Call Me Big Island
When I tell people that I live on the island of Hawaii, they usually assume I am referring to O'ahu. They generally make the same assumption if I refer to my home as "The Big Island". This is a logical mistake in that most people would imagine that Honolulu, Waikiki, Pearl Harbor and all the rest of what O'ahu is famous for would be on the biggest island. It's not. In fact all the other islands (Kaua'i, O'ahu, Ni'ihau, Lanai, Moloka'i and Maui) would fit on Hawaii twice with room to spare.
Adding to the confusion is the many names we have for our island. Some call it the "Orchid Isle", due to the 100,000 plus species of orchids grown here. Sometimes we are referred to as the "Volcano Island", which is also pretty reasonable since we are sitting on an active and often very spectacular volcano. "Big Island", however, is the name most people who live in the state call this magical place, and we like that the best. I suppose I should mention that the official name is Hawaii Island, but you rarely hear this.
Where Am I?
If you've only spent time on some of the smaller islands, you will notice that Big Island got it's name for a good reason. Covering 4,038 square miles (63% of the entire state's land mass) and containing 11 of the Earth's 13 climate zones, it stretches approximately 95 miles from north to south and 80 miles east to west. And with 266 miles of amazing coastline, it's necessary to plan where you want to go and how you're going to get there. It is possible to drive around the island in one day, but you will be tired and probably hurrying too much to really enjoy all the sites. Click the map for the regions of the Big Island. Click here for a detailed map showing towns.
You will enter Big Island either in Kailua-Kona on the west side or Hilo (pronounced HEE-lo, not High-Low) on the east coast, so we'll start with Kona. Kona, which is divided into north and south districts, is known for it's sunny, dry climate, hence its nickname "The Gold Coast". This is the home of the International Billfish Tournament as well as our legendary Kona coffee and the only USA coffee plantations.
When you land at the airport at Keahole (pronounced Kay-ah-HO-lay), about 10 minutes north of Kailua, you are likely to assume that all the stories you've heard about beautiful, lush Hawaii were just travel agent tricks designed to trap you on an ugly, desolate rock miles from home. Don't worry, we just like to build our airports in the middle of old lava fields. It will get better. Much better.
A drive north of the airport will take you further into north Kona, home of the finest (and most expensive) resorts on the island. The Hualalai Four Seasons, the Mauna Lani, Kona Village and further north the Hilton Waikoloa Village all dot the coastline here. Though still rugged and somewhat barren in this region, the hotels have made their own little oases. This is also the area in which our best sand beaches begin (see Beach Guide).
If you head south from the airport you will soon come to the main town on our west side, Kailua-Kona. By the way, don't worry about getting lost. There's only one major highway. Anyway, Kailua is the shopping and general activity center for this side of the island. Ali'i Drive (pronounced Ah-LEE-ee), the main street through town will take you to quaint old shopping villages as well as a few dozen restaurants (check our restaurant guide). At the north end of Ali'i you will find the Kailua Pier, the starting line for the Ironman Triathlon.
Some places to visit in Kailua proper must include the Hulihe'e Palace and the Mokuaikaua Church. The palace was a summer escape for the royal family, built in 1838 by our first governor, John Kuakini. Not palatial on the outside with its country manor style, the inside holds some very precious treasure. If you are a person who appreciates fine woodworking, the furniture in the palace is not to be missed. There are also delightful personal effects on display. Operated by the Daughters of Hawaii as a museum, there is usually someone on hand to answer your questions.
Across the street from the palace is the Mokuaikaua Church, erected in 1838 as well. Built of lava rock, ohia and koa woods, it is said that this is the oldest Christian church in Hawaii. Elegant and beautiful in its simplicity of design, hush falls on you when you enter its cool, dark sanctuary. It's name actually translates, The trees are felled, now let us eat, an example of the insightful, creative and uniquely Hawaiian way of expressing a much deeper thought in what seems to be a very practical and almost nonchalant manner.
If you follow Ali'i to its conclusion at Keauhou Shopping Center you will pass by several of the best beaches in the immediate area, many of which are popular surf spots. Tiny (and I mean tiny) St. Peter's "Little Blue Church", built in 1889 is along the way. Almost at the end of Ali'i Drive you will come to Kahalu'u Beach Park, a popular tourist beach and good beginner's' snorkeling spot, known for its friendly honu (sea turtles). For your convenience, a trolley service runs through Kailua to nearby Keauhou (Kay-ow-HO), but we recommend you rent a car to really get around the island.
