One of the best things about living on the West Coast is that you’re pretty close to Hawaii, only about 5 hours away. It almost makes up for being spoiled on every major TV event (don’t even start me on avoiding the internet Sunday nights for GoT).
The Big Island of Hawaii lives up to its name. It is vast. You need to get a rental car while you are here, if you’re planning on seeing the sites. Otherwise, you can veg out in your resort, if that’s your dig. Whatever you like, soak in the tropics and enjoy the natural beauty of the Rainbow state.
Me? I like to explore. From the moment I hit the ground at KOA, I started my trek around the island. First stop was Kailua Pier in downtown Kona, the largest city on the west side of the island. This area has many touristy shops, cafes, restaurants, all with up close views of the ocean and palm trees. Literally, it can’t get more Hawaiian–I saw a honu within minutes of parking.
Walking down this boardwalk area, you’ll past the Hulilee Palace, the former vacation home for Hawaiian royalty. Now a museum.
There are lots of afternoon farmer’s markets selling fruit and trinkets along the route to what was one of my favorite spots to chill: Daylight Mind coffee shop. The second floor of this cafe has a beautiful patio where you can sit and watch the waves crash against the rocks below. It’s serene, and the Kona coffee is delightful.
Driving south, you’ll find yourself on winding residential roads on route along the Kona coast, towards Kealakekua Bay. This little cove is allegedly where Captain Cook was killed by natives, and there’s a white obelisk you can see marking the spot from the shore (see if you can spot it in this picture, it’s tiny). There are kayak tours that will take you out there to see aquatic life.
Continuing down the coast, National Historic Park, Pu’uhonua O Honaunau was a sacred place for ancient Hawaiians to take refuge. Anyone who broke the ancient laws, or kapu, could come here and be absolved by a high priest. This area is said to house the remains of many Hawaiian kings and royals. There are many statues of protective warriors around the grounds. The bay is also a popular place for people to snorkel and see turtles and brightly colored schools of fish.
By this time, you’ve probably worked up an appetite, so you need to fulfill your destiny of having some good old fashioned Hawaiian food. I cannot recommend this place enough: Ka’aloa Super J’s. It is a straight up shack along the road and it has the most incredible pork lau lau and macaroni salad. Oh, it’s so delicious. It’s seasoned pork steamed in a taro leaf, and I could eat it forever. The Kalua pork and cabbage, and the salmon lomi is also so good here. It’s not much to look at, with plastic lawn chairs and folding tables, but it feels like home and it tastes like it, too.
Going back towards town, you have to stop at Holualua Village. This is a small artist colony with lots of galleries and inns and it’s perched on a hill so you can see the ocean vista from above. It’s lovely, and usually around this time in the afternoon, you’ll get some sprinkled showers to cool you down.
Most of the resorts are on the Kohala Coast, your big chains like the Fairmont, Four Seasons, Hyatt, Marriott, etc. This is far from everywhere else, so you can easily get sucked in and eat there for dinner, we did twice during our stay. Resort restaurants are fine, and can have fine dining options, but you’re not going to get as authentic a feel as the smaller family operated places.
The beaches (even the ones on resorts) are all public on the Big Island, so please be sure to catch a sunset or two. There is nothing like the colors of a Hawaiian sunset.
Nightlife in Kona is a little spotty. There are bars open, but this island is a little more sleepy than Oahu or even Maui. That’s okay though because you’re going to need your rest for tomorrow’s activities anyway.
Day two is all about Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. One of the most unique national parks, there are two active volcanoes here, Kilauea and Mauna Loa, so conditions are always changing. This is a trek from the Kohala coast, we drove across the island for about an hour and a half into Hilo to see the largest city on the East side of the island.
Rainbow Falls is an 80 foot waterfall that’s literally located in the middle of the city, and is a nice backdrop/photo op. We wanted to visit Two Ladies Kitchen for mochi, but they were closed (!). Apparently they have strawberry mochis that are to die for, I’ll just have to go back, I guess.
After another hour south, you finally get to the park where you pay a $25 fee/car that lasts for 7 days, so you can return as many time as you want during your stay. Driving through the park, you can take the Crater Rim drive (11 miles) then Chain of Craters (18 miles).
There are many sites of interest to see along the way: Thurston lava tubes, Jagger museum, devastation trail, all the way down to the Holei sea arch near the ocean.
From this spot, you can hike or bike several miles to see where lava flows into the ocean. It’s facinating to see the geological and ecologic differences throughout the park.
