Things to do
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Learn about coffee production at Greenwell Farms
Some of North America’s best coffee comes from Kona, and Kona’s biggest grower is Greenwell Farms. Not only does it ship coffee around the world but it also offers tours of the property the company has been farming since the 1800s. You’ll see the entire process, from the tree to the roaster. The free tour ends with samples of half a dozen different blends.
Try stand-up paddle boarding
The fastest-growing water sport in the world is stand-up paddle boarding – a cross between kayaking and surfing. A fun way to explore the bay, it’s also a great full-body workout. But it’s harder than it looks. So, you might want to take a lesson in addition to renting a board.
The water is calmest in the morning and it’s not uncommon to see dolphins playing around in the waves. A rental at Kona Boys costs US$25 for an hour and group lessons (board included) cost about US$75.
Bite into something fresh at Kona Farmers’ Market
Most farmers markets have an “eat your veggies” kind of atmosphere. But not this one. Open Wednesday through Sunday, the market on Ali’i Drive is more like an exotic bazaar than a produce aisle. There are fresh fruits of every possible description and a huge selection of flowers picked just that morning.
But the best stuff isn’t fresh. Why not pick up a handmade ukulele or a jar of passion fruit ginger honey to bring home? With more than 40 vendors, this festive year-round carnival has something for everyone.
Stroll on sand in a rainbow of colours
There is such a wide variety of beaches here that you’ll want to keep a towel in your car at all times. Hapuna Beach is legendary for its long length and soft, white sands. Punaluu boasts black sands and Hawaiian green sea turtles. And, just to keep it interesting, Papakolea’s beach is green. Try them all and experience their unique differences. The tough part will be deciding which is your favourite.
Catch something big in the sport-fishing capital of the world
If sunbathing is too tame, set yourself up on a deep-sea fishing excursion. Just 10 minutes offshore, the sea bottom drops down to 1,800 metres – and that’s where the big fish like to hang out. Mahi mahi, tuna and swordfish are all here in abundance, but the real big game is the mighty blue marlin. In fact, the second-largest marlin ever caught, weighing in at a massive 528 kilograms, was reeled in just off Kona’s shores in 1984.
Visit an ancient site at Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park
Despite their idyllic surroundings, the ancient Hawaiians had some tough laws. However, if an accused could reach a Place of Refuge and perform a ritual, all would be forgiven. This particular Place of Refuge is now a national park with an audio walking tour explaining these (and other) ancient traditions. With its calm beach, coconut trees and ancient stone temples, it’s one of the most peaceful spots on the island. Admission is only US$5.
Swim with manta rays
The Big Island is home to a large population of manta rays, many up to three metres across. They show up at night just in front of the Sheraton, where the floodlights attract plankton. You can see them from the balcony or, for a real thrill, head into the water and watch them slide by harmlessly.
Mantas don’t sting and they look like no other animal you’ve ever seen. In the darkness, snorkelling or scuba diving with these majestic creatures is utterly magical. Trips run from US$75 (for snorkelling) to US$150 for scuba.
Take a dip in the Kapoho tide pools
Swim, snorkel and explore hundreds of tide pools, stretching three kilometres down the coast and 200 metres out to sea. When ancient lava cooled, it left lots of little pools on the border between sea and land. These warm, shallow rings are protected from the surf and the perfect habitat for a huge variety of fish.
The crystal waters also offer incredible snorkelling, but be sure to rent gear beforehand since there are no facilities here. A few of the pools offer the added perk of being volcanically heated.
Alii Kona Drive and Dan DeLuz Woods
While the Big Island has its share of high-end couture and well-stocked mini-malls, the most unique finds are from local artisans. The locals take their Hawaiian handicrafts seriously and keeping customs alive is crucial. Start with Ali’i Drive in Kona, a gathering point for more than 100 individual artisans. Hula gear, feathered hatbands and original photography of active lava flows are just some of the treasures on offer.
One great local artisan can be found at his shop, named Dan DeLuz Woods. Using dozens of different kinds of wood, including Koa (found only in Hawaii), he makes beautiful bowls, tiki figurines and even furniture. There’s something for every price range here, from bookmarks to beds.
