At 4 a.m. recently on the Island of Hawaii, I stood three-quarters up the world’s tallest mountain and looked toward the heavens to witness a celestial show. There on Maunakea, a sacred volcano in Hawaiian culture and arguably the premier place on Earth to view stars, I observed the entire Milky Way and Venus, Saturn, and Jupiter strung out across the sky like pearls. Kim Nichols, an interpretive field guide at Hawaii Forest & Trail, taught me and a small tour group how to orient ourselves with the Hokule’a (“Star of Gladness,” also known as Arcturus), vital to the Polynesian wayfinders. She also used a laser to trace the stars of Ka Makau Nui o Maui (“Maui’s Fish Hook,” also known as Scorpius), which found modern fame in Disney’s “Moana.” The bejeweled constellations above made it easy to see why travelers consider a visit here a bucket-list non-negotiable.
Soon the stars brushed away like chalk as the sun started to rise, and as Venus became more elevated, the faint dot of Mercury appeared to her east. We then piled in the van to head to the summit at almost 14,000 feet, where scientific organizations and countries have invested billions of dollars to have the most sophisticated telescopes. But that location is also currently mired in controversy.
It is there that the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), set to be the largest telescope in the Northern Hemisphere, is supposed to be built for some $1.4 billion. But because of the mountain’s significance to Native Hawaiians, protesters in July blocked the road to the summit to prevent construction from beginning. Maunakea is essential to the Hawaiian religion’s origin story as a place where Sky Father (Wākea) meets Earth Mother (Papa). The mountain is also considered the navel of the Hawaiian universe. In ancient times, Hawaiians used to dip the umbilical cords of babies in the mountain’s Lake Waiau to transfer strength to the babies and would sometimes bury those cords at the summit.
As the tensions play out, visitors should be informed about how to treat the mountain with respect while also enjoying the many alternative stargazing locations across the Big Island. The good news is travelers can still enjoy the celestial show above without getting involved in the controversy.
Alternative Tours to Access the Stars
Low light-pollution, smooth winds that don’t disrupt visual resolution, and the island’s location at about 19 degrees north of the equator (with three-quarters of the sky visible at any one time) all make Hawaii a premier place for astronomic observation. And though the fact that Maunakea’s summit sits above 40% of the atmosphere makes it all the better for telescopes, it’s possible for tourists to get top-class stargazing opportunities all over the island.
One evening by the beach at the Fairmont Orchid, I met Wayne M. Fukunaga, who runs Star Gaze Hawaii, a company that offers visitors telescope experiences and guided stargazing. He had a telescope pointed at the Orion Nebula, particularly M42. As I peered through the eyepiece, he coached me through what I was observing — essentially, a stellar ultrasound, a glance at about 700 baby stars (aka gas-dust bunnies) that are forming about 1,344 light-years away in a celestial nursery.
Star Gaze Hawaii has sessions at the Fairmont Orchid every Friday, the Westin Hapuna Beach Resort every Sunday and Wednesday, and The Hilton Waikoloa Village Resort every Monday and Thursday. Times vary by season, and bookings have increased given that Maunakea summit tours are closed.
Fukunaga is half Native Hawaiian, and though he firmly supports the TMT given that “stellar exploration is in the DNA of the Hawaiian people,” he recommends skipping Maunakea for now.
“The protesters have blockaded the access road,” he said. “Crowds of hundreds of protestors from all over the world are congregating. Sanitation and safety issues are becoming problems. Tourists may inflame the agitated crowd.”
Instead, stick to the Northwest coast’s South Kohala District, where many resorts are located and which has unique atmospheric qualities. The ocean, which is flat and at a uniform temperature, produces gentle tradewinds at about 5 to 10 mph. Strong winds cause turbulence that blur planets. Twinkling stars with lower visibility are the result of rough gusts. But here, there is commonly sub-arc-second visibility, which is four to six times sharper than most other places on the planet. Plus, the temperatures at sea-level are comfortable for stargazers, instead of the 9-degree F temperatures I faced on Maunakea and the potential discomfort of high-altitude conditions.
Hawaii Island Retreat at Ahu Pohaku Ho`omaluhia, a boutique eco-friendly hotel and spa toward the Kohala Coast, is set back remotely in nature for maximum visibility above. It is an important place in Hawaiian culture, as the birthplace of King Kamehameha I, but stargazers can have a non-intrusive experience from their bungalows and yurts.
