Not to miss on the big island?
September 25, 2023 7:24 PM   Subscribe

I'm going to Hawaii (the island) for a week. What's not to miss? I'm staying around Kailua-Kona. I will have a car.

I have a trip up Mauna Kea already planned. What else do you recommend, besides 'chillax on the beach' and 'eat poke' both of which are already high on the list.
posted by so fucking future to Travel & Transportation around Hawaii (26 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I love the Big Island. Snorkeling - one of my favorite spots was Big Step, not far from Kona. I bought my own snorkel mask and fins (which I didn't use, found them clumsy and used water shoes instead) so I could snorkel easily and glad I did, as you can snorkel off most of the beaches, but Big step was the best. Whale watching was fun but that is seasonal (Dec-April?). Mauna Kea was amazing - recommend a tour; ours included star/planet viewing through super large telescopes, which was almost as spectacular as the sunset on the top of the mountain. Volcano National Park should be included, they have a hike through a lava tube, and I think some actual volcanic activity lately. (I went several years ago.)
posted by j810c at 7:37 PM on September 25 [1 favorite]

Do you scuba dive? There's a manta ray night dive out of Kona. Seeing a prehistoric fish with a mouth the size of a Volkswagen gliding towards you out of the darkness before doing a backflip ... it's unforgettable.
posted by hovey at 7:37 PM on September 25 [3 favorites]

Kilauea is worth a visit, particularly if it's erupting at the time. If there's a spot where lava is entering the ocean while you're there then you should absolutely make the time to see that.
posted by Johnny Assay at 7:38 PM on September 25 [4 favorites]

We are currently in Kailua Kona.

Here are a few thing we have found extremely fun to do (besides chillaxing).

Broke da Mouth - probably the best food we have found on this side the island. My personal favorite is the garlic shortribs with rice. Note that it is take-out only.

In the same neighborhood you will find the breweries Ola Brew (up and coming) and Kona Brewery (probably the most well known brewery from Hawaii).

When it comes to excursions, you are on your own - there are plenty of offers for snorkeling, fishing, whale watching etc.

However, one place that we have returned to time after time is Kona Joe coffee. Just sitting in the shade of the giant trees and watching the water, having a coffee, maybe reading a book, has been restorative for us.

Also, we really enjoyed Kona Living History Coffee farm. It was very enjoyable to step into how a Japanese family run coffee farm worked back in the 1920s.

I believe that you will have a great time on the island. Enjoy your time!
posted by Rabarberofficer at 7:38 PM on September 25 [4 favorites]

If you find yourself near Papaaloa, the Papaaloa Country Store is a great stop -- a grocery store + cafe + bar with live music in the evening.
posted by BlahLaLa at 8:14 PM on September 25 [1 favorite]

For authentic home style Japanese food, Teshima’s Restaurant is a must. For a green sand beach (lots of turtles), go to Papakōlea Green Sand Beach and from there catch the most amazing sunset at the Southernmost Point of the United States.
posted by gingerjules at 8:25 PM on September 25 [4 favorites]

In Hilo, the Mauna Loa macadamia nut Visitor Center. Free samples when we were there, dunno about now.
posted by Rash at 8:44 PM on September 25 [1 favorite]

Holuakoa cafe in Halualoa is a beautiful spot for a great cup of coffee.
Kaya's cafe in Kealakekua is great for laid-back coffee and something to eat.
The Waimea Farmer's market on Wednesdays - with bonus Paniolo museum in the old Parker Ranch stables.
Volcano National Park. The drive there is awesome, the park is awesome.
posted by niicholas at 9:00 PM on September 25 [2 favorites]

Get coffee and ice cream at Kohala Coffee Mill in Hawi. Take Hawi Rd. to the mountain road Rt. 250 for a jaw-dropping view of the western coast of the island from up on high on the valley. Head south on Rt. 250 to Waimea for dinner at Merriman's. On another day, perhaps make your way to Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park to check out the Kilauea Caldera.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 9:14 PM on September 25 [1 favorite]

I am happy to see that someone mentioned Broke da Mouth Grindz. The food is a mix of Hawaiian and Filipino. It is delicious.

