Hawaii is filled with tropical pleasures, but the lures of its largest island are unparalleled.
My hometown, San Francisco, is known for its crazy weather. Wool coat in June? Check. Shorts in October? You bet. So I feel perfectly comfortable on the Big Island, which packs nearly every kind of climate zone into a little more than 4,000 square miles—about the size of Los Angeles County. In just over two hours I drove from the dry, desertlike scene of Kailua-Kona through the savanna-esque grassland of the island’s central ranches to the tropical humidity of Hilo. Some folks even ski on Mauna Kea. But I’m not that crazy.
Big Island Visitors Bureau: 250 Keawe St., Hilo, (800) 648-2441, gohawaii.com .
4. Cows and cowboys
Speaking of those central ranches: One cool thing I did not expect to see on Hawaii was cows—lots of cows—and men corralling them. In fact, the paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy) has a long history on the Big Island. Among other operations, the island is home to Parker Ranch, founded in 1847 and now one of the largest privately owned ranches in the United States, and Anna Ranch, established a year later. The former offers horseback tours; the latter boasts a restored ranch house and gives demonstrations of blacksmithing and saddlemaking.
3. Lilikoi drinks
Yes, Hawaii is the only U.S. state that grows coffee, and yes, its fresh Pacific fish is to die for. But the gastronomic pleasure I remember most from my last trip to the Big Island is the passion fruit margarita at Bamboo Restaurant & Gallery. This touristy but charming bar blends its proprietary cocktail mix—made from lilikoi (as the passion fruit is known in Hawaii)—with tequila and lime juice and serves the drink over ice in a coconut-shell cup. I didn’t even miss the tiny paper umbrella.
Bamboo Restaurant & Gallery: 55-3415 Akoni Pule Hwy., Hawi, (808) 889-5555, bamboorestaurant.info .
2. Varicolored beaches
I’ve lived nearly my whole life in California, so I thought I knew from beaches. Then I came to the Big Island, where the sand comes in colors. Olivine crystals give a green cast to Papakolea Beach (also called Mahana Beach) on the island’s southern tip. The black volcanic sand of Punalu’u Beach, on the southeast coast, contrasts nicely with, say, red toenail polish. White sand glamour is the specialty at the Kona coast’s Kekaha Kai State Park, but I dug the photogenic salt-and-pepper mix at Kahaluu Beach, a little farther south.
Big Island Beaches: gohawaii.com/big-island/guidebook/topics/beaches .
1. Active volcano
The Big Island’s biggest lure? The red stuff , of course. Kilauea, Hawaii’s youngest and most active volcano, began its current eruption in 1983 and opened a new vent as recently as March 2011. Watching glowing lava ooze inside a crack in the ground, feeling its heat rise through the soles of my shoes, hearing radio-crackle sounds as a skin forms and breaks on the cooling surface—no other experience comes close to a visit here. Even a flyover is worth your time and money.
Photography by Steve Dunleavy 
This article was first published in July 2011 and updated in September 2012. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.