Hawaii: Big Island Essentials
When travel editor Becca Bergman Bull was planning her honeymoon, the last place she thought she'd end up was Hawaii. In the end, it was the perfect choice. Here's what she did.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
For our honeymoon we spent eleven days on the Big Island of Hawaii, flying in and out of Kona International Airport (KOA) on the west side. I'd recommend staying at least three nights on the Hilo side (the east coast), for the attractions and the dramatic landscape, and a few nights on the Kona side, the dry, beachy west side. You'll want to be close to the airport on departure day.
WHERE TO STAY
Most of the island's resorts are grouped together on the Kailua-Kona coast, with the ritzier ones to the north. Elsewhere on the island, it's mainly small hotels and bed-and-breakfasts.
Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows: Located on the dry Kona-Kailua coast, Mauna Lani is one of the few independent hotels on the island, and it shows. The resort feels big, but the staff, many of whom have been there forever, are nearly all local and provide indispensable advice for exploring the island like an insider. The amazing beach is a private crescent of powdery sand lapped by calm turquoise water where sea turtles bob in the waves. Beach chairs are plentiful and free (at a certain resort a coconut's throw to the north, the same chairs run $45 a day). Mauna Lani prides itself on having no hidden costs, so amenities like valet parking, snorkel gear, WiFi, and rental bikes are gratis. The spa is sublime (get the Lomi Lomi massage) and the hotel is kid-friendly. Rooms start at $395 a night, which counts as affordable in this category. Rooms are on the small side, but that's not where you will be spending your time.
Four Seasons Hualalai: Conversations about this Four Seasons are generally accompanied with a wistful sigh and glazed eyes — it's that dreamy. It is rumored to have the highest occupancy rate in the state, which is surprising considering it is one of Hawaii's most expensive hotels. The resort is low-lying and accommodations are buried within leafy foliage, producing a manicured jungle feel. Individual outdoor showers burst with orchids and notes of lemony L'Occitane products. The manmade King's Pond is filled with saltwater and over 4,000 fish. The ruler of the roost is a giant spotted eagle ray who will nibble little fish from your palm with a gummy, old-man mouth similar to a toothless horse. Although it feels a bit like cheating, the pond is meant for snorkeling. Swimming among jewel-colored creatures without fear of hungry sharks or rogue waves is a singular experience. The pond's perimeter is ringed by beach chairs and waitstaff who will clean your sunglasses and bring you a sandwich. The Achilles' heel of Hualalai is that it doesn't have much of a beach, though a small cove for swimming and many pools compensate. One thing you hear about this resort is that if you have to ask the price (of anything), it's not for you. Rooms start around $650, but many things are free, like self-parking, snorkeling equipment, chairs, and, most notably, an all-day kids program.
Ala Kai Bed & Breakfast: Several hours and a world away, the Ala Kai is one of many B&Bs sprinkled throughout the forests of the east side. There are only a few rooms and one standalone cottage. They are clean, cozy, and outfitted with thoughtful amenities like picnic baskets, guide books, bottled water, a DVD library, chocolate-covered macadamia nuts, and earplugs to block out the nightly tree frog symphony. In the morning, the kind proprietors, Mary Roblee and Pat Fay, turn out a tasty breakfast on the lanai with Kona coffee and banana-nut muffins. Though located a block from the ocean bluffs in a sleepy residential neighborhood, Ala Kai is close to many of the east side's major sites, including Volcanoes National Park, Akaka Falls, Kapoho Tide Pools, and a farmers' market.
Kona Village Resort: An authentic Hawaii experience, with thatched-roof beach huts, without televisions or telephones, where little has changed in the past 30 years. Unfortunately, the property is closed indefinitely due to tsunami damage, and some speculate that it may never reopen. Here's hoping.
Mauna Kea Resort: The classic Laurence Rockefeller resort has recently undergone a major renovation and the rooms are subsequently bigger and nicer (and pricier). If you don't want to stay at the hotel, you can visit the spectacular public beach.
Shipman House: A Victorian B&B mansion in Hilo set amid tropical gardens.
WHERE TO EAT
Da Poke Shack (76-6246 Alii Dr., Kailua-Kona; +1-808-329-7653): An unassuming joint serving up the Hawaiian specialty, poke (POH-kee), in a variety of flavors that change according to the whims of the young, tatted-up guys behind the counter. (For the uninitiated, poke is tuna sashimi marinated in sea salt, seaweed, sesame oil and other ingredients — essentially fish tartar, but not to be confused with citrus-cured ceviche.) If you have doubts about the freshness of the tuna, they'll show you the fish it came from and tell you how many hours ago it was pulled from the sea. We took our to-go containers and two Longboard Lagers outside to the quiet picnic tables belonging to the adjacent condos. Here we watched sea turtles cavorting in the cove to the right and surfers catching breaks to the left.
