The Island of Hawai'i is the furthest south of any in the island chain, and it's larger than all the other islands put together. It's also the home of the world's highest mountain (Mauna Kea) though much of the base is submerged. Nearby Kiluaea is the most active volcano in the world, and is also the most popular visitor attraction in a state that's full of visitor attractions. The Big Island, as it's called, is the only place where one can ski in the daytime and walk barefoot in a warm sea at sundown.
This spread-out district stretches from South Kona, the location of Honaunau Bay, to the vast Kona State Park. The Kona Airport is located a few miles north of Kailua-Kona on Highway 19. The most heavily populated area is Kailua-Kona. It's the site of the Kailua Pier, the main tourist shopping drag. Just below Kailua-Kona is Keauhou-Kona. Most of the area hotels are ranged down the coast, from Kailua to Keauhou.
Central Kailua-Kona has a half-dozen attractions, including Ahu'ena Heiau and Hulihe'e Palace. Along the coastline are Laaloa Beach Park, known for its "magic sands," and the Kona Historical Society Museum. The southern town of Captain Cook is considered a part of greater Kona. Many people make the trip down the coast to snorkel at the marine preserve or view the sea captain's monument.
The name translates to "Gold Coast." At first, it's hard to understand why this place deserves its name; the terrain is harsh, barren and almost spooky.
That is, until one reaches the resort districts.
The first one is Ka'upulehu, home of the Four Seasons and the legendary Kona Village Resort. You must have a room reservation—or at the very least, a lunch reservation—to get inside the gates. Further up the road is Waikoloa. This resort isn't as picky; it'll let anyone inside. Plenty of visitors to other districts opt to spend a full day exploring Waikoloa.
Further along you'll find Mauna Lani and Mauna Kea. Each resort district has a few four-star hotels, a few luxury condomium complexes and a dozen gourmet restaurants. Stop by the secluded beach park on the Mauna Lani property where the fabulous Puako Petroglyphs are located. Hapuna Beach Park sits in splendid isolation on the North Kohala Coast.
If there is one thing that brings people from around the world to the Kohala Coast, it is the golf. Most area courses rank among the top 100 in the United States. Hapuna Golf Course, Francis Brown I & II and the Waikoloa Village Golf Courses are all world-renowned.
After Mauna Kea, things change. Beach parks dot the coastline, and little settlements crop up alongside the highway. The pace of life slows down to correspond with the speed limit. North Kohala is ranch land and coffee country. Buy coffee at Kohala Coffee Mill in downtown Hawi. Take a horseback excursion with Paniolo Adventures. Dine at Café Pesto or Bamboo.
Inland from Waikoloa is the town of Waimea. It's small and out-of-the-way, but it has an abundance of personality. Businesses here are usually family-owned, and many of them feature island-made products.
Below the Hamakua Coast, in a fertile little pocket that gets more rain than just about any other place in the world, is Hilo. This is a booming town by Hawaiian standards. Of course, it knows how it appears to mainland visitors: cute, quaint and stuck in a time warp. It plays up that image, offering historic tours and a daily fish market.
Downtown Hilo is located on the waterfront. Sightseers can start at either Banyan Drive or the new Tsunami Museum. There's also the East Hawaii Cultural Center and Lyman Museum. For information on these attractions and on the outlying areas, visit the Hawaii Visitor's Bureau.
South of Hilo on Highway 11 is the most famous spot in the islands. Officially titled Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, it is informally known as “The Volcano” or “Kilauea.” Kilauea is, in fact, only a part of the massive park, but it's the part that everyone comes to see. Belching smoke and spewing flame, this is the most active volcano in the world. The Kilauea Visitor Center, Volcano Art Center and Jaggar Museum are open daily.
South & Central Regions
Between Volcano on the east side and Kona on the west, the island is a vast expanse of untouched volcanic overflow. The majority of it is part of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Above this is Mauna Kea State Recreation Area, the best star-gazing spot in the world and a designated astronomy center. The road to Mauna Kea cannot be navigated in a rental car.
The southern tip of the island, which is also the southernmost point in the U.S., has barely been touched by civilization. There are a few hotels and a few B&Bs. Travelers to the south shore usually visit the semi-famous Punalu'u Bakeshop & Visitor Center for lunch.
The Big Island really lives up to its nickname. You can drive for hours and see nothing at all. Then, suddenly, you'll stumble on a patch of land so developed that it resembles a strip mall in suburban Nevada. The Kona Coast is a desert. Hilo is a rainforest. There are palm trees growing out of lava rock on the Kohala Coast. There is skiing on Mauna Kea. Tens of thousands of feet below the snow-capped peak, sea turtles and dolphins play in an ocean as warm as bathwater.