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June 11, 2014 / oneworld82

Four Days in Hawai’i – Kona 2014

One of the aspirational places that I hadn’t visited yet were the Hawai’i Islands. Many claim that these islands are the most remote islands from any landmass – the northernmost part of Polynesia, in Oceania; true or not, this former Kingdom has developed throughout the centuries a peculiar culture, language, and pantheon rooted in Polynesian tradition. But long gone are the times of King Kamehameha I, of Captain Cook, of the US annexation, of Pearl Harbor. Today Hawai’i is a relatively thriving community whose ethnic mix speaks of great migrations from every part of the globe.

Hawai'i Island

My short 4 days trip would take me to Hawai’i Island, commonly referred to as the Big Island. And big it is indeed, as this piece of land in the middle of the Pacific Ocean by itself is almost twice as big as all the other Sandwich Islands combined. Because Sandwich was the name that Cook cast upon this chain of volcanic rocks when he landed here, in honor to the Earl of Sandwich, who probably had not even idea of where the Pacific Ocean was…

This island is a micro continent in itself: it has alpine and sub-artic landscapes on Mauna Kea; green valleys and pastures near Waimea; sandy beach near Kona (both balck and white); active volcanoes all over; and tropical forests at large here and there. Of all the activities you can think of, likely skiing is the only one that cannot be done here (although it is technically possible to ski on Mauna Kea during winter time). Diving, snorkeling, biking, ziplining… you name it. It’s not by chance that, every Fall, an Ironman race is held in Kona, the bustling (and yet sleepy) touristic capital of the island. Whilo Hilo, on the opposite side, is bigger, Kona gets all the attention, to great detriment to its sister city.

Sunset in Kona

Sunset in Kona

View on the way to Waimea

View on the way to Waimea

One of the reasons why Kona is so popular is the predictability of its weather. It hardly rain here, although on the slopes nearby it may be showering. The Leeward winds keep the ski clear by the beach, while the mighty mountains stop the clouds that, every day, amass around them. Quite a sight.

Mauna Kea as seen from my room

Mauna Kea as seen from my room

The Northern Kona coast houses the best beaches of the island – if white sand os what you’re looking for, that is. Hapuna Beach is simply a perfect slice of white heaven by the ocean, while Kikaua Beach (not far from the Four Seasons) is more isolated and secluded.

Hapuna Beach

Hapuna Beach

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Near the Four Seasons Hotel

Near the Four Seasons Hotel

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Black Sand beaches abund

Black Sand beaches abund

In Kailua-Kona, Kahaluu Beach is a small black beach renowned for its snorkeling. Green turtles abound here, and it shouldn’t be difficult to spot one. More black sand beaches are found in the south, near the Volcanoes National Park. The one near Punaluu is simply amazing.

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mazing had-dripped 100% Kona Coffee at Cafe Kona de Pele

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Are you looking for cowboys? Paniolo country is around Waimea, near the north coast. Pastures and meadows are almost too idyllic to be true! Cows are happy, and that results in excellent beef (don’t miss a good burger – many places are simply excellent!). Waimea is little more than a village, but it is bustling in its own right. Fast foods, many stores, supermarkets, restaurants… the place doesn’t look bad or remote at all.

 

Paniolo country

Paniolo country

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True Value in Hanokaa

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The main reason why tourists pass through Waimea is to go to Waipio Valley… or to the lookout over it. This much-photographed spot deserves every single piece of press that it gets. Together with its sister valley – Pololu – it is just a beautiful reminder of how incredible Mother Nature can be. I will let the pictures speak for themselves.

Waipio Valley

Waipio Valley

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Pololu Valley

Pololu Valley

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Most tourists, including me, stay in and around Kona, which is very well-equipped to host visitors with anytype of budget restriction. From hostels to five star hotels, from fancy seaside restaurants to little shacks, Kailua has it all. I stayed at the Sheraton Kona – a beautiful property south of the main drag. The hotel was beautiful and well-kept, although the building starts to show its age.

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Fifteen minutes north of it the main touristic area offers plenty of restaurants, bars, and shops. Acai Bowls is great for healthy yet tasty breakfasts; Cafe’ Kona de Pele has amazing 100% Kona hand-dripped coffee; Huggo’s on the Rocks has al fresco dining overlooking the sea. You can’t go wrong here, and the food is generally pretty good to very good.

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Last but not least, no one can deny that the Big Island’s main attraction is the Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. Located south of Mauna Lea – the sister of Mauna Kea – this park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) houses an active volcano e plenty of lava flows. When I visited the lava wasn’t flowing, but the area around the Kilauea volcano is simply beautiful and rugged at the same time. Steam vents, solidified lava-lakes, fern forests… it’s like stepping into a real Jurassic Park. Tens (or hundreds) of miles of hiking trails assure that even the most avid explorers will be entertained in this stupendous and informative park!

