Guide to Hawaii
Trust us when we say there is a lot to do on each of Hawai’i’s islands. The Big Island, in particular, has it all—from an active volcano to snowy mountains.
Creating an ultimate guide to Hawaii is a full-time job. It takes us two years to produce a first edition book, and in the meantime, we update our mobile app daily with new information on places we’ve reviewed.
But to highlight a few real gems, here are the top places you can’t miss while you’re on the Big Island. We’ve rounded up our favorite resorts, sights, activities and restaurants so you’re fully covered and can make the most of your vacation. These places all received a Real Gem or an Ono in our books and app as they stand out from the rest.
BIG ISLAND RESORTS
We’ve personally stayed at and reviewed every single resort on the Big Island, and these are the ones that came out on top. They both receive “A Real Gem” from us because they offer something particularly special. Curious about the other resorts? Download our app for free to read all of our Big Island resort reviews.
Region: South Kohala
We try not to blather on about a resort—it hurts our credibility. But when it’s right, it’s right. The Fairmont Orchid has an intoxicating richness that permeates everything. The lush grounds have a very sculpted and precise feel. Nothing is out of place. The inside is just as flawless. The lobby, halls and rooms are all richly furnished with lots of wood and fine carpets—even the elevators are panelled in koa with crystal chandeliers. The overall effect of the resort’s rooms and common areas is European-Hawaiian elegance. The entire staff seems obsessed with pleasing you.
Hilton Waikoloa Village
Region: South Kohala
Where do we start? How about wow! This is the one you’ve probably heard about. This resort, built in the late ’80s and spread over 62 acres, is the most elaborate of them all. (By the way, despite its name, it is not located in or next to the town of Waikoloa Village.) Three separate towers are joined by a tram and boat network right out of Disneyland. One swimming pool has a pounding waterfall and an Indiana Jones-type swinging bridge overhead. There is a dolphin pool where lucky guests can get in the water with dolphins. The whole experience is described in the Adventures chapter.
See all resorts on the Big Island in our app. Download Now!
BIG ISLAND SIGHTS
Nowhere else in the world will you find the diversity available on the Big Island. Pristine rain forests, lava deserts, world-class beaches, snow-covered mountains, an active volcano, dazzling sunsets and just about every activity you can think of. While our app features all of the sights to see on the Big Island, these are the ones that are not to be missed. You can download our app and use our custom maps to plan your trip around the top sights on the Big Island.
The end of the highway (which lacks a turnaround for some reason, so expect vehicular confusion) is the Pololu Valley Lookout. This outstanding vista displays the raw, untamed side of the Big Island. (Unfortunately, the state sometimes lets the vegetation block some of the view. The view’s much nicer halfway down the trail mentioned below.) Nearly vertical cliffs are battered unmercifully by the winter north shore surf.
Waipi‘o Valley is as beautiful a place as you will ever visit. With unimaginably steep walls on all sides, waterfalls etching the perimeter, fields of taro and a luscious mile-long black sand beach, Waipi‘o never fails to impress. The instant you arrive at the lookout above this awesome spectacle, you realize why this place was so special to the ancient Hawaiians. Because of its inspiring and tranquilizing effects, Waipi‘o was often chosen as the meeting place for chiefs when important decisions, such as the succession of the king, were made.
Kilauea’s Lava Scene
If and when lava does return to the park, this is what it’s like. We’ve been to the volcano countless times, with and without surface lava. It’s always a fantastic experience, though not what people expect.
A night scene might go like this: a crowd of about 50 people on a bluff overlooking a field of fresh pahoehoe. It pops, crackles and glows as the night consumes all. What amazes us is how reverent everybody is. Couples hold each other tight. People speak in soft whispers. They try not to move much for fear of disturbing others as they watch Earth’s most primordial show. Nobody wants to leave. Watching the lava enter the sea at night never fails to impress, and we’ve been told more times than we can count by visitors that it is an unsurpassed highlight.
BIG ISLAND ACTIVITIES
If you want more from your Big Island vacation than a suntan, the Big Island offers a multitude of activities to keep you happy and busy. Below we list out the more popular activities to do on the Big Island, with candid information on each. If you’re itching to see what other adventures await you on the Big Island, you can download our app and filter through the activities based on your preference. The app also includes a geo-accurate map you can use offline, meaning you’ll always have a guide to Hawaii in your pocket.
Mauna Kea Golf Course
The best courses, by far, are in Kohala. According to local lore, in the early 1960s Laurance Rockefeller flew Robert Trent Jones, Sr., to an isolated, barren, mostly unknown place on the Big Island. He took him out to an ‘a‘a lava field, pointed to the rock, and asked, “Can you build me a golf course out of that?” Jones knelt down, picked up two pieces of ‘a‘a and ground them together. They crumbled. He then said, “Mr. Rockefeller—you’ve got yourself a golf course.”
Booking a boat tour is the way to go. The amount of time you will get with the animals is highly variable, depending on the mood of the dolphins. Sometimes the dolphins will continually circle the same area and repeatedly come investigate you for a full hour. Other times, the dolphins will swim past, completely indifferent, like they don’t give a…flying fish. But even then, seeing dozens of dolphins suddenly burst out of the blue and streak past is incredible. Have your underwater camera ready. Group size is another factor, since you may have to get off and on the boat multiple times if the pod is on the move. It’s easy to get excited, but don’t aggressively go after the dolphins, or you’ll spook them. Use slow, gentle motions and keep your arms close to your body. Try to anticipate the direction they are headed and swim alongside them—never directly at them.