Kona Joe’s Coffee Farm
While most fruits can’t be transported back to mainland, that doesn’t mean you can’t re-live the Hawaiian experience long after you return. Nothing starts without coffee here, so make Kona Joe’s your first stop. Try different blends and sample the unique “coffee rub,” an unusual spice blend, perfect for seasoning the meat at your next cookout.
For breakfast, stock up on Honomu Jams and Jellies, handmade by a small family-owned operation located on an old sugar plantation. You can go tropically simple (try the guava or star fruit preserves) or sample one of the exotic blends like the Tahitian lime ginger. If you like your morning with a little zing, you’ll want to grab a jar of the passion fruit Hawaiian pepper jelly.
Kamakua Nut Company
In Hawaii, a Big Mac isn’t a hamburger – it’s the mighty macadamia nut that grows so well in this hot, moist environment. The Hamakua Nut Company offers factory tours as well as samples of seven different kinds of flavoured nuts. (One of the flavours is Spam, a true Hawaiian specialty. But don’t feel bad if you choose to stick with honey mustard or other more conventional flavours.)
Big Island Candies
Big Island Candies is legendary for its ability to get people to cheat on their New Year’s resolutions. Their chocolate-covered macadamia nuts are sinfully perfect, but the real stars here are the various shortbreads, especially the chocolate-dipped ones. And if all that isn’t enough, Big Island Candies also offers a full line of unusual Asian-inspired confections with crisp rice, mochi and other unique flavours.
Huggo’s (Eclectic, $$)
This restaurant has the freshest local fish and the best ocean views. Can you really ask for anything more? Huggo’s is literally located right over the water and the food more than lives up to the view. This spot puts a unique Hawaiian twist on classics. Try the guava-braised baby back ribs and the tempura Maui onions and Ho’io fern shoots.
Next door is Huggo’s on the Rocks, a more casual bar where you can hold a drink in your hand and put your toes in the sand.
Island Lava Java (Bakery, $)
Don’t let the name fool you – this place has much more than just coffee. Come for the Kona caffeine fix and stay for the locally sourced organic meats and produce. Offering full breakfast, lunch and dinner menus, this is the place to go for a quick and delicious meal.
Try the seared ahi poke wrap – it’s incredible. And whatever you do, don’t miss the bakery. The cinnamon rolls here are huge – so bring along someone to share this treat.
Rapanui Island Cafe (Fusion, $$)
The range of flavours at this casual cafe will keep you guessing. Is this food from Hawaii? Malaysia? New Zealand? Indonesia? The paw-paw chicken is required eating and you can’t go wrong with any of the curry or lemongrass dishes. For lunch, a lamb burger washed down with the lemongrass ginger iced tea is the thing to order.
Located at the back of a nondescript mall, this place is as hard to find as it is to categorize. Don’t worry, though. Just ask the locals and they’ll immediately point you in the right direction.
Village Burger (Barbecue/Grill, $)
Not all burgers are created equal. Fortunately, Village Burger has perfected the burger and taken it to a whole new level. Get the Wagyu beef and then undertake the difficult job of selecting toppings – from miso mayo and tomato marmalade to Ahualoa chipotle goat cheese.
Vegetarians will walk away just as happy as carnivores here. The all-mushroom burger is earthy and rich, and the taro burger with garden veggies is utterly unique. The giant-sized Epic Shakes on the menu are also a good bet. They’re called epic for a reason.
Tex Drive-in (American, $)
A legendary local hangout, Tex’s offers traditional island “plate lunches” with Kalua pork and cabbage or teriyaki beef. But the real reason to stop here is for the malasadas: hole-less Portuguese donuts guaranteed to ruin your diet. They come filled with chocolate, Bavarian cream, mango, guava or a half-dozen other sinful centres.
Since this roadside favourite is a little off the beaten track, you’re going to want to buy a dozen malasadas for the return drive as well.
