Indulge your spirit of adventure on the biggest Hawaiian island. It’s still a vast frontier, full of unexpected wonders.
Island Diversity We doubt that it’s possible to get ‘island fever’ on Hawaiʻi. The aptly named Big Island is fantastically diverse, with miles of highways – and, better yet, byways – to explore. Eight of the world’s 13 climate zones exist here, adding sensory variety as you circumnavigate the island. Gaze at vivid emerald cliffs, swaths of black-, white- and even green-sand beaches, majestic volcanic mountains (possibly snowcapped!), stark lava desert, rolling pastureland and misty valleys, weathered by rain, waves and time. Hawaiʻi is twice as big as the other Hawaiian Islands combined, and its dramatic terrain is ever-fascinating.
Volcanic Wonders Less than a million years old, Hawaiʻi is a baby in geological terms. Here you’ll find the Hawaiian Islands’ tallest, largest and only active volcanic mountains. Kilauea, on the eastern side, is the world’s most active volcano. If you see glowing, red-hot lava, you are witnessing Earth in the making, a thrilling and humbling experience. At 33,000ft tall when measured from the ocean floor, Mauna Kea is the world’s tallest mountain, and its significance cannot be overstated – as a sacred place to Hawaiians and a top astronomical site to scientists.
Ancient History & Modern Multiculturalism Ancient history looms large on Hawaiʻi, a place of powerful mana (spiritual essence). The first Polynesians landed at Ka Lae, the windswept southern tip. Kamehameha the Great, who unified the Hawaiian Islands, was born in Kohala and died in Kailua-Kona. Hula and oli (chant) are deep-rooted here, and Miloli‘i on the Kona Coast is perhaps the last Hawaiian fishing village. During the sugarcane era, traditional ways became intertwined with those of immigrant cultures: Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Portuguese and more. This legacy is palpable in the mix of languages, foods and festivals.
Roads Less Traveled Thanks to its sheer size, Hawaiʻi has lots of legroom. Enjoy the freedom of the open road, where the journey becomes the main attraction. From east to west, the island has multiple personalities, and it’s worthwhile experiencing them all. While the ‘Gold Coast’ caters to travelers en masse, most island towns exist primarily for residents. Even the capital seat, Hilo, is a former plantation town that’s still slow-paced and populated by kamaʻaina (people born and raised here). Ultimately this down-home localness marks the real Hawai‘i. Don’t miss it.
Hawaiʻi, the Big Island’s Top 15
Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park The eerie glow of a lava lake, secluded palm-fringed beaches, ancient petroglyphs pecked into hardened lava, and miles of hiking trails through smoking craters, rainforest and desert – you’ll never run out of fascinating wonders at Hawaiʻi’s number-one attraction. The park (p244) is also one of the island’s top spots to experience traditional Hawaiian culture at hula dance performances, annual festivals, concerts and talks. After dark, warm up by the fireplace inside the landmark Volcano House lodge, perched right on the rim of Kilauea Caldera.
Mauna Kea Stargazing It’s breathless and breathtaking to be in the rarefied air of Mauna Kea (p170), Hawaii’s highest mountain and most sacred spot. Once the sun goes down, the stars come out – and so do the telescopes. Mauna Kea is one the world’s best astronomical sites, and the clear skies make for good amateur stargazing as well. What you see through visitor telescopes, whether at the visitor center or on a tour, you won’t soon forget. For a trophy experience, be here during a meteor shower.
Kona (& Ka‘u) Coffee Farms When Christian missionaries planted Kona’s first coffee trees, they were only a floral fad. Eventually, thanks to ideal conditions along South Kona’s rain-kissed ‘coffee belt,’ Kona coffee (p38) became a successful gourmet crop. Today rural byways wind past small, often familyowned plantations, some of which let visitors drop by. Since the late 2000s, Ka‘u coffee growers have won awards in major contests, becoming the Cinderella story of Hawaiʻi coffee. Look for 100% locally grown labeling on bags of beans and menus.
Puʻuhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park Imposing kiʻi (deity statues) watch over ancient temples at this historic site (p116), which is a visceral introduction to traditional Hawaiian culture. There’s no better place to gain an understanding of the kapu (taboo) system that once governed life across the Hawaiian Islands. Breaking a kapu often meant death – unless you made it to a pu‘uhonua. The bones of ancient chiefs are interred in a thatchedroof hale (house), emanating protective mana (spiritual essence).
