Why We've Got Big Love (and Big Plans) for a Big Island Trip
Between new local offerings and long-standing seasonal favorites, the next few months turn out to be an epic time to visit the Big Island, whether you want to see a freshly reshaped volcanic park, attend a traditional Hawaiian rodeo (really a thing)—or listen in on chatty whales while you snorkel.
Factor in that getting here is half the fun with flights starting at $179 one way on Hawaiian Airlines (more on that shortly)—and the longer you stay, the more you save at Marriott Resorts in Hawaii—and, well, we won’t be offended if you put in for your first vacation days of 2019 before you finish this story.
In fact, here are the top 6 reasons we'd like to be packing our own bags right now:
The reopened Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
You may have heard a little something about Kīlauea's eruption earlier this year—125 days' worth of lava fountains, ash and volcanic smog. But judging by the clear blue skies that envelop the island now, you'd never know anything happened. That is, until you take Hawaii Forest & Trail’s Volcano Unveiled tour—a rare opportunity to check out a freshly and dramatically transformed national park.
You'll hike through lava fields—past active steam vents and sulfur banks—along the rim of the enormously expanded Halema’uma’u Crater, where you'll also find abundant tree ferns and ohia trees (the first to sprout in lava flows).
The trip also takes you to the famed Chain of Craters road—a winding, gorgeous drive through the coastal section of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park—and for good measure, to a gargantuan underground lava tube whose walls glisten with bright gold microbes.
Winter is whale season in Hawaii, when as many as 8,000 humpbacks make their way here from Alaska to mate, rest and calve.
For the best shot at seeing them swim, breach or slap the surface with their gargantuan tails, head to the districts of South and North Kohala—particularly during peak season (January-March). Or take a whale-watching cruise, such as Kohala Divers' morning or sunset sails, the former letting you snorkel while you're at it. If you’re a scuba diver, you’ll need to be unusually lucky to spot the whales underwater, but hearing them is almost guaranteed: Their vocalizations carry from miles away, and eavesdropping on the conversations is one of life's most surreal experiences.
Cowboys where you least expect them
Even if this ain't your first rodeo, chances are, it's your first one in Polynesia.
To the surprise of pretty much everyone, Hawaii’s cowboy culture predates the mainland's: In 1793, British explorer George Vancouver (yup, that Vancouver) gave King Kamehameha I five longhorn heifers and a bull—before which, the largest land mammal the Hawaiians had ever seen was a goat. Because the king placed a kapu (basically, legal protection) on the cattle, they could graze wherever they liked, and soon began endangering crops, houses and people. So in 1832, the king’s son, Kamehameha III, invited cowboys from Baja California to teach the Hawaiians how to ride, rope and wrangle. In local parlance, those Españoles became “paniolos”—the name that's still used today.
Check out their finery (especially the leis that help weigh their hats down and distinguish one group of paniolos from another) and skills at the annual Pana’ewa Stampede Rodeo over President’s Day weekend (Feb. 16-18) in Hilo, where you can watch male and female roping, barrel racing, and bronco and bull riding and ukelele-accompanied paniolo ballads.
If you’re a rider yourself, try a horseback tour with the modern-day paniolos on 12,000-acre Kahua Ranch on Kohala Mountain with Na’alapa Stables.
Early bird cherry blossoms
For cherry blossom fans, not only does Hawaii present a tropical alternative to Japan or Washington, D.C., but you don't have to wait until April for peak bloom. Early February is the time to catch the historic beauties of Waimea's Church Row—planted decades ago in honor of Emperor Hirohito—and their namesake festival will bring a best-of-all-worlds lineup that includes Japanese tea ceremonies, a vintage kimono exhibit, Bon dancing, taiko drumming, mochi making and sake tastings—plus hula, Chinese lion dancers and many, many cherry-themed desserts.
The tropical answer to Oktoberfest
Hawaii's craft beer scene is bubbling over, and one of the best times to taste the result for yourself is early spring, at the annual Kona Brewers Festival (this year, on March 7).
Held in the luau grounds of the Courtyard by Marriott King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel, this particular luau will include offerings from 36 breweries from Hawaii and the mainland, plus unlimited samplings from 36 Hawaiian restaurants (think ahi poke tostadas, Big Island grass-fed steaks in a Kona coffee marinade, and hand-churned pineapple gelato). Naturally, there will be music. Less naturally, there will also be a “Trash Fashion Show” to raise environmental awareness with attire made exclusively from recycled materials. There’s also a home-brewers' competition for the best beer, cider and mead.
