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Experiencing an All Day Tour of the Big Island of Hawaii

I live in Houston and have worked as a nurse. I have a lifelong passion for traveling, nature, and photography (preferably all together!).

Big Island of Hawaii

Big Island of Hawaii

Grand Circle Island Tour of the Big Island

My husband and I wanted to see as much of the Big Island of Hawaii as we could while on vacation and thought that a tour is generally always money well spent when in a new area. We chose the Polynesian Adventure Tours to take us around the island.

They had specially-trained driver/guides, and also very comfortable and spacious premier mini-coaches in which to ride. We could easily see everything that we passed while on the road looking through the large coach windows.

Many scheduled stops were a part of this Polynesian Adventure Tour, which let people stretch their legs and also grab a bite to eat or take photos. We would recommend it to anyone who wishes to experience an overview of the island. We had explanations of what we were seeing, and we learned a little history at the same time.

The coaches picked us up at our hotel between 8:20 AM to 8:30 Am and returned us between 6 to 6:30 PM. It totaled 11 1/4 hours for us that day with splendid sightseeing adventures. The year we were there in 1993, the adult fee was $60 per person for pickup at the Ritz-Carlton Mauna Lani resort. Lunch was extra.

After picking up everyone from various hotels in the general area, the first stop was at a Kona coffee shop. They are very proud of their locally grown coffee, and rightfully so. Many people reboarded the mini-coach van with steaming cups of Kona coffee in hand.

Map of the route we took and the direction on the Big Island of Hawaii.

We started from the west side of the island near Kona along the Kohala Coast.  I marked the route we took with arrows pointing in the direction of the tour.

We started from the west side of the island near Kona along the Kohala Coast. I marked the route we took with arrows pointing in the direction of the tour.

Place of Refuge

After our coffee stop in Kona, our tour took us to the very old and historic Pu'uhonua o Honaunau or Place of Refuge. This historical park was set aside by Congress in 1961. It consists of 180 acres and reflects what life in Hawaii used to be like when only native people lived here before the late 1700s when the first outsiders came to the island.

There is an immense L-shaped stone wall comprised of lava rock on this site. The lava rocks fit together like so many exact fitting puzzle pieces without the use of cement or mortar. The dimensions of this massive wall are 1,000 feet in length or 305 meters, and it is 10 feet (3 meters) high and 17 feet (5.25 meters) wide.

The general populace was kept apart from royalty by this hand-built wall.
This original wall has been in place since the 1500s and has only had a couple of minor repairs. What makes this place a sacred area is that it holds a temple that houses the dead chief's bones.

Kapu Laws and Place of Refuge

Back in the early days, the Hawaiian people lived by a set pattern of laws called Kapu. Here are some examples of them.

  • One Kapu would not allow one's shadow to touch a chief.
  • Women could not eat with men.
  • One had to abide by the rules of when to fish and hunt, etc.

If any of these rules or laws were broken the penalty was death unless one could make it to this holy place...the place of refuge.

If one could avoid the punishment and get inside these walls, priests would forgive the person and they could have a second chance at life. Thus this sanctuary was a life-giving place as well as housing the ruling royalty at the time.

Thatched huts and buildings for the chiefs lie inside this sacred area. There is also the royal fish pond and private royal beach that the commoners could not utilize.

The kapu (laws) were abolished by Chief Kamehameha the 2nd in 1819, and the protection of this place of refuge ceased to exist. The native peoples for a time were confused and no longer had the parameters of life neatly delineated for them. Ideas from the outside world began to flood in and change Hawaiian culture forever.

These old palace grounds still retain a feeling of spirituality from the many celebrations of life and burials of the dead Hawaiian chiefs that took place there over the centuries. The National Park Service and the U.S. Department of the Interior administer these grounds. Much is left as it was and the carvings still stand guard in this holy place.

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Punaluu Black Sands Beach

After leaving the fascinating and historic site of Pu'uhonua o Honaunau on the southwestern side of the island, we rode for a while heading up the southeastern edge of the Big Island of Hawaii. We passed many white steeple Congregational Churches along the way. Our next stopping place was at the Punaluu Black Sands Beach and its surrounding fish ponds along the Puna to Kau coast.

These black sands originate from lava that has been pulverized over time and can be a bit rough on bare feet. On the other hand, just like pumice, it could grind down any calluses one might have on one's feet!

We saw dogs and people having fun in the surf and also people doing some sunbathing alongside one of the fish ponds. Having never seen a black sand beach, this was quite striking, and I captured some photos as a memory.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Our next stop on our circle island tour took us to the Hawaiian Volcanoes National Park. We learned that Pele, the volcano goddess, was deemed to be responsible for these wondrous land building volcanoes according to old myths of the early Hawaiian inhabitants. Each of the Hawaiian Islands was, in turn, built by her.

In reality, deep under the Pacific Ocean lies a rift in the earth where molten magma (superheated and liquefied rock) begins to rise, creating cooled layer upon layer of a resulting mountain slowly built under the sea. Eventually, as this process continues, the land rises above the sea and becomes an island. This land is called a shield volcano and is the type that has formed all of the Hawaiian Islands.

Also at work is a Pacific Plate (a portion of the earth's crust) that is continually moving to the northwest, about 2 to 3 inches a year. As long as the plate sits atop this rift in the earth spewing molten lava, the island continues to grow. But as the Pacific Plate moves further away, the island has no continuing source with which to build more land, and the effects of erosion begin to chip away at its total surface.

