Lately, I have been getting a lot of requests for recommendations and info from friends who are interested in checking out Hawaii Island for themselves. I thought I would just put out this list of our recommendations (as they stand now; of course hotels, restaurants, and even little things like, oh lava coming out of the ground create changes all the time so, while I will try to keep this list updated, it may or may not reflect the latest and greatest of what is going on and where to be on the island.)
Two great references I would recommend utilizing as you plan your trip the Big Island.
- Hawaii Revealed: This started out as a book and has turned into an app and a website with the most comprehensive guide to all things Big Island (they also have the same resources for each of the other isles as well) Check our their site by clicking HERE.
- The Facebook page 365 Things To Do In Kona, HI is run by a woman who moved to Kona a few years ago and is always checking out great places on the island and sharing her experiences. Great for keeping abreast of the latest and greatest.
So, with that said, here are the latest suggestions we have been giving to our family and friends that want to explore this amazing slice of heaven…
Where to Stay: (in order of our preference)
- Kohala Coast: 15-20 miles north of the Kona International Airport (KOA) with probably the best weather among the whole island chain due to Mauna Kea (the mountain) protection from the weather patterns. Average annual rainfall is less than 10 inches. Can get a bit windy sometimes but no VOG (fog from volcanoes) that is often found in Kona. (actually now that Kilauea has stopped erupting there is hardly any VOG anywhere.)
- Mauna Lani – Fairmont Orchid and Mauna Lani Hotel (closed for complete renovation till end of ’19) are both great choices with beautiful beaches (Fairmont Orchid has THE best beach for little kids, quiet and protected, but gorgeous) VRBO condos are plentiful; has a great shopping center in the middle of the ‘neighborhood’ with a Foodland, coffee shop, Tommy Bahama restaurant/store, Ruth’s Chris, smoothie shop, and many others. Free hula shows on certain nights in the square. Some VRBOs have access to the Mauna Lani Beach Club which is fabulous!!!
- Waikaloa – If you want BIG resort experience, the Hilton Waikaloa is great but no real beach you can walk on to FYI. But it has just about everything else, including Dolphin Quest. VRBO options we recommend – Hali’i Kai condo is one of our favorites. Waikaloa has 2 malls, a huge grocery store, lots of restaurants, and a gas station. A bit more crowded than Mauna Lani.
- Mauna Kea — a little further north along the shore so a bit further from some activities we prefer but might have the best views on the island. Mauna Kea hotel is older, but beautiful and classic; (FYI on my recent trip in Jan ’19 it was being renovated.) next to one of the best beaches in the world. VRBO options have amazing views and most owners provide beach access for a small fee to renters.
- Hualalai – closer to Kona, which is nice; Four Season Resort is fabulous but obviously much more expensive, as are VRBO options in this area. No real shopping area here but super convenient to airport and shops in Kona.
5. Puako – small community of VRBO options that are either direct ocean front or across the street. Choose carefully as some options are better than others. Recommended for vacationers that really want to ‘get away’ as it is a bit farther off the main highway so not as convenient as the other resort areas. No grocery or amenities either.
- Kona – close to the airport; lots more shopping and restaurants, plus a Costco and a Target. I am not familiar with the hotels in the area but I have heard the Sheraton is nice. It is also where one of the Manta Ray dives occur (which I HIGHLY recommend if you are the adventurous type) I would recommend using VRBO if you want to stay in Kona. Lots of options here with beautiful western facing views of the ocean. Might find some less expensive VRBO options here.
- Kapoho – While this area is AMAZING, I would only recommend the Kapoho/Pahoa area if you are a) really looking to escape, b) have stayed in Hawaii long enough to appreciate and understand local customs and culture, c) want to see some amazing sunrises, stars, volcano action, etc., and d) are ok with rain on your vacation. It is wet out here but that is what makes it so lush. Not many vacationers out here so you are getting a unique Hawaiian experience with a lot more locals and a fewer beaches. We never had any issue AT ALL with locals, but guide books say that locals around here don’t really like tourists. That said, we loved it. It is gorgeous!! We used VBRO and had a fabulous place but be careful! Some of these places out here don’t have the same standards as some of the resort towns I mentioned above (most don’t have A/C fyi) so talk to the owner, look at reviews, etc. before you commit! Our place was heavenly but we saw plenty in the same hood that clearly were not. (PLEASE NOTE!! – I wrote all of this BEFORE the volcanic eruption in 2018 completely wiped out the Kapoho and surrounding neighborhood. There are some nice places along the eastern shore a little north of Kapoho or along the southern shore in Kalapana that might be worth checking out but otherwise it is almost impossible to stay here now so be very wary of any VRBOs that still advertise their homes for rent, specifically in Kapoho.)
Where to Eat:
- Merriman’s in Waimea – amazing and always good service. Always fresh and locally sourced. One of our faves on the island. Bring a jacket to Waimea. It is up along the Kohala Mountain and is usually 10-15 degrees cooler than Kohala. $$$ Get reservations.
- Brown’s Beach House at the Fairmont Orchid (where we ate our Vow Renewal dinner last year) awesome seafood at an all outside restaurant next to the beach $$$$ Reservations recommended.
- Kohala Burger Company – great cheap burgers $
- Lilikoi Café – local lunch place with huge plates of various salads in Waimea $
- Hawaiian Style Café in Waimea has the BIGGEST pancakes on earth. Great for breakfast and cheap! $
- Four Seasons Ulu – probably our favorite restaurant on the island. In the Four Seasons resort. Super expensive but OH So GOOD. Gorgeous views and sunsets too. $$$$$
- Roy’s in Waikaloa – it’s a chain but it’s still really good. Great Hawaiian food.
