Big Island Guide: Explore the Outdoors

Get out there, is all we can say. (Oh, and pack water and a lunch.)

Pu‘uhonua O Hōnaunau
Photo: Derek Paiva 



The Big Island is big. You think you can do it all. You mark up the map and tell yourself you'll be at Café 100 for loco moco by 6 and Onomea Beach Park for a swim by 7:45 and Akaka Falls by 10:30 and … you’re still wandering around Hilo, shopping at Sig Zane’s, standing in line for mochi at Two Ladies Kitchen. 


Our advice? Rise early. Call and reserve dinner at your day’s end destination. Breakfast, pick up stuff for a picnic, head out. Don’t try to do it all, or even half; instead choose a destination en route to your hotel where you will stop and get out for a mid-day swim, hike or visit to a museum or farmers market. Check into your hotel and freshen up, then head out into the glorious afternoon for more. Pack a change so you don’t have to return to the hotel—shower at a beach park. Go to dinner and watch the sun go down over an amazing view. Walk around before you drive to the hotel. Look up—the stars are incredible from the Big Island. Drive carefully home. 



Check out the Ala Kahakai Trail, which you can access from Spencer Beach Park, just south of Kawaihae Harbor. Once on the trail, walk south; it’s a nice coastal stroll that will take you from one beach to the next. The trail extends down most of the coast, so you can walk as far as you feel like going and then turn around. This is probably one of the more easily accessed public hiking trails on the Kona coast. “If you’re closer to town, you can also take the trail from Kekaha Kai Beach Park north to Makalawena,” says Jason Cohn, marketing manager of Hawai‘i Forest & Trail. “I actually like this section better, but the road into Kekaha Kai is pretty beat up.”



As Kamehameha I consolidated his rise to power in 1790, he was balked by a cousin, Keōua, who controlled the eastern half of the island. Kamehameha ordered a commanding heiau constructed near where Highway 19 makes the turn south from Kawaihae. Dedicated to the god of war, and intended for human sacrifice, Pu‘ukoholā Heiau was built of stones shifted by a human chain from Pololū Valley, 14 miles away. When it was finished, Kamehameha summoned Keōua who, despite almost certainly knowing his fate, came to a fatal rendezvous. 



What better place than a city of refuge? The ancestral home of Kamehameha the Great, as well as a sanctuary, Pu‘uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historic Park contains parts of three ahupua‘a, self-guided walking tours, an array of ki‘i, or carved wood icons, the remains of a village and a resident cultural practitioner to bring skills and old knowledge to life. 

1871 Trail, Captain Cook;



Green Sand Beach at Papakōlea, Ka’ū
Photo: Derek Paiva 


Setting an example of bipartisanship, a state recreation area and a big resort hotel, the Hāpuna Prince, share the name and the sand of Hāpuna Beach. Hilo folks know this is the first stop for hitting the waves (bodysurfing only) and soaking up that vitamin D. Just five minutes north, Kauna‘oa Beach is beautiful and uncrowded, thanks to the state giving away access rights to Laurance Rockefeller for his Mauna Kea Beach Hotel—there are only 30 public parking spaces allotted on a first-come, first-served basis. Go early, though, and it’s you and the country club set. Come later? Still worth pulling in. If they’re full, put on your Posh Spice accent, display the alligator logo on your shirt and say you’re there for lunch “with the girls.” $45 parking fee otherwise! Both beaches get crunching bodysurf, so be careful on surf advisory days.


Know when to go by visiting this official site, where you’ll find info on ocean conditions, waves, lifeguards. Good for all islands, updated frequently.



On the Kona side, the Amy Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden is the perfect pairing for overcaffeinated coffee wonks. It focuses on Hawai‘i plants and their uses. Driveway entrance across from the Manago Hotel. 


On the Hilo side, the lush 40-acre valley and seacoast of the Hawai‘i Tropical Botanical Garden is ideal for working off that mokosaurus you had at Hawaiian Style Café. Plus you get waterfalls and a jungle canopy.

