(Recently published on Wendy Perrin web site)
For romance and history, you can’t do better than Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. The decor is understated, with Balinese and Thai influences, but still true to its Hawaiian roots. It’s filled by great artworks from Laurence Rockefeller’s prize collection (the famous philanthropist opened the hotel in the 1960s). But you may not be able to focus on the paintings for very long: The hotel is on one of the island’s best beaches, where between November and May you’ll see an endless parade of whales and manta rays right off the shore. Best of all, the Deluxe Ocean View rooms are less expensive then the entry-level at some of the island’s other luxury hotels—and come with a fantastic buffet breakfast to boot. Our guests also receive extra special treatment at the Mauna Kea.
If you prefer pools to the beach, you’re better off at the Four Seasons Hualalai: It has seven pools, including one stocked with more than 4,000 tropical fish, a sea-side infinity pool, a lap pool, and a shaded kids’ pool.
For families, the Fairmont Orchid is a wonderful choice and a fantastic value. The hotel has many connecting rooms and large suites, with separate master bedrooms, that can comfortably accommodate five people, as well as a Gold floor, which offers food all day long with full breakfast, snacks, and quite a nice spread in the evening.
The hotel also has a children’s program, a huge pool, and plenty of space for little ones to run around. But what kids seem to most love about this hotel are the resident sea turtles; they live in the lagoon right near the beach. And for grown-ups, the Fairmont Orchid has one of the best spas on the island. We often arrange surprises for our guests who stay here, such as special room amenities, complimentary use of the pool cabanas, or gifts as mementos of their stay.
Restaurant the locals love
The Village Burger, a small hamburger joint in the Parker Ranch Shopping Center, cooks up made-to-order burgers and french fries so outstanding that you’ll want to go back again and again.
Well, this is Kona, so you have to try the coffee, and it’s Hawaii, so you have to try shaved ice. But as for a must-taste dish, you can’t leave the state without trying poke—a raw fish salad, usually made with ahi or yellow tail. Nearly every eatery has its own version. Da Poke Shack in Kailua-Kona is a good place to dive in—they make eight varieties, including one with avocado aioli and another with spicy garlic sesame oil.
Meal worth the splurge
Peter Merriman established Pacific Rim cuisine on the Big Island some two decades ago and spearheaded the locavore movement there as well. He’s still considered one of the five best chefs in Hawaii, and dinners at his flagship restaurant, Merriman’s, are amazing—and rival luxury-hotel restaurant prices. Still, this is an experience. The restaurant, in the town of Waimea, occupies a nondescript building that looks more like a modest home than a fancy eatery. But inside, the kitchen prepares a wonderful lamb dish, seafood entrées that change depending on the catch of the day, and, one of the house specialties, freshly caught monchong crusted with macadamia nuts and served with Japanese vegetables. Everything is fresh and grown on the island.
A good alternative to dinner is lunch. It’s a little less expensive and equally as creative. Try the Ahi Poke Bowl made there with garlic and macadamia-nut rice.
Brown’s Beach House at the Fairmont Orchid is another outstanding restaurant in a romantic setting right on the beach—go around sunset, when there’s a guitar player to entertain you during dinner. The menu is varied, very creative, and changes nightly, though the attention to presentation and excellent service never vary.
What to See and Do
Waipi’o Valley, a lush valley with a spectacular beach (Waipi’o means “curved water” in the Hawaiian language). It’s a holy and mystical place full of ancient Hawaiian lore and can be difficult to access: A 4WD vehicle is necessary for the very steep road down into the valley, and the switchback hiking trail is difficult. For a less rigorous adventure, nearby Pololū Valley has a beautiful hike to a black-sand beach; follow up with lunch in Hawi at Bamboo Restaurant or Sushi Rock.
A helicopter tour of the Volcanoes National Park area. Try either Blue Hawaiian or Paradise Helicopter—both have excellent pilots who won’t just fly you over the stunning craters but will give you a great geology lesson while you’re up there, explaining exactly how the youngest of the Hawaiian Islands is still constantly forming. But don’t just see the volcanoes from above. Spend some time first on foot in the park itself, and then hop on the chopper in Hilo.
The drive on Saddle Road, up to the observatories near the top of 4,200-foot-high Mauna Kea, passes a landscape so barren and otherworldly that you’ll feel like you’re driving on the surface of the moon, seeing the same sights as Neil Armstrong did.
Hilo may be the island’s capital, but it’s still a small town, and you don’t need more than a day or two there. A few places worth visiting in Hilo are the Imiloa Astronomy Center (a great planetarium); the Lyman Museum, which contains an exceptionally beautiful rock and mineral collection; and the Suisan Fish Market, where fishermen bring their catch starting at 6 a.m. for the daily auction. The Pacific Tsunami Museum is also worth a stop; it documents the disastrous tsunami that hit the island in 1960. Foodwise, the pickings are slim in Hilo, but Café Pesto is a good neighborhood Italian spot (which isn’t that easy to find in Hawaii), and if you happen to be in town on Wednesday or Sunday be sure to stop by the farmers’ market to check out all the exotic flowers and fruits.
The seahorse farm located just past the Kona Airport is a must for children and grown-ups alike. It’s a high-tech organic aqua farm with fantastic tours Monday through Friday that explain all about these ancient and unusual creatures, as well as the science behind running the farm and a little insight into the world of ocean conservation. Ticket prices are steep—$28 for kids and $38 for adults—but it’s well worth it.
The half-mile white-sand Hapuna Beach—the one often seen in advertisements and television shows touting an island paradise—is one of the island’s most beautiful and easily accessible beaches.
For another perfect white-sand strand—but this one without the crowds—try Makalawena Beach near Kekaha Kai Sate Park, in Kona. You’ll have to maneuver an unpaved road for a short distance and walk a bit from the parking area, but that is part of the charm.
Best for snorkeling
Kealakekua Bay (also known as Kay Bay), on the western edge of the island, is a spectacular marine sanctuary; since the snorkeling site can only be reached by boat, the coral is pristine, and there are plenty of colorful fish.