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The BIG Island



Living Large on the Big Island (Family Style)
By Lisa McElroy

I've traveled around the world, and, as a travel writer, I've been lucky enough to do some pretty cool things.
But swimming with Hawai'ian spinner dolphins—about 200 of them—in the open ocean takes the cake. Because we're guests in their home, we're here to watch them, play with them, take pictures of them—but not touch them. The bacteria on our hands might make them sick. Still, as I swim through alongside a mom and baby and watch them play with a bubble, I'm convinced: This is way better than any other dolphin encounter I've ever done, and the Big Island rocks.

Yes, we're on the Big Island of Hawai'i, and life is good.

For our first few days on the island, we're staying at the Hilton Waikoloa Village on the Kona side of the island. Translation? We're at a super-family-friendly Hilton property right on one of Hawai'i's prettiest beaches, with some of the best weather anywhere in the U.S. (less than four inches of rain a year). Even though we've checked out the property on the Internet, we weren't prepared for the size of this place; we feel like we're at Disney, complete with monorail and different "worlds" (just kidding about the different worlds, but not too much). Our lanai (Hawai'ian for balcony) looks out over the pool and the ocean, and we can see the palm trees even while lying in bed.

On our first morning at the Hilton, we start our visit by exploring via the monorail and the small boats that roam up and down a central canal that connects the various buildings of the resort. The kids at the resort think the boats are about as cool as they come; Steve and I like walking up and down the long hallways, looking at the art collection displayed there.

After relaxing for a while, we're itching to get in the water, so we head to the salt lagoon, full of fish and sea turtles. Paddle boarding—a kind of surfing on a wide board with a paddle—is harder than it looks, but the sea bikes are a big hit. While everyone else keeps trying to get up on the boards, I head to the Kohala Spa for a little R & R and a facial. The spa's so pretty that I wish I could stay all day—but it's time for dinner and a concert, and everyone's hungry.

We head to dinner at the Kamuela Provision Company, or KPC for short. We've heard a lot of buzz about this place, and (unlike with some places) it turns out that the buzz is justified. We sit out on a stone patio facing the water and take in the sunset as we chow down on local corn and crab chowder and Asian-style short ribs. A don't-miss menu item: the local tomato salad. Hawai'ian tomatoes are super sweet and incredibly juicy, and the feta cheese and macadamia nuts on top give them a great kick.

Next stop: the Grand Ballroom, for a concert by one of Hawai'i's most popular traditional singers: Kealii Reichel. This guy's amazing—he sings traditional Hawai'ian hula but explains each song and tells great stories. We could tell that most in the crowd knew his music well, and the enthusiasm was infectious. My only regret? I wish I had downloaded some of the music ahead of time so I'd have known more about him and his musical tradition.

The next day, it's time to check out of the Hilton and head down the Kona coast to Kailua-Kona and the Kona Surf and Racquet Club. We've decided to try a condo vacation for a few days—something we rarely do—to see whether the extra space and the kitchen make up for the lack of structured activities that a resort has to offer.

When we arrive at the Kona Surf and Racquet club, right on the beach in Kona, we're impressed. Our condo (Unit 4204) is huge, with two large bedrooms, two nice baths, a living-dining area, a modern kitchen, and a lanai that hangs out over the ocean. We immediately settle in, throwing some laundry into the full-size washer and dryer and relaxing for a nap. I'm already liking this concept of having laundry facilities, a kitchen with a fridge, and tons of room to spread out.

We wake up the next morning and head down to the harbor to give swimming with dolphins a try. As I described at the beginning of this story, I highly recommend Sunlight on Water, the dolphin encounter tour. Even though swimming is the highlight of the tour, I'm also really impressed with the crew's knowledge about dolphin behavior and their very hands-on, gentle treatment of the kids on board. When one little girl is afraid to get in the water, a crew member hands her a swimming noodle, then jumps in holding her hand. In minutes, the little one is grinning ear to ear (and so are her parents).

We head back to the condo for a nap (another plus: kids can watch TV or play the games they find on the condo's bookshelves while Mom and Dad snooze in another room), then wake up in time to drive back to the Hilton for another trip highlight: a traditional Hawai'ian luau. Luaus are offered all over the island, but this one's known for being special.

