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By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor

Explainer: Big adventures on Hawaii’s Big Island

  • Image: Road sign
    Harriet Baskas
    This way to one of the world's most active volcanoes: Kilauea.

    Most Hawaiian vacations focus on sun, sand and snorkeling. Nothing wrong with that. But on the Aloha State’s Big Island of Hawaii — home to one of the world’s most active volcanoes and the planet’s most powerful astronomical observatories — a holiday can pack a lot more punch.

  • Big Island to outer space

    Image: Freeze-dried macadamia nuts and Kona coffee
    Ross Reynolds
    NASA created these special treats for Hawaii-born astronaut Ellison Onizuka.

    What’s more adventurous than outer space? A great spot to start (or end) your trip is at the Kona International Airport, where the Astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka Space Centeris just a 30-second stroll from the open-air terminals. Created to honor the Big Island-born astronaut who died with six others on the space shuttle Challenger in January 1986, the center is packed with hands-on activities that illustrate science and space concepts. Exhibits include a lunar rock sample, an authentic NASA spacesuit and packages of the freeze-dried macadamia nuts and Kona Coffee (with cream and sugar) that NASA created to make sure astronaut Onizuka could feel at home in space.

    Tip: There’s a lot to see here, but don’t miss the panels that describe how NASA astronauts used the Big Island’s lava fields to prepare for the Apollo moon landings in the 1960s.

  • Shoot for the stars

    Image: Onizuka Center for International Astronomy
    Ross Reynolds
    The world's largest astronomical observatory is on the summit of Mauna Kea.

    If the Onizuka Space Center inspires you to wonder what’s out there beyond Earth, show up for the free nightly star-gazing programs offered at the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy. The center is at the visitor information station on the 9,300-foot level of Mauna Kea, the Big Island’s dormant volcano. On weekends, a caravan of four-wheel drive vehicles is invited to follow center staff up to the mountain’s 14,000-foot summit, which is home to the world's largest astronomical observatory — and some incredible views.

    Tip: If you don’t want to rent a four-wheel drive vehicle and attempt the twisty, treacherous drive to and from the summit, Hawaii Forest & Trail is one of eight companies licensed to take visitors to and from the summit at sunset in passenger vans.

  • Watch for whales

    Image: Whales
    Capt. Jeff McConnel  /  Courtesy HawaiiOceanSports.com
    Whale-watching boats can get within 100 yards of these giant creatures.

    Several species of whales visit the Big Island waters year-round, but January through April is the best time to see giant humpback whales. Up to 7,000 of the 45-ton, 40-foot-long (on average) creatures seek out the tropical Hawaiian waters to breed and give birth to calves. Humpbacks can be seen surfacing, tail slapping and blowing spouts from many spots on the shore, but for a closer look, join a whale-watching boat tour with Hawaii Ocean Sports or one of the many other companies that will make sure you get as close as legally possible to the visiting whales.

    Tip: A good spot to look for whales from land is from Buddha Point (just beyond the dolphin pool) at the 62-acre Hilton Waikoloa Village. It’s on the island’s Kohala Coast, about a 20-minute drive north of Kona International Airport.

  • A very hot time in Hawaii

    Image: Lava entering water at dusk, Hawaii's Big Island
    Courtesy Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Tor Johnson
    Boat tours are the best way to see lava flowing into the sea on Hawaii's Big Island.

    The 500-square-mile Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park is open 24 hours a day and includes two volcanoes: Mauna Loa — the most massive volcano on Earth — and Kilauea, one of the world’s most active volcanoes. Kilauea’s most recent eruption began in 1983 and is still going strong; steam from volcanic gases seeps and spews while lava flows above and below ground and, at times, spectacularly right into the sea. Visitors can explore parts of the park at a visitor center and a museum, by car, on foot or on an organized tour in a bus, van, helicopter or small plane. However, when lava is making its way to the ocean, a sunset lava tour by boat is ideal. And while no one can predict what the volcano will do next, the folks at Lava Ocean Adventures put it this way: “Depending on conditions, we can view anything from eruptive splatter cones to oozing rivers of lava.”

