Hawaii Massive: The Big Island
By Neil Wolkodoff
The Big Island is over 4,000 square miles built on an active volcano, which, when measured from the seafloor to the summit, is over 33,496 feet tall.
This is not Maui, so don’t think it’s all about heading the resort, toes in the sand, and maybe one night at a local restaurant. This is surf and beach a go-go. The best blend for those who come back regularly is some exploration with some relaxation.
Question one is what did Covid do to the local options? It is hard to determine where they will go in the future, yet the residents are pushing hard to get back all the options you might experience. With the shutdown, some workers just left Hawaii, never to return. That shows in businesses that were somewhat on the teeter anyways and relied on the visitor overflow to make the ends join. Those considered at the top of a category for the stalwarts are going upward because visitors are pushing for places with great reputations.
The places coming back are in ramp-up mode, so adjusting expectations for 2021 and beyond is prudent. Difficult to staff a hotel when you don’t know week to week the guest number trends and how they affect services, even like beach towels. Like the lava, just go with the flow.
The backend of the trip, in terms of your return, should be the first consideration. Someone could spend 33 days here and not do everything recommended. Over 20 years and numerous trips, my personal experience is to balance relaxation with activity.
First, it is likely warmer than where you came from, which knocks down the activity speedometer a bit. Second, it’s a tropical environment, so another rpm reduction. Crossing at least three time zones, the biorhythm clock will be in the travel twilight zone for a couple of days minimum. And then there are all those exciting foods you don’t usually eat and activities that aren’t in your weekly mix, like snorkeling. Nothing major in itself yet put it together and err in the direction of not too much.
With a couple of minor in-town exceptions, there is no public transportation system. The choice is to get shuttled to a resort you don’t have to leave or get a rental car. Distances from one end of the island to the opposite don’t seem that far until you understand you have to drive up and down or even around a large volcano during a day trip.
Bedding and then spring-boarding have two significant locations, each with a different flair. Kona-Kailua is right on one of the bays and is a dining and shopping hub for locals and visitors alike. The plus is once you get into the little town, walking from one end to the other is packed with shopping and restaurants. Conventional lodging options don’t abound, yet if your preference is some type of vacation rental or time trade, plenty within the vicinity and just a little south.
Waikoloa is another hub about 35 minutes north of Kona along the shoreline. This area was built for visitors, so expect numerous vacation time properties, hotels/resorts, and even golf. The plus here is no matter where you settle, there are two little shopping areas complete with a bevy of dining options, so variety gets a checkmark.
This area is part of the famed Kohala or Gold Coast. One of the more exclusive luxury properties is the Fairmont Orchid. Stay and dine in style, and know there is enough to keep you occupied and happy on the resort grounds without leaving. One of the better Luau’s on the island happens every Saturday night with a seaside view. Brown’s Beach House puts together elegant food Sympatico with an aloha touch for all three meals.
The Fairmont Orchid has a much better spa and fitness center than usual, but the star of the coastal show is the water options. Start with a 10,000 square foot pool with family and adult sections plus a relaxation tub under a waterfall. Then, two beaches and a more complete water experience go for the Fun & Sun option at the private lagoon that has covered beach stations, snorkeling, surfing, and even canoe and paddle lessons.
While there are nooks of exciting things all over the Island, exploration is best with picking a region, then plotting options in that region. The big draw is the volcano. It can be viewed from air, sea, or land. The plus of a helicopter tour is you see how big the island really is, and if by boat you get relatively close to where the lava meets the sea. In both cases, the more lava that is flowing, the better the viewing. So far, 2021 was had limited lava flows for viewing.
Your own land-based tour through Volcanoes National Park enables you to tune your experience with the amount of viewing, hiking, and learning you want to combine. This gets the vote because there is massive history about the geology here, and this is really the only way to see it up close and personal. Given the numerous lava flows and eruptions, viewing and hiking through each is a full-tilt, lava-cational experience.
Wherever you stay, Volcanoes National Park is really a whole day trip, possibly two. From Kona or Waikoloa, plan on almost 120 minutes to get there and a little more getting back when it is dark. Make it a little more relaxed by staying overnight at the Volcano House Hotel, right in the national park. Go fretless because while the volcano can erupt any time, there are sensors over the park and even around the island which indicate seismic action. The park simply shuts down totally or in sections based upon their lava-threat information.
Add some local flavor by stopping in Hilo town on the way for their Saturday Farmer’s market with unique local fruits and vegetables. Breakfast is a farm-to-plate experience at Pele’s Kitchen, just outside of Hilo. If something sweeter is calling, the Big Island Candy company takes chocolate produced in Hawaii. It mixes up some confections not found anywhere else.
If you circle around the island on the way back and go through Waimea, a funky gourmet dinner awaits at the Red Water Cafe. Chef David Abrahams might be the one person on the island who could beat Bobby Flay. He grows his own cacao, processes it into chocolate, has a vegetable farm, and is even a sushi master. Some places have more press, yet his food is tasty fun, i.e., the massive Berkshire Pork Chop with local vegetables.
