While many visitors come to Hawai’i just to relax at the resorts, sit in the sand and swim, there is much more to experience on the state’s so-called Big Island. Here are half a dozen lesser-known but must-see attractions.
1. The bioreserve and tropical garden of Hawaii
Located near Hilo, the island’s largest city, the garden was created by the waters of Onomea and Alakahi creeks and by the wind and waves that carved the lava cliffs of the coast.
You’ll descend a steep boardwalk into the Onomea Valley, filled with tall trees, lush foliage and a rainbow of exotic flowers.
First settled as a Hawaiian fishing village, Onomea Bay was later the site of the Onomea Sugar Mill. When the mill closed, the valley was used to grow lilikoi (passion fruit) and graze cattle. In the early 1900s, the area was deserted.
The garden’s founders, Dan and Pauline Lutkenhouse, discovered the valley in 1977. From 40 acres of weed-infested land, they created a 20-acre natural greenhouse with more than 2,000 plant species.
A mile-long trail takes you over streams and waterfalls. The path is lined with yellow, purple and pink orchids; red, white and black anthurium; bird of paradise; ginger; red, yellow and pink hibiscus; heliconia; white spider lilies; and ohia lehua At the end of the valley you will enjoy magnificent views of the Pacific Ocean.
Hilo Farmer’s Market Photo: Adobe Stock
2. Hilo Farmers Market
Every day from 7am to 3pm, more than 200 vendors at this market sell exotic fruits and vegetables, locally grown flowers, handmade crafts, art and photography, and beautiful gifts. You’ll want to set aside a few hours for a stop here, especially if you plan to talk to vendors and artists.
3. OK Farms
Another enriching experience near Hilo is a 1,000-acre OK Farms tour that showcases the various crops grown here and offers tastings along the way.
“In the 1800s, this was a sugar plantation,” says tour guide LoLo Arcand. “After sugar production, the owners turned the acreage into a macadamia nut farm with 5,000 trees.”
In 2002, after the nut farm failed, Ed Olson and Troy Keolanui purchased the property and created the current farm to perpetuate sustainable agriculture in Hawaii. Twenty years later, the property is one of the largest producers of tropical fruit in the United States and is an incremental player for food independence in Hawaii.
The rolling hills of Pu’ueo Mauka are fertile. They receive enough rain to grow coffee, macadamia nuts, cocoa (chocolate), lychee, longan, rambutan, citrus fruits, palm hearts, spices and other fruits and vegetables. The farm, along Hilo’s historic Wailuku River, offers views of the famous Rainbow and Kiaemukanka Falls.
Guides show you the remaining macadamia trees on the farm and how the nuts are harvested one by one as they ripen. “One hundred to 150 pounds of macadamia nuts are harvested per tree,” says Arcand.
At the Rainbow Falls lookout, macadamia fruit and nuts, including longan (dragon’s eye), star fruit and rambutan, are placed on a picnic table for guests to try, so they can learn the difference between a nut straight from the tree and a processed one.
You’ll stop at the spice row, where guides introduce cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice. You will also see the coffee growing acreage with a breathtaking view of the ocean.
After the tour, drive to the 422-foot Akaka Falls. The trailhead is easy to find – it’s right next to the parking lot. To reach the falls, take a short 0.4-mile hike through the lush rainforest, full of wild orchids, bamboo groves, and ferns.
Hawaii Volcanic National Park Photo: Adobe Stock
4. Hawaii Volcanic National Park
A 45-minute drive from Hilo takes you to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. It includes Kīlauea, one of the most active volcanoes in the world, and Mauna Loa, the most massive shield volcano on the planet, which is also active. The UNESCO World Heritage Site offers scientists insight into the development of the Hawaiian Islands and access to studies of volcanism.
Begin your visit at the Kīlauea Visitor Center, just inside the park, which is open from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM (although the park itself never closes). Here you will receive the latest information on trails, ranger-led activities, road conditions and safety precautions. Then start your tour at Kīlauea Overlook and work clockwise along Crater Rim Drive.
The 18.8-mile Chain of Craters Road leads to the coast, an area that is home to several ancient villages. Paths, houses, heiaus (temples) and petroglyphs bear witness to the complex uses of this area over the centuries. The park offers visitors spectacular volcanic landscapes, glimpses of rare flora and fauna, and a glimpse of traditional Hawaiian culture connected to these landscapes.
Park ranger Jody Anastasio suggests guests hike an old portion of Crater Rim Drive to Keanakāko’i Crater to see the massive Halemaʻumaʻu. There are many short and day hikes in the park’s 554 square miles.