Manta Ray Night Dive
Imagine the following scene: You take a boat to a dark piece of shoreline, leaving just before sunset. When you arrive, perhaps another dive boat is already there. Damn, you think. They’ll ruin it. As you slip into the water and approach what is affectionately called the campfire, numerous lights beckon to you, like a porch light calling to moths. Then gigantic shadows blot out the lights. Mantas! As you approach, one zooms over your head, missing you by an inch. There you sit, with all the other divers, mesmerized by the performance before you. One, two, maybe three stinger-less manta rays, 6–10 feet across their wings, slowly swirling, looping and soaring all about you. Like an extraterrestrial dance performed by alien beings, these filter-feeding leviathans are more graceful than you could possibly imagine. They seem to understand that they are on stage, and they rarely disappoint. When you think you have gotten used to their size, a goliath 14 feet across may swoop in, its enormous maw scooping up thousands of the tiny, darting shrimp that cloud the water along with the bubbles. You struggle to resist the urge to reach up and touch them—it’s best to let them initiate any touching. Above the fray, a sea of needlefish gobbles up what they can. Nearby, a friendly eel might slither over to give you a kiss.
See all activities on the Big Island in our app. Download Now!
BIG ISLAND RESTAURANTS
We’ve reviewed over 200 restaurants on the Big Island and marked those that stand out from the rest with an “ono” symbol. Here are a few of our top-rated restaurants, but if you’d like to see more you can download our app and filter through them all based on cuisine and price. Our app acts as our personal guide to Hawaii by locating each of the Big Island’s restaurants on our custom maps and showing the distance between you and a restaurant worth your while.
Kamuela Provision Company
Steak, seafood and a token veggie item at this Hilton Waikoloa Village restaurant. The views, especially from the outdoor tables, are fantastic. Inside you’ll find an upscale yet casual decor. Dinner selections seem to change often enough that we won’t recommend a particular dish. The desserts are very tasty. You may like the elevated outdoor oceanside tables for sunsets, lively indoor tables, or you may want to grab a cocktail at the other outdoor tables near the top of the pool waterfall.
This restaurant has an unreal location right next to the beach in Mauna Lani’s Makaiwa Bay. The menu is pretty small with items such as fresh fish, steaks, ribs and maybe some seared ‘ahi using all local ingredients. This is a good place to arrive early and have a cocktail, watching the beach before dinner. Good drinks here—gotta try the wild Shave Ice Martini. The small lawn between you and the beach is a good place to park the kids while you watch ’em run around.
Tina’s Garden Gourmet Café
Amazing selection of dishes. This is the kind of place where people want to work just to be able to try everything. Interesting fusion of cuisine such as Thai pizzas, Thai burritos, and a Thai-style spaghetti (even kids tend to like this one). Besides great flavors, the presentation here can be jaw-dropping. The Ocean in the Jungle curry dish, seafood served in a hollowed-out pineapple, is almosttoo gorgeous to eat.
If you’re hungry for more real gems on the Big Island, our app has them all plotted on our custom maps which can direct you to each location. The maps will even show you more attractions nearby and will tell you if it’s a real gem or not. Our maps can be downloaded for use offline, perfect for a hike through Waipi‘o Valley! Meaning this guide to Hawaii actually guides you to the sights and activities found on the Big Island, and you can gain access to the other major islands as well: Maui, Kauai, and Oahu.
More information awaits you in our app, which you can download on your Apple or Android device.
See all restaurants on the Big Island in our app. Download Now!
Guide to Hawaii – Big Island
The Big Island has it all, accommodation-wise, and as you consider where you want to stay—hotel or condo, by the beach or with a mountain view—you might find it intimidating to wade through the vast number of choices.
So here’s what we did. We have personally reviewed every resort on the Big Island. We have exhaustively cataloged all the amenities, formed opinions on what different properties have to offer and created comprehensive reviews. Sure, you can go online and look at reviews by people who have been to one or maybe two resorts. But none of those sources knows them all and can compare one to the other.
Because this information is so exhaustive, there isn’t enough room in our book to include it all. So we have put all of our reviews in our smartphone app, Hawaii Revealed, and made that portion available for free. There you can sort and sift through the resorts in a matter of minutes using our special filters. We also include our own aerial photos, so you’ll know if oceanfront really means oceanfront.
For instance, you might say, I want a hotel in Kailua-Kona, on a beach, that’s good for families, has an outdoor lanai, a children’s pool, and takes service animals. Oh, and a swim-up bar would be nice. With the filters in our app, you can cut through the 76 or so resorts and get to exactly what you want by reading our in-depth, brutally honest review. How’s that for cutting through the noise?
More things to reveal in the app, your ultimate guide to Hawaii:
- Reviews on Hawaii Resorts with their locations
- Reviews on every single beach on the islands
- Interactive maps of Kaua‘i, Maui, Oahu and the Big Island
- Details to help plan your visit to Hawaii’s best sights, tours, activities and more