Thursday, May 29, 2014

Free things to do on the Big Island

Ah, Hawaii! The mere word conjures images of a chain of unique islands, all with beautiful weather, crystal-clear waters full of colorful tropical fish, world-class beaches, and relaxation galore. On the flip side, visiting Hawaii means a long flight for most people, and although each island has its own attractions, none has a reputation for being particularly cheap to visit!

So... what can you do for free in Hawaii, using the Big Island (where I live) as an example? Here are a few ideas. Be aware that the island is almost as big as Connecticut, and while the bus system is currently free, the coverage and schedule aren't very good yet - so you will need a motor vehicle if you want to travel long distances, and in some cases, 4-wheel-drive is a must.

Note: This list is very much a work in progress! I've got a lot more to add, but decided to start off with ten things - I'm figuring more like fifty or a hundred - yes, really! - when I'm done. I'm going to put a list of things I've already thought of down at the bottom, too... If you have any comments, corrections, suggestions... lemme know, okay?
  1. Go to the beach! And then to another, and another, and another... there are dozens of beaches around the island, from top-rated white sand beaches on the west side to volcanic black sand on the east side, and even green sand. You can swim, snorkel, SCUBA, body-board, surf... or just lie around and get a tan. Hawaii law requires public access to shorelines, so there are a lot of beaches to choose from!
  2. Visit a waterfall, or two, or three... Rainbow Falls is located right on the edge of Hilo town, between downtown and the hospital. A bit upstream from it, Pe'epe'e Falls is in the Boiling Pots area of Wailuku River State Park. Less than fifteen miles up the Hamakua Coast is the town of Honomu, and above it, Akaka Falls State Park, with a paved walking loop to views of cascading Kahuna Falls and the park's namesake Akaka Falls, which plummets over 400 feet in a single drop.
  3. Have a walk or a picnic in Lili'uokalani Gardens, on the shores of Hilo Bay near the hotels in Hilo. This 30-acre Japanese water garden is the largest of its kind outside Japan! Its ponds are connected to the ocean, and serve as nurseries for tropical fish species. Pathways wind past Japanese stone lantern sculptures and a variety of trees and bushes.
  4. See dance exhibitions at the "Olympics of Hula," the Merrie Monarch Festival. The most prestigious hula competition in the world is held each spring in Hilo, and tickets are hard to find (although quite inexpensive)... but one night near the start of the festival is set aside for exhibitions of hula by halau (schools) from around the world, with free admission! A music festival on Coconut Island, dance events at Hilo hotels, and the festival-ending Merrie Monarch Royal Parade are also free.
  5. Tour the world's top astronomical observatory complex on Mauna Kea, the tallest mountain in the Pacific. You'll need that four-wheel-drive vehicle for this one, and there are a few rules: you must be at least 16, not be pregnant, not have a history of heart or lung problems, and not have been SCUBA diving in the last 24 hours. On a Saturday or Sunday, drive to the Visitor Information Station at the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy, located 9,000 feet up Mauna Kea, off Saddle Road. You'll need to be there by 1 PM, so leave Hilo by Noon, or Kona by 11:30. Mauna Kea rangers and volunteer tour guides (who include observatory staff and astronomy students from the University) lead a four-wheel-drive caravan to the top of the mountain, where the tour goes into one of the biggest observatories. You'll also learn about the cultural, historical, religious and ecological significance of the mountain, all its observatories, and some of the latest discoveries. The tour ends around 4:30 and you can stay on the summit for a high-altitude sunset before returning to the 9,000 foot level for an evening of stargazing through high-end amateur telescopes.
  6. Watch a triathlon. We've got many of them year-round, with the best-known being the Ironman Triathlon Championships, held each October between Kailua-Kona and the small town of Hawi in Kohala. Racers from all over the world (including, in 2005, at least one nun, and an 80-year-old!) swim 2.4 miles in the ocean off Kailua, then bicycle to Hawi and back (that's 112 miles), then run a full marathon. Bring a lawn chair, a sun umbrella, and your vocal cords, and cheer the racers on at any point along the route. There are also shorter triathlons throughout the year - and a longer one, the Ultraman World Championships in November, in which athletes take three days to do a complete lap of the island. Day one features a 6.2 mile ocean swim and 90-mile bike ride; day two a 171.4 mile ride, and day three a 52.4 mile double marathon. Feeling tired yet?
  7. Triathlons too overwhelming? Simplify things a little by watching a single-sport race. There's the Big Island International Marathon in March, which follows old roads through rainforests and small towns, then runs along the bay and ocean, ending in Hilo. There are the Volcano Wilderness Runs in July, including a marathon across terrain including fields of hardened lava. There's a run from Hilo to Volcano, a bicycle race from Hilo up Mauna Kea, swims, canoe races... you name it.
  8. Witness "Shakespeare in the Rain." Actually, it's called "Shakespeare in the Park" - free performances of a different Shakespeare play each summer in Kalakaua Park, located in downtown Hilo between the Post Office and the East Hawaii Cultural Center - but since Hilo gets more rain than any other city in the country, it's picked up a bit of a nickname. Some performances actually finish without any rain.
  9. Visit Laupahoehoe Point. 25 miles north of Hilo is the town of Laupahoehoe. Just north of the "horseshoe curve" around the river valley on the north side of town, a road winds down to Laupahoehoe Point, where a school was devastated by the 1946 tsunami. The rocky beach here is also one of the best places to look for Cowry shells; a few different species can be found.
  10. Take the Scenic Route! The modern highway along the Hamakua Coast between Hilo and Honoka'a actually follows an old railroad right-of-way. In the old days, the "highway" was a narrow, winding road which passed through rainforests and plantation towns, over stone arch bridges and past waterfalls. There are plenty of opportunities to turn off the highway for anywhere from a mile to five miles at a time - take Wainaku Avenue on the outskirts of Hilo, then turn into the Alae subdivision and follow the road past Honoli'i Surf Beach, through the rainforest to Pauka'a, come back out to the highway, turn off before Papaikou and pass through that town, cross the highway and go through the rainforest and along Onomea Bay to Pepe'ekeo. That's about ten miles, and you spent less than one mile actually on the highway. There are also scenic loops near Hakalau, Laupahoehoe, and Honoka'a.
  11. Learn about macadamia nuts, and eat a few, at the Mauna Loa factory.  Located between Hilo and Kea'au, off Highway 11 just south of the Panaewa Rainforest Zoo, this factory is surrounded by a 250,000-tree orchard.  A self-guided tour runs along the outside of the factory, with large windows providing views of sorting, packing and chocolate-coating portions of the asssembly lines.  The visitor center and gift shop has free samples of various products, and naturally quite a lot more available for sale.
  12. Look for endangered, endemic forest birds in the "Bird Park" located on Mauna Loa Road, just south of Volcano off Highway 11.
  13. Soak in a hot pond at Ahalanui Beach Park, a few miles south of Kapoho along Highway 137, the "red road." This park features a large rock-walled tidal pool, geothermally heated to a nice warm temperature. Good for swimming laps without ever getting cold.
  14. See lava tree molds, left behind when lava flows through forests, cooling and hardening where it touches trees, then receding elsewhere. Lava Tree State Park, on Highway 132 between Pahoa and Kapoho, has plenty, as do some areas of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

