Sun, surf, sleeping at the edge of a volcano and... snow. On Hawaii's big island, Faith Campbell explores the unexpected (but the shakas remain). This is the best way to discover the magic that is Hawaii's Kona.
The stage is empty and quiet, spot-lit blue. Tiny flecks of life whorl in the light. Afraid to miss something, I’m watching the nothingness intently when two phantoms sweep into the scene – strong, graceful and impossible to miss. They dance a do-si-do in the silence, oblivious to the audience.
I honk into my snorkel.
Manta rays are way bigger than I expected. In one mirrored movement, they arc towards the light source – a floating board I’m clinging to with 11 other wet-suited spectators. Face down, feet on pool noodles, we’re splayed out on the surface like a daisy. One of the enormous slippery pancakes skims my knuckles as it exits stage left.
Every night human daisies are scattered across the water off this bit of the Kona coast of Hawaii (aka the Big Island). “The first rule: do not touch the manta rays!” our captain from Sea Quest Hawaii bellows on the 10-minute transfer to the Keauhou Bay float site. “The second rule? Do. Not. Touch. The. Manta. Rays!”
Clutching GoPros, waterproof smartphones and each other, our boat’s manifest lists passengers from Dallas (“I bowled my best game there!” says the captain) and all over the United States, Germany (“Never been but I’d like to!”) and Sydney – he has cousins there but my boyfriend and I don’t know them.
This is Kona’s Great Barrier Reef, its gorillas in the mist. The bay’s cliffside resort (now an Outrigger property) first shone a spotlight into the depths in the 1970s to give guests sea views at night. You can still see mantas from dry land if you’re staying there, while the business of getting into the water with them is now a well-regulated machine.
I forget the scariness of jumping off a boat in the dark and the awkwardness of bumping legs with strangers, only tuning in to the guides shouting that these gentle giants feed on the plankton that’s attracted to the light, that they grow to have a wingspan of four metres or more and can live for decades. About 12 show up during our 30-minute stint and I honk into my snorkel every time.
The 45-minute flight from Oahu to Kona passes Moloka’i, Lanai and Maui before barrelling towards a runway carved into a black lava field. No towering beachside resorts or tourist strip, just a very chill airport with hardly any walls and a warm sea breeze.
Kona may be the Big Island’s tourist hub but it’s nothing like Honolulu. “You’re on the sunny side,” says Renell at the Enterprise desk proudly when we pick up a rental car for the week. “Hilo is on the rainy side.”
We head north through the craggy landscape, a spooky reminder of the island’s volcanic heartbeat. A bumper sticker ahead reads “Big Island Love” and I crack up when a shaka reaches out to signal a merge. At points along the shore, coconut palms shade luxury resorts and we take the turn-off to our oasis after 45 minutes.
“The canoe is the elder in our family. When we go out today, working together, we welcome you to our family,” says Keanu, who’s steering the boat on our sunrise paddle at Mauna Lani. You could convince me of almost anything at 6.30am but the resort’s family feeling is genuine. Kids spend all day in the water and everyone else drifts between sand, pool, lunch, a nap, dinner and the open-air bar. The manta rays are the only compelling reason I find to break the routine.
On the way out of town, we stop in Kona’s industrial outskirts after a hot tip from a local to try the tuna poke at Umekes. We sit outside with hipsters wearing technical sandals ironically and hikers wearing them for practicality, our duelling forks raised over the fiddlehead fern salad. At the end of the street, past the bike-share stand, the beer garden at the Kona Brewing Company is packed.
A sign above the bar reads “Liquid Aloha” and the Big Wave Golden Ale really is both a warm welcome and a fond farewell.
Perched on the rim of a volcano that last erupted in 2018, Volcano House Hotel has thwarted danger since 1941. While I stare out the window of our crater view room, a kid FaceTimes with their grandma in the hallway (“Do you know where we’re at? The laaava house!”). My back to the door, I get a photo of the king-sized bed and steaming Kīlauea in the background.
