Explore the Big Island by car and discover two sides of paradise.
Driving north to the rain-swept city of Hilo from the western beach town of Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii feels like being part of a panoramic nature film. The black, low-lying ancient lava of Kona (much invaded by gnarly and hardy vegetation) gives way to the verdant ocean cliffs of Waimea and finally, to the rainforest-like environs of Hilo – all in the span of about two-and-a-half hours.
Hawaii, aka the Big Island, is the largest and southernmost islet in Hawaii’s archipelago – big and bucolic, not an urbanized surfing mecca like Oahu and not touristy-chic like Maui. But it does have hot volcanoes, beautiful beaches and stunning biodiversity. It’s so hospitable that it’s the invasive species capital of the world. That mongoose darting across the road in Kona? Its proliferating progenitors were brought from Jamaica in the 1800s to combat rats on sugar cane farms. The army of tiny chirping Coquí frogs (pronounced ko-kee) that shriek throughout the night in Hilo? They hitched a ride in some potted plants from Puerto Rico around 1988. Nothing seems to have a natural predator in this varied paradise of lush rainforest, white- and black-sand beaches and lava-oozing volcanoes. From Central American Miconia trees (called the “purple plague” in Hawaii) and cold-water shrimp to reverence for ancestors and propensity for adventure, everything thrives on the Big Island, which makes for a pleasant island drive.
Our Big Island visit begins with a walk across the asphalt at Kona International Airport, where passengers disembark planes right on the runway before making the short stroll through the faux-thatched-roofed airport, which resembles a tiki-themed food court in a mid-size outdoor mall in the ‘80s, with greeters holding leis to drape around the necks of newcomers and prompt the obligatory “I got lei’d” jokes. In other words, you won’t see any airports like it on the mainland.
One of the top 10 employers on the Big Island, Four Seasons Resort Hualalai (72-100 Ka’ūpūlehu Dr., Kailua-Kona, 800-325-8000, fourseasons.com/hualalai) is also a top place to stay. Its 243 guest rooms and suites are decked in Hawaiian décor (down to the dark wood latticed doors and wicker patio furniture) and boast big windows framed by palm and koa trees. An 18-hole, Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course with green fairways contoured against black lava; state-of-the-art fitness facilities and tennis courts; 28,000-square-foot Hualalai Spa; and seven resort pools round out the lush island vibe. Guests can also visit the resort’s Ka‘upulehu Cultural Center for interactive programs and interpretive displays about Hawaiian history and culture. Kona is on the dry and sunny side of the island (making it the best part for beach play), and of course, the beach access at Four Seasons is amazing, with no room more than a five-minute stroll to the shore.
You won’t have to wander far from the Four Seasons for fantastic food – there are three on-site eateries, including Beach Tree Restaurant and Bar, where an Italian-inflected menu with tropical touches meets al fresco beachside seating. They also have a splendid dining room with 16-foot vaulted ceilings, but unless the ocean breezes become gusts that threaten to blow the fist-size beach umbrella clear out of your five-pound Mai Tai (which happens fairly frequently), dining on the patio with cool breezes and the rushing sounds of the tide is the way to go. Standout dinner dishes include the tender and flavorful ahi framed by tart tomatillos on a bed of arugula, and shrimp scampi swimming in garlic and herbs. Lunch offerings include one of the best burgers you will ever have, the Big Island grass-fed burger with aged cheddar. If you have only one dessert on the island, make it the banana split at Beach Tree. This hearty boat of frozen dairy decadence gets a fruity boost from fresh strawberries infused with Tahitian lime.
Speaking of boats, the Alaka'i Nalu (beach boys) at resort-embedded Hualālai Canoe Club are wave-masters capable of canoeing to the most choice spots in the ocean for dolphin watching or taking you on a snorkeling adventure aboard a 28-foot ribcraft. Stand-up paddle boarding and outrigger canoe paddling are also offered, but there’s nothing like paddling a two-man canoe out to the middle of the ocean and resting while dozens of spinner dolphins do dramatic acrobatics through the air around you and swim right up to the stern. Guides are also great at recognizing rockin’ waves for a zesty tide-crest zip back to the shore, and should you find yourself gliding across azure waters at 35 mph with spindrift salting your open mouth, you might also find yourself employing native lingo and yelling “Hana Hou!” (“Encore!”)
