Living Large On the Big Island

Hawaii's perfect balance between relaxation and rediscovery.

The dilemma in Hawaii is simple: Do you get off your rear and explore one of the most interesting and spectacular places in the world, or do you lounge by the pool at some of the best resorts in the world? The question is amplified on the Big Island (actual name: Hawaii), which is arguably Hawaii’s most amazing island and home to its premier resort. This challenge is made more complex because, unlike Hawaii’s other islands, the Big Island is genuinely expansive. Most of its major attractions are a full day’s excursion from the Kona resort strip. Frustrated with not enough time and too much driving, I’d waited 19 years to return since my last visit in 1991. I immediately regretted my long absence. If you’re wondering what sets the Big Island apart from the other Hawaiian islands, here’s my dossier: The Big Island is the youngest of the Hawaiian islands, still sits over an active rupture in the Earth’s crust, and as a result has a unique topography. There is black lava rock covering much of the land, remnants of relatively recent volcanic events. The island’s high peaks, the highest in the state, create a rain shadow that produces both the driest and wettest parts of the islands. The Big Island also is home to a substantial ranching industry and sports an agricultural character that has waned on the other touristed islands. You’ll still find the trademark Hawaiian beauty—swaying palms, plumeria blossoms, trade winds, near-constant sunshine, blue skies, puffy clouds, and azure seas. But there are also volcanoes spewing red-hot lava, coffee plantations growing some of the world’s most prized beans, and old plantation towns that have not yet been overrun by galleries and gift shops to the point where they lose their character. And there is one of the world’s great centers of astronomy—Hawaii has been called the best place to view the solar system. I wouldn’t recommend trying to do the big island in 72 hours like you might Maui, Kauai, or Oahu. There’s just too much to see that’s unique to this island, and the distances are too great. To my mind, the perfect ratio is one resort/beach day for each sightseeing day. Here are my suggestions for the time outside your bathing suit.

Day 1: Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park

Volcanoes National Park consists of two of the volcanoes that formed the Big Island, Mauna Loa and Kilauea, the latter of which has been in eruption on and off for decades. The two primary attractions are the crater rim/caldera and lava viewing. The first is easy; the second can be tricky and is dependent on current lava flows. From the crater at the Kilauea summit there are incredible views of the island and opportunities for hikes into the caldera, visits to lava tubes and steam vents, and ranger-led activities in the otherworldly topography. Lava viewing is best planned by visiting the park website just before you arrive in Hawaii and getting a sense for where the lava is flowing and how accessible it is. Although foot travel to them can be impossible in the dark, the lava flows are most spectacular then. Expect a four-hour drive in each direction from resorts in Kona or the Kohala Coast, where you probably will be staying. I’d consider overnighting nearby, though the historic Volcano House hotel in the park is closed for renovations until 2012. In the interim, there are a variety of modest lodgings in the nearby town of Volcano or nearby city of Hilo. For variety’s sake, drivers can make a semi-circuit of the island by using the Mamalahoa Highway heading south in one direction and Saddle Road across the center of the island in the other. Time required: 1–2 days Day 2: Kohala Coast The Big Island’s most scenic stretch of coastline is home to its choicest resorts. Don’t miss a stroll through Laurance Rockefeller’s historic Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, an example of the minimalist school of resort design that held sway half a century ago. You’ll pass through the black lava fields of South Kohala before returning to the vivid Hawaiian colors on the north end, where you join Kohala Mountain Road for spectacular views of the entire island. As you descend the Kohala Mountains, you’ll want to spend time in the charming and untrammeled towns of Hawi and Kapaau, former sugar-growing burgs that are now mainstays of the island arts scene. At the end of the road is a parking lot for a spectacular hike down to a beautiful black sand beach with gorgeous vistas of the seashore and the Pololu Valley for which the spot is named. Drive back via the coastal route, Highway 270. As you leave Hawi, don’t miss the sight of giant wind farm turbines set against the blue sky. Time required: Full day