Kiawe Kitchen (Mediterranean, $$$)
Located just outside the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, this is the perfect place to have dinner as you wait for the sun to set and the lava to start glowing. Although the fish here is good, it’s a little less Hawaiian-feeling than other restaurants on the island. The brick-oven thin-crust margherita pizza offers big-city quality and the martinis are generous.
Lunch is good here as well. The roasted pork sandwich with homemade barbecue sauce is the perfect fuel for a long day of volcano hiking. Pizza and baked goods to go are also a great mid-day solution for a part of the island with fewer restaurants.
Cafe Pesto (Italian, $$$)
What began as a small pizzeria has become the island’s best Italian restaurant. In fact, Cafe Pesto offers the island’s two best Italian restaurants (they have locations on both the north and the east coasts). The pizzas and calzones should not be missed and the addition of what’s called “creative island cuisine,” which adds tropical flair to the Mediterranean basics.
The coconut calamari always gets high marks, as does the Hibachi-style chicken risotto. The desserts are all good, but the hot Keanakolu apple crisp with macadamia topping is the kind of life-changing treat people travel to the Big Island for.
Golf and spa
Mauna Lani Spa (The Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows) ($$$$)
The Mauna Lani Spa pulls off the near-impossible, creating sheer luxury without losing the rugged spirit of this frontier island. Mixing the perfect combination of privacy and open air, many of the treatments take place in traditional thatched-roof huts.
In addition to a salt-water pool built inside an ancient lava tube, there is also an open-air sauna where the volcanic rocks provide the heat. All manner of traditional Hawaiian massage, facials and body treatments are also available.
When your day is complete, you’ll feel as though you’ve explored the entire wild island wearing nothing but your bathrobe.
Maluhia Spa (Hawaii Island Retreat) ($$-$$$)
Hawaii isn’t all sandy beaches and palm trees, and your spa experience doesn’t have to be either. Set in the middle of 20 hectares of evergreen forest, this Big Island eco-boutique offers a spa experience like no other. The spa pavilion overlooks a lush valley and individual bungalows are scattered among the pines. What better place to experience the ancient Hawaiian art of la‘au lapa‘au or plant-based healing?
This is a total body experience, so in addition to the standard high-quality spa menu, you can also request private yoga, meditation, hula, and chi gung wellness classes. If you’re going to make a day of it, you’ll find yourself treated to organic fruits and veggies, homegrown right on the property and prepared by a talented Moroccan chef. The whole experience will leave you feeling utterly serene.
Hualalai Golf Course (Four Seasons Hualalai Resort)
The first Jack Nicklaus-designed course in Hawaii, Hualalai Golf Course hosts the annual Champions Tour’s Mitsubishi Electric Championship in January.
Hualalai is a classic showcase of everything that is golf in Hawaii: islands of green amid a black expanse of lava, ringed by the snow-white spray of a sapphire ocean. The 7,117-yard Nicklaus course carries a slope of 131 and a rating of 74. It ranked 33rd on Golfweek’s 2011 list of Best Tour Courses You Can Play.
Guests of the resort can also arrange for complimentary short-game and junior clinics, family lessons, mini golf, night outings under the stars for a glow-in-the-dark scramble event and even a mini pro-am during Ultimate Hawaiian Night.
There’s also a full-service pro shop, practice facility and restaurant on site. Access is limited to Four Seasons guests only; green fees are around US$250 at peak season, including cart.
Mauna Lani Resort Golf (The Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows)
Homer Flint and Raymond Cain built the original 18-hole course at the famous Mauna Lani Bay Resort in 1981. Today, there are 36 holes to play at Mauna Lani, plus a delightful nine-holes for the kids on the Keiki course.
The South course makes its way along the back of the craggy, foreboding Kaniku lava flow. Next door, the mesquite-dotted North course, home to several herds of feral goats, makes the most of natural lava formations. A common feature of many Hawaiian courses, the North’s sense of drama peaks at the par 3 17th – yet another postcard-perfect meeting of sea and frozen flow of formerly molten rock.
As of May 2011, green fees were US$265, but kids 18 and younger can play the Keiki course for US$25. A full range of lessons, from a half-hour to a two-hour video session, is available at the Mauna Lani Golf Academy.
