North & South Kona
This sunny region on the island’s leeward side stretches from the coffee orchards, fruit stands and brilliant waters south of Kealakekua Bay to bustling Kailua-Kona village and the Kona airport in Keahole, and north through acres of lava flows leading to the Kohala Coast. It’s full of historic sites dating back to pre-Western contact, including lava rock temples, ingenious fish ponds, royal compounds and a place of refuge for those who violated one of the traditional kapu (taboos.) Among modern amenities are the state’s most exclusive resort communities: Hualālai, Kūki‘o and Kohanaiki.
Capt. James Cook, the first European to have landed in Hawai‘i, met an untimely death in a confrontation with native Hawaiians at Kealakekua Bay in 1779. Guided snorkel and kayak tours pass a monument to him in the bay below a steep hill with ancient burial caves.
The expert guides at Hawaii Forest and Trail (331.400.5772, hawaii-forest.com) have exclusive rights to lead small groups into two restricted-access preserves. Hikers explore Hualālai Volcano, which looms over Kailua-Kona, while bird-watchers traverse a wildlife refuge in Mercedes Sprinters. On the beach at Four Seasons Resort Hualālai (72- 100 Ka‘ūpulehū Drive, Kailua-Kona, 325.8000, fourseasons.com/hualalai), the impeccable ‘Ulu Ocean Grill specializes in seafood grown on-site or nearby, including abalone, oysters and shrimp, as well as freshly caught fish and island-reared beef. Funky Kailua-Kona has just about everything on offer: water sports, bayside dining, shopping, music and dance, most of it along oceanfront Ali‘i Drive, the main drag. In more tranquil Keauhou, about 6 miles south, enjoy 18 holes on the championship course of Kona Country Club (78-7000 Ali‘i Drive, 322.2595, konacountryclub.com). Head upcountry to explore family-run Kona coffee farms and the charming plantation town of Hōlualoa, home today to upscale art galleries. In South Kona, at Pu‘uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park (nps.gov/puho), aka Place of Refuge, replicas of towering Tiki sculptures stand guard over a royal oceanfront enclave with self-guided walking tours and cultural demonstrations. The oldest food festival in Hawai‘i, the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival (konacoffeefest.com) turns 50 in 2020. Its 10 days of events (Nov. 6-15) include a lantern parade and Japanese bon dance; cupping, culinary and coffee picking contests; farm tours; and an art stroll.
Although Kona Brewing Company (74-5612 Pāwai Place, Kailua-Kona, 334.2739, konabrewingco.com) remains a go-to for sampling its less widely distributed seasonal beers with an island-themed menu, there’s a new kid on the craft brewing block. Community- and employee-owned Ola Brew Co. (74-5598 Luhia St., Kailua-Kona, 339.3599,olabrewco.com), created to support local agriculture, produces delectable ciders using white pineapple, dragon fruit, lychee, rambutan and other exotic fruits, as well as hoppy IPAs and pale ales. The annual Queen Lili‘uokalani Canoe Race (qlcanoerace.com) is a festival of paddling events, including the world’s largest outrigger canoe competition along an 18-mile course between Kailua Bay and Hōnaunau. The 49th edition will take place over Labor Day weekend in 2020 (Sept. 3-7).
South and North Kohala
Hawai‘i Island’s Kohala Coast is known as the “Gold Coast,” a reference to its luxury oceanfront estates and world-renowned resorts, as well as the yellow tang that swim in its crystalline waters and coral reefs. In South Kohala, two white sand beaches—Hāpuna Beach and Kauna‘oa Beach, both located on the Mauna Kea Beach Resort, itself home to two iconic beachfront hotels—are consistently rated as the most beautiful in the world by respected travel publications. In North Kohala, the Akoni Pule Highway passes through arid hills into windswept greenery with views of Maui across the channel. Hāwī, a sugar town back in the day, is several short blocks of home-style cafes, boutiques and art galleries, but has earned its claim to fame as the bike turnaround point for the annual Ironman World Championship. The nearby village of Kapa‘au boasts a few more shops and the original bronze sculpture of King Kamehameha, whose replicas stand in Honolulu and the U.S. Capitol. Follow the road to its end for sweeping views of uninhabited Pololū Valley and its untamed black sand beach.
Ancient Hawaiian fishing villages thrived along the dry shoreline thanks to underwater springs and anchialine ponds (a mix of fresh and ocean water) along with abundant seafood. Lapakahi State Historical Park (dlnr.hawaii.gov/dsp) offers a self-guided trail through one partially restored fishing village; it’s just off the Akoni Pule Highway, 11 miles north of the industrial harbor of Kawaihae.
The legendary Mauna Kea Beach Hotel (62-100 Mauna Kea Beach Drive, Kohala Coast, 882.7222, maunakeabeachhotel.com) was the first luxury resort on Hawai‘i Island when it opened in 1965, a year after its stunning golf course designed by Robert Trent Sr. debuted. Manta, the hotel’s signature restaurant, and the Copper Bar restaurant offer diverse culinary treats with beautiful vistas, while the casual beachside Hau Tree is the perfect place to cool off with a frozen cocktail. Also part of the Mauna Kea Beach Resort, and extensively renovated in 2018, The Westin Hāpuna Beach Resort (62-100 Kauna‘oa Drive, 880.1111, westinhapunabeach.com) now features inspired dining at Mediterranean-themed Meridia. On the Mauna Lani Resort, Fairmont Orchid (1 N. Kanikū Drive, 885.2000, fairmont.com/orchidhawaii) is the setting of executive chef David Viviano’s lively Binchotan Bar & Grill, which gives a modern twist to the Japanese tradition of open-flame grilling, while his oceanfront Brown’s Beach House offers upscale open-air dining. Nearby, view the Puakō Petroglyph Preserve after a 20-minute hike through a kiawe grove. For haute shopping and more restaurants, head to the Shops at Mauna Lani (68-1330 Mauna Lani Drive, Mauna Lani Resort, 885.9501, shopsatmaunalani.com) or the Kings’ Shops (69-250 Waikoloa Beach Drive, Waikoloa Beach Resort, 886.8811, kingsshops.com).
