Waterfalls, Volcanoes, And Blueberry Waffles On The Big Island

The island of Hawaii — also known as the "Big Island" — is filled with great food, culture, wildlife, and natural wonders, among the countless other reasons it sits at the top of so many travelers' must-visit lists. But how do you avoid the tourist traps and keep your visit invigorating and unique? Check out these three bucket-list experiences:

Kulaniapia Falls Waterfall Rappelling Adventure
Scaredy-cats and thrill-seekers alike will absolutely love the brand new waterfall rappelling adventure at The Inn at Kulaniapia Falls in Hilo. The experience, introduced this April, allows guests to get up close with nature while rappelling 120 feet down Kulaniapia Falls. Kulaniapia Adventures operates the adventure ($199 for adults, $149 for Inn guests) every day, rain or shine. Guests are given a safety harness, helmet, and felt-bottom water shoes for grip. Guides go over all of the equipment and teach guests the techniques they'll need to stay safe and have fun. Don't worry: you'll train on a bunny hill before you take on the real thing.

I'm personally a huge wuss who's deathly afraid of heights, so this waterfall rappel didn't sound like a smart idea at all. I was expecting to have a full-blown panic attack. Luckily, that didn't happen. Surprisingly, I found the experience exhilarating, perfect for someone who would like to conquer his or her fear or try something new. I actually slipped in the middle of my rappel and ended up looking like something out of a junior high production of Peter Pan, but I was able to pull myself upright and continue the descent. Note to thrill-seekers: An adventurous friend who rappelled right after me actually went into the waterfall. She had a fantastic time, got some great GoPro footage inside the waterfall, and thoroughly enjoyed herself. There was also a fellow guest, an older lady, who was able to conquer the waterfall as well. Anyone can do it!

Tip: Don't leave right away. Enjoy the miles of trails, bamboo gardens, and opportunities for swimming, stand-up paddle boarding, and kayaking at the base of the waterfall. It may be worth it to book at least a one-night stay at the Inn, as well — sure to be a unique experience. Every building has a different theme. Breakfast, homemade every morning by the inn staff, is delicious. Their blueberry waffles are probably the best waffles I've ever had! Also, it doesn't hurt that you'll have a view of the beautiful waterfall you rappelled from your room!  

Mauna Kea Sunrise Experience
Start your day with one of the most magnificent views in the world, from 13,800 feet above sea level. A journey to Mauna Kea, the tallest volcano on the planet, is definitely a must-do. Hawaii Forest & Trail recently added an exclusive, entirely new adventure experience that allows guests to witness the star-filled night sky on the way up to Mauna Kea before watching the sunrise amidst a morning sky filled with beautiful shades of blue, orange, purple, and red from the peak.

The seven-to-eight-hour round trip is a jaw-dropping tour ($196.88), and the 2 a.m. wake-up call time is worth every lost "Z." Your guide picks you up in a four-wheel-drive vehicle and narrates the journey, sharing ancient folklore as well as information on the cultural and scientific significance of the mountain while making the drive into the star-filled darkness. There's a hot beverage stop at the Ellison Onizuka Visitors Information Station to help guests to acclimate to the higher altitude before they head up to the summit. Guests are given parkas at the summit, where they can stand amidst the world's largest collection of research telescopes while taking in the brilliance of the multi-colored sunrise. A light breakfast is served on the way down, followed by a short trip through the Mauna Kea Silversword enclosure. Return from your Insta-worthy trip while the rest of the island has barely woken up!

If I have to lose out on sleep, then it had better be worth it. This definitely was. Watching the sun slowly come up as my local guide shared an ancient and beautiful oli (sacred Hawaiian song/chant) is something I will never forget. The view was so beautiful that even amateur photographers were getting great shots on their phones. If there's a heaven on earth, the view from Mauna Kea at sunrise is probably the closest you'll get.  

Tip: Dress warmly. It's really cold up there. My group saw snow. Due to altitude and safety considerations, the minimum age for the tour is 16.

KapohoKine Adventures Lava Expedition
Guides used to preface trips to see Kilauea Volcano with a warning that guests might not see active lava, but these days it's pretty much a sure thing that you will. Kilauea, earth's most active volcano, has been erupting continuously since 1983, but this is the first time in three years that its ever-changing lava flow has reached the coastline. Guests can now hike to the active lava flow and watch lava erupt from the volcano.

The current lava flow is the most dramatic they've seen in the last three decades, guides say. Although some visitors choose to visit without a guide, KapohoKine Adventures provides a tour well worth considering. Their National Park Service-certified guides lead a four-mile hike across the lava flows looking for outbreaks while tracking down molten lava so guests can see the most current active eruption sites. Guests enjoy a picnic-style lunch while watching steam plumes created by the lava as it reaches the water.  The full-day tour includes a fun visit to the local Volcano Winery for some wine tasting and a tour, as well as a homemade barbecue dinner before heading back to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to watch the current eruption activity at sunset from the Jaggar Museum. The wines at Volcano Winery are inspired by the volcano and the Big Island. Many of the offerings use local tropical fruits, like yellow guava and the exotic jaboticaba berry, blended with traditional wine grapes.  

I learned so much from our guide, Ken. He not only kept us safe, but also taught us about the lava flow and how to best enjoy it. He was very well versed in Hawaiian folklore, which made for a very educational trip. He also pointed out the most photo-worthy locations and gave great trips for us to get the best shots. Although I'm not extremely fit, the four-mile hike was no problem. The views were spectacular. It was amazing to see the contrast of the volcano during the day and at night against the backdrop of the stars and the moon.