As for other stargazing options, Fukunaga recommends Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and any resort golf course.
M. Pat Wright, owner of the tour company Mauna Kea Summit Adventures, encourages visitors to see the stars from Mauna Loa. Tour companies aren’t allowed on the 17-mile scenic drive off Saddle Road, so it’s best to have your own four-wheel-drive rental.
Whether on Maunakea or elsewhere on the island, Wright says to respect the 'aina, the land, and bring some sanctity to your experiences.
“We encourage people to concentrate more on the scenery and the experience more than the selfies and other banal activities,” he said.
Think Local, Go Local
Kate Sullivan, a New York-based travel advisor at Otis Travel, which focuses on socially responsible specialty, package, and corporate travel, has an academic background in archaeoastronomy, the study of how ancient people viewed the skies and stars.
“For tourists and stargazers, the important thing to realize here is that you're looking for an adventure or experience in the middle of someone’s millennia-old history and culture,” she said.
It’s incumbent upon tourists to be cognizant of the context.
“Although other observatories and telescopes are already on Maunakea, this latest, largest one touched a nerve in terms of self-identity and agency, coming at a time when more people are reconnecting with their heritage and more concerned about the world around them,” Sullivan said. “While the academic insights from the TMT could be huge and the environmental impact relatively low, this is sort of a stand-in or proxy for bigger fights about fishing, drilling, and environmental preservation of the land and sea that traditional Hawaiians believe gave them life and must, therefore, be protected like family.”
Sullivan recommends exploring stargazing options elsewhere on the island, and rather than selecting a package tour or another more formal stargazing trip, Sullivan recommends going to the Airbnb website and clicking on the Experiences section.
“You'd be surprised how many astronomy students — or regular locals — would be interested in taking you to a different nearby spot – maybe a family favorite or a locals-only secret — where you can see the stars almost as well,” she said. “There will be fewer fellow tourists, and you may learn more interesting stories about the local culture and traditional beliefs than you would on a standard tour. It’s also a way to make sure your vacation dollars go straight to locals who are engaged with and passionate about the land and the area.”
She also suggests contacting the astronomy department at the University of Hawaii.
“They have some native students who'd be very interested in making a little side money by doing thoughtful, sensitive tours and providing information on the topic from a local perspective while going somewhere a little less fraught than ground zero for this controversy,” she added.
Sullivan prefers these options over Maunkea, not just because of the sacredness of the mountain.
“Personally, I've never recommended going to Maunakea as a stargazer,” she said. “While it’s an amazing vantage point, it’s also pretty full up with observatories at this point - you can visit one and wait with a bunch of other tourists to get a look at the Milky Way, or you can take your chances on the mountaintop to see what you can see surrounded by other people, but it may not be the most pristine experience if you’re looking to commune with the cosmos instead of making more scientific observations.”
It’s possible to have those otherworldly experiences in less culturally sensitive areas, even local beaches at night. Though you might not be at a high altitude, with less interference from refraction and clouds, the naked eye isn’t going to notice that big difference anyway, Sullivan said.
Get Expert, Culturally Sensitive Guidance
Though a visit to a museum may be counter-intuitive to many people’s vision of a Hawaii beach vacation, the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii is a world-class facility that will appeal to those looking to connect to Hawaiian culture and the island’s stellar bounty.
There are live stargazing programs, astronomy talks, and exhibitions that detail the astral heritage in Hawaiian culture and the technological advances on the island. Dr. Jason Chu, an astronomer who conducts research from the Gemini Observatory atop Maunakea, is a frequent lecturer.
During my visit to ‘Imiloa, I met Kālepa Babayan, the facility’s navigator-in-residence and a famed navigator for the Polynesia Voyaging Society, whose journeys Hawaiian Airlines sponsors.
A TMT supporter, he guided me through how Native Hawaiian cultural traditions could be married with technological advances in astronomy.
A renaissance of Hawaiiana in the 1970s ushered in a deepened desire for Native Hawaiians to reconnect with their cultural roots, Baybayan said. As part of that trend, in 1975 the Polynesian Voyaging Society launched a double-hulled canoe called the Hokule‘a, named for the star that sits right above Hawaii at night, and embraced ancient Polynesian wayfinding, a 5,000-year-old navigational method that uses the sky to create a compass that’s divided into 32 houses, or sections. The 1976 voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti attracted attention to the sophisticated stellar navigation Hawaiians had historically employed and instilled pride in the early advancements of the culture.
