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Big Island: Hawaiian Scope

Mauna lani Bay Hotel
Mauna Lani Bay Hotel

By Neil Wolkodoff

The Big Island of Hawaii presents a diversity of travel and recreational opportunities on essentially the largest mountain in the world. The Big Island has sand, lava fields, vegetation, two primary volcanic mountains and even rain forests. Your mix of activities should be proximity driven. No real public transportation to speak of, so this is a rental car for exploring. It can be almost 11 hours of driving to circumvent the island, so prudent planning says get a map, star the various points of interest, and then start making an itinerary based upon proximity.

Before you land, determine if you will be a resort guest for the time or use the resort as a springboard for endless exploring. If you pick a resort along the Kohala coast, you are likely to get something that will satisfy the beach spud all the way to never sitting wanderer. And, there are options from mega resorts to secluded retreats that offer a departure point to the activities, yet a quiet refueling and rest oasis.

The largest resort on the Island, comprising 65 acres, is the Hilton Waikoloa. Pools abound with the Asian/oriental theme, and while it’s big, you can go there even as a single or couple, and feel some privacy if you carve out your own little enclave just around the corner.

Their dolphin experience and extensive children’s programs make this a good family choice. The spa is quietly tucked in the lower level of one of the main buildings, adjacent to fitness facilities. The Kamuela Provision Company, offers dining right up to the ocean with a large variety of steak and seafood options. Adjacent to the Hilton are the Waikoloa Kings and Beach Courses, one on a historical trail, the other with more ocean vistas.

Rental cars are small, so the best option to get your clubs to the Big Island and back is Ship Sticks, delivered right to the resort. One less thing to try and get on that little cart after a long flight.

Go north about six miles and you will find the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows, which spans 30 oceanfront acres. Koa wood accents in every room, and outward facing lanais give you that Hawaiian feel reminiscent of Blue Hawaii. Nothing in the resort is that far from anything else, so you can flop it or barefoot it if you like the entire time.

Besides great dining at the Canoe House, and Mauna Lani North & South golf courses, formerly home to the Senior Skins game, the property sports unique spa treatments. The “Lava Watsu”, a type of water therapy where the participant is passive, and the therapist gently moves them through warm water. The movements are a combination of massage and meditation.

Mauna Lani South Course
Mauna Lani South Course

Just a little further north, the Fairmont Orchid gives a different kind of resort experience. The site of a former Ritz-Carlton, the Fairmont is like walking into an old style Hawaiian plantation. Through the front door and entrance, and the property opens to magnificent gardens, walkways, and the ocean. The best luxury option is the Gold Floor, with a personal assistant, a special breakfast each morning and snacks in the p.m.

Great dining options can keep you on the property with Brown’s Beach House, an AAA Four Diamond award-winning oceanfront restaurant serving Hawaii Island-inspired seafood and produce. Norio’s Japanese Steakhouse & Sushi Bar is the sushi option right next door and on the property.

Pools circle and meander in that area, so each pool feels a little secluded. Their “Spa Without Walls” uses secluded and lush outdoor treatment areas with water features. The Hui Holokai Beach Ambassadors provides daily Hawaiian cultural activities and water sports including outrigger canoe rides, net throwing, stargazing, historic hikes, and Hawaiian lore.

About 10 minutes from Waimea, are the Mauna Kea and Hapuna golf courses. These courses are connected to the Mauna Kea and Hapuna Prince hotels but do offer non-guest rates.

The Hapuna Golf Course is an 18-hole championship golf course nestled in the dramatic natural contours of the land from the shoreline to 700 feet above sea level. Arnold Palmer, the principle designer, wanted a links-style course offering spectacular views of the Kohala Coast and the Pacific Ocean, and it is Hawaiian-links golf.

Mauna Kea
Mauna Kea

The most spectacular course on the Big Island is the Mauna Kea Golf Course. The photographed hole of maybe all time is #3, a 267-yard par 3 over the water into a cliff side mist and breeze, A slope of 144 and a 76.6 rating means beauty meets ultimate challenge on this golf course.

Instead of trying to go everywhere on day trips, try for excursions which place activities in proximity to limit driving time and increase the ooh and ahh factor.

Day Trip One. On a Friday, start with breakfast where you are lodging. Then head out to the Natural Energy Lab and campus for their NELHA grand tour. Seawater to energy, Kampachi and Abalone farms are a few of the highlights. Go back towards Kona a few miles, and get your burger on at Ultimate Burger, then head further south to Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park (the place of refuge), where you can see the archeological site, then snorkel close by. When it’s 5 o’clock somewhere, circle back into town to the Kona Brewing Company in your swim suit, tee and flops for local suds and some Pele-inspired pizza. Now where is that quarter for the mattress?

Lava Flow.
Lava Flow.