More: Check out the only zoo in the US that's in a rainforest. Visit the tsunami memorial. See exhibits in Wailoa Center. See Kamehameha the Great's birthplace, heiau, stones by Hilo library, and statues. Learn about the NW Hawaiian Islands at Moku Papapa. Go whale-watching (without going on a boat).  And Big Island Candies. And maybe even Volcano Winery. Watch the sun rise on the east side. Watch the sun set on the west side. Check out Painted Churches. Drive the Red Road. See Waipio Valley. Or Pololu Valley. See huge trees in Kalopa State Forest. Try a sample of a new fruit at a farmer's market. Smell some flowers. Eat free fruit along the road. Pick a wild flower. Go spelunking in Kaumana Cave. Visit the Anuenue Playground in Waimea - the big wooden one. Find the Captain Cook Monument. Go for a hike. Find the Douglas Monument. Watch Fireworks. Check out Wood Valley. Go to the southernmost point in the US. Take in some free concerts. Find famous people's names along Banyan Drive. Turtle Independence Day? Jump in the Ice Pond. Ride Hele-On. Tour NELHA? Visit the East Hawaii Cultural Center. See a Bonsai Repository. Lapakahi State Historical Park.

And in the "almost but not quite free" category... cheap second-run movies at the Kress Cinema in downtown Hilo!

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