    Tip: Kilauea is unpredictable. Call ahead 808-985-6000 or visit the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park website to find out what areas of the volcano are active.

  • Tales of tsunamis

    Image: bent parking meter
    Harriet Baskas
    A reminder of the force of a tsunami, which was strong enough to bend this parking meter.

    Hawaii isn’t all warm breezes and gentle waves. Over the years, natural disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis have done their damage on the Big Island. You probably don’t want to experience any of those adventures first hand, but at the Pacific Tsunami Museum ,you’ll find scientific information, oral histories from survivors, photos, videos and artifacts that tell the story of the giant waves that hit Hilo on April 1, 1946, and on May 23, 1960.

    Tip: Whether or not you plan to tour the museum, stop by to pick up a free brochure for a walking/driving tour of historical tsunami sites on the Big Island.

  • Hawaiian cowboys and one special cowgirl

    Image :Anna Leialoha Lindsey Perry-Fiske
    Courtesy Anna Ranch Heritage Center
    Hawaii's First Lady of Ranching, Anna Leialoha Lindsey Perry-Fiske, on her horse.

    Founded in Waimea in 1847 with two acres of land, the Parker Ranch is one of the oldest cattle ranches in the United States. Now encompassing thousands of acres, the historic ranch was for many years also the country’s largest. The ranch’s museum, historic homes and visitor center are now closed, but visitors can learn all about Hawaii cowboy, or “paniolo,” culture at the Anna Ranch Heritage Center in Waimea. This 110-acre spread was overseen by Anna Leialoha Lindsey Perry-Fiske who, until her death in 1995 at age 95 was known as Hawaii’s First Lady of Ranching. Now the ranch offers a look inside a 14-room ranch house and a Hawaiian saddle museum and the opportunity to see Charolais cattle and demonstrations of blacksmithing, saddle making and other traditional ranching activities.

    Tip: Anna was not just a hardworking cowgirl; she was a lady. Be sure to see her extensive collection of stylish hats.

  • Seeking refuge: then and now

    Image: Puuhonua o Honaunau
    Ross Reynolds
    Ancient Hawaiians who broke the law could seek refuge here.

    Puuhonua o Honaunau, near the town of Captain Cook, is a 180-acre national historic park on land that was once home to Hawaiian royalty. Ancient Hawaiians who broke a kapu, or sacred taboo, had few options: They could flee and be pursued, caught and put to death or try to reach the shore of this sacred site, where they’d be given refuge and absolution and allowed to return home safely. (Which would you choose?) Today visitors are invited to take a half-mile, self-guided tour of the grounds and ask forgiveness for modern-day sins at the Place of Refuge. Unfortunately, automatic absolution is no longer assured.

    Tip: Keauhou Kahalu‘u Heritage Center (in the Keauhou Shopping Center, 19 miles north of Puuhonua o Honaunau) is a free museum detailing restoration of other ancient historical sites, including the two recently restored Hawaiian stone temples (heiau) on the grounds of the nearby Keauhou Beach Resort.

  • Meet the manta rays

    Image: manta ray
    Courtesy Martina Wing, Dolphin Dream Images
    Meet Melainah ray, one of hundreds of manta rays that has been identified and named.

    With wing spans that can reach more than 20 feet, the manta ray is the largest of the ray species. Two popular ways to meet mantas on the Big Island are from a special public viewing area at the Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort and Spa or from the water during a nighttime snorkel or scuba dive.

    Tip: Martina Wing of Dolphin Dreams Images videotapes manta ray encounters during most nighttime Sunlight on Water manta ray snorkeling trips. “The rays are huge and harmless,” said Wing. “But jumping into the water with them at night can be somewhat frightening for first time snorkelers.”

