By Deston Nokes
Special to The Oregonian
At nearly twice the size of all of the other Hawaiian Islands combined, the Big Island always has something new to experience.
On previous visits to the Big Island, I’ve golfed the Kohala Coast, pedaled down a volcano road, steered a paddleboard around a cove, visited a coffee plantation and hiked through rain forest into the Waipio Valley. I even was marshaled into service to judge a mountain oyster barbecuing competition among three proud paniolos (Hawaiian cowboys).This most recent trip, my companion and I opted for sun-soaked relaxation in the Kona area, using the historic town as a base to seek out the best local cuisine and enjoy water sports and a few pulse-quickening adventures.
Upon arrival at Kona International Airport, a first-time visitor may be surprised by the miles of jagged lava beds stretching inland. But just a few minutes down the highway from the airport, the barren landscape gives way to lush, green foliage and turquoise blue waters.
“Every climate known to man is on Big Island, from desert to rain forest to snow-topped mountains,” said Chuck Okazaki, general manager of the Outrigger Kanaloa. “And the pace is different here, too. Hawaii reminds me more of what Maui was like about 20 years ago — it’s more mellow and friendly.”We dropped our bags at the Outrigger Kanaloa at Kona condominiums, which has 17 acres of spacious and attractive rooms, and expansive gardens.
Like most properties in the vicinity, the shoreline consists mainly of jagged lava rock (called aa in Hawaiian and pronounced “ah-ah,” as in what it feels like on your bare feet). But it is just five minutes from the island’s best snorkeling area, and minutes away from the Kua public beach, where there’s plenty of perfect, white sand and clear blue water.
Prime, not pricey, snorkeling
We started our visit by communing with the fishes. While there are plenty of pricey excursions taking visitors to different snorkeling spots, a thrifty and satisfying choice is the Kahaluu Beach Park in Keauhou. It’s easily one of the best spots on the island for swimming in a protected cove among turtles and a kaleidoscopic assortment of fish. There are restrooms, a shower, a lifeguard and plenty of shallow places for the young’uns. The only drawback is that it can get crowded, which has prompted local efforts to educate swimmers about the need to protect the coral and sea life. A small shack on the beach rents snorkeling equipment, but visitors are first asked to watch a very short video asking swimmers not to touch the coral or turtles.
Those who don’t want to get in the water but still want to enjoy the shoreline can take a pleasant, easy paddle in a traditional-style outrigger canoe with Kona Boys in downtown Kailua-Kona.
Sacred temples at Keauhou Historic District
Hawaii may be the youngest in the island chain in terms of geology, but it’s the oldest in terms of civilization. Next to the snorkeling park is Keauhou Historic District, which has two reconstructed heiaus (sacred temples), which show where the ancient Hawaiians made offerings, held religious ceremonies and made sacrifices. From Kahalu’u Beach Park south to Kuamo’o Bay, there are more than a dozen significant and accessible archaeological sites.
White pineapples: the sweetest delicacy
One of the most prized and simple pleasures we found was at the town’s farmers market: a white pineapple. I’ve long relished pineapple, and nowhere have I ever tasted anything so sweet and delicious. Low in acid and high in sweetness, white pineapples are grown on smaller farms along with other crops.
Finding it on the mainland is difficult and shipping it is very expensive, so it’s a delicacy best enjoyed while you’re there.
A loco-moco lunch at a locals’ diner
Keen on trying new, local spots, I asked Okazaki where the locals were dining. He got a wry smile on his face and took us to a laundromat in Kaiwi Square in the Old Industrial area. There, just past the coin-operated washers and dryers, was a walled-off section with a new, small eatery called Broke Da Mouth Grindz in Kailua-Kona. Chuck just shrugged and said, “Hey, you wanted local.”
The affordable plate lunch diner served us melt-in-your mouth, braised short ribs with sticky rice, loco-moco (a concoction of hamburger, gravy and eggs), and garlic shrimp and chicken so tasty it made me nearly weep with gratitude. It was a perfect lunchtime stop.
Zipping over a 250-foot waterfall
Our next adventure took us to the other side of the island. There’s a misconception that traversing the island is long and difficult, but the improved, speedy Saddle Road runs right between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, making the two-hour, 15-minute drive between Kona and Hilo easy.
The Akaka Falls Skyline, which opened last year, offers memorable zip line rides, capped by a 3,300-foot long zip line over a spectacular 250-foot waterfall. Although the two-hour tour promises seven zip line rides, the first few are a little too safe. The latter three more than make up for it, though, with enthralling views of yawning canyons and waterfall.
At $170, it’s not cheap, but that final, 90-second ride across that final waterfall sticks with you.
The volcano nightglow
There was still plenty of daylight to drive an hour inland to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Each time I visit the park, I try to explore a different section, since there are so many hikes, rides and museums in this ever-shifting landscape.
A definite stop is the nightglow at the Thomas A. Jaggar Museum, on the rim of Kilauea Caldera and Halemaumau Crater inside the national park. As we stand outside in the whipping wind, a sulfur dioxide plume from the huge crater provides a massive, fiery, orange glow, like a yawning portal to hell. It’s both romantic and enthralling, particularly beneath a starlit sky.
A fitting end: sushi and sips on the sand
After so many perfect days, it was fitting to end our stay with a perfect night. For that we chose Sushi Shiono, an outstanding, Kona restaurant that serves the finest, freshest sushi I’ve enjoyed anywhere. I recommend the Hawaiian Volcano Roll, naturally.
Then, just a short walk south along Ali’i Drive, kick your shoes off and enjoy the sand under your feet while sipping a drink at Huggo’s on the Rocks. If you time it right, you can relish another spectacular, sherbet-colored sunsets, while your forks clatter over a Mauna Kea macadamia nut ice cream pie.
— Deston Nokes