and straw-colored African fountain grass that turns a blue-green when it rains. This side of the island gets much less rainfall than the east side, which is tropical and lush and can be very rainy. Think rain as in light drizzle several times a day followed by a brilliant sunny sky however, not a miserable downpour. The temperature on the Big Island is pretty constant. The average temperature at sea level is about 85 degrees F during the day (29.4 C) though in the winter it can get as chilly as 78 (25.6 C) degrees. Expect temperatures to be about 10 degrees lower at night. Higher elevations tend to be cooler (between 45 and 55 degrees) and if you scale the larger mountains expect it to be below freezing. December and January tend to be the wettest months on the Big Island, another reason to visit during the off season.
There are two airports that service the Big Island (it's that big!): Kona International Airport is the larger one and has inter-island, international, and overseas flights. It is located about seven miles from Kailua, and 25 miles from Waikoloa. The other airport, about two miles east of Hilo: Hilo International Airport, is smaller, offering mostly inter-island flights. Many travelers who want to see as much as possible or are planning to visit more than one Hawaiian island arrange to fly into one airport and out of the other to cut down on driving times. There is no public transportation available from either airport. No matter where you are coming from, you will most likely be flying through Honolulu International Airport.
The vast majority of travelers from the mainland rent a car when they come to the Big Island. Available public transportation can be slow. If you plan to drive to more remote areas like the Waipi'o Valley or the summit of Mauna Kea, you will need a 4-wheel drive vehicle. But if your family is staying at a large resort and you don't intend to do a lot of exploring, you may not need a car at all. Some hotels offer shuttles from the airport, or you can take a taxi and then use the resort shuttle services once you arrive.
The Big Island Visitors Bureau is located at 250 Keawe Street in Hilo (Tel.: 808-961-5797). Their friendly staff can give you lots of information about tours and activities. Most hotel concierges also have discount coupons available for activities.
The Big Island is not cheap, especially if you stay in a resort area. But the more your family participates in local activities and eats at restaurants, the more money you will save. Several companies offer discounts, especially to the more expensive activities. The first place to check is with your hotel concierge or travel agent (if you are staying in a condominium with no front desk), who often have discounts available. You can also try Hawaii Savers or Big Island Discount. If there are certain activities you know you want to do, call ahead before you book to find out if they have coupons, family discounts, or seasonal specials available.
The land mass of the Big Island is 4,028 square miles, twice the size of Hawaii's four other islands combined, and the largest island in the United States!
The peak of Mauna Kea is 13,796 feet above sea level, making it the second largest mountain (after Mount Everest) in the world. However, if you measure the volcano from its base on the sea floor, it is much bigger than Mount Everest.
The Big Island is the birthplace of King Kamehameha I (1658-1819), who unified the Hawaiian Islands. He is often depicted in statues and paintings as having Greco-Roman features but in reality he looked very Polynesian. King Kamehameha also died on the Big Island.
Captain James Cook, the first European to visit the Hawaiian Islands, first came to the Big Island in 1779. It was also here that he was stabbed to death after a squirmish over a stolen boat in February of the same year.
Camping on the Big Island is an inexpensive alternative to staying at a hotel. You will find several options available in the county, state, and national parks, including cabins, tent sites, and back-country camping. Although many campers have had great success, it's important to research where you are going to stay. If you camp on the East side of the island there is a good chance that it will rain, so plan accordingly. There have also been safety incidents and thefts reported. The County of Hawaii requires that every camper have a permit, which can be obtained on-line (for an extra fee) or in person. Visit the County website or Konaweb.com for more information and to reserve a site.