Day Trip Two. Head into Kona on the early side, and choose one of two fuel stations. Basik Acai gives you the acai bowl plus island fruits and it’s portable. More sit-down fair is at Java on The Rock next door, which is part of a local coffee plantation, good food and local caffeine. One expresso deserves another, so head up the hill for a coffee farm tour. Greenwell Farms is the largest operation in the area, and has by far the widest range of interesting varietals. Move down the road less than a mile and get a tour of a coffee farm out of the 1920s at the Kona Coffee Living History Farm. Just a few miles away, the Holualoa Village is full of art galleries and, even more coffee outlets. Mr. Bean has landed for sure. After that stroll, two diverse choices await your dinner pallet. Go for the noodle at Mi’s Italian Bistro, just a few miles from the village. All the vegetables are grown by the chef, and it’s all made from scratch with the Italian Shepards’ Pie the standout. Fish and the best seafood is at the Fishhopper. Get a view of the bay, double potent Mai Tai’s and ocean view dining.

Day Trip Three. Get ready as this is a long one, road warrior to the max. Since you have likely been eating too much, get the food karma back in balance by breakfast at Under the Bodhi Tree, a vegetarian and vegan oasis. The scrambles with tofu and the multi-grain cakes with give you a good charge. Head up the hill to Waimea, one of the rainiest spots on earth, and then over the hill towards Hilo. First stop is Laupahoehoe Point Beach State Park, where the prime activity is inspiration from the powerful waves.

Next stop is the ultimate in flora and fauna, the Hawai’i Tropical Botanical Garden, an amazing array of plants within the 40 acres and a walking trail along the ocean. On to Hilo and fuel up at Moon and Turtle, an Asian restaurant that has a limited menu of five appetizers and five entrees at any one time. Fewer choices mean they are extra good. If the food wasn’t hot enough, then the Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park will be! Self-guided tours along the path, or get in one of the groups. Next stop, the Volcano Winery, where Merlot is tolerated, but the real stars are the local fruit and honey wines, Volcano Red and the Macadamia Nut Honey. That is enough for one day, so continue the circle and head back toward Kona for dinner. Just below Captain Cook is the Sheraton, home to Rays on the Bay, where sunset views combine with interesting fish combinations on your plate and the largest manta dive and snorkel gathering on the Big Island. The lights go on, the plankton gather, and then the mantas arrive to dine on the plankton.

Day Trip Four. Get a late start, and an early lunch, then head up Mauna Loa to the Mauna Loa Observatory/NOAA station where you have made a reservation for a tour. Get the real scoop on climate change as that is what they measure. The last 15 miles up the volcano are twists and turns for the stout of driving, so slow it is and careful. The observatory is on the trail head to the crater and top, so after the tour, you can keep going upward if you like. Pack food and water for sure, no public supplies at MLO, and you will be at almost 12,000 feet.

Trek back down and head to one of two food choices. Toes in the sand are the operative theme at Lava Lava Beach Club. Fish dishes, mai tais and entertainment.  Dine and shop at Tommy Bahama if you want both options in one location, with their famous coconut shrimp.

Mauna Lani Bay pool at twilight
Mauna Lani Bay pool at twilight

Stay in Style

Hilton Waikoloa Village

Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows

Fairmont Orchid


Dining Diversions

Under the Bodhi Tree

Moon & Turtle

Tommy Bahama

The Fishhopper

Basik Acai

Kona Brewing Company

Java on The Rock

Mi’s Italian Bistro

Rays on The Bay

Lava Lava Beach Club



Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park

Natural Energy Lab/NELHA

Mauna Loa Weather Observatory/NOAA

Greenwell FarmsKona Coffee Living History Farm

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Volcano Winery

Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden

Laupahoehoe Point Beach State Park



Waikoloa Kings & Beach Courses

Mauna Lani North & South Courses

Hapuna Golf Club

Mauna Kea Golf Club

Ship Sticks

Neil Wolkodoff, PhD, is a Sport Scientist in Denver, Colorado who has worked with golfers over the last 15 years. During the rare free times, he travels to exotic golf destinations to see how golf, culture and local geography mix in different locales. He has penned articles for Colorado Avid Golfer, Golf Digest and Golf Magazine. In his travels, he has golfed with royalty, tour professionals, the local duffer, and the occasional goat.
Neil Wolkodoff, PhD, is a Sport Scientist in Denver, Colorado who has worked with golfers over the last 15 years. During the rare free times, he travels to exotic golf destinations to see how golf, culture and local geography mix in different locales. He has penned articles for Colorado Avid Golfer, Golf Digest and Golf Magazine. In his travels, he has golfed with royalty, tour professionals, the local duffer, and the occasional goat.
Mauna lani Bay Hotel
Mauna lani Bay Hotel


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