Screams of whooo and wheee and whoo hoo echoed around our boat of about a dozen people as iPhones were on full video mode and some of us just hoped to memorialize the experience in our minds. You may have thought we were at a concert as we sipped and cheers-ed our Kona Big Wave beers, but we were on a 25-foot inflatable zodiac in the number one marine life sanctuary in Hawaii. Kealakekua Bay with its dramatic cliffs is where Captain Cook is thought to have met his fate. There is even a white monument of him onshore. Aloha Ocean Excursions zipped us down the coastline from Kona to Kealakekua Bay 12 miles south since this bay is challenging to get to by land.
We had just finished an incredible snorkeling adventure with graceful sea turtles and shockingly vivid colorful fish crunching on coral with dynamic hues almost too beautiful for the human eye. Just as we were about to embark, our boat was surrounded by a pod of curious and lively Hawaiian spinner dolphins showing off their acrobatic skills and pinkish bellies, which we learned is a sign of arousal. Flying under our boat and around us, about 50 or more of these slender creatures leaped through the air and spun as if they were putting on a show just for us. Their playful arrival made us wish we were still in the water.
Weren’t we supposed to be scared of this volatile island? The media sensationalized the volcanic eruption on the Big Island so much so that one would think the whole island was about to blow up and we might be burned or buried under lava. In actuality, although it is devastating for those who live in that part of the island, it is only a small area of the island away from the key tourist areas. A week before I arrived in June 2018, I marveled at video footage of an LA friend who flew over the volcano in a helicopter and took a boat from Hilo to witness the lava cascading into the sea changing the shape of the island. Well, that may not be the safest tourist activity, but now is the time to visit.
While many cruise ships have stopped their routes to the Big Island, flights are cheaper than ever and the locals say tourism has slowed. However, it didn’t seem slow to me because the hotels were packed and we met travelers everywhere exploring the island by car. What makes the Big Island so intriguing for an explorer is that there are 11 of Earth’s 13 climate zones, each with unique ecosystems. Renting a car is the best way to get around and witness the lush tropical rain forests, black lava deserts, and arctic tundra. Don’t miss our favorite Hawaiian attractions that we will never forget in the short time we were there.
“I believe Hawaii is the most precious jewel in the world.”– Don Ho
There are over 300 coffee plantations on the Big Island. The famous 20-mile stretch of land is the only place in the US where gourmet Kona coffee is grown and the only region where authentic coffee beans are cultivated. Just a 30-minute drive from Kona, find the Coffee Shack, a relaxed restaurant and espresso bar with open-air porch (Lanai) hanging off a mountainside overlooking 26 miles of coastline and majestic views of Kealakekua Bay. The 85-year-old coffee trees are grown directly below the establishment at 1,400 feet elevation making the coffee smooth in taste with plenty of body. The Arabica coffee grown here found its way from Oahu in 1828 thriving in the fertile volcanic soils. Make sure to order one of their huge sandwiches with luau bread made with carrots, macadamia nuts, pineapple, and coconut. You might just have some bright green Madagascar lizards show up and keep you company over lunch.
From Kona, drive straight up the island to the small artsy town Holualoa, the heart of Kona coffee country. You will pass numerous coffee plantations, like Hula Daddy Kona Coffee, an eco-friendly coffee plantation offering a tasting room and tours.
No visit is complete without stopping at Kona Brewing Co to sample local island beer, with flavorful varieties like Hanalei (POG) IPA made with passion fruit, orange, guava, and Pipeline Porter brewed with Kona coffee. You may be familiar with their popular Big Wave Golden Ale and Longboard Island Lager, but have you sampled Pineapple IPA, Lychee Lager, Lavaman Red Ale, Koko Brown Ale, or Duke’s Blond Ale?Kona Brewing Co even has a low-cal blond ale beer made with mango called Kanaha named after the Kanaha beach winds. Many beers are only made on the Big Island, so they can’t be tasted anywhere else.
Take a private brewery tour in Kailua-Kona (where it all began) before eating and drinking Liquid Aloha at their brewpub’s outdoor lanai. If you haven’t noticed, you will soon figure out while in Hawaii, that Kona’s beers are all named for Hawaiian legends or landmarks. With these more flavorful interesting beers, they make a perfect companion to good food. Sip your beer first, then taste your food and ask yourself, do the flavors of this brew pair well with this dish?
