By Andrew Collins
Out of Town
Roughly twice the size of the rest of Hawaii’s islands combined, the Big Island cultivates a loyal following of repeat visitors while delighting first-timers with its eye-popping scenery and welcoming, laid-back personality. Home to two of the world’s most active volcanoes, the state’s highest mountain (13,800-foot Mauna Kea), a wealth of both ritzy resorts and economical inns and B&Bs (quite a few of them gay-owned), some of Hawaii’s most secluded beaches and spectacular waterfalls, and miles of scenic roads, the Big Island – officially called the Island of Hawaii – is truly a land of superlatives.
You’ll hardly be alone if you spend most of a visit to the Big Island http://www.gohawaii.com/big-island by anchoring yourself at one of the larger resorts and it’s fairly tempting to while away your days lazing by the pool, swimming in the sea, enjoying a round of golf or some spa treatments, and eating and drinking fabulously, especially when some properties abound with cushy amenities. But do try to visit whichever side of the island you’re not staying on, either by car, or by booking a helicopter tour of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park or over the amazing 1,200-foot waterfalls of the remote Waipio Valley. If you’re visiting the Big Island for the first time, plan to spend at least four full days here you could easily stay two weeks without running out of things to see and do.
Most visitors stay on the island’s west coast, either around the town of Kona, which is also home to the largest airport, or a little farther north along the Kohala Coast, which is renowned for its swank resorts and arid, beautifully desolate terrain, characterized by massive black fields of lava rock. There’s far less tourism development on the verdant but also quite rainy eastern side of the island, but on this side you will find the small, historic city of Hilo, fascinating Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and the funky Puna Coast – there are quite a few gay-owned B&Bs in these latter two areas.
Other areas that see fewer visitors but offer incredible scenery and all sorts of hidden charms include North Kohala, at the northwest tip of the island, which includes the historic plantation villages of Hawi and Kapaau, and access to the magnificent black-sand beach at Pololu Valley, which is situated at the very end of Hwy. 270 and then reached by a somewhat steep trail (it’s about a 30-minute hike).
In the upcountry not far from the Kohala Coast, Waimea is a vintage ranching town known for its Hawaiian paniolo (cowboy) culture – you pass through it if you drive to the east side of the island via the northern loop (Hwy. 19), in which case you’ll also have the chance to see the beautiful Hamakua Coast as you make your way down to Hilo. Waimea has several notable restaurants, from fancy Merriman’s to affordable and fun Big Island Brewhaus & Tako Taco Taqueria, which serves some of the finest artisan beers in the state. From near Waimea, you could also drive an alternate route to Hilo, via the narrow (but much-improved over the years) Saddle Road across the island’s midsection, perhaps visiting the Onizuka Center of International Astronomy on the upper slopes of Mauna Kea.
Other communities in the cooler upcountry elevations of the western side of the island include the prime coffee-growing and agricultural communities of Holualoa and Kealakekua, charming little towns with a number of distinctive restaurants and shops. Continue south through along Highway 11 in order to take the southern loop around the Hilo – the road twists and turns along some dramatic stretches of the Kona Coast, eventually passing through Naalehu – the southernmost town in the United States. It then climbs northeast along the lower slopes of Mauna Loa and into the town of Volcano, which is the base camp for 520-square-mile Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
This park devoted to a pair of extremely active volcanoes is one of the best places on earth to view and learn about geothermal energy and volcanology. Trails lead from the visitor center, which overlooks the steam plumes rising out of massive Halemaumau Crater (which erupted in 2008 and has been belching toxic gas ever since). You can drive along part of the rim of Kilauea Volcano caldera, which has been sending rivers of molten lava down to the ocean, off and on since it entered into a period of hyper activity in 1983. You can drive the park’s scenic, 23-mile Chain of Craters Road, accessing many other trails along the way, including a short and memorable jaunt through a lava tube and others along hardened lava flows. For another opportunity to come fairly close to where lava has quite recently flowed directly into the ocean, drive along to the end of Hwy. 130 on the Puna Coast to Kalapana, where in the 1980s and ’90s, huge swaths of lava destroyed more than 100 homes.
