Pono? Oh, Yes!

The Island of Hawaii encourages responsible visits

By Glenda Winders

The hardest part about planning a visit to Hawaii is which way to plan your trip. Do you hop from one island to another to get a taste of all of them, or do you make the choice to stay on one so you can mingle with the people and learn about their culture and environs? And if that’s your choice, which of the six major islands do you visit? Oahu, Kauai, Maui and the rest beckon with their distinctly different attractions, but if getting away and soaking up nature are a priority, you couldn’t do better than to settle in on the Island of Hawaii.

“Hawaii Island is the most unique and special island in the archipelago,” says Frecia Cevallos, tourism and culture specialist for the county of Hawaii. Its natural beauty is enriched by a deep and intrinsic cultural connection to the elements. Its name, which embodies the highest form of health and prosperity, is literally translated as Ha (breath of life), Wai (water of life) and I (spirit of life), all of which contribute to a healthy land and people. When visitors connect to this place in a pono (righteous and balanced) way, they connect to their better selves and return home inspired.

If you’ve always called it the “big island,” you’re partly right. At 4,028 square miles it is the biggest of the Hawaiian archipelago, and it is still expanding because of molten lava that pours into the sea. But its actual name is the Island of Hawaii, and that’s what the proud locals prefer to call it. They take good care of their island, and they’re counting on visitors to help them keep it as natural and pristine as it has been for centuries.

With that in mind, Ross Birch, executive director of the Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau, has an idea that might make your getaway even more memorable than you had hoped.

“One of the best ways to have a meaningful visit is to help malama (care for) our island home by adding a volunteer day to your journey,” he says. “There are a number of ways visitors can be pono (righteous) and keep the Island of Hawaii healthy, beautiful and safe for generations to come.”

Among his suggestions: Volunteer to help reforest native ecosystems, join a self-directed beach cleanup or help maintain a revered cultural site. When you go to the beach, wear reef-safe mineral-based sunscreen, help maintain the health of the coral reef by not touching, kicking or stepping on it, and maintain a safe a distance from wildlife.

“By giving back to our community and helping perpetuate the beauty of our natural environment, visitors will find themselves going home with a much more fulfilling experience,” he says.

The bureau has even created a “Pono Pledge” that asks visitors to promise they will be good stewards of the land. If guests participate in the Malama Hawaii program, work with a nonprofit and stay at a participating hotel, they will also get a free night’s lodging for their efforts.

Because of the mountains and volcanoes here, Hawaii has climate zones that range from monsoon to polar tundra. The Kau Forest Reserve and Mauna Kea Forest Reserve are mostly inland, and beaches have sand that ranges from white to green to black. Land at either Kona Airport on the west coast or Hilo Airport on the east. Then find a map, rent a car and get going.

What to do

If you’ve come to immerse yourself in nature, opportunities abound. You might want to start out at Hawaii Forest and Trail, where expert guides will take you to a remote natural setting such as a waterfall or volcano and teach you about its biology, geology and cultural history. The newest in their list of offerings is the Mauna Kea Summit and Stars Give Back Experience, which lasts eight to nine hours and includes the drive up the mountain, a dinner picnic, a sunset and hot chocolate while stargazing at the top, where the prestigious Mauna Kea Observatory is located.

In keeping with the “give back” initiative Birch mentioned, this tour will make a one-hour stop at Waikoloa Dry Forest, a rare and endangered native dry forest habitat, to help with conservation work, such as seed collection. A different tour includes the same adventures without the forest stop.

Paradise Helicopters’ new Doors-Off Kohala Waterfalls and Remote Hike offers the first and only doors-off helicopter tour flying deep into the heart of the Kohala district’s spectacular valleys. Your helicopter flight touches down mid-tour at a remote location, where you’ll take a half-mile pilot-led hike through a forest. The winding trail gives tour guests a taste of the sights and sounds of the rugged northeast coast and opens to a dramatic coastline view of Mokupuku island seabird sanctuary.

Keahole Center for Sustainability offers guided tours at NELHA’s Hawaii Ocean and Science Technology Park. Here they focus on the unique habitat at Kona’s Keahole Point, and tour participants learn about the ecology at Makako Bay while watching for resident and migrant seabirds, tidepool inhabitants and marine life. You’ll cover a half-mile of coastline, traversing white sand beach and smooth pahoehoe lava.

