I love the Big Island. You get a more more diverse experience than any of the other islands.
General Hawaii Information
Hawaii: Off the Beaten Path by Sean Pager is a bit dated now, but I have found it to be the best single guidebook which covers all the Hawaiian islands. I have yet to be disappointed by anything which was recommended in this book and there are very few things we have discovered which weren’t listed in this book. The Hawaii Revealed books and now Smartphone apps are written by opinionated authors who provide greater detail than most guides. I have come to trust judgment on activities, hikes, etc but don’t always agree with their restaurant assessments. Konaweb is a very old school website which still has useful information.
If you are looking for a B&B and don’t want the hassle of screening them try contacting Hawaii’s Best Bed & Breakfasts run by Barbara and Susan Campbell. They have good taste and high standards.
Hawaii Wildlife Guide by Les Beletsky is a decent single volume book covering much of the wildlife you will find in Hawaii. Big Island Hikes is a good resource. Dolphins and other Cetaceans blow bubbles underwater and then use the bubble rings as toys. The Coffee Times has a number of interesting articles about Hawaiian history and culture.
Kona Coast (and other places on the western side)
We typically fly into the Keahole airport. The airport is in the middle of an old lava flow which is still mostly barren rock. The airport tends to be hot and uninviting. If you are coming from Kauai getting off the plane might come as a shock and you might wonder if you have made a mistake. Fear not. The Big Island has a lot going for it.
Around 15 minutes south of the airport is the city of Kailua-Kona. This is the largest city on the island. There are a lot of condos, vacation homes, and few big hotels, as well as a number of small shopping centers. Kailua-Kona isn’t particularly Hawaiian, it could easily be a resort town in Florida. We found the Walmart to be one of the best places to pick up miscellaneous items.
The old airport grounds are now a large public beach. The marina at south end of the town is the debarking location of the Fair Wind, one of the better snorkeling cruises in the islands. The Fair Wind has a lot of repeat business which speaks to how they treat guests. Like most cruises the boat leaves early in the morning with a continental breakfast, sails down the coast to the Captain Cook Monument where they anchor off the coast for snorkeling and lunch before returning to the marina. They also have a smaller faster boat which goes to two destinations including one that almost always has sea turtles. Joshua Lambus sometimes leads underwater tours. Hawaii Forest and Trail arranges a number of outdoor tours.
Hawaiian Oasis is a very peaceful B&B which is a modest drive from Kailua-Kona. The original owners Mike and Christina Raymond designed the B&B (originally called Puanani B&B) and did did the landscaping which covers more than 2 acres. When opened it was featured in Sunset magazine in April 1995 as one of the ten most beautiful places to stay in the west. The facilities include a weight and exercise room, Jacuzzi, lap pool with BBQ area, tennis court, access to a washer / dryer, and WiFi Internet access.
None of the meals we had in Kailua-Kona were truly outstanding. Ulu Ocean Grill, Beachcomber and La Bourgogne were decent. Some of my favorite are now closed including the Indonesian cuisine Sibu Cafe, and the Pacific Rim cuisine at Sam Choy’s Restaurant.
South of Kailua-Kona are a number of small towns along Route 11. This is the Kona Coast known for it’s coffee farms which often let you tour the grounds and sample freshly made coffee. Very close to Kailua-Kona is the Heavenly Hawaiian coffee farm. As you head south alone Route 11, you will find a numerous coffee farms and a number of small towns. Much of this route is above 1000 feet, cooler than and can be quite foggy.
If you head down Napoopoo Road you will find the Napo’opo’o Beach park which looks out onto Kealakekua Bay. The bay is a marine sanctuary which provides some of the best snorkeling in the Hawaiian islands and is frequented regularly by playful dolphins. Most of the snorkeling cruises which leave from Kailua-Kona come to this bay which houses the Captain Cook memorial. There are a number of companies which rent sea kayaks which launch from the Napo’opo’o Beach park. I used to recommend kayaking across the bay to the Captain Cook Memorial for the snorkeling, but I have heard (but not confirmed) that you can no longer pull the kayaks up at the memorial.
You should not miss the Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Monument otherwise known as the Place of Refuge. This is a recreation of a village which provided a refuge to early Hawaiians who violated kapu (laws). Sea turtles are often found in the small bay. There are a number of nice places to eat a picnic, hiking trails, or take a swim.
If you want to eat a meal in this part of the island I would suggest The Keei Cafe (best food), The Aloha Cafe (nice view), Aloha Angel Cafe also known as Aloha Theatre Cafe for reasonable food with a funky atmosphere.