Seeing glowing hot lava up close at dusk is very impressive. Volcano NP has lots of different, interesting sights and hikes.

Seeing how coffee is made was an interesting process.
posted by mmascolino at 9:31 PM on September 25 [1 favorite]

If you're a chocolate person, you might enjoy stopping by Puna Chocolate. They have a store in Kona and the chocolate is excellent and the salesperson was knowledgeable - I learned a fair bit. I haven't been to their farm or anything, but it looks like they do tours.
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 9:46 PM on September 25 [1 favorite]

If Kīlauea is still erupting and they still have helicopter tours over it, I can highly recommend this. We did the 'open door' tour back in 2018 and circling over an active lava flow close enough to feel the heat on your legs was an amazing experience (also humbling in terms of how little influence we have when Mother Nature decides to show her anger). It's very expensive though.

The drive up Mauna Kea was also awesome and, when we did it, there were low clouds and mist all the way, which made the landscape even more eerie and other-worldly. Our rental car only just made it to the top and was running rough to the extent I wasn't willing to turn it off in case it wouldn't start again. As it turned out, it didn't matter, because we rolled the 27 miles down in neutral.

As we did on Maui and Oahu, we just drove right around the Big Island stopping where we felt like it (bring your own snorkeling gear) and saw lots of the parts of Hawaii that most tourists can't be bothered to see.
posted by dg at 10:10 PM on September 25 [1 favorite]

(I live in Kona…)

Holuakoa cafe in Halualoa

They changed hands recently and not quite the same.

Teshima’s is definitely a good choice.

If you feel like driving a bit highly recommend Merriman’s in Waimea for a lunch and Pueo’s Osteria in Waikoloa Village for dinner.

Less formal, grab some bevies and snacks and go to the beach at Old A’s at sunset.
posted by billsaysthis at 10:17 PM on September 25 [4 favorites]

nighttime snorkeling with manta rays at keauhou is on my top ten life experiences list.
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:19 PM on September 25 [4 favorites]

if you have time to get to the other side of the island, akaka falls state park is otherworldly beautiful.
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:27 PM on September 25 [2 favorites]

My tip for a great place that was not in the Revealed guide books: Paleaku Peace Sanctuary and Galaxy Garden. The garden is in the shape of the Milky Way and our Sun is represented by an an ear stud on one leaf of the garden. Pretty cosmic. There are also altars representing the different world religions.
posted by larrybob at 11:26 PM on September 25 [3 favorites]

Another vote for the nighttime snorkeling with manta rays!
posted by morchella at 11:53 PM on September 25 [1 favorite]

And yet another vote for snorkeling (or scuba diving) with the manta rays. It's unforgettable. Definitely one of the coolest things I've ever done on a vacation.

Same for a helicopter tour over the volcano. Looking down into the lava is awe inspiring and there's almost no other way to get to see that. It's pricey but it was definitely worth it to me.

I also really enjoyed staying in the town of Volcano, driving down to the sea, and hiking around through lava tubes and the rain forest.

The big island is super cool. Have a great time!
posted by DrumsIntheDeep at 7:13 AM on September 26 [1 favorite]

Things we did when we were on the Big Island years ago that we loved:

*Rent a snorkel and mask (and flippers, if you like) and throw them in the trunk of your car (we rented from Snorkel Bob's and they were fine; I'm sure there are 1000 other places you can rent from). There are so many beaches where you can go out into the water and just be over a reef. There are the super-popular ones, but we also saw sea turtles just at random beaches that we stopped at with, like 10 other people in the water, total.

*The Hawaiian Vanilla Company lunch and tour was great, if you're into that kind of thing.

*There are some great hikes near the falls on the northern coast. I don't remember exactly which one we did, but that area was spectacular.

*Things have obviously been ... uh ... "reshaped" since we were there years ago, but whatever you can do in Volcanos National Park will be wonderful, I'm sure.

*I think the lava boat tours aren't running right now because there isn't lava flowing into the ocean, but when that's happening, the dawn tours are fantastic.