- Canoe House at the Mauna Lani hotel – romantic and beautiful, all outside. Get reservations. $$$$ (NOTE — will be closed from October 2018 until Late 2019 for renovations)
- Tommy Bahama Restaurant in the Mauna Lani resort shopping center – great food for a chain with a nice upbeat atmosphere and great patio $$$
- The Fish and The Hog in Waimea – oh my word, such delicious burgers and homemade desserts to die for! $$
- Kaleo’s in Pahoa; if you go to the SE side of the island for a night, this is a great stop for a nice dinner $$$
- Ken’s Diner in Hilo is a MUST if you are on that side of the island! This is one The Rock’s fave places and it is easy to see why. They ring a gong anytime anyone purchases a plate ‘sumo’ style. Great for breakfast! $
- Café Pesto in Hilo – fabulous place for less expensive Italian in the heart of Hilo city. Perfect if you are visiting the Hilo Farmer’s Market on Wednesdays. $$
- Lava Lava Beach Club on the beach in Waikaloa — this place is THE BOMB!!!! Call in at least one hour early because it is literally packed every single night, but so worth the wait. (they don’t take reservations – only call ahead the night of) We went there three nights in a row this last trip! Beautiful sunsets on the beach, strong maitais, great food. Plenty for the family to do while waiting too. $$$
The following restaurants I have not been to but have been recommended by a few locals who know the area.
- Kona Brewing Company
- Kona Inn – known for their mai tais and amazing sunset views (update March, ’21; temporarily closed)
- Island Lava Java – I’ve been to the one in Waikaloa (good for lunch) but not in Kona; a fave among the Ironman Triathletes
- Kamuela Kitchen and Coffee Bar – a new place that just opened up in Waimea; gets their baked goods from Mamane Bakery behind it (update March, ’21; temporarily closed)
- Red Water Grill in Waimea
- Island Fish and Chips in Waikaloa (update March, ’21; temporarily closed)
- Seafood Bar and Grill in Kawaihae– have not eaten here yet because it is new and was closed when we tried but have heard great things about this place!
What To Do (our top faves, but not necessarily in that order)
- Snorkel/Whale Watch/Swim with Dolphins Tour – lots of options here but our favorite with is Adventure X. They do a great job and they dock on the Kohala Coast )close to the resorts) and not in Kona like almost all the others so super easy and fast to get to them.
- Pololu Valley Lookout – past Hawi town (worth a stop and a stroll, at least for the ice cream) it is about a 20 minute hike down to the gorgeous black sand beach and then you can also hike in/around the valley as well. Breathtaking and one of our absolute faves. Could even take a picnic down there. (but I would not recommend swimming in the beach — way too strong.) Drive home on Kohala Mountain Road – the views are incredible!
- Drive to Hilo via Hamakua Coast – visit Waimea town (they have 3 farmers markets on Sat mornings) then keep heading east to check out the East Coast and the gorgeous scenery. Stop at Lapahoehoe State Park, Akaka Falls, What’s Shakin’ for a smoothie and then on into Hilo.
- Mauna Kea Visitor’s Center – can visit or book a tour at the summit on most nights. But at least check out the visitor’s center. It looks and feels like you are on Mars.
- Manta Ray Snorkel at the Mauna Kea with Manta Ray Advocates. This was one the greatest experiences I have ever had. See the manta rays up close in the wild at night. NOT for the faint of heart but SO WORTH IT!! You can read about our experience here.
- Hawaii Volcano National Park We haven’t been in a few years but this must be done at least once! It is so incredibly fascinating to see how these volcanoes have been changing the shape of the islands and how they continue to grow new land.
- Helicopter Tour — Not everyone is going to be up for this, but if you can muster up the courage (trust me, I felt safe the ENTIRE time!) it is SO WORTH IT!!!! You can do a full tour of the island with Blue Hawaiian Helicopter Tours 5 minutes from the Resorts or ride from Hilo with Paradise Helicopters for an even more exhilarating experience. Both are amazing!!! Best way to see all the different parts of the island, the recent eruption (lava if it starts to flow again), etc. You can read about our ‘Doors Off Experience’ here.
- Kealekekua Bay (otherwise known as Captain Cook Bay/Monument) — some of the most unbelievable snorkeling you can imagine. Just gorgeous. Take a boat tour here or just rent some kayaks and paddle over to the monument to snorkel the amazing reef that looks just like the one in Finding Nemo! Dolphins come here almost every morning so you may make some friends along the way. Head back uphill to the Coffee Shack for a snack or lunch after your snorkel. Amazing views!
Mike took this on our last visit at Kealekekua Bay.
- Hapuna Beach State Park– rated one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Ample parking too.
- Kua Bay – another fabulous beach closer to Kona. Worth the drive.
- Fairmont Orchid Beach (Paoua Bay Beach) perfect for littles; a small and calm bay where you can paddleboard, snorkel, swim, you name it. Lots of turtles usually as well. (great to walk both north and south from here along the coast — just gorgeous and where we did our vow renewal)
- If you want to see a BRAND NEW BLACK SAND BEACH, Pohoiki State Park might be worth the drive if you are staying in or near the East side of the island at all. The sand appeared almost overnight July, 2018 during the Kilauea eruption, almost completely covering up the boat ramp (making it inoperable) but the surfing here is supposed to be amazing and the view looks gorgeous too. Not often you get a chance to step on brand new land that literally did not exist a couple years ago! For more info… Click here.
As I learn more and make more visits I will update this post wanted to get it out there so that I am not reinventing the wheel everytime I get a call. Trust me, I can talk Hawaii with anyone for any length of time, but sometimes people just want the facts…
If you find this helpful and end up visiting this glorious place, drop a comment and let me know what your thoughts! Would love to hear them!