Continuing further towards South Kona you enter the Real Old Hawaii, consisting of a string of tiny villages and small coffee farms. You will notice the air becoming cooler and the foliage lusher, as you're going up the mountain (or mauka, as we say here). Here and there you will also see remnants of old cattle pens and chutes left over from the paniolo (Hawaiian cowboys) days. You will pass through Honalo, Kainaliu and Kealakekua (famous for the little grass shack of song) in quick succession. There are interesting shops and places to stop throughout this area. Leaving Kealakekua you will see a road leading down to your right to Kealakekua Bay, home of Spinner Dolphins and the best snorkeling around. This four mile winding road will take you to the spot where Captain Cook met an unenviable end. You can see his monument across the bay, which is where the great snorkeling is. To reach it you will need a kayak, go by one of several tour boats, or take the Kings' Trail Rides down the mountain. The hike is a bit much unless you are in superb training. Ironman kind.
Driving further south you will come to the village of Honaunau (Ho-now-NOW) and the Pu'uhonua o Honaunau or the Place of Refuge (www.nps.gov/puho). This is a National park in which you can stroll through a replica of a Hawaiian village and see ancient Hawaiian culture demonstrated. The Honaunau area, like all South Kona, is coffee country and there are dozens of small farms along the way, as well as spectacular valleys and postcard views. Have your camera handy! There is so very much to see in Kona that it is impossible to describe it all here. Take your time and look around.
As you drive south from Kona you enter the Big Island's Ka'u (Kah-OO) region, a land of mountain forests, rolling green pastures and black sand beaches. The primary towns are Na'alehu and Pahala and they are very small, but have a special country charm. This is also where you'll find the Green Sand Beach, Papakolea. This is not, however, an easy spot to get to and requires some hiking over rough terrain. The less adventurous will want to check out Punalu'u, the famous black sand beach.
At the extreme southern tip of Ka'u is Ka Lae, "South Point", the southernmost piece of real estate in the United States, actually 500 miles, latitudinally speaking, below Miami and about 1,000 below L.A. This is also the home of the Kamoa Wind Farm where Mitsubishi windmills are busy producing clean, efficient energy.
There is much to see in Ka'u but the best sights aren't always on the highway. You may want to check out the village of Ninole and the Seamountain Resort and Golf Course. Also worth a stop is Whittington Beach Park, three miles north of Na'alehu.
Of course the greatest attraction on this end of the island is Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and the Kilauea Caldera. There is much to see here, whether the volcano is flowing or not. The park is easy to get around in, with points of interest clearly marked and maps available at the park headquarters. If you're a vigorous sort there is some great hiking to be done and camping also available. But if you just want to drive around and see the main sights you will still have a memorable experience.
Be sure and visit the Thomas A. Jagger Museum for a history of the volcano and the Hawaiian people. The Thurston Lava Tube is another don't miss stop as you walk down into a fern grotto, descend into a long tunnel (lighted) made by flowing lava and emerge yet again into more rainforest splendor. The entire grounds of the park present photo op after photo op. There are also some wonderful inns and B&Bs in Volcano if you feel like staying a few days or just over night.
This area can grow on you, even though it's not the stereotypical Hawaiian postcard environment. It's high altitude, cool, frequently misty and definitely otherworldly. Ohia and giant ferns take the place of palms and mangoes. Birdwatchers will be thrilled at the sounds and sights of the forest canopy. Spend some time here. Hawaii Vocanoes National Park, www.nps.gov/havo
Continuing our counterclockwise tour of the Big Island, we continue into the Puna region, an area of black sand beaches, antherium, orchid, and papaya farms. There is also a bit of farming in this area that is not of the legal variety, so it is best to stay off unmarked roads and mind your own business. Staying on the Belt Road (Route 11) will lead you to the villages of Mountain View, Kurtistown and Kea'au. If you head back down 130 at the Kea'au junction you will come to Pahoa and eventually, Kaimu and Kalapana, two more of our famous black sand beaches. This is an interesting area to explore, with ancient trails and heiau, as well as The Lava Tree State Monument and Cape Kumukahi Lighthouse.
Pahoa is definitely worth a stop for a taste of Old Hawaii. Cruise the boardwalks through town and pick up some local produce at the old false-front shops. You will also get another blast from the past as Pahoa is home to some of the last flower children on the planet. Don't be surprised if you feel like you're in a time warp. Peace.
