One of the fishponds at Mauna Lani Resort, with full moon. // © 2010 Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows
Hilo breakwall in foreground, Mauna Kea in background, Hawaii's Big Island // © 2010 Irondog Communications
Two girls in Thurston Lava Tube, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii's Big Island. // © 2010 Marty Wentzel
Chef Olelo Paa Faith Ogawa // © 2010 Michael Horton
Line of people outside Sansei restaurant, Hawaii's Big Island. // © 2010 Sansei
Whenever I visit Hawaii’s Big Island, I try to get my family and friends who live there to tell me about their insider favorites. Rather than talk about the things that most visitors know about, like the island’s fabulous beaches, volcanoes, coffee, hotels and restaurants, I’m eager to learn about the lesser-known joys of the destination — the secret spots, the one-of-a-kind people, the singular bargains not necessarily mentioned in the guidebooks.
Thanks to valued input from trusted residents, I have come up with a list of suggestions for travelers who, like me, want to experience some of the island’s hidden treasures. Here are my five favorite unsung Big Island gems.
A long, sleek example of engineering know-how, this 1½-mile-long breakwater was built in the 1920s to protect Hilo Harbor. At low tide, a walk along this distinctive landmark provides a powerful perspective on the size of the island, offering fabulous views of the city’s plentiful green open spaces leading up to the peaks of the Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea volcanoes. Different views result in different moods. On the open-ocean side of the wall, the water is rough with big swells and whitecaps, while on the inside it’s flat, calm and glassy. Sometimes small schools of tropical fish swim by the wall, catching the eye. Local fisherman frequent this spot, as do walkers and joggers, but for most everyone who ventures out along its expanse, the breakwall provides a whole new frame of reference, at once humbling and inspiring.
The Other Thurston Lava Tube
Most visitors to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park walk through the front half of Thurston Lava Tube, a popular stop on the tourist circuit. Formed hundreds of years ago, the cave-like tunnel feels prehistoric with its undulating ceilings and dripping ferns, and people can explore it easily thanks to the lighting installed on its walls. At the end of the front section, most people head back up to the surface courtesy of a short staircase. What they don’t realize is that the tube extends another quarter-mile, beckoning brave explorers into the pitch-black underworld. Sturdy footwear and a good flashlight are imperative for exploring the cave’s 1,000-foot-long back section, with its unpredictable footing and lower ceilings, but there’s a big payoff. Standing at the back of the tube in complete darkness, away from the crowds, the utter silence is empowering.
Chef Olelo paa Faith Ogawa
Hawaii’s Big Island lays claim to several private chefs who cater special meals for visitors, but none has the electric personality of this Hawaii-born talent. Emphasizing healthy, sustainable products from local farmers, chef Olelo paa Faith Ogawa adds her vibrant spin to Hawaii Regional Cuisine to create what she calls Conscious Hawaiian Cuisine. She recognizes that every palate is different, so she creates meals that cater exclusively to each visitor’s tastes, whether it’s a healthful luau feast or an exclusive dinner for a Fortune 500 executive. If a catered affair is beyond the budget, clients can catch her in action for free as she shares recipes and cooking demonstrations during the new Fish Farmer's Market, held on the last Friday of each month at the Natural Energy Laboratory (NELHA). It’s about one mile south of the Kona International Airport.
If the Kalahuipuaa fishponds — where ancient Hawaiians raised fish — are the spiritual center of Mauna Lani Resort, then Love Pond — tucked away at the back of the main fishponds — is its heart. In 1947, landowner Francis H. Ii Brown created the anchialine pond for his special lady friend Winona Love. Today’s visitors can sunbathe on the ledge around the perimeter and follow the rough stone steps leading into the pond for a dip — but not if they’re wearing sunscreen, because that could harm the pond’s native shrimp. Since it’s not easily discovered, the pond exudes a sense of peace and tranquility that make it feel like a true place of healing. Ask the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows concierge for directions or look for the pond during the hotel’s free weekly historic tour.
Early-Bird Specials at Sansei
It’s about 4:30 p.m. on a Sunday or Monday, and folks are lining up outside Sansei Seafood Restaurant and Sushi Bar, hungrily staring at the door as if willing it to open. They are waiting for the start of Early Bird hour, a first-come, first-served affair from 5-6 p.m., when many food items are discounted by 50 percent. Chef D.K. Kodama has made a real name for himself around the islands, and clients can save a bundle on his mouthwatering meals such as ginger hoisin smoked duck breast, shichimi seared salmon and tiger prawn, and grilled fresh Hawaiian ahi with Asian shrimp cake. This is a particularly good deal for lovers of sushi, an expensive meal at most restaurants. For clients who can’t make it on Sunday and Monday, Sansei offers a 25 percent discount from Tuesdays to Saturdays from 5:30-6 p.m. Look for it in Queen’s Marketplace at Waikoloa Resort.