A lot of things make the Legends of the Pacific luau spectacular. First, the show's Mistress of Ceremonies is engaging and fun, and she draws the crowd in, even getting kids and adults alike to hula (see photo of me learning the story-telling dance style) and sing along. The dancers are excellent (yes, Steve develops a small crush on one) and the food's quite good, especially the Hawai'ian pork and the purple sweet potatoes to which Steve has become addicted. Kids being kids, they inhale the tiny pastries served for dessert (OK, I eat eight or nine, too), so our server loads us up on chocolate mousse and banana cream tarts.

I'd highly recommend springing for the priority seating here, because you'll be seated much closer to the stage, and a server will bring your food right to the table instead of making you go through the crowded buffet. You'll also be front and center when they ask for hula volunteers—fun! All in all, it's a fun evening at a beautiful outdoor venue.

After a night spent dreaming of hula, we're up before dawn to head down the road to Hawai'i Forest and Trail, the premier company on the island for guided hikes. We've chosen the family-friendly Kohala Waterfalls Adventure, a two-mile hike that goes through Hawai'ian countryside past several beautiful waterfalls and swimming holes. The hike is designed for hikers of any level, and I do mean any—the group's composed of little kids as well as older folks of varying fitness levels, some who skip down the path and some who struggle. Luckily, the hike is slow and gentle, taking about four hours to go the two miles, with some jeep riding and waterfall swimming thrown in. We even pass a farmer engaged in sustainable farming—he's planting taro, a native Hawai'ian root, and our guide takes the opportunity to teach us all about taro and the history of farming sugar cane and taro on the Big Island.

We end our hike with lunch (turkey wraps, taro chips, homemade cookies) overlooking huge cliffs and ocean vistas; all in all, it has been a fun and relaxing way to pass the morning.

Ever since we got to the Big Island, people have been telling us that we have to go see the lava flow. You probably already know that the Hawai'ian islands are volcanic, with several active volcanoes, but I have to admit that I didn't realize that we'd see red-hot lava flowing into the ocean! Just during the few days we've been in Hawai'i, the lava has taken out a house and a parking lot, plus destroyed a beautiful black-sand beach on the Hilo side of the island.

There are a couple of ways to see the flow; one is to drive an hour or so out of Hilo, park, and see what you can see. Because the police have set up barricades, that doesn't seem like the best option to us. Instead, we decide to take a helicopter tour with a luxury tour company, Blue Hawai'ian. They've got people lining up for their Circle of Fire tour, which flies you out to the flow, then hovers about 500 feet above it so that you can take great photos. Although Steve isn't too wild about heights, he's still impressed; the helicopters are super-smooth, and the view's unbelievable. Even better, the pilot knows a heck of a lot about volcanoes and lava, so flying with him is like a geology lesson with propellers.

After grabbing dinner at the excellent but casual Café Pesto in Hilo, we drive (OK, Steve drives) the fairly hairy road back to Kona. Although it's not actually that far, the roads are a single lane each way over lava fields most of the way. By the time we're back at the condo, microwave popcorn, a little cable TV, and an early bedtime sound even better than they usually do.

In the morning we're up and at 'em again for another geology lesson, this one of the spelunking variety. While spelunkers usually explore caves, the tour of Kula Kai Caverns is a little bit different: it's a three-hour walk-hike-climb through a lava tube, or a "cave" formed when a volcano erupted about a thousand years ago and lava forced its way underground.

Because we want the full experience, we decide to try the Extended Cave Tour, and I have to tell you, this is not like the waterfall hike—you have to be in pretty decent shape, wearing pretty hardy gear, to give this one a go. We're walking on lava, which looks like a coral reef, so boots, long socks, long pants, and helmets are key. Even more important? Headlamps, without which we'd be in pitch-black darkness (we do give this a try while safely seated on a "bench" made of lava inside the tube—I can't even see my hand in front of my face).

But learning about the native Hawai'ians, who used this tube for shelter and water, as well as about the masses of information that geologists have learned from this tube, is pretty darn fascinating. All the while we climb up rock formations into giant "rooms" filled with stalagmites and stalactites, and learn that the "g" in "stalagmites" tells us that the rock "icicle" comes from the ground, while the "c" in "stalactites" says that it comes from the ceiling.

We're blinking and starving when we emerge—good thing there's a bathroom and a great little bakery up the street in the town of Ocean View.

