Travel Hawaii Escape to the Big Island
Where to stay and play, what to taste and see in Hawaii.
Don’t be surprised when you deplane in Kona at an outdoor airport sprinkled with thatched-roof huts: The Big Island celebrates its island status right from the get-go. As you leave the Kona airport for your hotel, you’ll see what looks like plowed fields on either side of the road for miles and miles. That’s not dirt. It’s lava—and it flows right down to the sea.
Only 26 miles from Maui, the Big Island has the same stunning beaches; crazy-fun ziplines, ATV tours, and helicopter rides; plus gorgeous golf courses and luxurious
beach hotels. But its far less-crowded, friendlier vibe—plus an observatory and its own national park—makes this island an ideal tropical paradise for a big adventure.
An Ideal Island Escape
The Mauna Kea Beach Hotel proves that some things only get better with age.
There are dozens of luxurious resorts to choose from along the Big Island’s sunny Kohala Coast, including a Four Seasons, Hilton, and Fairmont. But there is only one place to stay for the ultimate getaway, and that’s the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel.
Founded by Laurance S. Rockefeller and opened in 1965, it was the Big Island’s first resort, with the best beach location and an open-air design that is the standard to this day. Though the Mauna Kea—which celebrated its 50th anniversary last July—has changed hands, it’s still a spot of understated elegance and first-rate service.
Stand in the lobby, and you’ll feel the tropical breeze while you look out to the sea. Look up, and you’ll see the sky. Look down, and the deep blue colored tile gives the illusion that the hotel is part of the Pacific.
Outside, the sand is flat, and the water is shallow and relatively calm. You can walk out for a dip or swim to the raft about 300 yards out. Sea turtles greet you along the way. Snorkel out to the point, and you’ll lose count of the different types of tropical fish. At night, watch from a cliff 10 feet above the sea as huge manta rays gracefully circle for food under a spotlight.
Dining is on a grand scale, with several ocean-view locations to choose from. Executive chef Peter Pahk puts a premium on local and sustainable ingredients in dishes such as the lilikoi cheesecake soufflé drizzled with warm vanilla bean sauce.
The Mauna Kea’s golf course is also one of the world’s best, with its famous third hole: a par-three tee shot over the sea. This course has 99 glistening white sand bunkers to avoid and loads of elevation, so you’ll have fun riding on the new golf boards (think surfboard meets golf cart).
What makes the Mauna Kea a truly unique destination is its world-famous Eastern and Oceanic art collection, which Rockefeller collected as a way to unite the East and West at his Pacific Island hotel. The more than 1,500 pieces of art aren’t relegated to an art wing or hidden behind glass. They greet you at every entrance, along every corridor, and on every wall.
Some of the art is fearsome—such as mirror-eyed dragons from Thailand to ward off evil spirits—but other pieces are welcoming, such as the pair of bronze Buddhas at the entrance, with round bellies that are meant to be rubbed. All have a story, so don’t miss the Saturday morning docent tour, where you’ll learn the secrets and rich history behind key pieces.
Experience the majesty of the Great Buddha, as you walk up the stairs from the shaded ground floor into the sunny garden, where the stone statue sits under a bodhi tree. At the Mauna Kea, art makes an otherwise unwinding experience completely unforgettable. Starting at $599, princeresortshawaii.com/mauna-kea-beach-hotel.
Three Spas To Try
1. Deluxe Relaxation
The Four Seasons’ Hualalai Spa uses Big Island ingredients—black lava salt, crushed macadamia nuts, ti leaves—for a truly unique experience. It also offers wellness treatments, including sound healing and acupuncture. fourseasons.com/hualalai/spa.
2. Salt Session
Spend 30 minutes in the Sheraton Kona Resort’s Himalayan Salt Room—the first on the islands—which is believed to purify the air and boost healing through negative ions. Free with any spa treatment, hoolaspa.com/spa/salt-room.
3. Spa without Walls
The Spa at the Fairmont Orchid, Hawaii, offers massages in six seaside huts and eight private outdoor huts with waterfalls. fairmont.com/orchid-hawaii/spa.