Waipiʻo Valley You can linger at the scenic viewpoint overlooking this lush green valley (p188), but the waterfalls, wild horses and wilder black-sand beach beckon. But first you must reckon with the dauntingly steep access road. Then you can explore the valley on foot, on horseback or even in an old-fashioned mule-drawn wagon. Intrepid hikers can proceed along the King’s Trail or reach for the most spectacular panoramas along the grueling Muliwai Trail – head up, up and up even higher for the money shot.
Snorkeling in Kealakekua Bay It’s all true – Kealakekua Bay (p111) is a giant real-life aquarium of abundant tropical fish, honu (Hawaiian green sea turtles) and spinner dol – phins. Tourist brochures hype this as the best snorkeling in the state, and you’d better believe it. Eco-conscious regula – tions, such as restrictions on kayaks, are helping to preserve this underwa – ter paradise. If you’re a confirmed landlubber, it’s still worth hiking down to this historically significant spot, where Captain Cook perished.
Chasing Lava Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire and volcanoes, is notoriously fickle. But if you’re lucky, you may get the chance to see live lava crawling over and under newly birthed land. Lava usually flows inside or around Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park (p244), sometimes plunging into the sea, sending a steam plume over a mile skyward as hot lava mixes with roiling surf. Feel the heat on a walking or boat tour out of Puna. Guided tours are recommended. Don’t mess with Pele.
Hapuna Beach Stake out a spot on this half-mile stretch (p144) of powdery white sand, hire an umbrella and a boogie board, and make this iconic beach your personal playground. Whatever your pleasure – surfboard, lounge chair or water wings – this beach is ideal for the whole family. While the basic A-frame camping cabins are not for the finicky, sleeping here means having a legendary beach in your front yard. For more magic, detour just north to tranquil Mauna Kea Beach, sitting on crescent-shaped Kaunaʻoa Bay
Merrie Monarch Festival Remember what you saw at that resort luau? That’s to hula what Velveeta is to cheese. If you want to see how an authentic hula halau (school) invokes the gods and legends through Hawaiian chants and dance, attend this prestigious hula competition (p210) held in Hilo every Easter week. Book festival tickets, flights and accommodations a year in advance – people fly in from around the world for this one. In addition to the intense competitions, there’s a parade, craft fair and a free exhibition of hula and pan-Pacific dances.
Diving in Kona With glassy waters, thriving coral and teeming marine life, Kona waters make for phenomenal diving (p88). Due to the Big Island’s ‘youth’ (relative to the other Hawaiian Islands), its less eroded dive sites feature both shallow reefs and deep dropoffs, showcasing a variety of underwater terrain. There are many reliable dive companies along the Kona Coast, catering to both novices and experts. For a bucket list experience, go deep on a Black Water night dive and see glowing, bioluminescent pelagic creatures in their inky element.
‘Akaka Falls State Park Shimmering like a jewel in a rainforest of towering trees and fragrant ginger, this 420fthigh waterfall (p193) is no less spectacular for its easy access. Drive-up alongside constant tour buses, stroll a half-mile through a Disney-esque nature trail and there you are. Like all waterfalls on Hawaiʻi’s windward coast, the park’s two falls are most impressive during seasonal rains when they pour copiously over the verdant cliffs. On your way out, poke around the tiny plantation village of Honomu for local color.
Hiking into Pololu Valley Which is superior, Waipiʻo Valley or Pololu Valley? It’s a tough call to choose between Hawaiʻi’s most prominent emerald valleys, each threaded with waterfalls and blessed with a formidable blacksand beach. But remote Pololu (p156) retains tranquility lost to Waipiʻo thanks to SUVs and monster trucks. It takes a 10-minute hike to descend into the valley, and that’s the only way in. Combine your visit with lunch and a stroll around diminutive Hawi, Kohala’s charming arts hub. In this northernmost thumb of land, find old Hawaiʻi at its most evocative.
Hilo If one word describes Hilo (p196), that word would be ‘real.’ This former sugar town had a life before tourism and remains refreshingly unpretentious and normal – if normalcy includes tropical flora growing wild, drive-up beaches, farmers’ markets brimming with local edibles, unique museums, historic storefronts and sublime views from Mauna Kea to the horizon. Here you’ll rarely find tourist traps, but instead be immersed in Hilo’s diverse mix of residents, including multigenerational locals whose ancestors arrived as plantation workers. The pace is leisurely here, so slow down and smell the plumerias.
Kazumura Cave In Hawaiʻi, what you see on the surface is never the whole story. Beneath the forests and volcanic flows lie elaborate systems of lava tubes, caves, and caverns, multiplying by miles your exploration possibilities. The world’s longest and deepest lava tube, Kazumura Cave (p255), near Volcano, is astounding in size, darkness, and deafening silence. Also impressive are the newer Kula Kai Caverns in Ka‘u. For a DIY experience, there’s also Kaumana Caves in Hilo, while the family-friendly Thurston Lava Tube is roadside adventure doable for the whole family.