“What I hope every visitor takes away is a better understanding of the biology, geology and culture here,” he says. “We want to perpetuate this information.”
Kona Historic Sites Photo: Adobe Stock
5. Kona Historic Sites
The Kona District stretches along the west side of the island from ʻAnaehoʻomalu Bay to Manukā (Kaʻū) Park and is known for its resorts, shopping, restaurants and nightlife. You’ll also find coffee farms and historic Hawaiian sites. King Kamehameha spent his last years in Kailua-Kona.
Other significant historical sites include Kealakekua Bay in the south, where Captain James Cook first set foot on the island in 1778.
North of Kailua-Kona is Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park, a 1,160-acre park where you can explore early heiaus, fish ponds, and petroglyphs.
Protected from the winds by Maunaloa, the calm, clear waters of South Kona are perfect for snorkeling, diving, sailing, and spotting dolphins and honu (Hawaiian green sea turtles).
At Hōlualoa, you can taste the distinctive flavors of 100% Kona coffee.
6. Kona Salt Farm
Just south of the Fairmont Orchid complex is the world’s only factory where salt is made from pure 900-year-old ocean water that traveled from Iceland, rich in minerals and natural flavors. It is one of the highest quality finishing salts.
“A four-inch pipe travels a mile offshore, 2,200 feet deep, and pumps seawater to the solar evaporation beds,” says tour guide Ipolani Morgan. “Keāhole Point is one of the few places in the world where this is possible.”
Morgan takes you on a tour of the seven-acre waterfront property at Kona Keāhole Point.
After learning about the history of the area, the ancient Ho’ona Hawaiian settlement, and the salt-making process, walk to the evaporation tubes. Once the water evaporates, the salt goes into containers where the water continues to drain until the salt is ready.
In addition to gourmet sea salts, as part of the salt making process, Kona Salt Farm also grows Deep Ocean Minerals as a magnesium supplement, magnesium bath, and Nigari, the traditional tofu coagulant.
At the end of the tour, you can taste pure Kona salt flavored with fruits and vegetables.
QUICK DETAILS OF THE TRAVELER
What is this: Polynesians settled the Hawaiian Islands sometime between AD 124 and 1120. Isolated from the rest of the world for at least 500 years, the islands lie about 2,000 kilometers west of California. They gained US statehood in 1959. The island of Hawaii, also known as the Big Island, is the largest island in all of America.
climate: The island of Hawai’i is one of the most ecologically diverse places in the world, with eight climate zones. It has a warm year-round climate of 75 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit (23 to 29 degrees Celsius) in winter and summer along the coast. The temperature is much cooler in the mountains, especially at night. Annually, Hilo receives an average of 80 inches of rain while Kona receives less than two inches.
Getting there: yarn The international airport is located on the east side of the island. Mokulele Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines serve the airport. Keahole Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport is located on the west side of the island. Air Canada, Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, Japan Airlines, United Airlines, Westjet, Southwest Airlines and Mokulele Airlines serve this airport. Both airports have capacity for private jets.
QUALIFICATION OF THE TRIP
Accommodation: The author stayed at Fairmont Orchid (A+), an oceanfront resort less than half an hour from the Kona airport that offers luxury accommodations, a spa, a AAA Four Diamond restaurant, and a golf course. SCP Hilo Hotel (A-), five minutes from the airport, is close to downtown Hilo and offers views of Turtle Bay.
Among the more than two dozen other hotels and resorts on the island are located Hilton Waikoloa Village, Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, Autograph collection, Outrigger Kona Resort and Spa, Halii Kai in Waikoloai Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort & Spa.
Kitchen: The author dined at Brown’s Beach House (A) at the Fairmont Orchid, a AAA four-diamond signature restaurant overlooking Pauoa Bay that offers one of the most spectacular sunset views on the island. Island Lava Java Bistro (A-) in Kona offers casual fare including salad, pizza and burgers. papayas (A) in Hilo offers brunch and upscale Italian-American cuisine at lunch. Ken’s House of Pancakess (B+) in Hilo makes up for what it lacks in atmosphere with delicious food and excellent service. The Rim by Volcano House (B+) in Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park offers a buffet breakfast and fine dining in the evening.
Other notable restaurants in Hilo include Moon and turtle, Paul’s place, Coffee 100, Pineapple’s Island Fresh Cuisinei Ohana Grill Hilo by Jackie Rey. Among the highly rated restaurants in Kona are: Umekes Fish Market Bar & Grill, Papa Kona bar and restaurant, On the rocksi Magic Beach Grill.
Editor’s note: the author was the guest of the Hawaii Island Visitors Bureau.