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First, stop calling it the Big Island-although every local will begin by telling you that all the other Hawaiian islands could fit into this one. They’d prefer you call it Hawaii, the Big Island; a mouthful to be sure, but it’s about the most strenuous thing you’ll be required to do here. Second, if you haven’t been here, you haven’t been here. You may have flown over on your way to Oahu; you may even have glimpsed the shadow of its Mauna Kea mountain on Maui’s famed road to Hana, but proximity aside, this rough, outdoorsy playground has as much in common with the rest of the islands as Don Draper has with Don Knotts. Its rugged and geological newness is palpable, right down to the fact that it will likely grow a few feet during your stay, courtesy of the still-erupting Kilauea volcano.
The question isn’t whether Four Seasons Resort Hualalai at Historic Ka’upulehu (72-100 Ka’upulehu Dr., Kailua-Kona) is the nicest resort on the island-it’s owned that category since it opened in 1996-it’s whether the 865-acre manicured property perched on a rocky black lava field is the best resort in the entire U.S. The sprawling, low-slung hotel has 243 rooms (from US$565) but still manages to evoke a homey, relaxed vibe (evidenced by the many sea turtles chilling on the beach). And if you’re travelling with the entire clan (and own a large platinum-producing mine), you can rent one of Hualalai Resort’s insanely swank villas (from 1,800 sq. ft., US$1,325) or, better yet, buy one.
What Hualalai is to the high-end, Puakea Ranch (56-2864 Akoni Pule Hwy., Hawi) is to the singular. Far from the mega resorts but close to Hawi town in the north, you’ll find this historic property’s four quaint houses, each with its own pool, recently retrofitted. The largest, Yoshi House, sleeps six (from US$599) and features a perfect Pinterest-meets-whitewashed-seaside-cottage vibe. Wake to gobbling wild turkeys in the front yard, walk to the henhouse for fresh eggs, or saddle up a horse and channel the hotel’s previous life as a century-old working ranch.
While rocky outcroppings are the norm on most of the island’s beaches, the Fairmont Orchid (from US$359; 1 N. Kaniku Dr., Kohala Coast) rims a tiny swimmable bay perfect for early morning Flo-Yo (yoga on a paddleboard) and junior frolicking without risk of foot lacerations from the unforgiving lava rock. If your party numbers more than three, the best deal here is the Gold Floor option. For about US$200/night extra you’ll get a luxe continental breakfast, afternoon hors d’oeuvres (sushi, sliders), and valet parking-little extras that more than justify the expense.
The unspoken goal is to find a restaurant that the locals frequent, but not one so local that Howlies aren’t welcome. That place is Da Poke Shack (76-6246 Alii Dr., Kailua-Kona). Drive through the tackiest stretch of Kona and just when you think you can’t handle seeing another three-storey long-term-stay hotel, there it is-in a three-storey long-term-stay hotel. For US$12 you get a scoop of white rice, ultra-fresh tuna poke (the soy-based shoyu is great), and a side (go for the fern shoot salad).
Peter Merriman brought locavorism to the islands back in the late ’80s, and it was the original Merriman’s space in upcountry Waimea (65-1227 Opelo Rd., Kamuela) that secured the chef’s place in the firmament. (He now has a seven-restaurant empire throughout the islands.) This out-of-the-way address is a tropical Chez Panisse: an obligatory culinary pilgrimage that still yields one of the best meals around. Lunches here, with dishes like a locally sourced Niçoise salad for US$12, are twice the quality and half the price of most resort options.
An absurdly over-the-top Sunday brunch at Mauna Kea Beach Hotel (62-100 Mauna Kea Beach Dr., Kohala Coast) is an exercise in insane excess-mountains of crab, shrimp, sushi, dim sum, omelettes-but at $55, it also gives you access to the resort’s pristine beach that fronts Kauna’oa Bay, the island’s crown jewel.
Poke is so abundant here that it’s easy to forget about the other cuisine that knows a thing or two about raw fish. Find excellent Japanese food at Hawi’s Sushi Rock (55-3435 Akoni Pule Hwy., Hawi), a tiny place serving fish so fresh that it was swimming that morning.
Thanks to a captured market and logistical challenges, affordable food isn’t the island’s strong suit. Cheapest and best picnic food? The deli at the Foodland Farms (68-1330 Mauna Lani Dr., Kohala Coast), where island-grown, gourmet, natural, and organic loom large. The massive Kalua pork panini ($6.99) feeds two for the price of a box of Tic Tacs at most resorts.
The waves at Hapuna Beach are impressive but manageable-if you don’t turn your back on them and keep your wits about you, it can be a great body-boarding beach. If its half-mile stretch is too crowded, as it usually is on weekends and holidays, head to Kuki’o Beach (87 Mile Marker, Queen Kaahumanu Hwy.,
Kailua-Kona). This great little secret is located in an exclusive community created as a refuge for Hualalai Resort owners who didn’t like the “excitement” of having hotel guests milling about. Thanks to egalitarian Hawaiian law, the public must be given access to all oceanfront, so simply pull up to the gate, indicate you want to head to the beach, and you’ll be given a pass and directions. Azure Pacific on one side, $25 million houses on the other.
A visit to Kilauea Volcano is pretty much mandatory for any first-timer-it’s popular because it’s so awesome. If you’re anywhere near Waimea, start your day at Tex Drive–In (45-690 Pakalana St., Honokaa) for a world-famous Portuguese doughnut and you’ll be sitting on the lip of the crater watching steam billow out by noon. Plan enough time for a hike: the Kilauea Iki takes you straight through the moonscape of a mostly dormant crater. Our tip? Ignore the two- to three-hour time suggestion-if it takes you that long, immediately consult your cardiologist when you get home. Stop for a drink at the ’60s-era, Mad Men-meets-The Shining Volcano House hotel (1 Crater Rim Dr., Hawaii National Park)-it was recently retrofitted and hugs the edge of the volcano.
An island 4,000 kilometres from the mainland might seem like an odd place for an epic bookstore, but when every sun-kissed lounger leaves behind a book, only the cavernous Kona Bay Books (74-5487 Kaiwi St.,
Kona) can hold them all. On the racks find everything from vintage design tomes to Japanese cocktail guides-all mixed among the 8,000 copies of Fifty Shades of Grey. Bonus: when you’re done with the books, they’ll buy back your stack.