Merriman's: The chichi bastion of Hawaiian Regional Cuisine in the misty hilltown of Waimea turns out some of the island's most gourmet cuisine with prices to match. The glowing ambience of the house-turned-dining room and the locavore ethos of the menu feels exported from Berkeley, but it is distinctly Hawaiian.
Big Island Brewhaus: Also in Waimea, but with an entirely different atmosphere, the tiny, cheerful, and noisy restaurant in the former Tako Tako space serves fresh Mexican food and exceptionally good beer made on-site. Its Overboard IPA took home the gold medal in the IPA category at the US Open Beer Championships in 2011. A relatively new operation, the suds aren't even distributed on the island yet, but you can take them to go in mason jars and growlers.
What's Shakin' Smoothie Stand: Located along the spectacular Onomea Bay Scenic Drive just north of the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens, the roadside spot specializes in thick, fresh smoothies made from fruit growing in the 23-acre orchard that comprises their backyard. Healthy lunch items — mahi mahi wraps, honey bran macadamia nut muffins, homemade tamales — round out the offerings.
Miyo's (400 Hualani St. #19A, Hilo; +1-808-935-2273): Overlooking the Waiakea River in Hilo, the humble, family-run BYOB dishes homestyle Japanese food, like grilled salmon over salad and crispy tonkatsu, to a crowd of largely laid-back locals.
WHAT TO DO
Hilo Farmers Market: The island has many farmers markets, but this is the flagship. Stock up on giant avocados, exotic peppers, and addictive, intensely sweet white pineapple.
Waipi'o Valley: The sacred valley is home to only about 30 people, mostly privacy-loving taro farmers who live without plumbing or electricity and whose only access to the outside world is one skinny, extraordinarily steep road. Many visitors go to an overlook for a glimpse of the valley's beauty from afar, others take van tours down to its depths or hike the steep road in the hot sun. But you can drive down yourself for a scary, exhilarating, and fun experience — provided you don't topple over the side. You must have four-wheel drive to navigate the road — a guard at the top won't let you down otherwise. The reward is getting to feel like an illicit explorer on the hushed, verdant valley floor, winding up at an ancient burial site that abuts a dramatic black sand beach being pounded by the crashing surf.
Mauna Kea: It's debatable which drive is more exciting: Waipi'o or Mauna Kea. Both are challenging in different ways. Waipi'o is steeper and narrower, but over in four minutes. Mauna Kea is grave and goes on for half an hour. But the end result! Mauna Kea is an immense dormant volcano that looms over the island, topping out at an impressive 13,796 feet (in the winter, locals use their surfboards to sled and snowboard down its snowy flanks). Supposedly, from its summit, you can see more stars with the naked eye than anywhere else in the world. And nowhere else can you ascend to such a height so quickly. (The advice is to acclimate at 9,000 feet for 30 minutes.) This drive also requires a 4WD and an indifference to hairpin turns with plunging edges and no guardrails. The top is freezing cold, but the sunset is spectacular, and, boy, is it worth it.
Volcanoes National Park: The sprawling park is home to active volcanoes, miles of hiking trails, hissing steam vents, and the occasional cinematic opportunity to see flowing lava hit the ocean with a great showering of sparks. If the lava isn't flowing, you can hike through giant lava tubes and rain forests without seeing anyone else for great stretches of time. Not too shabby. Bring a raincoat.
Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden: A private paradise on the east side of the island with a rather high price tag to enter ($15). But it's Hawaiian beauty distilled — spectacular plants condensed into a walkable hideaway. Nearby Akaka Falls is better known, but less impressive after the Tropical Botanical Garden. The drive there is also one of the island's prettiest.
Also on the To-Do List:
- Visiting a coffee plantation in bohemian Kona.
- Seeking out the seemingly endless array of hidden beaches tucked behind imposing fields of black lava.
- Finding the secret hot thermal pools around Puna, one in particular that is alluringly called Champagne Pond. (We tried, but it may be a myth.)
- Eating more poke.
It's safe to say, out of all the islands, the Big Island is the least touristy. While many sites are easily accessible, just as many take a little work to find. A great guidebook is indispensable, especially Andrew Doughty's Hawaii The Big Island Revealed. Apparently, locals were none too pleased when it came out. It revealed too many of their secret spots.
See the locations in this story. (Google Maps)