Nohea (lovely) Big Island! Be it a book, a conversation, a cup of coffee or a vacation in Hawaii, everything can be enjoyed with the right frame of mind With that packed in our suitcases, we headed to the Big Island for Thanksgiving last year.
Why is it named so? Because of its size. It is the biggest island amongst the five islands of Hawaii.
Alaskan Airlines flies directly to Kona International Airport. It is a five hour flight, but the complimentary Mai Tais served on board the flight made it seem shorter.
The weather on the Kona side of the Island was perfect—25 degrees Celsius with light winds.
It can get wet in parts of the island, especially in Hilo during winter. The feeling of ease kicks in as you land and ride the shuttle from the terminal to the rental car office. Clear blue skies, gushing sounds of the waves and pink bougainvillea trees welcome you to Kona. A quick tip regarding the rental car: regardless of the size of the car you requested at the time you made a reservation, it doesn’t hurt to request an upgrade at the counter. They usually have excellent deals on convertibles in Hawaii.
The virtual exploration involved in researching a vacation destination interests me a lot. I enjoy exploring the place on my own—finding routes to places, using Yelp for the best food options, and figuring out the geography of the locale. Sitting by a pool and sipping cocktails is not yet my idea of a vacation. I think age and commitments in life has brought me to that realization. But for now, I love being a voyager.
There are several lodging options on Big Island. You can rent villas by the bay, or go the conventional route and book a hotel. It is important to know enough about the area when picking a hotel. We wanted to stay close to the freeways, walking distance to the beach, with enough dining options and local attractions closeby. So we chose the Kona coast. You can also look into Hilo, Kohala coast or Waikoloa village. The Sheraton property that we stayed at is by the Keahu Bay. The balconies offer beautiful vistas of the bay on one side and the volcanoes on the other. The service was good and the property was clean and well maintained.
As you head towards Pu’uhonuao Honaunau National Historical Park from Kona, you will see a row of contiguous coffee plantations. If coffee interests you, then a trip to one of these plantations is highly recommended. We did not visit a coffee plantation, but we took time to visit The Coffee Shack, a coffee shop that received a rave review in The New York Times. This local favorite is a real gem and lived up to its praise. As you sip your coffee, take the time to enjoy the gorgeous views of the bay and the island’s coastline. It will keep you spellbound.
Pu’uhonuao Honaunau Park is along the coast, and has an ancient village feel to it. It has lots of complex wooden structures, huts and handmade wooden boats. It is definitely very picturesque here and you can spend a few hours exploring the grounds.
The beaches in Kona and Keahu are mostly crowded with tourists, so we drove further up to Hapuna State Beach. Crystal blue waters welcome you at this beach which is surprisingly quiet and less visited by tourists. Driving in Hawaii can be slow, because the streets are really narrow along the coastline. But, it is a relaxing experience. Remember to pack your audio connector and a car charger for your phone. With the Pandora and Saavn apps on our phones we enjoyed listening to melodious Hindi songs, while driving in a convertible Mustang, with the top down, along the beautiful coastline in Hawaii.
The drive to Hapuna is marked with an ever-changing landscape. From the industrial belt of Big Island to black lava fields to a vast expanse of clear skies and, at times, the sight of volcanoes reaching into the clouds. No words can do justice to these vistas. They are breathtaking and you are left to wonder at nature’s gift to humankind. If you visit Hapuna Beach, chances are you will eat at Paradise Grill. It is the only food option in this area! The menu is limited, but the quality is good.
One of the top attractions of Big Island is the Mauna Kea volcano. Due to its high altitude, dry climatic conditions, and stable airflow, Mauna Kea’s summit is one of the best sites in the northern hemisphere for astronomical observations. You can drive up to the summit if you have a four wheel drive, or take a guided tour to the summit. If you take the tour it is advisable to make your reservations early. The tour came with a guide, who was well informed about the local geology of Big Island, the types of lava flows, the number of volcanoes on the Island and other trivia about the islands of Hawaii. We booked a tour with Mauna Kea Summit Adventures but I am sure there are several competing companies that offer similar itineraries.