Explore underwater beauty on a scenic cruise (age 3 and up)
The visual stimuli aboard the Fair Wind II, the 18-metre catamaran that sails the blue waters between Kona and Kealakekua Bay to the south, inspires curiosity in kids of all ages. Toddlers will ask about the different explorers while exotic fish names roll off the tongues of preteens.
The highlight of this five-hour tour is the 2.5 hours of snorkelling in the shadow of the bay’s 30-metre-high lava cliffs, where Captain Cook landed for the second time in Hawaii. But the real treasure is in the water. This is the Big Island’s only underwater state park, teeming with sparkling marine life like the oval butterfly fish, crimson octopi and languid sea turtles. Prices are US$125 for adults, US$75 for children age four to 12 and US$29 for children three and under.
See the beauty of the Big Island by helicopter (age 8 and up)
If there’s one place that justifies a helicopter tour, it’s Hawaii. And, if there’s one Hawaiian island with the best bang for your helicopter buck, it’s the Big Island. There is no other place on earth this small and yet so diverse.
The almost-three-hour volcano and valley trip is the best geography lesson you can take. The six-passenger Bell 407 will swoop through furry-green valleys on the island’s remote north side (including a stop for a hike to stretch your legs), right up to 610-metre waterfalls and their rainbows. Then you’ll head southeast through the mountainous interior, over ancient lava flows and lush cloud forest to the star of the show: the Kilauea volcano’s neon orange lava flow. Trips start from US$400.
Take a night swim with manta rays (age 5 and up)
If it wasn’t for the need to resurface for air every 20 seconds or so, night-diving with large (but friendly) mantas off the rocky outcrop by the Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort & Spa would be just like a floating dream.
The trip into this invisible world starts at sunset aboard a dive boat. You’ll soon find yourself lying on the surface of the black Pacific, staring down at a diver whose lights attract the plankton, who in turn attract the three-metre-wide mantas.
Their electro-reception tells them exactly what’s in the way, which means they swim at you, only to pivot and turn at the last second. These flying grey giants, the stillness of an ocean at night and the lights of the staff divers make this a favourite activity for locals like pro surfer Kelly Slater and visitors. Guided trips cost around US$99.
Experience ancient, mystic Hawaiian culture (all ages)
Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park is a place frozen in time. The reconstructed 16th-century Hawaiian temples here (called heiaus) are some of the best preserved in the state and dominate the heavenly, 129-acre seaside grounds.
Hawaiian royalty built palaces in places with mana, or spiritual power. The magic of this place hits you as soon as the warm breeze rustles the coconut palm groves, or a glistening sea turtle emerges out of the calm bay to sun itself on the white sand. Admission to Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park is US$5 per car.
Kahilu Theatre (Music venue, $$$)
This high-culture theatre on the Big Island is fittingly located in the island’s high-altitude interior. With seating for 500, this venue can be both a rocking amphitheatre and an intimate stage show. The Kahilu hosts everything from plays and films to ballets.
The Kahilu never forgets where it’s located and traditional Hawaiian culture is a big part of the seasonal set list. Slack-key guitarists, ukulele masters and expert hula dance troupes can all be found performing here. Check the schedule online before you travel so you can reserve your seat at the show in advance.
Don’s Mai Tai Bar (Beach bar, $$)
Every destination has a signature drink. In Hawaii, it’s the rum-based mai tai. But for this drink to really taste right, a perfect view of the ocean is at least as important as top-shelf liquor. Fortunately, Don’s has both, located so close to the Kona coastline, you can taste the salt spray.
And these mai tais don’t need any help in the deliciousness department. There are more than a dozen different specialty mai tais available. Your best bet is to get the mix-and-match sampler so you can decide for yourself which one to choose for round two. (Hint: Coconut goes great with everything and mai tais are no exception.)
Lulu’s (Dance club, $)
While the Big Island doesn’t have the same thriving dance scene as some of the more developed islands, locals and visitors still need a place to cut loose. And that place is Lulu’s – an upstairs bar/restaurant serving decent food alongside hot DJs and a great weeknight karaoke scene.