The newly remodeled and rebranded Mauna Lani, Auberge Resorts Collection (68-1400 Mauna Lani Drive, 885.6622, Mauna Lani Resort, aubergeresorts.com/maunalani) is continuing the monthly event known as Twilight at Kalāhuipua‘a. Revered cultural director Danny Akaka Jr. brings top performers from around the islands for an evening of song, story and often impromptu hula amid the resort’s historic shoreline fishponds.
Waimea & Honoka‘a
Locally known as Paniolo Country (paniolo translates to cowboy), the charming upcountry towns of Waimea and Honoka‘a now mix rodeo and ranching with boutiques ranging from funky to chic, art galleries, restaurants, fine wine and cheese shops, and even one of the island’s foremost museums. The town of Waimea sits at a lofty elevation of about 3,000 feet, home to luxury estates on emerald hillsides as well as more modest homes and the island’s most stellar boutique farms. Saturday farmers markets in this region showcase all kinds of fruits and vegetables, as well as artisan breads (including gluten-free pastries), cheeses, sausages, exotic wood cutting boards, handcrafted knives and more. On the isle’s windward side, Honoka‘a is slowly filling up its former plantation-era downtown with shops and cafes.
Ranches and sugar plantations dominated the region in the 19th century. The sugar industry was one of the island’s economic powerhouses until the 1980s, and the last plantation closed here in 1992. One of the largest privately held cattle ranches in the nation, Parker Ranch (66-1304 Māmalahoa Highway, Waimea, 885.7311, parkerranch.com) holds a rodeo with horse races every Fourth of July.
Chef Peter Merriman helped found the Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine movement in 1988 when he opened his flagship restaurant, Merriman’s (65-1227 Opelo Road, Waimea, 885.6822, merrimanshawaii.com). Its farm-fresh, Asian-inflected menu remains popular today with foodies. Directly across the road, Red Water Café (65- 1299 Kawaihae Road, Waimea, 885.9299, redwatercafe.com) serves superlative house-smoked seafood, sushi, steaks and handcrafted chocolate, among other delicacies. Just north of Honoka‘a is the lookout for Waipi‘o Valley, home to taro farms and a black sand beach. To drive down the steep road into the majestic valley safely, and to avoid trespassing, go with a small guided tour such as those led by Waipio Valley Shuttle (775.7121, waipiovalleyshuttle.com).
The permanent exhibitions in Isaacs Art Center Museum and Gallery (65-1268 Kawaihae Road, Waimea, 885.5884, isaacsartcenter.hpa.edu) showcase the work of 19th and 20th century Hawai'i-based master artists including Madge Tennent, John Kelly and Herb Kāne, while the gallery sells a diverse selection of reputable contemporary works. Chef Edwin Goto’s whimsical Noodle Club in Parker Ranch Center (67-1185 Hawai‘i Belt Road, 885.8825, noodleclubwaimea.com) offers hearty interpretations of Asian- and island-style noodle dishes; his Village Burger in the same mall (885.7319, villageburgerwaimea.com) sources almost all its ingredients (including fish and taro burgers) locally.
Hamakua, Hilo & Volcano
From Honoka‘a, gateway to the gorgeous, largely undeveloped Hāmākua Coast, the scenic Māmalahoa Highway heads south toward Hilo, often called the state’s second-largest city, but really more of a low-key town frozen in time. ‘Akaka Falls State Park, home to a 442-foot waterfall on a ½-mile loop trail, is one of the major highlights along the way. The artist-friendly rainforest hamlet of Volcano provides most of the lodging and dining options for explorers of sprawling Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park (985.6101, nps.gov/havo), which straddles the lightly populated Puna and Ka‘ū districts to the south and west of Hilo.
The county seat of Hilo was devastated by tsunamis in 1946 and 1960, but was redeveloped so that the neighborhoods most affected are now parks. The Pacific Tsunami Museum (130 Kamehameha Ave., Hilo, 935.0926, tsunami.org) documents those events, as well as more recent natural disasters in Indonesia and Japan.
Downtown Hilo includes many early- to mid-20th century buildings on the National Register of Historic Places; take time to walk around town to enjoy their often colorful facades. Pop into the Mokupāpapa Discovery Center (76 Kamehameha Ave., Hilo, 933.8180, papahanaumokuakea.gov) for a rare look at the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, part of a vast national marine preserve including distant Midway and Kure atolls. With billowing steam vents, entrancing trails through volcanic ash and rainforest, a spectacular sea arch, and an enormous petroglyph field, Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park has always been a must-see, but the historic eruption of 2018 greatly expanded Kīlauea Volcano’s already-impressive Halema‘uma‘u crater. Enjoy the view of the latter over an early dinner at The Rim or Uncle George’s Lounge, inside the park’s historic Volcano House (1 Crater Rim Drive, Volcano, 756.9625, hawaiivolcanohouse.com).
One of Hawaii’s most beloved contemporary fashion designers calls Hilo home. The Sig Zane Designs studio (122 Kamehameha Ave., 935.7077, sigzanedesigns.com) takes its inspiration from local flora and native Hawaiian cultural traditions.