The summit is at 13,792 feet and it was quite a drive to get there.The visitor center is at about 9,000 feet and is a good place for a restroom stop. As we ascended, we watched cinder cones lay their shadows in the sun. The temperature is usually below freezing point at the summit. The good thing is that the tour company provides jackets and gloves, since no one packs for -10 degrees in Hawaii. The observatories are all perched at the very top, all the better to capture the skies in the Northern and Southern hemisphere. We learned about the history of telescopes and enjoyed a picturesque sunset. It was mesmerizing to see the sun dip under thick clouds. It was most definitely the best sunset I have ever witnessed. Even now it feels like a dream that we were up there, under the bed of stars, with thick clouds beneath us. If only I had had a pair of wings!
Big Island also has Volcanoes National Park that is about 95 miles from Kona. It is an interesting drive along the coast, and you witness the changing landscapes as you leave Kona and enter Hilo. We spent almost an entire day in the park covering its highlights. We decided to drive down to the ocean along the Chain of Craters road down to the Holei Sea Arch. I highly recommend this drive. It is only at the end of this drive that you see the road that is now blocked by lava that was heading to the ocean. The drive is beautiful through rain forests, craters, lava fields and steep hills, with fascinating views of the ocean. The contrast of blue and black is spectacular and you surrender to the grandeur of the volcanoes around you. It is intimidating to be a speck of life amidst these large creations of nature. On one side are the volcanoes and on the other, the bold ocean.
We also visited the Jaggar Museum, Thurston Lava Tubes and Steam Vents in the national park. There was an ongoing eruption right outside Jaggar Museum that could be seen from up close. But the Crater Rim drive was closed due to sulphur emissions from the eruption.
Big Island is a food haven. From one of most amazing sushi houses to rusty yet amazing breakfast joints, the variety is unlimited. Kenichi Pacific is tucked inside a shopping complex and can be a little difficult to find. It has the best sushi in Big Island. The Yellow Tail with lime and jalapeno rings and the Black Miso cod. Make reservations in advance, since this place can get crowded on weekends.
Bonjo Ben’s Island Café close to the Kailua Kona shopping area, is a wholesome innovative breakfast place. They serve fresh Mahi Mahi with biscuit and fruits, in addition to several other delicious items on the menu. You can sit here, soak in the sun and watch the ocean waves while sipping mimosas.
Bamboo’s Restaurant and Gallery near the Kohala coast is a long way to go for a meal, but the food was here fantastic and the lilikoi margaritas were out of this world. They also sell cute cups made of coconut shells. Make sure to bring some back with you. They make really good souvenirs.
Another must-do in Hawaii is to attend a Lua’u. We enjoyed one at the Fairmont Orchid hotel in Waikoloa Village. Lua’u is a feast from four different cultures—Samoa, New Zealand, Hawaii and Tahiti. There was a buffet spread of the best dishes from these cultures, some fire shows, lots of free alcohol and a cultural extravaganza. Again, make reservations in advance.
These events sell out soon.
There are plenty of shopping attractions in Big Island, but I must mention the Pacific Gold Jewelry shop. The seller there handcrafts most of the jewelry and has some excellent Tahitian black pearls. For souvenirs, there are several ABC Stores all over the island. You can pick up your fridge magnets and Hawaiian shirts and dresses from here. They usually have good deals available. These stores are also great for picking up water, soda or a light breakfast.
I loved Big Island and its endless attractions. The warmth of the island and its residents completely won me over. Hawaii has a magical appeal. Mahalo Big Island, we will be back someday. Once I retire, I will be available for visitors at the cozy coffee shop attached to a small bakery and a coffee plantation that you will see on your right as you drive …
Shivam Khullar is an astute business consultant, an opinionated writer, an avid reader, a creative cook, a hopeless coffee lover, a light traveler and a loving wife.