The terrain here is home to naturally formed rock basins where water collects, evaporates and leaves behind salt deposits. Kona Sea Salt operates a 7-acre oceanfront salt farm where they hand-harvest salt from water 2,200 feet below the surface of the sea. Visitors can watch the process and taste some of the Kona pure and flavored salts.

For volcano viewing head to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, a World Heritage Site where you can see both Mauna Loa and Kilauea. Then enjoy the Hualalai Crater Experience, where stories of the third most active volcano on the island come to life. Led by guide Kimo Duarte, whose family has been stewards of the 8,271-foot mountain since the 1950s, guests on the five-hour tour will traverse the volcano’s native Hawaiian forests as they listen to the sounds of native birds, visit the Duarte family’s cabin and hike 2 miles around Hualalai’s summit craters. The give-back project here is planting a koa sapling to help Hualalai’s reforestation.

Water-lovers will want to know that surfing and kayaking abound on this island. Never done either before? Local outfitters and teachers make this the perfect place to try these sports. This is where the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon is run, so start training now and plan to do that the next time you come back.

To learn more about the island’s – and the state’s – cultural heritage, a visit to Hulihee Palace is in order. Built in 1838 and once the summer palace of Hawaiian royalty, today it showcases Victorian-era furniture and artifacts from the time of King Kalakaua and Queen Kapiolani. Right across the street is Mokuaikaua Church, the state’s earliest Christian church, and from there you can see across the pier to the last home of King Kamehameha I.

The Lyman Museum in Hilo, a Smithsonian affiliate, is also a must. Here you’ll explore two galleries — the Island Heritage Gallery and the Earth Heritage Gallery — to further understand the culture you’re experiencing. Seven major art galleries in communities across the island offer work by Hawaiian artists

Where to eat

Kamuela Provision Co. in the Hilton Waikoloa Village in Kona offers a chef-crafted prix fixe menu highlighting Hawaii’s bounty of ingredients. Diners opting for the three-course menu are seated on the restaurant’s oceanfront lanai with panoramic views of the Pacific and a front-row seat for the coast’s famous sunsets. Dishes on the menu are locally sourced from Hawaii’s farms, fisheries and ranches. Try a triple-seared hanger steak, ginger-steamed monchong fish and lemon-dusted pan seared scallops.

The ever-changing menu at the locally owned Moon and Turtle in Hilo is an Asian-fusion spot that follows the seasonality of available meats, seafood and produce, pairing elevated ingredients with more humble offerings. Some of the dishes you can expect are beef tataki, smoky sashimi, wild boar puttanesca and salty fish fried rice. Purchase their signature condiments, such as kiawe-smoked soy sauce, to take home as a memory of your meal or a gift for a friend. On Fridays join local farmers, artisans and townspeople at the Hilo Town Market for street food, fresh produce and music.

At Kai Eats and Drinks on Oneo Bay in Historic Kailua Village the creative menu centers on their philosophy that the five major food groups are tacos, pizza, burgers, beer and drinks. Start with a big wave burrito for breakfast or enjoy a pineapple-adorned pizza, the Jolly Roger plancha burger or mahi-mahi tacos and finish with a slice of Big Island lime pie. Their playful drink menu includes the bartender’s concoction of the day.

Nearby is Papa Kona Restaurant and Bar, where you can start the day with a papaya boat for breakfast, have a kalua pulled-pork sandwich with guava barbecue sauce for lunch and wind up with sesame-seared ahi and coconut rice for dinner. Then stay for cocktails and music as the night rolls on.

Merriman’s in Waimea is the place to be for regional Hawaiian cuisine, especially seafood dishes such as fresh-caught fish with a macadamia nut crust, grilled octopus and crudo of the day: the fresh catch with avocado, citrus fruits, cilantro, Hawaiian chili, sweet onion and cucumber. Be sure to make a reservation because this place is popular.

Where to stay 

Locals say the best way to see the whole island is to spend part of your holiday on the west coast and part on the east. These lodgings will afford you a base from which to explore in every direction, and some have noteworthy food and activities that make them destinations within themselves.

Fairmont Orchid on the Kohala Coast, for example, offers tours of their garden to see tropical plants and the chef’s kitchen garden as well as to peek in on beehives whose occupants produce a rare form of honey. Later you can munch on these morsels at one of the hotel’s six restaurants. Here they’ll teach you to care for some of their trees as you continue to be “pono” and care for the land.