The big resorts along the Kohala Coast include everything from ultra-posh hideaways to moderately upscale chain hotels. Among the former, the Four Seasons Hualalaihttp://www.fourseasons.com is a supremely swank property, consisting of spacious rooms set within secluded three and four-unit bungalows facing either the ocean or golf courses. Private entrances, spacious lanais, a magnificent health club and spa, and parklike grounds set this compound apart from the competition. The Fairmont Orchid http://www.fairmont.com is another of the area’s notable luxury resorts, while the Waikoloa Beach Marriott http://www.marriott.com is a more affordable through still exceptionally comfy – and very gay-friendly – hotel with a great beachfront setting.
Down a side road near the Marriott, you’ll also find one of the sweetest little lodging gems in all of Hawaii, the gay-owned Lava Lava Beach Club http://www.lavalavabeachclub.com, which comprises just four immaculate and smartly furnished bungalows on the beach at Anaehoomalu Bay, each with private outdoor lava-rock showers, a large lanai, and a well-equipped kitchen. This mini-resort, which opened in spring 2012, is also home to an excellent and very LGBT-popular beachfront restaurant – it’s owned by partners Eric von Platen and Scott Dodd, who also operate the exceptional Kona restaurant, Huggo’s.
Up on the North Coast, just a five-minute drive from Hawi, the charmingly secluded Hawaii Island Retreat http://www.hawaiiislandretreat.com is another of the Big Island’s newer and still relatively lesser-known jewels. Built in 2009 by spa therapist and healer Jeanne Sunderland and her husband Robert Watkins, this tranquil “eco-boutique hotel” set dramatically atop a seaside cliff comprises nine simply but elegantly furnished rooms, all with whirlpool paths, plus several economical yurts, as well as a spa, yoga studio, fitness room, and infinity pool. The property has developed a strong following among spiritually minded visitors who appreciate the magical setting, kind staff, healing spa treatments, and peaceful vibe.
Down near Hilo, the lush Puna Coast is home to a favorite of LGBT visitors, Kalani http://www.kalani.com, a long-established retreat center with eco-cottages, a clothing-optional pool, an open-air restaurant with meals enjoyed family-style, hot tubs, a sauna, gathering spaces in which workshops and classes (from yoga to martial arts) are offered, and massage rooms where you can book a wide range of spa services. Although this nonprofit resort is popular with groups on retreat, it also draws plenty of solo travelers, couples and small groups of friends seeking rejuvenation, wellness and relaxation. Smaller gay-owned B&Bs abound in this area anchored by the quirky town of Pahoa – a few favorites include Absolute Paradise B&B http://www.absoluteparadise.tv, the Ohia House B&B http://www.ohiahousebb.com, and Coconut Cottage B&B http://www.coconutcottagehawaii.com.
Just outside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, gay-owned Hale Ohia Cottages http://www.haleohia.com is an airy, warmly decorated seven room complex nestled amid pine trees and ferns. The elegant cottages and suites sleep from two to five persons, and some have kitchen facilities. In the same village, other gay-popular inns with excellent reputations include Volcano Village Lodge http://www.emmaspencerliving.com/volcano-village-lodge and Volcano Rainforest Retreat http://www.volcanoretreat.com.
Finally, along the Kona Coast you’ll find several other terrific lodgings. An upscale guest house that offers elegant decor along with intimacy and seclusion, Horizon Guest House http://www.horizonguesthouse.com has four units that afford unparalleled ocean views, as does the in-ground infinity pool and sweeping grounds on this 40-acre mountainside high above the Pacific. And on a 30-acre coffee plantation in an artsy upcountry enclave above Kona, the Holualoa Inn http://www.holualoainn.com is an absolute stunner, with handsomely appointed rooms, dramatic sea views, and lushly landscaped gardens. On the Big Island, there’s a lodging that fits just about every style and budget, a reflection of this wonderfully diverse, enchanting getaway.