The Big island's visitor's bureau has dubbed East Hawaii the "Wild, Wild East"—the underexplored half of the island where Hawaii's volcanoes make the beaches black and the rainforest conceals delicate tropical flowers and towering waterfalls. Most Big Island visitors just pass through this part of the island on their way to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, but East Hawaii has charms not found elsewhere.
"It's a great destination for the traveler who wants to see the 'real' Hawaii, as opposed to another beautiful resort that could be in any warm climate," says Hawaii-based writer Leslie Lang, whose book, Exploring Historic Hilo, was recently published. "The type of people who'd enjoy it here are more adventurous; they like to meet local people, try local foods, and don't require room service or fancy drinks with umbrellas."
Using the town of Hilo as a base, you can go in search of the perfect black- or green-sand beach or hike to waterfalls. Alternatively you can get a great view of the heavens by visiting the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy, the world's largest observatory for several types of astronomy, on the slopes of Mauna Kea. "Every night of the year at 6 p.m. there is free public star gazing at the visitor center," says Lang. "They roll out portable telescopes and tell you about what you're seeing—it's unbelievable." You can learn more about astronomy and the role it plays in native Hawaiian culture at the new Imiloa Astronomy Center in Hilo for $14.50.
To see wilder country, drive down to Puna, a place known as the Big Island's "outlaw" coast thanks in part to the lava that periodically flows down from Kilauea. Outdoor enthusiasts can experience the volcanic action up close for free, checking out Puna's geothermal ponds, lava beds, steam caves, and vents.
Everyone should visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the realm of the volcanoes Mauna Loa and Kilauea, which is a 30-mile drive from Hilo. Looking down into volcanic craters and watching active lava flows is well worth the $10 admission fee. You can also hike and bike around the craters.
Where to stay: East Hawaii has no five-star resorts, but is home to smaller hotels, inns, and B&Bs. You can find listings on the Big Island Visitors Bureau website. Some affordable places worth looking at are the Plumeria Hill B&B in Puna where rates start at $95 per night and the Dolphin Bay Hotel in Hilo, where rooms with full kitchens start at $99 per night.
Getting there: ATA runs the only nonstop flights to Hilo's airport, and summer flights, which depart from Oakland, start at $364 plus taxes. You can compare fares from your departure city using SmarterTravel's price-comparison tool.