Need a break from golf? Find fun in the sun on Hawaii's Big Island

KOHALA COAST, Hawaii -- By land, by sea or by air?

Pick your pleasure. It's easy to find an adventure involving any of them on Hawaii's Big Island.

A golf vacation to the Big Island doesn't have to be all birdies and bogeys. Whales and volcanoes are a local specialty. Tourists won't find those in many other destinations.

The sheer size and diversity of the island's many landscapes and ecosystems offers so much to explore. As much as golfers will love Mauna Kea, Mauna Lani and elsewhere, it might be the other off-the-course pursuits that inspire them to come back again.

By Land

Lounging by the beach or pool makes perfect sense for those staying on the dry Kona-Kohala Coast. It rains less than 10 inches annually. I did some of that on my weeklong visit in January, but my favorite day of the trip came in the wetter section of the island three hours away at the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park near Hilo.

After quick stops at the visitor's center and the Jaggar Museum overlooking the smoking Halema'uma'u crater, my wife and I hiked to the bottom of the Kilauea Iki Crater, an exhilarating three-hour trek perfect for beginners like us. The trail starts in the jungle along the rim and ends up on the cracked moonscape of black rock on a lava lake. Steam vents indicate there's still plenty of activity underground. We had just enough energy left to explore the Thurston Lava Tube, an underground tunnel, across the street.

Staying at the nearby Kilauea Lodge proved to be a wise choice instead of our originally booked hotel back in Hilo. It was a tough to say no to eating inside the Volcano House overlooking the nightly lava glow at the crater's edge, but the food at the lodge came highly recommended and didn't disappoint. The lodge, a former YMCA camp, feels both rustic and refined. Fireplaces might look out of place, yet they're necessary at such high elevations. The restaurant fireplace blazed at breakfast the next morning, a comforting start to the day.

By Sea

Tourists can't visit the Hawaiian islands without an ocean excursion or two.

Hawaii Ocean Sports runs all sorts of cruises (sunset, whale- and dolphin-watching, scuba) and sports classes from the beach behind the Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort & Spa. While I played golf, my wife worked out the kinks from the long flight with morning yoga on the beach.

A sign indicated whales aren't guaranteed on afternoon cruises. Our afternoon sail had no trouble finding multiple pods of humpbacks. There wasn't much in the way of downtime between spouts, fins flapping and tails diving deep. One frisky whale jumped clear out of the water right in front of the boat. The people on the boat let out a collection gasp at the sight of a rare full breach.

A week later, we weren't quite so lucky on a kayak and snorkel of the Kealakekua Bay with Kona Boys. No whales or dolphins playfully frolicked in the bay because of waves during our 20-minute paddle toward a secluded coral reef. It's still a gorgeous spot. Massive oceanfront cliffs surround the bay. A white monument marks the spot near where explorer Captain James Cook was killed by local warriors in 1779. We did score one rare find, a large sea turtle floating peacefully along the edge of the reef.

By Air

I've gone zip-lining a handful of times over the years. The fear factor left a long time ago. The thrill, though, never gets old. And this tour, run by KapohoKine Adventures out of Hilo, was by far my best experience flying through the air.

After meeting in downtown, our group endured a bumpy van ride up to the Honoli'i Mountain Outpost, the launching pad of eight double lines through a secluded rainforest.

The first couple of lines go by quick, providing the opportunity to break in newcomers. Double lines allow couples or friends to ride, and race, together.

Line No. 4 ups the ante, overlooking a majestic river gorge and waterfall. The final line zips riders half a mile, the longest double line on the island. A GoPro helmet camera caught every magical moment.

Zip-lining is the perfect family vacation fun for those with teenagers (or slightly younger if they're big enough). It doesn't take much in the way of skill. Just jump off the platform ledge and fly. If golf were as simple and as exciting, everybody would be doing it.

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed more than 1,000 courses and golf destinations for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Instagram at @jasondeegangolfadvisor and Twitter at @WorldGolfer.
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Mauna Kea, a top-100 golf course designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. in 1964, remains the king of golf on Hawaii's Big Island. Across the street, Hapuna Golf Course, an Arnold Palmer-Ed Seay design built in the 1990s, should no longer be considered just a secondary, more-affordable sister course, however. Hapuna has star power, too. A commitment to better conditioning and the cutting back of rough and long grasses continues to help Hapuna rise in the eyes of golfers.
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Need a break from golf? Find fun in the sun on Hawaii's Big Island