Living on the Kona side of Big Island, we tend to associate Hilo with one thing: rain. Lots of it (150 inches a year to Kailua's 15). But this isn't really fair to the old girl. Due to this constant rain she's still truly beautiful and healthy, even if she is getting on in years. Even the airport runways are like botanical gardens that just happen to have planes landing in them. And this theme fans out from the center of town with gardens, orchid and exotic flower farms everywhere. Whole city blocks are devoted to sprawling, ancient banyans, and nobody minds. In the distance Mauna Kea's snowy head looms through the green, tropical surroundings, a gentle grandfather watching the slow, steady play of his children in this old sea town.
Downtown Hilo is full of old buildings, many of them renovated, many of them not. This is a classic town of the tropics, a port city, a sailors town, a place for fishermen. This feeling remains.
There are many things to see and places to go in the Hilo area. The Lyman Mission House & Museum is well worth a visit. The house, Hawaii's oldest frame structure, was built in 1839 by David and Sarah Lyman, Congregationalist missionaries and is preserved as they left it. Next door is the museum housing The Hawaiian Heritage Gallery and The Earth Heritage Gallery. The first displays Hawaiian artifacts, the second, anything found in the ground from minerals and shells to artifacts.
You might want to take a short walk from here to the Hilo Library where the Naha Stone rests. According to legend, this 7,000 pound stone was moved by Kamehameha, thus fulfilling the prophesy of his ascendancy. Behind the library runs the Wailuku River, with excellent vistas cascading down to the ocean. This same river leads to the aptly named Rainbow Falls, just outside of town and the Boiling Pots, natural jacuzzis of the ali'i.
If you love flowers and exotic plants, Hilo is your destination. Liliu'okalani Gardens (Japanese style) and Coconut Island are located on the west end of Banyan Drive. There is also Hilo Gardens, Hilo Arboretum, Rainbow Tropicals, Nanimau Gardens and several other noteworthy nurseries. All are open to the public and welcome visitors. Anything you purchase can be shipped home for you.
A way to spend an out-of-the-ordinary morning would be to head for the Suisan Fish Market at the corner of Banyan and Lihiwai St. Get there early (7:30ish) and witness the very local auctioning of some really beautiful fish.
Many people don't realize that Hilo is also home to the Panaewa Rainforest Zoo, tucked back in the jungle off Route 11. Aside from tigers and hippos, the zoo also features endangered indigenous fauna. The zoo is never crowded during the week.
Of course Hilo has plenty of restaurants (see our Restaurant Guide for some of them) and plenty of shopping. There are several good beach spots and plenty of hiking for the outdoorsy folks.
Heading back up north from Hilo on the east side you enter the region known as the Hamakua Coast, a land of sugar cane, lush, deep valleys and countless waterfalls. The first village you will encounter is Honamu, ten miles north of Hilo. Once a busy little town, when sugar cane was king, it is now a relic, and worth a look for its historical significance. Check out the local stores. The furniture place actually sells ice cream on the side. Try the lychee, it's fabulous.
If you keep going from here, in 3.5 miles you will come to 'Akaka Falls, one of the most spectacular sights on all the islands. It is an amazing trip traveling the short distance to the park because it seems that you're going the wrong way. All that can be seen is acres of cane, hardly the local for a waterfall park. But just when you're thinking about turning around you come to the parking lot and there, opening up before you, is a deep, green valley. Paved paths lead you through the park, past one beautiful spot to the next. There are small streams with towering bamboo forests, ferns, ginger, orchids and dozens of varieties of Hawaiian plants at every turn. Finally you come to the falls itself, cascading over 400 feet to the pool below. This park is beautifully maintained and a stop not to be missed. Your entire walk should take about 45 minutes. 'Akaka Falls State Park and all other State parks, www.hawaii.gov/dlnr/dsp/hawaii.html
Along the road you will notice the ever-present ocean below you. There are several nice spots to stop, among them Kolekole Beach Park and Laupahoehoe Point. Twelve miles north of Laupahoehoe you come to Kalopa State Park. Great hiking on well-marked nature trails is to be found here and camping is allowed with a permit. For more info on camping in State parks write: Dept. of Land and Natural Resources, Div. of State Parks, Box 936, Hilo, HI. 96720 or phone 808-961-7200.
Just two miles north of Kalopa lies the old sugar town of Honoka'a, the"Gateway to Waipio Valley". The town is very quaint, old-style Hawaiian with some interesting shops to browse, featuring many handcrafts and locally made products. Try Tex Drive in for serious malasadas.
What this little drive is leading up to is a sight not to be missed: Waipio Valley. From the overlook (as far as you can go without 4-wheel drive) 1,000 feet below you, lies the valley. The valley itself is a mile across, Waipio Stream winding through it and cutting across the black sand beach into the ocean. The far side is contained by a precipitous pali (cliff). At the rear of the valley waterfalls feed the stream and fade into purple mist.
