I’m floating face down, bobbing about on the ocean waves. Through my snorkel mask, I see a large shadow swirling in the dark waters below. A giant manta ray bursts into view. The young female is large—10 feet from tip to tip – but she glides through the water with grace.
With her mouth wide open, she feeds on tiny plankton. She dives and flips, coming up straight toward me. Thrilled, I hold my breath as we come belly to belly. Just a foot apart, I look into her eyes as she glides by.
Within minutes, several other giant manta rays join her – and then there are five huge manta rays swirling in the water below. It’s exactly the kind of encounter I’d hoped for during our trip on the Island of Hawai’i.
Manta Ray Adventure with Anelakai Adventures
We’re on a nighttime manta ray snorkel experience with Anelakai Adventures, a locally owned, eco-friendly outfitter. Anelakai takes a different approach to ocean excursions. Instead of using a motorboat, six guests and several guides paddle out in a double-hulled canoe.
At a spot just offshore, those who want to snorkel get in the water between the double-hulled canoe. Those who prefer to watch stay in the canoe. Special lights between the hull draw the plankton which draw the manta rays. Great care is taken not to disturb the animals. We simply float and watch their dance below.
Vacation on the Island of Hawai’i
The ocean adventure is the kickoff to our vacation on the Island of Hawai’i (known in the past as the Big Island). My husband, Benjamin, and I plan to spend eight days exploring its beaches, rainforests, volcanic mountains and lava deserts.
You can drive around Hawai’i’s largest island in just eight hours, but why rush? We plan to take our time exploring Hawai’i Island’s different regions.
The island’s five volcanoes – Kīlauea, Maunaloa, Maunakea, Hualālai and Kohala – create many different climate zones, from wet tropical to hot desert to polar tundra. The youngest in the island chain, the Island of Hawai’i’s volcanic roots are easily seen in vast lava flows on the island.
Our first glimpse of that was along the runways at Kona International Airport, built on an 1801 lava flow. Landing on a sea of volcanic rock can be a shock. But visitors needn’t fear; Hawai’i’s colorful flowers, coconut trees and beaches are just a few minutes drive away.
Stay in Kailua-Kona
For the first part of our trip, we rent a condo in Kailua-Kona, a busy seaside town 15 minutes south of the airport. Once a sleepy fishing village, it’s home to resorts, shopping, dining and beaches.
Kailua-Kona is filled with fun restaurants and shops, and it’s a good base for exploring the island. During our time there, we dine at Huggo’s, Huggo’s on the Rocks, Foster’s Kitchen and Magics Beach Grill. All provide excellent dining experiences.
One afternoon, we stop at Kona Brewing Company. As Hawai’i’s largest craft brewery, their beer is known across the country. We sample several craft beers, including a few with a tropical twist.
King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Resort
We’re not far from the iconic King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Resort. The property is located on the historical grounds of Kamakahonu Bay, where the famed Hawaiian King Kamehameha the Great spent his last years. Ahu’ena Heiau, a temple of peace and prosperity, was built by King Kamehameha I between 1812 and 1813 to honor Lono, the god of fertility. Today, it is a National Historic Landmark.
We learn more about King Kamehameha the Great on a cultural tour at the Courtyard Marriott King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel. Kalei, our guide, shares stories of Hawai’i’s history, culture and values.
King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Resort has an impressive collection of Hawaiian art and historical artifacts depicting traditional life in Hawai’i through various ages. Hearing Kalei’s insight as we view these beautiful pieces makes the experience even more meaningful.
Hula is the most powerful expression of Hawaiian culture, she says. The chants and dance are an oral history that has been passed down from generation to generation.
We learn more about hula at the hotel’s Island Breeze Luau which takes plan on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursday evenings. Held along the shore of Kamakahonu Bay, the lū‘au offers an all-you-can-eat buffet of traditional Hawaiian cuisine, as well as Polynesian hula performances. It features the arrival of the Royal Court aboard an outrigger canoe.
Snorkeling at Kahalu’u Beach Park
For me, Hawai’i means time at the beach. The Island of Hawai’i offers some of the best snorkeling and diving in the Hawaiian Islands.
One of my favorite snorkeling spots is Kahalu’u Beach Park, which is not far from Kailua-Kona. Reefs protect the bay, providing safe waters and abundant sea life—I see a spotted boxfish with her big, doey eyes, comical blue spine unicornfish, yellow tang and more.
Pu‘uhonua o Hōnaunau
One morning, we follow the coast south to Pu‘uhonua o Hōnaunau, also called the Place of Refuge. Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau holds an important place in Hawaiian history and culture. The 180-acre national historic park was once the Royal Grounds and place of refuge for ancient Hawaiian lawbreakers.
If someone broke sacred laws, their only chance at redemption was to make it to the Place of Refuge. The site possessed the mana (spiritual power) of the 23 ali‘i (chiefs) whose bones were protected in the Hale o Keawe temple. Today, the area remains an important part of Hawaiian cultural life.
Punaluu Black Sand Beach
Continuing south, we stop at Punalu‘u Bake Shop, the southernmost bakery in the USA. They specialize in malassadas, a sweet bread that was introduced to the islands by Portuguese immigrants. It’s a Hawaiian favorite.
Then it’s on to Punaluu Black Sand Beach. The island has white, black, salt and pepper and even green sand beaches. Punaluu is one of the most beautiful. Its black sand bay is ringed by tall coconut trees. We’re delighted to see four large Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles resting on the shore.
Volcanoes National Park
The Island of Hawai’i has two active volcanoes. Maunaloa is the largest active volcano on the planet and makes up 51 percent of Hawai’i Island.
