Earning its nickname for the orchid flowers that thrive in the dark volcanic soil, the island of Hawaii is also referred to as simply “the Big Island.” It’s a fitting title, as many things here happen on a bit grander scale: the distances, the mountains and the views. Few other places in the world can you swim in tropical waters in the morning, then stand atop a snow-capped peak two hours later. Or transition from lush rainforests to cool grasslands then move on to arid lunar-like coastal flats in the same afternoon. From the quiet luxury resorts of the Kohala Coast to the fiery energy of Kilauea, it is an island of contrasts and wide-open spaces.
1 Land of Fire
This is the youngest island in the Hawaiian chain, and it’s still growing. Volcanoes National Park is one of the only places in the world where you can come face-to-face with an active volcano and see the still-smoldering remains of a lava flow emerge and flow into the sea, creating clouds of steam as the molten rock cools to form new land.
2 Room to Roam
The Big Island isn’t just a slogan. At 3,000 square miles, it’s almost twice the size of all the other Hawaiian Islands combined. A “once around” driving tour will put more than 200 miles on the odometer, and it’s possible to visit 10 climate zones ranging from tropical to polar.
3 Snow in the Tropics
T-shirts emblazoned with “Ski Hawaii” aren’t a joke. Towering nearly 14,000 feet above sea level, Hawaii’s two major volcanic peaks—Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa—are sometimes covered in snow during the winter. Adventurous skiers and snowboarders ride to the summit of Mauna Kea on four-wheel-drive vehicles for a chance to glide on “pineapple powder.”
4 Open Range
Hawaii is cow country. The Parker Ranch is one of the oldest working cattle ranches in America, and at a quarter million acres, it’s half again the size of the entire island of Molokai. Hawaiian cowboys, known as paniolos, stage a rodeo each Labor Day, and the ranch is open for horseback tours year-round.
5 Home of the Iron Man
Each October, the town of Kailua-Kona hosts the world’s most famous endurance race: the Iron Man. The race was born in Oahu, but moved to the Big Island in 1981 to take advantage of the uncrowded roadways for bikers and runners, and Kona’s expansive sheltered bay for swimmers.
6 Golf Galore
In a state known for golf, the Big Island offers not only the most chances to play a round, but also many of the best opportunities. Some of the most stunning courses are those on the Kohala Coast that place green fairways against a backdrop of jet-black lava flows. A total of 23 courses on the island provide everything from affordable, democratic play to some of the most storied holes in the sport.
7 Big Fish
Trophy game fish swim close to the island’s western shore. The two largest blue marlin in the world were landed in Kona, as well as the most fish over 1,000 pounds. Prime fishing grounds are just a short run from Honokohau Harbor, and seas are usually calm, as the prevailing trade winds are blocked by the island’s towering volcanoes.
8 Black Sands
When lava rock is ground fine by wind and waves, the result is black sand, and the Big Island has some of the finest black sand beaches in the world. The easiest to reach is Punaluu Beach, which lies just to the east of the island’s southern tip. If you are driving a circle tour of the island, make sure to look for it between mile markers 55 and 56 on Highway 11.
9 Legendary Coffee
Kona coffee is prized for its rich flavor, derived from the fertile volcanic soils and cool mountain air that envelops the slopes where coffee plants thrive. Scattered throughout the Kona district are coffee farms, which offer tours and tastings. The small town of Holualoa, known for its art scene, is a good place to start a caffeine quest.
10 Totally Tubular
When lava spills from an erupting volcano, it sometimes flows in subterranean conduits called lava tubes, which eventually cool to create caves. At sites like Kaumana Cave near Hilo, visitors can walk more than a mile into one of these former lava highways, which are now refreshingly dark and cool.