If you are lucky enough to have 4-wheel, continue (carefully) down. Small roads and trails wind throughout the valley. But most likely you will not have this available to you and there are some excellent and entertaining alternatives. The Waipio Shuttle is one and the whole excursion takes 90 minutes via air-conditioned Landrover or van. Another choice is the Waipio Na'alapa Trail Rides for an extensive and informative tour. There are half day and full day tours. For those who want to see everything but aren't the horse-riding types, check out The Waipio Valley Wagon Tour. This mule team drawn surrey-style wagon holds about a dozen people and is pretty comfy (it has nice big springs). The tour lasts about 2 hours. These three tours all originate up top in Kukuihaele, so there's no need to worry about getting into or out of the valley.
A word of caution. Some hardy folks might think this sounds like a good hike. Remember that down is a whole lot easier than up. I have tried it myself and do not recommend it at all. Unless you are in peak training and used to walking up very steep grades for long distances in hot sun, don't try it. The hitchhiking is not reliable and you may be stuck for hours. Try a more pleasant way, please.
As you head back west from the Hamakua Coast you will pass through another area of the Big Island that not only defies most peoples' idea of what Hawaii should look like, but is also a step back in time to the paniolo days. This is where the wild west really started, Hawaiian cowboys actually predating their brothers of the Mainland West.
Waimea is a land of rolling green hills, misty and foggy at times, and cattle. The Parker Ranch was at one time the largest privately owned ranch in the US and is still immense. The town itself is very western flavored but its most unusual aspect is its dry and wet sides. This has nothing to do with liquor, but everything to do with rain. Virtually split down the middle, the wet side of Waimea is inexpensive home rental or purchase, while the dry side is unaffordable for most.
There are several places to see in Waimea as well as some very excellent restaurants. One place to visit is the 100 year old mansion Pu'uopelu off route 190 just south of town. Besides the elegant furnishings, the artwork of over 100 world-renowned artists is displayed, including pieces by Degas, Renoir and Chagall. There are also old ranch homes on the property for visitors to tour. For the same admission price you will also be able to tour the Mana Home, the original Parker homestead built in 1847. The ranch also provides a few different tours.
Definitely stop in at the Parker Ranch Visitors Center and Museum while in town. Here you will learn about the history of the Parker Ranch and the family itself. The museum also features a separate wing dedicated to that great Hawaiian Olympian and legend, The Duke, Duke Kahanamoku, the "Father of Modern Surfing", and one of the noblest men these islands have ever produced.
Two more places of interest are the Imiola Church, built in 1857 and the Kamuela Museum. After this you might be a bit hungry and there are several great places to eat. Waimea is a great place to stop for lunch or dinner, with prices from cheap to ouch. Browse our Restaurant Guide.
Heading west from Waimea will take you into one of the most beautiful and historic regions on the Big Island, Kohala, the birthplace of Kamehameha the Great. This area, like Kona, is divided into north and south districts so we will begin with the northern most.
There are two ways to get into the tip of North Kohala. First, following 19 out of Waimea brings you to Kawaihae where Route 270 leads north up the coastline, through the main towns of Kapa'au (Kah-pah-OW) and Hawi (Haw-VEE). This route leads the visitor through all of the major historic sites, past the best beaches and culminates at the pali overlook above Pololu Valley. The second, Route 250, is a picturesque country road running along the base of the Kohala Mountains which is well worth the 20 mile drive, but for the purposes of this overview we will take 270.
The first spot of interest you will come to is Lapakahi State Historical Park, about 12 miles north of Kawaihae, a 600 year old reconstructed fishing village with educational tours and demonstrations of Hawaiian crafts and culture. Just next door, so to speak, is the Koai'e Cove Marine Conservation District, an underwater park.
Next you will come to two more beach parks, Mahukona and Kapa'a. Both of these are a bit off the beaten path but not difficult to find. Neither beach is ever very crowded and for beauty are not the best Big Island has to offer, but they are secluded. This area can be quite dangerous for swimming during the winter but it is an excellent place for watching the humpbacks, beginning usually in December. The whales generally come very close to shore at this point.
Continuing north brings you to Mo'okini Luakini Heiau and the birthplace of Kamehameha. You can feel the history in the air in this rugged, windswept country. This heiau (temple) is said to have been built around 480 AD and was for the sole use of the ali'i (royalty). Sacrifices to the gods were made here, some of them being of the human variety. Always, I repeat, always, be respectful of the surroundings when you are at a heiau. While not of religious significance to westerners (or even many Hawaiians these days), they are still sacred to some and important and cherished by all.
