by Monica Rohleder
I am the child of a flight attendant and by the time I was 10, I had been to Hawaii a dozen times. My mother formed a love affair with the Hawaiian Islands through her travels there, so I followed suit and found my home away from home on the raw, magical and spiritual Big Island.
The Earth begins and ends on this Island every day. At the North end of the Island, you see the lush green vegetation, flowers, waterfalls and life that came from the volcanoes, now quietly sleeping. But on the South side, experience a completely different landscape that resembles the surface of the moon. Black lava canvases the land, sporting varying colors and textures, all markings the dates when the flow began. As the sun shines down on the black rock, rainbows of colors sparkle and dance on the surface, as the crashing waves of the blue Pacific make their mark on the land.
How fantastic and amazing to see Earth form right in front of my eyes. I feel reborn every time I come here — it’s my sanctuary and my soul’s playground. Here are some of my favorite places to see, visit and experience on the Big Island of Hawaii, with a main focus on the Kona side.
…where to crash and get some R&R
A consistent favorite in Travel & Leisure’s Best Hotels List, this is nothing short of paradise. From the minute you step out of your vehicle, you are greeted with leis, a special juice concoction and warm towels while lush greenery surrounds the property, boasting some of the most amazing views on the Kohala Coast. Take a dip in one of the 3 pools or lagoon, all of which are fantastic (one adults only, one general and one for families). With rooms starting at $1,000, this will leave a mark on your pocketbook, so make sure you are saving this for something really special. Even my daughter said, “I am never leaving the Four Seasons”… and I agree!
This luxurious hotel is the perfect welcome to Hawaii. Instead of a lei, you’re greeted with a wooden macadamia nut necklace — the perfect accessory to beachwear and evening flowy dresses. It offers a serene beach, loads of activities at the white sand beach (canoes, paddleboards, snorkeling gear), an amazing tropical spa and sunrise yoga class that is one of the most peaceful experiences I’ve ever had. If you’re feeling a lazy day, do as I did — rent an Oceanside cabana and keep the Rosé coming!
For a more economical option located in Kailua town, the Courtyard Marriott is a great choice, located right next to the pier where the Ironman Triathlon kicks off. The hotel itself is a monument to the history of this Island, with relics and images of the Hawaiians that first settled here, including King Kamehameha for whom the hotel is named. Step outside the hotel and you can rest on the small beach off a lagoon. Or, take a walk through town to hit historical locations like Hulihee Palace and Kamakahonu National Historic Landmark for one of the best luaus on the Island.
About 5 miles south of Kailua is a property high on a cliff, offering another great option for families that’s not as pricey as the Kohala Coast hotels. Known for its proximity to a manta ray feeding ground, visitors can see these majestic animals once the sun goes down right off the edge of the property. Boats line up to bring divers and swimmers to play with the rays, and the Sheraton gives you a bird’s-eye view of this dance. Additionally, the restaurant here, Rays on the Bay, is fantastic for locally caught fish, entertainment and open sprays.
If you want a condo option, this property offers two bedroom rentals with full kitchens, living rooms and lanais all situated just one mile south of Kailua town and surrounded by sacred areas left untouched from the original Hawaiians. This is a favorite spot for my family and we have been coming here for over a decade. You have to meet Albert – this concierge extraordinaire can help set you up with a variety of activities. Tell him I sent you! Within walking distance of town and a great coffee shop, Green Flash coffee, The Wyndham cultivates a quiet oasis away from the bustle of town.
Taking a day trip to Volcano National Park is a must while on the Big Island. The trip can take up to 2 hours from Kailua or 1.5 from Hilo, so if you are doing a full day trip around the Island, you may want to take a night away at Volcano House located inside the Park. While I have never stayed here, I love the idea of visiting the park and hiking to see the lava (which I have done many times), best seen at night. Instead of having to get in the car and take the long ride home (on a very dark, winding road surrounded by lava), rest your wary feet in this boutique hotel with a nice glass of wine!
…where to chow down and then unbutton the top button
One of the best spots in town, this lovely historic restaurant is nestled right in Kailua. Whether you come in for some calamari and an afternoon cocktail or you want to get dressed up (Island style of course) and have a nicer meal, this restaurant offers a variety of locally caught fish and Hawaiian favorites like tomatoes and onion, sashimi and my favorite entrée — the stuffed Ono. The best part of this restaurant is the Mai Tai. All you need is one (or maybe split the second with a friend) as it’s powerful and delicious. Make sure to ask for the Classic — their new version is not as good!
