Hawaii: Stargazing and other things to do when a hurricane or a volcano spoil your plans

The first Hawaiians were stargazers. About 1500 years ago they risked everything to navigate their way across 4000 kilometres of dangerous ocean from Polynesia, using only the night skies as their guiding lights.

Today, the island of Hawaii (also known as "the Big Island") is still famed for its stargazers. These days, however, they're not daring navigators but astronomers and quantum physicists, making remarkable discoveries via a cluster of the world's key observatories.

If you're ready for adventure, it is possible to go to the top of mighty Maunakea volcano to see both the telescopes and a sample of the infinite – and ever disappearing – galaxies the scientists are observing. But be warned: you'll have to endure a bumpy 4WD night-time drive there and back, and brave freezing nocturnal temperatures, even this close to the Equator. Worst of all, rising from sea level to the summit, which sits at about 4200 metres, without taking time to acclimatise, raises the real risk of developing altitude sickness, with its headaches and nausea.

There's a whole list of adventurers who are not allowed to visit, by day or night, including pregnant women, children, anyone suffering from high blood pressure ... the list goes on.

Fortunately there's another way to experience Maunakea's night sky – by daylight and at sea level.

Just five kilometres outside Hilo – one of the Big Island's two biggest towns and (usually) the gateway to the state's famous Volcanoes National Park – lies the Imiloa Astronomy Centre. It's part of the University of Hawaii's Hilo campus – and contains a superb 120-seat planetarium that explains the curious similarities (and notable differences) between Hawaiian creation myths and the Big Bang Theory. Have I lost you? Don't worry, I didn't understand all of it either. But because so much of the centre is aimed at school-aged children – interactive displays on nuclear physics, the history of astronomical tools, a "robot-driven" spaceship drive to "the outskirts of a black hole" – you can at least enjoy the ride.

There are three reasons why Maunakea is so important for world astronomy. First, despite Hilo's reputation as the wettest town in the US (some years it is beaten by Ketchikan, Alaska's "Rain City"), Maunakea's summit is perpetually above the cloud level.

Second, being in the middle of the Pacific, Maunakea does not suffer from light pollution.

And third, unlike its younger sister, Kilauea, it's not an active volcano – so it's unlikely to blow up the observatories any time soon.

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As I learn at Imiloa, most of Hawaii's astronomers are able to work close to sea level thanks to the internet, which allows them to observe everything they need to via computer. The technicians and security staff near the summit aren't so fortunate.

In the week of my visit, Hilo is even wetter than usual. Our cruise ship, Pride of America, has arrived in the tailspin of Hurricane Lane, which has dumped, as every local proudly tells me, "50 inches (1270 millimetres) of rain" on the town in just four days.

It's been a tough time for the local tourist industry. Thousands of tourists usually arrive every week and most want to see the Volcanoes National Park. For the moment, however, it's closed thanks to the teenage antics of Kilauea, a volcano that has been belching fire and brimstone in Biblical proportions for months.

Looking for alternative activities, my first inclination is to visit Hilo's Pacific Tsunami Museum. Sadly (and rather ironically) it too is closed, due to unexpected flooding by sea water driven onshore by the high winds.

The local hop-on, hop-off bus takes me – with entertaining local commentary – to most places of interest, including Rainbow Falls which, given the recent downpour, is raging. .

I stop by the farmers' market and buy some homemade lemonade, call in to the free Mokupapapa Discovery Centre to learn about Hawaiian aquatic life, have lunch at Pineapple's (a Big Island institution) and finish off my Hilo visit with a fascinating guided tour of the Lyman House Memorial Museum – a former missionary's house and one of the oldest surviving homes in Hawaii.

Who says you can't have fun in the aftermath of a hurricane?

TRIP NOTES

Steve Meacham was a guest of Norwegian Cruise Line.

MORE

traveller.com.au/hawaii

imiloahawaii.org

gohawaii.com

CRUISE

Norwegian Cruise Line's Pride of America is the only cruise ship that visits four Hawaiian islands on a seven-day cruise. Prices start from about $1588 per person. See ncl.com

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