Adventures in Miniature Mainland

The Big Island, otherwise known as Hawaii Island, is the youngest and, in this writer’s humble opinion, most diverse of the American isles of paradise.  Why do I think it’s the most diverse?  Well, for starters, you can go from the white snowy peak of Mauna Kea down to the beaches that seemingly have contracts with the sun in the same day, on the same island.  Depending on who you ask (and I asked almost every Big Islander I encountered) about Big Island’s climate range, you’ll get everything from, “11 of 13”, to “I used to know that when I went to UH Hilo” to “I know we don’t have tundra.”  Jessica Ferracane, of Big Island Visitors Bureau demystifies the query and tells us, “We have all but two of the world’s main climate zones, Ice Cap (think Arctic/Antarctic), and continental/microthermal climate (think Siberia). Neither of which anyone misses too much.”  American social historian and educator Daniel Boorstin once said, “The traveler was active; he went strenuously in search of people, of adventure, of experience. The tourist is passive; he expects interesting things to happen to him. He goes “sight-seeing.”  In this veritable “miniature Mainland,” passive is hard to come by (unless you actively try.) Read on and discover ways to maximize your adventure travels on The Big Island of Hawai’i, an Adventureland for all ages.

Nothing says “stellar” like the tallest sea mountain in the world.  At more than 33,000 feet, Mauna Kea is home to thirteen working telescopes.  The University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy website explains “they include the largest optical/infrared  telescopes in the world (the Keck telescopes), the largest dedicated infrared telescope (UKIRT) and the largest submillimeter telescope in the world (the JCMT). The westernmost antenna of the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) is situated at a lower altitude two miles from the summit.”  For a guided tour which includes a warm dinner at their private picnic spot, the trip to the summit, tantalizingly warm (and highly necessary) parkas, hot chocolate an unyielding star hunt and great storytelling, Hawaii Forest and Trail is hard to beat.  When our sister group had a problem with their tour bus, Hawaii Forest and Trail guide Jon Knight lived up to his name and came to the rescue, bringing them up in time for this glorious sunset.

Sunset atop Mauna Kea
Sunset atop Mauna Kea

If you’re a do-it-yourself kind of traveler (and love to drive), visit for information on the visitors center, which is open 365 days year, weather permitting. They offer a free telescope show every night.

Lists are a huge part of any type-A personality (guilty), so when my Mom told me that on top of her bucket list was ziplining, my heart swelled with pride.  I daresay my Mom is growing up to be a great adventurer (funny how that happened once my sister and I finished school).    The thrill-search began when we arrived at The Umauma Experience just north of Hilo town. Certified guides helped us soar over almost two miles of rainforest river gorges, 14 waterfalls (including the jaw-dropping grandeur of triple-tiered Umauma Falls) and Hawaii Island’s longest zipline at 2,100 feet!   Tony DeLellis, one of the owners of Kapohokine, told us about their name, “We thought that Kapoho, and the Puna District, was the neatest, most dynamic place in Hawaii.”  If you seek a thrill with a healthy heaping of fun, the ennead lines of Kapohokine Adventures will satisfy and have you coming back for more.

Zip Tips:

  1. Vertigo will dissipate around line 3, by line 7 you’ll wish you could zip forever.
  2. Don’t worry if you get stuck, the patient and professional zip guides are heroes ready to crawl to the rescue.
  3. Please tip your guides, no matter the job envy you might experience.  They work hard to keep you safe.

*At time of publication Kapohokine Zipline is closed for the season but does offer several other tours to quench your adventure-seeking thirst.  Please find them online at


Photography by Mario Peña & Katherine Hsia. 1.Tri-tiered Umauma Falls, 2. Koppen Climate Map of Hawaii, 3. Big Island’s Longest Zipline, 4. Green Sand Beach, 5. Sunset atop Mauna Kea, 6. Karaoke at Lulu’s, 7. 18 holes in Paradise, 8. Pristine Beach from the Air, 9. Sea Cliffs from the helicopter, 10. Our pilot tells us it’s the first flow he’s seen in months, 11. Chased by a Double Rainbow.

Protected by majestic Hualalai Mountain, Kona Country Club is a respite from the long drives to travel from Kona to Hilo (especially if you happen to have a legendary encounter with Madame Pele on Saddle Road.) Bordered by black lava rock, their diverse mauka(mountain) and makai(ocean) courses are at once challenging and yielding and offer plenty of eye candy vistas. If you don’t play, experience the joy of driving the golf cart, which can be just as fun!

Remember the active inactivity we were talking about?  After a day golf, adventure over to Ho’ola (“to heal” in Hawaiian) Spa located at the Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort where you can experience Hawaiian-style lomilomi massage to the sound of the ocean on their secluded sea terrace.   The vigorous kneading of lomi lomi is known to relax tense muscles and stimulate blood flow.  Don’t miss the steam sauna (complimentary with any massage) complete with 7-headed Swiss shower to cleanse and close the pores after the steam draws out draining impurites.

Once your body’s been melted by massage, use that newfound relaxed and opened mind to become a professional singer (or at least a paid singer) at Sunday Night Karaoke at Lulu’s, Ali’i Drive, Kailua-Kona: where THEY pay YOU ($1 per song.)  Adventure, adventure, adventure… at least if my singing is any benchmark!

If you're happy and you know it, sing a song (and get paid) at Lulu's in Kailua-Kona.

Last but certainly not least, a visit to Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park (comprised of the active volcanoes Kīlauea and Mauna Loa), specifically seeing lava flow create new earth, is a once-in-a-lifetime, not-to-be-missed, chicken-skin/goosebump giving encounter for any traveler worth their salt.  Best way to see it?  By air.  In a fraction of the time it would take you to drive, and with the manuverability to get as low as 500 feet from the ground, Paradise Helicopters gets you to the places of your dreams.  Of course, timing is a factor, as Pele (the volcano goddess) is a fickle-minded wahine.  Taking a helicopter adventure has the advantage on other tours of showing you heart-stopping vistas which make a view of lava just the cherry on top.  On our tour we were followed by double rainbows, witnessed hundreds of waterfalls from a new sprinkle of Hilo rain (did you know that Hawaiians have dozens of words to describe rain?  No two are alike, and many say, “the smaller the rain, the bigger the blessing”), wafted over Papakolea Beach — otherwise known as Green Sand Beach (one of two green sand beaches in the world) — accessible by an hour long 4×4 drive, an arduous and sweltering hike or by climate-controlled and cushy helicopter (not that we have a preference), and had the august privilege of seeing flowing lava pulsing from the Earth.

As always, the information contained in this article is accurate at time of publication.  Research=safety (even on an adventure).  Happy Travels!

Katherine Hsia

Known affectionately as "the wandering concierge," Katherine segued a hospitality career in fabulous New York City into a life pursuing her passions of writing, adventure and travel on the spectacular island of O'ahu. She is a freelance writer for publications such as Honolulu Magazine, Hawai'i Parent, Freesurf, and more, while working on her Hawaiian comic and non-fiction book. She enjoys seeing life for its whimsical beauty, great meals with good friends, her love affair with travel, and being overstimulated by new experiences. Want to get in touch with Kat? Add her on facebook or send her a message on her website,, where she's been known to get her blog on.

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