Tropical medley

BIG ISLAND, HAWAII — The natives here have a charming custom that captures the bewildering geographic diversity on the Big Island, a 4,028-square-mile hunk of cooled lava in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

During the winters, residents make an excursion to the summit of Mauna Kea, which is nearly 14,000 feet above sea level. They fill a cooler with snow, and then drive about 90 minutes to the white sand beaches of the Kohala Coast, where the sun shines 357 days of the year and the average temperature is 78 degrees.

The Hawaiians unpack the cooler, build a snowman on the beach and then have their photographs taken next to Frosty.

Climatic shifts this dramatic are why many visitors find the Big Island endlessly fascinating. True, it might not have as many beaches as Maui or boast the nightclub scene of Oahu. But the Big Island is hands-down the most interesting of the eight islands in the Hawaiian archipelago.

It has the only perpetually erupting volcano in the U.S. It is home to the world's tallest mountain. (Mauna Kea is 33,476 feet high, measured from the Pacific floor.) It has a beach with sand the color of charcoal briquettes, and another with the green-gray hue of olives, though the surf makes swimming in either dangerous. And the locally grown Kona coffee make the island a mecca for java drinkers.

The still-growing island contains some of the driest places on earth and some of the wettest. Drivers will pass miles of black lava boulders with a distinctly lunar feel. And then, in the space of a few hours, the landscape will be transformed into the most spectacular rain forest imaginable, with waterfalls fed by the 129 inches of precipitation the area gets each year.

Given that variety, it's impossible to sample all of the Big Island's delights in the space of one short week. But here are four attractions you won't want to miss:

Volcanoes National Park

This is the Big Island's top tourist attraction, and it is not to be missed. There's so much to see that an overnight stay nearby is highly recommended.

Kids, in particular, will get a kick out of walking through the underground lava tube. Aboveground, hikers will find steam vents that convey some sense of the volcano's intense heat and numerous lookouts from the crater rim that provide panoramic views.

The four-mile, two-hour trek into the crater itself on the Kilauea Iki Trail is otherworldly and unforgettable, but be warned: much climbing is required over massive lava boulders, and visitors shorter than 5 feet tall might find the trail tough going.

Tip: To see any lava, you'll have to drive about an hour from the park itself to Kalapana, and the best viewing is after sunset. The outbreaks of molten rock resemble a Morse code writ in bright red and ending with an explanation point, where a fiery plume of steam rises straight up from the sea. Boat tours will take visitors closer, at a price: Lava Ocean Adventures charges $180 for adults and $120 for children, but prices are subject to change.

Kohala Coast beaches

By far the best swimming beaches on the Big Island are on the Kohala Coast, though getting there can be a bit surreal. After driving past miles of sand-blasted, parched lava rock dotted with white stones spelling out messages ("Jenny + John"), you'll spot far-off dabs of green — vast resorts created for the privileged and maintained in this unlikely spot by advanced irrigation techniques. The contrast can take on vaguely Third World overtones.

Still, the beaches are breathtakingly beautiful. The three best:

•Anaeho'omalu Beach (the natives call it A-Bay), which has salt-and-pepper sand, the most shade and world-famous sunsets. It's also more natural and less manicured than some of the others. This beach is rockier than some others; bring water shoes.

•Hapuna Beach State Park is frequently described as one of the most scenic beaches in the world, and there is ample parking near the stretch of powdered-sugar sand. If only the public facilities were as pristine, this beach would be nearly perfect; even so, it's probably the most heavily visited beach on the island.

•For sheer natural beauty, Kauna'oa Beach, which is fronted by the Mauna Kea Resort, can't be beat: a sparkling, white crescent fringed by palms and surrounding an ocean of the most transparent blue. This is where you can snorkel near green sea turtles (don't touch — they are a protected species) or order a beachside cocktail.

Tip: All beaches in Hawaii are open to the public. The Mauna Kea Resort is required to set aside 30 spaces for non-hotel guests, though these passes get snapped up early each day. Luckily, there's a loophole: Make arrangements to play golf or have lunch at the resort, and your car will be valet-parked for free. Your hamburger might set you back $20, but it will be so worth it.

Stargazing on Mauna Kea

The recent paving of the Saddle Road circling the mountain has been a real boon to travelers, who finally can visit the world's tallest mountain without violating their rental car agreements.