A minutes walk from the heiau will bring you to a sign reading, Kamehameha Akahi Aina Hanau. Standing here you will get a glimpse at the forces that shaped the greatest of all Hawaiian chiefs, the conqueror and unifier of these islands. As you stand in this isolated and wild spot you will understand why he was named Kamehameha, The Lonely One.
Leaving this area we head further north and 270 begins to bend in an eastward direction, leading us to the old sugar town of Hawi. Architectural debris from the now defunct Kohala Sugar Company still looms over this sleepy village. There are some great little shops to browse here.
Next we come to Kapa'au, another sleepy little village famous primarily for its statue of Kamehameha. Commissioned in 1878 by King Kalakaua, the Lonely One still stands larger than life in front of the Kapa'au courthouse.
East of Kapa'au you will see a sign directing you to yet another historical sight. A short drive down a beautiful country road will bring you to the Bond Estate, still almost undisturbed from its creation in 1841. This mission estate is almost eerie in that it feels like you've walked into someone's home while they've just stepped out for a moment.
Next you come to Kalahikiloa Church, built by Elias and Ellen Bond themselves in 1841. A two year struggle to build, the church was a true labor of love. Go in and visit. The doors aren't locked by the way, they slide instead of swinging open. A very unusual place.
Still heading toward the end of the road you come to Keokea Beach Park, a pretty and somewhat secluded spot. Swimming here is not advised, however, unless the water is noticeably calm.
The end of the road brings us to the Pololu Valley lookout for another breathtaking view. But unlike Waipio, you can walk down into this valley. Just be very careful as the trail gets really slick after a rain. It takes about 15 to 20 minutes to reach the valley floor. Swimming should done cautiously as the rip off Pololu's black sand beach can be treacherous. This is a great place to camp, enjoy the seclusion, fish and just enjoy what Hawaii is all about.
Coming back to our Kohala starting point of Kawaihae, a port and shipping town. There are, however, a few good restaurants and bars here, as well as a few shops. Look around.
One mile south of Kawaihae, stop at Pu'ukohola Heiau, a completely restored temple built in 1790 by Kamehameha on the advice of a prophet. According to the seer, Kamehameha would unify the islands only after completing the
Heading south again back towards Kona we come to what South Kohala is known for: the best beaches and most exclusive resorts on the island. The land has changed from rich to near desert, with old lava flows, kiawe trees and opportunistic grasses growing in the crevices. You will also notice that the wind has begun to blow. Our legal form of graffiti begins to sprout up here as well: white coral carried from the beaches and laid on the black rock to spell out messages of undying love for the most part.
The first beaches you will come to on our southward and final journey is Samuel Spencer Beach Park, Kauna'oa (The Mauna Kea Beach Hotel) and Hapuna (see our Beach Guide), both idyllic spots for sun and surf and snorkeling.
Next you will come to Puako. This ancient homesite is very mystical and beautiful, with great scuba possibilities right offshore: plenty of caves, coral and wildlife. Along Puako Road you will find the 1859 Hokuloa Church and a bit further the entrance to the Puako Petroglyphs, some of the oldest in Hawaii. You will see among the ki'i pohaku (petroglyphs), the piko stones used by the Hawaiians to encase their newborns' umbilical cords in a rite designed to give the child mana (power) and long life. As at our heiau, please respect these precious carvings as they are some of the little that is left of a time long past.
Further south we come to the Mauna Lani Resort and Golf Course. There are several courses throughout this area, all amazing, if you like chasing that little white ball around. a few minutes more and we are at Waikoloa, home to the new Hilton and several other posh bunkhouses. The Hilton is worth a visit just to see the 5 million dollars worth of oriental art, ride the boats in the canals through the mile long hotel complex (or the monorails) and see the Dolphin Training Center.
At the entrance to this complex is the road that leads to another wonderful beach, Anaeho'omalu. Again, check our Beach Guide. The Kings' Shops is located here in the Village as well as some of the best dining to be found. This is not, however, the place to save money.
Well, we're back where we started from. Obviously this is a very brief overview of the Big Island, our home. There is much more to say, to see and to do, but it's up to you to discover it for yourself. Hopefully your appetite has been whetted for the real Hawaii, the old Hawaii, the land of kings, paniolo, fishermen and still a few dreamers. Mai ala oe ia makou, e `olu`olu. Don't wake us, please.
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