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The Hawaii Guide

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It’s true that every Hawaiian island has something different to offer—but it’s also true that there a lot of different experiences to be had even on a single island. And despite all the arguments to be made for the superiority of any given destination—visitors tend to be overwhelmingly loyal to either the place they went on family vacations growing up or their honeymoon spots—“the best island” is, like most things, a matter of opinion. We started off our Hawaii guide with four of the major islands between which goop loyalties are divided: The Big Island is cool because it’s home to the majority of the world’s climate zones; you can see snowcapped mountains, black and white sand beaches, jungles, and active volcanoes. Maui could be said to be the Big Island’s more luxurious counterpart, while people who favor Kauai’s mountain-and-farm landscape will tell you that it’s preferred because it’s low-key in comparison to the other islands. More urban Oahu is home to the fun surf haven that is the North Shore, and the capital city of Honolulu, which deserves a guide unto itself. In other words, keep checking back with us for more to come on all the islands—in the meantime, here are some of our top picks.

Fairmont Orchid

1 N. Kaniku Dr., Kohala Coast | 808.885.2000

Set on 32 acres along the Kohala Coast, the Fairmont Orchid spills onto a white-sand lagoon beach and the bright blue-green waters of Pauoa Bay. Every room here comes with its own lanai, many with lovely views of the ocean, or the island’s waterfalls and the Fairmont's tropical gardens. The most luxurious rooms and suites are on the sixth floor of the resort’s North Tower, known as “Fairmont Gold.” The spa here has several private oceanfront huts (hale) adjacent to cascading waterfalls (not a bad setting for a massage), as well as indoor treatment rooms, a sauna and a steam room. The resort also plays host to 10 quality tennis courts (with lights for night). And next to the Fairmont is the Francis H. I'i Brown Golf Course, which encompasses two different 18-hole courses.

Mauna Kea Beach Hotel

62-100 Mauna Kea Beach Dr., Puako | 808.882.7222

When Mauna Kea opened in the mid-1960s, it was said to be the most expensive hotel ever built, at $15 million. In the decades since, it’s remained a favorite Big Island hotel—thanks in part to a $150 million renovation in the mid-2000s that helped Mauna Kea keep pace with the newer luxury resorts on Hawaii. The beach here (white-sand Kauna‘oa) is one of the best hotel beaches you’ll find on the island. Mauna Kea is also known for its famed golf course, which was built by Robert Trent Jones, Sr. and debuted in 1964 with the Big Three (Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player) on the course. Like the hotel, Mauna Kea Golf Course underwent a thoughtful renovation (overseen by Rees Jones, son of Robert Trent Jones) that maintained all its beauty (and challenges). For those who favor tennis, there’s an also an 11-court seaside club at Mauna Kea. The restaurant to dine at here is Manta.

Four Seasons Resort Hualalai

72-100 Ka`upulehu Dr., Kohala Coast | 808.325.8000

The seven varied pools at the Four Seasons on the Kona-Kohala coast provide ample opportunity for R&R, as well as fun and games for the kids. The adults-only pool faces the ocean and has a swim-up bar with bench seating. The lagoon-shaped family pool has an infinity edge that seems to bleed into the ocean and is dotted with cabanas big enough for the whole gang. (Next to this is a smaller, freshwater kiddie pool with a sand bottom. And for kids ages 5 to 12 who might enjoy more organized activities, the Four Seasons offers a camp-like program during your stay.) There’s also “King’s Pond,” a 1.8-million gallon pool that combines fresh and ocean water and is home to 4,000 tropical fish. Plus, a lap pool. The rooms here, needless to say, are well-appointed, but the private two- and three-bedroom villas are on another level: set in secluded bungalows, they've got gorgeous oceanside views, generously sized lanais, private hot tubs, and are tastefully outfitted with local Hawaiian artwork.

Canoe House

68-1400 Mauna Lani Dr., Kohala Coast | 808.881.7911

The Canoe House is the excellent oceanfront restaurant of Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows, complete with an open-air dining room and outdoor patio overlooking the Pacific. The menu draws heavily on local ingredients (nearly everything on the chef’s optional tasting menu is sourced from the Big Island), with dishes like twice-cooked pulehu pork ribs, locally grown beets served with Big Island goat cheese, and seared wahoo with pickled ginger and wasabi soy dressing.

Holuakoa Café

76-5900 Old Government Rd., Holualoa | 808.322.5072

Holuakoa is an artist enclave in Kona’s coffee region, but it’s good for more than a morning cup. Designed like an open-air house, and surrounded by gardens, this Holuakoa restaurant is known for their tasty brunch and dinner menus. Most of their produce is organic and comes from farms located within five miles of the restaurant. Fish is caught by local purveyors; meat is sourced from local, grass-fed, organic farms as much as possible; the bread, pasta, and desserts are all made in the restaurant’s kitchen; and the wines and spirits are biodynamic and organic. In front of the restaurant is a small coffee shop serving Kona’s own Buddha’s Cup Estate.

Huggo’s

75-5828 Kahakai Rd., Kailua-Kona | 808.329.1493

Although Huggo’s isn’t the healthiest option on the island—the barbecued beef ribs and teriyaki steak are favorite dinner dishes—you can get some of the tastiest local fish here. Founded in 1969 as a local fishermen joint, the dock-like restaurant is literally perched over the ocean; at high tide, the surf is just feet away.

Manta & Pavilion Wine Bar

62-100 Mauna Kea Beach Dr., Kohala Coast | 808.882.1840

Even if you’re not staying at hotel Mauna Kea, you should come to its flagship restaurant, Manta, for dinner. It’s an especially good date-night spot, with stunning views of Kaunaoa Beach and an admirable wine-by-the-glass list. And this is one of those restaurants where you have to order dessert: Make it pastry chef Ross Alaimo's famous chocolate soufflé.

