There are many places to visit on the “Big Island” aka Hawaii. It was the most memorable vacation from my childhood when we stayed at Hilton Waikoloa Village. We didn’t venture too much on the island the first time we stayed because the grounds of this resort was equipped with all the entertainment a kid could ever need. With the best swimming pools, a natural lagoon full of sea turtles and fish, and the dolphin quest where I had my first up-close encounter with my favorite sea animal. This past summer we were able to go back to this Island and travel in multiple directions to see more of the islands unique natural beauty. A Hawaiian vacation always has so much to offer. Every time I visit I learn something new about this beautiful world. On this blog post, I am sharing 8 of my favorite spots on “The Big Island” these are 8 of the most beautiful locations that I encountered on my last trip. They cannot be missed on your upcoming trip to Hawaii.
We woke up early to travel to the south end of the island from Waikoloa Village. We took an hour drive for the best chance to see dolphins in Kealakekua Bay. The drive starts out grim, with lava rock surrounding from all sides, but as you start to pass Kona the island starts to bloom into tropical Hawaii that I know and love. With green rainforest everywhere, and colorful blooms growing wild. We start to pass all the Kona coffee plantations, tempted to grab a pick me up. But we must get in the water early to be the first to catch a glimpse of the pod of spinner dolphins waiting for us at Kealakekua Bay.
We hired a kayak with Bayside Adventures, it was the most reasonably priced in the area. They had the perfect setup with a rocky beach in their backyard perfect to launch all the excited kayakers. This was my first time kayaking in the ocean and I have been dying to do it for a long time.
A large group of kayakers started to gather at the edge of the water next to the mountainous cliff. This is where we started to see fins. Such a magical experience to see spinner dolphins up close we sat there for hours looking at them. Attempting to swim with them but they were very fast.
Kealakekua Bay is also where the Captain Cook monument is located. After we were done swimming with dolphins we swam over to Captain Cook to experience some of the best snorkeling on the island. The coral reefs surrounded the land with colorful fish swimming all around you. If you are going to the big island make sure this experience is top of your list of things to do.
2. Hawi/ Pololu Valley
Hawi is a quaint tropical town and was the birthplace of King Kamehameha. We discovered this town on our way to hike the Pololu Valley. As we drove through the main street that was filled with mom and pop eateries and gift shops I spotted a place called Sweet Potato Kitchen with a sign that said they offered organic, vegan, and vegetarian options. I made a mental note to go back to this place. As we kept driving down the road I kept noticing all the houses had huge lots of beautiful tropical gardens so big that the foliage hid some of the houses. A perfect place to live I thought to myself, and a perfect place to have a garden. When we made it to the end of the road that is where the trailhead is. You start atop a cliff looking at the beautiful ocean. As soon as I started walking down the trail I could smell a sweet scent blowing in the ocean breeze. I looked up into the trees and notice guava growing on the highest branches. Unfortunately, all the low hanging fruit had already been picked. Pololu Valley is an easy hike down with only under a mile of trail to walk. As you walk down there are a few vantage points where you can look down into the valley and onto the hidden black sand beach. Perfect views for the perfect picture. When we made it down the sand was hot and the surf was wild. There was a few brave souls body surfing in the water. After working up a sweat in the muggy, tropical air I wished I would have brought my swimsuit to join them. My dad quickly disappeared in the rainforest searching for the next bird to snap a photo of. My mom, sister and I sat on the man-made swings in the forest watching the waves and looking at the green mountain cliffs in awe of this natural beauty. Going back up the trail was a great cardio workout and naturally, we were starving after our hike. For lunch, we went back to the quiet main street of Hawi for a quick snack. I got to go in and try The Sweet Potato Kitchen. As we sat there looking at the menu we could tell that it was a great locals spot. The menu was filled with yummy breakfast and lunch options that were all locally grown in the town and made fresh on the premises. There were a mother and daughter that ran into one of their neighbors who quickly invited her to have breakfast with them. The small-town charm was making me feel at home. Being in such a small island town you must be on island time, meaning the service was very slow but was worth the wait. I ordered the best banana bread sandwich, homemade vegan banana bread with house-made peanut butter and mashed bananas and a refreshing Hawaiian punch smoothie filled with fresh grown Hawaiian fruits that gave me a renewed jolt of energy after one sip. It was the perfect on the go snack, but I wish I would have been able to take the time to try their special of the day, a vegetarian version of a local favorite, the loco moco, but instead of a mountain of unhealthy food the owner loaded it with veggies, mushroom gravy, and fresh guacamole, naming it a guaca-moco. This town is a must see when visiting the Big Island. I highly suggest doing the Pololu Valley hike in the morning and spending a leisure-filled day in Hawi town.
