hawaii

Heading to the Big Island of Hawai’i? Tips to Ensure a Fab Trip!

By: Jen Vettel

Descending into the Kona Airport, one might think they made an unusual choice.  Often referred to as the moonscape, the Big Island takes just a short bit of time and an open mind to discover.

Upon arrival on the Big Island of Hawai’i, many visitors beeline to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, the summit of Mauna Kea (the tallest mountain in the world!), whale watching, top-notch golf courses, helicopter rides, zip lines, etc.  All great things to do, yet beyond the beaten path lies so much more!

Background: 

My mom grew up in Hawai’i, and I still have family living on Oahu.  Having a home on the Big Island and spending time there the past fifty+ years (sometimes for a couple of months a year), I have some favorite sites, restaurants, beaches and more to share!

Island Orientation:

The Island of Hawai’i is over 4,000 square miles – the other seven Hawaiian islands would fit inside its land area – and a trip around the island is 222 miles long. It’s called the Big Island for a reason! It has many different types of climate zones, from tropical to polar tundra, and you can have many different experiences during a visit.  You may even see snow on the tops of two of the volcanoes while you are floating in the warm, tropical waters.

Orientation:

The main airport (KOA) is near Kona, where all mainland flights fly. The general areas of the island can be seen on the map below.

Most visitors spend their time in and around the beaches on the western part of the island, especially along the Kona/Kohala coast. Other areas are great to explore (or stay) as well. I’ll try to give a VERY general description of the main attractions in each of the primary areas of the island….

South Kona:  Kealakekua Bay, Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park

North Kona:  Kona town with many hotels in the area.

South Kohala:  Puako, Waikoloa Village (shopping), Waimea (smaller town with restaurants and local shops), Kawaihae (small town with a few restaurants and stores). Lots of resorts along the coast.

North Kohala:  Hawi (small old-Hawai’i town with restaurants and shops).

Ka’u:  Within Ka’u is the southernmost point in the US. Papakolea (Green Sand) Beach and Punalu’u (Black Sand) Beach Park are two of the most unique beaches in the state.

Puna:  Area to visit the volcano. Puna is known as Pele’s Workshop…it is a lava flow hazard zone.  If Kilauea is erupting, it’s worth a trip to see, especially at night when the lava flow is brilliant.

Hilo: The geographic flipside of the Kona Coast, Hilo is the Big Island’s biggest town – tropical with rainforests, waterfalls and natural beauty.

Hamakua Coast:  Tropical and beautiful coastline.  Mostly cliffs and very few beach areas.  Waipio Valley is stunning.

I am based just south of Kawaihae on the South Kohala part of the island.  My favorite routine is to begin my day at the Waimea Coffee Shop in Kamuela/Waimea with a Kona peaberry latte.  It’s a drive, yet well worth it.  Take time to poke around the shops (don’t mind the hens and roosters…it’s part of the experience). Walk across the street to look at local art in the gallery (Isaacs) and grab any groceries nearby as well (KTA or Foodland).

If you’re up for it, continue driving to Honoka’a for a malasada at Tex Drive-In (might as well buy a dozen…similar to a donut, yet with no “puka”…so good!).  Their plate lunch and loco mocos are “da kine” and will fortify you for a good part of the day.

In another direction, consider hiking down to Pololu Valley, followed by lunch or dinner at Bamboos in Hawi (if you’re lucky, you may see an impromptu hula show). The gift shop and other local shops in Hawi are gems.  There’s also a Waimea Coffee Shop in Hawi…equally as good as the one in Kamuela/Waimea.

 

Restaurants by Area:

Kohala Coast

Waimea

Honoka’a

  • Tex’s for malasadas and plate lunch

Hawi

  • Kohala Coffee Mill (before Pololu’u hike)
  • Bamboo for lunch or dinner (after Pololu’u hike or fun dinner and dancing on the weekends)

Hilo:

Kona Town:

Hikes

Exploring:

  • Kiholo Bay, a one mile hike/walk to swimming with turtles. There is no signage, so look for mile marker 81 on the highway and park the car. Follow the dirt trail a mile to the shore.  It can be hot with kiawe thorns on the trail, so make sure to wear tennis shoes (flip flops for the brave!).  When you get to the shore, keep heading to the right along the shoreline, past the first beach until you get to a beautiful bay with a little ‘island’ to which you can swim.  Keep an eye open for the beautiful honus (turtles)!  Please respect the surroundings.
  • Drive to Hilo: It’s a long drive to Hilo, although Kula Shave Ice could be worth the time.  Drive one way along the Hamakua Coast and the other way on Saddle Road (might as well go see the volcano if you’ve come this far!).  All kinds of melt-in-mouth combinations at Kulas! Cafe Pesto in Hilo for lunch or dinner is consistently good.
  • Fishing: If you’re a serious fisherperson, S. Tokunaga Store in Hilo is legendary.
  • The Pacific Tsunami Museum in Hilo is a small, yet packed-with-information, museum.
  • Farmer’s Market in Hilo every day (big days are on Wednesdays and Saturdays)
  • Waimea Farmer’s Markets (there are three of them)
  • Hokuloa Church in Puako
  • Mauna Kea summit – 4 wheel drive required. You need to acclimate on the way up. It’s a big trip.
  • Volcanoes National Park – Tour the lava fields, look inside craters, hike down into lava tubes and down to the crater floor.
  • Coffee plantation tours.
  • Big Island Snorkeling Tour to Captain Cook’s Monument
  • Big Island Swim with dolphins tour
  • Snorkeling in Kealakekua Bay
  • Ziplining
  • Helicopter tours
  • Fluming
  • Kayaking tours
  • Horseback Riding
  • Fishing Adventures
  • Paddle boarding
  • Surfing
  • Whale Watching Tours during winter months
  • Visit the Green and Black sand beaches in the South of the island
  • Swim with the Manta Rays at night off the Mauna Kea Beach
  • Golf
    • If the links are your thing, the Big Island is one of golf’s meccas.  Some course suggestions are Mauna Kea, Hapuna (slightly less expensive than MK), the Mauna Lani (both the North and South courses), Waikoloa and Hualalai (Four Seasons).  On the other side of the island, try Hilo Muni (sometimes rainy/muddy/wet conditions, yet well-loved by many).  The Volcano Golf Course is also well-liked.
  • Mauna Kea Beach and Hapuna Beach (best beaches in the world!)

Hotels/Resorts:

Hotel/resort options are immense.  The town of Kona is packed with hotels, while the Kona Coast has plenty of resorts.  Perhaps the nicest accommodations are at the Hualalai Four Seasons.  Within the Waikoloa property there are a number of resorts (Hilton/Marriott/etc.).  The Mauna Lani Auberge is newly remodeled and towards the end of the highway you will find the Hapuna and Mauna Kea resorts (best beaches on the island).

Car Rental:

Turo is the simplest and most convenient way to rent a car at the KOA airport.  Select your car from a variety of options. There also is a large selection of car rental agencies.

Book Recommendations:

 

Without a doubt, the very best place to be on all the island is watching the sunset (preferably with a Mai Tai in hand!).  When the sun is setting, leave whatever you are doing and watch.  It’s a miracle, every time!

 

Heading to the Big Island? Check out all of our Travel Items suggestions, as well as our Resort Wear blog.

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Chrissie and Joanne love discovering, curating and creating. They developed FabList as a place to share their favorite finds with you.

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