Rays on the Bay

78-128 Ehukai St., Kailua-Kona | 808.930.4949

Rays on the Bay: A totally cheesy name for the Sheraton’s quality restaurant that is built into the lava rock cliffs on Kona’s coast. (As guessed, you can see the local manta rays swimming at night just feet from your dinner table.) The head chef here, Francis “Junior” Ulep, is an Oahu native with a flair for island cuisine—from pupus (small appetizer plates) like ahi poke and raw crudo to Kona-coffee-rubbed beef.

Green Flash Coffee & Cafe

75-6000 Ali'i Dr., Kailua-Kona | 808.329.4387

We love the fresh smoothies at this family-owned café near Kailua-Kona Village. They also serve breakfast, lunch, and have kombucha on tap (you can take a growler with you). Most importantly, their Kona coffee selection—sourced from local purveyors Buddha’s Cup and Daylight Mind—is not to be missed.

Hilo Farmers Market

Mamo St. & Kamehameha Ave., Hilo | 808.933.1000

There is no shortage of markets on the Big Island, but if you only have time for one, make it this farmers market in historic downtown Hilo, at the corner of Corner of Mamo Street and Kamehameha Avenue. The Hilo Farmers Market began in 1988 with four farmers who sold their harvest out of parked trucks. Today, it’s open daily year-round (but the main market days are Wednesday and Saturday), and more than 200 farmers and crafters come to sell a variety of produce, tropical flowers (orchids and anthuriums are the main draw), and giftable items like handmade jewelry and artisanal wooden bowls. Be sure to sample the in-season fruit, be it coconuts, strawberry guavas, white pineapples, or thimble berries. Other specialties include island jams, jellies, hot sauces, honey, macadamia nut butter, and (of course) Kona coffee. There are also a number of vendors serving breakfast and lunch, from breads and pastries to Thai and sushi.

Island Naturals Market & Deli

15-1870 Akeakamai Loop, Pahoa | 808.965.8322

This local grocery has the most comprehensive selection of healthy eats on the island. It also conveniently has multiple locations: in Hilo and Pahoa on the east side of the island, and Kailua-Kona on the west, plus a kiosk at the University of Hawaii. The stores are a nice option if your hotel suite/Airbnb is equipped with a kitchen, and you’re looking to eat/entertain there for a meal or two. Each Island Naturals Market & Deli store sells an array of organic groceries (including many gluten-free and vegan-friendly products) from shelved goods like pastas and sauces, to fruits and veggies from nearby farms, line-caught fish, and grass-fed beef. You can also stock up on breakfast items and organic wine and beer. If you’re not interested in doing any cooking, the deli has easy already-made meals, or you can order custom sandwiches, smoothies, juices, and of course, Kona coffee.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

1 Crater Rim Dr., Hawaii National Park | 808.985.6000

Two of the world’s most active volcanoes sit on the Big Island: Kīlauea and Mauna Loa. And they are both encompassed in the national park in the southern half of the island, which you can visit by car. Check before you go to see what the latest is, but recently, Kīlauea has been erupting in two places. One of the vents (within Halema'uma'u Crater) can be seen from an overlook at Jaggar Museum—best view is in the evening, on a clear night, when the fire from the crater lights up the sky. If you want to spend more time in the park, there are a number of trails that you can explore on foot; the park has a pretty cool landscape in part because it spans from the summit of Mauna Loa at 13,677 feet down to sea level, and therefore a diverse range of ecosystems.

Manini’owali Beach

Hwy. 19, North of Mile Marker #88, Kailua-Kona

There are a lot of awesome beaches on the Big Island; those on the Kona side can be tougher, as they tend to be rocky. That said, if you're willing to walk a bit of rocky stretch to get down to Manini'owali Beach—locally known as Kua Bay—the beach itself is spectacular. The sand here is soft and white, and the water is the clear, aquamarine color that you want to find in Hawaii. The tide is generally calmest at Kua Bay in the summer, when it's perfect for swimming and snorkeling. The waves are stronger in the winter—better suited for surfing. Kua Bay is no longer a secret, but it’s still somewhat remote—on that note, remember to pack a picnic lunch.

Waipi’o Valley

Hamakua Heritage Corridor Dr., Waipi'o Valley

What’s cool about the Big Island is that you can be driving past black volcanic rock one mile and then looking at an insanely lush, green valley—like Waipi’o—the next. Beyond its breathtaking looks, Waipi’o is a culturally significant region: also called the Valley of Kings, this is where King Kamehameha I lived, along with other Hawaiian rulers; and, at one point, thousands of Hawaiians. Today (after more than one devastating deluge), it’s all but deserted, save for a small community supporting the taro fields. You can get an expansive view of the valley and the river that threads it from Waipi’o Valley Lookout, which may be worth the drive itself. From here, if you’re up for some adventure, you can hike down to a black sand beach and better explore the valley on foot. (The water is known to be rough, so it’s not necessarily a spot for everyone to swim.) Along the cliffs in Waipi’o, which climb nearly 2,000 feet, you'll see hundreds of rushing waterfalls. (Depending on where you’re coming from or driving to after Waipi’o, you might pass through the town of Hawi—there's an adorable collection of shops and art galleries, as well as Tropical Dreams ice cream.)

Manta Ray Night Dive

Honokohau Marina, Kailua-Kona | 808.325.1687

Hawaii might be the only place where it’s cool to do a manta ray night dive—and this outfit is a good choice, as they do a variety of public tours as well as private charters. The best option is taking a boat out at sunset and then snorkeling (or scuba diving, if you’re certified). Even if you know how big manta rays are (average wingspan here is five feet eight inches, and up to to a whopping 20 feet), it’s wild to see them swimming right alongside you.