Local Food What is local food? First, there’s locally grown produce, locally caught fish and locally raised meat. Hawai‘i, with its vast acreage of fertile land, deftly transitioned from large-scale sugarcane to diverse small-scale crops, while fresh ahi (yellowfin tuna) is the fish of choice. Then there’s traditional Hawaiian cuisine, such as smoked kalua pig and laulau (meat and fish wrapped in ti leaf and cooked). And finally, there’s ‘local kine grinds’ – comfort food: loco moco, plate lunches and Spam musubi (rice balls). Surprise your taste buds and try them all.
Eat & Drink Like a Local
Food is a vehicle of celebration and bonding on the Big island, a means of connecting to family, friends, and the Earth and ocean from which said food derives. The Big Island has big appetites, and local plate lunches and dinners will usually leave visitors in need of a nap.
Diversified agriculture and agrotourism are booming on the Big Island. It’s not just about Hawaiʻi’s signature macadamia nuts and Kona coffee anymore, but a delicious range of locally grown edibles: Hamakua Coast mushrooms, vanilla, tomatoes and salad greens; lobsters, abalone (sea snails) and kampachi (yellowtail) from the Kona coast; grass-fed beef and lamb from Waimea; Kona chocolate; organic tea from Volcano and the Hamakua Coast; Kaʻu oranges and coffee; yellow-flesh Kapoho Solo papayas from Puna; and local honey.
While the Big Island’s egg and poultry farms are long gone, the state’s two biggest cattle dairies still operate here. Despite the popularity of Hawaiʻi’s farmers markets, supermarkets still typically stock blemish-free Sunkist oranges and California grapes. An exception is the Big Island’s KTA Superstores, a minichain that carries 200 products – including milk, beef, produce and coffee – from dozens of local vendors under its Mountain Apple Brand. For what it’s worth, KTAs usually have a fantastic range of local hot plates and takeout lunches, including trays of delicious poke (raw fish salad, which is way better than it sounds).
Native Hawaiian Food
With its earthy flavors and Polynesian ingredients, Native Hawaiian cooking is a genre unique unto the culinary world. But it’s not necessarily easy for visitors to find – look for it at roadside markets, plate-lunch kitchens, old-school delis and island diners. Kalua pig is traditionally roasted whole underground in an imu, a pit of red-hot stones layered with banana and ti leaves. Cooked this way, the pork is smoky, salty and succulent. Nowadays kalua pork is typically oven-roasted and seasoned with salt and liquid smoke.
At a commercial luau, a pig placed in an imu is usually only for show (it couldn’t feed 300-plus guests anyway). Poi – a purplish paste made of taro root, often steamed and fermented – was sacred to ancient Hawaiians. Taro is highly nutritious, low in calories, easily digestible and versatile to prepare. Tasting bland to mildly tart or even sour, poi is usually not eaten by itself, but as a starchy counterpoint to strongly flavored dishes such as lomilomi salmon (minced, salted salmon with diced tomato and green onion). Fried or baked taro chips are sold at grocery stores, gas stations and the like.
A popular main dish is laulau, a bundle of pork or chicken and salted butterfish wrapped in taro or ti leaves and steamed until it has a soft spinach-like texture. We find it a little bland, but locals swear by the stuff. Other traditional Hawaiian fare includes baked ʻulu (breadfruit), with a mouthfeel similar to potato; ʻopihi (limpet), tiny mollusks picked off reefs at low tide; and haupia, a coconut-cream custard thickened with arrowroot or cornstarch. In general, we’d characterize Native Hawaiian cuisine as extremely filling, if not the most flavorful – there’s a lot of emphasis on starch and meat. If you’ve dined elsewhere in Polynesia, it has a very similar ingredient and flavor profile to sister cuisines located across the ocean.
Many Big Islanders are backyard farmers, growing more apple bananas, star fruit and avocados than they can consume themselves. Still, a whopping 85% to 90% of Hawaii’s food is imported, and food security (aka ‘food sovereignty’) is a hot topic. Small-scale family farmers are trying to shift the agriculture industry away from corporate-scale monocropping (as seen in sugar or pineapple) enabled by chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Cheap, tasty and filling, local ‘grinds’ (food) is the stuff of cravings and comfort. There’s no better example than that classic plate lunch: a fixed-plate meal of ‘two scoop’ rice, macaroni or potato salad and a hot protein dish, such as fried mahimahi, teriyaki chicken or kalbi short ribs. Often eaten with disposable chopsticks on disposable plates, these meals pack a flavor (and caloric) punch: fried, salty and meaty.