A Fiery Display
Get up close and personal with a live volcano—and learn a little island lore—at Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park.
As legend goes, the fire goddess Pele made her home on the Big Island so she could keep her fire safe from the water of the sea—at the top of Mauna Loa. At 56,000 feet tall, when measured from the ocean floor, Mauna Loa is the tallest mountain on Earth.
Visit the Big Island, and you will hear that Pele’s fire still burns in the Kīlauea volcano, which is one of the world’s most active. Kīlauea is still erupting, making the Big Island a little bigger and delighting visitors with its evening “glow show.”
You can visit this live volcano in Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, which turns 100 this year. Head up to Crater Rim Drive, and park at the Jaggar Museum to see the Halema‘uma‘u Crater. In the near distance, you’ll look down on the caldera, which is the top of the volcano, and see gasses rising.
Head on into the park to explore the flow fields, where lava bowls show where trees once stood. Go inside the cave of a lava tube, and drive to the end of Chain of Craters Road to see where the lava meets the sea in dramatic 100-foot cliffs above the deep blue Pacific. Along the road, stop to see the Pu‘u Loa Petroglyphs. But do return to the Jaggar Museum after the sun sets for the lava viewing, which lights up the night sky. And pay your respects to Pele. $15 to enter the park, nps.gov/havo.
If you don’t want to do the driving, book a small guided tour with Hawaii Forest and Trail. It’s the Big Island’s main tour operation, respected for thoroughly training its guides in the history and ecology of the island. You can also book its helicopter tours for a breathtaking bird’s-eye view of the Big Island’s volcanoes. Starting at $89, hawaii-forest.com.
You can even stay overnight in the park at the historic Volcano House, which overlooks the Halema‘uma‘u Crater. The rustic lodge dates back to 1846, is TV-free, and offers complimentary bikes to guests to explore the national park on two wheels. Starting at $285, hawaiivolcanohouse.com.
An Aerial Adventure
Feel the rush of flying through the air with Kohala Zipline’s Canopy Adventure, which features nine fast ziplines. The longest soars for 1,100 feet, and the highest point is more than 12 stories up. On this tour, you’ll climb across wooden bridges and rappel down a large tree at the end. Along the way, the guides will tell you about the wildlife and nature that surround you, including the names of several types of native trees. Starting at $169, kohalazipline.com. —John Safipour
A naturalist by trade, Rob Pacheco was wowed by the Big Island’s diversity when he landed there 25 years ago. A short time later, he launched Hawaii Forest and Trail (see here), with guides trained in the island’s rich history, ecology, and mythology. Here, he explains why everyone should visit the Big Island.
Q: What makes the Big Island so special?
A: It is a place filled with superlatives. [It’s] an island with the two tallest mountains on Earth, with one of the most active volcanoes that’s been in eruption for more than 30 years, where unique ecosystems harbor species on the brink of extinction. Where else can you witness the spectacle of magma rising to paint the night sky, or marvel at the stars next to the world’s greatest collection of telescopes at Keck Observatory?
Q: What is your favorite thing to do on the island?
A: Spending time in the forest with our native birds. Experiencing an ‘I‘iwi flitting about the lehua blossoms or spying the endangered ‘Akiapola‘au pecking at a koa branch still fills me with wonder.
Q: Some say the ancient fire goddess Pele is still working her magic on the island. Are you a believer?
A: The products of the volcano in all its forms—lava, cinder, fumes, fiery glow—are all physical expressions, or kinolau, of Pele. Right now, Kīlauea is erupting in two places, so yes, she’s still working. I believe in Pele as a manifestation of the wonders and mysteries of volcanic processes.
On the Big Island, you’ll find everything from casual local haunts to high-end dining.
Spam and Eggs
Eat like a local, and order white rice with Spam, Portuguese sausage, link sausage, an egg, and brown gravy at Hawaiian Style Café. The café serves breakfast—including massive pancakes—all day. In Hilo and Waimea, hawaiianstylecafe.com.
You can’t get a fresher cup of coffee than at The Coffee Shack in Kona. The 100 percent Kona coffee is grown on the mountainside next to the restaurant. The shack isn’t fancy, but it offers a killer view of the valley out to the ocean. coffeeshack.com.