Photos: Hawaiian paradise

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  1. Waimea Canyon, Kauai

    Kalalau Valley, on Kauai's west side, is more than 3,000 feet deep and provides stunning panoramic views. Waimea is nicknamed "The Grand Canyon of the Pacific." (John Borthwick / Lonely Planet) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Honolulu, Hawaii

    Men row their Hawaiian outrigger canoe towards Waikiki beach, with Diamond Head in the background. Outrigger canoes are now used for recreation purposes and to ride the waves, but in times past they were the main means of transportation between the Hawaiian Islands. (Mike Nelson / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. The tranquil waters of Oahu

    Hanauma Bay is one of the finest stretches of beach in the world. (Eric L Wheater / Lonely Planet) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Surfer's paradise

    Australian Luke Egan competes on Oahu's North Shore, one of the best places in Hawaii to ride the big waves. (AFP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Water colors

    A school of manini fish pass over a coral reef at Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve in Honolulu, Hawaii. (Donald Miralle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Wailua Falls

    The beautiful 83-foot tiered Wailua Falls is an easily accessible, must-see waterfall on the island of Kauai. Wailua Falls was first made famous when it was featured in the television show, "Fantasy Island." (James Randklev / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Emerald peaks

    The iconic, towering emerald peaks of the 1,200-foot Iao Needle, stand out in Maui's Iao Valley State Park. (Adina Tovy Amsel / Lonely Planet) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Historic reminder

    The USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, marks the resting place of many of the battleship's 1,177 crew members who lost their lives during the Attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 by the Japanese. The memorial is the "ground zero" of World War II. (Kevin Winter / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Aloha!

    Hula dancers welcome the sailing crew of a Hokule'a, a canoe, into Kailua Bay. (Ronen Zilberman / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. The heart of Hawaii

    The sun sets on Honolulu, Oahu's capital and Hawaii's largest, most populous city. (Robert Y. Ono / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Polynesian heat

    Brandon OFueo Maneafaiga, 23, of Waianae, Hawaii balances two flaming knifes during the 13th Annual World Fireknife Championship at the Polynesian Cultural Centre in Laie, Hawaii. (Lucy Pemoni / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Explosive attraction

    People watch from a viewing area as an explosion takes place on Kilauea, one of the world's most active volcanoes, in Pahoa, Hawaii. Legend says the volcano goddess Pele dug fire pits as she traveled from island to island looking for a home with her brothers and sisters. She finally settled at Kilauea's summit, where she lives at Halemaumau crater. (Leigh Hilbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Forces of nature

    The Dragon's Teeth are bizarre lava formations eroded by wind and salt spray at Makalua-puna Point. (Karl Lehmann / Lonely Planet) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Heaven on Earth

    Astronomy observatories are seen on the peak of the snow-covered, Mauna Kea mountain near Hilo, Hawaii. Mauna Kea is a dormant volcano. (Tim Wright / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. On the way to Sainthood

    Tourists walk through a cemetery past the grave, left, of Father Damien at Kalawao, Hawaii. After cancer patient Audrey Toguchi prayed to Father Damien, known for helping leprosy patients in Hawaii, to help her, and her cancer went away, Pope Benedict XVI approved the case in July 2008 as Damien's second miracle, opening the way for the 19th century Belgian priest to be declared a saint. (Eric Risberg / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Cool colors

    Rainbow eucalyptus (Mindanao Gum) trees grow in Keanae, Maui. Once a year, these magnificent trees shed their bark and take on the colors of the rainbow. (James Randklev / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Magic Sands

    An aerial view of La'aloa Beach Park or Magic Sands beach in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. The beach is called Magic Sands because when rough surf hits, all of the sand is emptied off the beach and temporarily moved out to sea. (Brian Powers / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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Video: Hawaiian volcano shoots geysers of lava

  1. Transcript of: Hawaiian volcano shoots geysers of lava

    NATALIE MORALES, anchor: In Hawaii , a new vent has opened in the Kilauea volcano , which has been constantly erupting since 1983 . Geysers of lava shot 65 feet into the air. Officials say, though, no homes are threatened. Some stunning pictures there, though. Seven-eleven right now. Back over to Matt , Ann and Al . You just don't want to be anywhere near that.

    MATT LAUER, co-host: No.

    ANN CURRY, co-host: You were actually able to report from there, weren't you, at one time?

    LAUER: We walked on some of the lava floes there.

    CURRY: I'm jealous.

    LAUER: It changes every five seconds. You got to be careful where you're walking there.

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