Hawaii is usually seen as a beach destination. Yes, the 50th state's iconic sands are certainly attractive, but there are plenty of equally memorable places that are far away from the palm-fringed water. Scenic rocky shoreline, lush inland valleys, gently sloping volcanic mountains and non-touristy small towns can be found all over the islands. The island of Hawaii, almost always referred to as the Big Island, is a bastion of nature and traditional lifestyle. Coffee and fruit plantations still dominate the landscape here. There are few large towns, and the rugged coastline is characterized by palm groves and cliffs.
Hilo is the main hub on the Big Island. It is a good place to introduce yourself to the stylishly-down-to-earth vibe that characterizes the lifestyle here. The Hilo Art Museum has an impressive collection, though many visitors consider the view of Hilo Bay from the grounds to be the highlight of a visit here. The lush Lili'uokalani Gardens and Hilo Botanical Gardens are on many tourists' sightseeing menus, as is the always-buzzing Hilo Farmer's Market. Hilo's strong sense of tradition is on display in March and early April at the Merrie Monarch Festival. This is one of the world's largest hula competitions (think traditional Hawaiian dancing, storytelling and music, not grass skirts and coconut tops).
The Big Island is dominated by nature. Some of the world's most active volcanoes stand in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, while you can sometimes see snow falling at the top of Hawaii's tallest peak, Mauna Kea. Actually, the best places to see nature are are not in the national parks, but in out-of-the-way corners. A prime example of this type of Big Island "secret spot" is Waipi'o Valley. A tsunami washed away all the villages long ago and now nature dominates the area. You can travel down from the top of the valley to the floor on horseback or on foot.
The Big Island's inland areas are prime ranch country. The Parker Ranch, in Waimea, stretches for 150,000 acres, which, surprisingly, makes it one of the largest ranches in the US. Hawaiian cowboys, known as paniolos, once rode the lush highland here. Some still do, though mostly for tourists Visitors can take a guided tour on horseback or even travel around the ranch on a classic wagon. It is also possible to make self-guided trips.
You can also connect with Hawaii's agricultural side in the Kona area. Some of the world's best coffee beans are grown here at high elevation. Some plantations, such as Bayview Farms, offer free tours and samples. Another caffeine-related attraction is the Kona Coffee Living History Farm. It is housed on a coffee farm that was built in the early 1900s. Coffee plants and macadamia nut trees still stand to this day, and tours are led by costumed guides.
One way to totally immerse yourself in Hawaii's nature and agricultural past is to stay on a classic plantation estate. The Puakea Ranch still has its charming 1930s-era buildings. There are four bungalows that have been renovated so that they have all the modern comforts but still retain the classic atmosphere. Guests can explore the grounds and, because of the property's elevation (about 400 feet above sea level), they can see the waterfront and ocean right from the porches of their bungalows.
The Big Island, Hilo, Kona and the Puakea Ranch show another side of Hawaii; one that is at least worth looking into. The great thing about the Big Island is that amazing and idyllic beaches are always only a short drive away.
Have you ever spent time on the island of Hawaii? What was your favorite non-beach destination? use the comments section to let us know your insights.