I’m an island girl, I thrive in the tropics, and Hawaii is as close as we get in North America. I love Hawaii. Beautiful beaches, delicious food, several islands with all sorts of different activities… what’s not to love?
My friends Zach and Nici just returned from a vacation in Kona, which caused a strong bout of nostalgia. I feel fortunate that because of my job, I get to go pretty much whenever I can find the time and can make it on a plane — that’s really the challenge, since apparently a lot of people love Hawaii as much as I do! Unfortunately, winter is prime Hawaii time (not to mention the general holiday busy-ness of life), and I likely won’t make it there for a while. So instead I’ll share my five favorite things on Hawaii’s Big Island.
1. Makalawena Beach
This is the best beach in the islands. Yes, all of Hawaii — even better than anything on Maui, where you can pretty much just park your car anywhere along the side of the road and get into the water.
Makalawena Beach is pretty much a hidden gem, and you have to do a little work to enjoy it, which might be part of why I love it so much. It’s out of the way, it’s hard to get to, so it is pretty uncrowded most of the time and thus also very clean. The water itself is blue and clear, though the waves are occasionally a bit rough. There are some rocky patches close to the shore, but there’s enough space to steer clear and still enjoy swimming. Also, the sand here is amazingly soft and fine. When people say “powdery white sand” this is what they mean. When we made it to the beach, I literally dropped everything I was holding and spent a few minutes just running on the shore for the joy of it.
Getting to Makalawena Beach, as I said, is a challenge. First and most important thing: bring water, also food if you intend to stay there for a day, which is recommended. Second: Wear good shoes. hiking shoes are good if you’ve got them, sneakers are good too if they’ve got a tough sole. I actually wore water shoes and made it through just fine, but David’s were shredded. Definitely no flipflops. Finally, wear sunscreen. Why? You will cross a lava field.
Okay, that was a bit dramatic, but seriously, when we did the hike, I felt like we were walking through the desolation to Mordor or something. The lava field is of the a’a variety – spiky, sharp bits. There’s a path, but it’s not paved or anything. There is no cover until you get closer to the beach, so it can get pretty damn hot as you trudge along.
Here’s what you do to reach it. You drive just a little north of the airport to Kekaha Kai State Park. Getting to the actual park from Queen Kaahumanu Highway is a bit rough, but you shouldn’t need a Jeep as long as you drive carefully and take your time. Once you get to Kekaha Kai, you have two options: go along the shore, or head immediately into the lava field. We chose the shore option, since it’s far more pleasant. Kekaha Kai itself is a pretty interesting and enjoyable beach, though not easily swimmable. An eruption sometime back caused lava to flow right to the water’s edge, which makes for some very pretty juxtaposition. There are a few tidepools here as well, and we saw a couple of turtles swimming.
Just follow the water until you get to a small bay, the most swimmable part. There’s an old abandoned building not too far from shore. Follow the path between the building and the beach. You will seem to head away from the water… this is okay, you’re still going the right way. Then you’ll leave all tree cover and enter the lava field. This is the hardest part and will seem like forever (it’s really only 15 minutes, we timed it on our way back). Eventually you will see sand again, and some vegetation… just head forward until you see water!
I’m sharing this here trusting that all of you, my good readers, will maintain the beauty and cleanliness of this amazing treasure.Important note: there are no facilities on Makalawena Beach itself, only at Kekaha Kai. That’s a loooong way to go for the toilet, so don’t say you weren’t warned. Also, I’m sorry that I don’t have photos of the beach itself… our camera broke. You’ll just have to take my word for it until you get there. I promise it is worth it!
2. Da Poke Shack
Poke and seafood lovers: this is the best poke I’ve found in all the islands (Maui, Big Island, Oahu, Kauai). Da Poke Shack is not quite a restaurant, though they do have a couple tables at both their locations. Their food is best purchased by the pound and taken with you on a picnic, or to the beach, or to your room… everywhere, really.
For the uninitiated, poke is raw seafood, usually tuna but occasionally tako (octopus), marinated with sea salt and soy sauce along with various other ingredients. So it’s a bit like sushi in that your fish isn’t really cooked, but it’s vastly different as well because of all the other ingredients that go into it. My favorite poke from the Shack is called, appropriately, the Shack Special, which is ahi tuna marinated in soy sauce and honey for more of a sweet taste. David also enjoyed the dynamite, which contains avocado and despite the name, is not actually spicy.
