My son and I have just spotted a green sea turtle (honu in Hawaiian) foraging for moss along the sun dappled sandy ocean floor 20-feet below us. Slowly, the turtle flows upwards, more butterfly than fish, until it reaches the surface, inhales with a wide toothless gulp of air and descends again, just a few feet of clear blue ocean beyond my arm’s reach. Wearing fins, mask and snorkel, I gently swim across an especially calm turquoise and tree-lined Waialea Bay, towing my son on a boogie board.
To see the Big Island of Hawai‘i from the water (submerged in a perfect temperature at 77 degrees Fahrenheit) means you will see golden rays of sunshine permeate the turquoise waters, the bright pinks, oranges, and long, inky spikes of sea urchins clinging to the rocks, angelfish, puffers, and eagle rays, all darting and flying through the corals and dark lava rocks. From the water is a perfect place to watch the early morning sun cast long shadows across Kohala mountain, or the frequent rainbows that adorn the heaving crown of the Big Island. This water view, the almost endless winter sunshine, and the wide-open spaces is what keeps bringing me (and my family) back to this magical island.
Up until fairly recently, Hawai‘i had been a place to visit: surf trips from my home in Northern California, a destination for our wedding on Hanalei Bay in Kauai, and more photography jobs than I can easily count. But, after our first 8-months without childcare or in-person school during Covid, we decided to try living and working remotely on the Big Island once Hawai‘i opened up again to visitors.
The incredible landscape of Hawai‘i is formed by five volcanoes merging together high above a hot spot deep in the earth’s crust, constantly creating and re-creating this wild and vast natural land. Hawaiians call the goddess of all volcanoes and fire Pele, and her legendary house is located here on the Big Island, deep within Kilauea volcano. Pele is still revered throughout the islands by many. Knowing her name will serve you well when you visit, as the Hawaiian language commands a strong presence that is only growing as native Hawaiians seek to educate their children with the culture and language of their land. Other native Hawaiian words become useful, too: mauka (toward the mountain), makai (toward the sea), and hale (home). On the islands, cardinal directions are less useful. Statements like, head up the mountain, or towards the sea make more sense as you make your way around the natural landscape.
One of the best ways to see the diversity of wonders of this place—the Big Island encompasses eight of the planet’s 13 climate zones in a compact 4,000 square miles—is by road trip. There is novelty in being able to drive a ring road around an entire island in one day, but unless you are under a major time constraint, a road trip with a night or two of stays here and there along the way provides time for stops along the way to taste local delicacies like laulau, malasadas and poke, time to hike across a lava field to float in a blue lagoon, or time to be in a perfect position on the rim of Kilauea’s crater Halema’uma’u as the volcanic gases begin to glow pink and red into the night and the stars blink on.
You can tailor your journey around the island in three routes. North over the lava fields of Kohala and up through the pasturelands and dramatic overlooks of the Pololū and Waipi’o valleys, South through the more populated lush hillsides that overlook the sea and then up into major destination of Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, or over the saddle road through the Middle of the island into the fog and rain at the base of Mauna Kea. Here are a few ideas for how to chart your journey.
North from the Kona airport takes you along the Kohala Coast, an arid region varnished in lava flows and dotted with palm lined roads. The miles and miles of pāhoehoe (smooth lava) and a’ā (very sharp lava) expand across the resorts and neighborhoods on the shore. It’s a wide-open landscape a bit like the American West and all the luxury hotels on the island are here. My family has been living in a residential hamlet called Puako. A rock reef outside of Puako protects the area for swimming and makes it amazing for snorkeling—especially with the resident turtles who haul themselves up onto the sand or rocks each night to sleep. (Shhh…make sure not to disturb them though. They’re protected by law.)
Nearby Mauna Lani Resort (meaning “mountain reaching heaven” in Hawaiian) has recently undergone a change of hands to become an Auberge Resort property. The renovation nods to the mainland-company’s roots: a natural palette and open floor plan makes the entire resort feel like one magnificent California home. However, the property still feels distinctly Hawaiian thanks to thoughtful touches—traditional ceremonial pieces and Hawaiian landscape photography decorate the hotel and all the rooms feature expansive lanais (Hawaiian porches). Fresh and local Hawaiian Islands’ ingredients are a focus across the resort’s three restaurants but especially at the breezy and elegant Canoe House. The property offers three distinct swimming areas, including a stunning and peaceful adults-only pool overlooking the crashing surf beyond the protected swim area situated inside the rock reef—a near perfect way to experience this unique area of the island.
