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 and the legendary Kona Village Resort . You must have a room reservation—or at the very least, a lunch reservation—to get inside the gates. 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 condomium 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 is the golf. Most area courses rank among the top 100 in the United States. Hapuna Golf Course , Francis Brown I & II 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. Buy coffee at Kohala Coffee Mill in downtown Hawi. Take a horseback excursion with Paniolo Adventures . 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 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 Bakeshop & 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, dining to one's satisfaction 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 middle-of-the-road restaurants in Kailua-Kona. The weekend seafood buffet at the King Kamemameha Hotel is large and reasonably priced, and Kimo's Family Buffet at Kona Bay Hotel is a good cost-cutting option. As far as a la carte goes, everything is available. Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. dishes up buckets of shrimp the way Mama ought to make them, and Sibu Cafe serves flavorful Indonesian creations that most people's mama never even imagined. The Ranch House is known for huge portions and a vast menu. For a cold beer and some munchies, visit Durty Jake's, Kona Brewing Company or newcomer Kona Petroleum Grill .
Those who simply must have a pricey meal should venture to Huggo's , a popular seafood restaurant in downtown Kona. A notch down is Jameson's By the Sea , known for serving enormous portions. Oodles of Noodles is an interesting place. Owned by the former chef of the Ritz Carlton, it's an inexpensive little noodle bar that gets written up in the likes of Wine Spectator.
Gold Coast restaurants are stylish and pricey, as a rule. The gourmet-fest begins at Ka'upulehu, the prestigious gated-resort community just up the coast from Kailua-Kona. The Four Seasons Resort Hualalai and Kona Village Resort both offer world-class dining options. Hale Samoa and Hale Moana are at the Village ; Pahu i'a and The Beach Tree Bar and Grill are among the options at the Four Seasons .
Just up the road is Waikoloa, site of two-dozen restaurants. The vast Hilton Waikoloa apparently strives to offer one of every kind of restaurant. There is Donatoni's Italian , Kirin's Chinese , Palm Terrace for buffets, and popular Kamuela Provision Co. for hearty steaks and fish dishes. Nearby, you can try Hawaiian Creole cookery at Roussel's , or sample the finest Pacific Rim cuisine at Roy's . On the other side of the spectrum, inexpensive nibbles can be enjoyed in the food court of the Kings' Shops .
The resort areas at Mauna Lani and Mauna Kea offer fine dining choices galore. The Batik at Mauna Kea , The Grill at the Orchid at Mauna Lani and Canoe House at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel serve 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 and Mauna Kea Beach Hotel both offer sumptuous 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.
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, still the people's choice after almost 15 years. Equally beloved is Bamboo Restaurant & Gallery , located in the sleepy village of Hawi. Cafe Pesto serves Italian-Asian fusion that the critics award three stars. Daniel Thiebaut Restaurant , newly come to Waimea, promises to offer more of the same world-class quality, this time with French influences.
Upcountry is not like the Kohala Coast though. It's still possible to get an inexpensive meal here. Snack on a fish sandwich at Kawaihae Harbor Grill or a burrito at Hula La's in Hawi. In Waimea you'll find Yong's Kal Bi and Kona Healthways II. Further east in Honoka'a are two down-home favorites, Herb's Place and 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. Surt's By the Bay is a fusion favorite; Cafe Pesto other location offers tasty Italian-Pacific creations. Uncle Billy's Fish & Steak House charges half as much as Surt's or Cafe Pesto for its hearty, if not creative, Hawaiian-Continental fare. Nani Mau Gardens has a decent lunch buffet, and the setting can't be beat. Ken's House of Pancakes (open 24 hours!) and Suisan Fish Market are tried-and-true eateries, appropriate for almost anyone.
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. Volcano House and Kilauea Lodge , two popular mountaintop inns, have cozy gourmet restaurants onsite. Surt's at Volcano Village is also a favorite. Less expensive eateries include Volcano's Lava Rock Cafe and the Steamvent 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.