The Big Island- Ho'omaha Li'ili'i (Rest a Little)
The island of Hawai’i is called the Big Island for a reason (um, it’s big). Don’t underestimate the time it takes to drive from one end to another (there is no shortcut, you are on Hawaiian time—the highways only go around and are often backed up), nor the number of things you may want to stop to see on the way (hikes, beaches, carvings, historical sites, shops). Because my family is spoiled and is afforded chances to visit on a regular basis, I have compiled a list of some of our favorite activities.
One of the charms of this island is the changing geology and accompanying microclimates. When you land at the airport, you may very well think you have landed on the moon. Yet, if you drive up the volcano from the coast, you will quickly enter a lush, rainy area, similar to what you will also find in Waimea (North end). However, along the coasts, the tropical beaches of which you have dreamed abound, along with opportunities for snorkeling, sailing, surfing, and whale watching. A trip to the south of the island will land you smack in the middle of active volcano territory and all of the new sights, sounds, and smells Pélé offers.
The other charm is the aloha attitude—the people are incredible, beautiful, and friendly, and their culture will affect you. Take the time to immerse yourself where you can into some of the history, the feel of the place, and any events or celebrations you might be fortunate enough to be able to attend. Then plan to take some of the aloha spirit home with you.
I would recommend avoiding Kona itself unless it is to catch a whale watching trip or just to poke around for an hour. Most of the resorts which will offer you a relaxing beach experience, with some luxury, are north of the airport.
· Hilton Waikoloa Village
· Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort & Spa
· Fairmont Orchid, Hawaii
· The Westin Hapuna Beach Resort
· Mauna Kea Beach Hotel
· Ocean Tower at Hilton Waikoloa Village
· Four Seasons Resort Hualalai
Four Seasons Resort Hualalai
Of them all, I cannot speak highly enough of the Four Seasons at Hualalai, for all of the reasons you might expect of a five star resort (incredible golf, five pools, natural ponds, swim-up bars, kids clubs, outdoor fine dining, attentive concierge, luxurious spa), and some you may not (staff that bends over backwards and smiles about it, a cultural center, activities such as a climbing wall, stand-up paddling, kayaking with the incredible Alakai, and did I mention the superb staff?). If you cannot find a room, or have a larger group, you might check the rental group at Hualalai for condos to rent, most with kitchens and golf carts to get around and beautiful views.
Also at the Four Seasons Hualalai
(Restaurants are open to the public—reservations in advance recommended)
Ulu Ocean Grill
This place practically twinkles with magic (or maybe it is the Ducasse-style glass balls dangling at the entrance, or the sun shining on the lagoon as you cross the bridge under the POG colored sky). Appointed with koa tables, open spaces, a wood bar that frames the view to beat all views, and an extensive lanai for looking out over the water, it tops my list for breakfast spots anywhere, ever.
Mid-meal, you can shoo your kids to the sand, only steps away, while you sip your mimosa and fill your plate with the most delectable of brunches: loco mocos, paniolo scrambles, endless bowls of fresh fruit, lemon ricotta pancakes, miso soup to die for, jams and jellies from Hawai’ian fruits, and granola that I stuff into my suitcase, without fail, every trip. DO make an early morning visit to experience this breakfast (keep in mind that beaches are a public space, so a stroll along the water after breakfast reduces your calorie count and you just might happen upon some sea turtles basking in the sun). Ulu also serves dinner; it is a high-end, fine-dining experience which I have enjoyed every time. The price, however, just as with breakfast, includes a premium for your view, and the live music, in addition to the food.
Residents’ Beach House
Hotel guests often don’t realize they can eat here. It is quite literally on the beach, in a quiet area of the resort, across the natural ponds which Haulalai’s marine biologists on staff have maintained through hurricanes and years of environmental changes. On one side is the ocean, on the other, the golf course with a view of Hualalai mountain. The sunsets are breathtaking, so grab a blue chair, order a Big Daddy Mai Tai (just trust me on this one), take a deep breath, and realize you have arrived at the vacation spot of the century. Lunch and dinner here are always spot on, from linguine with clams to a curried fresh catch, salads, sandwiches, it’s all terrific. Enjoy the warm Ke’olu.
Beach Tree Restaurant
This resort gathering spot is a bit harder to get into as it is the main dining spot for most guests, so call to reserve early. There is a large grass area just next to the restaurant deck where kids can play while you stop at the bar for a drink in the sand. Dinner is slightly higher-end than the Beach House, and menu more limited, but food is good. Often, there is live music and hula to watch. And keep your eye out for the local lamp lighter who runs by in Hawaiian garb (you will want to keep your eyes open!)
Volcanoes National Park
If you have a week or 10 days, a trip to Volcanoes National Park is well worth some time. Take walking shoes, water bottles, rain gear, warm jackets—all you would normally pack for a hike. The drive from Kona takes approximately two hours, and I would recommend taking the southern route one way, and the northern the other. You might even tack on a night in Waimea on the way to or from. Plan on at least one night near the park, perhaps two if you want a full day of hiking and exploring the rim, the park and the nature centers.
Hike near the Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs… low altitude with an incredible drive through smaller lava flows. Stop to read the information plaques along the way. The hike itself is in full sun, near the coast, on the lava. You will see all kinds of striking formations, colors and textures of lava, and well-preserved petroglyphs (including my favorite that looks like me and my martini glass).
At Kalapana Cultural Tours, you can rent a bike to get yourselves to the lava flow (it’s a looong walk, bikes are significantly easier and more fun). It is quite a sight to see the lava at night, but remember, you will have to ride or walk back to the start in the dark, over bumpy road. We went in the late afternoon and the flow is still stunning in the early dusk.
