A place where cowboys ride the range, manta rays dance, whales sing and the views of the the night sky are unrivaled might sound like make believe — but it's not. It's called the Island of Hawaii — better known as the Big Island — and its wonders are manifold. Mere sightseeing, however, hardly does justice to the natural splendor of this place. Here are our picks for the best ways to get up close and personal with the treasures of the Big Island.
Volcanoes and Vino
Perhaps the best place to forge memories on Hawaii Island is Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. But you'll find more than just rugged fields of lava here. Within the 333,000-acre International Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site there's much to be seen — from frozen lava flows to tropical rain forests.
Those who enjoy cycling and wine tastings will want to sign up for Bikevolcano.com's guided Bike Kilauea Volcano & Wine Tasting Tour. The five-hour tour begins with cycling the rim around the summit of currently erupting (!) Kilauea. From here, cyclists continue through a rain forest to Kilauea Iki Crater. Bikes parked, participants can explore Thurston Lava Tube.
Next, the route continues to Chain of Craters Road for views that range from lava trees to the Ka'u coastline. Post lunch, there are optional wine tastings at the Volcano Winery.
For more information about Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, visit www.nps.gov/havo/ or phone 808.985.6000. To learn about Bikevolcano.com tours, visit www.bikevolcano.com or phone 808.934.9199.
Snow and Stars
There are many sacred sites on Hawaii Island, but literally topping them all is Mauna Kea.
Measuring 32,000 feet from the ocean floor to its summit, it is the world's tallest mountain. The views from the summit of this volcano (one of five volcanoes that make up the island) are spectacular. Several of the world's leading observatories make their home here.
A great way to experience the mountain is through Hawaii Forest & Trail's Mauna Kea Summit & Stars Adventure. The eight-hour tour is only open to those 16 and older and certain health restrictions apply.
After a picnic dinner, guests are given hooded parkas and gloves, then pile into a 4X4 that transports them 13,796 feet upward to Mauna Kea's summit to catch the sunset. You can also glimpse telescopes from 13 countries, including the twin Keck telescopes, the earth's largest optical and infrared telescopes.
To learn more about Hawaii Forest & Trails programs, visit www.hawaii-forest.com or phone 800.464.1993. To learn more about the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy Visitor Information Station, visit www.ifa.hawaii.edu/info/vis or phone 808.935.6268.
Whales and Manta Rays
North Pacific humpback whales migrate from Alaska to Hawaii for their mating and birthing season from December through April. Though whales can be seen from shore, a whale-watching tour can often get you within 1,000 feet of this endangered species.
One to try: Jack's Diving Locker's snorkel, dolphin and whale-watching cruise. The four-hour-long cruise takes off from the Kona Coast, passing resident spinner dolphins along the way. Bottlenose dolphins, spotted dolphins and pilot whales might also make an appearance. And you'll marvel at the graceful moves of the majestic humpback whales. The tour includes a snorkeling stop at one of Kona's many pristine reefs.
For more information about tours with Jack's Diving Locker, visit www.jacksdivinglocker.com or phone 808.329.7585.
Home on the Range
The wide-open spaces of Hawaii Island call to cowboys at heart. Cattle ranching began in Hawaii in 1793 with the arrival of the first livestock. Horses followed in 1803, as did Mexican and Spanish vaqueros brought to the islands by King Kamehameha to teach the locals horsemanship and ranching. Hawaii's paniolos, or cowboys, were born.
On horseback rides offered by Paniolo Adventures, amateur cowpokes mosey to the 11,000-acre Ponoholo Ranch to suit up in provided dusters, chaps, boots and cowboy hats, then choose from five rides befitting various skill levels — the Paniolo, Wrangler, City Slicker, Picnic and Sunset rides — or private customized rides.
For more information visit www.panioloadventures.com or phone 808.889.5354.