*If you make it over to the east coast, definitely spend some time in Hilo. It's a cool town that contrasts with things on the west coast that feel like they are 90% dedicated to just the tourist trade. It's a nice place to just walk around.
posted by Betelgeuse at 7:21 AM on September 26 [1 favorite]

Nth snorkeling with manta rays, it's an amazing experience that you won't replicate elsewhere. But, if you do this, make sure you go with a reputable guide that is more concerned with the manta rays than the tourists. I did a swim with Manta Ray Advocates when I was on the Big Island and they were extremely good about cracking down on people who were even potentially getting in the way of the feeding mantas.

Do go snorkeling as well. There's tons of places, and it's fun to just walk into the water and suddenly see an amazing amount of marine life. Also economical, especially if you have (or rent) your own fins.

If you need to kill time before your flight, I can recommend the Kona Sea Salt Farm. Happened on it because we needed something to do after checking out of our hotel; we enjoyed it quite a bit! The foot soak is frigid however and your tolerance may vary. It's also next to a really beautiful section of coast, although not one for swimming.

The farmers markets that occur in various places are definitely worth it. Spend your money locally if possible, not on chains that are based elsewhere.

Also, in direct contradiction to the above... Costco. They have a ton of cookies, macadamia nuts, etc. at lower prices than the ABC stores. It's better to buy direct from local vendors, but if you have people who are expecting food souvenirs then it's a good place to get them.
posted by daikaisho at 7:25 AM on September 26 [3 favorites]

The Hawai'i Tropical Botanical Garden is just spectacularly beautiful. If you're going to Hilo, it's just a few miles south.
posted by annaramma at 10:29 AM on September 26 [2 favorites]

I'm in Honoka'a, so on the other side of the island from Kona and Waikoloa. Feel free to MeMail me if you have specific questions. We generally recommend the current edition of The Big Island Revealed as a guide book.

It's worth remembering that Hawai'i Island is the size of Connecticut and has every type of biome except permafrost, so when you drive around, you'll see vastly different landscape depending on where on the island you are. Also, it gets COLD up the mauna. The visitors center does a brisk trade in sweatshirts. Bring long clothes and socks.

On the poke issue. If you're getting carry-out, consider Foodland (grocery store). Even their previously-frozen is quite good, and enough cheaper that you can eat a lot more than you could afford from other places.

I think j810c is talking about Two-Step, which is a big snorkeling spot. I also like Beach 69 (named for the mile marker.) It's less developed and a lot of walking in sand to navigate, but it's got nice shade and has plenty of rocky areas with interesting aquatic life, and is usually less busy than Two Step. Hapuna has, I think, a single palm tree for shade, but good waves. It'll be crowded. Spencer Beach is calmer, but has bathrooms, showers, etc easily accessibly. It's a fantastic family beach and will be full of locals on weekends. Neither of those is amazing for snorkeling, but Spencer is better than Hapuna. Where there are rocks, there will be sea urchins.

You can Manta snorkel, if you don't scuba. It's been high on the list of everyone who's gone, as reflected in comments above. Don't mess with or try to touch or chase any of the local wildlife, whether mantas, dolphins, sea turtles, geese.

The lava is not currently flowing outside of the cauldera, but, definitely still worth seeing (assuming it's still active when you're here. Check the national park website). It needs to be dark to get the full effect, and will be busiest right at/after sunset. You might leverage your time zones and get up super-early one of your first days here and head down. Bring binoculars.

If you're a beer person, in addition to Ola and Kona Brewing Company, the other main microbrewery on island is Big Island Brewhaus up in Waimea/Kamuela (beware in search results, there's a Waimea on another island). I think there is also be Hilo Brewery, but I cannot vouch for them.

Speaking of Hilo, Ken's House of Pancakes has a wide array of local-style foods in a diner-type atmosphere. It's no longer 24-hour, which is too bad, but a decent option if you're looking for a reasonably authentic retro Hawaii eating experience.

The thing to know about Green Sand Beach is that there is a bright, hot, and boring hike/walk to get there, unless you pay a guy with a jeep to drive you. Take water. The sand is also sort of a golden olive, and not as strikingly green as many people expect. If you're down that way, I've heard good things about Punalu'u bakery

Waimea does have a farmer's market at the stables on Wednesday. There are 3 on Saturday: One at the stables, one at Parker School (parking is a nightmare, but it's a good market), and a less-impressive one toward Honoka'a at Kuhio Hale. There is local history and drama about the farmer's market situation. Honokaa has one on Sunday, just off The Highway.

