Travel instils reverence for the world in a way unlike all others, and some places inject more unimaginable awe than others. Hawai`i is one of them. While there are six islands to visit, and each has its merits, there is something extra spectacular about the island that is twice as big as all the others combined: the Island of Hawai`i (formerly known as Big Island.)

With its biodiversity (eight of the world’s 13 ecosystems can be found on the island), stunning beauty and a plethora of things to see and do, without exaggeration, it is pure paradise. There is only one way to do a trip like this properly, and that is by driving around the island. Let yourself be taken away by the lush vegetation, the dramatic shorelines, the forces of nature and the destruction they leave behind, and the rebirth that ensues.

If that isn’t enough, the hospitality of the Hawaiian people will warm your heart. E komo mai means welcome in Hawaiian, and that is how you will feel from the second you arrive.

There are two landing points: Hilo on the wet East Coast and Kona on the sunny West Coast.

ABOVE: Great snorkelling and kayaking in Kailua-Kona at Kamakahonu Beach. RIGHT: King Kamehameha I was instrumental in Hawaiian history.

Kona — West Coast

Kailua Village (also known as Kailua-Kona) is the region’s main centre. The town is party-central but in a chilled, relaxed way. There is a beach vibe, all-day happy hours and live music.

However, there is a lot more to the town. Hawaiians are very proud of their rich culture and heritage. Everywhere you go around the Island, you will hear about King Kamehameha. King Kamehameha I was a Hawaiian legend warrior who hailed from the Island and united all of Hawai`i in the 1800s, which was instrumental to its political existence.

He retired in Kona for good reason. The area has, arguably, the most dramatic sunsets on the Island that morph from orange to red skies. Walk along Ali’i Drive (which means royalty) for the evening solar display, or find a perch at On the Rocks (great beach bar vibe) or Papa Kona Restaurant (excellent food and perfect sunset view).

Hawaii experiences
ABOVE: Kona coffee’s rich taste comes, in part, from the rich volcanic soil. RIGHT: Join the Canadian Atlantis Submarine Adventures to explore beneath the waves.

Hawaiian Experiences

There is no question that there is incredible surfing, beaches, bars, whale watching and all the tropical activities you expect, but it is the Hawaiian activities unique to the area that make it so spectacular.

With an eSIM for Hawaii, you can look up the best activities on individual islands.

Tour a Coffee Plantation

There are about 650 farms cultivating coffee in the Kona area. It is an industry that has been around for almost 200 years and currently produces 3.8 million pounds of coffee a year, valued at about $14 million. There is even a Kona Coffee Cultural Festival in November to celebrate Kona’s coffee heritage.

There are many plantations offering tours, but Kona Joe, located on a stunning hillside, is extra special as it holds the patent for trellised coffee growing, a process that enhances flavour. You can roast your own blend to take home or just relax with a cup in their open-air coffee shop, which has a gorgeous, peaceful view of the ocean.

Kona Sea Salt Tour

Foodies will enjoy a tour of the Kona Sea Salt factory. It makes the delicious seasoning from deep ocean waters, 2,200 feet below the surface of the Kona Sea. Solar-evaporated and hand-harvested by a salt master, the quality difference from the boxed salt from home is astonishing.

What Lies Beneath

If scuba diving isn’t your thing (definitely not for me) but you are still curious about what lies beneath, Atlantis Submarines in Kailua-Kona offers a unique way to experience the sea, 100 feet below the surface. Canadian Dennis Hurd is the president of Atlantis Submarines International, Inc., the company responsible for taking more than 11 million passengers on undersea adventures aboard its 48- and 64-passenger submarines. A fleet larger than that of many national navies, he brought his submarine adventures to Hawaii. See shipwrecks, exotic fish and experience the area’s marine mysteries. It is a fascinating 45-minute journey worth every second. The pier to get onboard is located right next to the Kamakahonu (or King Kam Beach) or Kids’ Beach, a small beach with fab snorkelling.

Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau

Get a hit of history by visiting this sacred space that was a refuge for people trying to escape punishment. The story goes that if you broke the sacred laws, the kapu, the punishment was death. Your only chance of survival was to elude your pursuers and reach the Puʻuhonua, a place of refuge. No physical harm could come to those who reached the boundaries of the Puʻuhonua.

As can be expected, it is a peaceful place, right on the water.