This laidback, beautifully appointed, historical building and hotel is a green oasis in the middle of a hot, dry, but fabulous, area. Fireplaces, quilts and hot tub for cold nights (yes, cold), enjoyable food (don't skip dinner or breakfast here), and several cozy rooms (and gazebo) for kicking back. The location is 10 minutes from the park, nearby is a general store and gas. There is a range of room sizes for families, and for kids, lawn games, a fat cat to pet, beautiful birds and creatures, and nooks and cranies to explore. The back garden area is stunning in the morning, full of dew, Hawaiian flowers, and gorgeous birds. Room Tip: The family rooms/suites in the back, in the separate building, are very quiet, with their own lounge... 19-3948 Old Volcano Rd, Volcano
Hilo (East) Side Activities
Worth a stop and a walk down the steep pathway, through flowers I promise you will never have seen before. Mist from a smaller waterfall, birds swooping overhead and drooping ferns will tickle your fancy. The ‘Akaka falls themselves will make you stop and take stock, but it is the walk that makes this place special.
While I haven’t been in years, I hear they are as impressive as ever. If you have time to stop on your way to or from Volcanoes, schedule an hour or two to wander this delightful collection of tropical flora.
Hilo (East) Side Restaurants
Kaleo’s Bar and Grill is a good stop if you are taking the northern route. It is about as Hawai’ian as it gets: large prints, large plates, friendly staff. Don’t expect high-end fare, but for a good sandwich, ribs or a salad, it’s the place. 15-2969 Pahoa Village Rd, Pāhoa
Tex’s Drive In for malasadas (similar to donuts—fried dough, often rolled in sugar, stuffed with various flavors of cream filling such as passion fruit (lilikoi), chocolate, etc). 45-690 Pakalana St, Honokaa, Tex's Drive In
North End Activities
Kohala Zip Line—Our family has done this several times. We were rained on once, so I might recommend taking a light cover in case. This course zips through a tree canopy for the most part, with a grand finale of an extremely long ride with sweeping views of the treetops. Exhilarating! Parts of it are climbing on rope bridges (not to worry, safety is the first priority and you are always clipped in). We took both children and a grandfather—all walked away with huge grins. (If the course isn’t for you, the drive on the coast in that area is also quite pretty.) Expect to spend a full 30 minutes prior getting dressed, going through instructions, and another 20-30 on the drive there; which, is quite bumpy, and frankly, gave me more anxiety than the ride on the ropes. But the guides are pros! Kohala Zipline, 55-515 Hawi Rd, Hawi
Kona (West Side) Activities
Dolphin Quest at the Hilton Waikoloa—I know, I know; it sounds, and is, a bit cheesy. However, it is also a memory you will have forever. Plan on being sold a hyper-touristy experience, but I also promise your kids will be wowed (you might be, too). Once you have on your safety vests, you will be able to get in the water with rescued dolphins to give them commands and watch them jump, spin, and squeal. You may even get a dolphin kiss. It will take a full morning or afternoon, but it’s hard to beat for a moment of pure joy. 69-425 Waikoloa Beach Dr, Waikoloa Village, Dolphin Quest.
Kua Bay—I almost hate to put this in my list as it is a secret spot that is already too popular. But if you would like a little boogie boarding, or just a float in a turquoise bay with sand as fine as sugar, this is your place. Check times, as it gets very crowded. Go early, get a parking spot, and plan either to take a shade source with you, or not to stay too long. This beach has also suffered some loss of life of swimmers due to its big waves, but they have put an occasional lifeguard on the beach now. If you need a boogie board, most drug stores sell them, or head to CostCo just north of Kona before you go. It can be hard to find Kua Bay—it is exactly one mile south of the entrance to the Four Seasons, and directly across from the West Hawai’i Veterans’ Cemetery.
If you do end up in Kona for a poke-around, make your way to MI's on Ali'i Drive (across from the church, just south of the Farmers' Market, with parking underneath) for lunch, dinner, or happy hour. Their food is good, solid Italian: pasta, salads, pizza, sandwiches; their lanai has an ocean view, and the young chef cut his chops at the Four Season's. The decor is bright with tall ceilings and open doors that make it an airy and cheery place for a gathering (don't miss the original artwork by RB Holman).
There is a market twice a week in Waimea, usually one is on Saturday. Local food, crafts, flowers, and a good dose of culture. Worth a visit.
Gallery of Great Things
Aptly named. Locally sourced art. You won't find things like this easily anywhere else: paintings, carvings, jewelry, all with an Hawai’ian feel. Amazing. Don’t miss the drawers and trinkets just to the left as you walk in. Make sure you stand on your tippy toes and bend over to look at things or you may miss a hidden gem. And there are many! (She also carries some original Holmans if you are in the market for an oil painting of the local people or scenery). 65-1279 Kawaihae Rd, Waimea
Also in this grouping of stores are:
· Waimea Coffee Company—Great java and pastries. Cute little porch to sip on with your paper.
· Hula Moon Boutique—I have gotten some of my favorite pieces of clothing and jewelry here. They always carry stylish, but comfortable things. Peruse!
· Waimea General Store—Trinkets, baubles, small things to take home (but check Gallery of Great Things first, as her collection is more unusual and impossible to buy on Amazon).
Hawai’ian Style Café. This is THE place. Go early if for breakfast, as there can often be a line out of the door (especially on weekends). The size of the servings will bowl you over (or glue you to your seat), and the creativity of the menu will make you smile. Never had spam? Well, here’s your chance. Loco Moco? Get it here. Not hungry? This isn’t the place for you. Sit next locals, and enjoy authentic Hawai’i. Cash only, though it will hardly put a dent in your wallet.