Kīlauea is the other active volcano. It has erupted on and offer over the years, to the delight of visitors. But no matter when you visit, Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park is well worth the trip.
We start our visit at the visitor center to learn about the park. Kīlauea and Maunaloa are sacred landscapes deeply connected to Native Hawaiian culture, and witnessing an eruption is considered a sacred event.
The park offers a ranger-led tour called Exploring the Summit which is a 45-minute walk on a paved trail to the crater. You’ll learn about the volcano, along with Hawaiian culture and stories of Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire.
Conditions can change so check the National Park Service website before your visit. Download the free NPS app, which has a wealth of information. The park can be crowded during high season, so try to arrive before 9 am or after 9 pm. The park is open 24 hours a day.
Wailea Horseback Riding on Hawai’i Island
Hawai’i Island has so many experiences for visitors, that’s it hard to choose sometimes. At the Umauma Experience on the east side of the island, we get to experience two outdoor adventures in one day.
The Umauma Experience is a premier adventure destination on the Big Island of Hawai’i. They began offering zipline tours in 2009 and soon added a diverse array of adventure experiences, including zipline, kayak, ATV adventures and more.
We start off with horseback riding. Hawai’i Island has a ranching history, and that paniolo tradition continues at Wailea Horseback Adventure. This fun excursion includes both horseback riding and the chance to swim in waterfalls – what a great combination!
The experience with Wailea Horseback Adventure starts with a leisurely ride through tropical green fields, with our guide pointing out flora and fauna along the way. Eventually, we come to beautiful Umauma Falls, where we stop for a picnic and a swim in the waterfalls. (Bring your own picnic food.)
Our small group is the only one there. The water is cool but refreshing as we swim alongside the rushing falls.
Umauma Experience ATV Adventure
That afternoon on the same property, we join the guided Umauma’s Deluxe ATV Experience. During the 1.5-trip, we ride through the Hawaiian countryside and then stop to view gorgeous tropical scenery along the way. At the waterfalls, we snack on fresh fruit. Some jump in and swim. It’s a fun way to spend the afternoon.
Kohala Coast: Two Nights at The Fairmont Orchid
For the last two nights of our trip, we head to the Kohala Coast, home to white sand beaches and luxury resorts. Our base here is the lovely Fairmont Orchid, which has more than 30 acres of lush tropical gardens, waterfalls and a white sand beach and lagoon. Our spacious room has a beautiful view of the ocean.
Dining at Brown’s Beach House is our favorite dining experience of the whole trip. This upscale restaurant at the Fairmont Orchid is known for its fresh seafood, locally grown produce and inspired cuisine.
What makes it truly incredible is its beachside location overlooking the sea. The romantic setting gets even better as the sun begins to sink below the horizon, painting wide swathes of orange across the sky.
Morning Canoe Trip to Greet the Arrival of the Sun
At 6:30 am that next morning, we paddle out into the bay on an outrigger canoe to witness the arrival of the sun over majestic Maunakea.
This special experience is an option for hotel guests. Our guide, Elisha, grew up on the island, and he shares his love of the island along with many good stories. When the sun begins to rise, he blows the conch in welcome, chanting an ancient Hawaiian ‘Oli, a chant of gratitude. Then we are silent, listening to the waves in a moment of reflection. It’s a very moving experience.
Sea, Sun and Sunsets
We spend our last day in Hawai’i simply relaxing at the Fairmont Orchid. Some resorts are so lovely that they are a destination all their own. The Fairmont Orchid is one of them.
With the hotel’s Fun & Sun Activity Pass, we have access to snorkeling gear, standup paddle boards, kayaks, boogie boards and more. Along with its large pools, Fairmont Orchid has a nice beach, including Pauao Bay. Protected by natural sea walls, the bay is perfect for swimming, standup paddleboarding and snorkeling, and is home to a healthy coral reef. We also snorkel out along the shoreline, where we see sea turtles, puffer fish, and much more.
As the sun sets that evening, we dine in the warm night air at Hale Kai, the other oceanside restaurant at the Fairmont Orchid. Sitting under waving palm trees, we watch the sun sink into the waves. It’s a perfect night to be in Hawai’i.
Janna Graber is a staff writer at Go World Travel Magazine. She has covered travel in more than 65 countries. She is the editor of three travel anthologies, including A Pink Suitcase: 22 Tales of Women’s Travel.
Book This Trip
You can see the best spots of Waikoloa on a tour with GetYourGuide. Check out the Big Island: Full Day Adventure through Kohala Waterfalls to enjoy nature, swimming and a private picnic with the family or a loved one. Book your dates for this tour here and cancel anytime up until 24-hours before the event so you can plan stress-free.
Start planning your adventure on the Big Island today! First, you’ll want to check out Hawaiian Airlines for exclusive non-stop flights and discounted packages to the Hawaiian airports here. Next, be prepared for everything else on your trip like hotel or VRBO options, beach hikes and favorite restaurants of the locals by visiting Travelocity and TripAdvisor.
To really get the most out of your Hawaiian vacation head to GetYourGuide. Experience the island on top-rated tours like the Kona Whale Watching Cruise or the Afternoon Snorkeling Sail to Captain Cook’s Monument. Find more tour options and activities here. Book now and cancel anytime before 24-hours of the event for a full refund.
Author Bio: Janna Graber has covered travel in more than 65 countries. She is the editor of three travel anthologies, including “A Pink Suitcase: 22 Tales of Women’s Travel,” and is the managing editor of Go World Travel Magazine.