Destinations / Hawaii / United States

Hawaii: The Big Island

Breathtaking Natural Surroundings and Uniquely Exciting Adventures

Hapuna Beach Prince H#8F9D3

Our tropical paradise state of Hawaii, comprising eight main islands, rather confusingly has one island also named Hawaii. Not to worry. Everyone just calls it “the Big Island” and aptly so. All the other islands combined are not as large. As the youngest island of this volcano created world’s longest archipelago, it’s also an astounding isle of other superlatives. Consider these: Mauna Kea, at 32,000 ft., when measured from its ocean floor base to the apex, claims to be the world’s tallest mountain; Kilauea, currently the world’ s most continuously active volcano; Mauna Loa, reportedly the world’s most massive mountainover 100 Mt. Rainiers fit within Mauna Loa’s landmass. And guess what? You can hike/ride to the top of Mauna Kea and see the world’s largest astronomical observatory and you can safely hike and explore Mauna Loa and Kilauea on specified trails.

Overview: Lots of visitors fly into Kona, check in to one of the island’s five-star resorts and just relax by luxurious pools, stroll pristine beaches or play championship golf courses. We’ve done just that on past trips and that option is still a great one. But our approach this time was quite different. This island offers so much diversity and unique adventure opportunities, we encourage readers to consider doing what we undertook: a two week stay slowly circling the island. Our goal was to see as many of the intriguing highlights as possible in four distinct areas: KohalaCoast, Hilo,Volcanoes National Park and Kailua-Kona. And while you travel the easy-to-navigate island roads clock-wise, stopping to stay at a delightful variety of lodging choices and trying new adventures, you’ll also be driving by an amazing bounty of breathtaking natural landscapes. Prepare to stop often for those Nikon moments! Our total mileage driven was very moderate.


Let’s start by leaving the Kona airport in a rental car and heading northeast to this popular coastal area. Try using booking cars for all major agencies. They found us an Alamo rental at considerable savings over Alamo’s direct quote.

Where to stay/dine: If you like full-service resorts overlooking the ocean, our recommendations are the beautiful Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort in Waikoloa or Hapuna Prince Beach Resort (our favorite beach) in the Mauna Kea resort area.  Both resorts offer excellent dining, ocean vistas and a myriad of activities. If you’d prefer a deluxe condominium experience, the Aston Waikoloa Colony Villas is a perfect choice and a wonderful value. All three lodging choices provide friendly staffs, deluxe accommodations, gorgeous grounds and championship golf and are perfect lodging headquarters as you explore the Kohala Coast and Mauna Kea volcano.;; In addition to the wonderful variety of Marriott and Prince dining options, there are many other dining choices in nearby King’s Shops and Queen’s Market Place such as Eddie Aiku Restaurant/Surf Museum dedicated to one of Hawaii’s surfing icons and locals’ fave, Merriman’s Market Café. Bamboo Restaurant in Hawi was another standout lunch outing.

What to see and do: We have four suggested activities that were very special to us on Kohala Coast. There’s so much native Hawaiian cultural history on this island; a perfect place to begin learning is to take the informative tour of the amazingly preserved National Historic Site, Pu’ukohola Heiau (temple), one of Hawaii’s most sacred structures. Dolphin Quest at the Hilton Waikoloa Village is a no-brainer for anyone interested in encountering frolicking dolphins and trainers in a safe pool environment.  “Flume-the-Ditch” is a unique venture where you slowly kayak down a mountain slope through hand-dug earthen-rock-tunnels and over bridges within flumes formerly used to irrigate sugar cane fields. For us: a funky first!; There seems to be more Zip Line complexes on Hawaii per square-mile then anywhere on the planet. We counted at least eight! We chose Kohala Zip-Line, the most recently built and touting the latest safety features. This three-and-a-half hour excursion included nine adrenaline-pumping zips over tall tree canopies, five wobbly suspension bridges and two fun rappels. Whew!


As you head east and then south toward Hilo, we encourage stops along the way to visit the paniolo (cowboy) country town of Waimea, the overlook at Waipo Valley(and possible hike) and both Umauma and Akaka spectacular waterfalls. Hilo itself is not as tourist-oriented as other island areas, but if you don’t mind rain and want to experience a bit of “old Hawaii,” Hilo area is a must visit.  It’s a botanical wonderland in sharp contrast to the west coastal area of many barren lava beds.

