Spotlight :: Hawaii (The Big Island)

Hawaii - a trip styler guide[trip style = beach + sun]

As my flight descends towards the Kona Airport over an 1890s lava flow, I'm welcomed by Hawaii Island's bubbling beginnings. This is not your average sandy beach vacation; it's so much more.

At 11:50am I settle into my sweat box of a rental car and open my TomTom GPS app---my travel BFF---ready to tackle the island on two wheels. Problem: trusty Tom does not include Hawaii's Big Island {note to self: download Tom's newest version, doh!}. Before I have a molten meltdown, I realize that while the Island is big, it only has a few major roads. Old-school exploration it is; map in hand, we start the car.

hawaii lava flow

Pulling out of the open-air airport with the air con blasting at arctic levels, my eyes are glued to the window instead of the map. Wispy grasses sprout between the shiny, course lava---indicating different flow generations---as we motor to our first of five hotels on the youngest Hawaiian Isle.

En route I notice a bunch of highway-side parked cars and lava ash roads leading to what seem like secret spots. Out yonder, oceanfront palm oases brighten the inky landscape. The trusty map shows no evidence of such places, and I quickly learn Hawaii 101: have a guidebook, and Hawaii 102: go off-book and explore like Captain Cook.

turtles in hawaii island

At first I skip Kona and do what ANY sun-starved winterite would do: beeline to the Kohala Coast Resort, don my bathing suit and dine while watching the sunset. P-r-i-o-r-i-t-i-e-s. Over the next 10 days, I make my way around the island, descending into sacred valleys and going on DIY turtle safaris along the way.

The Big Island has four of the world's five major climates zones, and it shows; the landscape changes by the minute. Look left and find cow pastures, look right and find a Tarzan-thick tropical forest, look ahead and there's flowing lava, look back and there's a frosty fern gully.

hawaii waterfall

Between frequent roadside stops for everyday sights like breaching whales and cascading waterfalls, my eyes stay glued to the window the entire journey. While this results in what most would call a series of wrong turns, I come to realize that the far reaches of this world were discovered by wrong turns. In Hawaii, wrong turns are right.

Here's your trusty Trip Styler guide to Hawaii Island:

Eat where to eat in hawaii island

Da Poke Shack - Reeling in a boatload of freshness, Da Poke Shack chops the Pacific's bounty seven days a week in a standing room-only lunch market visible only by a neon sign and two picnic tables. Try the $10 dynamite poke bowl with island avocados. I could eat it every day for the rest of my life.

Punalu'u Bake Shop - If you're in the area {and you will be if you visit the Punalu'u black sand beach}, stop by the southernmost bakery in the USA to taste some of Hawaii's famed malasadas---Portuguese sugar buns that often come with pudding or guava jam in the center. Heaven help me! I bought way too many.

Other faves: Merriman's for homegrown Hawaiian food and Brown's Beach House for seaside dining and locally sourced delicacies.

Do what to see in hawaii

Beaches - Almost side by side, the Kohala Coast's Hapuna Beach {or Mauna Kea Beach} are some of the island's nicest white sand stretches. On the south side, check out Punalu'u black sand beach.

Hikes - Trek down Pololu Valley's steep and palm-packed cliffs to the rocky {and rolling} beach below or head to the Waipio Valley Lookout to shimmy down a 25% grade paved path to a black sand beach, a bevy of waterfalls and the boyhood home of famed Hawaiian King Kamehameha I. Note: do not drive, the steep decline is not covered in many rental car agreements!

Spa - My job affords me a bounty of spa treatments, and while I don't mention most of them---I only mention the best---I must tell you about one of my best ever at the Fairmont Orchid's Spa Without Walls. I had the Ali'i Experience, which started with a lomi lomi hot stone massage in a beachfront cabana and ended with warm coconut oil slowly trickling down my head for what seemed like 20 minutes. It felt so Hawaiian it was as if I was dancing the hula at Mauna Kea's summit. Note: most massages take place in spa huts that sit beside the ocean or babbling brooks.

See - Finally, the hot-ticket items: volcanoes and lava. An hour from Hilo, Kilauea continues to broil below the earth. An active cauldron of lava bubbles at the peak, while at its base the Pu'u 'O'o vent slowly flows, adding more mass---500+ acres since 1983---to the biggest Hawaiian isle.

Stay where to stay in hawaii big island

Lava Lava Beach Club - A four-cottage beach retreat we profiled in our most recent Roam+Board. Love!

Fairmont Orchid - A 540-room, bang-on beach resort with all the fixings.

Holualoa Inn - A six-room inn hidden in a 30-acre coffee estate perched high above the ocean's spray in Kona coffee country.

Puakea Ranch - While we didn't stay here, this five-house property comes highly recommended by many publications we trust! It's on our list for our next visit.

Wear Hawaii is casual---even more so than Maui. When I wasn't hiking, I spent my entire trip in a bathing suit and sarong, jean cut-offs or a simple dress. Guys and gals, here's what we recommend you wear.

Know This - Parts of the island are uber lush for a reason; it often rains {in pockets, so don't assume it's raining on the whole island just because it's raining where you are}. - Don't touch the turtles; they're endangered and you could be fined $10,000. Would you want people touching you while you're sleeping on the beach? - You can do Hawaii one of two ways: use one hotel as your home base/jumping-off point, or hop around the island. The hotels I mentioned above provide that opportunity. - Renting a car is a must. - To get a lay of the land, check out my Fodor's article on How to Tackle The Big Island.

[photos by @tripstyler taken while a partial guest of Hawaii Tourism]