Merriman's is the most expensive place to eat in Waimea. It's good, but I'm not sure it's worth it. Ippy's is a nice "elevated" plate lunch (a local tradition. Entree, rice, and salad/mac salad--mac salad varies WIDELY in contents). Ippy himself is, or has recently been, on some kind of cooking series, I think? It's right across the street from Brewhaus. The Fish and the Hog is just down the road, and is excellent for BBQ. Be sure to get the banana cream pie, even if that's not usually your thing. The food court at Parker Ranch Center is actually pretty solid, Dominos notwithstanding.

There are a couple bakeries in Waimea that are worth your while: Sandwich Isle in the KTA plaza (behind McDonald's. It's worth noting that the McDonald's iced tea here is different than on the mainland and quite good.) And Patisserie Nanako, which is more Japanese-style, and is across the street in the Foodland plaza.

Agree that Akaka Falls is good. Contrary to TLC's advice, DO go chasing waterfalls. Akaka is a mile-or-so hike/walk that is paved with a goodly number of stairs. Rainbow Falls is right outside Hilo and 100% accessible, but less impressive. The whole Hamakua Coast is beautiful tropical jungle. Take Saddle Road one way and the coast road the other, to get both experiences. Strongly recommend checking the traffic through Waimea. It's been bad during the day during the week lately due to construction, and you have to go through there to get to the Hamakua coast.

While you can't/shouldn't go down into Waipio Valley, the lookout is beautiful. And, if you're going that way, I think a stop at the Heritage Center in Honoka'a is worth your time. It's free and goes into the history of the Hamakua Coast in a way that gives some useful context. In general, Honoka'a is really leaning into the "cute little tourist town" thing, and has some good choices for lunch. Don't get lunch from Tex (DO get malasadas); the Honoka'a Country Market has great sandwiches and quiches, or anywhere along Mamane will be just fine or better. If you really want An Experience, you can try to time it to see a movie at the People's Theater. It's a 90 year old, 1-screen movie theater.

I do not know which hotel has the best luau. Queen's Marketplace in Waikoloa has a free hula show every Wednesday, though, that was quite respectable, at least pre-pandemic. Any local events will usually be worth checking out for the vendors, performers, etc.
posted by DebetEsse at 11:55 AM on September 26 [4 favorites]

My info is a bit dated, but here goes.

If you can still camp overnight at Wapio Valley (on the Hilo side), go for it. We watched the black sand beach sparkle under a rising full moon, which was haloed in circular double rainbows. If you are lucky, the huge mango tree at the bottom of the hill will bear ripe fruit.
posted by mule98J at 11:59 AM on September 26 [1 favorite]

Do not attempt to camp in any of the valleys, or, really, anywhere you don't have a permit for. You will be walking into a level of local drama that you are in no way prepared to deal with.
posted by DebetEsse at 3:49 PM on September 26 [1 favorite]

I was there in July. Waipio Valley was closed to hiking.

I took a tour of Heavenly Hawaiian coffee farm, and really enjoyed all the info and ridiculously beautiful scenery. Was surprisingly low cost and they give you unlimited samples of their very expensive coffee.

I took the advice to go for a 9 pm manta ray tour, which is less crowded than the ~6 pm tour. Very glad I did. Saw no less than 7 huge mantas--right in front of my face.

I would tell you that viewing the glowing lava in the Kilauea crater at night is the most awesome thing ever, but the lava wasn't flowing so I can only go by hearsay. I can say that the drive from the crater down to the sea was magnificent.

Here's one of the live volcano cams. There was a nice eruption a week ago, but it's quiet at the moment.

I also highly recommend the Herb Kane paintings that are on display in the King Kamehameha Hotel.

The submarine tour was short but well worth the spend.
posted by polecat at 7:30 PM on September 26 [1 favorite]

Oh yeah, the Botanical Garden was linked above, but I must emphasize that it is best in class. 1000% qualifies as can't-miss.
posted by polecat at 7:33 PM on September 26 [2 favorites]

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