3. Kona Coffee Plantations
Do not skip out on the free coffee tastings around Kona. I mean its FREE coffee; how can you go wrong? Plus, it is Kona coffee, the best tasting coffee I have ever had. The rich lava soil really does make everything taste better. We went to Greenwell Farms after our morning of kayaking. They offer all the free samples of coffee you could ever want; my favorite was the flavored macadamia coffee. It did not taste sweetened like most flavored coffee that always tastes loaded with sugar, but it was flavorful enough to drink black. Greenwell Farms also offer a free tour of the grounds, I wish we would have done. But we drank enough coffee until we were buzzing off the walls and were off on our next adventure.
Talk to the locals and the frequent travelers to get a scope of what kind of events are happening and secret spots that cant is missed. They always have knowledge of the best places to go that are not in a tour guide. That is how we learned about the Kalapana lava flow. We had planned to hike around the Volcanoes National Park in hopes of seeing the lava but what we didn’t know was there was a rare lava flow going into the ocean through the town of Kalapana. We drove an hour and a half from the other side of the island. At the end of the road, there are tents set up where you can hire a bike for $20. Bike 4 miles downhill, an easy ride down, inching closer and closer to the lava flow. As you ride down you are surrounded by lava and you gradually move closer to see the hazardous steam. We passed through a town that was taken out by the lava in the 80’s you can see the lucky houses surrounded by green who were not burdened with the loss of their homes and the others who are starting to rebuild what they have lost. The homeowners who stayed chose to build tiny houses on the land that was once a lush rainforest but is now a mass of black rock. I can’t image sitting so close to the lava once again praying that the wind doesn’t change and hoping more lava doesn’t start flowing toward my home once more.
As you gather with everyone at the safest viewpoint, you can focus your eyes on the red-hot lava glowing as it drips into the water. The water turns green where the lava hits and as the wind blows away the smoke you can see more lava entering the sea. There is a ranger posted there to make sure that the wind doesn’t suddenly change. If the wind were to change directions then the toxic gas is bound to hit all the onlookers. He is also watching to make sure the newly created land doesn’t break off into the sea, which had happened a few months back and almost took many onlookers from land and boat to the burning hot depths of the ocean. The best way to see the lava is either to bring binoculars or to stay until the sunsets to see the lava glow into the night. Seeing lava flow up close was one of the best experiences of my life watching new landform, I will never forget it.
5. Waikoloa Beach and Lava Lava
Waikoloa Village was a 15-minute drive from our condo so we liked to go into town for happy hour and exploring on our relaxing days. Waikoloa beach was one of the best beaches we went to, not that you can wrong with any beach on Hawaii. But I liked Waikoloa because they have a nice shaded area under the palm trees. There is also great snorkeling, lots of sea turtles, and a water activity rental where I got to try paddle boarding for the first time. The best restaurant that we went to is located right on this beach too. Lava Lava Beach Club is a must if you are in the area mainly because the location of the property is the perfect spot for the famously picturesque Hawaiian sunsets. The seating is set up right on the sandy beach with a great outdoor space that gives you a full view of the water. It’s a great deal to go here for happy hour they have Asian American style appetizers and the best mix drink I have ever tasted called a Gilligan Girl. Made with ginger liquor, coconut vodka, and pineapple juice. The food tastes great but in my opinion is expensive for small portions. A great place to splurge a little to get those perfect Hawaiian sunset pictures. We went to this restaurant three times when we were on the island.
As a side note, a few other beaches we liked in the area was Hapuna Beach-perfect to get your tan on, and Waialea Beach (Beach 69) the most relaxed beach with enough shade for everybody. Keep an eye and ear out for Hawaii’s secret beaches, they are everywhere.