Where to stay and dine:  Just a few miles before coming into Hilo, the Palms Cliff House Inn, a stunning Victorian estate-like B & B definitely deserves consideration. Hotel choices in Hilo proper are minimal but the best of the lot is Hilo Hawaiian Hotel overlooking Hilo Bay and tiny Coconut Island. Our favorite dining experience: Café Pesto, one of the Island’s most popular dining choices, surpassed our expectations.

What to see and do:  Lyman Museum offers visitors an amazing artifacts collection but our highlight: touring next door’s 1839 Mission House. Pacific Tsunami Museum gave us new perspectives on the massive devastation caused by these natural, often catastrophic, events. Imiloa Astronomy Center is renowned for advancing the wonders of science, exploration and indigenous cultural traditions.    .

Complimentary tours and nutty-chocolaty-treat samples at Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Factory is a must for any “mac-nut” lovers. Interesting fact: 300# pressure needed to open a mac! Visits to the local Farmer’s Market (6 papayas for a buck!) and plummeting Rainbow Falls should also be on your list.


Strangely, when volcanic activity rises, visitation increases dramatically. These volcanoes normally have safer eruptions with slowly moving lava, unlike a Mt. St. Helena’s type of volcano that quickly destroys everything in its path. Although it’s still dangerous, scientists monitor the situation constantly and provide daily advisories on hiking trails. Occasionally you’ll be able to see molten red lava moving on the surface near hiking paths, sometimes into the ocean where more land mass is continually being added to the island’s size (usually through underground lava tubes).

Where to stay and dine:

Kilauea Lodge just outside the park in the tiny hamlet of Volcano is as well known for their cuisine as their accommodations and remains a first rate choice.

What to see and do:  No park visitor should miss: hiking into Kilauea Iki Crater; strolling Devastation Trail seeing those steam vents up close (not-too-close); trekking through the eerie Thurston Lava Tube; visiting the Jagger Museum, especially at night, to see the fiery red lava spewing out at best or a red nighttime glow at the least. Museum displays explain much about the volcanic island’s geological development/history.


As you head south from the park and then north on the Kona coast to your final destination of Kailua Town you might consider brief stops at:  Ka Lae, the southernmost point in the U.S; Punaluu Beach where green sea turtles breed on beautiful black sand; famous Punaluu Bakery, premier baker of decadent Hawaiian sweet breads.

Where to stay and dine:  Once you arrive in Kailua our choice for lodging is the King Kamehameha Kona Beach Hotel overlooking Kailua Bay Pier-the starting/finishing point of the Ironman World Championship. The hotel’s artwork, cultural displays, buffet breakfasts in Honu Restaurant and the island’s most authentic luau near the Ahuena Heiau (rebuilt temple by King Kamehameha himself on the hotel’s grounds), greatly adds to its appeal. If you prefer a condominium a little out of town, we’d suggest the Aston Kona-by-the-Sea on the water’s edge, which provides those expected condo advantages at moderate rates. There are tons of popular local restaurants that should satisfy everybody’s culinary bent.

What to see and do: Our favorite outings nearby: Touring the Hulihe’e Royal Palace was enlightening, keeping in mind that the only royal kingdom ever on United States soil was in Hawaii.; For an entertaining evening try a sunset dinner cruise out to Kealakekua Bay and Captain Cook Monument with; A tour of Mountain Thunder’s Kona Coffee farm, mill and roastery was instructive. Kona coffee is considered one of the world’s finest, but make sure it’s 100% with no blends! world’s first seahorse farm was an educational touring experience.

Kailua is the best place to find an active nightlife scene or to arrange countless land/water activities and adventures, from extreme to serene. Distinctive ventures such as night swimming with manta rays and day ocean swims with wild spinner dolphins are two inimitable examples. If visible lava is flowing you might consider a helicopter, airplane or boat tour. Whatever floats your activity boat awaits and it’s a good idea to research all possibilities before going. Your hotels can help with reservations or use contact numbers/website links provided for those that pique your interest at the “for-all-things Hawaii website:”

Be assured of one thing: a friendly aloha spirit is awaiting!

(Note: Versions of this article first appeared in San Joaquin Magazine and other media outlets)

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