Kohala & Waimea
Kohala is a study in contrasts. South Kohala is the archetypal sun-and-sea resort mecca, while North Kohala proudly remains rural with nary a high-rise in sight. Waimea, a long-standing ranch town in between, is a central stop for cross-island travelers. From Waikoloa to Kawaihae, Hawaiian history is evident in ancient trails, heiau (temples), fishponds and petroglyphs.
Hilo should have an inferiority complex. It gets less than half of Kailua-Kona's tourists. But the townsfolk know better. Sure, it's rainy. But 130in of annual rainfall guarantees a leafy landscape, where waterfalls gush and every homeowner has a green thumb. Sure, it seems ordinary and familiar (despite its tropical splendor).
Talk about multiple personalities! Kailua-Kona is first and foremost a quintessential tourist town, with a relentless lineup of coastal condos, souvenir shops and sunburnt pleasure-seekers trolling for a meal or a drink. Further upland, it's old-time Kona in Holualoa, an art mecca in the cool, misty coffee belt.
So alluring is this part of Hawaiʻi, it's not surprising the vast majority of visitors base themselves along this stretch of coast. From ancient Hawaiian royalty to royally ancient tourists, the Kona Coast was, is and probably always will be the Big Island's most popular playground.
Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park & Around
Sulfurous smoke belches from the ground so voluminously it tastes like you're sucking matches. Ribbons of red lava flow from Kilauea – the most active volcano on the planet – to the sea, boiling it on contact. Elegant palms fringe a white-sand beach backed by jet-black lava. Above it all looms a snow-capped mountain.
Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park
With three active volcanoes and a geological history dating back at least 70 million years, one-of-a-kind Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park (HAVO) is an ideal hiking and camping destination. There are over 140 miles of amazingly varied trails, from senior citizen cakewalks to ass-kicking summit hikes, plus drive-up campsites and backcountry shelters.
The Hamakua Coast is wildly fertile and beautiful. Thunderous waterfalls shoot mist and rainbows across mossy chasms, and green sugarcane grows wild on bluffs between deep-blue sky and still bluer sea. Here, in green valleys, suspended in time, farmers still grow taro and pound it into poi, while the melodious notes of a ukulele drift toward dusk, inviting the night marchers.
The cool, green rolling pastureland surrounding Waimea is perhaps Hawaiʻi's most unexpected face. This is cattle and cowboy country, and nearly all of it, including Waimea itself, is owned, run or leased by Parker Ranch, the fifth-largest cow-calf ranch in the USA. Waimea is full of contrasts.
North Kona Coast
Dropping from the lush Kohala Mountains where cows graze on tall green grass down to the sere North Kona Coast is a shock. Interminable lava fields blanket this forbidding coast, but penetrate those fields and you'll be snorkeling with turtles, walking on black sand and experiencing an iconic Kona sunset.
Mauna Kea & Around
Caution: you're entering hallowed ground. According to the Hawaiian creation myth, every palm tree, grain of sand, volcano and valley in the Hawaiian Islands was created at Mauna Kea. This sacrosanct 'Mount of Wakea' is home to the gods, the place between heaven and earth where na kanaka maoli (Native Hawaiians) were born.