Kahala Resort Area
North of Kailua-Kona is the Kahala area. There are a number of huge resorts. Some people who visit the big island spend their entire time at one of these luxury resorts. The resorts have many amenities, great restaurants, lots of activities, and beautiful beaches. This isn’t my thing, but lots of people love it. The Mauna Lani Hotel is arguably the best of the resorts. Besides all amenities found at the other resorts, the Maina Lani has what might be the best beach and the Puako Petroglyphs. Happily you don’t have to stay in the hotel to visit the beach or the petroglyphs. If you are looking for a good beach though, check out Hapuna Beach State Park which is the best beach I have ever visited and is always voted to be the best beach by locals. North of the resorts is Lapakahi State Historical Park which is a recreation of an ancient Hawaiian fishing village.
All the resort hotels have excellent restaurants. The best meal we have eaten on the Big Island was served at Mauna Lani’s Canoe House. The restaurants at Mauna Kea and the Four Seasons (Pahuia) are also excellent. Roy’s Waikoloa Bar and Grill continues like most members of the chain deliver excellent food.
Waimea, North Coast, and Mauna Kea
Waimea Region is upland from the coast. It is one of our favorite places to stay. The pace of life seems slower than Kailua-Kona or Hilo. Thanks to the elevation the temperatures are cooler than much of the island while still being sunny. The beaches of the Kahala coast are only twenty minutes away. Waimea is the home to a number of cattle ranches including the famous Parker Ranch.
Mauna Kea is more than 13k feet above sea level (making in effect the highest peak when you realize than there are an additional 20k feet from sea level to the sea floor). On top of Mauna Kea are the Mauna Kea Observatories. The observatories aren’t extremely welcoming to visitors, but they occasionally host educational events. There is a welcoming center at 9000 feet on the Kona side. They have good quality amateur telescopes, hot chocolate and some of best sky watching I have ever experienced. Saddleback Road is often described as a four-wheel drive road. It’s all a sham to discourage people from drive up. Initially the road is in moderate condition. Then there are a few miles which is basically a dirt road. Then, the road becomes a beautifully paved road. The weather tends to be 30F or more cooler than the coast, so either bring a winter jacket or go with one of the tours that provides warm clothing. The welcome center used to have warm jackets that you could borrow, but I believe this practice has now ended.
North of Waimea is the Waipi’o Valley which is one of the least developed parts of the island. Some people just stand at the overlook. The valley is nearly 1,000 feet below the overlook. If you aren’t feeling up to a hike you can arrange for a ride to the valley. The road is very rough… I think horseback is the best option if you aren’t hiking. The Waipio Valley Artworks is my second favorite gallery on the island. There used to be an amazing TreeHouse in the valley, but it’s currently a private residence.
Waimea Gardens B&B is one of the nicer B&Bs.
There are a number of good restaurants around Waimea. In the past we really liked the Pacific Rim Cuisine at Daniel Thiebaut but were disappointed on our last visit. The food was decent, but not excellent. We also enjoyed lunch at Aioli and Meeiman’s (more reasonably priced than dinner). The Maha Cafe was great but now closed. We thought Edelweiss was decent but over rated and not a great value when comparing the food to the prices we had to pay. Merriman’s Restaurant was quite good though I think it’s a bit over rated. On the way to Hilo in Honokaa is Tex Drive In which has good burgers and yummy malasada (donuts without a hole).
Hilo & Puna Coast
Often be overcast and rainy.
World Botanical Gardens
Fish market will be disappointing if you have been to the Tokyo market.
Kapoho tide pools are great for snorkeling.
Recommended food: Hilo Bay Cafe, Sombat’s (Thai), Don’s Grill (local food with great pies), Pescatore (classic Italians) Paolo’s Bistro (chef owner Tuscany food, friendly staff). The first time we ate at the Cafe Pesto we had an excellent meal. The second visit was just ok.
You have to visit the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. In this area you should expect the temperature to be 10-20 F less than the rest of the island, and you should expect constant rain when you visit the volcanoes. Beside hiking you should stop at the Volcano Art Center.
West of the Volcanoes is the Punalu’u black sand beach where you can normally find sea turtles and good tide pools.
Rather than staying in the the park itself, I would recommend staying at one of the local B&Bs or the quant Kilauea Lodge which has pleasant housing and one of our favorite restaurants on the island. The food at Kiawe Kitchen was “ok”. I found the food at Thai Thai to be very disappointing. How can Thai food be bland?!