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The Big Island of Hawaii a haven of natural beauty and cultural

They call the island of Hawaii by many names:

The Land of Fire and Ice, for its volcanoes — sometimes topped by snow.

The Orchid Isle, for numerous botanical gardens and tropical-flower farms.

The Golden Isle, though its beach sand also comes in black and green.

But its most common nickname is the Big Island, because this southernmost of the state's eight major islands is larger than the others combined.

The Big Island offers soft adventure and unusual attractions on land, on the ocean surrounding it perhaps, and best of all, in the sky above it. Here's a sampling.

Volcanic landscape

Before the fun, a geology lesson: The Hawaiian Islands are volcanic, and two of the world's most active volcanoes are on the Big Island in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park.

The park annually draws about 1 million visitors to a museum explaining volcanology in laymen's terms, to marvel at the vast Kilauea caldera (the inner walls of a volcano), to drive or bike the 10.6-mile Crater Rim Drive and to hike trails traversing rainforest and desert.

To the north is Mauna Kea, which means "white mountain'' in Hawaiian. Its summit is 13,796 feet above sea level, and it's another 20,000 feet to its base on the ocean floor, making it the highest peak on Earth. Skiers and snowboarders enjoy autumnal snowfalls atop Mauna Kea, thus the nickname "Fire and Ice.''

Year-round, tour operators take customers up to the visitors information center at the 11,000-foot level; above that, 4WD is mandatory. At the summit are 13 astronomical observatories, here because of the lack of light and air pollution.

Your morning cup

Up, up, up you go, driving narrow roads through residential neighborhoods and into a rain forest at 3,200 feet altitude.

Finally you reach a driveway aswarm with chickens, geese and the occasional cat. This is Mountain Thunder organic coffee farm, five years in a row the winner of gold medals at the Kona Coffee Council competition.

Waiting for the free hourlong tour to begin, visitors can watch episodes about Mountain Thunder that aired on Discovery, Food Network, Fine Living and even the Weather Channel. Sampling the coffee and petting the three resident cats also is free.

The basic tour doesn't go any farther than across the road, where your guide shows you coffee growing on tall bushes. When ready to harvest, the green berries turn red, but they are six processing steps and days away from being ready to drink. It takes 6 pounds of this farm's beans to produce one pound ready for roasting.

Before the beans get to the roasters, they pass through a computerized optical scanner that shunts aside imperfect beans.

Mountain Thunder is among more than 600 small coffee farms on the western side of the island, in the 45-square-mile Kona Coffee Belt.

As at several other farms, tour prices depend on whether you just walk in the orchards, try being a roastmaster, or want a more personal tour.

For more coffee culture, head to the Kona Coffee Living History Farm. On the National Register of Historic Places, it offers interpreters relating the life of Japanese farmers in the early 20th century.

The 5.5-acre site includes a 1913 farmhouse surrounded by coffee bushes, a processing mill and open-air bean-drying platform.

Paniolos on parade

About 40 miles north of Kailua Kona, the land is devoted to about 200 cattle ranches. Near the top of the island is the famed Parker Ranch, once a half-million acres and still at 135,000 acres, one of the largest in the United States.

This area's commercial center is the town of Waimea, where the Parker Ranch even has a busy logo-merchandise store in the 30-tenant Parker Ranch Center mall.

Cattle ranching on Hawaii began after the great King Kamehameha I gave British sailor John Parker the right to herd and slaughter free-roaming cattle. Parker married into royalty and founded his ranch in 1847. It grew through six generations.

You now can ride horses and carriages on the ranch, tour two historic homes and a ranching museum, hunt game or watch the paniolos compete.

Each fall, the paniolos parade down Waimea's main street. While these cowboys, atop their working horses, typically wear plaid shirts and old blue jeans, the visiting "princesses'' representing other islands are in colorful gowns and mantillas, and their horses wear flower leis.

Flat-bed trucks carry ukulele and guitar players who accompany charming hula-school students. And sooner or later during the 90-minute parade, most everyone steps away from the procession to greet, or present leis to, friends and relatives.

Ancient art

The muscular guide introduces himself as Umi (pronounced OO-mee), given name Elton Cabrera-Zuke. Umi is leading guests of the Fairmont Orchid resort through the adjacent Puako Petroglyph Archaeological Preserve. This 233-acre park is the largest collection of the ancient rock carvings in the Pacific, with more that 3,000 figures.

While the Fairmont and adjacent Mauna Lani offer guided tours along the preserve's 1.5-mile loop, anyone can follow the rocky, uneven path through a thicket of wind-gnarled trees.

Umi relates the geologic history of the Big Island, its flora and the fauna, its numerous weather zones — 200 inches of rain annually on the eastern side due to tropical winds, just 9 inches on the leeward side, where we now are.

While these natural factors can be explained, the petroglyphs cannot. Historians guess when the carvings were made in hardened lava, and a sort of timeline is obvious as the human figures progress from the simplest stick people to sophisticated figures holding everyday objects.

Researchers do know that early islanders had an assortment of gods to explain the volcanoes, ocean, weather, even warfare. That last god was the deity for whom Kamehameha I built the Pu'ukohola Heiau, or temple.

Finished in 1791 and constructed of water-worn lava rocks believed to have been passed hand to hand along a 20-mile human chain, the heiau measures 100 by 224 feet, with walls up to 20 feet high. The temple is still sacred: only Hawaiian natives may enter. But a brief film, model and map at the site's visitors center explain its history.

And just a few miles north is the restoration of a 600-year-old fishing village, the Lapakahi State Historical Park, open to all.

Most of the rock walls are original. A self-guided tour offers two half-mile trails; among the structures and sites are a thatched-roof long house that sheltered canoes, hollowed stones used for evaporating sea water to produce salt, a large rock-filled platform used for funerals, and residences.

By air, water or trail

Visitors can sample the natural beauty of the Big Island from many angles, but a helicopter tour is likely to draw the most ooohs and ahhs especially flying over the volcanoes.

Blue Hawaiian Helicopters, recommended by National Geographic and Frommer's 2011 guide, flies from either side of the island. Each passenger wears headphones with a microphone and is encouraged to question the pilot about the landscape. A series of video cameras mounted on the exterior, plus one facing the passengers, record each flight, including the cockpit conversations; the DVDs are $25.

The choppers slowly circle the active Kilauea Caldera — newest lava appears as fluorescent orange patches amid the dull silver of slightly cooler lava. The chocolate brown of the oldest lava flows, on the western, dry side, contrasts with the seven spectacularly lush valleys that begin at the eastern coast. The steep hillsides are breathtaking, as are the slim waterfalls dropping hundreds of feet.

To sample the landscape up close, head northeast on State Road 240, which dead-ends above Waipi'o Valley. It's touted for its spectacular look-out over the valley and hard against the Pacific.

Nearby is Akaka Falls State Park, which offers paved walkways through a rainforest, passing waterfalls, and a scenic drive named for the nearest village, Pepe'ekeo. This road passes through jungle riddled by small creeks; foot trails lead to the Hamakua Coast.

Little more than a mile from Pepe'ekeo is the Hawaiian Tropical Botanical Garden, which has more than 2,000 species of plants.

A sunset cruise is a great way to wrap up your day. Some vessels, such as Ocean Sports' 65-foot catamaran Alala, offer a buffet barbecue dinner and open bar plus Champagne for toasting the sunset. You can even take the helm — another special memory of the Big Island.

Freelance writer Robert N. Jenkins is the former travel editor of the Tampa Bay Times.