“The motive for wayfinding was human curiosity and exploration,” Babayan said. “The ultimate role of a navigator is to sustain his community, is to provide them opportunities. My community is global, not just the Hawaiian people or the Oceanic people.”
Just as ancient wayfinders explored new opportunities for settlement and discovery, Babayan said he sees sophisticated astronomy as a modern application of those roots for Hawaiians and those around the world.
At the Four Seasons, guests can find another learned resource in “Uncle” Earl Kamakaonaona Regidor, manager of the on-property Ka‘upulehu Cultural Center that promotes Native Hawaiian traditions. He is comfortable speaking with guests about his mana‘o — his mindset — with regard to the TMT and also makes the connection between Hawaiian wayfinding’s history and current scientific advancements on Hawaii.
“Our kapuna discovered the islands using celestial navigations — the stars, the elements, everything about nature guided them here,” he said. “Now telescopes see everything in a continuation of that tradition.”
Still Want to Visit Maunakea?
Last week, Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim announced he lacked the authority to stop the protests or cut a deal with both sides. But he is committed to finding a peaceful resolution.
“I’m here to see where we can go, and I’m hoping we can establish a relationship so we can all join hands together, to move forward to making it better,” Mayor Kim said.
While the protests are on-going — with notable visits from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Jason Momoa — it’s still possible to visit Maunakea responsibly without going to the summit.
KapohoKine Adventures is continuing to offer its Maunakea Stellar Explorer tour, which combines both daytime solar viewing and nighttime astronomical observing. All guides are Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Service trained. One staffer founded the Maunakea Visitor Information Center, while others have work experience at world-class observatories and bylines in astronomy publications. The tours all start at around 3 p.m. and include a solar telescope viewing from Saddle Road between Maunakea and Mauna Loa, along with one from Maunakea at 6,000 to 9,000 feet. Throughout the tour, guides provide information about volcanology, geology, and astronomy. Daytime solar telescope viewing includes solar flares, sunspots, prominences, and other current activity. Nighttime viewing with a large aperture Dobsonian telescope includes deep sky and planetary objects such as galaxies, nebula, star clusters, planets, double star systems, and the moon.
The protests have not forced any changes to the Maunakea Stellar Explorer tour, as KapohoKine Adventures never went to the summit. The company was founded on the principle of using sustainable tourism to preserve and protect legacy farm holdings, and most importantly, Hawaiian open space.
If do you visit Maunakea, it’s important to comport yourself with a bit of gravitas and respect, according to Tony DeLellis, co-owner of KapohoKine Adventures.
“For the Hawaiian Islands, Native Hawaiians are connected to the land in a way most visitors don’t understand,” he said. “They are deeply connected to those that came before. Each step taken by a visitor, even seemingly inconsequential areas where a cigarette butt or piece of trash may be thoughtlessly discarded, all of those places are where ancestors raised families, cooked food, lay their head to sleep at night. Every piece of land needs to be treated with respect. That’s what Native Hawaiians deserve, and it’s what we work to instill in our guests.”
When visiting Maunakea, Joni Wu, an Irvine, Calif.-based travel advisor who is a Master Specialist with the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau, stressed that especially amid the proposed scientific advancements and the attendant controversy, it's important to go with a local tour operator whose guides communicate the importance of preserving the land and the stories of locals. “We are constantly evolving as a species and progressing the way we do things while still educating on traditions,” Wu said.
It's also important to leave no trace and adhere to the rules in place, said Kelly Soderlund, a travel trends expert at Hipmunk and Island of Hawaii frequenter.
“The best way to be respectful I’ve found is to observe posted signage — especially kapu, which means ‘forbidden’ in Hawaiian,” she said. “There are also cultural staff at many resorts. If you have questions about cultural sensitivities, ask. And in general, be mindful: don’t take things like lava rocks, don’t litter. Practice aloha ‘aina, love of the land.”
“Think of the mountain as a cathedral to nature - you wouldn't take flash photos, stomp around, and drop litter in St Basil’s or in Westminster Abbey, so treat the mountain the same way,” said Sullivan from Otis Travel. “Once you see the stars there, you're going to understand why it's sacred."