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#6 Romantic Thing to Do on the Big Island of Hawaii
Romantic Sunset & Star Gazing
First, press ‘Play’ …
Ku'u Lei, Ku'u Ipo
…then picture this
…you and your love surrounded by the night, tight in each other’s arms, watching the milky way blaze across the night sky. As you sit quitely beneath the universe you become lost in each other.
Hawaii is a world-class location for star gazing. There’s a reason it’s home to 13 telescopes representing 11 countries. MaunaKea (pron. mon-a-KAY-a), rising 13,796 feet above sea level, is one of the most renowned astronomical sites on the planet. The tallest sea mountain in the world, is a fitting place to renew your love for each other. Because of the minimal light pollution, clarity of the air and elevation, the stars light the night sky like so much glitter.
You and your love can enjoy a guided stargazing tour or have a private experience on your own. If you choose a tour, you’ll not only have transportation, you’ll be offered warm parkas, dinner, access to the mountain summit, and detailed stories about the history and cultural significance of MaunaKea.
If you decide to explore the summit on your own, you must have a four-wheel drive vehicle. However, if you want to go no further than the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy Visitor Information Station at the 9,300-foot level you can access it in a two-wheel drive vehicle. (Check first with your rental car company to see if access to MaunaKea is allowed). The Onizuka Visitors’ center is open daily, and offers summit tours in your own vehicle for public stargazing. (The high altitude may be a health hazard for some and can produce serious life-threatening conditions. Be sure to familiarize yourself with safety precautions before traveling upslope MaunaKea.)
On your own or on a tour?
So, how about it? Would you like a private experience, with a nighttime picnic outside the Visitors Center? Or is your trip not complete until you see the world-class telescopes on the summit of the beautiful MaunaKea? A lot depends on whether you want to go all the way to the summit of MaunaKea. While it is feasible to go on your own up to the summit in a four wheel drive vehicle, I don’t advise it if you are a tourist with a rental car. Here are a few reasons why you may want to go on a tour if you want to go to the top and see the observatories up close and personal.
- The national car rental companies don’t allow you to drive past the visitors center at the 9300 ft elevation of MaunaKea. Some rental car agencies don’t even allow their rental cars at all on the road to the visitors center. Check with yours before heading out.
- Even if you are able to drive to the summit, you should have a 4-wheel drive vehicle. In fact for the official summit tour provided by the Mauna Kea Visitor Center, you must provide your own 4-wheel drive vehicle. There are several unpaved miles of road between the visitor’s center and the summit. Plus, in the winter, you may encounter snow and ice.
- At the summit, you’ll experience 40% less oxygen than at sea level. This can have pretty severe and unpredictable effects on you. So, why not leave the driving up to a professional who knows the roads and is able to handle the effects of oxygen deprivation.
A Private Experience On your Own
Since this is all about reconnecting with your love and not an exercise in oxygen deprivation, you decide to go on your own to the visitor’s center for a night time picnic.
Start by Dressing Warm & Rounding up a Night Time Picnic
You’ll begin your adventure by dressing warm in long pants and sneakers or hiking shoes with a long-sleeved shirt. If you’re not going on a tour, you’ll want to bring a heavy coat.
The next order of the day is to pack a picnic. The perfect place for this is Sansei Seafood Restaurant & Sushi Bar in the Queens’ MarketPlace in Waikoloa Village. You and your love will enjoy any of their award-winning dishes. Just place an order to go and ask for napkins and silverware.
Your Nighttime Picnic Provisioned by Sansei Seafood Restaurant & Sushi Bar
Sansei has many tasty selections to tempt you and your love. Here are some of my favorites.
Sansei’s Mango Crab Salad Hand Roll
Ripe mango, blue crab, fresh greens & crunchy peanuts, wrapped in mamenori. Ask them to pack the sweet Thai chili vinaigrette separately.
Panko-Crusted Fresh Ahi Sashimi
Island fresh ahi tuna wrapped with arugula and spinach, panko crusted and flash fried. Ask them to pack the accompanying soy wasabi butter sauce separately.
Sansei’s Shrimp Dynamite
Crispy tempura shrimp is another good option. It may not be as crispy by the time you’re ready to eat it, but it’s still wonderful. Ask for the garlic masago aioli & unagi glaze in a separate container to help keep it crisp.