Nowadays healthier plates come with brown rice and salad greens, but in general, the backbone of the plate lunch are those two scoops of rice and potato/ macaroni salad, a heaping mountain of carbohydrates that are Mauna Kea-esque in their proportions. Sticky white rice is more than a side dish in Hawaii – it’s a culinary building block, and an integral partner in everyday meals. Without rice, Spam musubi (rice balls) would just be a slice of canned meat.
Loco moco would be nothing more than an egg-and-gravy covered hamburger patty. Just so you know, sticky white rice means exactly that. Not fluffy rice. Not wild rice. And definitely not instant. One must-try local pupu (snack or appetizer) is poke (pronounced ‘poh-keh’), a savory dish of bite-sized raw fish (typically ahi), seasoned with shōyu, sesame oil, green onion, chili-pepper flakes, sea salt, ogo (crunchy seaweed) and ʻinamona (a condiment made of roasted, ground kukui – candlenut tree – nuts). Few foodstuffs we’ve tried short of a raw oyster can match poke when it comes to evoking the flavors of the ocean.
Hawaii Regional Cuisine
Hawaii was considered a culinary backwater until the early 1990s, when a handful of island chefs – including Alan Wong, Roy Yamaguchi, Sam Choy and Peter Merriman, all of whom still have restaurants on the Big Island – created a new cuisine, borrowing liberally from Hawaii’s multiethnic heritage. These chefs partnered with island farmers, ranchers and fishers to highlight fresh, local ingredients, and in doing so transformed childhood favorites into gourmet Pacific Rim masterpieces.
Suddenly macadamia nut-crusted mahimahi, miso-glazed butterfish and lilikoʻi (passion fruit) anything were all the rage. This culinary movement was dubbed ‘Hawaii Regional Cuisine’ and its 12 pioneering chefs became celebrities. At first, Hawaii Regional Cuisine was rather exclusive, found only at high-end dining rooms. Its hallmarks included Eurasian fusion flavors and gastronomic techniques with elaborate plating. Upscale restaurants are still the mainstay for Hawaii’s star chefs, but now you’ll find neighborhood bistros and even platelunch food trucks serving dishes inspired by Hawaii Regional Cuisine, with island farms lauded like designer brands on menus.
On the Water
With Hawaiʻi’s long and strong tradition of communing with the ocean, you’re sure to get wet on your Big Island vacation. Even if you’ve never snorkeled or surfed, this is a great place to start, with experienced outfitters on both sides of the island. Not much advance planning is required, save checking the weather.
Know Your Tides
Being on the Big Island awakens a sense of adventure and a closer connection with nature. How bad is the vog (volcano fog)? Will our helicopter tour be grounded by rain? What’s the swell like? Smart travelers continually ask such climate-related questions to ensure proper conditions for the day’s adventures. Calling a local surf, kayak or dive shop to get current information on wind, wave, and water conditions before setting out is a good idea. Another tip is to know your tides. While it may seem tangential, think again:
what the wildlife is doing and what the landscape looks like is inexorably influenced by the tides. At low tide, for example, Green Sands and Magic Sands beaches will be bigger; there will be more secluded black-sand coves to explore at Kiholo, and the tide pools will be exposed at Old Kona Airport Beach Park. High tide, meanwhile, means more marine wildlife at Two-Step and the Kapoho Tide Pools; more turtles at Punaluʻu; and snorkeling in the brackish pool behind Keawaiki Beach.
Know before you go by consulting the tide charts at www.hawaiitides.com. Mauna Kea Beach (p146) and white-sand Maniniʻowali Beach (p126) with its brilliant turquoise waters, or try a short lap of the lava tube in Kiholo Bay (p123). East Hawaiʻi is generally rougher and mostly only for strong swimmers, although local families can be found at Hilo’s beaches. With that said, rough waters and strong currents can be present anywhere you go.
Stand Up Paddle Surfing
Back in 2000, Hawaiian-born surfer Rick Thomas took a paddle, stood on a board and introduced this traditional Hawaiian sport known as hoe heʻe nalu to the mainland masses. Many surfers aren’t too happy about it, though, since it means sharing the waves. What’s so cool about SUP is that it’s relatively easy (the paddling part anyway, the surfing is a wee bit trickier) and it’s versatile (any body of water will do). For water babies, there’s nothing like paddling along and catching a whale breach or a baby dolphin learning to leap. Outfitters renting gear and giving lessons are easy to find around Kailua-Kona and Hilo.