The Island of Hawai'i is the furthest south of any in the island chain, and it's larger than all the other islands put together. It's also the home of the world's highest mountain (Mauna Kea) though much of the base is submerged. Nearby Kiluaea is the most active volcano in the world, and is also the most popular visitor attraction in a state that's full of visitor attractions. The Big Island, as it's called, is the only place where one can ski in the daytime and walk barefoot in a warm sea at sundown.
This spread-out district stretches from South Kona, the location of Honaunau Bay, to the vast Kona State Park . The Kona Airport is located a few miles north of Kailua-Kona on Highway 19. The most heavily populated area is Kailua-Kona. It's the site of the Kailua Pier , the main tourist shopping drag. Just below Kailua-Kona is Keauhou-Kona. Most of the area hotels are ranged down the coast, from Kailua to Keauhou.
Central Kailua-Kona has a half-dozen attractions, including Ahu'ena Heiau and Hulihe'e Palace . Along the coastline are Laaloa Beach Park , known for its "magic sands," and the Kona Historical Society Museum . The southern town of Captain Cook is considered a part of greater Kona. Many people make the trip down the coast to snorkel at the marine preserve or view the sea captain's monument.
The name translates to "Gold Coast." At first, it's hard to understand why this place deserves its name; the terrain is harsh, barren and almost spooky.
That is, until one reaches the resort districts.
The first one is Ka'upulehu, home of the Four Seasons . Further up the road is Waikoloa . This resort isn't as picky; it'll let anyone inside. Plenty of visitors to other districts opt to spend a full day exploring Waikoloa.
Further along you'll find Mauna Lani and Mauna Kea. Each resort district has a few four-star hotels, a few luxury condominium complexes and a dozen gourmet restaurants. Stop by the secluded beach park on the Mauna Lani property where the fabulous Puako Petroglyphs are located. Hapuna Beach Park sits in splendid isolation on the North Kohala Coast.
If there is one thing that brings people from around the world to the Kohala Coast, it's the golf. Most area courses rank among the top 100 in the United States. Hapuna Golf Course , Mauna Lani Resort Golf Club and the Waikoloa Village Golf Courses are all world-renowned.
After Mauna Kea, things change. Beach parks dot the coastline, and little settlements crop up alongside the highway. The pace of life slows down to correspond with the speed limit. North Kohala is ranch land and coffee country. Take a horseback excursion with Paniolo Adventures , or dine at Cafe Pesto or Bamboo .
Inland from Waikoloa is the town of Waimea. It's small and out-of-the-way, but it has an abundance of personality. Businesses here are usually family-owned, and many of them feature island-made products.
Below the Hamakua Coast, in a fertile little pocket that gets more rain than just about any other place in the world, is Hilo. This is a booming town by Hawaiian standards. Of course, it knows how it appears to mainland visitors: cute, quaint and stuck in a time warp. It plays up that image, offering historic tours and a daily fish market.
Downtown Hilo is located on the waterfront. Sightseers can start at either Banyan Drive or the new Tsunami Museum . There's also the East Hawaii Cultural Center and Lyman Museum . For more information on these attractions and on the outlying areas, visit the Hawaii Visitor's Bureau .
South of Hilo on Highway 11 is the most famous spot in the islands. Officially titled Hawaii Volcanoes National Park , it is informally known as “The Volcano” or “Kilauea.” Kilauea is, in fact, only a part of the massive park, but it's the part that everyone comes to see. Belching smoke and spewing flame, this is the most active volcano in the world. The Kilauea Visitor Center, Volcano Art Center and Jaggar Museum are open daily.
South & Central Regions
Between Volcano on the east side and Kona on the west, the island is a vast expanse of untouched volcanic overflow. The majority of it is part of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park . Above this is Mauna Kea State Recreation Area , the best star-gazing spot in the world and a designated astronomy center. The road to Mauna Kea cannot be navigated in a rental car.
The southern tip of the island, which is also the southernmost point in the U.S., has barely been touched by civilization. There are a few hotels and a few B&Bs. Travelers to the south shore usually visit the semi-famous Punalu'u Bake Shop & Visitor Center for lunch.
The Big Island really lives up to its nickname. You can drive for hours and see nothing at all. Then, suddenly, you'll stumble on a patch of land so developed that it resembles a strip mall in suburban Nevada. The Kona Coast is a desert. Hilo is a rainforest. There are palm trees growing out of lava rock on the Kohala Coast. There is skiing on Mauna Kea. Tens of thousands of feet below the snow-capped peak, sea turtles and dolphins play in an ocean as warm as bathwater.
Thanks to the size of the Island of Hawaii, the restaurant choices can be somewhat challenging. Unlike Maui or Honolulu, there aren't dozens of restaurants within a stone's throw of each other, and usually the ones that are close to each other are also similar to one another in price and quality.
As far as most people are concerned, there are two restaurant scenes on the island: West and East. West is Kona; East is Hilo. There are other regions to the North and South of the island, but people tend to group everything within one category or the other. Even regular travelers or longtime residents usually don't venture off their side of the island too often; the drive is simply too long. For that reason, most popular restaurants have two locations, one in Hilo and one in Kona, Kohala or Waimea.
There are dozens of fantastic restaurants in Kailua-Kona. If you're hungry head to the weekend buffet at the King Kamemameha Hotel which is large and reasonably priced. For a cold beer and some munchies, visit Kona Brewing Company . For a casual meal in a beautiful setting try Huggo's On the Rocks .
As a rule, Gold Coast restaurants are stylish. The Four Seasons Resort Hualalai offer world-class dining options, including Beach Tree Bar and Grill and Hualalai Grille . Other fantastic dining options are in vast Hilton Waikoloa Village with restaurants like the Kirin Restaurant and Imari .
The resort areas at Mauna Lani and Mauna Kea offer fine dining choices galore. The CanoeHouse at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel serves inventive, exotic fare, often made from island-grown produce and fresh local seafood. Brown Beach House is considered to have one of the most stunning views in the state. The Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel offers sumptuous Saturday night buffets. An important note though: The dinner bill at any of the restaurants mentioned above could easily cost more than the hotel bill at many Kailua-Kona or Hilo hotels.
On the other side of the spectrum, inexpensive nibbles can be enjoyed in the food court of the Kings' Shops . You can also sample the finest Pacific Rim cuisine at Roy's .
Interestingly, many of the island's true culinary jewels have settled quietly, without fanfare or hoopla, in and around the Waimea (Kamuela) area. Merriman's is a Pacific Rim classic. Equally beloved is Bamboo Restaurant & Gallery , located in the sleepy village of Hawi. Cafe Pesto serves Italian-Asian fusion that the critics love.
Upcountry is not like the Kohala Coast though. It's still possible to get an inexpensive meal here. Try the down-home favorite, the Tex Drive In .
The busy seaside town of Hilo probably has the island's highest concentration of restaurants. Dining options are varied from four-star to fast food. Hilo's Cafe Pesto offers tasty Italian-Pacific creations. Nani Mau Gardens has a great lunch buffet, and the setting can't be beat. Ken's House of Pancakes is open 24 hours a day and is perfect for the whole family.
People call the town just outside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Volcano Village—but the name is a bit misleading. A village this might be, but it's a village that gets more tourist traffic than just about any other place on the planet. It only makes sense that such a place would have a restaurant on every corner. Kilauea Lodge is a popular mountaintop inn that has a gourmet restaurants onsite. A less expensive option is the Volcano's Lava Rock Cafe .
These are just the highlights of the Big Island Dining scene. For more information, check out a local guide book, grab a newspaper or play it safe—ask a local.