Big Island Favorites

By: Mark Verone

The Island of Hawai’i also known as The Big Island is the youngest of the Hawaiian Island chain. The Big Island features the southern most point in the United States and closest part of the country to the equator. The Big Island is young because it is still growing and full of volcanic and seismic activity. In fact the Island is actually made up of five volcanoes: 1) Hualalai, 2) Mauna Kea, 3) Mauna Loa, 4) Kohala, and the always active 5) Kilauea (despite it’s rest after the 2018 eruption). A sixth volcano, Lo’ihi, is slowly growing underwater off the coast of Hawaii but is not expected to reach the surface for another 10,000-100,000 years. The Big Island is actually larger than ALL of the other Hawaiian Islands combined. You will find all but two of the worlds climatic zones on the Big Island. Yes, it snows on the top of Mauna Kea and probably one of the only places in the world where you could surf and ski on the same day. We decided to settle in the Kohala Coast area which is known as the desert or leeward side of the island. It is dry, sunny and the weather is perfect everyday.
The rich history of Hawaii and the Big Island began over 1,500 years ago when Polynesian voyagers landed on this magical island. It is a land of Kings and Queens and Gods where the Hawaiian royal family made their original home. It is the place where King Kamehameha unified the Hawaiian Kingdom and remained the seat of the royal family until they moved to Oahu in early 1800’s. It is where the fire goddess Pele created the Hawaiian Island and formed her home in the fire pit called Halema’uma’u crater at the summit caldera of Kilauea. This island has a rich history of agriculture. First, with the sugar plantations then Macadamia nuts and many fruits and vegetables and unique crops like cacao, Papaya, Passionfruit, Pineapples, Avocado and the world-famous Kona Coffee. It is the only place in the United States with coffee production and a coffee industry. There is also a chocolate festival to celebrate the chocolate products being produced in Hawaii.
After spending time on all of the islands except Molokai, the Big Island quickly became our favorite Island in Hawaii. Oahu is nice to visit once in a while or for a long layover but the bustle of Honolulu is no different from any other major city. Last time I was on Oahu, it was crowded and the traffic is a nightmare. Maui is spectacular – beautiful beaches, great diving and snorkel and surfing. Over the years we watched Maui become more developed and more commercialized and it has lost its charm for us. I still enjoy Maui but not like the other Islands. Kauai is the rain-forest island, with spectacular canyons and maintains a rural small-town charm. Lanai is the place you go to escape but there is not much happening outside the two exclusive Four Seasons resorts. Lanai was known as the Pineapple Island and is mostly a private island originally owned by the Dole Pineapple company and now 97% owned by Oracle billionaire Larry Ellison. The other 3% of Lanai is owned by the State of Hawaii and private owners. I am not sure that we would return to Lanai but it was good to experience once in a lifetime.
When we first landed on the big island it felt like we were landing on the surface of the moon. The new Kona airport was built on top of a major lava flow from Hualalai, (the old Kona airport is now used for recreation). When we first drove around the entire island, we fell in love with the Big Island. Outside of Hilo and Kona there are no big cities – buildings cannot be taller than the tallest coconut palm tree. It is rural with a small town charm. There are farms, ranches and cowboys. Hawaiian Cowboys are known a Paniolos. At some point while driving through those farms you forget that you are in Hawaii as the green and lush landscape looks like anything you would find on a back country road on the mainland.
Rachelle and I have been coming to Hawaii since our honeymoon in 2001. Rachelle had been to Oahu before on a high school trip during a stopover to Asia. Hawaii earned a special place in hearts after we got married. You see we got married on September 15, 2001 – 4 days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the mainland. We traveled to Hawaii 2 days later on September 17th just as the nation’s airports and airlines were recovering. We took a connecting flight from Chicago to St. Louis on TWA Airlines. Our flights were empty. Barely anyone was traveling a week after the attacks. Our 767 which normally seats 300 passengers probably had less than 40 people on board. The plane was empty and the crew was so happy to see people flying – they were grateful and thanked us for supporting the airline industry – they were humble – they treated everyone like we were 1st class but they were still scared. Scared about the future of air travel in the wake of 9/11, scared about their jobs and scared about more terrorism. We split our Honeymoon between Maui and Kauai – two places neither of us had been before. We had a wonderful time despite what was happening on the mainland. The attacks of 9/11 also had a major impact on Hawaiian Tourism. It was a very tough time for Hawaii as the biggest part of their economy is tourism and when people stopped traveling and canceled vacations it meant people at the hotels lost their jobs. It took a while for Hawaii to recover but we saw the most amazing outpouring of patriotism and the Spirit of Aloha from our 50th state. It was incredible to see so much American pride 4,000 miles from home on an island chain in the middle of Pacific Ocean during our honeymoon.
The Hawaiian people are far enough away from the mainland that it sometimes feels like a foreign country. They have their own language and culture and are the only U.S. state with a royal family.  However, after 9/11, it was touching to see my fellow Americans in the middle of the pacific supporting everyone on the mainland…and Hawaii is no stranger to acts of terrorism and war. The attacks of December 7, 1941 occurred while Hawaii was still a US Territory well before statehood is proof of the strength and resiliency of the Hawaiian people. After our honeymoon we were smitten with Hawaii. Sure, we’ve traveled the globe and have been to many exotic destinations but every-time we went back to Hawaii, it just felt like home. Once we discovered the Big Island, we knew this was the place where we would want to settle someday and retire. That is when we found Kamilo at Mauna Lani and decided to invest in a home here.