Captain Cook (South Kona)

The thing about driving around is the ability to just stop and check places out. Near the Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau are a few such spots.

Hawai`i’s oldest restaurant, in the Manago Hotel, is definitely old school but has fabulous pork chops with traditional sides (scoops of rice and macaroni salad.) It’s both authentic and genuine, attracting locals and tourists alike.

Paleaku Gardens Peace Sanctuary is worth stopping to see Galaxy Garden, a 100-foot-diameter outdoor scale model of the Milky Way, mapped in living plants and flowers, created by Jon Lomberg, Carl Sagan and a NASA artist.

St. Benedictine Catholic Church, near the Paleaku, is nicknamed the Painted Church. The outside is unassuming, but if the church is open, stick your head in for the frescos. The whole church is painted with eclectic interpretations of biblical stories.


Full disclosure: luaus are about the most touristy thing you can do on the Island, but they are a lot of fun and entertaining and frankly provide easy, digestible history lessons as well as insight into Hawaiian culture over a good meal, Hawaiian cocktails and wonderful dancing. All the big hotels will have a show. Besides, fire eaters never get old.

ABOVE: At the end of Chain of Craters Road. RIGHT: Thurston Lava Tubes in Volcanoes National Park.

Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park

You could spend days at this massive UNESCO World Heritage Site, hiking around and exploring.

The Kīlauea caldera and its Halema’uma’u crater are one the world’s most active volcanic areas. Legend has it that Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire, lightning, and wind, lives in the crater. There is a path around, but the historic hotel, Volcano House, perched on the rim offers a fabulous view. (There is a coffee shop and restaurant where you can grab snacks.)

The nearby Thurston Lava Tube is a 500-year-old cave where a river of lava once flowed. Across the road is the lava lake trail, Kīlauea Iki. For a different look at what volcanoes can do to terrain there is Devastation Trail. All three offer diverse experiences of the aftermath of volcanic eruptions.

Then there is the 30-km Chain of Craters Road down to the ocean. Follow the vast, expansive lava flows on this desolate and humbling drive. To see first-hand Earth’s power is astounding. Expansive, hardened lava rivers are like black, wide ski hills and paint the terrain down to the ocean where stunning black cliffs await. There is nothing quite like it. Words can’t capture it.

Kaʻū Region (South)

Nearby is a black sand beach, developed thanks to the volcanic rock. Punalu`u Black Sand Beach is a fascinating place with its dramatic sand, but the Hawaiian green sea turtles on the shore steal the show. Nearby Whittington State Park is an equally stunning scene with its rugged shoreline.

ABOVE: Black sand at Punalu`u Papakōlea Beach, one of the world’s few green beaches.

Further south yet is the Papakōlea Green Sand Beach, one of a handful of green beaches in the world. This is a commitment well worth the effort. It is a stunning 10 km return walk. Powerful waves crash on shore, walk along a path of 15-20 ft-high Mars-like red sand dunes, cross treacherous rocks (for cars not feet—but wear solid footwear (no sandals).

There are people offering rides on the back of pick-up trucks, which is not recommended for ecological reasons, so try walking. It is rewarding.

Lava rocks in Hawaii
ABOVE: The desolate road up Mauna Loa, surrounded by hardened lava rock.

More Volcanoes?

Mauna Loa (“Long Mountain” in Hawaiian) is the largest active volcano on the planet. While it is 13,681 feet above sea level, it rises 30,000 feet from the bottom of the sea, a greater height than Mount Everest. There is a highway to follow but it is now impossible to get to the top because of a hardened lava flow but it is worth driving just to see it. As you drive up and look across, and you will see mid-Island Mauna Kea, another of the world’s tallest mountains, which is now a dormant volcano and home to 13 telescopes. Two have Canadian connections — the Canada-France-Hawai`i Telescope and the International Gemini Observatory.

At its snowy summit of 13,796 feet, a glorious view awaits on a clear day. A stop at the Visitor Station is obligatory to acclimatize to the altitude but also offers a chance to learn about the telescopes.

ABOVE: Hilo’s Rainbow Falls. RIGHT: Banyan trees in Akaka Falls State Park.

