Hawaii is the magical place created by volcanic eruptions and shaped by gods and goddesses.
Legend has it that the Polynesian earth goddess Pele is responsible for creating the islands formed by these volcanic eruptions. She is now said to be living in the crater of Kilauea on Hawaii Island, after traveling from island to island in the same order as the progression of volcanic eruptions.
Although the youngest, the island of Hawaii is the largest of all the Hawaiian Islands which is how it earned its nickname, the Big Island.
The mana (spiritual essence) is strong here. You can feel and see the island’s aliveness at every turn. The Hawaiians don’t just see land as something that can be bought or sold, they see it as life.
Active volcanos, snow capped mountains, crystal clear water, tropical rainforests, sacred historical temples made of lava rock and some of the most epic waterfalls on earth make up this island. Climates range from hot to cool, to snowing in some areas. It is the only island in the world where you can find white, black and green sand beaches.
When driving across the island on highway 2000 there are so many changes in landscape that you feel like you are driving cross country.
One minute you are amongst lush rainforests and the next minute all you see are scattered, tiny, neon green leaves sprouting up through black volcanic lava rock. Amongst the craters and dry desolate empty land you can sometimes feel like you are on another planet. Oh, and there are goats everywhere.
The motto aloha ‘aina––meaning to love and care for the land, is engrained in the culture here. Natural farming, humanly raising animals and sustainable fishing practices are revered and promoted throughout restaurants all over the island.
Conscious Café offers fare for both vegans and meat eaters alike. Bowls, tacos, burgers and salads all made of organic produce, grass-fed beef and local line-caught fish. They also have an extensive kombucha bar, offering a wide selection of Big Island kombuchas, and a tiny gift shop area.
Hilo Shark’s Coffee is a great place to stop for coffee, an acai bowl or a sandwich. They have a large covered outdoor patio if you are eating “in” and is a good place to grab some souvenirs.
The Moon and the Turtle, although closed during my trip, is said to be one of the best restaurants on the island from locals and visitors alike. An always changing menu of locally sourced food and cocktails with a bumping happy hour and great service. Reservations recommended.
The Hawaiian Style café was also recommended to us. Locals love their enormous portions of classic Hawaiian comfort food. There are locations in Hilo and Waimea.
Village Burger is a quick service restaurant in a strip mall offering Parker Ranch pasture-raised grass-fed beef burgers using fresh local goat cheese, fresh baked bread and produce from neighboring vendors.
Big island brewhaus – Besides craft beer you can find a menu loaded full of local fresh line-caught fish, grass-fed beef and organic produce. Their spent grain from brewing beer and food waste is used to feed local cows and pigs. They are a platinum level ocean friendly restaurant and the second restaurant on the Big Island to be Blue Zone approved. Simply put, their aloha ‘aina game is on point.
Merriman’s – Farm-to-table, high end dining in a cozy non-pretentious atmosphere. The Mai Tais are amazing here.
Waimea Butcher Shop – Mom and pop butcher shop specializing in sustainably raised and locally sourced meat and charcuterie. They are a nose-to-tail operation that cuts meat to order and has an extremely high standard in quality.
Daylight Mind Coffee – Na’auao is the Hawaiian word for enlightenment and literally translates to Daylight mind. This company chose their name because they say it “weaves together a love of scientific exploration with a deep respect for the wisdom and strength of its Hawaiian roots.” Although they use western techniques they draw from their culture to keep themselves grounded and stay true to the land. They pour locally grown coffee sourced from several different farms and offer breakfast, lunch and dinner menus with a farm-to-table sensibility.
Farmers markets line the perimeter of the island on a daily basis. They are a great way to learn about Hawaiian culture and sample foods grown locally. Click here to find one near where you are staying. I visited the Hilo farmers market and although it runs daily the Saturday market is the largest all week.
The Kona side of the island is known for snorkeling. Crystal clear waters and beautiful beaches make access easy and inviting.
Beach 69, named after the mile marker it is located at, is a local favorite for snorkeling in the Waialea Bay. The white sandy beach is covered with large shady trees and the reefs are full of beautiful fish.
If you are looking for a snorkeling excursion by boat I recommend Hilo Ocean Adventures. You can arrange a private tour where you will have your own captain and snorkel guide to take you to all the best spots, prepare you snacks and take a video of your entire experience. You may even swim with sea turtles and have a school of dolphins riding along side the boat with you on your way out.
For a boat tour to see the lava flowing into the ocean go to seelava.com
Otherwise do what we did and take a self-guided tour by car through the Hawaii Volcano’s National Park.
Here you will see Mauna Loa, the world’s largest active volcano and mountain on earth accounting for more that half of the island’s land mass (most lying underneath the ocean). The mountain is constantly growing with its continuous stream of lava flow adding to its mass.
You will also see the shield volcano, Kilauea. Remember Pele? This is the volcano which has lava streaming steadily into the ocean. It is one of the most active volcanos in the world.
Driving around this park you will see volcanic craters and rainforests and have the ability to hike over miles and miles of lava rock.
If you are in Hilo here are some falls you won’t want to miss…
The Wailuku River spanning 18 miles long is the second longest river in Hawaii and is so powerful it can at times create flash flooding. It is also home to beautiful waterfalls.
Rainbow falls is an 80 foot waterfall that creates a rainbow on sunny days and a constant mist on rainy days. It is over 100 years old and pours from the Wailuku river in front of natural lava caves.
Boiling pots is 1.5 miles above rainbow falls. They are pot shaped holes made of lava rock that fill the Wailuku river. During storms the river rises and water appears to be “boiling” in these lava pots.
Pe’epe’e falls is to the left and upstream boiling pots.
The Kolekole stream produces some very impressive waterfalls as well. The most impressive is Akaka falls. At 442 feet tall it is twice as high as Niagra Falls. Kahuna and Uluhi falls are just downstream of Akaka.
Since I have only been to this island once so far I only have one place to recommend. It is a wonderful VRBO in Hilo called The Hawaiian Paradise Ocean Retreat with an east meets west sensibility.
The property is full of meticulously manicured zen gardens, orchards and lily ponds.
It also has a sweet little outdoor kitchen perfect for cooking all meals on site.
The money shot however is the infinity pool and hot tub which overlooks the ocean lined with lava rock walls.
Inside you will find local art, wood furniture and high end fixtures. The owner of the property Dan, has not forgotten any details large or small. He made my day when he brought me over a coconut and a drill one afternoon. Although far from town, this is a wonderful place to stay. If you are looking for a little seclusion this is the spot.
If you are looking for a baller vacation rental check out the properties managed by Elite Pacific Properties.
Like this one called Fairway #1 North located on the north of Kona.
I look forward to heading back to the big island of Hawaii sooner rather than later. More recommendations to come.
Sarah Burchard is the author of The Healthy Locavore, a natural foods chef and experience host whose writing focuses on cooking, holistic health, supporting community and eating locally grown and made foods.