April 6, 2020

Big Island, Hawaii, USA

Mar 2015

Big Island is one of the eight major islands that constitute Hawaii State.  With 10,000 square km area and 186,000 population Big Island accounts for 63% of the land and 14% of the population of the State.

Big Island has two major towns:  Kailua Kona on the western shore (100 square km; 12,000 people) and Hilo on the eastern shore (150 square km; 43,000 people).

Azure shores with good surf,  cliffs by the shore offering spectacular views from both rock/sand and sea, rich vegetation thanks to lava enriched soil, healthy sunshine, and a tropical ecosystem all make tourism the mainstay of the economy.  Big Island receives around 2 million visitors a year.

Locals point out that the southern most point of USA is at Ka Lae in Big Island (19 degrees South) and not Key West in Florida (24 degrees South).  Pedantic clarify that the southern most point of USA is actually the Amundsen Scott Station in South Pole (0 degrees South) since US proclaims South Pole as US territory (although this is not conceded to by any other country in the world).

We split our time in the Big Island between Kailua Kona and Hilo.

Main reason most people choose Big Island over the other seven major islands of Hawaii?  Spectacular seashore.

Kailua Kona Seashore at Kona Sheraton

Kailua Kona Seashore at Kona Resort

Kailua Kona Seashore

Kailua Kona Seashore

Kailua Kona is a small town with one main street along the coast and a few shops catering to needs in surf and sand.  A short drive north takes you to Waikoloa village where shopping centers have luxury brand stores.

Kailua Kona Town

Waikoloa Shopping Center

The Luau dinner and dance shows let you have a taste of Polynesian food and Polynesian entertainment.  You are encouraged to join the performers in singing Hula songs.

Luau dance and dinner show

Luau dance and dinner show

The holiday spirit propagated by the Luau show is infectious.  Tourists are happy to join the fun.

Wife sporting a Lei garland and posing with two colorful friends

My main reason to go to Big Island?  Astronomy.

Mauna Kea, the volcanic mountain in the northern half of Big Island, is a special place for skywatchers.  It is ideal for watching the night sky.  The mountain is located in an island that is not awash with light pollution in the night.  The air is clear and weather good.  The summit is above cloud level and provides a view of the sky without getting affected by water vapour in the atmosphere.  And all this at a reasonably low altitude!

Our first glimpse of Mauna Kea (with the peak seemingly covered by clouds)

Atop Mauna Kea.  The clouds are below the summit.  Clear view of the sky.

Mauna Kea therefore is most suited for both optical and infrared observations.  The summit's "Astronomy precinct" has thirteen observation facilities funded by eleven countries.  The crown jewels are the Keck I and Keck II observatories which have the largest light gathering power on the planet.  (The only thing with a better view for the human race is the Hubble Telescope in outer space).  The mirrors in Keck I and Keck II can adjust 2,000 times a second to compensate for changes in atmospheric conditions to provide a consistently clear picture of the target.

Mauna Kea's biggest accomplishment so far?  Observed "EGSY8p7" galaxy that is 13.2 billion light years away from earth (while the universe itself is just 13.8 billion years old and the farthest that we can see, in theory, is 13.8 billion light years away).  About as close as we could get, so far, to the Big Bang!

Our guide took us to their private observatory (with three telescopes) and gave us a spectacular presentation of the night sky.  We were lucky to see Jupiter, Saturn, and their moons that night.  And the best show of that day: a full moon with as much clarity as you can get of your neighbor's yard!

The Keck I and Keck II observatories.  Most advanced in the planet.

We had to wait patiently for the sunset.  A beautiful sunset.

Two tips if you plan to visit Mauna Kea:  Tip One: Yes, it is Hawaii, but carry warm clothing.  The summit gets quite cold even in summer.  Tip Two:  A visit to watch the sky atop the summit is a five hours affair.  The only thing you get at the top is hot water.  Carry an instant noodle cup.  (We were lucky to receive the tips "before" our journey).

Another fun thing to do in Kona is a journey under water to look at the sea bed, the corals, the sting rays and the shipwrecks of XIX century.  We went in "Atlantis" submarine to have a look.

Underwater trip:  A dive that went wrong!

About 10,000 hump back whales migrate from south to north using the Pacific route just before summer.  About two thirds of them go via Big Island and Alaska.  Our guide quipped that for the humpbacks, Big Island is the bed room and Alaska is the kitchen.  We saw some impressive breaching by three males to attract an uninterested female.  Sorry, no pics.

At Waikoloa, reporting for whale watching cruise

Wife aboard whale watching cruise

A loan paddler, also on a whale watching trip of his own

We drove from Kailua Kona to Hilo along the western, northern, and eastern shores.  The drive offered awesome views of the landscape and seascape.

Drive from Kailua Kona to Hilo around Big Island

Hilo is a bigger town and the capital of the Big Island county.

Hilo High Street

Our first stop in Hilo was at Akaka Falls.  You get to the right shoulder of a deep gorge to see the water fall into the gorge.  The falls are 135 m tall (about thrice as high as Niagara Falls but the flow is not copious).

Akaka Waterfalls in Waipo Valley

The best way to see the falls is by zip lining over the gorge.  It was quite a thrill.

Big Island has two active volcanoes in the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.  The park itself is expansive with an area of 1,300 square km.

We drove to the caldera of Mount Kilauea, one of the active volcanoes.  In day time all you get to see is dry steam spouting out of the crater and other crevices.  After sunset, you get to see the bright reddish orange glow from inside the crater.  (In May 2018, the volcano had a big eruption and the park was shut down for 4 months).

Of course, the best starting point is to walk through one of the dormant lava tubes.

Walk through a dormant lava tube

Volcano Kilauea during day time

Volcano Kilauea Crater during day time

Visitors gathered around crater for sunset

Crater of Volcano Kilauea after sunset

The next day morning we took a heli ride over the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Aboard helicopter on way to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

South Eastern Coast of Big Island.  Reason why the beach is a major tourist attraction

Volcano Kilauea from afar

Flying around the crater of Volcano Kilauea

Flying over Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

We ended the heli ride with a look at the Akaka waterfalls plunging into the gorge.

Akaka Waterfalls as seen from helicopter

Would we go back to Hawaii again?  Of course yes.  One reason:  Mauna Kea.  The world has many beaches and many volcanoes.  There is just one place where you can watch the night sky with brilliant clarity.  And peer into our own origins 13.8 billion years back!  Mauna Kea.

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