Colloquially known as the Big Island, Hawai‘i Island’s wide expanses give it a different feel from the other Hawaiian Islands. The five main volcanoes that make up its landmass contribute to its diversity of microclimates, from green rolling hills to lava fields, dense jungles to snow-capped peaks.
There is more to the Kona coast than the miles of black lava fields that meet the eye. The funky town of Kailua-Kona has a retro feel, with nostalgic eateries and affordable accommodations. North of Kona begins a stretch of luxury resort enclaves and exclusive private communities tucked into the expanse of lava, flanked by miles of unspoiled coastline. Farther north, the Kohala Coast is known for stunning views, high-end resorts and the island’s best beaches. South of Kona the landscape is decidedly greener as fertile volcanic slopes play host to coffee farms and fruit orchards, punctuated by Kealakekua Bay.
In the heart of Kailua-Kona town on Ali‘i Drive sits the historic Hulihe‘e Palace, which today is a museum showcasing Victorian artifacts from the time of King Kalākaua and Queen Kapi‘olani. It was built in 1838 as a summer residence for the Hawaiian royal family.
The expert guides at Hawai‘i Forest and Trail (hawaii-forest.com) have exclusive rights to lead small groups into two restricted-access preserves. Hikers explore Hualālai Volcano, which looms over Kailua-Kona, while bird-watchers traverse a wildlife refuge in Mercedes Sprinters. On the beach at Four Seasons Resort Hualālai (72-100 Ka‘ūpulehū Drive, Kailua-Kona, fourseasons.com/hualalai), the impeccable ‘Ulu Ocean Grill specializes in seafood grown on-site or nearby, including abalone, oysters and shrimp, as well as freshly caught fish and island-reared beef. Locals and visitors gather in the kitschy seaside Lava Lava Beach Club (420 Papaloa Road, Kapa‘a, lavalavabeachclub.com) for a toes-in-the-sand dining experience. In tranquil Keauhou, about 6 miles south of Kona, enjoy 18 holes on the championship course of Kona Country Club (78-7000 Ali‘i Drive, Kailua-Kona, konacountryclub.com). Head upcountry to explore family-run Kona coffee farms and the charming plantation town of Hōlualoa, home today to upscale art galleries. In South Kona, at Pu‘uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park (nps.gov/puho), aka Place of Refuge, replicas of towering tiki sculptures stand guard over a royal oceanfront enclave with self-guided walking tours and cultural demonstrations.
The entire coastline of Hawai‘i Island was once all connected by a trail system used by the ancient Hawaiians. Today, a large portion of it has been made into the protected Ala Kahakai National Historic trail. Also known as the King’s Trail because it was used by Hawaiian ali‘i (chiefs) to visit their people, the 175-mile route spans the entire western and southern coast of the island from Hawi to the eastern border of Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. It is still a popular walking path for locals to access the coastline.
The northern Kohala Coast offers some of the most breathtaking scenery on Hawai‘i Island with sweeping views of the Pacific and some of the most celebrated beaches in the state. The “Gold Coast” is home to two white sand beaches in South Kohala—Hāpuna Beach and Kauna‘oa Beach, both located on the Mauna Kea Beach Resort—that are consistently rated as the most beautiful in the world by respected travel publications. In North Kohala, the highway continues northbound higher up the mountain, where arid estates overlook the ocean below. The charming town of Hawi offers boutiques and art galleries in historic storefronts, while the neighboring village of Kapa‘au boasts the original bronze statue of King Kamehameha. The final stop leads to Pololu Valley Lookout to take in the stunning views of a black sand beach and the dramatic coastline beyond.
One of the most extensive petroglyph fields on Hawai‘i Island can be found at the Puako Petroglyph Archaeological Preserve located next to the Fairmont Orchid. The collection of 3,000 stone etchings dates back to 1200 AD.
The legendary Mauna Kea Beach Hotel (62-100 Mauna Kea Beach Drive, Kohala Coast, maunakeabeachhotel.com) was the first luxury resort on Hawai‘i Island when it opened in 1965, a year after its stunning golf course designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. debuted. Manta, the hotel’s signature restaurant, and the Copper Bar restaurant offer diverse culinary treats with beautiful vistas, while the casual beachside Hau Tree is the perfect place to cool off with a frozen cocktail. On the Mauna Lani Resort, Fairmont Orchid (1 N. Kanikū Drive, fairmont.com/orchidhawaii) is the setting of executive chef David Viviano’s lively Binchotan Bar & Grill, which gives a modern twist to the Japanese tradition of open-flame grilling, while his oceanfront Brown’s Beach House offers upscale open-air dining. The iconic Mauna Lani, Auberge Resorts Collection (68-1400 Mauna Lani Drive, aubergeresorts.com) recently underwent a $200 million renovation and the luxe amenities are hard to beat, including the acclaimed Canoe House restaurant with farm-to-table Japanese and Hawaiian-influenced cuisine. For haute shopping and more restaurants, head to the Shops at Mauna Lani (68-1330 Mauna Lani Drive, shopsatmaunalani.com) or the Kings’ Shops (69-250 Waikōloa Beach Drive, Waikōloa Beach Resort, kingsshops.com).