Casual dining but the experience is anything but. If there is one place I go every single time I’m on the Big Island, it’s this beachside location where you can watch the waves and eat some fantastic food. Go in for a drink to take in the magnificent sunset and then be sure to sample the Italian fare. I don’t even like tomatoes but I kept going for more bruschetta with the local WOW tomatoes. Homemade pasta, fresh seafood and grilled steaks round out the menu so bring your appetite!
When staying in town, Huggo’s on the Rocks is my go-to lunch spot! Situated right on the sand and a few blocks up from the town center, this local favorite has amazing island food including a Poke plate, fish sandwich with mac salad, fish tacos and the Bulgogi Fried Rice bowl. Definitely a great place to walk after a few hours snorkeling or swimming.
Such a nice end to the day is a splurge dinner at this Oceanside spot. Seriously, why would you NOT eat next to the ocean in Hawaii? But this place is particularly serene and perfect if you’re wanting to get romantic. Even if there wasn’t an amazing ambiance, the food is worth the expense. Definitely get the Big Eye Tuna Crusted Ahi and the Strawberry Malasada with a tableside bottle of wine of course.
A family favorite, we love this place both because it’s delicious and we get to hang with the locals. They treat you like family, so you always want to go back. A short drive up from town, Jackie Reys is another place that offers delicious Island foods and their fish entrees are some of my favorites in town. Away from the bustle of town, this is a great establishment when you want to get away from the tourists. But get there early!
For the morning coffee run, walk on over to Lava Java. With delicious breakfast foods, smoothies, coffee and ice cream, this locale is right in the heart of town so the views are awesome, plus you can reconnect on Wi-Fi! (Only if you want to.) Sunday brunch also offers music and interesting people watching.
When staying at the Wyndham, we walk a block up to this shop to order smoothies (the mango mint is ridiculously good) and breakfast sandwiches (egg and cheese croissant.). While they have a few tables, this is a great place to stop when you are heading out on a day trip or to get something to go. Not to be missed, this is a delicious hidden gem that I frequent often.
A sister location to Huggo’s on the Rocks, this is a great beach club for lunch, cocktails and dinner. With tables in the sand and casual music playing in the background, stop in here when you don’t want to get out of your bathing suit yet, but you are hungry and ready to mingle again. (But truthfully you never have to get out of your suit in Hawaii.) Relax with a drink, let the kids play in the sand and watch the sun sparkle on the Ocean.
Located in Keauhou about 5 miles south of town and one of Sam Choy’s locations, this restaurant is perched up high off the main road. We came here for lunch on my last trip, and I was blown away by the Pacific Rim fare and the beautiful views. Definitely not one to miss, especially if you are hanging out in Keauhou or want to get out of town.
… where to drink up and get down
NOTE: The Big Island is not known as a party place - most bars close by 10 or earlier, especially on the quieter Kona side versus the more populated Hilo side. If you are staying in Kona, you may just want to open a bottle of wine and get out a deck of cards and have some relaxing fun in the comfort of your own lanai!
Adjacent to Huggo’s on the Rocks, this is a more formal restaurant that offers live music certain nights. (Technically both venues have live music options at different times of the day and with different vibes.) When you’re still in your suit, visit Huggo’s on the Rocks, and when you’re feeling a little dressier, get a great meal and hit the lounge post-dinner at Huggo’s.
This restaurant offers live music most nights in the lounge located next to the restaurant. Delicious food and great sounds make for a great night out, all with fantastic views of the Ocean.
This is a fantastic property located north of the Kona airport, and the bar is great whether you are a guest or just stopping in after a day out and about. For great cocktails and a great Ocean view as well as live music, make this a must do on your list.
This is a great place to come in for casual fare and locally brewed beers of which the Wailua Wheat is my favorite. If you are lucky enough to find Kona Brewing Company beers in your hometown, you will not want to miss stopping here for an early dinner. The beer is brewed right next door and the food is perfect when you are really hungry and want to nosh on soft pretzels or nachos.
If you find yourself in Hilo, make sure to drop by this no frills tasting room for some craft beers you can’t find on the mainland. Then, grab a growler or a six-pack of your favorites and head to the beach where the combination of a cold beer (I recommend the Mauna Kea Pale or Humpback Blonde Ale) and waves crashing will put you in the Hawaii state of mind. The tasting room is open Monday – Saturday.
I JUST BOUGHT THESE PANTS
…where to nab the best threads
This farmers market in downtown Kailua offers the best of local foods, art and unique gifts. A must stop at least once while you’re in town, pick up some fresh bananas, papaya, tomatoes and local Hawaiian Avocados. I love this place and come at least 2 or 3 times while in town. Open Tuesday through Sunday!
