Efforts to preserve Hawaii’s ancient culture and unique natural beauty make it a prime destination for repeat visits

By Joan Brown

Courtesy of Joan Brown


No matter how many times we come to Hawaii, the magic of the Big Island spins a web that makes us want to linger. Who wouldn’t yearn to stay a little longer where stars spill from the skies, whales come to winter and petroglyphs share the secrets of the islands’ past? It’s enough to make even the most jaded traveler regain a sense of wonder.

There are the smiles, the upward lilt of island voices, the sheer beauty of nature and the compelling stories of its traditions. Where else could one view mysterious and majestic manta rays as they gracefully glide by in the night to feast on plankton just offshore? Discover a monk seal sunning on the beach? Or a welcoming committee of goats grazing on the tee box of a golf course?

Only here could we play a golf course like the Makai where we can’t get enough of the peacocks, hens and their babies, wild turkeys and abundance of island birds that will parade by us, even if they do make it hard to keep one’s eye on the ball. Not yet as densely populated as Oahu and Maui and almost always sunny, the Big Island of Hawaii calls us back most often.

On Mauna Kea, the clarity of the mountain top’s atmosphere makes it an ideal site for astronomical observatories. Yet far below we find ourselves gaping in awe at a black velvet sky strewn with more stars than we can begin to name. Islanders have given nature an added boost by installing amber street lights and black screens.

Ancient trails trace the 20-mile shoreline along the island’s Kohala Coast along which one can easily explore some of the petroglyphs displayed behind the Kings’ Shops and along the Waikoloa Beach Golf Course. We found the Puako Petroglyph Preserve with its 9000 images most impressive.

Courtesy of Big Island Visitors Bureau

Unlike our first visit to that site when we hiked there on our own in the heat of the day, we set out a second time on a complimentary tour early one morning with a native-born guide from the Fairmont Orchid at the Mauna Lani Resort.

During a long hike that begins along coral sand beaches, we learn that the initial walking difficulty varies with the season, as the high surf of the winter months pushes coral onto the beaches, forcing visitors to make their way along black lava and coral strewn pathways. By the end of the year, the trail is again an easy walk.

In the process of converting the lava fields to resorts, many petroglyph-carved rocks were found, carefully set aside and preserved in the area we’re now exploring. Happily, builders have become increasingly “green” in their recognition of the need to respect and preserve both nature and culture.

A petroglyph of a man holding a paddle overhead tells us of the first settlers’ transportation. Figures with fuller hips and narrower shoulders belong to women. A stickman with three marks above his head, a cloak suspended from his shoulders, reveals that, in the pecking order of the day, he is the ruling chief. And the turtle, honu or amakua, pictured in rock carvings was considered a family guardian by early Hawaiians.

As we hike, our guide reminds us of Hawaii’s roots, describing how man got here in the first place. When the ancient Tahitians who discovered and settled the Islands studied the stars by which they navigated their large canoes, they also noted the habits of a white bird called the Golden Plover. Much like the whales, it migrated to Tahiti each November, but departed again every May. Observing this, the Tahitians reasoned that, since these “snowbird” visitors were not equipped with the webbed feet that would allow them to rest on ocean waters, they had to have found a place to make landfall somewhere along the way to a distant summer home.

Packing their 60-foot canoes with three months of provisions, the Tahitians set out on their own 3000 mile journey. They brought only pigs, chickens and dogs. Cattle, goats, donkeys and horses came later.

It is thought the first settlers to the Big Island arrived in winter, in time to view the snow-covered mountain dome they named Mauna Kea, or White Mountain. When Laurance S. Rockefeller, working with local government, chose the lava fields of the Kohala coast, with its perfect white sand beach and ideal year round sunny weather, as the ideal site for the area’s first luxury vacation destination, this was the name he chose as well.

Over forty years ago, the Mauna Kea resort was dedicated with a traditional Hawaiian blessing ceremony and still remains an oasis of quiet, understated Hawaiian elegance. A self-guided tour through the hotel and grounds offers the chance to view one of the island’s most extensive collections of Pacific and Asian art.

Even the golf course created there by Robert Trent Jones was designed with an eye to preserving nature. After first crushing the barren lava rock into soil, Jones maintained the integrity of the coastal site, using native vegetation like fountain grass and wild ilima to landscape it. Such indigenous plantings attract birdlife.

And the locally grown fruit and vegetables, fish and beef draw humans to the island’s fine dining. Merriman’s Restaurant in Waimea is famous for their use of island-fresh cuisine and now visitors can also find it at Merriman’s Market Café in Waikoloa. Gourmet meals abound along the Kohala coast and oceanfront lunches and dinners at the Mauna Lani, Mauna Kea and Four Seasons resorts are among our favorites.

For a taste of old Hawaii, you also won’t want to miss dinner at the one of the oldest and best restaurants, the Bamboo in Hawi. Be sure to check on when slack key guitarist John Keawe is scheduled to appear and try to schedule your reservations for that night. His wife Hope performs the most graceful hula you’ll ever see.

For a waterfront meal in Kailua-Kona, you can’t beat Huggo’s for either lunch or dinner. Roy’s Waikoloa Bar & Grill in the Kings’ Shops in Waikoloa is a must as well if Asian fusion is your passion.

Between the winter months and mid-April, be sure to include at least one whale watching trip. Approximately 5,000 humpback whales migrate to Hawaii each year and, despite the fact that you may well see them spouting and breeching from a beach or balcony, there’s nothing like the excitement of following a pod and getting a front-row seat at their marine show.

For even more dramatic and primordial theater, delve into the inner-workings of the Big Island’s Kilauea Volcano. Here one can view the forces that continue to create the Hawaiian Islands and learn about their unique ecosystems.

You’re sure to run out of time before you’ve run out of wonders to explore. But there’s always the wish list for next time. Who can resist the call of an earthly paradise where one can slumber beneath a shower of stars?

JOAN BROWN traveled the globe for many years, pulling up roots and relocating. She continues to explore the world, now as a travel writer who shares her wanderlust experiences with others after returning to the stability of her home base in Washington State.