The island of Hawaii that many visitors never see

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

1. The Hawaii Tropical Biosphere Reserve & Garden

Located near Hilo, the island’s largest city, the garden was created by the waters of the Onomea and Alakahi creeks, and by wind and waves carving the shoreline’s lava cliffs.

You’ll walk down a steep boardwalk into the Onomea Valley, filled with towering trees, lush foliage, and a rainbow of exotic flowers.

Onomea Bay, originally founded as a Hawaiian fishing village, was later the site of the Onomea Sugar Mill. When the mill closed, the valley was used to grow lilikoi (passion fruit) and graze cattle. By the early 1900s the area was deserted.

Garden founders Dan and Pauline Lutkenhouse discovered the valley in 1977. From 40 hectares of overgrown, weed-infested land, they created a 20-acre natural greenhouse that is home to more than 2,000 species of plants.

A one and a half kilometer trail 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 other end of the valley you can enjoy a magnificent view of the Pacific Ocean.

Hilo Farmer's Market Photo: Adobe Stock

Hilo Farmer’s Market Photo: Adobe Stock

2. Hilo Farmers’ Market

Every day from 7am to 3pm, more than 200 vendors sell exotic fruits and vegetables, locally grown flowers, handmade crafts, artwork and photographs, and beautiful gifts at this market. You should allow several hours to stop here, especially if you want to talk to vendors and artists.

3. OK farms

Another enriching experience near Hilo is a tour of the 1,000-acre OK Farms, which showcases the various crops grown here and offers tastings along the way.

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

After the nut farm failed in 2002, Ed Olson and Troy Keolanui purchased the property and established the current farm to continue sustainable farming in Hawaii. Twenty years later, the estate is one of the largest tropical fruit growers in the US and a growing advocate for food independence in Hawaii.

The rolling hills of Pu’ueo Mauka are fertile. You get enough rainfall to grow coffee, macadamia nuts, cacao (chocolate), lychee, longan, rambutan, citrus, palm hearts, spices, and other fruits and vegetables. Located on the historic Wailuku River in Hilo, the farm offers views of the famous Rainbow and Kiaemukanka Falls.

Guides will show you the macadamia nut trees that remain on the farm and how the nuts are harvested one at a time as they mature. “100 to 150 pounds of macadamia nuts are harvested per tree,” says Arcand.

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

You’ll stop at the Spice Row, where guides introduce clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice trees. You will also see the coffee growing area with an amazing view of the sea.

After the tour, drive to the 132m high Akaka Falls. The starting point is easy to find – it is right by the parking lot. To get to the falls, take a short 0.4-mile hike through lush rainforest filled with wild orchids, bamboo groves, and draped ferns.

Hawai'i Volcanic National Park Photo: Adobe Stock

Hawai’i Volcanic National Park Photo: Adobe Stock

4. Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park

A 45 minute drive from Hilo brings you to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. It includes 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 offers scientists insight into the development of the Hawaiian Islands and access to volcanism studies.

Begin your visit at the Kīlauea Visitor Center located right inside the park, which is open from 9:00am to 5:00pm (although the park itself never closes). Get the latest information on hiking trails, ranger-led activities, road conditions and safety precautions. Then begin your tour at Kīlauea Overlook and travel clockwise along Crater Rim Drive.

The 18.8-mile Chain of Craters Road leads to the coast, an area that is home to several former villages. Paths, dwellings, heiaus (temples) and petroglyphs attest to the complex use of this area over the centuries. The park offers visitors dramatic volcanic landscapes, glimpses of rare flora and fauna, and a look at the traditional Hawaiian culture associated with these landscapes.

Park ranger Jody Anastasio suggests guests walk along an old section of Crater Rim Drive to Keanakāko’i Crater to see the massive Halemaʻumaʻu. There are many short and full-day hikes in the park’s 554 square miles.

“I hope that every visitor will take away a better understanding of the biology, geology and culture 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

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

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

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

Sheltered 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 taste the distinctive flavors of 100% Kona coffee.

6. Kona Salt Farm

Just south of the Fairmont Orchid Resort is the only factory in the world that produces salt from pure 900-year-old deep-sea water sourced from Iceland, rich in natural minerals and flavors. It is one of the highest quality finishing salts.

“A 4-inch pipe runs a mile offshore, 2,200 feet deep, and pumps 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 seven acres of oceanfront property at Kona Keāhole Point.

After learning about the area’s history, the ancient Hawaiian settlement of Ho’ona, and the salt-making process, head to the evaporation tubes. Once the water has evaporated, the salt goes into containers where the water continues to drain until the salt is ready.

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

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


What is it: The Polynesians settled the Hawaiian Islands sometime between AD 124 and 1120. Isolated from the rest of the world for at least 500 years, the islands lie about 2,000 miles west of California. They gained US statehood in 1959. The island of Hawaii, also known as the Big Island, is the largest island in all of America.

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

get there: Hilo The international airport is on the east side of the island. Mokulele Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and United Airlines serve the airport. Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole is on the west side of the island. 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 can accommodate private jets.


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

Among the island’s more than two dozen other hotels and resorts are Hilton Waikoloa Village, Mauna Kea beach hotel, autograph collection, Outrigger Kona Resort and Spa, Halii Kai in Waikoloaand Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort & Spa.

Kitchen: The author dined Brown’s beach house (A) at Fairmont Orchid, a AAA four-diamond restaurant overlooking Pauoa Bay with one of the island’s most spectacular sunset views. Island Lava Java Bistro (A-) in Kona offers simple fare like salad, pizza and hamburgers. papayas (A) in Hilo offers brunch and fine American-Italian for lunch. Ken’s pancake houses (B+) in Hilo makes up for what it lacks in atmosphere with delicious food and excellent service. The Rim by Volcano House (B+) in Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park offers a brunch buffet and fine dining in the evening.

Other notable restaurants in Hilo include moon and turtle, Paul’s place, coffee shop 100, Pineapple’s Island Fresh Cuisineand Jackie Rey’s Ohana Grill Hilo. Highly rated restaurants in Kona include Umeke’s Fish Market Bar & Grill, Papa Kona Restaurant & Bar, On the rocksand Magic Beach Grill.

Editor’s note: The author was a guest of the Hawaii Island Visitors Bureau.