Day 3: Waimea & Mauna Kea

An hour or less north of the resorts, just before you head up Kohala Mountain Road, Highway 19 branches toward the ranching town of Waimea, home to the Parker Ranch, which controls much of the land in the area. (Its historic homestead and gardens are open to the public.) Waimea is renowned for Merriman’s, one of the island’s best restaurants. Chef Peter Merriman helped spur a locavore movement across the state, and his food tastes great. Another 90 minutes on Saddle Road and you’ll find yourself at Mauna Kea, the tallest “sea mountain” on Earth, at 13,800 feet. People come from all over the world to view the night sky at its observatories. At 9,300 feet is the Onizuka Center with expert interpretation, telescopes, and nightly stargazing opportunities. Drive on to the summit and the views are free, but the 13 telescopes are private property. This is a great excursion begun at noon to allow for daylight on the summit and night sky viewing. Keep in mind that you started the day at sea level, and respect the strain the altitude places on your system. Time required: Half-day (If you want to make a long day of it, the scenic and rural Hamakua Coast and Waipio Valley string out from Waimea to the east. Many regard this quiet and remote side of the island as worth a day in itself, but I did not venture there on my last visit.)

Day 4: Kona, Coffee, and Captain Cook

Any drive south of the resort area will take you through Kona, a tourist-driven beach town and the place to stock up on groceries for your condo, visit a pharmacy, or buy a pair of hiking boots or a surfboard. Thirty minutes south of Kona is the Captain Cook Monument, where the English explorer set foot on Hawaii in 1778 and where he met his death at the hand of locals the following year. (The British government still owns the site on which the monument sits.) The plantation town of Kainaliu is on the Kona side of Captain Cook and worth a stop to stroll its main streets, have a snack, and poke around shops and cafes. This is the region of the island where prized Kona coffee is grown. There are coffee farm tours, most notably at the Kona Coffee Living History Farm, run by the local historical society, which can steer you to more commercial operations as well. Rest your feet on the way back at Kealakekua Bay, a stunning refuge of clear water, verdant cliffs, and tropical sea life. There’s no beach to speak of, but it is a good place to swim or kayak. Time required: Half-day

+ Big Island Practicalities

When to Go:
Hawaii is warm and sunny year-round, though it’s a few degrees cooler and slightly more rainy in winter. Peak tourist season is actually summer—hotel rates bottom out in spring and autumn.

Getting There:
There is no direct air service from MSP to Kona’s small airport, but there are nonstop Delta flights from LAX and frequent inter-island nonstops from Maui and Honolulu. If you are starting or ending your visit at Volcanoes National Park, consider the nearby Hilo International Airport with frequent flights to Honolulu. Unfortunately, the long-standing daily nonstop flight between MSP and Honolulu is scheduled to be discontinued by Delta later this winter.

Where to Eat: My one regret on the Big Island is its dining scene, which has regressed since my 1991 visit. I can only recommend a small handful of restaurants, including the delightful but expensive waterside Beach Tree at the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai, the aforementioned Merriman’s in Waimea, Bamboo, a Thai-influenced café on Hawi’s main drag, and Island Lava Java, an informal all-day café in Kona.

+ The Best Resort in Hawaii

That may be an understatement. The Four Seasons Resort Hualalai may be the best oceanfront resort in North America. Accommodations are scattered in low-rise buildings along the beach, lagoons, and golf course. Rooms are newly renovated, and the bathrooms are large with luxurious finishes and separate spaces for toilet, shower, and tub (with an outdoor shower as well). Service is informal but exacting, outgoing but unobtrusive. Multiple pools, a beautiful beach, a sealife lagoon, tennis, an elaborate gym and spa, and several restaurants dot the campus. Children’s programs are free to guests, and other thoughtful touches abound, such as complimentary use of washers and dryers just steps from every room. Rates drop in spring and fall, but rather than discounting dramatically, the resort offers free nights and discounts for second rooms. Rates start at $520 for multi-night off-season packages, 808-325-8000,