The Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve & Garden Photo:Adobe Stock
The Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve & Garden Photo:Adobe Stock

The Island of Hawai'i Many Visitors Never See

Spend your entire vacation on the beach and you’ll miss some notable attractions, says our correspondent.

While many visitors come to Hawai'i just to relax at the resorts, sit on the sand, and swim, there's much more worth experiencing on the state’s so-called Big Island. Here are half a dozen little-known but must-see attractions.

1. The Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve & Garden

Located close to Hilo, the island’s largest city, the garden was created by the waters of Onomea and Alakahi streams and by the wind and waves that cut into the coastline’s lava cliffs. 

You will make your way down a steep boardwalk into Onomea Valley, which is filled with towering trees, lush foliage, and a rainbow of exotic flowers. 

Onomea Bay, first established as a Hawaiian fishing village, was later the site of Onomea Sugar Mill. When the mill closed, the valley was used to farm lilikoi (passionfruit) and graze cattle. By the early 1900s, the area was deserted.

Garden founders Dan and Pauline Lutkenhouse discovered the valley in 1977. From 40 acres of overgrown, weed-infested land, they created a 20-acre natural greenhouse supporting more than 2,000 plant species. 

A mile-and-a-half-long pathway takes you over streams and past waterfalls. The path is lined with yellow, purple, and pink orchids; red, white, and black anthurium; bird of paradise; ginger; red, yellow, and pink hibiscus; heliconia; white spider lilies; and ohia lehua. At the valley's far end you’ll enjoy grand views of the Pacific Ocean. 

Hilo Farmer's Market Photo:Adobe Stock
Hilo Farmer's Market Photo:Adobe Stock

2. Hilo Farmer's Market

Every day from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., more than 200 vendors at this market sell exotic fruits and vegetables, locally grown flowers, handmade craft items, works of art and photography, and beautiful gifts. You’ll want to carve out several hours for a stop here, especially if you plan to talk with vendors and artists.

3. O.K. Farms

Another enriching experience near Hilo is a tour of the 1,000-acre O.K. Farms that showcases the diverse crops grown here and offers tastings along the way. 

"In the 1800s, this was a sugar plantation," tour guide LoLo Arcand says. "After sugar production, the owners turned the acreage into a macadamia nut farm with 5,000 trees."

In 2002, after the nut farm failed, Ed Olson and Troy Keolanui purchased the property and created the current farm to perpetuate sustainable agriculture in Hawai'i. Twenty years later, the property is one of the largest tropical fruit producers in the U.S. and is an incremental stakeholder for food independence in Hawaii.

The rolling hills of Pu'ueo Mauka are fertile. They receive enough rainfall to grow coffee, macadamia nuts, cacao (chocolate), lychee, longan, rambutan, citrus, hearts of palm, spices, and other fruits and vegetables. The farm, alongside Hilo's historic Wailuku River, offers overlooks of the famous Rainbow and Kiaemukanka Falls.

Guides show you the macadamia nut trees that remain on the farm and how the nuts are harvested one at a time as they mature. "One hundred to 150 pounds of macadamia nuts are harvested per tree," says Arcand.

At Rainbow Falls overlook, fruit and macadamia nuts—including longan (dragon eye), star fruit, and rambutan—are laid out on a picnic table for guests to try, so they can learn the difference between a nut taken directly from the tree and a processed one.

You will stop on the spice row, where guides introduce clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice trees. You’ll also see the coffee-growing acreage with a breathtaking view of the ocean. 

After the tour, drive to the 422-foot-tall 'Akaka Falls. The trailhead is easy to find—it’s just off the parking lot. To get to the waterfalls, make a short 0.4-mile hike through the lush rainforest, which is filled with wild orchids, bamboo groves, and draping ferns. 

Hawai'i Volcanic National Park  Photo:Adobe Stock
Hawai'i Volcanic National Park Photo:Adobe Stock

4. Hawai'i Volcanic National Park

A 45-minute drive from Hilo will take you to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. It encompasses Kīlauea, one of the world's most active volcanoes, and Mauna Loa, the planet’s most massive shield volcano, which is also active. The UNESCO World Heritage site provides scientists with insight into the Hawaiian Islands' development and access to volcanism studies. 

Start your visit at the Kīlauea Visitor Center, just inside the park, which is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (though the park itself never closes). Here, you’ll receive the latest information on trails, ranger-led activities, road conditions, and safety precautions. Then begin your tour at Kīlauea Overlook and work clockwise along Crater Rim Drive. 

The 18.8-mile Chain of Craters Road leads to the coast, an area that’s home to several previous villages. Trails, homesites, heiaus (temples), and petroglyphs bear witness to the complex uses of this area over the centuries. The park offers visitors dramatic volcanic landscapes, glimpses of rare flora and fauna, and a view of the traditional Hawaiian culture connected to these landscapes.