Located on the same property and complementing the accomodations at Four Seasons, Hualalai Villas & Homes (100 Ka’ūpūlehu Dr., Kailua-Kona, 808-325-8533, hualalaivillasandhomes.com) gives guests a chance to experience what it’s like to live the island lifestyle – in luxury. Residents of this 865-acre beachfront resort community live in a mix of homes and villas adorned with cedar shingle Hawaiian-style roofs. Guests can rent custom homes or villas and experience many resident perks, including access to all the amenities of the Four Seasons, concierge services and Alaka’i Nalu ocean activities.
Kona’s known for pricy, potent coffee, and Kona Coffee and Tea Company (74-5035 Queen Kaahumanu Hwy., Kailua Kona, 808-329-6577, konacoffeeandtea.com), has no shortage of robust joes. Hawaiian law states that to be considered authentic Kona coffee, packaging must be labeled “100% Kona Coffee.” Everything at KCTC qualifies, from the medium-dark Malia Ohana organic roast to the buttery peaberry. Tours of the KCTC plantation – a dewey 254-acre farm five miles up Hualalai Mountain – can be arranged for interested parties.
Down the highway, Whendi Grad, owner of Big Island Bees (82-5780 Nāpō’opo’o Rd. #100, Captain Cook, 808-328-7318, bigislandbees.com), has hives – 2,500 of them, to be exact. Grad and her husband, beekeeper and artist Garnett Puett, are fourth-generation beekeepers who have been creating a buzz on the Big Island since 1971. Their property perches on a lush hill, flush with fragrant blooms including bright yellow hibiscus, soft pink plumerias, and the fire-engine-red flowers of ‘Ohi’a Lehua trees. Visitors who want to stop and smell the flowers can also sample and buy some of BIB’s three single-floral honeys (subtly spicy Wilelaiki; rich Macadamia Nut Blossom; creamy best-seller ‘Ohi’a Lehua), peep things like antique smokers and hand-cranked extractors in the museum, and roll their own beeswax candles.
After all that bee-ing, take flight yourself with a jaw-dropping helicopter tour of the Big Island. Fuel up first with a sweet-to-savory stop at Big Island Grill (75-5702 Kuakini Hway., Kailua-Kona, 808-326-1153), a homey, family-owned restaurant that serves Hawaiian staples like loco moco (white rice topped with a hamburger patty, a fried egg and brown gravy) as well as more mainland-familiar fare like B.L.T. sandwiches bulging with bacon and 2-inch-thick tomatoes. Locals like to get together here over Island Mimosas (with a jigger of guava juice).
Few things match the majesty you will see from your seat 10,000 feet in the air on a tour with Paradise Helicopters (Kona International Airport, 73-200 Kupipi St., Kailua-Kona, 866-876-7422, paradisecopters.com). With 19 different tours to choose from, the birds of Paradise fly all over the Big Island, but popular packages include the 45-minute “Volcanoes & Waterfalls Extreme” in a doorless Hughes 500 helicopter ($282 per person) and the one-hour “Magnum Experience” over sites like Pearl Harbor and Diamond Head ($314 per person). Or go all-out with the Circle Island Experience, a three-hour tour across the entire Big Island that hovers over the holes in smoking Kīlauea crater, where thick, glowing, red-hot magma can be seen flowing; glides over the green sands of Papakōlea Beach; and cruises into leafy emerald canyons with gushing waterfalls ($585 per person). The flight shows the contrast from the black lava rocks and sandy beaches of Kona to the harlequin hills and rainforest-framed roads of Hilo – a contrast that unfolds in slow motion along a road trip.
The coastline from Kona to Hilo comes with a lot of photo opps, from shots of wild goats standing atop lava rocks right off the road to rolling green hills covered in low-hovering clouds. The midway point is the village of Waimea, where a taste bud adventure awaits at Village Burger (Parker Ranch Center, 67-1185 Hawaii Belt Rd., Waimea, 808-885-7319, villageburgerwaimea.com). Their turf burgers (beef, red veal and Kahua Ranch Wagyu) are local legends, cooked to perfection and adorned with accoutrements like house-made tomato marmalade, but the vegetarian offerings awe, too – especially the Hamakua Mushroom Burger, an umami-bomb patty made from alii, shiitake and button mushrooms with sundried tomatoes, rosemary and scallions.
