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SPECIAL ISSUE | WILD HAWAII

Snorkel the Big Island's best sites

March 18, 2007|DAN NEIL

Does night-diving with giant devilfish sound too intense? That's OK. Some wonderful sights lie in shallow water just a few feet offshore. Here are three of the Big Island's best and easiest snorkeling spots, ideal for kids and adults who are just getting their feet wet.

Kapoho Tide Pools

Hard to get to, hard to find, these shallow tide pools, sheltered from the ocean by a mile-long reef, offer spectacular snorkeling -- sort of like diving into the ornamental saltwater aquarium in your dentist's lobby. To negotiate the shallows between the pools without touching the coral, go at high tide. Also, don't use fins; you won't need them and you can accidentally kick the coral in close quarters. Wear soled neoprene booties that will help you walk across the volcanic rock. Access to the area is through a small housing development whose residents may not be pleased to see you. Be mindful that some of the volcanically heated pools are on private property.

To get there: Travelers based in Kona can take the long drive around the southern end of the island, between the cliffs and the coastal plains, through Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and finally to the super-funky town of Pahoa. From Pahoa, take Hawaii 132 (Kapoho Road) to Kapoho-Kalapana Road. Left on Kapoho Kai, then right on Waiopae Road.

Captain Cook Monument/Kealakekua Bay State Historical Park

Feel like some exercise? Most snorkelers reach the pristine and beautiful Kealakekua Bay marine reserve by renting a kayak (from one of several vendors along Hawaii 11) or by joining one of the regular charters, such as the well-regarded Fair Winds II boat out of Keauhou Bay. However, cardio buffs may want to consider the heroic walking trail. The one-mile-plus footpath winds through lovely farmlands. Kealakekua Bay is a vast marine garden, an amazing ramshackle collection of coral heads and volcanic rocks sloping toward the open sea. The waters are calm and glass clear. A profusion of fish lives in the bay, but mammals call it home too. Spinner dolphins are sighted regularly, and snorkelers may hear the peel and squeak of humpbacks from the open water.

To get there: Take Hawaii 11 south 15 miles from Kailua-Kona and look for signs for Kealakekua Bay. Take a right on Napoopoo Road. Look for parking just after the turnoff. The footpath is narrow and overgrown and is marked only by a "Road Closed" barrier, which applies to vehicle traffic.

Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park/"Two Step"

The national historical park here provides a one-stop deep-dive into the exotic mysteries of Hawaiian culture. This sacred site is a puuhonua, a place of refuge -- a kind of geographic amnesty. Anyone who might suffer the wrath of the kings -- vanquished warriors, refugees or those who might have violated sacred law (kapu) -- would be forgiven if he or she could reach this place, surrounded by a massive volcanic rock wall. It's one of the most beautiful places on this beautiful island, on the shore of crystal-clear Honaunau Bay. Here is the famed "Two Step," a set of smooth lava rocks that allows snorkelers easy access to the underwater panorama. Easy and shallow snorkeling, perfect for kids, is just feet from shore. Turtles, dolphins, eels, crabs and many species of reef fish -- particularly yellow tang, which flutter along the coral like butterflies -- live here.

To get there: On Hawaii 11 heading south, turn right on Route 160 at the Honaunau post office. Look for the Puuhonua o Honaunau sign on the left as you approach the ocean. The road to the "Two Step" area is to the right before the parking kiosk. .

-- DAN NEIL

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