A TRIP TO THE BIG ISLAND, HAWAII
As a travel advisor I am constantly drooling over the adventures that I’m fortunate enough to plan for my clients. After spending some time in late December crafting the perfect Spring break trip to Hawaii for one lucky family, a strong case of wanderlust and longing for some of my own Aloha set in. The last time I had set foot in the Aloha State was well over 10 years ago. After transplanting myself across the country from California to Connecticut, I was more apt to travel East to Europe or down to the Caribbean. The Big Island was always next on my Hawaii bucket list and as it turned out, just where my clients were heading. After a recommendation from my sales contact at the newly reimagined Mauna Lani to come visit in January, I simply couldn’t resist. And so I bring to you a recap from our trip to the Big Island of Hawaii.
Traveling to Hawaii during the Pandemic
For many of those US based travelers not yet ready to take an international trip, Hawaii may be the perfect domestic destination to satisfy the strongest of wanderlusty cravings. That said, Hawaii does take covid safety extremely seriously so a trip to the islands requires preparation and testing. To avoid the mandatory 10 day quarantine, Hawaii offers a Pre-Travel test option where travelers are required to submit a negative PCR test result taken with 72 hours prior to departure from a ‘trusted testing ‘partner’. For more info on the step by step process check this out.
Our group opted for the Vault Health at home saliva PCR test. Vault is a trusted testing partner for Hawaii and they’ll even expedite test results for upcoming travels. We took our tests exactly three days prior to our trip, mailed them with UPS overnight shipping and had results back in less than 48 hours from shipping. In addition to the pre arrival test, the Big Island does administer an additional rapid test at the airport upon arrival. This was also a seamless process that took less than 10 minutes. All of these steps may seem like an annoyance but I personally felt more at ease knowing that all travelers were tested twice. In addition, social distancing and mask wearing at resorts and around the island are the norm.
What to Know about Traveling to the Big Island
When to Go
Hawaii is one of those places that can be enjoyed at all times of the year. The Big Island itself is no exception to that rule but given it’s geographic diversity, it can be rainy on one side of the island, snowing (yes it snows at the peak of it’s mountains!) and sunny and mild on the other. However, the majority of resorts that I’d recommend on the Big Island are all located on the Kohala Coast which is known for it’s consistently sunny and mild weather with an average annual temperature of 71 degrees. Economically speaking, the best months of the year to visit Hawaii, and the Big Island are their shoulder seasons which are late spring/early summer (April, May, June) and late summer/early fall (Sept, Oct). Crowds will be less and given the lower demand, prices more favorable!
What to Pack
As mentioned, weather can fluctuate wildly if you are traveling throughout the island and even if you stay put on the Kohala coast, nights can be chilly. So be sure to pack layers and and a light jacket. If you plan to hike, I’d recommend bringing a pair of shoes or boots that have seen better days. Hiking trails are oftentimes moist and the heavy clay deposits in the soil result in red mud that will stain your shoes! If you plan to surf, bring a rash guard or surf-ready one piece. Check out Duski for the best options! The Big Island is a super casual place so you may want to bring a few nicer outfits for fancier dinners but you can leave your heels and dress coats at home and focus on packing breathable summer layers, shorts and plenty of cute bikinis coverups and flip flops.
How to Get There
Most people opt to fly into Kona International Airport (KOA) which is only a 25 minutes drive from the Kohala Coast hotels. There are daily direct flights from many west coast airports (San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland) as well ask Anchorage, AK, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Denver, CO and Phoenix, AZ. Those coming from the East Coast will need to connect through California or Seattle. Flight time is a little over 5 hours from CA and if you are coming from the East, another 5 hours. If you are traveling with children, I recommend breaking up the travel day with a 1-2 day layover in California or Seattle.
Should You rent a Car?
You should definitely rent a car if you are looking to leave the resort and I highly recommend that on the Big Island! Taxis are extremely expensive and the island is large. Also, there are many cute spots to stop during a day of adventuring so it’s nice to have the flexibility. We used Turo which is like an airbnb for cars and all done via app. I’ve used them several times before and I find the selection of vehicles and convenience far superior to any standard rental car company.