Park Ranger Jody Anastasio suggests guests walk along an old portion of Crater Rim Drive to Keanakāko'i Crater to view the massive Halemaʻumaʻu. There are many short and daylong hikes in the park's 554 square miles. 

"What I hope every visitor takes away is a better understanding of the biology, geology, and cultural here," she says. "We want to perpetuate this information."

Kona Historic Sites Photo:Adobe Stock
Kona Historic Sites Photo:Adobe Stock

5. Kona Historic Sites

Kona District stretches along the west side of the island from ʻAnaehoʻomalu Bay to Manukā Park (Kaʻū) and is known for its resorts, shops, restaurants, and nightlife. You'll also find coffee farms and historical Hawaiian landmarks here. King Kamehameha spent his final years in Kailua-Kona.

Other significant historical places include Kealakekua Bay to the south, where Captain James Cook first set foot on the island in 1778. 

North of Kailua-Kona is the Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historic Park, a 1,160-acre park where you can explore early heiaus, fishponds, and petroglyphs.

Shielded from winds by Maunaloa, south Kona's calm and clear waters are perfect for snorkeling, diving, sailing, and spotting dolphins and honu (Hawaiian green sea turtles). 

In Hōlualoa, you can sample the distinctive flavors of 100 percent Kona coffee. 

6. Kona Salt Farm

Just south of the Fairmont Orchid resort is the only factory in the world where salt is made from pure, 900-year-old deep-ocean water that traveled from Iceland, rich in natural minerals and flavor. It is one of the highest-quality finishing salts. 

"A four-inch pipe travels a mile offshore, 2,200 feet deep, and pumps the seawater up to solar evaporation beds," says tour guide Ipolani Morgan. "Keāhole Point is one of the few places in the world where this is possible."

Morgan takes you on a tour of the seven-acre oceanfront property on Kona Keāhole Point.

After learning about the area's history, the ancient Hawaiian settlement Ho'ona, and the salt-making process, you walk to the evaporation tubes. Once the water evaporates, the salt goes to bins where water continues to drain until the salt is ready.

In addition to gourmet sea salts, as part of the salt-making process, Kona Salt Farm also farms Deep Ocean Minerals as a magnesium supplement, magnesium bath, and Nigari—the traditional tofu coagulant.

At the end of the tour, you can sample Kona Pure and flavored salt with fruits and vegetables.


What It Is: The Polynesians settled the Hawaii islands sometime between A.D. 124 and 1120. Isolated from the rest of the world for at least 500 years, the islands are about 2,000 miles west of California. They achieved U.S. statehood in 1959. The island of Hawai'i, also known as the Big Island, is the largest island in all of America.

Climate: The island of Hawai'i is one of the most ecologically diverse places in the world, with eight climate zones. It has warm weather year-round, from 75 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit (23 to 29 degrees Celsius) in winter and summer along the coast. The temperature is much cooler in the mountains, especially at night. Annually, Hilo receives an average of 80 inches of rainfall while Kona receives less than two inches. 

Getting ThereHilo International Airport is on the island's east side. Mokulele Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and United Airlines serve the airport. Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole is on the island's west side. Air Canada, Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, Japan Airlines, United Airlines, Westjet, Southwest Airlines, and Mokulele Airlines serve this airport. Both airports accommodate private jets.


Lodging: The author stayed at Fairmont Orchid (A+), an oceanfront resort less than a half-hour from Kona Airport that features luxurious accommodations, a spa, a AAA Four Diamond restaurant, and a golf course. SCP Hilo Hotel (A-), five minutes from the airport, is close to downtown Hilo and offers views of Turtle Bay. 

Among the island’s more than two dozen other hotels and resorts are Hilton Waikoloa VillageMauna Kea Beach HotelAutograph CollectionOutrigger Kona Resort and SpaHalii Kai at Waikoloa, and Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort & Spa

Cuisine: The author dined at Brown's Beach House (A) at Fairmont Orchid, a AAA Four Diamond signature restaurant above Pauoa Bay featuring one of the island's most spectacular sunset panoramas. Island Lava Java Bistro (A-) in Kona offers casual fare including salad, pizza, and hamburgers. Papajacs (A) in Hilo offers brunch and upscale American-Italian fare at lunch. Ken’s House of Pancakes (B+) in Hilo makes up for what it lacks in atmosphere with delicious food and excellent service. Volcano House’s The Rim (B+) in Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park offers a buffet brunch and fine dining in the evening. 

Other notable restaurants in Hilo include Moon and TurtlePaul's PlaceCafe 100Pineapple's Island Fresh Cuisine, and Jackie Rey's Ohana Grill Hilo. Among highly rated restaurants in Kona are Umekes Fish Market Bar & GrillPapa Kona Restaurant & BarOn the Rocks, and Magics Beach Grill.

Editor's note: the author was the guest of the Island of Hawai'i Visitors Bureau.