Next up? We've been under the earth, so now it's time to go under the ocean, and what better way to do it than in a submarine? Atlantis Submarine, a company out of Kona, runs real submarine rides through a coral reef full of fish, turtles, and dolphins. Cool! Even cooler? Word has it that Steve Carell is on this sub with his kids for a day out of The office. But which one is he? The guy with the super-long beard? The guy with an Aloha shirt (well, yeah, that's a lot of guys on this trip)? The kids on the sub are so engaged in guessing that all of the parents have to redirect their attention to the coral reef outside the sub. Luckily, it's right about then that a huge yellow fish (I make up a name for it) swims right up, and everyone's enthralled for the 45-minute tour.

One great choice we made here: We were last in line to get on the sub, putting us in the far rear seats, right next to one of the guides. Preston the Guide is way into answering questions, even when asked at warp speed by tons of kids. "Why can't you see the color red at this depth?" "How do fish poop?" and "Do you know which guy Steve Carell is?"

'Nuf said.

After a conversation about fish poop, you might think we'd have lost our appetites. Not even close. In fact, we've been ogling this restaurant near our condo all week, and so we head straight from the sub to Huggo's, a casual-feel fine-dining restaurant on the water. We grab a table facing the sunset and order appetizers: baby-back ribs, ahi poke, lamb spring rolls, and local tomatoes with onion and fennel. We eat so much that we almost miss out on the monchong (a type of fish) with purple sweet potatoes (Steve) and penne with feta (me). It's a tough job, eating all of this incredible food, but someone has to do it. All I can say is this: Executive chef Laine Uchida has got it goin' on. As we settle back in our seats and watch the sun disappear under the horizon, we debate: to mud pie or not to mud pie. Our server (coincidentally, the photographer from the submarine) settles the squabble—there's no way to walk out of here without mud pie—and this is the hugest, the most macadamia-filled, the chocolatiest—the muddiest mud pie ever. It should take an army to eat this thing. Wonder how we managed to decimate it in about five minutes flat . . . .

It's our last full day on the Big Island, and as if we haven't had enough adventure on this trip, we decide that we've got to try the scariest activity of all: zip-lining. Turns out that the longest zip in Hawai'i is about two hours away, so we head back towards Hilo to Kapohokine Adventures, which has recently opened a zip line over triple-decker waterfalls. Sounds cool, right? Did I mention that you have to jump off of really high platforms (they are really high) and zip about a half mile down a steel cable to see them? Yup.

But the professional staff here gives us a thorough safety briefing, and they reassure us that we'd have to weigh something like 25,000 pounds for the cable to break. I'm personally about 130, so I figure I'm OK.

And I am—at least for about half of the zips. The half-mile zip is fast and scenic, apparently so much so that they filmed some of The Bachelor here (or was it The Bachelorette? one of those) a few years back. Steve's thrown his fear of heights to the wind and is zipping upside down (yes, that's at 40 miles per hour). I'm thinking that this has been really fun, but I'm going to let Steve enjoy it. I'll kick back for a while and nap. He ends the tour with a huge smile on his face.

It's hard to believe that we've been on the Big Island for an entire week, but it's true. Now it's time for one last stop—at Ultimate Burger, a Kona tradition where they serve burgers with organic and locally sourced ingredients. Ultimate is the way to pig out and fill up for the 15-hour trip home, first on the tiny Go! Airlines (think nine-passenger prop planes where they weigh you before you board to make sure that the plane's evenly balanced) to Maui, then on United from Maui to Chicago and then, at last, to home, sweet home: Philadelphia.

If only Philly had spinner dolphins, purple sweet potatoes, and lava flows . . . .

This trip courtesy of the Big Island Visitors' Bureau, Hilton Waikoloa Village, and Kona Surf and Racquet Club.

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Pictures From

The Trip
(by Steve McElroy)


Just one of the many swimming pools at the Hilton Waikoloa Village


The monorail at the Hilton Waikoloa Village


View from our table at the Kamuela Provision Company


The living room at the Kona Surf and Racquet Club


The view from the Kona Surf and Racquet Club


Lisa learning hula with the crowd at the Legends of the Pacific Luau


Removing the roast pig from the imu (in-ground pit used to cook it)


Just one of the waterfalls we saw on the hike


The best view of the lava flow at the waterline – by Blue Hawaiian Helicopter


Heading into the cave


Lisa crawling through a tight spot


A view of the Atlantis from the tender


Tomatoes and mozzarella from Huggo's – enough to feed a small army


The dining room at Huggo's


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