After hitting the lava trail, the next type of Big Island exploration should be beaches, with the best being state parks. New for 2021 is most state parks now charge non-residents parking fees. Best to check with the official website on parking and other fees. Some beaches, with parking at a resort or other business, have limited parking for beach access. Once it fills, out of parking luck.
Be warned, residents go en masse to the beach starting Friday afternoon through Sunday, so Monday through Thursday will be visitor-optimal. Magic Sands beach just south of Kona-Kailua is a starter wave emporium to get your first taste of Big Island surf. But, if you want the Kohala experience, then Puako or Hapuna are consistently given accolades as two of the best in Hawaii.
Akaka Falls state park is a great visit and charges entry fees per person. While not a state park, the Tropical Botanical Garden in Hilo will immerse you in an array of tropical plants and towering trees enough to challenge any dinosaur movie.
While you can snorkel at any beach or state park, the surf and waves may not be optimal that day. Option one is just participate as wave action permits or take a trip on a snorkel tour boat. If you are in Kona, then Sea Quest has excursions on the south end of the Kona district. Waikoloa has a good option with Hawaii Ocean Sports. These boats provide three-to-five-hour trips and you are going to anchor at a spot, snorkel, and move on to the next. A good mix of boat ride and water adventure, and if that is all the snorkeling you are going to do, they provide gear for the day trip.
The university-based telescope on Mauna Kea has excellent views but off-limits to all except professional astronomers. An option that is close, easy to get to, and provides stunning visuals is Star Gaze Hawaii at the Westin Resort. Here a professional astronomer brings out some giant telescopes and gets great clarity because of the lack of background city lights.
Agriculture is ramping up on the Big Island. See the expansion by taking the coffee farm tour at the Kona Coffee & Tea operation, just 15 minutes from downtown Kona. Get a farm-to-cup experience, where you get to see the entire process of the coffee bean. KCT is a single-estate coffee company, so all their 100% award-winning Kona coffee is grown on their farm. Like other farms, KCT is exploring agricultural diversification with cocoa, macadamia nuts, avocado, bananas, and over 22 different varieties of exotic fruit. Malia Bolton, the owner, is considered the undisputed queen of Kona coffee.
Deep-sea fishing is a prime activity as the water off the island gets deep quickly, attracting big game fish. Topshape Sport Fishing has the best record of big catches combined with small group and private options. Captain Al, the skipper, has seen it all and has been reputed to have gone a few rounds with Moby Dick.
Golf is predominantly in the Kona and Waikoloa areas. If you are there long enough, probably a week or more, it is worth having the clubs. Makalei is mountain golf with constant elevation changes, while Makani boasts highland plateau golf with lush vegetation. In the Waikoloa area, the Waikoloa Kings and Beach courses offer resort golf meandering through lava and residences. Mauna Kea, built in 1964, has some stunning ocean holes combined with par three over a sea cliff. If ultimate golf manicuring is attractive, the Hualalai Golf Club close to Kona has impeccable conditions and just went through an extensive upgrade in 2020.
There is no shortage of exciting sustenance options on the Big Island. And some of the smaller eateries have amazing chefs who get really, really creative with their combo of local produce with a Hawaiian twist of tropical flavor and character.
In Kona, if you want a unique baked item with your coffee in your residence, reserve your baked order with Sun Dog Bread. Upon the hill about 17 minutes from downtown, you pre-order everything from cranberry mac-nut sourdough to lilikoi sticky buns and then pick up at their stand two afternoons per week. A seaside view for breakfast is Island Lava Java right on the bay. Sit-down local coffee and light fare is the starter ticket at Kona Coffee & Tea.
Towards Waikoloa, there is also a smaller Island Lava Java up the hill in Waikoloa Village, which gives a unique take on mac-nut pancakes and the Hawaiian breakfast sandwich. Halfway between Kona and Waikoloa is the Four Seasons Hualalai where the Ulu Ocean Grill serves an extravagant and elegant breakfast seaside.
Lunch and dinner get some island twists with the Kona Brewing Company, which started the local beer and pizza movement. Up the hill close to the artist district is Rebel Kitchen, where seemingly simple fare gets a big kick from their homemade ketchup and hot sauce. Island Lava Java has an incredible happy hour with combos like hummus and plantain chips, with the ribs with pineapple slaw as the dinner star. Relatively new to the brew scene but making ample suds is Ola Brew, which crafts everything from IPAs to hard seltzers, home of the unique orange-vanilla cider, and pairs it with veggie avocado tacos. Surfs up at Magics Beach Grill, where every table is virtually seaside. The fare is comfortably creative with dishes like the beet poke’ and grilled ahi with local vegetables.
While it is a restaurant group, Tommy Bahama in Waikoloa has one of the best open-air bars combined with mac-nut crusted fish specials. Up your spirits with the Kuleana Rum Works, where their award-winning rums pair with the grilled duck with island spuds. Meridia at the Westin gives a Mediterranean and Hawaiian twist to exciting dishes such as the Spanish octopus appetizer. Finally, dine under the tiki torches with crashing surf at the Fairmont’s Brown’s Beach house, where the surf and turf is a great combination, along with a completely vegetarian menu.
Yes, it is one big island.
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Neil Wolkodoff, PhD, is a Sports 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.