If you're like pairing your vice with virtue, start your day with the 5- or 10-km Run for the Hops run/walk that morning, which conveniently includes a post-race beer-tasting. Tickets for both go on sale on January 12 with proceeds to various local beneficiaries and charities.
Merriment in the streets
The island’s hottest ticket is always the hula competition at the Merrie Monarch Festival, a Hawaiian Airlines-cosponsored event that takes place April 25-27 this year. Tickets tend to sell out fast once they go on sale in December, but even if you don't manage to nab your own, there will be plenty of accompanying events during the week-long celebration of Hawaiian culture. Check out the invitational Hawaiian arts fair, hula performances and other dance performances from across the Pacific, plus the Merrie Monarch Royal Parade through downtown Hilo.
As for the name, it comes from King David Kalākaua, often called the “Merrie Monarch” for his love of music, dance, parties and fine food. He ruled the Kingdom of Hawaii in the late 19th century, when he restored many local cultural traditions—among them, public display of hula (banned earlier in the century by a local queen who'd converted to Christianity).
WHERE TO STAY
Of the four Marriott Big Island resorts, at least one has your name on it, and all offer $100 in nightly resort credit for stays through March 31.
Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay is famous (among locals, too) for its manta viewing. Arguably the best place on the island to see the surreal creatures without even having to get in the water, the resort has a bayside restaurant where an underwater spectacle comes standard with your meal.
To say nothing of what happens once you actually get in the water for the Evening Manta and Snorkel Adventure. You can also cruise the area on a traditional Hawaiian sailing canoe—or simply stick to the oceanside pool, where the 200-foot "lava tube" water slide will be a favorite among the junior members of your travel party.
Try not to let the views distract you on either of the 18-hole championship golf courses—but dreamily drifting off is, well, par for the course at any of the three resident pools. Once the sun starts to go down, catch a sunset luau (on offer every Monday and Wednesday). And if you're a shopper—or you're traveling with one—be warned: The onsite Queens’ MarketPlace and Kings’ Shops are home to some of the island's best loot, from local jewelry to Kona coffee.
Also newly redesigned, the Westin Hapuna Beach Resort's minimalist interiors stand back and let view do its thing: You'll often find yourself staring out at the resort's famed white sand namesake beach—part of the the Kohala Coast, where you'll also find ancient lava fields and archaeological sites.
Of course, you may have to nudge yourself to go exploring, what with the award-winning, Arnold Palmer-designed 18-hole Hapuna Golf Course—and Balinese and Hawaiian-inspired treatments at the Hapuna Spa by Mandara.
When it debuted in 1965, Mauna Kea Beach Hotel was not only the island's first resort, but—having cost $15 million—the most expensive hotel ever built. The brainchild of conservationist/venture capitalist Laurance S. Rockefeller, the project was soon declared one of the “greatest hotels in the world” by Esquire magazine and one of the “10 best buildings of 1966” by Fortune.
Now an Autograph Collection property, the hotel celebrates its history with—among other things—tours of Rockefeller's exceptional onsite art collection, new takes on his environmental commitment (don't miss the honey from the recently launched apiaries) and continued use of the island's oldest and arguably most scenic golf course, as you'll see once you reach the over-the-ocean third hole.
Go with the folks who've specialized in Hawaiian air service for nearly a century—in fact, this year marks the big 9-0—and your vacation essentially starts as soon as you board. Whatever cabin you choose on Hawaiian Airlines, you'll find copious comfort. In coach, this is the only domestic airline to provide a complimentary meal, plus a welcome drinking before landing. You can buy Extra Comfort seats for more legroom, priority boarding and free in-flight entertainment—or splurge on first class, where you'll find, among other things, island-inspired amenities and cuisine—the latter crafted by the airline's executive chef: Lee Anne Wong of Top Chef fame.
In between, you'll enjoy the renowned Hawaiian hospitality and knowledge of the crew, who've been known to share great local tips. Another contributor to your Aloha state of mind? The Hawaiian music and exclusive television programming you'll find in flight.
As for your flight options, they're plentiful and ever increasing on Hawaiian Airlines: You'll find direct service to the Big Island from LAX—plus 33 daily connections through Honolulu or Maui from 12 mainland airports, including Boston as of April. You can fly to Kona for as little as $179 one way from the West Coast.