Makato Nitahara, owner and masterful green thumb behind this exquisite garden, began planting tropical flowers in this former papaya patch more than two decades ago. Today, he estimates that his 2000-plus species of plants and flowers represent one of the largest such collections in the state, and the garden's 20 acres include a traditional Japanese garden with waterfalls, a European garden, a lily pond, an annual garden, and a beach garden. Nani Mau is a popular setting for outdoor weddings, and the on-site Garden Court and Garden View restaurants offer lovely settings.
Local Expert tip: This is a lovely place to bring a sketchbook and spend time recreating the tropical flora.
Hapuna Beach, nestled between Waikui and Puako, is known for being one of the cleanest, most family-friendly beaches on Hawaii. Its smooth, white sands extend far out into the surf, so wading in the shallows is easy on your feet. During summer months, the beach is at its widest and stays crowded from sunup to sunset; in contrast, winter months bring unfriendly waters with deadly riptides. (Combined with the fact that lifeguards don't work the beach during this season, swimming is unwise.) Beach facilities include camping areas, men's and women's showers, a snack bar, and a pavilion.
Local Expert tip: Spend a full beach day at Hapuna with lunch and ocean toys.
One of the more unique zoos you'll visit, Pana'ewa Reserve allows a glimpse of life in a tropical rainforest, making it the only such facility in the United States. More than 80 species of animals call the reserve "home," including Namaste (a rare white Bengal tiger), an Aldabra tortoise named Beauregard, and Arnie the water buffalo. Other residents include giant anteaters, a pygmy hippo, black-handed spider monkeys, and a butterfly house. Tropical flora, a water garden, and peacocks also add a note of exoticism. On the property are about 150 different animals across 75 types of species.
Local Expert tip: The new playground at the zoo adds to the fun for children.
One of the Big Island's top beaches, A-Bay is known for metallic, yellow-hued sands that earn it the nickname "Gold Coast." The bay's crystal blue waters are ideal for snorkeling, scuba, kayaking, surfing, and windsailing. Several popular resort hotels are within easy walking distance of the beach, so you can rest assured that it will always be peppered with a myriad of bathing beauties. During the winter, whales make an annual pass by Anaeho'omalu Bay, so make sure you bring a telescoping lens for your camera. Sea-turtles at play in the bay can also be seen.
Local Expert tip: Take a surf lesson here.
In times of yore, those in trouble � women, thieves, and escaped prisoners trying to evade capture � could find safe haven within the walls of this sacred burial ground, wherein lie the remains of Keawe, forefather of the legendary King Kamehameha I. Furthermore, priests who maintained the grounds would absolve offenders of any wrongdoing, allowing them to leave free of reprisal. Today, the pu`uhonua and some 180 acres of royal koi ponds, temple bases, and village sites surrounding it are protected by the National Park Service.
Local Expert tip: Bring a bathing suit.
Founded in 1974, VAC is dedicated to preserving � and promoting worldwide awareness of � the Hawaiian Islands' rich artistic history. The center hosts a variety of monthly exhibits and art sales that showcase paintings, wood sculptures, baskets, jewelry, and Polynesian-influenced masks. The exhibition gallery is located in the historic Volcano House Hotel, which dates to 1877. Over 300 artists display and sell their work through the Volcano Art Center, and the art can be found on various mediums including glass, canvas, wood, metal, paper and even jewelry.
Local Expert tip: Call before hand to learn about special classes and workshops.
From the ocean floor to Mauna Kea's 14,000 foot summit, this majestic mountain is the world's tallest. Its elevation, combined with its relative isolation from air pollution, also makes it one of the world's foremost locations for stargazing, a fact not lost on astronomers. Indeed, 11 countries, including Japan, France, and scores of American universities, have set up ultra-modern telescopes to peer into the vastness of space. Be sure to stop by the Onizuka Visitor Center, which offers lecture series and nighttime stargazing programs. Dress warmly � at 9500 feet, temperatures tend to drop quickly at sundown, no matter what time of year it is. Most car rental companies prohibit customers from taking cars � even 4X4s � to the summit, so it's best to make alternate arrangements if that's your intention. And make sure to take a full tank of gas.
Local Expert tip: Make sure to catch the sunset from up here.
Make it to the end of scenic Highway 270 and experience the majesty of the Big Island's dramatic Kohala coastline. High above waves that crash onto jagged rocks are several lookout areas that offer sweeping vistas of verdant cliffs and sliver-like waterfalls cascading over them. Folks wanting a touch of adventure can make the strenuous hike down to the black-sand beach at the base of the cliffs. This valley is home to a rich cultural past, having housed Hawaiian kinds as children. Have care, though: the waters are not good for swimming, and no lifeguards are on duty.
Local Expert tip: Take the hike down but brings lots of water.
Encompassing 520 square miles, this national park is one of the most photographed locales in the Hawaiian chain. For more than 70 million years, volcanic heat and pressure from inside the earth have molded the dramatic landscape, which includes Thurston Lava Tube, still-active Halemaumau Crater, and the highly active Pu'u O'o vent, which has been spewing lava since 1983. Visitors are able to drive the park's 66 miles of roadways, which wind in and out of dense tropical rain forest, but are encouraged to stay on guard since volcanic activity is commonplace and conditions change often. There is also the option to explore the more than 155 miles of marked trails on foot. The Kilauea Visitor Center sits just inside the park's main entrance. The park was designated a World Heritage site in 1987.
Local Expert tip: Dedicate a full day to the park.
The Big Island version of the Valley of the Kings, Waipi'o has long maintained a special place in the hearts of locals. Steeped in legend, the deep, narrow valley stretches some 5-plus miles, flanked on either side by towering rock walls. The valley floor is a lush tapestry of tropical flora, and guava, red banana, and taro hide a multitude of natural treasures, like tranquil freshwater streams and waterfalls. Tourists are discouraged from taking cars into the valley. A good alternative, though, is Waipi'o Valley Shuttle (808-775-7121), which offers narrated, 4-wheel drive tours. Visitors not wanting to take the 90-minute trip can experience the valley's beauty from the overlook.
Recommended for Sightseeing because: Waipi'o Valley is a gorgeous and sacred part of the island that enhances any visit.
Local Expert tip: You can only take a four wheel drive down into the valley.