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Jetsetter Guides

Your Ultimate Travel Guide to the Big Island, Hawaii

Maui has its sprawling luxury resorts and glittering beaches, Kauai its laid-back atmosphere and lush forests, Oahu its world-class surf and Honolulu. While it may be Hawaii's youngest island, the Big Island has a little bit of everything—beautiful hotels and beaches, award-winning cuisine, and world-class landscapes including one of the world's most active volcanoes, where travelers from around the world come to watch it spew lava into the sea. Read on for our ultimate guide.

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STAY

Four Seasons Resort Hualalai

Hawaii’s exclusive Kona-Kohala Coast is the ideal location for this understated, luxurious hotel. Despite the Four Seasons branding, this outpost fully embraces its home–think weekly luaus, an open-air spa that incorporates regional ingredients (crushed macadamia nuts; black lava salt) and a cultural center that hosts classes on star navigation, hula, and ukelele. Guests are welcomed by leis and sunglasses cleanings (hey, why not?) before being whisked to one of the 243 rooms housed in a cluster of low-rise buildings; most are ocean-facing with original artwork, kimono-style bathrobes, and private lanais. After chowing down on a lunch of fresh sushi and a mai tai at ‘Ulu, head to the Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course for a free lesson, spot reef fish and eagle rays in King’s Pond, or take in the volcanic coastline views from the freshwater infinity pool.

Fairmont Orchid

A half-hour up the coast from the Four Seasons lies the Fairmont Orchid, a 538-room mainstay on the island’s Kohala Coast that fronts a sandy white cove. There’s much to love here, from the ten thatched-roof huts at the spa to the massive swimming pool and the Keiki Aloha Children’s Program, which entertains little ones with petroglyph hikes, shell hunts, and lei-making while parents enjoy seaside yoga, standup paddle-boarding, or an outrigger canoe adventure. Take the whole brood out for a bike ride to the nearby Shops at Mauna Lani or post up at the Launa Lounge to watch the sunset torchlighting ceremony before a meal at the flagship Brown’s Beach House, one of the island’s best fine-dining restaurants.

Mauna Kea Beach Hotel

One of the Big Island’s most classic stays is also one of its “newest,” thanks to an $8 million refresh that brought in new event spaces and a re-do of the property’s popular Copper Bar. There’s lots to explore here, from the tennis club to the championship golf course to simply digging your toes in the sand on Kauna'oa Beach. Our favorite feature? The hotel’s impressive private collection of Asian, Oceanic, and Polynesian art, courtesy of hotel founder Laurance Rockefeller.

Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows

Despite its 341 rooms, this retreat manages to feel as intimate and personal as any boutique. The building is shaped like an arrow to maximize ocean views, and the rooms are airy and bright, with retro rattan and wicker furniture and sand-hued fabrics. Service is top-notch, and while there’s no spa, what you’ve come for is the three-mile-long beach and seafood at CanoeHouse, lined with burning tiki torches at night. JS Tip: if you’re here on July 4th, don’t miss watching baby green sea turtles released back into the ocean as part of the hotel’s sea turtle rehabilitation program.

RELATED: The Best Hotels in Hawaii

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EAT

Merriman's Big Island, Waimea

The original harbinger of Hawaiian regional cuisine, Merriman’s has stood the test of newer competitors and the worldwide explosion of the farm-to-table trend. We chalk it up to an incredible dining experience (including a great-value lunch and buzzy weekend brunch in addition to their fine-dining dinners) and the sheer talent of chef-owner (and James Beard Finalist) Peter Merriman. White tablecloths set the stage for a seasonal menu of fine Hawaiian dishes, like wok-charred ahi and grass-fed local filet of beef, and all ingredients are sourced from either the adjacent garden or nearby purveyors.

Da Poke Shack, Kailua-Kona

That this hole-in-the-wall haunt hidden in a condo complex in Kona managed to score the number one restaurant in America according to Yelp tells you all you need to know. The poke bowls here (a salad of Asian greens and spices with chunks of raw tuna) are next-level, so much so that diners are willing to overlook the lack of seating or long lines that tend to form around lunchtime.

Village Burger, Waimea

Don’t be deterred by Village Burger’s food court setting. This joint serves one of the best burgers you’ll ever have in Hawaii, or possibly ever. Their secret is local, grass-fed beef ground directly in-house and served however you’d like. Counting calories? Take your veal burger on a bed of lettuce instead of a bun. Vegan? Opt for the taro burger, a mash-up of vegetables (lomi tomatoes, leeks, zucchini) and focaccia. Meat snob? Try their Kahua Ranch Wagyu Beef. Add on fresh-cut fries and an “epic shake” and you’ve got a home run.

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SEE + DO

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Few places in the world let you get up close and personal to active lava flows. Hawaii Volcanoes, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has not one but two of the world’s most active volcanos—including Kilauea, which has been erupting since 1983—along with 333,000 lunar-like acres covered in lava fields and caves, volcanic craters, and petroglyphs. Drive (or hike) along the 11-mile rim to see steam venting from the Sulphur Banks, the glow of lava from the Halema’uma’u crater, or the chance to hike inside the Thurston Lava Tube.

Akaka Falls State Park

An easy, rewarding excursion from Hilo is Akaka Falls State Park, about 11 miles inland. A short 0.4-mile hike takes you through a lush rain forest of ferns, bamboo groves, and orchids to the 442-foot waterfall, Akaka, which tumbles over a cliff edge into a deep gorge. While many waterfalls in Hawaii only appear after heavy rains, Akaka is so powerful that it manages to keep a consistent flow year-round.

Mauna Kea

This dormant volcano, topping out at 13,802 feet above sea level, is the highest point on all of Hawaii. High above the cloud line, the summit, framed by old volcanoes and snowy surrounds, affords one of the most spectacular views of the sunrise and sunset anywhere. Many come here to see the sunrise, but it’s arguably even better at sunset. Watch the sky transform into a rainbow of warm hues before deepening to night, then view the Milky Way up close through telescopes at the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center, part of the world's largest observatory.

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NIGHTLIFE

Huggo's on the Rocks

Huggo's is one of the oldest restaurants in Kona—and definitely one of the best. The famous, fish-centric dishes at this upscale oceanfront watering hole are matched only by its Mai Tais. After dark, the energy picks up at its next-door neighbor, Huggo's on the Rocks, where live music—and live hula—are the perfect accompaniments to watching the sunset from its rock-side perch over Kailua Bay. Pair it with a tropical cocktail and some fish tacos, and you have all the ingredients for a perfect night out.

Royal Kona Luau

You can't come to Hawaii without attending a luau, an age-old Hawaiian feast that combines music, dance, and Polynesian culture under the stars. The Royal Kona Luau is one of the best on the Big Island: watch a traditional Imu ceremony, which unearths the Lalua Pua'a (roast pig) from the in-ground oven, before digging in to the all-you-can-eat buffet of local staples like poi, salmon, Hawaiian sweet potatoes, and fresh fruit—all accompanied by live performances as the sun slips beneath the sea. The finale? A show-stopping Samoan fire knife dance, a skill passed down through generations.

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