Lay of the Land
“Hawaii is not a state of mind, but a state of grace. ”~Paul Theroux
“Big” is the operative word here. About twice the size of Delaware, the Big Island is growing at a rapid rate, as there’s enough lava spewing from the Kilauea volcano to fill a football field every day. The island’s main highway runs along the coast, though Ala Mauna Saddle Road now bisects the Big Island from east to west, cutting the trip from Hilo to the Kohala Coast from two and a half hours to about an hour and a half. (However, the road is so dangerous and narrow, with frequent dense fog and six single-lane bridges that most rental car companies will not allow visitors to drive on it.)
The west coast, or Kona side, is dry and sunny, with an interesting mix of black and white sand beaches. Kona’s Kohala Coast has the luxury resorts, golf courses, ancient trails and petroglyphs, and some of the best weather. Go north and you come to North Kohala, once the center of the island’s sugarcane business, and home to Hawi, a 1.2-square-mile town of quaint storefronts and rural homes. Waimea, on the north-central side of the island, is a sizable town, notable mostly as the site of Parker Ranch, the largest working ranch in the state (150,000 acres). The emerald Hamakua Coast, in the northeast, has the verdant and wild Waipio Valley, the botanical gardens and the island’s most gorgeous waterfalls. To the east is the rainy county seat of Hilo, Hawaii’s second-largest city (after Honolulu), which is still quaint with small Victorian houses and functions as the gateway to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The Big Island is relatively unchanged from fifty years ago, but with all the building going on, it’s unlikely to stay that way.
When to Go
Big Island weather is probably the most consistent of that of all the Hawaiian Islands. At the lower elevations, temperatures range from the mid-70s to the low 80s, while in the mountains it can get chilly fast, with the temperature dropping to around 40 degrees. Along the Kona Coast, it’s almost always dry and warm, but a fifteen-minute drive north brings rain and mist. To beat the crowds, visit from mid-September to mid-November. January and February are also slower tourist months, and a good time to find deals.
There are two major airports on the island: Kona International and Hilo International. You’ll most likely fly into Kona, since it’s only a half-hour drive to the luxury resorts along the Kohala Coast. Most major U.S. airlines offer direct flights from mainland cities to Kona, but most people fly into Honolulu and make the half-hour flight to the Big Island via a commuter carrier. There is also a small airport in Waimea typically used for private charters.