The islands of Hawaii are known for their varied scenery and culture, so when we realized how expensive a trip would be, we picked the most diverse one — The Big Island – to knock off some bucket list dreams. Little did we know that instead of luaus and hula lessons, we’d be able to swim with manta rays, see lava flowing into the sea, and stargaze from the world’s tallest mountain.
Hawaii Low: Swim with Manta Rays
SeaQuest Hawaii; 808/329-7238; ages 7 and up; $88
WHY: The Night Manta Ray Experience is so special because Keauhou Bay near Kona is the only place in the world to do it at night. Even better, tour operators don’t feed marine life; these manta rays habitually return to the bay because shore lighting attracts their favorite food, plankton.
THE EXPERIENCE: Van headlights illuminate the pier where we nervously wriggle into wetsuits. As the zodiac motors away, the lead naturalist, Michael, explains that wild manta rays have no teeth and no stingers. I look at our only son and calm down.
Then we’re all in the cool water, snorkel mask on, faces down, holding the grab bars of an illuminated raft as the water clouds with plankton drawn to the lights. I can feel but not see them. After an eternity, manta rays with the four to 10-foot wingspan we’ve been promised begin to appear.
Without cameras, we focus on sight, warned not to damage their cartilaginous skin with our touch. It is silent except for muffled ooo’s and aaaa’s that provide melody to my pulsing heart. Swimming with manta rays is thrilling — these enormous luminescent innocents swirl and somersault underneath me, so close, oblivious.
HOW TO DO IT: This is not an experience you can pull off on your own. The SeaQuest Hawaii team was totally professional and fun. Our encounter lasted 90 minutes, enough for some of us to feel queasy or cold (the water remains 76 degrees year round), enough for total astonishment, enough to appreciate the mug of hot chocolate and marine life schooling offered back on board.
Hawaii Sea Level: Lava Flow Experience
KapohoKine Adventures; 808/964-1000; ages 10 and up; $129
WHY: The Kilauea volcano lava flow that began in 1983 had ceased flowing for several months and resumed shortly before our family holiday. KapohoKine Adventures was leading guided hikes from the Grand Naniloa Hotel in Hilo. It’s a rare event, not to be missed for a family who never had a live volcano on our bucket list.
THE EXPERIENCE: On the half-hour drive, our guide Jesse Kiefer begins talkstory, telling tales of Pele, the Hawaiian fire goddess, who spits out lava ranging in heat from 1300 to 2000 degrees F. Anticipation and trepidation build equally as he talks about the lava field we have to cross, filled with pahoehoe that dries with an inflated, ropelike texture; and the jagged `a`a that hardens into colorful broken glass.
It’s warm but surprisingly dark when Jesse turns off onto an unmarked gravel road, headlights suddenly illuminating a black market of makeshift lean-tos. We cruise slowly past local entrepreneurs with snack tables, stacks of bicycles, plastic tarps shielding cots, headlamps, flashlights; past a steady stream of pilgrims on foot and bike; to park in a friend’s driveway, saving us 2 miles of walking across Volcanoes National Park land to the coast at Kamokuna.
We march, flashlights in hand, Jesse waving to guards who are making a pot of tea on a fumarole. He points across the endless black expanse of ominous lava fields to a golden glow in the distance. We walk faster, now eager, dodging bikes towing Burley kid trailers that wobble past.
After 2 miles, Jesse shows us a rope railing to hold onto as we make our way, one by one, across razors of lava to a viewing area he feels is safe. One hundred yards ahead of us, a crowd of silhouettes stands right on the Kalapana Shelf where Pele’s lava spits into the sea. (One week later the shelf fell into the Pacific, almost swallowing five tourists.) I lower myself onto pahoehoe to quietly watch the golden lava hiss and sputter and steam, bursting into flame and subsiding, in a riveting show as old as time. I am in awe, offering a primeval respect to Pele.
HOW TO DO IT: Two of Hawaii‘s five volcanoes are active: Kilauea and the Halema’uma’u crater in Volcanoes National Park. The combination day and night tour to see both is the only lava hike KapohoKine currently runs. Owner Garry Morrow told me, “We stopped doing the full 4-mile night hikes because it is more tiring and difficult than most people imagine, and we’re been restricted from parking any closer after 3 p.m.” Jesse’s talkstory was a highlight of our guided adventure and when he administered 1st Aid to a bloodied woman who had fallen and hit her head in the lava fields, Jesse also became our hero. I know a daytime visit will still be amazing.
Alternatively, Google Map the nearest entry to the Kalapana lava fields; then rent a headlamp, flashlight, bicycle and helmet from an unlicensed vendor. Some companies run boat tours to see the lava flow from out at sea. Volcanoes National Park is free to the public and has ranger-led daytime tours to see Halema’uma’u but, due to budget cutbacks, you won’t know what is scheduled till you get there.
Hawaii Sky High: Maunakea Summit & Stars
Hawaii Forest Trail; 808/331-8505; ages 16 and up, $215
WHY: More than a dozen major telescopes and observatories specializing in research and submillimeter, infrared and optical observations call Maunakea, the world’s tallest mountain (10,000 meters or 33,000 feet above the sea floor) home. Because Hawaii’s arid climate usually keeps her 14,000-foot summit above any atmospheric moisture and the dark skies are protected by a Low Light ordinance, it’s considered the best place on earth for stargazing.
THE EXPERIENCE: Our Hawaii Forest and Trail tour breaks up the two-hour afternoon drive with a tented lunch stop at about 5,000 feet, time to meet our friendly tourmates. Then it’s a bumpy, ear-popping ascent past snow covered red and gray lava fields and the sacred Wao La’ala’au, the peak’s realm of Hawaiian gods and spirits. At the end of the road, we gratefully accept hooded parkas and gloves for 30 minutes of leg stretching -– taking selfies, somewhat dizzy or short of breath, in front of locked observatories. The dense gray skies get blacker, really black. We descend to the Visitor Information Station, then drive away.
HOW TO DO IT: If, as at our visit, the skies are too cloudy to see anything, this will be a frustrating experience. Hawaii Forest and Trail does offer alternative experiences: a Sunrise Summit to see the night sky from the level of the observatories then watch the sun come up; and a day time visit to the Imiloa Astronomy Center in Hilo for a tour and planetarium show, prior to visiting the summit of Maunakea. Either may work better for you.
You can try your luck visiting Maunakea free of charge. The Visitor Information Station at 7,000 feet is run by the Office of Maunakea Management at the University of Hawaii, and has a free nightly telescope demonstration, weather permitting. We heard it was very crowded; parking is very limited. Access to the summit is another 7,000 feet up and restricted to 4WD vehicles; the hike is estimated to take 10 hours.
Make Your Own Bucket List
WHY: As your family gets older, time becomes even more precious. Like us, you will be more selective and every vacation day will have to be special.
THE EXPERIENCE: These are adventures that challenge us together. We share with family and friends, creating priceless memories.
HOW TO DO IT: Staying in moderately priced places instead of resorts –- a VRBO near Volcanoes National Park and a delightful suite at Kings’ Land by Hilton Grand Vacations Club in Waikoloa -– made investing in these adventures possible. Try planning your next trip around the experiences you’ll share and let me know what you come up with.
Maybe I can add your adventures to my bucket list.
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.