We originally visited the Big Island on our honeymoon back in 2002, staying at the Orchid at Mauna Lani. At the time it was a Ritz Carlton, but has since transferred management to the Fairmont. While we regularly visit the islands, for some reason we didn't go back to Hawaii until August of 2009, as part of my annual birthday/end of summer vacation.
We used reward points from our Citibank ThankYou Network rewards account and exchanged our timeshare for 5 nights at the Holua Resort at Mauna Loa Village. This property is regularly well-rated on TripAdvisor.com and while I wasn't entirely enamored of the fishy smell that greeted us upon arrival or the neon green walls and bright carpet, the unit itself was large, adequately equipped and had a great lanai overlooking the mountains, pool and sunrise.
We had a couple of meals while visiting that I think are worth calling out here for future travelers.
One of our favorite meals while on vacation in Hawaii is the mix plate. Our favorite place to get this local treat is Aloha Mixed Plate in Maui. We attempted to replicate our great experience there with a visit to Kona Mix Plate, located in a shopping mall in Kona Town. The reviews on Yelp were kind of all over the place; both locals and tourists alike were mixed in their response, but it was the only place we could find that wasn't a chain dedicated to one of our favorite foods in all of the islands. Unfortunately, it was terrible. I got the worst heartburn and nausea I've ever experienced from food without actually vomiting. On top of that it just wasn't very flavorful. I'm happy to report that according to current Yelp reviews the place has closed down so that no one else will have to suffer through the same afternoon I did.
While visiting the beaches of the Kohala Coast, we stopped in to the Queen's Marketplace to do some lunch shopping. We're fans of picking up pre-made sushi and eating it at the beach, but when we walked in to the Island Gourmet Markets, we were ecstatic to see many different varieties of poke. We picked up a couple of them, plus some sushi, and sat outside on a table in the middle of the shopping center and had an absolutely fantastic lunch. This, people, is how you save cash when visiting the island. Not every meal needs to be at a fancy, upscale resort overlooking the ocean.
We actually saved that for another night when we dined at Alan Wong's restaurant at the Four Seasons Hualalai. It's no surprise to anyone reading this blog that we are fans of the food here at casacaudill so when we saw the 10-course tasting menu we decided to go big or go home. Well, we went home that night quite large. It was definitely WAY TOO MUCH FOOD and very expensive to boot. In fact, it was more pricey than any other meal we've ever consumed together? Would I do it again? No. I'd recommend visiting Alan Wong's, but I'd go for the smaller tasting menu. Well, it looks like there's no option to do it again because this place has closed. Regardless, my recommendation stands - ten courses is at least five too many.
Finally, we had a fantastic breakfast with the most amazing french toast I've ever eaten at the Aloha Theater Cafe, in Kealakekua, south of Keahou. The Loco Moco plate was pretty darn tasty too. If you're looking for a quaint place for breakfast that's kind of off the beaten path, away from the hustle and bustle of Waikoloa or Kona, this would definitely be my recommendation.
Regarding activities on the Big Island, there are a couple of things that one definitely has to do - swimming with manta rays and hiking the Kilauea Iki trail.
For the night snorkel we went with Jack's Diving Locker and couldn't have been happier with the obvious care and respect Keller showed in relation to the snorkel/dive participants and this almost magical ocean creature. I didn't particularly love the guy that was assigned to corral the snorkelers, and I think the feeling is mutual, but I didn't let him ruin my experience. I have incredibly small, bony feet and the fins you get on snorkeling cruises tend to chafe and give me blisters because they don't fit properly. As we were going on our hike the next day I didn't want my feet to be all scratched up but he couldn't seem to appreciate that and was kind of a jackass about it all, but whatever. I was paying his company so he went off to watch the other snorkelers while I stayed in sight of the captain and the boat, finless.
Now, hiking the Kilauea Iki crater is no small feat, especially for someone who has health issues and isn't what you'd call an avid outdoorswoman. The side effects of my particular autoimmune disease include extreme sensitivity to heat, tremors and muscle fatigue - not exactly a winning combination when it comes to a physically strenuous 4-mile hike over a once active volcano. While nervous and scared and trepidatious and all that jazz, I really wanted to complete this hike. We got extremely lucky because it was a drizzly, relatively cool day at the volcano with the scorching sun constantly behind a thick cloud layer and VOG. I think this contributed largely to me being able to handle the hike as I'm sure if the hot Hawaiian sun had been beating down on me while we walked across the lava, I might not have done so well. In fact, the only hard part of the hike was the 400+ foot climb back up the mountain. By that point, we were both tired, but it was incredibly worth it for the experience. I definitely recommend that if you're in good physical condition to give it a try. And bring more water than you think you'll need and clothes that won't weigh you down because you will sweat.
We're planning to head back to the Big Island in March 2011, so hopefully I'll have more recommendations and information to share afterwards. This time we're staying at the Waikoloa Beach Villas through a rental we got on VRBO.com, so we'll be across the street from my favorite poke!