They have good sides too — one of my favorites is the seaweed salad.
As mentioned, you can get food by the pound, or you can get combo plates that come with rice and a side. For those not inclined toward seafood, the Shack also has kalua pork, but that runs out pretty quickly, so get that early in the day. Besides their base in Kona, they recently opened a second location in Captain Cook.
3. Mauna Kea Visitor Center
One of the coolest things about the Big Island is that, well, it’s so big. Meaning you get to do a lot of very different activities. You could do all the expected water stuff: swim, surf, snorkel, paddle board, chill on the beach. But you can also bring your cold weather gear and go up Mauna Kea for some of the best stargazing anywhere.
Mauna Kea is pretty much smack in the middle of the island, so it’s a bit of a drive from either Kona or Hilo which are the two main towns. I highly recommend starting the drive in late afternoon, so that you can witness the sunset either on your way up, or at the visitor center itself — or, if you’ve got a good vehicle (although we did see a Mustang manage the difficult drive), all the way to the top where the telescopes are located, among which are the twin Keck telescopes, the world’s largest infrared and optical telescopes. Driving to the summit is only recommended if you have a 4wd, and only in safe conditions: rangers will tell you whether or not that’s advisable. It is also advised that you stop at the visitor center if you are going all the way up, in order to acclimate to the elevation.
After watching the sunset, you can head to the visitor center. There’s a small gift shop here with some pretty cool gizmos, clothing if you forgot to bring a thick jacket (it gets cold at 9000 ft up!) and tea or hot cocoa for $1, which is really nice as the temperature drops. There’s a small viewing area as well where you can watch astronomy videos, and the occasional live event (a group of children from a local school did a song and dance performance on one of our visits).
When the sky gets dark enough, you can enjoy the best part: stars! The sky is amazingly clear most of the time here (or clears up eventually), and there is no light pollution. The volunteers at the visitor center prepare the telescopes, which they’ll point at different things for the FREE viewing. We’ve seen Saturn, Jupiter and a couple of its moons, the Andromeda galaxy, and had a very close look at the face of the moon. The volunteers will also give a sort of lecture on what exactly it is that you’re looking at when you turn your gaze up, pointing out the various constellations.
This is a wonderful experience if you enjoy astronomy, and pretty romantic too. And the price can’t be beat.
4. Volcanoes National Park
There is a lot at Volcanoes National Park, and my one visit only left me with the desire to return and explore more. People spend whole days here, camp, hike. If your intent is to spot some lava, this is probably your best bet, from a safe distance.
We checked out the Jaggar Museum and learned a lot about volcanoes and lava, and got to watch some intense videos of previous eruptions. They have park rangers there who are approachable and totally willing to answer questions and share some insight and stories. We also went into the lava tube, which was a pretty short tour but still interesting.
Since there’s so much here, I recommend checking out the site to figure out what you’d like to see and do, and plan from there. Stopping at the Visitor Center is also advised as the rangers and staff there have the most updated information on lava flows.
5. Honaunau Bay
Sucks for swimming because of its rocky shore, but great for snorkeling.
Honaunau Bay is south of Captain Cook, so you can go south from Kona, drop by Poke Shack, and have a picnic during your snorkel day.
The water is mostly calm and has excellent visibility. Lots of great tropical fish and wildlife, and probably even some turtles and rays, who knows. I’ve read that dolphins occasionally come to visit, too!
When (if?) you get tired of the water, you can head south a bit more and check out the Pu’uhonua O Honaunau (say that five times fast) National Historical Park for some cultural knowledge. There are definitely turtles here too, so enjoy but remember that it is illegal to touch a turtle in Hawaii! They are an endangered species and protected by law.
Pro tip: there is no parking lot to get to the snorkeling area at Honaunau Bay, so you’ll need to park along the street. This is a popular spot, so going early is recommended. Suggested day is to go snorkeling first (after some loco moco breakfast!), have lunch, then go to Pu’uhonia O Honaunau, which does have a parking lot.
The Big Island has a lot more to offer, but these five things should give you a good place to start! And even though I’ll probably have to compete with you for airplane seats, it’s totally cool. Spread the love, hang loose, have a wonderful time in Hawaii, and maybe I will see you there.