When it comes to searching the heavens,
there is no place like the island of Hawaii. Atop the 14,000-foot
summit of Mauna Kea, 13 observatories, including some of the
largest in the world, face the night skies in the isolated heart of
the Pacific. Taking their cue from the scientific community, a
number of Big Island resorts offer stargazing as an activity.
Visitors can drive
up Mauna Kea to stargaze on their own. However, most visitors reach
the top of Mauna Kea via van tour. Several companies are licensed
for summit tours, which are offered year-round. Each company is
limited to two tours per day, with a maximum of 13 participants per
tour. With such limited capacity, summit tours tend to fill up
considered Mauna Kea's summit a sacred place. Austere, majestic and
often snow-capped in winter, the peak was said to be home to the
snow goddess Poliahu, sister and archenemy of the volcano goddess
Pele, who was said to have made her home in the neighboring
calderas of Mauna Loa and Kilauea.
discoveries about the solar system, galaxy and universe have come
from observations made atop Mauna Kea.
The road to the
summit is reached from the Saddle Road, which links the Kohala and
Hilo coasts. Although safe and easy to navigate, it is listed as
off-limits to most rental cars. Vehicles from Harper Car Rentals
and Hertz are the two exceptions; both offer cars designed for the
at 9,000 feet at the observatory base camp, where a small museum
(open until 10 p.m.) introduces visitors to the wonders of modern
astronomy and Mauna Kea's role in it.
But nothing quite
compares to a sunset visit to the summit, followed by a viewing of a night sky alive
with stars and the wispy grandeur of the Milky Way.
respiratory, circulatory or heart ailments should not take summit
tours. Regular scuba divers are warned about potential altitude
offer more than a way of simply accessing the summit. I joined the
Mauna Kea Summit & Stars Adventure offered by Hawaii Forest
& Trail. The tour included narratives by our driver-guide, both
en route and during the stargazing period that followed a sunset
visit to the summit. Parkas and gloves were provided to ward off
temperatures that fell into the 40s. Hot chocolate and cookies were
Dinner, a hot,
picnic-style meal, had been served earlier in a tent under cypress
summit tours are offered year-round and last seven to nine hours.
Midday departures from the Kona/Kohala coast and Hilo reach the
summit at sunset. The drive, on paved and unpaved roads, makes its
way up a massive, volcanic mountain that rises 18,000 feet.
Panoramas reveal a stark volcanic landscape of lava flows and
Both Mauna Loa and
Haleakala are within sight of Mauna Kea's summit on clear days,
rising above puffy cumulus clouds that are bathed in rich, sunset
The sunset viewing
is followed by a return to the 9,000-foot level, where telescopes
magnify the countless stars that sparkle in the black
Hawaii Forest &
Trail charges $169 for its tour; Mauna Kea Summit Adventures, $165;
Jack's Tours, $174; and Arnott's Lodge, $110.
Astronomy Center, which opened last year in Hilo, provides a more
comprehensive look at the universe and the ways in which the
ancient Polynesians, including the Hawaiians, viewed the
navigators, the Polynesians were intimately familiar with the
heavens, for it was the familiarity with the position and movement
of the stars that allowed them to navigate the vast stretches of
the Pacific between various islands.
Imiloa links the
traditions of the Hawaiian past and modern discoveries with
exhibits that have multigenerational appeal. Admission is $14.50
for visitors age 13 and older and $7.50 for children ages 4 to 12;
admission is free for children 4 and younger. For more on Imiloa,
contact reporter Allan Seiden, send e-mail to [email protected].