Broiled Salmon Belly
It doesn’t get much better. Rich, fatty, savory salmon belly with crispy grilled skin. It’s really, really good!
Sansei Seafood Restaurant & Sushi Bar
It will take you an hour and 15 minutes to get from Sansei to the Visitor’s Center. Make sure that you have a full tank of gas before you start your ascent as the nearest gas stations are about 35 miles (50 km) from the visitor station. You’ll want to give yourself an extra 30 minutes cushion so you’re there in plenty of time to see the sunset. This sunset chart will help you to coordinate your timing.
Sunset Times on the Big Island
|Dates||Approximate Time Range of Sunset|
|Jan 1 – Mar 31||5:50 PM – 6:30 PM|
|Apr 1 – Jun 31||6:30 PM – 7:00 PM|
|Jul 1 – Sep 30||7:00 PM – 6:10 PM|
|Oct 1 – Dec 31||6:10 PM – 5:50 PM|
The Drive to MaunaKea
You begin your adventure to MaunaKea on the Saddle road, which connects Waimea and Hilo.
It is fittingly one of the most hauntingly beautiful roads anywhere. You appreciate you love’s careful vigilance for the local donkeys and other large critters crossing the road at dusk.
You follow Hwy 200 (Saddle Road) until you get to the Mauna Kea access road (around mile marker 28, across the street from the Pu’u Huluhulu Cinder cone parking lot). The visitor center is located about halfway up the Maunakea volcano at 9.200 ft elevation.
It takes you about an hour of driving and talking to reach the Visitor’s center just in time for the sunset.
The MaunaKea Visitor Information Station
The visitor information station (official website) is officially called the “Onizuka Center for International Astronomy Visitor Information Station”,and is named after the Hawaiʻi-born astronaut Ellison Onizuka who died in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986.
In the visitor center you can watch a video about astronomy. There also is information on display about the volcano, and a small souvenir shop where you can buy good souvenirs, hot and cold drinks, and snacks. But you don’t because you have a WONDERFUL picnic waiting.
Outside the visitor center local volunteer astronomers have set up telescopes you’ll be able to use under supervision once the sun sets. (official website). This is possible every night of the year from 6:00 pm until 10:00 pm and reservations are not needed.
There may be long lines and scarce parking at the Visitor Information Station on any evening until about an hour and a half after sunset.
The Sunset from MaunaKea
MaunaKea is home to some of the most magnificent, vibrant, romantic sunsets above the clouds you’ll ever see. You can visit the telescopes at the summit during daytime and stay for up to 30 minutes after sunset. You and your love will watch as the sun dips below the clouds in a spectacular explosion of color, framed by the snowy peak, nearby volcanoes, and the futuristic observatories.
And then this…
… melts into this ….
… which finally gives way to this …
You enjoy the stars from one of the many telescopes located outside the visitors center. It’s breathtaking. Then you retire to your car for your night picnic. Finally, sated, you and your love head out.
The stars stay with you.
Ku’u Lei, Ku’u Ipo by Hapa is one of my favorite songs.
“Ku’u lei” literally means “my lei”, and it’s a metaphorical way to refer to your beloved.
Ku’u is an affectionate form of ko’u or ka’u and means ‘my’ in the Hawaiian language.
Ipo means sweetheart, darling, or my love
If you do make the trip to the summit, please be respectful. The summit of MaunaKea is sacred to Hawaiians as the place where the snow goddess Poli‘ahu (pron. po-lee-a-hu) lives.
If you decide to go with a tour company
There are about a half dozen or so companies who offer MaunaKea sunset and stargazing tours. I recommend Hawaii Forest and Trail and Mauna Kea Summit Adventures. Both companies have knowledgeable and friendly guides who respect the local customs and habitats.
Mauna Kea Summit Adventures claim to have the most powerful telescopes of the tour companies and they use mini-bus with large windows and very comfortable coach seating. (Most of the other companies use standard vans with the bench style seating. Not good on the bumpy drive up to the summit.) NOTE: If you have asthma, you may be permitted to go on the tour, if you bring your inhaler and haven’t been hospitalized for asthma in the past 2 years. Be sure and check with your doctor and the tour company for advice regarding your own conditions.
The tours supply arctic parkas and nice thick gloves, snacks, and water. Depending on the tour you choose dinner can also be included. Expect the tour to last an average of 8 hours.
Getting to MaunaKea
Once at MaunaKea
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