The Big Island of Hawaii. {Kona}

Having been to Oahu, Maui, and Kauai, Drew and I decided it was time to visit the Big Island. It is the largest and youngest of all the islands, formed by five volcanoes. If you’re planning on visiting, get this book: The Big Island Revealed. It seems like the author went through every nook & cranny of the island and detailed it all here in this book. Many thanks to him! Even those who live on the island say it’s the best guidebook out there.
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Our trip to the Big Island was so much fun that we decided to bring friends back a few months later for our inaugural yoga travel adventure retreat! This post will include images from both trips to the BI.

If you’re wanting to do a lot of underwater excursions (snorkeling, scuba diving, swimming with manta rays & dolphins), I’d recommend staying on the Kona side. Though you absolutely have to spare a few days to visit Volcanoes National Park and the Hilo side, which is MUCH greener!

Kona sits on the west side of the island, and it’s known for sunny days, clear ocean waters, and gorgeous beaches.
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Lava rocks remind you of what this island is really made of.
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You don’t have to book a snorkeling tour to swim with tons of tropical fish on this island. Thanks to the guidebook, our favorite spot to go to (I think 3 days in a row), was Kahalu’u Beach. In the mornings, the water is so clear. One of the first things we saw was this school of butterfly fish.
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Then a bunch of yellow tangs.
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Then there was this little spotted eel just hanging out.
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And my favorite, the parrotfish, because it looks like parts of a rainbow exploded onto a fish.
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Let’s not forget everyone’s favorite – the sea turtle!
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We couldn’t get over how clear the water was. It made for some of the best snorkeling we’ve ever done. Man, that’s a gigantic fish. I always gotta make sure not to swim too close or I get a hand in the face.
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The one absolute must-do activity if you’re in Kona is what the Travel Channel labels as “One of the top 10 things to do in your lifetime.” Manta Ray Dive or Snorkel. There are tons of manta rays swimming around the Big Island. At night, some of them flock to this one area to feed on plankton that are attracted to the light in the area. A good number of tour operators bring manta-loving adventure seekers out there at night. Divemasters set up “campfire” 30 feet down on the ocean floor with LED lights. Since it’s a night dive/snorkel trip, the more lights the better so you can actually SEE the mantas. Plus, more lights equal more plankton, which hopefully equals more mantas!

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You can choose to dive (and sit on the ocean floor to look up at the mantas) or snorkel (and float on top of the water while while looking down). We chose to snorkel with Kona Ocean Adventures the first time, and Kona Diving Company the second time around on the retreat. Both are EXCELLENT companies. The experience was definitely one of the top 10 adventures we have ever done in our lifetime. It almost seems like you’re in space with these other worldly creatures since everything’s so dark underwater. I can’t believe how close the mantas get to people while they’re feeding on the plankton. I had a couple swim within an inch of me where I had to move my body or else we would’ve touched. (Thinking back, why did I move my body away?) It would’ve been neat to have felt a manta – but they do say not to touch them – in case you get your human cooties on these majestic creatures.

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I couldn’t count how many there were, but definitely somewhere between 10-20 our first time out. And they’re HUGE!!! The average wingspan of these Pacific manta rays is between 5-8ft, but they could get to be over 14ft wide. They are so graceful underwater and very harmless, gentle creatures. (No barbs like stingrays, so it’s completely safe.)

Since I snorkeled the first time, the second time around I chose to dive. With diving, you sink down to the bottom of the ocean so the mantas graze your head. Sometimes, it seems like they’re headed straight for your head with their gigantic mouths open as they’re feeding on plankton.
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As a snorkeler, the mantas will come up to you from below. Having tried both, I can’t say which one was more exhilarating – having these strange, space-like creatures graze by you is AWE-some either way.
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To get an idea of what the experience is like, watch this!

Snorkeling at night with manta rays from LYNN DAO on Vimeo.

For a better video that puts mine to shame, click HERE. It’s shot by a pro underwater videographer.

In addition to manta rays, there’s also some spectacular diving to be done off the waters of the BI. I chose to dive with Kona Diving Company because they have a great reputation. If you’re a diver, there’s quite a few dive operations to choose from in Kona, but I loved KDC. I’m not an avid diver so I love going with small groups & hanging by the divemaster. On this dive, my little group consisted of me, the divemaster, and another diver. I felt completely safe. We saw so much underwater & above the water (spinner dolphins, manta ray, false pilot whales). What I loved was that they spotted dolphins on our way out to the 1st dive site & gave all the divers on board the option of getting into the water & diving from there. Of course we were going to hop in & swim with some dolphins!

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After we lost sight of them, there were plenty of other interesting sea creatures to see. Octopi (I saw two of them & they shot out ink at us!), tons of fish, turtles (we went to Turtle Heaven), colorful nudibranchs galore, and a ginormous snail the size of a volleyball munching on a sea urchin. Wish I had a camera that goes down past 16ft, but alas, no. (Sigh.)

But at least my little Sony point & shoot was good enough to get footage of our dolphin swim with Kona Ocean Adventures. (We also did the Manta snorkel with them). Highly recommended! Captain Danny will not stop until you’ve had your fill of swimming with dolphins. And honestly, I don’t know if I could ever have my fill unless I lived there, but the time I spent swimming in that clear, blue water with the dolphins was unforgettable. After swimming with dolphins in New Zealand, Drew & I didn’t think the experience could be topped. But this was INCREDIBLE. The ocean water off the Big Island is SOOOO clear that we could see up to 30ft. Plus, it’s a lot warmer so no need for wetsuits that made us look like shark bait, aka seals.

Swimming with Dolphins, The Big Island, Hawaii from LYNN DAO on Vimeo.

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This guy was so curious and friendly that he swam around with me for about five minutes before taking off. BEST five minutes of my life!!!
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After we had enough dolphining, Captain Danny took us over to his favorite snorkeling spot. He’s got the eyes of a hawk and the lungs of a blue whale or something, because he spotted this sweet octopus, dove down, and recruited it up for our viewing pleasure. AMAZING.
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Our retreat group with Danny & Laure – the awesome couple behind this great operation.
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After all the adventuring, you may want to splurge on a special night out. Drive north from Kona a bit up the Kohala Coast. There are several luxury resorts including the Four Seasons and the Fairmont Orchid. Nothing less than exceptional at both these places. We dined at the Fairmont’s Beach front restaurant. It’s a great way to enjoy the gorgeous sunsets.

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My favorite sunset picture though is from an oceanfront condo in Kona that Drew & I rented our first time there. (For our retreat trip the 2nd time around, we rented a luxury home in Kohala through www.luxuryretreats.com.)

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During the day at our condo, we always spotted a turtle or two hanging out in the tidepools in front.
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Mornings at the house during the retreat started off right with coffee, fruit, yogurt, and toast before heading out to the water.
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We managed to squeeze in some yoga too! Nothing like good friends to help you achieve your dream of operating a travel yoga retreat company.
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On our free day, the guys decided to go uni hunting in the ocean. It was not an easy task, but they did well with kitchen tongs, garbage bags, and Drew missing a fin while having to tread water as the other two guys dove for sea urchin. Sweet success!
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There’s so much to do in Kona if you’re a water lover. But don’t forget to set aside a few days to explore other parts of the island as well. There are active volcanoes, waterfalls, and lush green tropical forests you can explore. Some people only come to the Big Island as a side trip for 3 days or so. If you’re an ocean lover, you may want to spend at least a week! Check out the Big Island {Volcanoes} page for amazing images of active lava flow and the unique landscape of young, dried lava.
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