While Kohala is a wide-open expanse of rocky hills that roll down to the ocean, just past Kawaihae the land shifts to a pastoral and agricultural landscape and then to rainforest. The little towns along the way offer plenty of roadside shops and places to grab food. Along the way, don’t miss these treats.
A simple light blue trailer on the side of the highway at the turnoff to Puako belies the deliciousness contained within. Malasadas are a type of round Portuguese doughnut rolled in sugar and often filled with creme or fruit jam. A favorite Hawaiian beachside snack best eaten after a sunny afternoon in the ocean on the side of the highway scorching hot from the fryer. Manuela Malasadas makes the best on the island and is open most afternoons (though there are no real hours here).
In the industrial town of Kawaihae we found our favorite shave ice. A simple window opening in a strip mall beside the gas station almost always has a line for this perfect, cold local sweet. Try it with purple Ube (Hawaiian sweet potato) ice cream in the center of the cone of ice.
Queen’s Bath, north end of Kīholo Bay
The bright turquoise blue lagoons beside Kiholo Bay—also known as Queen’s Bath—are mixed salt and freshwater pools surrounded by lava. The contrast between the water and lava is stunning and the water is calm and often filled with sea turtles. It’s about a 3-mile (mostly flat) round trip hike, but well worth the effort. To find the trailhead pull over at mile marker 81 (there will likely be other cars that appear to be in the middle of nowhere). When you reach the beach, head to your right and away from the open beach to the protected lagoon area. Be sure to bring (and remove!) water and snacks for your trek; there are no service stops along the way.
Puako to Pololū and Waipiʻo Valleys
From Puako, drive north towards Hawi (pronounced Hav-ee) or towards Honokaʻa. Plan enough time to make one of two stops along the way: Pololū and Waipiʻo valley. Pololū is best seen on foot. A medium length hike down to Pololū is stunning but steep: bring plenty of water and good shoes. Make the trek and you’ll be rewarded with an otherworldly black stone beach backed by massive cliffs and handmade log swings in a breezy seaside forest.
Wai’pio Valley has waterfalls, taro fields, and wild horses and is best explored with an off-road Jeep or mule-drawn wagon. You can book a 4WD tour at the Waipiʻo Valley Shuttle. The site doubles as a local art gallery featuring mostly beautiful handmade wooden items including koa bowls alongside other sundries for the trek down.
Rental homes with unreal views of the Waipiʻo Valley are available in Kukuhaele where tropical gardens bursting with massive ginger blossoms, anthurium and bright tropical birds will wake you early.
The last stop before Pololū. Sample the incredibly fresh poke bowls with furikake while dining in a field overlooking the ocean with picnic tables. Great for local produce, too.
While many roadside stops are of the gas station variety, it’s nice to know you can plan to pick up roadside snacks in Hawi at this very local and organic produce market and deli with fresh smoothies in the town of Hawi.
A painter owned gallery that houses an interesting collection of vintage shells, Hawaiiana, jewelry and antique swords—all with signs that say, “Ok to touch.”
A booming sugar mill town from 1873, Honoka’a is a bedroom community for Hilo and the gateway to the Hamakua Coast. Walk Mamane Street to see historic markers that detail the previous shop owners, businesses, and families that built and maintained the town. Electric blue water peeks in between the shops and to the streets that lead down steep cliffs and lookout over the ocean. Don’t miss Honokaa Trading Co, an old antique/junk shop with vintage mumus, furniture, and art.
The largest city on the Big Island, Hilo is the home to a major University of Hawai‘i campus and has its own airport. Hana Hou is a beautiful, modern standout boutique in town. A bright and curated space, Hana Hou sells Hawaiian and Oceania craftsmanship and organic home staples.
There aren’t any towns to stop at when driving over the saddle road to Hilo (you will pass a military base and a place to stop for a public restroom) but the detour up to Mauna Kea visitor center and tours at the observatory are absolutely worth it but will require winter clothing.
