A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of island hopping to what Hawaiians refer to as “Big Island”. The real name is actually the Island of Hawai’i, which the state is named after and it’s the largest by far of the 8 main islands that make up the most famous and cherished island chain in the world. Known for its active volcanos and delicious coffee, it’s a delight for the millions of tourists who visit each year. And after a quick 40 minute flight, I got to be one of them for the long weekend.
We stayed in the charming and historic beach town known as Kailua-Kona on the west coast, which is the most popular city to visit and seemingly the most contemporary on the island. The main strip of hotels, boutiques, and restaurants are lined up along the turquoise waters of Kona Bay. The weather is almost always perfect, which explains why Hawaiian royalty used to escape here. There are some incredible beaches, such as Kua and Hapuna, just up the coastline. However, driving just a few minutes outside of town will remind you that you’re on a volcano that is young and still constantly growing. Black soil and lava rocks make up much of the landscape on the island, a stark difference from the other Hawaiian islands that are mostly lush green and red clay dirt. You may even feel like you’re on another planet since the scenery is so unique. For this reason, many people prefer other islands over Big Island, but I found it fascinating and beautiful.
The only other large town (which is still relatively tiny) on the island is Hilo, on the east coast. It takes a little less than two hours to drive across the island between the two cities, which is several times more than it would take to drive across the island I live on. Everyone warned me that Big Island is a LOT bigger and involves more driving than what I’m used to on Oahu, but nothing could prepare me for the 16+ hours I drove over the four days we visited. I didn’t mind it for the most part, since I was among such gorgeous sights and in full explorer mode.
Walking around Hilo is like stepping back in time. It’s a very sleepy little town, and far less modern than Kona. However, it seemed to be a lot more laid back and old fashioned. What I love was the abundance of hippies and natural lifestyle type stores and restaurants. We also encountered a fantastic farmers market, which not only had fresh produce but also lots of goodies like jewelry. We could have spent all day there, as we loved the vibes. However, we were not impressed with the food selection from what we could see. Also, this is not the best place for beaches. But if you’re a nature lover like me, it’s a treasure with luscious forests and waterfalls nearby. We got to check out Rainbow falls and Akaka falls, which were both super quick and easy, so I highly recommend them.
Unfortunately for us, during the time of our visit the island was (and still is) dealing with an outbreak of Dengue fever. So one of the attractions I wanted to see most, the extremely sacred Waipio Valley, was closed. But since I definitely did not want to get eaten alive by mosquitos and infected by any disease, it was best. We still got to visit the breathtaking Waipio lookout to see the iconic view of the valley and cliffs right on the ocean, all while doused in bug spray of course. Hopefully next time I go, the efforts to get rid of Dengue on the island will have worked and I’ll be able to actually visit the very historic valley. It’s definitely a must-see.
On the bright side, I got to do the coolest thing on the island, which is visit Volcanos National Park to see one of the most active volcanoes in the world, Kilauea. It’s not what you’d probably expect of a volcano, but it was an amazing experience nonetheless. We could not get close to the caldera but we saw it from a distance, including the smoke and at night you can definitely see the lava glowing. Native Hawaiian legend for this revolves around Madame Pele, the goddess of fire. It was all pretty fascinating, and it was especially trippy standing on lava flow.
However, what topped this and became one of my favorite things I’ve ever done was going on top of Mauna Kea to watch the sunset from above the clouds, at an altitude of 10,000 feet. We wanted to go even higher to the summit, which would have been 14,000 feet but we got there just a little too late. Next time for sure, because this was such a dope experience, even despite the altitude sickness. The key is to get to the visitor center early (around 4) and give yourself a good amount of time to acclimate before heading to the summit. This is the tallest mountain in the world from the ocean floor (33,000 feet) and the most sacred place for native Hawaiians. You can certainly see why when you feel the powerful energy and look down at the clouds, as if you’re in heaven. It was simply spiritual. After the sun sets, this is the best place in the entire world for stargazing. We could actually see other galaxies and millions of stars with the naked eye. Just incredible. I was in awe for days after this, and probably always will be!
Another highlight for me was of course centered around food. There are a plethora of great choices in the Kailua-Kona area, especially for carnivores like me since Big Island is known for its grass fed cattle, so their beef is local and super fresh. The best meals were the ono (Hawaiian word for yummy) kalbi short rib omelet at Broke Da Mouth Grindz (which translates to amazingly delicious in Hawaiian pidgin), the roasted pork at 808 Grindz, and the guava ribs at Splashers. However, I must say favorite part were the many quaint little coffee shops on every corner that all sell irresistible Kona coffee. Since I gave up coffee about a year ago, it’s nice to indulge while on vacation and this is some of the best I’ve ever had, by far. So I may or may not have had 2-3 cups a day. This stuff is super expensive and a hot commodity most places, but a cup of 100% Kona coffee will only run you about $3 while in Kona, so don’t let the hotel rip you off.
We were visiting during the Super Bowl, so of course we spent much of our last day at a sports bar watching the game and meeting other tourists from all over the world. After all the driving and running around we did, it was a nice way to end the weekend and get ready for our short journey back to Oahu. Plus, what better way to watch a game than with the ocean and palm trees right behind you?
Although many tourists opt to skip Big Island for the more popular attractions on Maui and Oahu, this island really has so much to offer and I truly enjoyed it. The pace is much slower and the people are even friendlier, so it is the true aloha spirit I always imagined of Hawaii, which is not always so common these days in other busy parts of the state. While I am definitely a city girl, it’s always nice to escape to the country, breathe in fresh air, and relax. Big Island is said to have a very powerful and healing energy, which I could sense the entire time. This short trip was just what I needed and an unforgettable experience. I’m already looking forward to returning again!