Set in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, about two hours drive from Kona, this hotel is the kind of place where families have rolled up in station wagons since they had wood panelling down the sides. Every room on the south-west wall lets you peer into the maw of the geological giant and I take dozens of bad photos trying to bottle the magic for later.
“Are you guys Australian? I can tell by your boots!” We’re up early to hike the Crater Rim Trail and a man who looks like Smokey Bear strides toward us. “Have you seen the lava yet?”
Over two-ish hours, we followed paths through dense ferns, brushed golden grasses and skirted cracks in the ground that billowed steam. I’d inched toward sheer lookouts, gazed into the ashen pit and wondered how much notice a volcano gives. Tiny birds the colours of flames flitted between flowers like fireworks.
But no lava. I tell Smokey about the hotel, how from our bed we can see the glow reflected in the clouds. “The best place is from Devastation car park,” he reveals, unfolding our map. “Early in the morning or in the evening. You can sometimes hear it.”
In the David Lynchian town of Volcano, a five-minute drive from the park gates, we find the Tuk-Tuk Thai Food Truck parked at a dead end. It’s busy so we eat spring rolls in the sun until our pad thai and pineapple curry is ready. The cold spring rain comes heavy in the mid-afternoon and when we pull into Devastation car park at dusk, rangers are directing traffic. It’s a 15-minute walk to the caldera and we schlep through the wet with hikers in rain gear and parents pushing plastic-covered prams.
“The thunder rumbling really adds to the drama,” someone says. We stand behind a rope and stare at a swamp of molten rock boiling in the not-so-distance. “I can’t figure out if it’s thunder or the volcano,” says another. Heading back to the car, I tell a soaked ranger that I can’t believe my eyes. “Bucket list!” he exclaims. “See new land being born – tick!”
The sun’s high as we wander Hilo’s heritage downtown, the streets lined with weatherboard buildings from its sugar-plantation past. They’re now vintage stores, a wildly good restaurant called Moon & Turtle (51 Kalākaua Street; +1 808 961 0599), poke places and coffee shops. We sit in a park by the broad bay, sharing a bento box from Hilo Lunch Shop (421 Kalanikoa Street; +1 808 935 8273).
Our horizon-facing room at the Grand Naniloa Resort, a monument of bright white Modernism, stays warm long past golden hour, when we drink sundowners on the balcony or blue cocktails at the lobby bar. The hotel’s pool and the lava rock pools along its private shoreline only empty out if it’s raining or dark.
At 3.05pm in the lobby, it’s 27°C and I’m wearing shorts and a T-shirt. By 5.50pm there’s snow at my feet. “You guys know Arnott’s – the biscuits! This company is his grandson Doug’s,” says Andras, our guide from Arnott’s Lodge & Adventure Tours. He’s driving us to the summit of Mauna Kea, the highest point in the Pacific, fellow guide Jocelyn beside him.
It’s the fastest land-based ascent from sea level to 4200 metres on the planet (there and back in five hours) and we stop halfway to acclimatise to the altitude and change into thermals. “People do a lot of things in Hawaii they’d never think of doing at home,” says Andras. Originally from Hungary, he lost his home to Kīlauea in 2018. “I was cooking dinner when the thing erupted in my backyard.”
As we climb, it’s like driving from a tropical paradise to Mars. Finally, the rocky peak’s utilitarian function is revealed: 13 telescopes used by 19 countries, arranged in a mechanical tribute to the heavens. We leave the car, bracing against the wind to watch the sun sneak under a blanket of cloud. Back in the warmth, Cool Change plays on the radio as we wait for nightfall and Jocelyn tells us about her work as an astronomer. Turns out guiding is her side hustle.
On the descent, at Andras’ secret stargazing spot, it’s below freezing and my muscles knot as I crane my neck to follow the laser pointer he’s wielding at the freckled sky. I’m shivering beside the truck when Jocelyn waves me over.
“They say the North Star is one shaka distance from the horizon,” she says, her arm outstretched to demonstrate. “That’s how you know you’re in Hawaii.”
Image credit: Erin Kunkel