by Will McGough
Last updated: 3:00 AM ET, Wed December 23, 2015
PHOTO: Sunrise at Haleakala. (photo courtesy of the Hawaii Tourism Authority)
Wait, what? Winter wear in Hawaii? The island chain's tallest volcanoes reach well above 10,000 feet and turn white with snow each year, opening the door for adventurers to trade in their sandals for sweatshirts.
Braving the cold might sound strange in the land of sunshine, but the excitement of these adventures is worth the price of a small shiver.
Sunrise and Self-Guided Bike Descent at Haleakala, Maui
Haleakala, which means "House of the Sun," is an active volcano and Maui's highest peak at just over 10,000 feet. Her summit is the island's best place to watch the sunrise, perched high above the clouds. The way the light is spread as the day dawns is truly spectacular. But the show does not come without its consequences. While still dark, the temperature at the top of Haleakala can be in the 30s and 40s, requiring one to wear layers, including a hat and gloves. And forget all about the comfy, cozy temperatures down on the coast.
Most people drive to the top for the sunrise and then head back to warmer locales. Given that you've already gotten up early and bundled up for the occasion, we recommend taking the experience a step further.
An easy yet thrilling way to explore more of Haleakala is to cycle down its steep roads. Bike tours will shuttle you up for the sunrise and then let you ride down after first light. Starting above the clouds, you zip down through the switchbacks, feeling the temperature rise as you descend back down towards sea level, shedding the layers every thousand feet or so.
Once below the clouds, you are treated to beautiful views and a front row seat to the changing landscapes, from the rocky, Mars-like terrain of the summit to the lush, green valleys of upcountry Maui.
There are a lot of bike tour operators that give you similar experiences, but I recommend this self-guided version because, unlike the others, it allows you to ride down the mountain on your own and at your own pace.
Most tours require you to ride single-file in a line with other customers regardless of ability level, which can be frustrating. I liked the ability to make my own decisions and stop at any vista (or coffee shop) of my choosing on the 25-mile ride back to the bike shop.
Sunset and Stargazing at Mauna Kea, Hawaii Island
Mauna Kea's summit is a dizzying 13,796 feet above sea level, the highest point in the Hawaiian Islands. As such, it has become the most popular place on the island to watch the sunset, despite twilight temperatures that dip down into the 30s.
It is also one of the premier stargazing spots in the world, the site of the world's largest astronomical observatory, made up of 13 telescopes operated by eleven countries.
But it's too cold for an extended outdoor stargazing session at the summit altitude, so once the sun sets, the party moves down to the Visitor Center at 9,200 feet, where it's usually ten degrees warmer and crowds can gather for extended stargazing sessions.
During our visit, our guide estimated there were anywhere from 3,000 to 4,000 stars visible that night, and we don't think he was exaggerating one bit. It was extremely difficult for the non-professional skywatchers in the group to pick out familiar constellations due to the sheer number of stars. There's no light pollution here, that's for sure.
Therefore, it is imperative that you go on a tour that is led by someone with celestial knowledge (such as this one from Hawaii Forest and Trails).
Our guide set up a telescope and let the group take turns looking at a galaxy located 2.5 million light-years away. That means the light we were seeing from the galaxy was from a time before modern humans existed on Earth.
Stargazing at Mauna Kea is one of the most spectacular and rewarding things you can do on the Hawaii Islands. Just make sure you bring some hot chocolate, a hat, gloves and wear several layers.
Night Swimming with Manta Rays, Kona, Hawaii Island
If the chilly water doesn't make your hair stand up, swimming with gigantic beasts in dark, deep water probably will. This novel experience takes place just off the shores of Kona, where dozens of manta rays come in to feed each night.
The friendly beasts are far from shy.
On our outing, they swam right under us and somersaulted as they fed, maximizing their plankton intake as their bellies came within inches of our snorkel masks.
It's exhilarating, and to come that close to something that big and to see them emerge from the dark depths of the ocean provides plenty of warming adrenaline, but be ready for chilly conditions nonetheless. Most of the experience is "sedentary" in that you are not swimming and moving your body - you're holding on to a float, bobbing in the water. This video gives you a good idea of what to expect:
When you snorkel during the day, definitely wear a shirt to protect your back from sunburn. When you snorkel at night, you'll want the water equivalent of a sweatshirt - a wetsuit - to keep the goosebumps at bay. Wetsuits are provided by most outfitters, and we can recommend these guys to take you out. Bring layers and a change of clothes so you don't freeze on the boat ride back.
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