Where to Stay
We stayed at the newly reimagined Mauna Lani (An Auberge Resort) located on the Kohala Coast and I have to say, I know we made the right choice! The original resort was built in 1983 and sits on 32 magical acres that include a three mile stretch of beach and 7 ancient fishponds. Mauna Lani embodies a sort of relaxed luxury that appeals to every type of traveler- couples, families and larger groups.
Other options worth considering are the Four Seasons Hualalai– best for honeymooners, Mauna Kea– best for families and the Fairmont Orchid– great for both!
How long should you stay?
Our Experience on the Big Island
Because Hawaii is such a long journey from where I live in Connecticut, instead of bringing my family I decided to recruit two of my best girlfriends to join me. This was the first long haul trip that any of us had taken in over a year and to say we were excited for our girls trip to the Big Island would be an extreme understatement. We only had 5 days so I prepared them for a busy itinerary. As a travel advisor, I consider it my duty to see as much of a destination as humanly possible- to eat, drink and essentially DO it up.
For the active traveler, the Big Island boasts a wealth of adventurous and unique activities such as surfing, whale watching, night snorkeling with manta rays, hiking to lush waterfalls, night hikes through Volcanoes National Park to see active lava flows, exploring lava tubes, or stargazing at the summit of Mauna Kea. One of the highlights of our trip and a must do during the winter months when whale activity is at it’s peak, is an outrigger canoe experience at sunrise or sunset. I recommend planning this for the beginning of your stay because it really sets a nice tone for your time in Hawaii. We set out first thing and learned a bit about the history of the island while watching the sunrise over Mauna Kea mountain. I could not help but shed a few tears during this truly spiritual experience. We also gave surfing a try with the help of the ‘dudes’ at the Surf Shack at Mauna Lani. I was surprised how much I enjoyed surfing and we were all able get up a few times! One day we drove up the coast to the Pololu valley where we hiked down to a gorgeous black sand beach and on our way home stopped at Bamboo for delicious Thai salads and passion fruit (lilikoi) martinis- the signature big island cocktail.
As much as I recommend planning some activities on every vacation, it is so important to have some flexibility built into your schedule to allow for impromptu experiences. Driving along the coast with the top down on our Jeep accounted for some of my favorite moments on the Big Island. Whale activity is is at it’s peak during January so we stopped frequently along the road to watch these glorious creatures frolick in the sea. Sadly, because we only had 4 full days on the island, we weren’t able to visit Volcanoes National Park. If you do visit during a time when there are active lava flows, I recommend a night trek to see the glowing embers. And if your time on the island is limited, you can also view this natural phenomenon via a helicopter tour!
Big Island Eats
The food in Hawaii is as fresh as it comes and I’m not sure it’s possible to have a bad meal on the Big Island! Here’s a roundup of where we ate- which was based around where we stayed on the Kohala coast.
Canoe House– This beachside fine dining institution is located on the Mauna Lani property and has been promptly added to my ‘last meals’ list. Must order: Panko crusted king crab leg and the pork cheeks!
Napua– This fantastic casual eatery is also located on the Muana Lani property at the Mauna Lani Beach Club. The perfect spot for a leisurely lunch followed by a dip in the ocean. Must order: Lilikoi martini.
Lava Lava Beach Club– In Waikoloa Village. Arrive prior to sunset for people watching, live music and delicious island inspired comfort food. Must order: Coconut shrimp
Bamboo– Located in North Kohala, this quirky spot serves up Pacific Rim cuisine and has a sweet gift shop as well. Must order: Vietnamese “Toss” Salad
Ulu Ocean Grill & Sushi Lounge– Based on the Four Seasons Hualalai property, this is the perfect spot for a romantic dinner. You can order off the Grill and Sushi menus! Must order: Baked Abalone
Merrimen’s– Authentic Hawaiian cuisine in beautiful Waimea. Must order: Macadamia nut crusted Kampachi
It is difficult to convey the magic of the Big Island. It may come from the stark contrast between the austere volcanic terrain and lush green foliage or maybe from it’s people- with their warm aloha vibes and strong sense of respect and gratitude for their land. In any event, when you are ready to experience it for yourself, I would love to be your guide. Aloha.