Arriving at Kona Airport, we realise how different this island is to Oahu. There’s miles of arid landscape, next to miles of green rainforest, both interrupted by somewhat violent yet occasionally beautiful hardened rivers of lava. Mother Nature has been busy here. It is very literally The Big Island, and you’ll need a car to explore. Though a guide tells us that it was once upon a time the small island, growing over time from the eruption of volcanoes.
There is a lot to do here, and in our six days we only manage some of what we’d planned, underestimating time and distances, and wanting too to spend time relaxing at our gorgeous resort and enjoying the spectacular sunsets on the “Kona side”. Funny that the west side is one of the driest spots in the USA, while the island’s largest town of Hilo (pronounced Hee-lo) on the east, some two and a half hour drive away, is one of the wettest.
The boys want to know if Panulu’u Black Sand Beach really is black, and one morning we set off on the two hour drive. Its a lovely scenic route of coast, mountain, coffee and macadamia plantations. In some areas they are trying to promote re-growth of plants, but its a hard ask through the lava.
There are also a few small strips of shops with interesting antique and vintage stores, as well as this…..
And yes, Black Sand Beach is indeed black. Shoes are recommended, as understandably the sand is scorching. So turtles love it, and there are a few wandering around. One has laid an egg, and someone has built a little protective barrier around it.
On the way back we stop in at a bakery for a treat. They do a roaring trade in Lilikoi (passionfruit) Malasadas, their best seller. But I don’t think they are quite as good as the ones at Leonard’s in Oahu.
We next head to Papakolea Green Sand Beach, the southernmost point of the USA. You’ll need a four wheel drive and some serious experience in off road rough driving to get here. Otherwise there’s a group of drivers with suitable trucks and experience in navigating the bumpy terrain. If you’re game, you can walk the rocky three miles from the car park – it is about an hour walk and a tough one in scorching heat. Calling it green sand is a bit of a stretch, but the setting is pretty spectacular. Nearby there is a cove where the sand is in fact green, but without such a dramatic backdrop.
On another morning we check out Hapuna Beach which is popular with the locals. Easy to access and sparklingly clean, it is lovely for a swim.
In Kailua-Kona you’ll find Hulihee Palace, once the modest Summer palace of the Royal Family. There is no longer a monarchy in Hawai’i, as the members of the family died out. One of the larger towns in the island, it is still a fairly low key place. There is a pier which could easily be turned into another Santa Monica type place, but I suspect it is a very conscious decision for the island not to go down that path.
After walking around, we make a pit stop at Kope Lani Ice Cream which has some interesting flavours. You’ll find Kona Coffee to be a popular flavour on the ice cream front in Hawaii. Like Champagne or Parmeggiano, the rules around what can be called Kona Coffee are very strict. The beans must come from a very specific area, and they are all hand picked. The coffee plantations are all small family owned businesses; we met a few of the families during our stay, and it really is a labour of love. I would have loved to buy some of the coffee beans to bring home and support them, but at over US$80 per kilo of coffee, it was a bit of a stretch.
Driving up a mountain one day we stop at Holukaloa Garden Café. Its almost classifies as in-the-middle-of-nowhere, but we are clearly onto something as very shortly the place is full. They are all about slow food made from scratch. The glorious tomatoes are from the owners farm and under my fish is a bed of unfamiliar but really delicious greens. The Marito’s generous vegetarian lasagne is topped with a tasty macadamia pesto.
The most awesome thing we do is a helicopter tour of the island. We debate this one a bit as it is quite an extravagance. But I come across a local magazine with an offer for a good size discount, and the deal is sealed. The friendly ground staff give us a safety briefing (“please turn your devices to helicopter mode” they deadpan) and our pilot Koji gives us a briefing of our route. The flights generally go for 1.5-2 hours, and Koji advises we’ll be on the longer end today as there is sniper training going on at the military base that day and we’ll have to go around it – I wasn’t entirely sure if he was joking or not!
It is a pretty amazing way to look at the island. Kealakekuka Bay is stunning, and apparently the site of Captain Cook’s death – there is a monument there in his honour.
Along the way the landscape alternates between thriving green and volcanic black emptiness.
We pass a 10 mile crack in the ground – the result of a 1975 earthquake.
We then head towards one of the volcanoes. This one is currently active, but not dangerously so. Even though we are a long way up, when the pilot opens a small window and tells me to stick my hand out, it is scorchingly hot.
Continuing around the island, we head up to Waipi’o Valley – just stunning. There are some seriously long waterfalls.
And then we circle back to Kona Airport. What a ride!
We stayed at the Four Seasons Hualalai – wow. It was fabulous. And it wasn’t just the stunning surrounds (I have never seen such amazing frangipane trees)…
…or the turtles wandering on the shore
…but the warmth and sincerity of the staff, and the fact that they think of everything (“ma’am, would you like me to clean your sunglasses for you?”). At the pool station where you can grab towels, there is not only sunscreen, but goggles, toddler swimming nappies, leave-in hair conditioner, and goodness knows what else. There are very cute toddler sized sunbeds at the small pool (there are several pools, so it is never crowded). At turndown a locally made ceramic jug and cup are placed on each bedside table with cool water. On the balcony, there is a small hanging rack for your swimmers (why don’t all beach resorts do this?). And throughout the rambling resort, there are several fully equipped laundry rooms for guests so that you don’t have to return home with a suitcase of dirty washing. The rooms and bathrooms are a little dated, but very spacious.
Sitting on our balcony, I enjoy this local pineapple soda.
Our booking comes with quite a large voucher for the restaurants which we make good use of, as they are expensive and alternatives are a ten to thirty minute drive away. Ulu Ocean Grill is Japanese/Asian and it holds its own against Sydney’s Sokyo or Tokonoma. And while the prices are similar to Sydney, the servings are much bigger.
The Ahi Poke (pronounced pok-ee, it is almost a national dish) is prepared at the table and served with taro chips. Sublime.
I adore the kochujang sauce that comes with the crispy calamari, I want to pour it over everything.
The miso Kombacha is perfectly cooked and the side of corn has a sauce with a kick.
Beach Tree, which serves largely Italian, while expensive, is excellent.
If only it didn’t have to end! Ziplines are popular on the island, but the boys did not weigh enough (you need to be at least 70 pounds) so we’ll need to put that on the list for next time.
Four Seasons Kona, http://www.fourseasons.com/hualalai/
Paradise Helicopters, https://paradisecopters.com/