Fans of the big island of Hawaii are people with big appetites — they will pass on the glass half full, preferring it overflowing. “More” is the new “less” and “plus-sized” is not necessarily a bad word. They want the yin and the yang. In the Big Island these over-achieving travelers have found a kindred spirit. Forget a warm tropical climate — the heat rises from the jet-black lava fields in miragelike waves. View from a nice mountain vista? Why not go all the way and head to the 13,800-foot summit of Mauna Kea? You want to snowboard and surf this vacation? Book the next flight to Hawaii.
The name “Hawaii” applies to the state as well as the island and, though it’s only the size of Connecticut, some would argue with Texan-like zeal that the Big Island of Hawaii should be its own country. Admittedly, its diverse landscape and topography does set it apart from the other six Hawaiian Islands, giving it a continent-like stature. After all, what other island in the world boasts deserts, rain forests, pristine beaches, snow-capped mountains and an active volcano? The answer: none. The Big Island covers more than 4,000 square miles. A drive around its circumference is a challenging 222 miles through dozens of different terrains and climates. At first glance the sheer size of the island and the number of diverse activities offered here can be a bit daunting. With some pre-planning, however, you can really take a big bite out of the island in a week’s time. If you don’t have the luxury of an extended stay — say, only three to four days — do as the locals do and pick a side: Kona or Hilo.
Most visitors to the island make the Kailua-Kona (or simply Kona) their home base — for a number of reasons. First and foremost is the weather. The Kona, or west, side of the island has the sunshine. Hilo, to the east, is wetter. The climate in Kona is among the best in the world. The never-ending expanse of surrounding lava fields generates high temperatures, but not the moisture and humidity of the other islands’ greener topography. This, combined with its proximity to Ka’u desert and the often snow-capped peaks of Mauna Kea, results in a drier heat than anywhere else on the Hawaiian Islands. The waters directly off the coast are deep and cool, and the trade winds drifting to shore off its chilly surface, refreshing. It is the cooler temperatures that spawn an ocean habitat rich with colorful sea-life — including the prized Billfish. The Kona side also has the best, most accessible, beaches (Hapuna has consistently rated in the top five in the United States) and the calmest, clearest water in the entire state. All this adds up to choice conditions for myriad water activities including swimming, snorkeling, scuba diving, deep-sea fishing, canoeing, kayaking, boating and more.
Another big draw of the Kona side is its range of accommodations. From the luxury, five-star resort destinations that dot the coast, to the quaint bed and breakfasts tucked away off the beaten path, there are many wonderful options. The North Kona-Kohala Coast is home to some of the world’s most luxurious and chic vacation getaways including Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, Hapuna Prince Hotel, the Ritz-Carlton Mauna-Lani and The Four Seasons Huala’lai. This coastline has become a mecca for celebrities seeking a holiday escape. So intent are these Kohala resorts on keeping the paparazzi at bay that many of them adhere to stringent “no same-day check-in” policies designed to weed out the aggressive cameraman motivated by a hot tip. These resorts are about more than just caviar dreams, however; they are wonderful for family vacations and business travelers. Many of their world-class spas, restaurants and beaches are also open to non-guests. For instance, the Four Seasons Huala’lai has one of the best cultural centers in the state and it is free to all visitors.
The Big Island’s bed and breakfast market is a competitive one and you have to be careful when making your selec tion. It is not enough these days to simply look at a Web site. People are getting clever at presenting a very flattering, but not necessarily accurate, image. Make sure you ask the right questions: What kind of road leads to the property? What nearby restaurants (if any) are open for dinner? Usually the price of the room will tell you everything you need to know. If it is $70 a night and sleeps six to a room, that may be an indication that it does not offer the experience you’re seeking. For accommodations fitting the niche between a bed and breakfast and a high-end resort, there are several nice beachfront hotels in Kona proper.
While discovering the Big Island you will encounter many delightful small towns offering sophisticated surprises. Rural villages such as Havi, Holualoa, Huala’lai, Ke’ei, and Puna are home to communities of Mainland and European transplants — expatriots, if you will — who have given up life in the fast lane and relocated their talents to more serene shores. Consequently, many of Hawaii’s best cafes, restaurants, boutiques and art galleries can be found in these up-country settlements. One enjoyable example of this, though on a larger scale, is the paniolo (cowboy) town of Waimea located north of Kona, overlooking the Kohala Coast. At 2,600 feet, the air here is crisp and cool and the landscape is rich with an interesting mix of evergreens and cactus. The area is dominated by the legacy of John Parker, a rancher hired in 1815 by King Kamehameha the Great to manage and slaughter the ferocious long-horned cattle he had received as a gift from Capt. George Vancouver. Today Parker Ranch remains one of the largest operating cattle ranches in the United States and Waimea residents are more likely to favor cowboy hats and heavy denims over aloha shirts and muumuus. But don’t let the slow drawl of the lifestyle fool you: Waimea is the exclusive address of several top-notch shopping and dining establishments.