9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday; $5 adult kama‘āina rate/children free,



“A short hike I would recommend, one of my favorites, is to drive up toward Hāwī and go all the way to Pololū Valley at the end of the road in North Kohala. Take the trail down into the valley, cross the beach and find where it picks up going back up on the other side. Hike up the trail on the other side of the valley cliff and continue for another 5 to 10 minutes across the top. You’ll reach a lonely bench that overlooks the valleys of Kohala. There is usually not a soul there, and the view is absolutely stunning … It can be done in two hours. However, it is a big climb back out of the valley, so you have to be prepared for that.”

—Jason Cohn, Hawai‘i Forest & Trail



Fools for fishing love the heaving swells, salt air and scream of the reel that brings out our inner Ahab. If you like your sashimi really fresh, grab five friends and pony up $425 to Captain Chuck Wigzell of Hooked Up. A half-day charter gets you gear and an obsessive search for prey; you bring drinks, a hat, sunscreen, lunch and a cooler to haul your catch back on the plane. (Also: Tip the captain and gaffer!)

(808) 960-5877



Photo: Courtesy of Thinkstock 

It’s all around you, silly. But if you’re looking for the glowing kind, go to the Jaggar Museum & Overlook, not Pāhoa. The Pāhoa Transfer Station was where one recent flow could be viewed legally. Have dinner in town, and use the opportunity to ask around about what’s cooking, lavawise. Respect the Civil Defense barriers and all will be cool.

For updates and alerts consult the National Park Service site at  For sulfur dioxide and air quality alerts:



If the rise of manta ray-watching as a kind of resort sport hasn’t pinged your sonar yet, it may be worth your while to stop by the Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay. While the circus atmosphere and buildup may be a bit much—Manta Talks at 6 p.m., drinks like The Manta Tai at Rays on the Bay (where the prized cliffside seats are called The Rail at Rays)—the sight of the rays swooping and spinning is a natural ballet of caped crusaders.

If you snorkel or scuba, check out 



Tom Greenwall of Coffee Farm Tours
Photo: Joshua Fletcher

“Six hundred coffee farms on the Big Island and the dame had to walk into this one,” is what Humphrey Bogart might’ve muttered if Ingrid Bergman had gone to Hōlualoa instead of Casablanca. But she didn’t, and that means more coffee for the rest of us. The upland slopes between Hōlualoa and Kealakekua are good for visiting the likes of the Kona Historical Society’s Kona Coffee Living History Farm or Greenwell Farms. For a low-key but highly praised tour, offered by descendants of the Twigg-Smith family, check out Hōlualoa Coffee Plantation. 


Free tours 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., greenwellfarms.com10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; $15 adults/$5 children, konahistorical.orgtours 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday,


Six Amazing Drives 

Photo: Jack Wolford


Sometimes, the drive itself is the point. At more than 4,000 square miles, Hawai‘i is the only island in the chain where you can find something close to a real road trip.



Hāmākua Coast (start on Highway 19; always take the slower scenic side routes) for greenery, waterfalls, little sugar towns like Laupāhoehoe and Honoka‘a.



Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park Chain of Craters Road down to the sea and back. 



Route 250 from Waimea to Hāwī for lunch and then the Pololū Valley overlook (and maybe a hike down to the beach for a swim).



Saddle Road, Route 200, between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa (best from Hilo to Kona in the morning, from Kona to Hilo in the afternoon).



Highway 11 from Keauhou south to Ka Lae and Pāhala, eventually to Volcano (or start in Volcano and head in the opposite direction; either way, this will feel like the longest day, so leave plenty of time and stock the cooler). 



Route 190 from Waimea to Waikoloa in the afternoon (if going to the Kona airport you can skip the traffic on the Kohala coast). The light is amazing. Your reward when you reach Waikoloa: Lemongrass Express Thai in the Queen’s Shopping Center. 



Mauna Kea Mindful

Going for a mountain hike or bike? Best check on conditions—especially wind, something we on O‘ahu don’t know much about. On the Big Island, though, 25-knot trades can turn into a 60-knot gale when funneled by those twin peaks, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa.


This story is part of The Holoholo Guide to the Big Island in our June 2015 issue. Check back next week for more.