The Big Island of Hawaii is vastly underrated. If it?s nightlife you?re after, go to Maui for a couple of nights before landing here?in many non-resort towns, restaurants close by 9 p.m., which is indicative of the early to bed, early to rise and surf (or paddleboard, snorkel, hike) local lifestyle. The Big Island is the place to go for vast and unparalleled nature. Indeed, 11 of the world?s climates can be found on this 4,028-square-mile island, which is still growing thanks to continuous lava flow from Kilauea, one of the world?s most active volcanoes. It?s also home to the Ironman World Championship, sea turtles, and spinner dolphins galore.
Day 1: Kona to Captain Cook
Morning: No matter where you come from, you?ll experience a degree of jet lag and greenery shock. Drive 20 minutes north from the Kona International Airport to the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai at Historic Ka?upulehu (72-100 Ka?upulehu Dr.; (808) 325-8000; FourSeasons.com/Hualalai) for a treatment in its brand-new spa, with an apothecary where guests can choose from more than 20 indigenous ingredients to customize a scrub or wrap.
Afternoon: Head about 20 minutes south on Queen Ka?ahumanu Highway (Highway 11), taking in the ocean views, until you reach the Palani turnoff and the former fishing village of Kailua-Kona?now six beachfront miles of shops, restaurants, and hotels. Stop at the farmers market to pick up apple bananas, raw macadamia nuts, and inexpensive souvenirs (Alii Dr. and Hualalai Rd., KonaFarmersMarket.com).
Check into Ka?awa Loa Plantation (82-5990 Napoopoo Rd.; (808) 323-2686; KaawaLoaPlantation.com), a fruit, nut, and coffee plantation and gay-owned bed and breakfast. They?ll tell you how to get to Two Step, an unmarked local lava-rock beach just inside the Pu?uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park. The park (admission $5) is located on sacred land that has housed the residences of Hawaiian chiefs and priests for centuries. Today, the grounds and temples have been recreated to resemble the original royal villages. From there it?s a short drive to Kealakekua Bay (where Captain Cook was killed in 1779) and some of Hawaii?s best snorkeling. If you return around 6:30 a.m. you?re likely to find yourself swimming with spinner dolphins.
Evening: There are no streetlights on the narrow, winding Highway 11. Thankfully, the closest restaurant to the plantation is also one of the best in the area, Mi?s Italian Bistro (81-6372 Mamalahoa Hwy.; (808) 323-3880). It?s in a strip mall, but inside the atmosphere is lovely. Or call ahead for takeout and dine on the spacious lanai (porch) at the plantation.
Day 2: Captain Cook to Volcano
Morning: Head south on Highway 11 for a quick stop at Ka Lae (South Point), the southernmost point in the United States, with a terrain that resembles West Texas. Continue on 11, taking in the vastly changing scenery as lush, green, hilly plantation land gives way to flat lava-rock fields and macadamia farms. As you enter the town of Na?alehu, look on your left for the bright blue sign of the Punalu?u Bake Shop (Highway 11; (808) 929-7343; BakeShopHawaii.com) and stop for some of their famous Hawaiian sweetbread. From here it?s a curvy downhill road (where locals claim to see spirits called ?night walkers? on a regular basis) into the town of Volcano.
Afternoon and Evening: Check in at Kilauea Lodge (19-3948 Old Volcano Rd.; (808) 967-7366; KilaueaLodge.com). The accommodations are a bit rustic, but the restaurant boasts a
French-trained German chef and is the best in the area, as well as the only place open after 8 p.m.
Pick up a box lunch just down the road at the gay-owned Ono Caf? (19-3834 Old Volcano Rd.; (808) 985-8979; VolcanoGardenArts.com) and picnic in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, a World Heritage site. It?s easy to explore on your own?cruise around the 11-mile Crater Rim Drive, stopping to check out the many craters and petroglyphs, and take a walk through the Thurston Lava Tube. To see dramatic, fiery lava flows at night it?s best to book a tour with the gay-owned KapohoKine Adventures (KapohoKine.com). Dinner is included in the tour; end your evening with drinks back at the lodge.
Day 3: Volcano to Honoka`a and kona
Morning: Start the day with a free tasting at Volcano Winery (35 Pii Mauna Dr.; (808) 967-7772; VolcanoWinery.com), just 20 minutes from the lodge. Afterward, drive 22 miles to the city of Hilo and stop in at Big Island Candies (585 Hinano St.; (808) 935-8890; BigIslandCandies.com) for free coffee and samples of cookies and chocolates made on-site.
Afternoon: Lunch at the Hilo Bay Caf? (315 Makaala St.; (808) 935-4939; HiloBayCafe.com), another good restaurant disguised by its strip mall location. The menu emphasizes locally sourced organic food and offers a mix of Italian, French, and Greek dishes, but the star item is the dramatic foot-high stack of onion rings. After lunch, continue north on Highway 19 to ?Akaka Falls State Park. The drive on the Hamakua Coast is one of the most beautiful on the island. Admission is free to view two 400-plus-foot waterfalls.
Evening: Overnight at the Waianuhea Inn (45-3503 Kahana Dr., Honoka?a; (808) 775-1118; Waianuhea.com) before your flight out of Kona (90 minutes away). The B&B hosts a wine and pupu hour from 5??6 p.m., where it?s easy to load up on Pinot, crostini, and stuffed mushrooms and call that dinner. Other options nearby aren?t great, but the chef at the inn will prepare a proper
dinner for you if you give 48 hours' notice.