Updated: Oct 4
In 1987, I visited the island of Hawai‘i for the very first time. My mother and I decided to join other family members on the vacation of a lifetime. Hawai'i had always been my mother’s dream vacation, so she was eager to go. Being seven years old at the time, I don’t remember much about that trip with a few exceptions. One notably was having to wrap a hula skirt around my neck because I was too short for it to go around my waist.
36 years later, I finally had the opportunity to travel back to the island of Hawai‘i. This time, I asked my boyfriend Dylan if he would like to join. As a travel journalist, I get to experience so many wonderful things but often I don’t have anyone to share them with, so I was excited to share these moments with someone. It was Dylan’s first time visiting the island of Hawai‘i and his longest trip to date.
A bit tired from traveling nearly 12 hours, we began our journey in Kailua-Kona at King Kamehameha's Kona Beach Resort. The beachfront property is centrally located to almost all of Kona’s beautiful attractions and was also home to the annual Kona Pride festival, which was headlined this year by RuPaul’s Drag Race stars Anetra and Jessica Wild.
After a quick power nap, we headed out for our first excursion, an evening swim with manta rays organized by Anelakai Adventures. A small group of 8 of us paddled about 10 minutes off the coast to an area known for its abundance of manta rays. Although sightings aren’t guaranteed, the team had heard the chances of seeing some rays were pretty good that day. Sure enough, as we anchored down and jumped into the warm Hawai‘i water, we looked down and saw over half a dozen manta rays swimming under our boat. For nearly an hour, we watched these gentle giants play in the water. What I enjoyed most about this tour was the fact that we had to paddle to the site rather than take a motorized boat, adding to the authentic experience. This will definitely go on my top 10 list of most memorable experiences.
The next morning, we woke up early and drove to Puʻukoholā Heiau National Historic Site. Pu‘ukohola Heiau NHS is open all year round and shares the history of the beginning stages of the Hawaiian Kingdom. A socio-political hierarchy, deeply rooted in spiritual beliefs developed in Hawai‘i. This rigidly ordered class system gave power to a small number of ali‘i nui (high chiefs) who controlled different parts of an island, a whole island, or several islands. Alliances through bloodlines and marriage further complicated and enhanced the relationships among rival chiefs. The site became a National Historic Site on August 17, 1972.
Back at the hotel, Kona Pride was in full swing. Dozens of vendors lined the lū‘au grounds of our hotel, while entertainers performed on the main stage to a crowd of thousands. Although Kona Pride isn’t one of the largest pride events I’ve attended, the setting is the most unique. Where else can you celebrate LGBTQ culture while standing on sacred grounds adjacent to the ocean? In addition to the festival itself, Kona Pride offers festivalgoers a variety of activities throughout the weekend including Pride Yoga, Drag Brunch, Tea Dance, and a Pride Pool Party.
If you are looking for a more relaxing experience, rent a kayak from Kona Boys and paddle around the ocean for a few hours. The company offers standard kayak rentals, guided tours, paddle boards, snorkeling equipment as well as surfboards if you are more adventurous.
To get a glimpse into Hawaiian (and Polynesian) cultures, I recommend getting tickets to the Island Breeze Lūʻau. It is also conveniently located on the King Kamehameha's Kona Beach Resort grounds. The lū‘au begins with the Royal Court arriving on stage and mo'ʻolelo storytelling. Guests can feast on a variety of cuisine ranging from locally caught fish and poke to kālua pork. The court will teach guests the art of hula dancing before they begin their ceremonial dances from different parts of the world. The dinner culminates in a breathtaking traditional fire dance.
Of course, one can’t visit the island of Hawai‘i without tasting some of their world-renowned coffee. We visited Ueshima Coffee Company where we were able to roast our own beans and create a unique coffee as well as learn the process creating the perfect roast. Big Island Coffee Roasters in Hilo offered us a wonderful 11-course coffee tasting of a wide variety of beverages including a delicious affogato that almost tasted like a creamsicle.
At Kona Pride, we met a local gay couple who owned a farm not too far from our hotel, so we decided to visit Tony and Louie the following afternoon. They graciously welcomed us into their home and toured us around their farm, where they not only grow coffee, but a variety of fruit as well as cacao.
On the way to Hilo, we visited Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park. The entry fee to the park is a bit steep at $30, but it gives you access for a few days so be sure to keep your receipt. The park encompasses the summits of two of the world's most active volcanoes - Kīlauea and Maunaloa - and is a designated International Biosphere Reserve and UNESCO World Heritage Site.
For the next few hours, we explored Kīlauea, hiking around the edge of the volcano which had been erupting a few days prior to our visit. For dinner that evening, we dined at The Rim, a wonderful restaurant overlooking the volcano. We shared a few appetizers including lobster crab cakes, edamame, and a tuna poke stack. Everything was delicious and the service was wonderful. I would definitely come back to this restaurant on my next visit.
For the next stop on our Hawai‘i holiday, we drove to Hilo, located on the island’s east coast. After checking in to SCP Hilo, we drove to the downtown area which contains dozens of quaint boutiques and restaurants. It was here that we had more encounters with the locals and embraced their ‘ohana (family) mentality. Everyone was extremely friendly and welcoming to the point where Dylan and I were ready to relocate to Hilo. The Hilo Airport offers inter-island flights to Honolulu International Airport so travel to and from the city is pretty simple.
Hilo contains a few black sand beaches that are free and accessible to the public. As relaxing as Kona was, Hilo has an even more relaxed and holistic vibe. I felt like I was among the locals more so than in Kona.
The next morning we drove a few minutes to Wailuku River State Park, home to Waiānuenue (Rainbow) Falls, an 80 foot waterfall located just a few minutes outside of downtown Hilo. It was crazy to see a natural wonder located that close to the city. During our visit, we were just 2 of 3 people at the site. We passed a few more people on the trail leading to the top of the falls, but it was great to visit without any crowds. We then stopped by Ken’s House of Pancakes for breakfast. The prices seemed a bit high at first, so we decided to split an omelet which came with a side of their famous pancakes. Luckily, we only ordered one item as the omelet was the largest I’ve ever seen. It was overflowing with a variety of vegetables and the pancakes came with three types of syrup: coconut, guava, and passion fruit. It was well worth the extra calories.
As we drove back to Kona, I thought about all the experiences we had on the trip. One Hawai‘i experience that we had not seen yet was their picture-perfect postcard sunset. The sky that afternoon was pretty clear, and I thought to myself today will be the today and sure enough, it was. We pulled over to an overlook about 15-minutes north of Kona to a westward facing field of black volcanic rock that ran into the ocean and spent the next hour watching the sun sink over the horizon. It was the memory I was hoping to achieve before our departure from paradise.
Enjoy the Journey!