Tip: If you can find it on the island, order a cup of Ka‘u coffee, which has more flavor than Kona coffee.
Head to Village Burger in Waimea for pasture-raised beef and veal hamburgers. Chef Edwin Goto uses locally sourced ingredients: The goat cheese comes from the island, and the brioche buns are made at a nearby bakery. villageburgerwaimea.com.
Famous for winning the island’s poke contest, Umeke’s in Kona is renowned for the chef’s fresh and creative take on the dish. It is also famous for its poke bombs, which are served in a sushi rice cone. umekespoke808.com.
Home of the Loco Moco
Café 100 in Hilo has trademarked its Loco Moco: rice with a hamburger patty and Hilo-style brown gravy, topped with an egg. cafe100.com.
Dinner and a Show
At Rays on the Bay in the Sheraton Kona, you can dine while watching the island’s giant manta rays in their natural habitat. raysonthebay.com.
Locally grown, sustainable, hormone-free, grass-fed, house-made, wild-caught: These buzz words describe Holuakoa Gardens and Café in Holualoa, a must-dine restaurant in a lovely garden setting. It’s pricey—the lasagna entrée costs $29—but worth every penny. holuakoacafe.com.
Farm to Table
Blue Dragon Restaurant in Kawaihae is so into its farm-to-table concept, one garden-fresh salad arrives in a pot of dirt. You literally trim your greens for your salad. bluedragonrestaurant.com.
Sit beachside at the Beach Tree café at the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai. You can even go barefoot and have your meal served on a table in the sand. Entrées range from pizza and burgers to swordfish and pork chops. fourseasons.com/hualalai/dining/restaurants/beach_tree.
Hamakua is the only company in the island chain that sells 100 percent Hawaiian-grown macadamia nuts. If you go to the shop, you can see the Hamakua macadamia nut factory and fill up on super-fresh mac nuts. hawnnut.com.
The Best Fests
Need another reason to go to the Big Island? Plan a visit around these celebrations.
Great Waikoloa Ukulele Festival
Hawaii’s top ukulele performers come for an evening of entertainment in tribute to the popular instrument. Guests can enjoy the music of ukulele masters, take lessons, and enter ukulele giveaways. ukulelefestivalhawaii.org.
Merrie Monarch Festival
March 27–April 2
The most prestigious hula competition in the world, the weeklong Merrie Monarch Festival, arrives in Hilo each spring. Participation is by invitation, so only the best halau hula (hula schools) compete. For nonticketholders, the fest also has free craft fairs, a ho‘olaule‘a (celebration), a parade through Hilo, and hula exhibitions. merriemonarch.com.
Ka‘u Coffee Festival
The Ka‘u region on Hawaii Island has become one of the up-and-coming premiere coffee areas in the world. The weekend festivities include a Miss Ka‘u Coffee pageant, a ho‘olaule‘a featuring competitions for the best coffee recipe, farm tours, coffee demos, and of course, lots of food and entertainment. kaucoffeefestival.com.
North Kohala Kamehameha Day Celebration
Every June, thousands gather on the northern tip of Hawaii, the Big
Island, to honor Kamehameha I, the chief who united the Hawaiian Islands in 1795. Festivities include flower decorations for the original King Kamehameha statue, a floral parade, and a music festival with award-winning Hawaiian musicians at Kamehameha Park. kamehamehadaycelebration.org.
Hawaii Food and Wine Festival
Featuring internationally renowned master chefs, culinary personalities, and wine and spirits producers, this fest was cofounded by two of Hawaii’s James Beard award–winning chefs, Roy Yamaguchi and Alan Wong. Events feature dishes that showcase the state’s bounty of local produce, seafood, beef, and poultry. The festival is also held on Oahu and Maui. hawaiifoodandwinefestival.com.
Kona Coffee Cultural Festival
Hawaii’s longest-running food festival features events in Kona, including farm and mill tours, a parade, the Miracle Mile race, a golf tournament, art exhibits, and a recipe contest. konacoffeefest.com.