This is the main shopping area in Kailua town, whether you are looking for clothing, bathing suits, jewelry or art. One of my favorites is Krazy for Kona for amazing jewelry and art. I started collecting pieces from local artist Joseph Ster and get compliments on them all the time. He takes Hawaiian elements like waves, manta rays and flowers and creates modern pieces of jewelry from a variety of metals, each one celebrating the Hawaiian spirit through his interpretation.
If you are staying on the Kohala Coast or if you want to spend a little more on a luxury item, the King Shops at Waikoloa offer a variety of brands and unique shops. You will find Tommy Bahama, Honolua Surf Co., Coach, Na Hoku, Making Waves, The Walking Company and many more. Plus, you can stop in for a mid-shopping lunch at one of the many restaurants.
Hey Baby and Sugar Momo
I love buying soft, flowy, comfortable and beachy clothing in Hawaii. On my last trip, I discovered two new boutiques located right in Kailua. Sugar Momo offers a wide array of affordable but nice quality tops, skirts and dresses that are perfect for a warm evening on the Island. Hey Baby offers a range of lower and higher priced items, including beautiful dresses and my favorite Hawaiian-inspired handbags from Kauai-based designer Salt.
ANTS IN YOUR PANTS
…what to do when you can’t sit still
NOTE: On the Big Island of Hawaii, you can find every type of climate including rainforests, snow and sun. To really capture the beauty and uniqueness of this Island, you must hit the following spots. Also you must have a car! I’d recommend something with four-wheel drive to get to the hard to reach beaches that are worth the trek.
My favorite beach on this Island is Hapuna Beach. Located about 45 minutes north of Kailua town, this is a worthwhile road trip to spend a few hours in paradise. Open to the public, this beach gives you beautiful white sand, boogie boarding, swimming with dolphins, whale sightings (in the winter), breathtaking landscapes and a little getaway from it all. Pack a lunch, bring your beach chairs and get ready to enjoy heaven on earth for the day!
While you can easily jump on one of the many snorkeling boats available in Kona, you can also stop in at a beach just south of town. Kahaluu Beach Park is a great place to unleash your inner mermaid and float away with turtles along and all sorts of fish. They rent snorkeling gear here, but make sure to bring reef shoes because you have to walk on the rocks to get out there. You can also paddleboard and take surf lessons. When you have a minute, step into the little blue church located just North of the beach for a moment of peace and tranquility.
There are not many places where you can visit a green sand beach. Located by South Point — the most Southern point in the US — the green sand beach is not easy to get to. There is a good 30-minute hike along a rocky coastline trail and then once you get to the beach, you have to scale the cliff. But when you do, it is amazing! Bring a little food and wine and enjoy a picnic or if you are a strong swimmer, take a dip in the water, but be mindful of the powerful waves. And do not leave any trash behind. Or I will come get you. ☺
If you’re taking a trip up to Waimea, you can go a little farther and visit Waipio Valley. Located on the North side of the Island, this deep valley is populated with wild horses, lush vegetation and a very big waterfall. You can stop at the top and check out the breathtaking view or you can hike down the very steep road (cars like jeeps and trucks can make the trek too but no cars) and spend some time on the black sand beach below. Breathtaking and serene, this is quintessential Hawaii.
There are so few places on this earth where you can see a live volcano. This park can be toured via car, but there are many hiking trails and even camping areas to spend a few days here. If there is an active flow, you can hike (usually at night) to see it up close and in person, but make sure to adhere to park rules and check the website for updates. And come prepared, it can be cooler here, so bring a jacket, tennis shoes, flashlight and water.
Love hot tubs and massages? Bring a bottle of champagne and rest your wary body in a hot tub fashioned out of a wooden barrel. After 30 minutes, you will be led to your masseuse who will give you one of the best massages in town. The room is open air, so you will hear the trees softly singing and the birds chirping ever so slightly. If you make it here in the spring, the property is surrounded by the most beautiful flowers, including jade, where the smell just makes you want to swoon. One thing to note — call early to make a reservation as they are only open Wednesday - Saturday from noon to 9 PM.
While I have yet to do this, some friends of mine did and loved it. Spend the morning zipping across the Kohala Coast and hike to a beautiful waterfall where you get to take a swim in the pool below. This is definitely for the adventurous person that wants to see the beauty of the Island.
When I was 12, I took a helicopter ride around the Island of Kauai and I immediately fell in love with it. From an aerial point-of-view, you get a real sense for the vastness and beauty of these Islands. On the Big Island, you can see everything from the waterfalls to the beaches to the volcanoes to the rainforests. It will be a trip of a lifetime!!!