It’s night-time and I’m bobbing in the ocean, patiently scanning the water through my snorkel mask, when a manta ray glides into sight, somersaulting just centimetres from my face. Suddenly the wait and the chill of the ocean (even through a wetsuit) are forgotten. My focus is solely on this magnificent velvety creature, which is hoovering up a snowstorm of plankton attracted by spotlights shining from our long raft. I know the manta ray won’t touch me – electro-receptors allow them to gracefully steer clear of objects in the water – but I squeal anyway through my snorkel. It’s so close, so big that it’s easy to imagine that this gentle giant of the sea could simply enfold me within its soft wings and whisk me away.
My pod of snorkellers is hanging out at the Manta Village – a spot just off the Island of Hawaii’s Kona Coast, which is home to about 150 manta rays. The origin of this extraordinary experience can be traced to 1972 when the Kona Surf Hotel (today the Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay) pointed a spotlight at the waves breaking onto the black-lava cliffs below. The light attracted plankton, the favourite food of manta rays, and the rest, as they say, is history. Today, diners at the hotel’s aptly named Rays on the Bay open-air restaurant can still see the manta rays offshore as they tuck into their mahi-mahi, Kona coffee-rubbed ribeye and lava-flow chocolate cake.
As we reluctantly farewell the feeding manta rays and climb aboard our catamaran to be taken back to shore, the crew tells us which rays swam with us tonight. They can identify each one thanks to distinctive markings on their underbellies and have given them names such as Jana Ray, X-Ray and Darth Ray-der.
The Island of Hawaii, known colloquially as the Big Island, is a 50-minute flight from Honolulu, and is all about big adventures just like this. The island is larger than life: not only is it the state’s largest island by area, it’s also home to Mauna Kea, the state’s tallest peak. The mountain, often frosted with seasonal snow, houses a cluster of world-class astronomical observatories at its summit. Visitors can ascend the summit on a sunset and stargazing tour (Arctic-style parkas with hoods are included in the tour price).
The best way to see everything the Island of Hawaii has to offer is to fly into one of the island’s two main airports – Hilo or Kona – and rent a set of wheels. You can also fly in to one and out of the other so there’s no need for backtracking or a full circumnavigation. This means you can, at your leisure, pop into upland villages such as arty Holualoa, above Kona, to browse the galleries (one is even devoted to ukuleles) and visit attractions such as the Kona Coffee Living History Farm in the town of Captain Cook. Nearby is the Captain Cook monument marking where the explorer was killed by Hawaiians in 1779. Hike to the waterside monument or take a guided kayak tour through an official operator. This area is inextricably entwined with the life story of King Kamehameha I, a revered figure who conquered and united the islands, formally establishing the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi in 1810 and developing alliances with colonial powers in order to preserve Hawai‘i’s independence. Kamehameha was reported to be over seven feet tall, which historians estimate by taking into account the length of his war spears and feather cape. (Hawaiian chiefs did not allow their feather capes to touch the ground). The monarch’s legacy lives on to this day – in the names of buildings and schools, a public holiday and annual festival in his honour. Statues of the great man can also be found across the islands.
South of Captain Cook, gain an insight into early Hawaiian culture at Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park, one of the state’s most sacred places. Take a self-guided walk to discover the former royal grounds and refuge for lawbreakers who could find absolution here. A serpentine scenic drive that winds through both green rolling countryside and barren volcanic plains leads to Volcanoes National Park (remember to pack for all types of weather – the island amazingly boasts 11 of the world’s 13 climate zones). I’m stupidly dressed for the Kona Coast’s blazing sunshine when I arrive in the national park to find a soft-focus landscape of misty rain and steam. I inspect steam vents, the vast Kilauea caldera and pore over exhibits in the Jaggar Museum dedicated to volcanology (one of the most fascinating items is the outfit of a scientist who took a wrong step in the field in 1985, ending up in molten lava but somehow surviving his mishap). Seeing the primal red glow from the caldera at night is mesmerising and a definite highlight. I stroll through a forest of tree ferns to traverse the Thurston lava tube that was formed 500 years ago but only discovered in 1913. Red-hot lava from the Kilauea volcano is currently flowing into the ocean near this part of the island – check what tours are available to see this phenomenon – including lava boat tours.
Hilo, a 40-minute drive from the park and the island’s biggest settlement, is near another attraction formed by molten lava. Boiling Pots is a series of vertical columns within the Wailuku River where the water appears to bubble whenever the river rises. It’s also worth exploring Hilo’s Lyman Mission House. The island’s oldest timber structure was built by missionaries in 1839 as their family home – over the years, guests included Hawaiian royalty and other notable visitors such as Mark Twain. The neighbouring Lyman Museum houses the world’s only display of the bones of two native birds – the Hawaiian rail and a now extinct flightless goose. Its collection also includes the only known specimen of the mineral Orlymanite.
Continue circumnavigating the Island of Hawaii to discover the paniolo – or cowboy – country up north. On a working cattle and sheep ranch such as Kahua near Waimea, visitors can try their hand at the paniolo life, riding a horse or quad bike around the stunning emerald-green countryside.
To get a sense of the ruggedness of the island’s northern extremities, head to the Waipi‘o Valley Lookout to see the dramatic landscape where King Kamehameha roamed as a boy. Go quad-biking around the rim, look for a waterfall to take a refreshing dip or head to North Kohala to fly across the forest floor on a zip-line.
The Island of Hawai‘i is a place unique in the world. Nowhere else will you find active volcanoes, rainforest, waterfalls, desert, snow-capped peaks, cowboy culture, adrenaline-packed adventures and a marine wonderland all in one location. While a few days on the Island of Hawaii will enable you to experience many of the destination’s attractions, one visit will never be enough….