Staying and launching from the west side affords easy access to several points of interest in Kona town within reasonable (meaning not constituting a day trip) driving distance. The free visitor publications and maps available at street stands and at most tour desks provide detailed walking and driving tours highlighting the area’s historic sites and attractions. Many are easily enjoyed on a whim at a moment’s notice. However, exploring one of the world’s most spectacular attractions — Hawaii’s active volcano, Kilauea — takes at least a full day and most of the evening if you are commuting from Kona. If a trip to the volcano is an important part of your vacation itinerary it is best to spend one night in Hilo, the added bonus being that you get to discover what this charming bayside town has to offer. Hilo is a true slice of Big Island life. Survivor of two deadly tsunamis (1946 and 1960), it is now the island’s largest residential community and the east side hub. Its picturesque downtown resembles a Midwestern county seat, complete with storefronts dating to the early 1900s. The weather is more “New England” and the antiquing, especially for furniture, is plentiful and not (yet) picked over. There are several nice inns and bed and breakfasts in and around Hilo, all with locations convenient to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park — home to Kilauea Volcano. The earth’s most active volcano, Kilauea’s current eruption began in 1983 and, at press time, is still going strong. Inside the park, you’ll find driving and walking trails that get you remarkably close to the actual lava flow. Standing arms-length from the power of Kilauea Volcano is an awe-inspiring experience and a little humbling when you realize you are witnessing the origin of the newest real estate on the planet. If you do not have a full day to see Kilauea up-close and personal, there are several flight-see tours offering a bird’s-eye view into the bubbling volcano and a sweeping look at Kilauea’s path of devastation and creation. Word of caution: Do not take any lava rocks or glass (obsidian) home with you. It is considered bad luck and the amount of lava rocks returned each year to Hawaii’s post offices accompanied by horrific tales of doom lend credence that this belief may be more than just superstition.
FOUR SEASONS HUALA’LAI
Four Seasons Huala’lai is a five-star oasis carved out of the rugged lava coastline of the Big Island’s Kona-Kohala Coast. The architecture here is reminiscent of the large Hawaii estates and refined hotels built in the mid-1900s. The grounds are amazing, using elements found in the area. Lava rock walls curve throughout the property and more than 800 coconut trees tower over the lush gardens of indigenous plants. Guestrooms have open-air floor plans, stunning ocean views and (on the garden level) outdoor showers. Amenities include high-speed Internet, 42-inch flat-screen televisions, DVD and CD players, and an extensive array of L’Occitane bath products. There are five distinct pools including Beach Tree’s Pool, a favorite with adults who enjoy its sunglass-cleaning service, Evian spritzes, and flavored waters; King’s Pool snorkeling aquarium cut directly out of ancient rock formations and stocked with more than 4,000 tropical fish; and the infinity-edged pool, designed with families in mind, complete with a sand-bottomed swimming hole for the little ones. The award-winning Huala’lai Sports Club and Spa boasts a eucalyptus steam, cold-plunge pool, sauna, and a 2000-square-foot fitness center. Nearby is Huala’lai Tennis Club and Huala’lai Golf Club, featuring the Jack Nicklaus signature course. Dining options are exceptional, ranging from fine dining to burgers on the beach. The Four Seasons Huala’lai aims to please and it does. If you are island-hopping, make this hotel the second stop of your Hawaiian vacation.You don’t want to waste a second of it on jetlag. $$$$
FOUR SEASONS HUALA’LAI
72-100 Ka’upulehu Drive
tel 888 340 5662, fax 808 325 8200
This prime piece of paradise rests on the slopes of dormant Huala’lai volcano in the heart of the Kona Coffee Belt. The inn is surrounded by 30 acres of pasture land, coffee orchards, tropical gardens, bamboo groves and fruit trees. The indoor/outdoor interior is open to the soft trade winds, and the inn’s vantage point provides outstanding views of the coastline. The decor is a mix of Balinese, Polynesian and Asian. All rooms have wireless Internet access, but telephones and television are located in the common lounge area. The pool is lovely, bordered by lava rocks and gardens. For the complimentary breakfast guests enjoy waffles, smoked salmon or egg dishes and always homemade breads and muffins. For lunch, dinner and shopping, adorable Holualoa Village’s general store, restaurants and art galleries are within walking distance and it is only a three-minute drive to Kona. $$$$
tel 808 324 1121, fax 808 324 1121
KILAUEA LODGE AND RESTAURANT
