Living on the East Coast, we typically find our tropical escapes due south—getting our toes in white sand only takes a matter of hours. But the island of Hawaii has much more than beautiful beaches: With rainforest, desert and an ever-changing landscape shaped daily by active volcanoes, the natural wonders more than make up for that layover.
Let jet lag work in your favor by starting your trip on the west side of the island in Kona and booking Hawaii Forest & Trail’s Maunakea Sunrise Experience, a tour that starts as early as 2 am with shuttle pick-up from your hotel lobby. Eventually you’ll climb to the summit of the world’s tallest volcano to watch the sun rise above the clouds at 14,000 feet, but first the shuttle makes a stop for altitude acclimation, cups of hot cocoa and primo viewing of crystal-clear constellations. Put on the hooded parka provided and continue stargazing as the shuttle makes its careful ascent to the snowcapped peak, home to telescopes operated by scientists from around the world. Once the sun starts to illuminate the sky and your guide begins chanting a traditional oli to greet the day, you’ll find yourself breathless—and not because of the altitude.
Now that you’ve been properly acquainted, spend the rest of the day soaking up the sun at the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai, a luxe oceanfront property with 243 suites that all feature either balconies with a view or private outdoor showers. Get some R&R after your early start by grabbing a catnap in one of the covered chairs on the beach or lounging near one of the property’s seven pools. The adults-only Palm Grove Pool features ocean views and a swim-up bar that utilizes its own poolside garden for ingredients for signature sips. Or enjoy a second wind with a snorkeling excursion, either in the on-site King’s Pond that’s home to nearly 100 different species of fish or as part of a rafting cruise that leaves from the resort’s Kukio Beach and allows guests the chance to snorkel alongside dozens of wild spinner dolphins.
After you’ve worked up an appetite, try dishes like Kona Kampachi sashimi with pickled Waimea strawberries at the resort’s ’ULU Ocean Grill + Sushi Lounge Oceanfront Harvest Dinner, a weekly five-course tasting with wine pairings that sources ingredients from local farmers and its own on-site oyster farm. You can also opt to head into the city of Kona for a meal at Huggo’s, a favorite among locals for almost 50 years thanks to its fresh-caught fish specials, cocktails and sunset views.
Hawaii may be the largest of the state’s islands, but it’s still easily traveled by car, with a trip from the desert-like Kona to the rainforest environment of Hilo on the eastern coast taking 90 minutes. On your way, check the day’s location for the Original Big Island Shave Ice Co. The family-owned truck’s signature treats—like the Trini-Chantilly, topped with macadamia nut ice cream, chocolate syrup and Chantilly drizzle—are well worth a detour. As you arrive in Hilo, stop by Cousins Seafood & Bento, an unassuming takeout joint sought out by locals and tourists alike for its poke bomb, a fried-tofu inari pouch filled with rice, spicy tuna poke, seaweed, scallions and tobiko.
Feel free to indulge, because you’ll be drawn to one outdoor activity after another in the quiet oceanside town of Hilo. Start by checking into the Inn at Kulaniapia Falls, a remote, eco-friendly B&B that overlooks the namesake waterfall. Get a close-up view by daring to rappel down its 120-foot face; proceeds from the excursion help bring veterans with PTSD to the inn for some quiet time. You can enjoy the same by wandering the property’s meditative bamboo garden trail that ends at a statue of Buddha.
Once you’ve recharged, you’ll be prepared to take on longer trails, like the four-mile Kilauea Iki hike that loops through rainforests and across a lava lake in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The site of an eruption in 1959, the hardened crater is now home to many ‘ohi’a lehua trees that thrive in volcanic environments and grow fiery red flowers. You’ll also spot them as you journey to the active Kilauea volcano on the Kapohokine Adventures lava expedition tour, a four-mile guided hike across a desolate yet striking lava wasteland. Enjoy a picnic lunch by the cliff where lava flows into the ocean, producing a thick plume of white smoke. Watch the footprint of the earth change while you munch on potato chips, an experience you can call once-in-a-lifetime without any hyperbole—there’s no telling what sights you’ll see the next time you return. ◆
– Plan for intermittent rain if you head to Hilo, a place that averages up to 130 inches of rain a year compared to Kona’s 32.
– Lava is considered by many to be the earthly form of revered fire goddess Pele, so don’t try to pocket any souvenirs.
Cousins Seafood & Bento (808-969-9900); Four Seasons Resort Hualalai fourseasons.com/hualalai; Hawaii Forest & Trail hawaii-forest.com; Hawaii Volcanoes National Park nps.gov/havo; Huggo’s huggos.com; The Inn at Kulaniapia Falls waterfall.net; KapohoKine Adventures kapohokine.com; Original Big Island Shave Ice Co. obisic.com