“Where to stay and do I need a rental car?”

Many people ask this question first. Accommodations and transportation is often challenging if you’ve never experienced it before. This is why people spend so much time researching online and asking people for advice. We found ourselves going back to Hawaii several times a year and the hotel bills alone could’ve been a down payment on a house. We ended up investing in a house on the Big Island because it is still somewhat affordable and you get more land and more house for your investment than you do with other islands.  When we did book hotels, we historically stayed at the Four Seasons Hualalai. We are Four Seasons junkies. Nothing compares to the quality of service and attention to details from a stay at the Four Seasons. Hualalai is an amazing location, 10-15 drive from the airport, with pristine beaches, golf, spa, restaurants and luxury amenities albeit with a premium price tag.
At some point we found ourselves needing 2-3 hotel rooms. Securing rooms during high peak holiday periods with 10-night minimums was making trips to Hawaii for the entire family a bit challenging. Before buying our house, we rented a unit in the community and realized that renting in Hawaii through VRBO is another great option and gives you the flexibility and freedom without all the extra stuff. Then again if you want to be pampered at a luxury resort…that option still exists. Even if you rent a house, you can still visit the resorts and take advantage of their Golf, Spa and dining options.
We prefer staying on the Kona side north of the airport along Kohala coast areas. The Kohala coast is also known as Hawaii’s Gold Coast because this is the dry side of the Island or Leeward side. Leeward means less rain and more sun. Whereas the Hilo side is the Windward or wet / tropical rain forest side. We prefer the Leeward side but enjoy visiting the Windward side.  The reason for this contrast in climate is the trade winds which blow from the northeast of the Hawaiian islands to the southwest. Locals sometime call the trade winds “the trades” – these trade winds bring moist air and often cool down the otherwise hot desert of the leeward side. On the Big Island as the trade winds hit a volcanic mountain, the air cools creating clouds. These clouds produce rain on the windward side. The leeward side is always the dry side where the trade winds pass after they hit the mountain. The windward side is always the wetter side. Easy way to remember is winds produce rain for the windward side. Windward = Wet and Leeward = Dry. We prefer the drier desert side of Kohala coast. Our home, located within the Mauna Lana resort area, is a perfect location. The majority of the hotels and resorts communities are on predominately on the Leeward side. You will DEFINITELY want to rent a car if you plan to explore the Big Island – all major Car Rental companies are at the Kona Airport and several have satellite locations in the resort communities. Renting a car give you the freedom to explore the island and you will want to see the beauty of this island.
Below, I have compiled some resources, links and suggested activities for planning a trip to the Big Island.
Resorts & Communities in the Kona and Kohala Coast Area:
Shopping / Grocery: (don’t forget to bring bags for the grocery – Hawaii is a GREEN state – we have plenty of reusable bags in our house along with a cooler bag and a cooler to transport stuff from the stores – Costco is only 25-30 minutes from our house so we bring the cooler along)
Shave Ice & Ice Cream: (some of these are cash only)
  • OBISIC: Original Big Island Shave Ice Company – http://www.obisic.com/ yes it is food truck that moved around the island – Locals love this place and they have real fruit juice options – we tried it and I would go back again – check the website for the schedule. They are supposed to open in the King’s Shop at Waikoloa resort but for now they park the trailer in the King Shop parking lot.
  • ANUENUE ICE CREAM & SHAVE ICE: 61-3665 Akoni Pule Hwy, Waimea, HI 96743 located around the corner from OBISIC and is still a favorite option especially when the lines are long – its worth the wait – while you’re waiting you can grab a Taco or Burger or Dole Whip at Kohala Burger and Taco https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g60588-d2104100-Reviews-Anuenue_Ice_Cream-Waimea_Island_of_Hawaii_Hawaii.html
  • SCANDANAVIAN SHAVE ICE IN KONA: http://www.scandinavianshaveice.com/ – The best part of this place is you can get Dole Whip here – only a handful of places outside of Disney have Dole Whip and we found 2 on the Big Island. The other is Kohala Burger and Taco
  • GYPSEA GELATO: http://www.gypseagelato.com/ – Excellent handmade Gelato and delicious all natural ingredients
Attractions & Fun Stuff:
DINING: No shortage of good food on the Big Island – the best part is how much is actually grown or sourced from the island. Always good to make reservations for dinner. Most are on OpenTable or you can call them direct.
Restaurants & Chefs we enjoy:
Places we want to try:
  • Hawaiian Style Cafe – they just started following me on twitter and seem pretty cool – menu looks yummy
  • Mai Grille by Allen Hess: http://maigrille.com/ (this one is on our list to try – the menu looks good!)
Places we liked but they closed down: