Travelers may think of Hawaii as the land of surfboards, sunsets and mai tais, but there's a lava flow of reasons to go beyond the beaches and discover why residents say they are lucky to live in Hawaii. And, yes, some of the state's best beaches are found on the Big Island. But don't get stuck there. Do what the locals do:
Swim with the honu. There are five snorkeling areas along the Big Island's Kohala Coast: Puako Bay, Waialea Beach (Beach 69), Hapuna Beach, Mauna Kea and Mauume. You'll enjoy each for different reasons. The undersea life is abundant at all of them, and more often than not you'll encounter at least one of Hawaii's sacred honu, or green sea turtles. These protected creatures feed on the coral reefs just offshore, making an encounter likely. But even if you don't see turtles, there are thousands of brightly colored fish and even the occasional monk seal, manta ray or eel.
Be a Hawaiian cowboy. Most people think of Hawaii as a beach destination, but there's also a rich paniolo, or cowboy, history, particularly on the Big Island. For a glimpse, take an excursion to the town of Waimea, in the foothills of Mauna Kea. Here, in the heart of Parker Ranch country, horses and cattle outnumber people, and in the town's main shopping center, an oversized bronze statue of one of Hawaii's most revered paniolo, Ikua Purdy, is prominently displayed. If you are inclined to get astride a horse yourself, make a reservation with Harry Nakoa at Dahana Ranch (http://www.dahanaranch.com), who will impart the wisdom of his paniolo elders while leading you on an open-range adventure — no nose-to-tail rides here.
Run for your life. Triathletes know the Big Island for the
Farmers markets. The Big Island is the ideal place to start or maintain a healthful diet. There is such a bounty from the land and sea that it is easy to find fresh fish, organic and locally grown produce, just-out-of-the-oven breads and grass-fed beef from local farms. There are farmers markets all over the island; two of the best are found in Waimea and open Saturdays.
At the Parker School market (8 a.m.-1 p.m.), you'll find just-baked bread from Sandwich Isles Bread Co. (20 grain is my choice), a tempting assortment of agave-sweetened jams (try the guava), fruits and farm-fresh vegetable stands, orchid and plant booths, a masseuse, locally handmade soaps and creams, dog treats and prepared foods too.
The Hawaii Homestead market (7 a.m.-noon) has more organic produce, such as shiitake mushrooms, bushy bunches of kale and other leafy veggies, avocados as large as softballs and juicy, just-picked limes and lemons. Here, you also can find dark-roasted Kona coffee beans (as well as brewed samples) from Makua Coffee Co.}
Go whale watching. From early December through mid-April, Hawaii's waters are graced by the majestic kohola, or humpback whales. These gentle mammals can be easily spotted slapping tails, blowing spouts and breaching. You can watch from the beach, from many places where the highway runs near the ocean (there's usually a line of cars pulled over when whales are offshore) or from the deck of a sailboat. One of the best whale-watching cruise companies is Ocean Sports (http://www.hawaiioceansports.com), which also offers dolphin watching and snorkel cruises year-round. With five marine biologists on staff, one of whom sails with each cruise, an Ocean Sports adventure is as educational as it is fun.
Brew crew. There are two brew pubs on island, but Big Island Brewhaus in Waimea (www.bigislandbrewhaus.com) is where the locals go. A dozen or so handcrafted brews are made in the brewery out back. My favorite is the Paniolo Pale Ale, an American-style IPA; several of its beers have scored gold in national competitions.
Land of fire & ice. The Big Island is often called a "land of fire and ice." The "ice" because in winter months, the Mauna Kea is often snowcapped, and "fire" because of the active lava flow that has spewed from the Kilauea volcano for 25 years, running in bright red streams into the Pacific. The ideal way to see these exquisite natural beauties, as well as the island's gushing waterfalls, vast brown and black lava fields, dramatic cliffs and deep green valleys is with Blue Hawaiian Helicopters (http://www.bluehawaiian.com). One- and two-hour tours are offered, departing from Waikoloa or Hilo.
Visit the jungle. To experience the flora of Hawaii in all its colorful glory, visit the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden (http://www.hawaiigarden.com) eight miles north of Hilo. At this 40-acre manicured jungle you'll see 2,000 species of plants, including 200 types of palm trees and 145 varieties of flowering ginger, in addition to gushing waterfalls and squawking parrots. All that's missing are the genetically engineered dinosaurs.
Talk story, brah! In Hawaii, "talk story" can mean anything from two old friends getting together to catch up to a more organized storytelling celebration such as the Talk Story Festival, held annually in Honolulu. On the Big Island, each month on the Saturday evening closest to the full moon, the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel's cultural ambassador and respected kahu (Hawaiian minister and cultural guardian) Danny Akaka hosts "Full Moon Talk Story" on the lawn next to the hotel's Love Cottage. This free monthly gathering draws throngs of locals and visitors alike, who hear everything from Hawaiian musicians to island elders telling oral histories of Hawaii.