East Coast (a.k.a. Wet Coast)

Locals call it Hawaiian snow when it pours in Hilo, the rainiest city in the U.S.A.. However, all the precipitation in the area creates a lush landscape. There are waterfalls everywhere. The Rainbow Falls are beautiful and a short drive from downtown Hilo. The nearby Akaka Falls State Park is one of the most spectacular places on the planet. James Cameron chose the site for Avatar scenes for good reason. The falls themselves are astounding, but the mind-blowing rainforest with massive valleys, banyan and bamboo trees, tropical birds and flowers and ferns make it an extremely calming place that stretches high up in the clouds. Even if it is pouring rain do not miss it. In fact, the rain adds to the ambience.

Off the main highway are delightful surprises, like the Pepe’ekeo Scenic Drive, a 6 km slow drive worth every wind and bend with rich greenery, tropical plants, and, yes, waterfalls.

ABOVE: The striking coastline by Waipi`o Valley.

Hāmākua — North East side of the Island

Take the highway all the way north. Pololū Valley Lookout is at the northeastern tip and is breathtaking. There is a hike down, but it is a bit treacherous, so any attempt will need preparation.

Another stop is the astounding Waipi`o Valley Lookout. At the time of writing, hiking was prohibited, but the view alone was spectacular. It was where King Kamehameha was kept safe as a child until he was ready to be king. It is breathtaking and almost a religious experience to witness.

Northwest Kohala Coast

This is a gorgeous beach area, so if you must hit a beach, this one’s it. One of the best is Hapuna Beach State Park. Even reluctant swimmers (like me) can’t resist.

Not surprising, this area is also heavy on resorts.


The Essentials: Sleep and Sustenance

The island is such that you could stay in one place and use it as a launch pad to explore but there are so many options.

Sweet Slumber

There are some of the usual chains and countless Airbnb options around, but there are also some interesting resort-type locations.

ABOVE: Waves crashing the volcanic rock shore of Outrigger Kona Resort & Spa.

Outrigger Kona Resort & Spa, in Keauhou Bay. The site has historical importance (there are plaques with the details) and the waves that constantly bash against the volcanic rock make it a mesmerizing location and the sunsets can be glorious. Manta rays love feeding in the area. Outrigger also has condo options.

The Hilton Waikoloa Village, located on the Kohala Coast is a massive 68-acre site that has been perfectly curated. Definitely a luxurious location. Take time to explore the art along corridors and walkways. The resort collection has more than 1800 pieces of art from Asian, Western and Oceanic cultures. The restaurants are as delectable as you might expect at a high-end location. There is tram to take you around the resort and canal system with gondolas. They have thought of everything. You could come here and stay the entire trip. (But don’t.)

The Makai (which means direction towards the sea) tower has stunning ocean views with whale watching from your balcony and a great view of one of the magnificent pools. A splurge, yes, but worth it.

Hilo, the rain notwithstanding, surprisingly does not have a hotel options. The Grand Naniloa Hotel Hilo, which is a Doubletree by Hilton does the trick. Make sure to ask for room with a view.

Sustenance Suggestions

• Open-air farmers’ markets and stalls are everywhere on the island, selling fresh coconut, pineapples, macadamia nuts and other Island produce and baked goods. Kona coffee shops abound as do food trucks. Fish, wherever you go, is so fresh it practically melts in your mouth. You can’t go wrong.
• (Yes.) Spiced up, buried in rice and wrapped in seaweed — it is a delicacy on the island. Worth a try? Well, maybe, just to say you did it?
• The Aloha Mix Food Truck in Na’alehu has large, juicy shrimp and rice dishes.
• Hawaiian treats at the most southern bakery in the U.S., the Punalu`u Bakery, with doughy malasadas (donuts) and Hawaiian sweet bread is across the street from the Aloha.
• Along the way to Papakōlea Green Sand Beach, have a quick stop at the quirky Paradise Meadows to grab water but also taste some of the best chocolate-covered Macadamia nuts. They offer taste tests before you buy.

Restaurant suggestions

For sit-down restaurant meals, here are few ideas.

Merriman’s in Waimea (award-winning chef)
Hawaiian Style Café Banana, macadamia nut pancakes and Portuguese sausages with pineapple are worth every calorie and carb.
Hilo Bay Café (in Hilo) delectable dinner options, great vibe.
Wailele Café (Taro Rolls are outstanding with chowder.) (Located in the Outrigger Kona Resort)
Papa Kona (delectable lemongrass shrimp pasta to go with sunset.)

Everything about the Island of Hawai`i will bring a mino`aka (smile) and leave your soul overflowing with awe at its exquisite beauty and immeasurable richness.