Live music is also popular here and can run the gamut from R&B to rock and roll. The club is open late and the dance floor stays packed until the very end.
Kahua Ranch (Attraction, $$$)
If you’ve never thought of a working cattle ranch as an evening entertainment option, you’ve never been to Big Island. The Kahua Ranch spans 3,460 acres of prime cow-, sheep- and horse-grazing country. For about US$140, the ranch staff pick you up at your hotel and take you on a guided tour of cowboy country.
Once on the ranch, you’ll be treated to a classic western cookout with all the fixings. And as the sun goes down, it’s time to pitch a few horseshoes or try your hand at tossing a lasso. Once it’s dark, you can gaze through the ranch’s Celestron telescope and see why astronomers from around the world flock to Big Island’s cowboy country.
Head for the hills at Mauna Kea
Although Kilauea is the volcano responsible for most of the hot lava around the island, Mauna Kea is actually quite a bit taller. So tall, it pokes through the clouds, making it a haven for astronomers. And you can drive all the way to the summit at 4,205 metres above sea level, where the air is thin and the views are amazing.
The experienced naturalists and guides with Hawaii Forest & Trail offer a trip that comes complete with dinner, hot cocoa and hooded parkas. You get a completely different perspective on the tropics when you head for the hills.
Get a little bit country
Trade in your sandals and surfboards for saddles and spurs when you head inland to Waimea, the heart of Hawaii’s paniolo (cowboy) country. This is a land of rolling hills and cactus. It feels about a million miles away from the beach. You can get a pretty good idea of how delicious the Hawaiian-raised beef is just by looking at the lush grass and blue skies.
Your day trip options for the most western fringe of the Wild West include hiking, horseback riding or heading off-road in an open Jeep. Come discover the land where giddy-up meets aloha.
Take a wa’a ride
Nobody knows exactly when early humans made first landfall on Hawaii, but there’s one thing that’s virtually certain: they came by canoe. Traditional canoe or wa’a culture is still alive and well here. Paddling into the open ocean provides a unique perspective on what traditional Hawaiian life might have been like.
Hire a guide at Kamakahonu Bay and head out on the water. In addition to giving paddling instruction, your guide will give you the natural and human history of the area. Keep in mind Tahiti (where early Hawaiians came from) is 75 days away by canoe – so paddle hard.
Head down the middle on Saddle Road
There is a road that traces a ring around the outside of the Big Island but visitors can take the scenic route down the road that cuts right between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. Known as the Saddle Road, this 86-km route was originally built for military traffic. Today, it’s simply the best road for anyone who wants to explore the interior.
The road climbs to more than 2,000 metres, often leading you deep into mist. But when the fog lifts, you’ll be treated to stunning views of volcanoes, rain forest and the meandering property of the Parker Ranch. There’s not much in the way of towns or development here, so pack a lunch and plan to spend the day exploring.
Find a favourite waterfall
The eastern side of the island is one of the wettest places in the US, which also means it has some of the best waterfalls. At 400 metres, Hiilawe Falls is the highest waterfall and is typically viewed from afar. Getting close to these falls is quite difficult, and require a steep hike in and out of the valley.
Akaka Falls is “just” 129 metres tall, but no less impressive as it plunges over the edge of a lush green cliff. And Rainbow Falls (25 metres tall and just as wide) flows directly over a lava tube, often rewarding early morning visitors with dramatic rainbows in the mist.
Take to the High Seas
Sometimes, the best way to see an island is to leave it behind. The Big Island has world-class diving, snorkelling and deep-sea fishing just minutes from shore. You can even charter a boat for a half-day tour that includes snorkel gear, drinks and a sunset barbecue. The waters are generally calm, clear and warm – perfect for beginner snorkellers. Your best bet is a cruise to Kealakekua Bay, an underwater state park and marine sanctuary.
On the Big Island, there’s one local feature that rises above the rest – and it happens to spit out chunks of molten lava like they were watermelon seeds. There are precious few places on earth where volcano tourism is a legitimate activity, so make the most of it here.
Head to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
The ideal way to get to know all things volcanic is to take a trip to the park-run Jaggar Museum, located right on the rim of the Kilauea crater. The rangers here can answer all of your questions.