If you thought Mount Everest was bigger, think again. Because 60 percent of Mauna Kea is below sea level, Everest has the highest elevation. But when measured from tip to toe, Mauna Kea is about 3,800 feet bigger than its Nepalese rival.

Drive up through the clouds to the visitor center at 9,300 feet, walk to the top of the lookout point in time for sunset and then hang around while professional astronomers point out the different sky formations.

Tip: Even in the warmest months, bring winter clothing. A windbreaker won't do the trick, and neither will loose layers. If you don't pack the heavy-duty stuff — a fleece or down jacket, wool hat and gloves — you might just find yourself paying for a $125 poncho at the visitors center.

Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden

I've always loved Winterthur in Delaware and Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania, but the Big Island's 40-acre botanical wonder just north of Hilo is far and away the most exquisite garden I've ever seen.

The 2,000 species grow with such rampant abandon, it's hard to believe that many didn't exist in that place before 1984.

During the two-hour walk, we passed a bromeliad hill, a lake filled with water lilies, a palm forest, an orchid garden, perhaps a dozen varieties of ginger, and such assorted tropical delights as blue hibiscus, tillandsia, heliconia and the ubiquitous plumeria trees with their white, yellow and scarlet blossoms.

And that's not even counting such tropical rainforest wonders as the waterfalls, the sea views and the colorful, caged macaws.

Tip: This is the only place on the Big Island where mosquitoes are a problem, but these bite with a vengeance. Bring bug spray, and lots of it.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

If you go

I always think that it takes one trip to figure out the ins and outs of any vacation destination and a second trip to profit from them. Here is some of the practical know-how that my friend and I gleaned during our week on the Big Island:

Getting there

The biggest drawback to Hawaiian travel has always been the plane flight, which is long and correspondingly expensive. I met an Australian visitor whose travel time was two hours shorter than my own 14-hour flight. Round-trip air fares generally can be found for about $900 with one or two connections. If you shop around and fly multiple airlines, you might be able to shave another $100 off the total.

Getting around

A car is a necessity for exploring the island. Luckily, rental rides are affordably priced. We reserved a subcompact during the high season for $185 (including taxes) for the week, and before we left the lot, it was upgraded to a midsize vehicle. That deal partially offset Hawaii's expensive gasoline. In August, fuel was selling for $3.85 a gallon in Kona and about 20 cents less in Hilo. Shopping club aficionados should fill up at the Kona Costco, which has by far the lowest prices in the area.

Attractions

Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, 27-717 Old Mamalahoa Highway, Papa'Ikou 96781. Located about 7 miles north of Hilo, this tropical wonder offers self-guided and guided tours. Admission is $15 for adults and $5 for children ages 6-16.

Mauna Kea, whose name means "White Mountain," is an inactive volcano with a 14,000-foot summit. The visitor information center is located at about 9,300 feet and is open 9 a.m.-10 p.m. every day. Go to http://www.ifa.hawaii.edu/info/vis/

Lodging

Many visitors to the Big Island rent condominiums or own timeshares. But there's also no shortage of more traditional inns. Here are a few to consider:

Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, 62-100 Mauna Kea Beach Drive, Kohala Coast, 866-977-4589, princeresortshawaii.com. At the upper end of the price scale, this resort was built by Laurance Rockefeller, and the staff is so accomodating they would probably carry you to your destination. Room rates range from $299-$1,025 a night.

Hilo Bay Hostel, 101 Waianuenue Ave., Hilo, 808-933-2771, hawaiihostel.net. At the opposite extreme, the Hilo Bay Hostel on the rainy side of the island is safe, clean and located in a restored 1913 hotel complete with caged parrots. The hostel also offers rock-bottom rates: from $25 per night for a bed in a dorm to $75 for a private room with a private bath. Like most hostels, this one is particularly suited for young travelers who won't be put off by the lack of standard amenities, or the hostel's sociable (and noisy) vibe.

Waimea Garden Cottages, P.O. Box 563, Kamuela, 808-885-8550, waimeagardens.com, which are a 15-minute car trip from the Kohala Coast, are priced somewhere in the middle, with rooms renting for $165-$180 a night. Bonus: the kitchenettes are stocked with breakfast food.

Information

For more on visiting Big Island, go the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau's website at gohawaii.com/big-island.

—Mary Carole McCauley

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