The Pearl Factory, located on most of the islands, is personally one of my favorite jewelry places, and I often spend too much money here. My first time in Hawaii my family stayed at the Hilton Waikiki Beach on Oahu where I had my first experience cracking open an oyster and picking out a jewelry setting for my shiny new pearl. I had to stop here once again because I had lost my favorite pearl necklace while traveling. I chose a gold lava flow pendent for my gorgeous pearl with a rose gold sheen. It has always been one of my fondest memories to visit this shop whenever I am in Hawaii.
7. Kona Brewing
Out of all the great micro-breweries in Colorado, none of them can compete with Kona Brewing, in my opinion. IPA’s in Colorado has never been my favorite but as soon as Kona Brewing came out with Hanalei Island IPA with passion fruit, orange, and guava, the islander classic combination also known as POG, a popular fruit juice mixture. I found a new love for IPA’s when I tasted this fruit-forward drink. Of course, when we were in Kailua-Kona we had to visit the brewery as much as possible. Kona Brewing had so many different beers that aren’t available on the mainland I wish I could have had all of them. What I did get to try was simply the best brews I have ever had. Lychee wheat had a subtle sweetness from the lychee fruit and as a wheat beer, it was the perfect summertime refresher. The other one I loved was the Mango Saison, there was so much natural mango flavor added to the beer I fell in love with this brewery even more. If you have never had Kona Brewing you can find a few of their beers on the mainland. Classic favorites I love is the Big Wave, an island golden ale and the Wailua Wheat brewed with natural passion fruit. Go out and get these summer fresh beers for the beach, camping or your next barbeque, you will not regret it.
Unfortunately, when your only in Hawaii for a week some things get rushed. I desperately wanted to see Pololu Valley and Waipi’o Valley on our trip but I only had one day to do it. It would have been better to just do one valley for one day in order to have time to explore the area and the surrounding towns more. Also, I burned my family out by all the driving, 3 hours’ round trip. By the time we hiked Pololu Valley and drove to Waipi’o they only had the energy to look at this beauty from the overlook. I highly recommend doing this if you are crunched for time. But if I were by myself I would have hiked down the vertical hill to the beach and did some hiking in the forest. Next time I travel to the Big Island it will be at least for two weeks and I will plan to hike and camp Waipi’o Valley, in order to go deep into the rainforest and see all the natural waterfalls.
Must See for My Next Trip to The Big Island
No matter what island you go to, you must go to the farmer’s market. The fresh fruit and vegetables grown on the islands taste better than anything grown on the mainland. Since we were in Kona the first day we stopped at a small farmer’s market in town. I didn’t catch the name of it but we loaded up for the week with papayas, white pineapple, starfruit, passionfruit, mangos, cucumber, carrots, tomatoes, red potatoes, and onions. We made fresh smoothies for breakfast, and used the vegetables for sandwiches for lunch and to take sides with fresh grilled fish for dinners back at the condo. The fruit, especially the mangos are the sweetest, juiciest and most nutrient-rich mangos I have ever tasted.
Hilo Farmers Market is the most talked about and is said to be the biggest farmers market on the island. I walked by it on our last day on the island and immediately wished that we went to this market the first day. I looked at one vendor and saw tons of fruit and vegetables that I have never seen before, I desperately wanted to try all the foreign produce that I saw in that market, but I will have to wait until next time.
Mauna Kea a dormant volcano, is the tallest mountain in the world if you measure from seafloor up it is 33,000 ft. tall, making it taller than Mount Everest. That is why it is the perfect spot for the Hawaiian sunsets and star gazing.
My favorite part about Kauai when I visited was the Allerton Botanical Gardens. The main reason why I fell madly in love with Kauai and hope to one day soon own land on the Garden Isle. It would have been nice to see the gardens on the Big Island but since they are located near Hilo I did not have the time to venture into the gardens.
Since we didn’t get to go through the main entrance of the Volcanoes National Park we never made it to the Volcano Winery like I had planned. But now it is added to the list of things to do when I go back. I still have a long bucket list for Hawaii and I am always planning my next adventure to these wonderful islands.
Thanks for reading! If you have any questions or need help planning trip leave a comment! Would love to hear about your favorite spot in Hawaii too!