The Best Ways to See the Big Island

LEARN THE BIG ISLAND, INSIDE OUT Feeling a little overwhelmed by the Big Island? Seek professional help. The Kohala Center, a nonprofit science and cultural center, has teamed up with United Vacations and Outrigger Hotel & Resorts to offer a unique learning vacation this May called "Born of Fire: Landscapes of Hawai'i." There are two program options: Oceans & Forests (May 3-9; May 17-23; $1,379 p.p.) and Stars & Volcanoes (May 10-16; May 24-30; $1,429 p.p.). Each course gets you out in the field with scientists and also has a rewarding volunteer component. Whether stargazing on Mauna Kea, learning celestial navigation from the crew of a voyaging canoe, or planting koa trees, you will feel a genuine connection to the island. The cost includes the course, transport, and accommodation at the Outrigger. www.kohalacenter.org, www.united vacations.com/kohala.asp.

DIVE THE KONA COAST Wow: This coast has some of the best scuba diving and snorkeling in Hawai'i. For an unforgettable day or night dive with manta rays (snorkelers welcome), call Dolphin Dreams, $79, 808987-8660, www.dolphindreams.com.

How: The Outrigger Royal Sea Cliff has a beachfront location (a mile south of Kailua-Kona) and rooms ranging from $125-$343, 800-688-7444, www.outrigger.com. In artsy Holualoa village, the Holualoa Inn is a visual feast with bold modern art and panoramic views for $175-$225, 800 392-1812, www.holualoainn.com.

RIDE THE WAIMEA PLAINS Wow: Get in touch with your inner cowpoke in a land of sprawling pastures and cattle. Saddle up at 175,000 acre Parker Ranch for guided rides ($79). Or straddle something with a throttle, a 4x4 all-terrain vehicle ($95). This Waimea ranch has two historic homes that have been turned into excellent museums. Mana Hale, built in 1847, contains period artifacts. Puuopelu features world art, 808-885-7311, www. parkerranch.com.

How: The Jacaranda Inn was built in 1897 for a former manager of the Parker Ranch, and each suite is a trip back a century or so. Wait until you see the bathtubs! $179-$450, 808-885-8813, www.jacarandainn.com.

HIKE THE KOHALA MOUNTAINS Wow: From the outskirts of Waimea, head out White Road and take the trail where the road ends. The trail runs the ridge of the Kohala Mountains with views into the lush Waipi'o Valley. Better yet, join Hawai'i Forest & Trail's Valley Waterfall Hike along the Kohala Ditch Trail, $125 including transport, 800-4641993, www.hawaii-forest.com.

How: South Kohala is Hawai'i's "Gold Coast." Try Mauna Kea Beach Hotel ($250 and up, 866774-6236, www.maunakeabeachhotel.com), with its priceless Pacific and art collection, or for family fun, the Hilton Waikoloa ($199 and up, 800-445-8667, www.hilton waikoloavillage.com). Got a titanium credit card? Go for The Four Seasons Resort Hualalai, $560-$810, 800-819-5053, www.fourseasons.com.

STARGAZE FROM MAUNA KEA Wow: The 13,796-foot summit of Mauna Kea is an hour drive from Hilo. Weekend observatory tours start at the 9,300-foot Onizuka Visitor Information Station, open daily, with nightly stargazing, 808-961-2180, www.ifa. hawaii.edu/info/vis.

How: The closest (and cheapest) lodging is at Mauna Kea State Recreation Area¿if you're partial to barracks ($35 for up to four), 808-974-6222, www.state.hi.us/dlnr/dsp/hawaii.html. On the other end of the spectrum is Shipman House in Hilo, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, $192-$214, 800-627-8447, www.hilo-hawaii.com.

EXPLORE KILAUEA'S FIERY LAVA Wow: Gaze at molten lava and you'll never be quite the same. From the entrance to Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, drive about an hour to the end of Chain of Craters Road, then hike to the flows. Reserve ahead for the Pua Po'o lava tube walk, 808-985-6017, www. nps.gov/havo.

How: The Volcano Rainforest Retreat has cottages with outdoor hot tubs surrounded by ferns, $95-$245, 800-550-8696, www.volcanoretreat.com. The Kilauea Lodge is a polished country inn with hearty gourmet dinners, $140-$175, 808-967-7366, www.kilauealodge.com.