How to take a World’s Best trip to the Big Island, Hawaii.

Shane Mitchell
July 29, 2011

The Trip

The Big Island of Hawaii is a little bit country and a whole lot of lava rock and roll—especially whenever Kilauea is pouring hot magma into the Pacific at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the eastern shore. (Check with the park service for eruption updates.) Far from urban Honolulu, this mostly rural island has its own cowboy culture, farmers’ markets, tropical rain forests, and black-, green-, and white-sand beaches. Learn how to ride horseback like a real paniolo, or Hawaiian cowboy, at Parker Ranch, in Waimea. Then head for nearby Village Burger, where chef Edwin Goto tops the island’s grass-fed beef with local avocados, mushrooms, and ripe tomatoes. Hike down the steep pali (cliff) into the lush, remote Pololu Valley, or explore neighboring Hapuna Beach State Park, one of the few white-sand stretches ideal for both body surfing and sunbathing. Wind up the day with a Tom’s Pink Shirt—guava liqueur, fresh strawberries, lime juice, and agave nectar—at the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai’s Beach Tree bar; it has one of the best pau hana (cocktail hour) views at sunset.

Hawaii, the Big Island Active Tip: Big Island Eco Adventures will take you on an off-road safari in the North Kohala mountains. You’ll hike across a suspension bridge above a waterfall and ride the new 2,000-foot-long zipline above a tropical ravine. 510 Hawi Rd., Hawi; 808/889-5111; four-hour safaris from $169 per person.

Hawaii, the Big Island Family Tip: Teach the kids na lani—everything under the heavens—at the Imiloa Astronomy Center, in Hilo. This planetarium has a “Voyage Through Space” show that reviews 13 billion years of history, plus exhibits on Polynesian navigation and Hawaiian language classes. 600 Imiloa Place, Hilo; 808/969-9703.

Hawaii, the Big Island: World’s Best Scorecard

No. 7 island overall
No. 1 island in Hawaii

Hotels

Four Seasons Resort Hualalai 94.04
Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel 89.75
Mauna Kea Beach Hotel 89.19
Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows 88.22
Fairmont Orchid 87.72

 

Cowboys of Hawaii at Parker Ranch Waimea; 808/887-1046; parkerranch.com; horseback-riding tours from $79 per person.

 

Four Seasons Resort Hualalai 72-100 Kaupulehu Dr., Kailua-Kona; 808/325-8000; fourseasons.com; doubles from $795; drinks for two $32.

Hapuna Beach State Park 2.3 miles south of Kawaihae on Hwy. 19; hawaiistateparks.org.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park 808/985-6000; nps.gov/havo.

Village Burger Parker Ranch Center, Waimea; 808/885-7319; villageburgerwaimea.com; lunch for two $20.

Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel

Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel, a 351-room resort, shares 1,839 acres of white sand, palm trees, and lava-rock outcroppings with its sister hotel the Mauna Kea. The property’s beach is equally as beautiful as the one that fronts its sister hotel, and although Hapuna’s interiors are more subdued, they maintain a similarly bright, airy feeling. In 2011, two years after Mauna Kea got a freshening up, Hapuna Beach got its turn; 96 of the oceanfront guest rooms and luxury suites were updated with Polynesian-style fabrics and traditional Hawaiian kapa prints, all complemented by raffia and blond wood furnishings, and white shuttered doors that open onto oceanfront lanais. For the ultimate underwater experience, rent fins, masks, and snorkels from the beach club next to the 6,865-square-foot Hapuna Beach pool, and head out to the rocky points at either end of the beach in the early morning, when the water is calm and crystal clear. Come evening, head a mile north to the Mauna Kea Hotel’s Kauna’oa Beach, where a large floodlight shines into the bay so travelers can watch as manta rays feed on tiny plankton lured to the shore.

Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows

343-room eco-friendly hotel and five bungalows constructed on a 16th-century lava flow, currently the nesting ground for endangered sea turtles thanks to the hotel's rehabilitation program.

Mauna Kea Beach Hotel

A $150-million refurbishment, completed in 2007, brought new life to this venerable resort overlooking the crescent of Kaunaoa Beach (the property was originally built in 1965 by the founder of RockResorts, Laurance Rockefeller). The 258 guest rooms—all with private lanais overlooking the sea or the championship Robert Trent Jones, Sr.-designed golf course—are now sleek aeries outfitted in teak and Hawaiian-inspired fabrics. The renovated common areas, including the lobby and the Mandara spa, are decorated with carvings and statuary from Rockefeller’s museum-quality collection of Polynesian, Oceanic, and Asian art (the red-granite Buddha, which overlooks the grand staircase and the North Garden, dates back 1,400 years). The waterfront has an 11-court tennis club, and activities like canoeing, snorkeling, kayaking, and sailing. At dinnertime, outdoor tables at the restaurant, Manta, are just steps away from where the manta rays feed each night.

Fairmont Orchid

Nestled in a sheltered bay along the northerly Kohala Coast, this towering hotel offers sweeping Pacific views from almost every one of its 540 rooms and suites. (Conveniently, every unit has its own lanai—private balcony—for enjoying them.) The Fairmont Orchid’s 32-acre property centers around its lovely half-moon beach, where snorkeling, surfing, and kayaking—as well as good old swimming and sunning—are all top-notch. But there’s also a 10,000-square-foot swimming pool, tennis courts (reservations are a must), and a 36-hole golf course. The spa is one of the island’s most impressive, serving up Kona-coffee body scrubs and couples’ massages in open-air, oceanfront hales (huts).

Four Seasons Resort Hualalai

“Perfect,” “heaven,” and “the best vacation of my life” are just a few ways guests describe this understatedly gorgeous, isolated resort where most of the 243 rooms, in low-rise bungalows, have ocean views. It’s popular with Hollywood celebrities for good reason: the five-star service is impeccable; the grounds border the dramatic volcanic rock coast with seawater and freshwater swimming pools; an open-air spa teems with tropical vegetation; and yoga, personal training, and a full menu of fitness classes are offered daily. The private, oceanfront Jack Nicklaus signature golf course is carved right into the underlying black lava, which serves as occasional bunkers.

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