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Coffee plantations are ubiquitous in Hawai'i Island

Coffee plantations are ubiquitous in Hawai’i Island

While I approach the conclusion of this post, I’d like to mention Hawaiian food. In my opinion, it is underrated and mislabeled in the USA, just like Mexican food is. In particular, poke (a hybrid between sashimi and ceviche) is spectacular and – yes – healthy. Loco Moco, on the other hand, is a monster of flavor blending rice, beef patties, gravy, and eggs. As I mentioned earlier, beef here is all grass-fed and hence tasty, and the abundance of fruits makes for fresh and delicious smoothies.

Acai bowl

Acai bowl

Amazing bacon blue burger

Amazing bacon blue burger

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Loco Moco

Loco Moco

Spicy tako poke

Spicy tako poke

Ultimate Burgers

Ultimate Burgers

Last but not least, a mention on my journey through and from Hawaii. I hail from Dallas, TX. On my way there, I flew AA to Phoenix in economy and connected to a US Airways flight to Kona, still in coach. The flight is long (6+ hours), and the US plane, a old 757, didn’t help.

On the way back, I used miles (5k AA miles) to fly to Honolulu. This is a sort of frequent shuttle service; the flight was short (perhaps 30 minutes), but a drink (juice or water) was offered by the ever-smiling crew. The plane, a Boeing 717 – was in very good conditions as well. Next time I am tempted to fly Hawaiian from the continent.

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From Honolulu I flew American Airlines flight AA102 to Dallas  (DFW). American flies twice a day this route, using Boeing 767-300ER with international configuration. My First Class upgrade cleared 35 minutes before departure, and I was apparently the last passenger to get a seat upfront. Lucky me! To be honest, I had no idea of how the service was going to be on this long haul flight, since it is technically a domestic flight. But at 7h15m, American Airlines decided to offer a service almost on par to its international Business Class (at least in the premium cabin, as in economy no complimentary meal was offered). That means a nice menu with two choices of entrees, and service from a tray. A little Hawaiian twist is offered as well, as the usual warm nuts have candied fruit with them and as Hawaiian rolls are served together with the usual bread. A first round of drinks was offered (enter Bloody Mary), and then the salad – with a very good vinaigrette – was taken out. I liked how the service proceeded one dish at a time and not on the same tray. Entrees were either pasta or salmon teriyaki, which I chose. The salmon was fine (nothing great and a tad dry, as expected), the sides (steamed rice and green steamed veggies) were decent (actually, the rice was just edible, the greens were good). To finish, either fruit and cheese or sundae were offered. Another Hawaiian twist here: mango topping was offered, together with pistachios: the combo was simply delightful!

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Salad

Salad

Salmon Teriyaki presentation

Salmon Teriyaki presentation

Main

Main

Sundae with Mango topping and pistachios

Sundae with Mango topping and pistachios

The seat was the standard angled lie-flat that most of AA’s B763ER are equipped with. I am happy to note that Bose noise-cancelling headphones and Samsung tablets were offered to customers. A clear step up here for AA! I had my iPad mini and my Beats by Dre headphones, hence I passed. But still, it was really nice to have that option. An international business class duvet and pillow were also waiting for me at my seat, but no amenity kits were offered.

The flight went by pretty quickly and I managed to sleep for about 3 hours. Before landing, the menu said that fruit and cheese were going to be offered, but I skipped it and kept sleeping. I smelled croissants though, so it might actually be that a continental breakfast was offered.

Throughout the flight, the flight attendants serving my aisle  were impeccable, friendly, and efficient. We landed in DFW on time, and I must say I was very pleased with my American Airlines flight.

So, this is it. I hope I have enticed you to go visit Hawai’i Island a.k.a. the Big Island sometimes soon. That place is magic. The competition from the other islands is strong, but Hawai’i has enough things to keep families and adventurers alike busy for many days. To me, Kona was a great surprise, and I finally started to see why these remote islands have fascinated generations of travelers from the World over. I can’t wait to be back. Kauai and the Kalalau Trail are already on sight.

 

6 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. PN / Jun 22 2014 9:21 am

    Great report!

    I am heading to Hawaii at the end of July for 8 days and have booked the Sheraton Kona for the entire time, but I will be honest – I am confused.

    I thought Kona was near HNL, but it seems that it is not? Is Kona on the Big Island or Oahu?

    I am travelling alone, so if you have any recommendations of what I should be doing while there, I would appreciate it.

    • robertocusato / Jun 22 2014 10:04 am

      Hi PN,
      Kona is on the big Island, not Oahu. My only recommendation is to rent a car and explore around!

  2. Sheila / Feb 3 2015 7:17 pm

    Seems like going from DFW to KOA the only options ARE the 757s. We’re currently booked on flight #5 from DFW to HNL. Figured we’d rather get stuck there then in LAZ or PHX. 😉 Do you think upgrading on those older planes is worth it?
    (might have to see if we can change flights back to get on that newer plane) 😉

    • robertocusato / Feb 4 2015 11:06 am

      Hi Sheila,

      I would definitely upgrade if possible, especially on AA metal, as the meal service is pretty nice. On US, well, not so sure 🙂

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