We stayed in Hilo—hot, wet, and tropical Hilo—in a rented, Japanese-style house. Since I'm an astronomy nerd, I had to take the tour up to the observatories on Mauna Kea—way up on the top of the Big Island.
The van trip was fun and educational, and they offered oversized pullovers as the weather got cold, but they were next to worthless when we got to the top.
The wind was whipping by at 50 miles an hour, the temperature was below freezing. We were above the clouds, amongst the Hawaiian gods, watching the sunset of sunsets.
Most retreated to the heated van, but I stayed out to watch. I pulled my arms in from the pullover to stay warm, so the sleeves blew limply in the high wind.
Years ago I got sunburned while in Ireland, so it only made sense I'd get frostbite in Hawaii. But, as with all real travel, it was worth it.
Make your way up the twisty roads of Mauna Kea by private car or tour bus. The temperatures can be cold (snow might be present in the winter) and the wind strong, but the views are worth everything. Being above the clouds is quite surreal.
On the Big Island, this is the most awe-inspiring adventure you can take, and all you'll need is a little time and the right vehicle. Mauna Kea is that huge mountain in the middle of the Big Island, and yes, you can summit it at any time, for free, and watch the sun come up or go down, depending on your preferred circadian rhythm. As you ascend, you will be greeted by various "levels" of weather, meaning you'll pass through mist, fog, sun, rain, clear skies, clouds, and eventually . . . nothingness, because you'll literally be above it all. As you head up the mountain, be sure to stop off at the visitors' center at 9,000 feet to check the weather conditions, get safety information, and adjust to the altitude change if needed. After that, if you have a 4-wheel drive vehicle, you may continue on up to the summit which crests a bit shy of 14,000 feet. Once there, you will see all 11 observatories from 13 countries with telescopes pointing toward the heavens. Ironically, you will be looking not up but down, as you get to watch the sun rise or set on the clouds that tumble lazily below your feet.
Watching the setting sun from the top of Mauna Kea is an inspiring experience, to say the least. And while you may be surprised to be standing in a place on Hawaii that is 36 degrees, trust me, the view will definitely warm you up.
You will first need four-wheel drive. Then take an hour's break at the visitor’s center before heading up to the observatories at Mauna Kea’s summit. You might feel a little light-headed when you reach the top—if not for the altitude, then for the epic sunset you will behold suspended above the clouds.
It's best to go during the wetter, winter months for a better chance of snow on the ground.
If you can swing an early morning departure from your hotel, enjoy an unforgettable sunrise from the top of Mauna Kea. The beautiful moment is made more enchanting in the winter if there is snow on the mountaintop—snow falls on Mauna Kea about one or two times each year and all sorts of adventure sports enthusiasts rush up to take advantage of the rare Hawaiian snow day. Never worry, however, you can descend after the sun comes up and find the tropical paradise you expect it in Hawaii and a warm sunny spot on the sand.