Summer Break is here and that means vacation for the lucky who have any of it off. A lot of you may be heading to the big island of Hawaii and if that is the case, I have some tidbits for you. This is a great collection of off-the-beaten track suggestions. If you’ve never been, my guess is that you’ll spend most of your time doing the main “Hawaii” things, but if you aren’t interested in that or if you been before and want a different trip this time, this little Hidden Hawaii guide is for you.
I have been to the Big Island (Hawaii) once, as a child. This was my first time going as an adult and the task of choosing a place to stay was overwhelming. In the end, we stayed at the Mauna Kea. I had heard so much about this resort for years…people say the same types of things about it…that it’s “special.” The best way I can describe it is to say that it feels like old Hawaii…meaning authentic, natural and not overdone. The architecture is sophisticated in a very subtle way and it has been meticulously maintained and preserved rather than completely updated (meaning ruined…) and gloppified. There is definitely a feeling of history here, which really makes it very special. The Mauna Kea embodies subtle sophistication and respect for its setting.
The beach is exquisite. It is said that it’s the best on the entire island and though we did not explore every beach on the entire island, I am inclined to agree without protest.
Mostly, the only colors that you see are black (volcanic rock), blue (water and sky), green (lush tropical gorgeousness) and the creamy caramel color of the soft sand.
And mostly, the only sounds you hear are birds, breeze, and the ocean. Serenity exemplified. Beauty any time of day.
After decompressing on the beach for a couple of days while hydrating with a steady stream of Mai Tais, we set out for some adventure. My husband has wanted a ukulele for many years and the ukulele is Hawaiian born. We decided before leaving that he’d get it here, on the Big Island. There are a lot of places on Hawaii that sell ukuleles, but after some research, he settled on Hawi Gallery on Akoni Pule Highway in Hawi. They have vintage native ukuleles made of Hawaiian wood, made on the island. It was a beautiful half-hour drive up the mountain.
While my husband settled in, I looked at the vintage Hawaiian shirts in the Hawi Gallery, (the type of shirts my grandpa used to wear!) and then wandered down the street to explore. It is fun up here whether or not you’re shopping for a ukulele…a nice excursion. There are a lot of cute shops and fun goings-on. There were musicians jamming in front of a coffee shop and people dancing on the sidewalk, enjoying the day. I wandered into a really cute shop, Elements Jewelry & Fine Crafts, that featured special things handmade in Hawaii. I got some very colorful dish towels and some gifts for friends. The towels always reminds me of our trip.
Another very cute shop, Aloha Man, had really pretty, locally made jewelry and clothes. I got a necklace that is the outline of the island..and more gifts for friends. A little further down the way is another shop with a wide variety of stuff you really want to buy. As Hawi Turns has a nice combination of clothes (for adults and kids,) perfumes, lotions, jewelry and unique souvenir type knick knacks.
After all this shopping, it was obviously time for a drink. We stopped into a very fun, kitschy place called the Bamboo Restaurant, known for their fabulous cocktails. They “invented” the Lilikoi (Passion Fruit) Margarita, which is stupid good. I’m a sucker for Passion Fruit anyway.
Our next adventure, after a complete day of rest to recuperate from our “big day” in Hawi, was to search out the best Poke on our side of the island. My husband loves poke salad, typically made of marinated, raw fish, and found this place after significant research. It was very close to us, in Kawaihae…Hale I’a Da Fish House.
This is not a fancy restaurant. It’s not really even a restaurant. It’s more like a shop…to buy the most insanely delicious poke and freshest of fresh fish.
You can also buy some essentials here. Like Spam. Never-mind! You are coming here for fresh from the ocean seafood.
There isn’t a place to sit, unless you go across the parking lot to the taco truck. Which we did, of course.
Fresh fish tacos? Yes, please. Oh so very good.
As you probably guessed, it was now time for dessert. Our friends had made us swear that we would go to the shave ice truck. We were told not to come home if we didn’t go. We went, of course.
Shave ice is a local favorite in Hawai’i, a refreshing treat that is an iconic symbol of aloha. At the Original Big Island Shave Ice Co., we take pride in serving traditional and innovative shave ice creations with all-natural flavors of the islands. Visit us for the best shave ice experience in Hawai’i!
Check out the menu – I’d suggest doing this ahead of time, as it’s full of so many amazing choices, it is easy to get confused, especially if there is a line of people behind you waiting for you to make a decision! The truck is usually parked just around the way from the poke place, on Kawaihae Road, also in Kawaihae. And back to the Mauna Kea to rest from our big day. And to have a Mai Tai while lounging on the beach. While reading a book. And looking at the ocean.
A couple of days later, we decided to try out The Seafood Bar and Grill (also in Kawaihae) on a hot tip from a friend who travels to this part of the island frequently. Casual, fresh and kitschy. Fun and delicious.
