Travel Inspiration

Let's Go to Paradise: My Essential Guide to the Big Island of Hawai‘i

Fora Shella Zelenz Travel Agent wears grey rimmed glasses and brown shirt with ocean in the background

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Shella Zelenz

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Few destinations enchant the way the Big Island of Hawai‘i does. With its eight (yes, eight!) climate zones, black-sand beaches, vibrant coral reefs and active volcanoes, the Big Island provides the ultimate tropical escape — fit for adventurers, couples and families alike. And, as if I needed more reasons to love the Big Island: it's also home to one of Fora's favorite resorts, the dreamy Mauna Lani.

I'll admit: I'm obsessed with this beachfront Auberge property on the island's Kohala coast. It's one of my most-loved, as feedback from clients has been *chef's kiss.* With stylish accommodations (featuring local materials and floor-to-ceiling windows) and top-notch service, Mauna Lani provides a luxurious island oasis suited to virtually every type of traveler. And, when you book with me, you'll unlock A+ perks.

Fora Perks at Mauna Lani:

  • $100 food / beverage credit.

  • Breakfast daily.

  • Upgrade & extended check-in/out whenever possible.

Ready to go? Connect with me to book your stay (and unlock killer travel perks!) at Mauna Lani. And, read on for our ultimate guide to the Big Island, complete with *greatest hits* according to your travel style.

The Big Island for adventurers: hikes, volcanoes & manta rays

Adrenaline-seekers, I see you. The Big Island is a natural playground filled with epic hikes and adventures that award breathtaking views. 

Start in Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, and hike to the Kīlauea Iki Crater, where you’ll find a solidified lava bed. The scenic six-mile loop can include a stop at Nāhuku, an ancient cave where a 2000℉ river of lava once flowed. Speaking of volcanoes: don't miss the Kona Cloud Forest Sanctuary, where you'll be guided through the lush, biodiverse forest on the slopes of Mt. Hualālai. 

For an especially rewarding adventure, reserve a day for hiking in Waimanu Valley. The journey is strenuous, but the secluded valley is filled with breathtaking waterfalls. (Note: depending on weather conditions, the trail may be closed. Be sure to confirm ahead of time.) For an unforgettable water-based adventure, snorkel with manta rays — at night. 

The Big Island for families: snorkel, stargaze & sight-see

The Big Island provides unparalleled learning experiences, where kids can consume its geological and cultural histories in fun, immersive ways.

Families can explore Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, stargaze from ’Imiloa Astronomy Center or interact with endangered plant and animal species at the Hawai‘i Tropical Bioreserve & Garden. History lovers should check out the remains of ancient Hawaiʻian settlements at the Lapakahi State and Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Parks.

For world-class snorkeling (a kid favorite), head to Kealakekua Bay.

The Big Island for couples: beaches, lookouts & helicopters

The Big Island is a romantic paradise. Lovebirds can spot green sea turtles at Punalu’u, the island’s stunning black-sand beach, or venture off the beaten path to the secluded Kekaha Kai State Park for the perfect beach day. Hike across a lava path to the idyllic (and blissfully uncrowded) Makalawena Beach. Or, take in the black-lava landscapes at Pololū Valley Lookout.

I also love the charming towns of Holualoa and Hawi for a boutique-shopping, art gallery-hopping moment. And for a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, take a helicopter ride to marvel at the island’s beauty from above. 

Where to eat on the Big Island, a mecca for locally sourced gastronomy

CanoeHouse, Mauna Lani

Thanks to a varied climate and the glistening Pacific, the Big Island’s food scene is a farm-to-table dream.

Hilo Farmers’ Market is a must-stop. Here you’ll find produce, crafts, clothing, coffee — even beauty products (I especially love Aila Niu). Café Ono is lovely for organic vegetarian and vegan (and utterly delicious) food. The restaurant is housed in a 20th-century estate, and features a lush garden (home to Noble, the café’s rescued rabbit) and an art gallery. 

Locals and visitors alike flock to CanoeHouse, Mauna Lani's exquisite oceanfront restaurant. The breathtaking setting and Japanese-inspired cuisine (freshly caught fish with scallion and blistered tomatoes, farm greens in yuzu-truffle dressing, tender tatsoi and garlicky oyster mushrooms paired with dashi and sake) make for an especially memorable meal. 

At Merriman’s, Hawai‘i's first carbon-neutral restaurant, enjoy delicious, farm-to-table food in a welcoming setting. The no-frills Da Poke Shack offers fresher-than-fresh seafood. Hidden gem Moon and Turtle is a casual neighborhood spot championing local ingredients.

For a satisfying sweet treat, try handmade mochi at Two Ladies’ Kitchen, grab a sugar-coated malasada at Punalu’u Bake Shop or stop by Kula Shave Ice for its eponymous treat drizzled with house-made organic syrup and topped with local fruit.  

Run, don't walk, to Mauna Lani

One of the reasons I love Mauna Lani? The activities.

Adventure-seeking guests should make a bee-line for the Surf Shack, where paddle boards, snorkel gear and canoes await. Enlist an expert for a private surf lesson, or sign up for underwater 'rock running' (think: strenuous endurance workout, but underwater). Families, meanwhile, should check out Honu Pond, where the hotel raises and nurtures baby sea turtles. When the turtles reach an appropriate size, they are released into the ocean on what is lovingly called 'Turtle Independence Day.' 

Surf Shack, Mauna Lani

Parents can drop the kids off at Holoholo Kids Crew, which organizes educational experiences for little ones aged 5-12. And couples can settle in at the tranquil adults-only pool (conveniently located near the chic, open-air Hā Bar). 

In typical Auberge fashion, Mauna Lani also doubles as a luxe wellness retreat. “Farm-to-spa” treatments use ingredients sourced from the local bounty (vanilla bean, pikake jasmine, hibiscus, red mandarin…), and clean skincare enthusiasts will enjoy the signature goopGLOW facial, featuring products from Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness empire. 

CanoeHouse, Mauna Lani

For those looking to get their sweat in, the sleek gym amid lava rocks is equipped with Peloton bikes, weights, punching bags, rowing machines — the works. Tennis beginners (including little ones) and seasoned players can partake in clinics and private lessons. Plus, guests can join the resort’s Thursday Night Pickleball League for a dose of friendly competition. 

Guests end their day at CanoeHouse for an elevated dining experience, HāLani for a bountiful family-style meal or the breezy Hā Bar for an open-air dinner accompanied by live music.

Fora Perks at Mauna Lani:

  • $100 food / beverage credit.

  • Breakfast daily.

  • Upgrade & extended check-in/out whenever possible.

Ready to get away? I certainly am. Connect with me to book your stay (and unlock killer travel perks!) at Mauna Lani.

All images courtesy of Mauna Lani

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