The reef in front of the sleepy hamlet of Puako on the Kohala Coast makes for some of the best snorkeling in the state. Sign up for a sunrise or sunset paddleboarding tour with LightsUp Hawai‘i (lightsuphawaii.com) to see the reef in the dark with their special LED-lit boards, or join them in Kona to see spinner dolphins and manta rays.
The cool scenic pasturelands of Waimea come courtesy of the fertile grounds of Mauna Kea volcano, while the town’s western influence is courtesy of its paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy) history. This rugged mountain town—siting at a chilly 3,000-foot elevation—has begun to draw an upscale, yet down-to-earth, crowd attracted to its sprawling luxurious estates and farm-to-table dining. The twice-weekly farmers markets appeal to both locals and visitors alike looking for fresh produce, botanicals and artisan crafts. Don’t miss the roads out of town—the winding, scenic drive from Waimea to Hawi features miles of undulating fields punctuated by sweeping views of the sea. The neighboring village of Honoka‘a is decidedly more local with plantation-era buildings and a sleepy, friendly vibe.
Ranches and sugar plantations dominated the region in the 19th century. The sugar industry was one of the island’s economic powerhouses until the 1980s, and the last plantation closed here in 1992. One of the largest privately held cattle ranches in the nation, Parker Ranch (66-1304 Māmalahoa Highway, Kamuela, parkerranch.com) holds a rodeo with horse races every Fourth of July.
Chef Peter Merriman helped found the Hawai‘i regional cuisine movement in 1988 when he opened his flagship restaurant, Merriman’s (65-1227 Opelo Road, Kamuela, merrimanshawaii.com). Its farm-fresh, Asian-inflected menu remains popular today with foodies. Directly across the road, Red Water Café (65-1299 Kawaihae Road, Waimea, redwatercafe.com) serves superlative house-smoked seafood, sushi, steaks and handcrafted chocolate, among other delicacies. Honolulu’s influencer-favorite Arvo Café recently opened a Big Island outpost in downtown Waimea (65-1227 Opelo Road A-1, Waimea, arvocafe.com). Just north of Honoka‘a is the lookout for Waipi‘o Valley, home to taro farms and a black sand beach. To drive down the steep road into the majestic valley safely, and to avoid trespassing, go with a small guided tour such as those led by Waipio Valley Shuttle (48-5416 Kukuihaele Road, Honoka‘a, waipiovalleyshuttle.com).
No visit to Waipio Valley is complete without a stop for a sweet treat along the way. Fuel up at longtime pit stop Tex Drive-In (45-690 Pakalana St., #19, Honoka‘a, texdriveinhawaii.com) where the flat, square malasadas (Portuguese doughnuts) have been a local favorite since 1969.
If Hawai‘i Island’s west coast is hot and arid, its east coast is the polar opposite. An average of 230 days of rain per year keep the area around Hilo incredibly lush and green. While the Kona coast boasts the island’s best beaches and clear, blue water, the Hilo side offers dramatic cliffs and a wild, rocky shoreline. Though it is Hawai‘i Island’s capital city, Hilo retains its quiet, vintage charm with historic buildings and plantation-style residences. Each spring, the town sees a flurry of activity for the Merrie Monarch Festival, Hawai‘i’s premier hula competition. Further north, the Hāmākua Coast is dotted with small villages blessed with enviable views and more waterfalls than you can count, including the famous ‘Akaka Falls. South of Hilo lies the rural district of Pahoa, whose frequent lava flows continue to change its topography. The artist-friendly rainforest hamlet of Volcano provides most of the lodging and dining options for explorers of sprawling Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park (nps.gov/havo), which straddles the lightly populated Puna and Ka‘ū districts to the south and west of Hilo.
Downtown Hilo suffered major damages and loss of life during two disastrous tsunamis in 1946 and 1960. The succession of waves reaching a height of up to 50 feet decimated parts of the city that were never rebuilt.
Downtown Hilo includes many early- to mid-20th century buildings on the National Register of Historic Places; take time to walk around town to enjoy their often colorful facades. The impressive Lili‘uokalani Gardens are 25 acres of Japanese-inspired botanical gardens created in 1917, overlooking Hilo Bay. With billowing steam vents, entrancing trails through volcanic ash and rainforest, a spectacular sea arch and an enormous petroglyph field, Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park has always been a must-see, but the historic eruption of 2018 greatly expanded Kīlauea Volcano’s already-impressive Halema‘uma‘u crater. Enjoy the view of the latter over an early dinner at The Rim or Uncle George’s Lounge, inside the park’s historic Volcano House (1 Crater Rim Drive, Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, hawaiivolcanohouse.com).
The landscape around the southeastern-most tip of Hawai‘i Island is constantly changing due to the lava flows of Kīlauea Volcano. Kapoho tide pools in Pahoa were destroyed in the 2018 eruption, and the Kalapana lava flow viewing area is currently closed. Hawaiians believe the volcanic activity to be the embodiment of Pele, the volcano deity, and her destruction and creation are to be revered.
Photography by: IJfke Ridgley