Hawai‘i Forest and Trail is a great local company that books active and informative tours but you can also take yourself. You will need a 4WD vehicle and plenty of time to get to the summit, but the Visitor Center is at 9000 feet and there is a beautiful sunset hike that overlooks the coastline below.
Heading south from the airport will take you first into the commercial and then into the residential area of this side of the island. The main town in the south is Kailua and it is pure tourism, but the harbor is stunning and also an easy place to book a water excursion. Further south there are sweet little towns high above the ocean in the rainforest with views and local stores. Kainaliu is only a couple blocks long, but filled with vintage stores, a solid surf shop and places to eat well outside of the realm of fancy mai tai’s.
Just south of the airport, Kanaloa Octopus Farm is a research and education facility that offers an immersive hour-long experience for both kids and adults to learn about these incredible cephalopods and their cultivation. More uniquely, everyone on the tour is encouraged to plunge their hands into tanks of those octopus that are keen for the interaction. These amazing creatures are curious about hands and objects entering their tanks, they squirt at those who are not paying attention with their water jets and they change colors faster than they move.
Lau Lau from Kaaloa’s Super J’s
Right at the turn down the hill to Pu’uhonua, the aunties at Kaaloa’s always have massive pots simmering with what is known as the best lau lau on the island: a traditional dish made from pork and butterfish that’s been slowly steamed inside taro and ti leaves and served alongside chile water, lomi lomi salmon, and rice, or kalua pork and traditional desserts like haupia pudding.
Pu’uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historic Park (City of Refuge)
This tiny national park is an unusual treasure worth the detour. Nestled in a palm grove along the coast, this ancient Hawaiian spiritual sanctuary has been said to be protected by Lono, the God of Life. Every time my family has visited, the weather and surf has been totally different, but equally enchanting. In the hot sun at low tide, bright yellow butterflyfish are visible in clear tide pools. In moody, stormy high seas the sense of history and drama comes alive.
Just off the Mamalahoe Highway 11, near the south point of the Big Island, Punalu’u Bake Shop has the widest variety of malasadas on the island—and also an outsized claim to fame. They will remind you it is also the official southernmost point in the USA, as well as the likely first landing spot of ancient Polynesians.
Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park
A sprawling gem in the National Park Service that encompasses deserts, multiple craters, lush jungle trails and an active volcano, there is much to see and do here. Plan to spend a night or two either in the park itself or in the town of Volcano about a mile from the park entrance. In the town of Volcano (and in the off-the-grid neighborhoods that extend miles outside of the town) there are a variety of inns and tree houses with windows overlooking massive ferns and starlit hot-tubs, but all will require a drive (sometimes on dirt road) to access the park.
Volcano House offers the only lodging inside the park. Accommodations at Volcano House are no frills but neat and tidy and the location provides a ringside seat to a current main event (literally from bedroom windows and the restaurant). After two years of quiet, the lava flow has started again on Kilauea, the most active volcano on earth. The lake of Halema’uma’u crater steamed away almost instantly in late December with the lava flow, and the lava lake that replaced it is now over 700-feet deep. No one knows when the flow will stop, so now is an excellent time to visit the park.
Kilauea Iki Trail
In the park, take Kīlauea Iki Trail. The trail has been etched by hikers crossing this cooled lava lake that begins and ends in lush tropical rainforest. Birdsong and steam creeping up from deep magma vents will accompany you.
A visit to Hawai‘i Volcanoes is central to the complex experience of Hawai‘i. Both a national park and also a sacred spot, you’ll spot familiar National Park rangers’ uniforms and offerings of ti leaves and flowers to the sacred goddess Pele. Once at crater’s edge, you are immersed in both the wild landscape of Hawai‘i, and the symbolism of the place—a site of great cultural heritage and one that’s constantly changing, flowing with lava that will become rich jungle filled over time with songbirds, surrounded and sustained by the ocean.
Emily Nathan is the founder and editor-in-chief of Tiny Atlas Quarterly. She is also the author and curator of the book, My Tiny Atlas: Our World through Your Eyes (Ten Speed Press).