The Big Island of Hawaii is probably most famous for its volcanoes. They’re very, very cool, and they’re a marvel to see. But there’s so much more to do on this big Hawaiian island. Here’s a few things to try.
HIT THE ROAD – There’s a reason they call this the Big Island. It’s massive; big enough to hold all the other islands of Hawaii. The drive through Volcanoes National Park is fun and a bit eerie, as parts of the area feel like a moonscape of lava rock and tiny trees eking out a harsh existence. The coastline views west of the park are sensational. The town of Na’alehu is billed as the southernmost municipality in the U.S., and there’s even a southernmost bar you can check out. The beaches are best along the Kona coast, where you can stop in the tourist town of Kailua-Kona and watch folks mill about or check out the historic Hulihe’e Palace on the waterfront. Even better, check out the Place of Refuge, known in Hawaiian as Pu’uhonua o Honaunau. You’ll find fascinating relics of old-time Hawaii and learn about the incredible societies that once dominated this land. The small towns in the Kohala area on the north side of the island are delightful. Check out the old-style wooden storefronts and galleries in the town of Hawi.
WATERFALLS, WANDERING AND WOO-HOO – The nearly deserted but gorgeous Waipio Valley on the northeast coast of the Big Island has some amazing hiking. You’ll also find waterfalls galore on Hawaii. Rainbow Falls is just a short drive from downtown Hilo, with a lovely waterfall that cascades into a deep, rounded pool. Above the falls are a series of small swimming holes that are easily reachable via a short walk. Akaka Falls are far higher than Rainbow Falls, with a vertical drop of some 130 meters. Try to go early before the tour buses get there. A circle tour of the Big Island on a helicopter reveals truly magical views of the ever-changing landscape. You also can try a zipline or deep-sea fishing, where you might spot a passing humpback whale.
PLANT A TREE – Here’s something you can enjoy and feel great about. The folks at Hawaiian Legacy Tours will take you high up the slopes of the Big Island in an open-air 4 by 4 where you can plant a native tree such as sandalwood or koa and help regenerate the natural environment. The views are to die for; wide and sweeping vistas of rolling hills dropping slowly down to the blue Pacific, with views of Maui off in the distance. They’ll even give you the GPS coordinates of your tree so you know exactly where it is. There’s a beautiful shop where you can buy stunning bowls made of native woods, as well as other goods. “People may not get back to Hawaii but I think they like knowing they’ll always have a tree here,” says Richard Lindberg of Hawaiian Legacy Tours.
EXPLORE HILO – This town is slowly getting more credit as a fun, urban spot. It’s still a small city, but you’ll find a welcoming number of young folks operating cool businesses downtown. You’ll find a variety of shops at the Market and Bayfront Boutique, where they sell everything from motorbikes and locally made jewelry to $5 scarves in a gorgeous array of colours. “Scooters and Skirts we like to call it,” said Benjamin Kastelic who runs a shop inside the market called 11th Loop. Kastelic works with local seamstresses and prints cool images on various fabrics. You’ll find nice jewelry and Hawaiian art at Gallery One, while Aloha Grown has locally made t-shirts. This is a friendly town. Last time I was there I somehow got in the wrong lane and wasn’t able to turn left where I wanted to. Seeing me, a local beeped his horn and waved me over, then actually backed up his car so I could swing in front of him and make my turn.
EAT UP A STORM – The Four Seasons Resort Hualalai at Historic Ka’upulehu has incredible dining at two waterfront restaurants. Beach Tree is a casual spot with great drinks and fun, inventive food. For a starters, try the bread made with a special pesto of Roma tomatoes, pecorino cheese, herbs, Marcona almonds and local sea salt. Lip-smackingly delicious. At Ulu Ocean Grill (see photo), they’ll make the specialty Hawaiian fish dish of poke in front of you with raw ahi tuna, sea salt, white Japanese soy, sesame oil, Maui onion and other bits. Try the crab roll or fresh Opa fish with Polynesian spices, then top it off with a Hawaiian vanilla bean soufflé with crème anglaise and strawberries. Volcano House has a restaurant overlooking the volcanoes (sorry, one volcano reference and one only) and serves simply prepared but excellent food, including lovely lamb chops rubbed with Big Island Kona coffee and seared to perfection. North of Hilo and south of the cool town of Hanaaka you’ll find Donna’s Cookies at the side of the road. They make amazing shortbreads as well as cookies with coconut, macadamia nuts and other local ingredients.