A former seismology station, the museum is packed with actual equipment used to monitor the volcano’s ongoing eruption. But the highlight (and we do mean “light”) is just outside the museum, where you overlook the lava-filled caldera and the main crater known as Halemaumau. Plan to be there at night when the glowing lava looks even more dramatic.
Watch flowing lava
It’s difficult to say where you’ll find the best lava flow. Lava is just about as unpredictable as any living thing could be. Sometimes, it’s possible to see lava flowing without getting out of your car. Other times, you need to hike over kilometres of hardscrabble rock. It all depends on where the lava is flowing that day, month or decade.
Whatever it takes to see lava, do it. But remember, 1,250 C magma can seriously burn you and the smoke plumes can be toxic. So be sure you know how to view lava safely in advance. The National Park maintains a hotline with lava-flow information. You can also hire a guide to take you to the best viewing spots. Lava is captivating even on television, but watching molten earth steam and pop as it flows into the ocean is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
If hiking isn’t your style, it’s still possible to see lava. Several companies offer sunset boat cruises when the lava is flowing into the ocean. And, if you really want to increase the thrill factor, you can take a helicopter flight over the caldera. Prices for this excursion start at around US$200.
So, will you see lava? Maybe, maybe not. When the earth is literally melting around you, you need to hope for the best and go with the flow (no pun intended). Isn’t that really what travel is all about?
Go where the lava isn’t
Almost as impressive as lava itself are the reminders of what it can do. As the eruptions move from place to place, they leave a fascinating path of destruction in their wake. And while many tourists gather around the burning red stuff, a trip backwards in geological time can be just as rewarding.
Start with the aptly named Devastation Trail, where flying cinders destroyed an entire forest in 1959. It is said that during the eruption, fire plumes shot up 580 metres – more than enough to change a forest into a rocky crater. Although some vegetation is starting to grow back, the weird pumice landscape is still otherworldly enough to send chills up your spine.
In other spots around the island, you’ll be able to see tree moulds – eerie pits in the ground that look like they were created by a monster with a post hole digger.
Similarly enchanting are the many lava tubes found around the island. The best of these is the Thurston Lava Tube. A short walk through dense forest reveals a wide opening that seemingly leads to the centre of the earth. The park service keeps this main tube well-maintained, so if you want to explore further, grab your flashlight and go!
Calendar of events
Culinary Festivals (Year-round)
Sometimes it seems Big Islanders spend as much time celebrating food as they do eating it. Food festivals abound, so it’s easy to find one that’s perfect for your tastes.
Mealani’s Taste of the Hawaiian Range Agriculture Festival (September) features over 30 of the state’s top chefs cooking up homegrown beef, lamb and boar. The Kona Coffee Cultural Festival (November) celebrates the island’s coffee pioneers. And the Don the Beachcomber Mai Tai Festival (August) at the Royal Kona Resort offers a US$10,000 prize for the best drink concoction.
Ironman Triathlon (October)
Every October, the Big Island hosts 2,000 of the world’s fittest men and women for the Ironman Triathlon. Even if you’re not feeling up to the 3.9-km swim, 180-km bike ride and marathon, Ironman Week is still a great time to be on the Big Island. Race fever grips the Kona coast and it’s great fun watching these super athletes race past.
Merrie Monarch Festival (April)
Named in honour of former art and culture lover King Kalakaua, this is Hawaii’s premier cultural festival. Hula dancers come from around the world to showcase their skills in this three-day-long competition. The festivities continue for an entire week, featuring traditional art, song and handicrafts. If you have an interest in ancient Hawaiian culture, don’t miss this festival.
Turtle Independence Day (July 4)
Honu (green sea turtles) are rare and revered animals on Hawaii. Once near extinction, the population is slowly making a comeback, in large part due to the efforts of the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel.
For more than 20 years, staff biologists have raised tiny turtles in salt water ponds on the hotel grounds. And every year, a giant festival is held to release healthy turtles back into the ocean. The big day features a barbecue, live music and educational programs to teach kids and adults about these amazing sea creatures.