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Hawaii Island is a playground for energetic travelers who love exploring and discovering new surroundings and activities each day. But it is not nicknamed “the Big Island” for nothing — embrace the long stretches of scenic road by renting a car, but scale down the driving time by taking advantage of both of Hawaii Island’s airports, strategically located on opposite coasts. United’s year-old Hilo service enables more visitors from the West Coast to fly directly into Hilo and out of Kailua-Kona, or vice versa — shrinking the island and allowing savvy travelers to do all of their adventuring in less time than ever before.
1. After renting a car from the Hilo International Airport, make your way to the Palm’s Cliff House Inn in Honomu. If you’re arriving late, stop at the 24/7 diner, Ken’s House of Pancakes, which features coconut, guava and passion fruit syrups. At night, drive carefully, since the road is dark and the area is known to erupt with sporadic rain. Be sure to chat with the inn’s owners about Hawaii’s plantation past, which they do a great job of invoking with their quaint rooms and collection of relics. Take time to enjoy the dramatic surroundings over a homemade breakfast such as savory taro French toast topped with powdered sugar and syrup, served with a lemon poppyseed muffin, fresh papaya and pineapple, fresh-squeezed juice and island coffee.
Start off your Hawaii Island road trip right — after landing in Hilo, head to the Palm’s Cliff House Inn in Honomu. // © 2013 Mindy Poder
Akaka Falls State Park is located a few miles north of Palm’s Cliff House Inn. // © 2013 Mindy Poder
Puka Puka Kitchen is a local's spot in Hilo, Hawaii. // (c) 2013 Mindy Poder
Cafe 100, a fast-food joint in Hilo known for popularizing the ‘loco moco’ // © 2013 Mindy Poder
Traditionally, the loco moco is a fried egg atop a burger patty, resting on a bed of rice. // (c) 2012 Mindy Poder
Surprises await when you drive through Pahala, a small plantation town // (c) 2013 Mindy Poder
Coffee cherries growing on the trees at the Kau Coffee Mill // (c) 2012 Mindy Poder
Don't forget the mandatory stops, especially Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. // (c) 2013 Mindy Poder
Sea turtle at the Punaluu Black Sand Beach // © 2013 Mindy Poder
Adventurous folks at Ka Lae, the southern most point of the U.S. // (c) 2013 Mindy Poder
Kona Boys teaches stand-up paddleboarding in Kailua-Kona. // (c) 2012 Mindy Poder
The sun sets on the Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay. // (c) 2013 Mindy Poder
2. Akaka Falls State Park is located a few miles north of Palm’s Cliff House Inn, past a small line of local shops. After paying a $5 entrance fee, used to maintain the park, walk the short trek to the cascading Kahuna Falls, and then make your way through the incredibly lush trail of overhanging trees and plants to the free-flowing Akaka Falls, which boasts a straight drop of 442 feet. Skyline Eco-Adventures offers zipline activities in the area, while those who want to closely inspect the local flora may prefer a guided Segway tour at Botanical World Adventures.
3. After a scenic detour to What’s Shakin’, where creamy smoothies are made with on-site fruits and frozen bananas replace additives and ice, head to Imiloa Astronomy Center for a planetarium show that incorporates top research with ancient Hawaii storytelling and legends. After learning, visit Cafe 100, a fast-food joint known for popularizing the ‘loco moco,’ which takes many forms but is traditionally a fried egg atop a burger patty, resting on a bed of rice. Don’t expect fine china or water-front vistas — Cafe 100 is old-school Hawaii plate lunch, served in a covered outdoor seating area in a parking lot. Nearby, Hilo’s main street faces the ocean with a variety of local-flavor shops, such as Sig Zane Designs. A few doors away at Puka Puka Kitchen, dinner is no frills but the warm staff, born and raised in Hilo and full of tips for exploring the area, serves tasty comfort food such as don, curries and falafel.
4. Check out early and drive 30 miles southwest to a completely different world of scenery and plant life. After spending the day at the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, hiking through the rainforest, lava tubes and lava fields amidst Nene birds and native plants, sample wine made with island honey at the southernmost winery, Volcano Winery. Stay in Volcano Village’s Kilauea Lodge for the finest dinner in town, served in a cozy setting that invokes snow rather than sand.
5. Go straight to the source for your morning coffee — Kau Coffee Mill in Kau. Though not as popular as Kona coffee, yet, Kau is developing as a coffee region and is garnering recognition for its roasts. If you’re staying the night in the area and seek a truly unique experience, look no further than Pahala Plantation Cottages, furnished with well-maintained antique furniture and appliances provided, in large part, by members of the community. Or you can head straight for Kailua-Kona, after visiting the sea turtles at the Punalu’u Black Sand Beach. Don’t miss the southernmost eatery, Hana Hou Restaurant, for macadamia nut pie to go, a comforting companion while driving the horse-dotted road to Ka Lae, the southernmost tip of the U.S.
6. Head northwest to the renovated Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay. Before having an al fresco dinner — with a view of the hotel’s manta rays — enjoy Kona’s water activities. Companies with fantastic staff include Body Glove Hawaii Cruises for snorkeling and snuba and Kona Boys for stand-up paddleboarding lessons. Since you don’t have to drive back to Hilo and, in fact, never had to backtrack, spend that earned time leisurely, with a few beers at Kona Brewing Company and a few lost hours at the beach.