Next day, we headed down to the Four Season’s (a bit past Waikoloa) to meet friends for drinks. On the way, we stopped at Kings’ Shops. Don’t get excited…it’s mostly stuff you’d find anywhere: Coach, Michael Kors, Sunglass Hut, Tiffany’s…but there is a neat ukulele shop here, and more importantly, there is a clothing shop called Noa Noa that is pretty unique.
Noa Noa presents a profusion of patterns and colors in traditional Hawaiian and Pacific island Tapa and ethnic designs from around the world. Our hand batiks in all natural fabrics include cottons, rayons, silks and linens.
I got two dresses, one of which is a caftan. Remember those? Very chic and the batik is beautiful.
After we had drinks at the Four Seasons, which were delicious (different craft cocktails at each bar on the property…most of which are lighter and non-smoothie like), we followed an insider’s tip to a black sand beach nearby. It is a small, serene and quiet beach attached to a very expensive private community, but…all beaches on the island are public. And there you go. Guess what the private community is called? Yes! 49 Black Sand Beach.
Inspired by its sensuous surroundings, 49 Black Sand Beach is a private enclave of just 49 custom homesites set atop rugged cliffs on the Big Island’s Kohala Coast, 20 miles north of Kona International Airport. This exclusive community overlooks the Honoka’ope Bay and its exotic 800-year old black sand beach.
There were a few locals there, enjoying an afternoon swim. It was quiet and stunning.
Most nights we ate at our hotel, but the last night we ate at a place called Merriman’s on the advice of the same friend that recommended the Seafood Bar and Grill. It is located “upcountry” in Waimea and is Chef Peter Merriman’s flagship restaurant.
Peter Merriman has been considered a “culinary pioneer” in Hawaii for over 25 years. He is known as the original “locavore,” an outspoken champion of Hawaii’s farmers, ranchers and fishermen. Merriman’s showcases island grown and harvested foods simply (and exquisitely) prepared…reflecting the many flavors of Hawaii’s multiculturalism. I can eat at Ruth’s Chris anywhere…but why would I? I much prefer to have an experience that is particular to where I am.
The drive up there is beautiful…try to go before it gets dark so that you can appreciate the view. Merriman’s is considered “the original Home of Hawaii Regional Cuisine.” We started with the warm crusted Big Island goat cheese chèvre with Rincon Farm strawberries, local sweet onion, hirabara farms earth grown lettuce and cassis vinaigrette. It was so fresh…such a perfect yet unusual combination of flavors. It tasted like they went right outside and picked the lettuce, onions and berries. Since most things on their menu are local, that is probably why it tasted that way. I won’t recount every thing we ate (you can look at the menu yourself) but it was hands-down one of the best meals I’ve ever had. And the cocktails were just as spectacular. I wish we had gone twice…next trip, we will.
The next day, our last 😓, we headed up to the volcano, since we were flying out of Hilo. We spent the day tootling around there. We didn’t want to spend more than that exploring the volcano and it was a just right amount of time for us.
After that, my husband found a tiny place near Hilo called Liko Lehua where we had an incredibly delicious lunch. I know that macaroni and cheese isn’t Hawaiian, but it was one of the things we had for lunch and honestly it was just about the most delicious mac n’ cheese I’ve ever had in my whole entire life. They used large shell-shaped pasta and it was very creamy. Wow. This place is tiny and in the middle of a regular ol’ neighborhood. It is a family-owned business that started off by making specialty butters (e.g. pineapple butter, coconut butter) and now has three locations. Liko Lehua Cafe was also an integral part of the recovery efforts after Hurricane Iselle, the strongest tropical cyclone to hit the Big Island in history. They generously helped with food donations, and provided hot meals to people without power for days on end. This place is good karma and good food! The menu changes frequently depending on what’s fresh and it is definitely worth a stop.
Later that day, before our evening flight, we went to a local ukulele festival that the owner of another great and special ukulele shop, Holualoa Ukulele Gallery, told my husband about. We still had some time before the festival, so we found a local brewery, Mehana Hawaii Brewing Co., and stopped in for a tasting.
Finally, we headed on over to the local ukulele festival. There were many hand-made ukuleles there and a great concert, too, with hula dancing. A pretty great way to end such a great trip. Let me know if you take time to visit any of these special places. Or…if you discovered any of your own!
- Mauna Kea
- Hawi Gallery-shop
- Elements Jewelry and Fine Crafts-shop
- Aloha Man-shop
- As Hawi Turns-shop
- Bamboo Restaurant-drinks
- Hale I’a Da Fish House-eat
- Original Big Island Shave Ice-eat
- Seafood Bar and Grill-eat
- Noa Noa-shop
- 49 Black Sand Beach-swim
- Merman’s (“upcountry” Waimea)-eat
- Four Seasons-drinks
- Liko Lehua-eat
- Mehana Brewing Co.-drink