Bond with nature – and get an up-close look at Hawaii’s dwindling native forests – on an off-road adventure with Hawaiian Legacy Tours (Umikoa Village, Pa’auilo, 877-707-8733, hawaiianlegacytours.com). This family-run restoration operation in a remote region called Umikoa Village has planted more than 20,000 native koa trees. These spindly trees with sickle-shaped leaves grow as high as 82 feet and are threatened by both invasive vegetation and non-native animals like wild black pigs, which can often be seen from Hawaiian Legacy’s bouncy, bright yellow Humvees, along with the occasional I’o (Hawaiian hawk) or Pueo (Hawaiian owl). Explorers can enjoy a fragrant foray through a eucalyptus forest (alas, another non-native species) before planting a koa sapling on one of two tours (the 1.5-hour Planters Tour, $110; or the three-hour Grand Tour, $180). Either way, the ground is so moist your feet will get soaked right through your shoes and socks.
After a long day of tree-planting and rainbow-spotting in the rain, Palms Cliff House Inn (28-3514 Māmalahoa Hwy., Honomū, 808-963-6076, palmscliffhouse.com), about 11 miles east of Hilo, is a great place to unwind and feel at home. This ocean cliff-side B&B in a Victorian-style home boasts bay windows, eight rooms (including four jacuzzi suites), copious fruit and macadamia trees across a 3.5-acre estate, and a delectable breakfast of items like omelets, mango-chicken sausage, fresh pineapple and lemon poppyseed muffins.
The abundant and ambiguous hibiscus is Hawaii’s official state flower, but the orchid also explodes across the islands in a kaleidoscope of colors. On the way to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (HVNP), stop at Akatsuka Orchid Gardens (11-3051 Volcano Rd., Volcano, 808-967-8234, akatsukaorchid.com) to see more than 1,000 blooms in the showroom, from bright violet Hawaiian Wahine to golden “Volcano Queen” varieties. One-hour, guided greenhouse tours are available, as well ($35, adults; $25, children; free for kids younger than five).
Art imitates the amazing palette of nature at 2400 Fahrenheit Glass Blowing (11-3200 Volcano Rd., Volcano, 808-985-8667, 2400f.com), which is also on the way to HVNP. Glass artisans Michael and Misato Mortara welcome visitors to their studios, where an array of glass works are on display, and a variety of methods used, from hot-casting to blowing to lamination (fitting multiple pieces of glass into complex compositions). Some of the pieces flash colors so bright in the light they’re almost iridescent; “Green Enigma” from the Sculptural Series looks like a smooth chunk of glowing Kryptonite.
One more must-stop on the way to HVNP is Hilo Coffee Mill (17-995 Volcano Rd., Mountain View, 808-968-1333, hilocoffeemill.com), a 24-acre plantation with coffee trees swaying in front of the building. Tours of the plantation and farm (along with demos on coffee roasting) are offered with or without meals, and guests regularly get a glut of goods from the store to ship home (the box usually beats them back there). In addition to a range of Hawaiian coffees including Aloha Joe’s Brand and java from Hamakua Estate, Hilo Coffee Mill carries ono grinds (“delicious eats”) like Maika’i chocolate-covered macadamia nuts and Oishi double-roasted sea salt. They even have a line of edible-smelling handmade Hawaiian soaps (ginger, coconut).
You will feel the steam and smell the sulfur from Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park (1 Crater Rim Dr., 808-985-6004, nps.gov/havo) before you reach this World Heritage Site, which bustles and bursts with wildlife found nowhere else on earth and geological activity both beautiful and baneful. Hike some of the park’s 150-plus miles of trails and if you’re lucky, you might glimpse a Pinao (green darner dragonfly) or even an ‘Ōpe’ape’a (Hawaiian hoary bat). Parts of the park look like dry seas of black sand pockmarked with craters from volcanic eruptions in the 1970s, and the park is dotted with natural steam vents from two of the world’s most active volcanoes, Mauna Loa and Kīlauea. The former is one of the Earth’s most massive mountains, with a summit of 56,000 feet. Both volcanoes erupt in fiery fountains that flow into rivers of molten lava, as opposed to the more explosive and ashy eruptions of continental volcanoes. Parts of the park are often off-limits because of volcanic activity, but visitors can get eyefuls of everything in the Kīlauea Visitor Center and Jaggar Museum.
An unassuming post-park stop, Cafe Ohi’a (19-4005 Haunani Rd., Volcano, 808-985-8587) makes the perfect stumble-upon for hungry tourists. It’s just a trailer with a patio furnished with plastic picnic tables and big green umbrellas, but the grub is like comfort food for the rained-on soul. From the meaty, heart-warming chili to family-recipe quiche, the food here is a fine find.
The relaxed island vibe continues all the way to quaint Hilo International Airport, which has a whopping two runways and three passenger gates. The only anxiety stems from fighting the desire to get back in the rental car and do the road trip all over again. Hana Hou!
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