Vacationers often overlook the island of Hawaii in favor of Kauai or Maui, but the Big Island is rich with a historic vibe and modern style. The largest and newest of the Hawaiian islands, it’s home to an active volcano; beaches with green, white, or black sand; Hawaiian cowboys; and two of the three biggest telescopes in the world. You can snorkel or kayak in Kealakekua Bay, or relax at lovely Hapuna Beach, often named one of the world’s best beaches.
Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park ($15 per vehicle), celebrating its centennial this year, is the only place in the U.S. where you can see an active volcano—Kilauea. Don’t miss the Jaggar Museum to overlook the eruption, and be sure to stop at Thurston Lava Tube along Crater Rim Drive for a walk through a prehistoric cave. North of Hilo on the ultra-lush Hamakua Coast, you’ll find Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden ($15) and some of the largest plants you’ll ever see. On the island’s dry side, you can watch demonstrations of ancient traditions at Pu’uhonua O Honaunau, the place of refuge ($5 per vehicle).
Café Pesto offers winning local cuisine, specialty pizzas, and a relaxed setting in both of its locations—downtown Hilo and Kawaihae Harbor. Enjoy the Sesame-Crusted Big Island Goat Cheese appetizer ($14) or try the Wok-fired Shrimp & Scallops, tossed in coconut curry and garnished with macadamia nuts ($27). If you want Kona coffee, Greenwell Farms offers a free daily tour of its historical grounds with no heavy sales pitch, and you don’t need reservations. Hilo Bay Cafe is a great place for fresh, tasty food such as Maui rum barbecue pork ribs ($25) and a taro-quinoa veggie burger ($13).
A Victorian home on the National Historic Registry, Shipman House ($219 to $249) will transport you to another era. You can hear about old Hawaii from the host, a Shipman descendant, and the breakfast on the lanai is a feast of fresh tropical fruits and baked delights. To vacation green on the Kohala Coast, try Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows ($279 and up), which generates more than 1 million kilowatts of green power a year and raises baby turtles in its ponds. Pick a classic stay at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel ($300 and up), home to 1,600 pieces of art collected by original owner Laurance S. Rockefeller.
There aren’t any nonstop flights to the Hawaiian islands from John Wayne Airport. From LAX, there are several nonstop options to Kona, and United flies nonstop to Hilo.