“Ours is a precious destination steeped in Hawaiian tradition and history,” says Kaiulani Blankenfeld, the resort’s director of Hawaiian culture who leads the tours. “Our resort resides on the land area known as Kalahuipuaa, a place where Hawaiian royalty once gathered, played and loved. There is a healing nature and a living aloha spirit here. Our spa and culinary offerings, along with our Hawaiian cultural and ocean activities allow our guests the opportunity to rest, rejuvenate, explore and be inspired and pampered in a beautiful setting.”

The Holualoa Inn in South Kona is an extraordinary bed-and-breakfast on the slopes of Mount Hualalai with views of the ocean in every direction. Stay in a room or a cottage and wander the grounds for what the owners call a Zen-like experience. The hot breakfasts here come with fruit such as mangoes and passion fruit and, of course, lots of Kona coffee.

The breakfasts at the Kane Plantation Guest House on the foothills of Mauna Loa feature produce from their own and neighboring farms. You can also have a massage or healing therapy here as well as soak in a hot tub and relax in a sauna. Some rooms come with an outdoor shower as well as the indoor option.

At Kaawa Loa Plantation near Kailua-Kona the owners say their goal is to give guests the true Hawaiian experience. Located 1,200 feet above Kealakekua Bay, the accommodations include rooms, suites and a cottage. Staying here will put you close to St. Benedict’s Painted Church and Puuhonua O Honaunau (Place of Refuge) National Historical Park, if those are on your agenda.

Lava Beach Club on the Kohala Coast invites you to get some sand between your toes by staying in a cottage right on the beach. The rooms come with bicycle, paddleboard and ukulele. The accompanying restaurant serves relaxed Hawaiian cuisine: steaks and seafood with a special island twist.

At Puakea Ranch in North Kohala you’ll stay in one of four fully equipped homes with ocean views that range from an early 20th-century Hawaiian Hale built by plantation workers to a 1930s bungalow. Curl up with a book under a coconut tree or ask the activities concierge about meeting with people on the island who can help you learn or play. Hawaii Island Retreat provides “elegance in nature”; it’s the place to go if you’re looking for healing spa treatments, yoga and meditation in an eco-friendly setting.

Halfway between Hilo and Kona is Waipio Wayside in Honokaa. This bed and breakfast, located on an old sugar plantation, offers organic breakfasts with locally grown produce and gazebos where you can sit to read the books from their library.

If you’re visiting Volcanoes National Park, a variety of lodgings nearby will give you easy access. At Volcano Village Lodge, a bed-and-breakfast at 4,000 feet above sea level, you’ll experience both the Hawaiian rainforest and volcanoes, and you’re close to black and green sand beaches. While you’re here, learn to make a lei or dance the hula – or simply relax in beautifully appointed rooms.

Nearby Kilauea Lodge sits at the base of Mount Kilauea, and from here’s it’s an easy trek to peek into the crater or hike through lava tubes. When you get back, wander through the tropical gardens or sit in the jungle Jacuzzi. The locally sourced meals served at the restaurant include a lava tube omelet for breakfast, a Big Island lamb burger for lunch and grilled ono for dinner. Also nearby is Volcano Rainforest Retreat, where you’ll stay in cottages tucked organically into mosses and ferns. Each afternoon a basket of fruit, bread and flowers will appear in your room for you to enjoy by your fireplace or on your lanai.

In Hilo, the Inn at Kulaniapia Falls sits on 22 acres surrounding its namesake falls. Stay in Asian-inspired buildings and explore the falls, the jungle, nature trails and bamboo gardens. This property sustains itself and is 100% off the grid.  The Old Hawaiian Bed and Breakfast is close to town and situated on the Wailuku River. Breakfast is served on a lanai overlooking the orchard from which you’ll enjoy seasonal fresh fruit. Or check into the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel, a classic island resort that is a good base from which to explore the sights of Hilo. From here it’s only a short distance to the Liliuokalani Gardens, Pacific Tsunami Museum, Panaewa Rainforest Zoo, Imiloa Astronomy Center and the Hilo Farmers Market. Or walk to Coconut Island — also called the healing island — and look for marine life in Onekahakaha Beach’s tide pools. The other option is simply to relax on your private lanai and enjoy the ocean views. Then wander down to the Wailoi Lounge for a killer mai tai and on to WSW the Steakhouse (whiskey, steak, wine) for Wagyu beef and seafood before you end the evening with one of their whiskeys from all over the world.