We did not have time to hike all the way down to see the lava flow up close, but an alternate option was to dine at the in park Volcano House restaurant which is located in one of the lodges. You can see the active caldera from the dining room, and the food is legitimately delicious.
On day three, we set out to do a morning hike to see some local ancient petroglyphs. They are all over the island, but we were staying very close to the Puako site which is a short hike through the reality version of what the woods around Hansel & Gretel’s witch’s forest must have looked like.
The Lava Lava Beach Club is a waterfront casual restaurant with sandwiches and salads located near the black sand beach. This should be sufficient to energize you for the day ahead. Today you explore the north, which is dotted with cute towns along the coastline. First, Puukohala Heaiu National Historic Site is the ruins of the last Ancient Hawaiian temple. Offshore is a monument dedicated to sharks, said to be at the site of a submerged temple. Apparently shark feedings occur here and in the early morning you may be able to see some hale.
Traveling through the small town of Hawi, you’ll notice antique stores and many shops lining the main drag of town. Kohala Coffee Mill is a great place to rest your laurels and enjoy some Tropical Dreams, the Big Island’s famous ice cream. Just down the road, you will see the original statue of King Kamehameha, the original king of the Hawaii, near his birthplace.
After another long drive, you’ll reach Waipio, which you’ll probably recognize from a lot of postcards. It’s probably one of the most famous bays in Hawaii, and hordes of tourists can be found here taking selfies from the lookout point.
On your way back into Waimea, don’t forget to stop at Tex’s Drive In where you can get your grubby hands on some malasadas, the Portuguese donuts that Hawaiians love. These are more dense than their counterparts, Leonard’s on Oahu, but they’re also good. You can get guava and coconut or just stick to original sugar. Waimea also has lots of shopping and restaurants like Merriman’s, which is famous fine dining.
For our last stop of the day, we went to Akaka Falls, which is a 442 foot waterfall near Hilo. This is a beautiful scene, but beware, while we were here someone parked near us had their car broken into. Criminals seek out cars that look like easy targets in these tourist areas, it can be pretty scary–don’t leave things out in plain sight and make sure you take all your valuables with you.
On your penultimate day, relax, shop, enjoy the beaches. Waikoloa Resort has multiple shopping centers including the Shops of Mauna Lani, where there’s a nice little coffee shop, Kimobean. There’s also a gourmet market where you can grab sandwiches and salads to go for a picnic beach day.
The Big Island is known for its black sand beaches, and it’s green sand beaches at the southern tip. Perhaps this is why it is not as popular as the other islands, as these beaches are more rocky, but still beautiful. There is some snorkeling, but the rocks/black sand are created by slightly stronger waves, which can make it a little more precarious. The great thing is that all the beaches are public, so you can visit any resort and get to the beach. Most resorts will have areas where you can rent paddleboards and kayaks.
Puako Bay is a rocky beach, but has lots of tide pools and an extensive reef, making it popular for scuba diving. There’s also a lot of shade on the narrow strip of beach, unlike other beaches. And just look at that teal surf. GORGEOUS.
Up near Waimea, Samuel Spencer Beach is a nice local beach perfect for picnicking. Around the corner is Kohala Burger and Taco, which always has a long line because of its reasonably priced fare and its location next to Original Big Island Shaved Ice. You gotta have one while you’re in Hawaii.
On your way back to your hotel, don’t forget to stop at Hamakua Macadamia Nut company. This place has samples galore and is great for buying nuts to bring back as souvenirs. Their kona coffee glazed and wasabi soy sauce flavors are killer.
You have to enjoy at least one sunset meal while in Hawaii, and a great place for that is at Brown’s Beach House at the Fairmont. It’s pricy, but the food is good, and the view can’t be beat. On any given afternoon, you can find a half dozen honus sleeping on the beach here.
On my last day, I got a massage (had to) and relaxed before driving into town for the last time. Great places for last minute souvenirs are Costco and Target, where they have lots of postcards and kitsch for you to bring back (Hello Kitty stuff at Target). Nearby Kona Green Mountain coffee has delicious lattes, and is located in the same shopping center as Pine Tree Cafe, which is down home Hawaiian diner food that you can take to go (you’ll want to, there’s not much at the airport). I highly recommend the Chicken Katsu and spam musubi–they had everything from loco moco to beef stroganoff, so delicious.
Head back to the Kona airport and say Aloha to your Big Island Adventure. Mahalo!