It’s hard to find any other kind of tropical paradise if you come from St. Petersburg, Florida and you are spoiled with the most amazing weather (except summers can be brutally hot and humid), the best beaches in the country and world-class attractions and museums. It’s also hard to rationalize a more than 10-hour flight to the opposite end of the country when it just seems so much easier to fly to Europe or South America for a destination vacation.
However, Hawaii lives up to its reputation. Traveling to the largest island of the Hawaiian archipelago, most commonly known as “Big Island,” the term paradise is just taken to whole ‘nother level. If you’re just thinking of bringing bathing suits to pack in your carry on luggage, you may have to think twice if you want to explore and travel through ALL but four of the world’s varying climate zones! Because of the changing topography created by different elevations of beaches, mountains and volcanoes, you can get to experience tropical heat to polar temps all in a day if you so decide to immerse yourself in the natural magnificence that is the Island of Hawaii.
Here are some of our favorite things must-dos and foodie stops you shouldn’t miss while on the Big Island.
1. First and foremost, schedule your sunset or sunrise on the summit of Mauna Kea, the tallest volcano on earth as far advance as you can. Pro-tip: Most people do the sunset because it’s not as much of a challenge compare to rising at 2am to make it for the trip to a sunrise experience. But, there are less people taking the sunrise tour so it’s easier to book even just a few days from the day you want to do it. It also makes for a more intimate experience with less of a crowd to deal with at the summit. You can actually do this trip on your own but be warned, you have to have a 4WD and navigate some steep roads in pitch black surroundings. They minimize street lighting to keep the skies clearer for a better appreciation of nature and the stellar skies. Also, with a tour group, they’ll provide your winter gear including parkas and gloves. Clutch for travelers like us who never check in luggage even on long international flights. 🙂 Plus, they take care of breakfast with great coffee or chocolate to boot!
I believe there’s only one company, Hawaii Forest and Trail, that has the official license to do this guided tour with most other tours being Japanese due to the overwhelming tourism from neighboring Japan.
2. Attend a traditional luau. For most locals, they may find it cheesy but we say try once at least. For what you pay for, you get a smorgasbord of Hawaiian fare and bottomless drinks while you sit back and enjoy authentic Polynesian entertainment. A great way to learn about the history of Hawaii too. Check out Island Breeze Luau for an all-around fun experience.
3. Drive through the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and get to see molten magma flowing. You’ll also see steam vents as soon as you enter the park which is quite remarkable. A little planning is necessary to experience all that the park has to offer.
4. Kona Brewing. Duh. A must pilgrimage to some the best craft beers you probably buy from the store anyway.
5. Spam Musubi. Spam is big in Hawaii that they serve it as musubi (a slice of grilled spam on top of a block of rice wrapped in nori) at some of the local fast food spots like L&L Hawaiian Barbecue (they’re all over the place more than McDonald’s probably). Try it before you judge it.
6. Kenichi Pacific Restaurant. This became our go-to Japanese restaurant for their excellent sushi bar with the freshest seafood and variety. You can also just do an omakase and let the chef decide on what’s best!
7. Lava Lava Beach Club. A great spot for having beers and snacks along the beaches of Waikoloa.
8. Four Seasons Hualalai Grille. The Four Seasons on its own is simply beyond breathtaking. Of course it’s quite the price to pay to stay in this 5 star luxury resort. However, if you can’t splurge, still make the trip and perhaps have a fantastic dinner on your last night on the island or just have a few cocktails on their oceanfront bar. Trust us, you’ll be thanking us.
9. Kona Inn Restaurant. Get the best mai tai at the bar. Just do it.
10. Holy Donuts. I know it’s random but they serve the freshest, lightest, sumptuous malasadas we’ve had.
11. Coffee? I don’t think you can go wrong with coffee anywhere in Hawaii. They can sometimes be pricey (as a lot of their basic grocery items that need to be shipped from the mainland perhaps.) But we did meet a local coffee farmer, Erik Sperka, and highly recommend buying his independent and locally-grown Old Hawaiian Coffee which you won’t even be able to buy at any grocery.
There are so many different beautiful beaches and scenic spots to visit on Big Island that we probably missed on this first visit, we’re sure there’s more to discover. Even if a lot of people find it a little more laid back than some of the other busier islands, we think this island everything you could dream of in terms of paradise. Go Big or go home as they say.