This plate movement has happened over eons of time and is continuing to happen today. The northwestern and oldest islands in the Hawaiian chain are continuing to decrease in size. Some have already disappeared back under the ocean waves.

Active Volcanoes

The Big Island of Hawaii has two of the most active volcanoes in the world, caused by the magma-producing source far underneath the sea, thereby still expanding the size of Hawaii for now. They are the Mauna Loa and Kilauea volcanoes.

A growing pressure point within the Kilauea caldera is happening. There are also steam vents within the park, which let some of this heat underground escape into the air. It is comforting to think that the geologists believe that they can predict with fair accuracy when these volcanoes might become more active than they currently are so that people can be protected. I wonder if Pele agrees?

Molten lava still flows to the sea from Hawaii's volcanoes, where the superheated lava hits the ocean waters, cools, and solidifies into more land area. On day two of our stay, we flew over the fiery Kilauea volcano in a helicopter and saw the white steam cloud bank at the water's edge where water and lava explosively met. It is quite an impressive sight to behold!

Me with Mauna Loa caldera in background - Photo taken by my husband in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Me with Mauna Loa caldera in background - Photo taken by my husband in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Note pressure point in the Kilauea caldera in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Note pressure point in the Kilauea caldera in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Thurston Lava Tube

The surface of an active lava flow area might look crusted over, but it contains tubes in which lava is flowing from the source of the volcano. Most of the time, these are unseen until it hits the water's edge with steam sizzling, cooling, and adding to the landmass as it tumbles into the sea.

In some cases, the top of the crusted tube might cave in like happened on our helicopter tour, exposing the red hot lava as it continues to move. For obvious reasons, this is why it can be dangerous to be walking in an area of active lava flows, whether one can see the lava or not.

These lava tubes form from the lava itself. The outer upper crust eventually cools and thickens as the lava inside continues to flow. As the lava flow diminishes in size, the sides cool and harden. Eventually, when the lava flow ends, the smooth floor becomes solid as well.

We got to walk through an extinct lava flow, which left an impressive walkway called the Thurston Lava Tube. While not the longest nor largest tube in existence, it was quite a feeling walking through what at one time used to be molten lava. You can get an idea of the height and width of the tube by a couple of photos that I took. Outside of the Thurston Lava Tube, lush vegetation was growing. Many tree-sized ferns were flourishing among the vines and other plants.

Macadamia Nut Tree Grove

As we left the Volcano National Park area and went further northeast, the vegetation becomes very lush. Another planned stop was at a macadamia nut grove and factory.
They grow millions of macadamia trees on the island. Originally brought to the islands for use as windbreaks against the sometimes fierce trade winds, this growing of macadamia nuts has now become an industry for islanders. Many of our fellow travelers stocked up on purchases of nuts at this stop.

Macadamia nut tree

Macadamia nut tree

Nani Mau Gardens in Hilo, Hawaii

Hilo is a large city in Hawaii on the east coast of the Big Island. It has an airport, which is where we stopped to refuel on our helicopter ride on day two of our Hawaiian vacation trip.

Hilo also is the sight of the beautifully landscaped grounds of the Nani Mau Gardens. Our tour gave us some time for us to meander around the grounds and admire the different vegetation that grows in this environment. This magnificent Nani Mau garden consists of 53 acres, so we merely got an impression of what was there. One could spend the better portion of a full day there if desired.

There were many tropical plants like bromeliads, anthuriums, orchids, and so much more. I have inserted a few photos which might give one an idea of some of the colorful displays in this Hilo garden spot.

Rainbow Falls

Heading north of Hilo, the next point of interest where we were allowed to disembark and walk was the area around Rainbow Falls.

As one can see from my photos, vines grow in abundance and use trees for support. Long aerial roots hang down, and this made me remember the old Tarzan movies of my youth where slightly thicker roots were used by Tarzan to swing from tree to tree. I do realize that the setting was different, but there is no accounting for memories.

The walkway down to view the Rainbow Falls is not handicapped accessible. A rather steep trail, much of it on stone steps, and a metal handrail is there to get down to the vantage point where one can see the falls. The thundering flow of crashing water is heard from a distance, and as my pieced together photo shows, a pretty sight awaits those who can climb down to see it.


After driving along the northeast coastline, we headed inland and got to see the lush area of the Parker Ranch near Waimea. The Parker Ranch is one of the largest ranches in the United States, and much beef comes from this area.

It was a long and eventful 11 1/4 hour day on this circle tour of the island, but we truly enjoyed everything that we had gotten to see and experience. I would heartily recommend taking this tour or a similar one if you ever get the chance.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2009 Peggy Woods

Comments are welcomed.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on February 12, 2021:

Hi Devika,

It was fun going on that tour with my husband. We now share those memories these many years later with fondness. Thanks for your comment.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on February 12, 2021:

Peggy W sounds like the tour was a fun and great experience indeed! A beautiful place and what better way to do this with your husband.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on February 11, 2021:

Hi Sandra,

From what you wrote, you must also have enjoyed an all-day tour of the Big Island of Hawaii. My husband and I learned a lot and saw more than we probably would have on our own. For first-timers to the island, I would heartily recommend taking a tour like this one.

Sandra on February 11, 2021:

Having visited the "Big Island", I agree that the tour was money well spent. Great reminder of a beautiful place and day.