Founded in 1994 by father and son team Cameron Healy and Spoon Khalsa, the two pioneered ales and tasty beers when Hawaii didn’t have that yet. Now one of the most successful craft breweries in the US, the duo still remains true to their local roots through innovation, sustainability, and community outreach. You can feel good about drinking their suds because they are big on saving the planet. Besides employees volunteering and the company donating generously to many local non-profits, Kona Brewing Co also uses solar energy, recycles water for rinsing and cleaning, and captures and repurpose CO2 that’s naturally produced during fermentation – eliminating the need for CO2 deliveries.
Their third location on a 2.6-acre site will be steps away from this brewery expanding their production capacity tenfold. Working with a local canning operation they will start canning their own beers on the island. Experience Kona beer at most bars and restaurants on the island, but also at a special Kona Brewing Tap Room at the Hilton Waikaloa Village (the largest Hilton in the world) and the Hawaii airport, or take home a variety pack. Hipa Hipa! (Hawaiian for “Cheers!”)
TURTLES + LAVA + BEACHES
There are about 3 different entrances to Kihola Bay and we happened to hike into the beach through lava fields via two of the entrances off the main Highway 19. One of our most memorable days exploring Hawaii was making our way to this beach area to observe turtles in their natural environment sleeping and resting on the beaches.
First, we accessed a dirt road between mile marker 82 and 83 and drove about a mile to park at a small lot near the shore via a very bumpy road. Once you walk in towards the rugged black pebbly beach with turquoise water, head north or right along the beach. This is more of a walking beach than a swimming beach since the water is rough. Wear durable closed-toe shoes over the sharp rock and pebble beach. You will see several hidden pools or lava caves that look like cenotes or sinkholes between rocks and turtles actually camouflage with the rocks on the beach, so be careful not to step on these beauties.
Next, we pulled our car off to the side of the main Highway 19 next to miles of lava fields south of mile marker 81 on the left side of the road. You will see two poles sticking out of the ground and a small sign. This is where the 20-minute hike begins through the exposed pahoehoe lava flow. You may see a few cars parked on the side of the road. If you walk this way, be prepared to walk at least a mile past goats, birds, and mongoose, then when you hit the beach you will see some rustic homes. Head right on the beach to a turtle sanctuary lagoon where you can witness many turtles swimming out of the ocean up a manmade channel to rest in this peaceful sanctuary. The area is pretty deserted which makes the experience even better. Make sure you have sunscreen and water.
In the northern part of Hawaii in the interior (near the northwestern base of the highest volcano Mauna Kea), explore paniolo (cowboy) culture in the small town of Waimea, also known as Kamuela. The drive here is glorious with rolling green hills and pastures. Enjoy the cooler air and look for rainbows and regular rodeos.In this adorable town sip specialty coffee at the neighborhood nook called Waimea Coffee Company. Try out the casual diner Hawaiian Style Café across the street and don’t miss the vintage thrift store next to the café filled with incredible Hawaiian antiques, jewelry, clothes, and more. I left with a stylish old school aloha designer shirt and my friends left with many unique pieces from lamps to necklaces to glassware. For newer chic women’s clothing, don’t miss Makena. Rodeo and horse races are held at Parker Ranch every July 4.
SHARKS + HISTORY
On the Kohala Coast in the northwest spend an hour at Puʻukoholā Heiau National Historic Site, a place I now refer to as “Shark Bay.” From a summer camp area for kids, we gazed in the distance at this ancient sacrificial site hovering above us while we watched black shark fins poke from the calm waters. This “Temple on the Hill of the Whale” made from red stones without mortar was once dedicated to human sacrifice and is considered one of the last sacred structures in Hawaii. Built from 1790-1791 before western contact, the lava rocks were thought to have been passed hand-by-hand in a human chain all the way from the Pololu Valley, some 25 miles away. The site signifies the unification of the Hawaiian Islands by Kamehameha I. Apparently there is even a submerged temple in the bay dedicated to sharks. A stone post marks a spot where the feeding of sharks can be viewed. A ranger-led tour for a small fee will give you more information about the history of this area.