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Hawai i, HI

DescriptionKīlauea volcano's fiery red lava streams down ocean cliffs. A group of scuba divers watches an underwater ballet performed by massive manta rays. Tourists and locals alike tan their hides on a sun-splashed Kona beach. Hikers in a pristine rain forest admire a postcard-perfect waterfall. At sunset, atop 13,796-foot-high Mauna Kea volcano, photographers aim at pink clouds for their winning vacation shot.

The “Big Island” of Hawai‘i has it all. And your biggest headache won't spring from one-too-many mai tais, but rather from planning on how to see it all in one trip. It's not going to happen; this place measures a whopping 4,028 square miles (larger than all the other islands combined). So, slow your roll, and for at least a portion of your stay, let Hawai‘i happen to you. Who knows what will lead you to that gorgeous beach absent of people, a surprise sea turtle sighting or that flawless cup of Kona coffee?

Of course, some pre-trip planning is essential, and the first question a Hawai‘i Island novice asks is “Where should I stay?” A vast majority of visitors choose hotels and condos on the island's western (leeward) coast, also known as the Kona coast. Why? You can almost always count on warm, sunny weather and the beaches are the island's best. Toss in Hawai‘i's main air hub (Kona International Airport), plus the restaurants and shops of the Kailua-Kona area, and voilà—you've got tourist central.

On Hawai‘i's eastern (windward) coast sits laid-back Hilo, the island's capital city and one of the rainiest spots in the country (an average of 130 inches falls each year). The upside of all that sogginess is a lush mosaic of brilliant green rain forests, tumbling waterfalls and verdant valleys. This is the tropical island paradise of your daydreams, and even if you don't stay here (a vacation rainout is a very real possibility), a day trip is a must.

In the bucket list department, Kīlauea volcano has been erupting intermittently since 1983. If you're lucky and the Hawaiian volcano goddess Pele is cooperating, the sight of blistering hot magma pouring from the earth is one you'll never forget. Should volcanic fireworks elude you, don't dismiss Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park entirely. This beautiful, fascinating park warrants at least 1 full day of exploration.

Sitting atop the “Hawai‘i hot spot,” the volcanic source of the entire island chain, Hawai‘i Island is the state's youngest, feistiest star. It broke the ocean surface about a million years ago and has grown at a steady clip ever since. Five major volcanoes comprise the island. The three oldest and northernmost volcanoes are Kohala (extinct), Hualālai (dormant) and Mauna Kea (dormant). The latter's sometimes snowcapped peak is home to astronomical observatories equipped with seriously powerful telescopes.

Busy making Hawai‘i Island even bigger are newcomers Mauna Loa (the most massive mountain on the planet) and Kīlauea, which are within Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. Since 1983, Kīlauea lava flows have added more than 500 acres of new land to the island's southeast coast. Hawai‘i was a tad smaller around A.D. 500, when people from the far-flung Marquesas Islands first paddled their canoes onto the Hawai‘i Island shores. Little is known about these mysterious first settlers. About A.D. 1000, voyagers from Tahiti crashed the party and established the ancient Hawaiian culture we read about in history books. Later, Hawai‘i was the birthplace of King Kamehameha the Great, who would go on to conquer and unify the other islands before dying peacefully in Kailua-Kona in 1819.

Forty years prior, another legendary figure met his maker on Hawai‘i. Only British explorer Capt. James Cook's arrival at the pearly gates wasn't nearly as pleasant. In 1779, natives clubbed and stabbed Cook to death in a fight over a stolen rowboat. Ironically, the site of this ugly scene, Kealakekua Bay, is arguably the most beautiful snorkeling spot in the state.

Surfing. Exceptional diving. Kayaking. Fishing. Hiking. Historic sites. Luxury resorts and spas. Golf. Lū‘au. The Kona coffee up-country. A dazzling sunset at an open-air, beachfront restaurant. All this and much more awaits on Hawai‘i, a microcosm of the entire state. Just remember, the island is big. Budget ample time to drive from one spot to another. And most importantly, leave your worries at home, ease your mind and embrace the aloha spirit.

Full-day island and volcano excursions are available through Gray Line; phone (808) 833-3000 or (888) 206-4531.

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Hawai i, HI

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