Where to Eat, Stay, and Play on Hawaii’s Kohala Coast
The Kohala Coast is the ultimate winter escape — free of the crowds of Kona, this coveted idyll on the Big Island’s northern tip is home to baller hotels and awesome island adventures.
In Hawaiian culture, mana is the interconnected energy of all living things, from person to plant to place — nowhere is this felt more strongly than on the island of Hawaii. Nicknamed the “Big Island” for its unrivaled stature (and to avoid confusion with its eponymous state), Hawaii is a place of constant change, home to four active volcanoes that continue to create the land to this day. This constant geological activity has produced an otherworldly landscape of arid deserts to sub-arctic tundra on the mountain peaks, encompassing ten of the major climate zones in the world.
There’s no better place to stay on a visit to the Big Island than the Kohala Coast, a secluded section in the northern department that encapsulates this shifting terrain, flaunting a slate of luxury resorts tucked along white-sand beaches, ocean adventures, volcano trekking and seafaring eateries. Free of the crowds of Kona to the south and statistically one of the sunniest places in the country, the Kohala Coast is an idyllic escape in the doldrums of winter — here is your guide.
The Mauna Kea Beach Hotel
On a shoreline festooned with ritzy resorts like flowers in a lei, the Kohala Coast’s nonpareil property is the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. Situated on the perfect crescent beach of Kauna’oa Bay, Mauna Kea was the area’s first hotel to spring up in the 1960s — at that point, the most expensive hotel in the world — and continues to lure travelers.
The beach is flanked by two lava rock outcroppings that break the waves before entering the sickle-shaped bay — perhaps the divine doing of an island deity who had the foresight to guide the smoking a’a (rough lava) tendrils to their final resting place, creating this enviable Eden-like beach that caught the keen eye of revered hotelier Laurance Rockefeller over half a century ago. Or, just luck.
Designed to be unobtrusive in nature, the cream-colored walls, lava-rock foundations and lacquered wood finishings camouflage the Mauna Kea behind swaying coconut palms and sinuous hau trees, cradled under the shadow of its sacred namesake, the Maunakea volcano. An open layout welcomes the trade winds to gently cross-ventilate across the hotel’s two wings ( Beachfront and Tower rooms), and each edificial detail keeps the sea in sight: from the glass-walled showers that peer into every ocean-facing lanai to the blue-tiled lobby that juts out to meld with the shimmering cerulean hues of the Pacific.
A microcosm of Hawaii’s unique proposition smack-dab in the Pacific, the hotel touts a convergence of East-meets-West style, with stately suites (each equipped with private balconies) and carefully curated art that makes every hallway feel like a gallery — copper carps in traditional Chinese fashion sentry the Beachfront wing; a massive stone Buddha watches over the north staircase leading up to the shuffleboard court and a quiet paddock; and tribal Hawaiian masks are perched along every alcove.
If you’re looking to stay on-site and not forego Mauna Kea’s magic for a second, nosh at the laidback and newly renovated Copper Bar, with fresh catch dinner entrees and creative borderline-medicinal cocktails sourced with local ingredients, such as a rum-turmeric-ginger tonic. Expansive breakfast buffets and lavish seafood brunches are also doled out by the diligent staff at Manta, and the bougainvillea-bedecked bay view is the house’s treat.
The Mauna Lani is a stunning Auberge resort only ten minutes south of the Mauna Kea, and is definitely worth a visit to the Kohala Coast if only for its raved-about restaurant, CanoeHouse, recently coming off a major renovation. Headed by Matt Raso, previously of Nobu Restaurants, he artfully plates island-inspired cuisine, everything from local-raised abalone to Big Island hearts of palm, in a breezy beachfront ambiance.
In the resort town of Waikoloa, buried between gaudy chain restaurants is Rum Shack, an easy-breezy spot with delectable fish tacos, rum-friend jumbo prawns and, as the island’s only rum distillery, shooters with (virgin) daiquiris to chase. Sip on the HI Punch concocted with in-house Agricole, lilikoi, lemon and fresh juice.
In the improbable event of a volcanic eruption and Big Islanders head to the island’s safest spot, the charming northern village Hawi, its star restaurant Sushi Rock will surely be just as crowded as it is on any normal weekend night. The Hawi hotspot is a funky, unassuming sushi joint that prepares rolls that are anything but ordinary — balsamic twists, goat cheese fillings, papaya slices. The fresh-out-of-the-water fish plates are the best on the island, and the poke tuna is seared to mouthwatering perfection with a perfectly purple insides and fleshy, gently grilled edges.
Endless beach days spent plopped under an oversized parasol are requisite in the Kohala Coast — and should be indulged in excess — but off the sands there are many glorious adventures to embark on. Mauna Kea can arrange a number of activities, with a packed daily schedule of cultural classes (sunrise yoga, morning chanting, lei-making), and snorkels available to peruse the Kauna’oa Bay’s coral reefs brimming with colorful creatures and, at night, majestic manta rays.
Manta Ray Night Swim
Manta Ray Advocates is the hotel’s exclusive vendor of manta experiences, operating with a sustainable, no-frills approach that removes unnecessary layers of machinery and fuss. Martina, one-half of the husband-wife duo that owns the program, is a decades-long manta ray acolyte — a golden manta pendant hangs around her neck as a token of devotion — and possesses an innate connection to the virtually harmless fish. She wades out with snorkelers into the moonlit waters of the cove, beckoning plankton (a manta’s primary meal) with a series of flashlights. It’s an experience like no other — you’ll hover within inches of the mighty mantas as they pirouette around the Kinoa’oa reefs and soar under snorkelers, flaunting their massive wingspans that can grow to be over 14 feet wide.
Blue Hawaiian Helicopter Tour
An exhilarating Blue Hawaiian helicopter tour over the Kohala Coast provides an aerial appreciation for its contrasting landscapes. The company’s Kohala Coast Adventure tour is a 50-minute expedition that launches from the Waimea outpost, set among obsidian rock mounds (a quick drive from the Mauna Kea), first skimming over the arid desert and paniolo ranchlands of the Maunakea volcano’s western summit.
Blink and you’ll miss the quick shift of terrain as the chopper then plunges into a wall of cloud, emerging in the lush, mist-shrouded rainforests that color the eastern side of the island — you might as well have traveled to another world. The pilots ensure these flights are adrenaline-inducing, narrowly dipping into steep ravines with mile-long waterfalls that flow into meandering valleys and basalt beaches. If the hour-long experience doesn’t get your blood flowing, Blue Hawaiian drives a two-hour experience over the island that gives an up-close look at the Kilauea volcano.
Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation Tour
Venture up into the wet mountainside to sip on Kona’s revered coffee, the most sought-after and priciest beans in the world. Mountain Thunder is one of nearly 900 coffee farms in Kona’s 20-mile coffee-growing stretch, ensconced in the heart of the cloud forest. As you arrive at this 12-acre plantation, the invigorating aromas of its bold blends waft out— you’ll be tempted (and understandably should) buy a pound or two of their gourmet java.
Hop on one of the on-site 4x4s for a private expert-guided tour of the plantation, picking and popping cherries from the spindly arabica trees before off-roading through misty trails to the roasting facilities (say hello to the sheep on the way). Cup-of-joe aficionados and their average counterparts alike will light up during a sampling of Kona’s inimitably potent brews and depart with a more holistic understanding of this coveted coffee’s production process.