This charming “hunting” lodge has been a treasured landmark and favorite of locals and visitors alike since it was first opened as a part of the YMCA lodge in 1937. Dramatically located just one mile from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, (but safely off Kilauea’s flow path) the property offers 12 rooms onsite, as well as two quaint, historic vacation cottages a few miles away. All rooms are decorated in art and flowers from the town of Volcano and some offer balconies and fireplaces. There are no in-room phones or televisions at the lodge itself, but both are available in the off-property cottages.Wireless high-speed Internet can be accessed from certain locations indoors and on the grounds, including the gazebo. Guests are treated to a full breakfast, but Kilauea Lodge Restaurant opens in the evening only. There are several lunch options down the road in Volcano, but save your appetite for dinner. Owner/Chef Albert Jeyte’s menu changes daily and includes such specialties as hasen pfeffer, venison, duck and always freshly caught local fish. $$$
KILAUEA LODGE AND RESTAURANT
19-3948 Old Volcano Road
tel 808 967 7366, fax 808 967 7367
This Ivy Award-winning restaurant pays homage to Hawaii’s bounty from both land and sea with their Contemporary Pacific Cuisine. The creative menu and the daily specials of fresh local seafood can make ordering a difficult decision, so sit back, enjoy your amuse bouche of lavash and truffle spread, and take your time. The extensive wine list and nearby waves rolling to shore as if on cue remind you to savor the moment as much as your entree. $$$$
Four Seasons Huala’lai
72-100 Ka’upulehu Drive
tel 808 325 8000
Offering continental cuisine with a Hawaiian flair, this Ohana (family) bar and grill is a big hit with both visitors and locals. In addition to daily seafood specials, patrons enjoy house favorites including the Kona seafood bouillabaisse, New York strip tortilla salad, seared wasabi ahi and an impressive appetizer menu custom-made for the indecisive diner who wants to try a little of everything. $$-$$$
75-5995 Kuakini Highway
tel 808 327 0209
The bartender here goes above and beyond the last call of duty, mixing up fresh fruit martinis, saketinis and other signature libations. The dining is equally as inventive and delicious with Japanese-inspired selections such as grilled lamb chops with tempura sweet potato bread, kambu cured duck, and wok lacquered prawns. There is also a sushi and raw bar serving fresh local seafood.
75-5719 Ali’i Drive
tel 808 327 2125
INFO TO GO
Six miles from Kailua-Kona, Kona International Airport (KOA) sits atop a lava flow from 1801 and, apart from the tiny hutlike buildings that constitute the arrival and departure areas, that is pretty much all you see for miles in either direction. Hawaiian Airlines has numerous daily flights from Honolulu (HNL) to KOA as well as Hilo (ITO). It also has scheduled non-stop service (135 daily flights) to HNL from the western United States. There are several rental car companies located at KOA, but be sure to make your reservations ahead of time (limited inventory) and pre-pay for your gas at the counter as prices elsewhere on the Big Island are among the highest in the nation.
Like any seaside resort town with perfect weather and little-to-no crime, Kona has a healthy supply of watering holes serving up the requisite mai tais and sunsets. Just stroll down Ali-i Drive and follow the back beat to Coconut Grove Market Place (75-5819 Ali’i Drive) home to Hard Rock Café (tel 808 329 8866) and Lulus (tel 808 331 2633). For live Hawaiian and/or jazz music every night of the week you can count on longtime favorite Huggo’s (75-5828 Kahakai Road, tel 808 329 1493) and the adjacent Huggo’s Rocks, both oceanfront spots off Kailua Bay. A drive up the Kona Coast will bring you to the colorful Harbor House at Honokohau Small Boat Harbor (tel 808 326 4166). Hawaii’s answer to the tavern in “The Perfect Storm,” here you’ll find the biggest beers in the state (scooners) and great fresh-catch pub food. For a more sophisticated evening, The Lava Lounge, located just up the road at the Four Seasons Huala’lai (tel 808 325 8000), features live music by Grammy award-winning guitarist Charles Michael Brotman. If you’re looking for activities operating on a higher playing field, Mauna Kea’s Onizuka Observatory Center for International Astronomy (tel 808 969 3218) has visitor programs at 9,300 feet or you can call Blue Hawaiian Helicopters out of Kona (tel 808 961 1259) or Tropical Helicopters out of Hilo (tel 808 961 6810) to schedule an aerial tour of Kilauea Volcano. To learn more about Hawaii at a grassroots level, a visit to Ka’upulehu Cultural Center (tel 808 325 8000) at the Four Seasons Huala’lai offers an amazing overview of Hawaii’s history and is highly recommended if this is your first trip to the Big Island. First, second or third trip to the island of Hawaii, make time for Kealakekua Bay and Pu’uhonunua o Honaunau, or The City of Refuge, (tel 808 328 2288). A 20-minute drive from Kona through gorgeous countryside, the City of Refuge is a very spiritual experience. This sacred site once served as a sanctuary for banished warriors and others who had offended a high-ranking Hawaiian chief. Here they were protected by the gods. The newly restored visitor center provides an informative self-guided tour. The beach is great for snorkeling and a favorite with the playful green sea turtles, so bring your gear, water and lunch and make a day of it.
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