Last month I escaped for a little R&R to the Big Island of Hawaii. It was our second time back visiting in as many years. It is also a destination that holds a number of memories from my childhood as it was a beloved vacation spot for my family while growing up. I visited at 2, now 32 -- and a few times in between.
While much has changed on tropical paradise over the last 30 years, the Big Island remains, relatively speaking, undeveloped. Population and industry hubs exist at Hilo and Kona, but you can wander the island for miles and miles on its vast two lane roads and feel as though you've left civilization behind and are alone at the end of the earth. There are the dusty maze-like roads along the blustery coast on the hike to Papakolea (one of the world's only green sand beaches), the southern most point in the US. And the desolate moonscape-like drive up to the summit at Manuna Kea.
With so much love for the photos I've been posting from our trip on Instagram, I decided to put together a travel guide to the Big Island. I’m sharing some of my favorite spots across the island so you can use this post as a Big Island travel guide for a trip of your own to this gorgeous Isle of natural wonders. Oh yeah, and the architecture's not too shabby either ;)
WHERE TO STAY
As a kid I remember staying everywhere from small thatched roof, electricity-free huts of Kona Village to the more expansive family-friendly accommodations of Waikoloa. Last year, my husband and I literally visited just about every hotel on the the Kohala Coast, getting a taste for the style, flair, and amenities of each one. This year, when it came to hotel planning we knew exactly which spot offered us our ideal getaway. With so many great hotels though, it's hard to go wrong. Here are some of my faves.
Mauna Kea Beach Hotel - This 1965 beauty by Skidmore Owings & Merrill was once the most expensive hotel ever built. In 1965, Laurance S. Rockefeller (yes, those Rockefellars) saw a future in jet travel to the Pacific (United announced its first DC-8 flights to Hawaii in 1967) and built this gleaming mid-century hotel on one of the Island best beaches. The expansive Pacific views greet you in the indoor-outdoor lobby. While an $8 million renovation has given the hotel a modern sheen, walk in and vestiges of classic mid-century flair and the promise of the jet age wash over you as soon as you spot the the hotel's kitschy orange plumeria logo.
Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel - Sitting on what is unanimously hailed as the Island's best (though never overly busy) beach, the Hapuna Prince is a sister property to the Mauna Kea and situated just next door. Experience those same breathtaking, expansive Pacific views upon entering the hotel. Another thing I love about this hotel is just how big the standard hotel rooms are. I'm talking huge - even (or perhaps, especially) the bathrooms. Like invite a few of friends over, order a pizza, and throw a dance party kind of huge.
WHERE TO EXPLORE
I can say that we quite literally did every activity and adventure we ever dreamed to do on the BIg Island (hikes, summiting Mauna Kea, beachside tennis, and so much more). Those we didn't get to last year, we crossed off the list with this trip.
Waipio Valley, Black Sand Beach - As you descend the 25% incline on your hike down the Waipio Valley, you'll look out and feel as though you've been dropped into southeast Asia. A bird's eye view looking down on the valley's lush taro fields conjures images of the Tegallalang rice terraces in Ubud, Bali.
Papakolea Beach - This green sand beach is a trek to get to. It is well worth the schlep. Drive 2.5 hours from the resort area of the island. Park in the impromptu parking lot. Walk to the end of the road. Continue walking into the maze of yellow dirt roads accessible only by 4x4s. Reach a green sand cove. Scale the black cove walls down to the beach. Take in the beauty.
Hawi - Visit the adorable little town of Hawi. A hippie haven to be sure with vegan cafes and new age boutiques. Also get a dose of good color hunting. Travel just 2 miles further down the road and you can visit the King Kamehameha Statue in Kapaau. Then stop at Kohala Burger & Taco in Kawaihae on your way back to town. Admittedly there is little design to be had at this hole in the wall burger joint but you won't be disappointed with their fresh Big Island beef.
Hilo - Architecture and color your thing? On the Hilo side of the island you'll find both, as well as a more industrial, less touristy spot of the Big Island. A commercial strip along Hilo's waterfront offers cafes, shops and perfectly pink architectural sites like the Young Building pictured above.
Copper Bar - For the perfect piña colada.
WHAT TO SEE
Uncle Billy's - A Big Island institution Uncle Billy's is a real dose of kitschy 1960s Tiki design in Kona. Its certainly not what it once was, but the architecture alone is worth a stop.
Royal Kona - The same can be said of the Royal Kona Hotel. It is an architectural gem waiting to be brought back to life. It's imposing architecture will stop you in your tracks whether you're walking or driving the Kona coast. One part tiki dream, one part Asian-influenced mid-century dream.
Sheraton Kona Resort - Love Brutalism? Go architecture hunting here. Originally the Kona Surf Resort, this hotel was built in 1972 by Lemmon, Freeth, Haines, Jones & Farrell. It closed in 2002 and re-opened in 2012 as the Sheraton. Plus manta rays! They roll up off the coast most evenings after dark. Spot them cliffside.
Aloha Theater - I'm a sucker for historic theaters. Built in 1932 originally as the the Tanimoto Theater this silent movie house in Kona used to mainly entertain Japanese coffee workers. Let me know if you visit the Big Island, I'd love to see your photos and hear about your design adventures.
// Photography by Marni Epstein-Mervis