Travel Recap: Hawaiian Retreat on the Big Island

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Big Island Travel Guide

I have no words other than visually stunning, invigorating, and mind-clearing to describe the ambiance that the relaxing Big Island, geographically known as Hawai’i Island, provides. The Big Island is essentially the definition of tropical paradise, if your paradise has an open bar with non-stop music, sunlight, and happy people. Why did I choose Kailua-Kona exactly? Not Maui or Oahu? I needed a detox, and the Big Island is listed as #1 on U.S. News Travel’s 12 Best Relaxing Getaways in the USA. Rightfully so, by the way. With the guidance of Travelocity, I decided to stay at the Royal Kona Resort, a tranquil property with a dramatic waterfront setting overlooking the picturesque Kailua Bay. Although I did eventually venture off resort property, I could’ve spent my entire trip glued to a lounge chair, staring at the water from the oceanfront pool and sipping delicious Mai Tai’s from the Beachcomber while reading Mindy Kaling and Amy Poehler’s latest books. Keep reading for a comprehensive Big Island travel guide with complete vacation details. 

From the decor to my sweet breakfast server, Jennifer, who made conversation with me until mid-morning, to their lengthy list of amenities, the Royal Kona Resort was simply wonderful. In addition to everything the resort offers directly, if you’re staying in Kona, I highly recommend capitalizing on their prime property location. Downtown Kona is literally less than a mile away, and it’s a pretty happenin’ spot.

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Like clock work, I ate a hearty buffet breakfast at Don the Beachcomber every morning at 7, which was ideal for my medical team, since I was and still am on a relatively {cough*extremely*cough} strict diet.

Big Island Travel Guide

After my inaugural breakfast overlooking the water, I caught the Dora the Explorer bug and hiked all throughout Royal Kona’s lush property. I say “hiked” because the resort’s impressive size could’ve warranted its own area code.

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I got winded a few hours later and stopped for a refreshing custom Mojito Tasting at the world-famous Don’s Mai Tai Bar. My Floridian roots and I will literally never turn down a mojito, so my opinion may be slightly biased, but their peach ginger mojito and dragonberry mojito are liquid euphoria, especially when the accompanying sunset looks like it came straight out of an oil painting.

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Since the primary reason for my trip was to remove myself from chaos and detox from the stresses of every day life, I spent quite a bit of time at The Lotus Center. I became an avid fan of both their Ultimate Relaxation island specialty package, which includes a detailed 90-minute deep tissue massage and a 1-hour Decleor Aroma Facial, and their Ho’ola – “To Heal” island specialty package, which brings you back to balance with a 1-hour massage and initial chiropractic consultation with energy balancing. The best part of the whole center? The quiet ocean view nook for reading and meditation.

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After the Lotus Center helped me recover from jet lag, which was literally the singular downside to choosing Hawaii, I was reeling and ready to go for the Rona Kona’s Voyagers of the Pacific Luau. I mean seriously, who goes to Hawaii and doesn’t indulge in fresh flower leis, grass skirts, coconut bras, dancing men, and what the locals call a “traditional Hawaiian-style buffet,” which translates to a no-judgement zone feeding frenzy? I pretty much went HAM for the pulled pork and guava cake. Not only was there an open bar with standard cocktails, beer, wine, and yes, all-you-can-drink Mai Tai’s, but the prime oceanfront setting on Kailua Bay primed the evening of dynamic and lyrical Polynesian revue with dances, songs, and live music– as well as a Siva Afi (Samoan fire dance) for magic.

The traditional imu, ie underground oven, which was cookin’ up goodness all day, proved to be both a delicious and surprisingly hygienic approach to stocking the all-you-can-eat Hawaiian buffet.

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The outdoor festivities did get rained out– thanks Hurricane Whoever, but the team improvised and put on what I assumed was an equally-fabulous indoor performance.

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And then just as the luau was ending, this little slice of sunset heaven showed up.

Big Island Travel Guide

Even though I wasn’t supposed to be doing any work, prolonged indolence is a panic attack waiting to happen. I am so fortunate to have found the incredibly talented Karen Loudon, who agreed to work with me with less than a day’s notice after another Hawaiian photographer, who, if my horrible memory serves, was recommended by the hotel, bailed last minute.

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This was hands-down my favorite shoot of the year, and it was intended to be symbolically indicative of my transition into a new chapter of my life. Full outfit details here. Photography by Karen Loudon.

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When you think of Kona, you think of Kona coffee, right? I do. Maybe I’m from one of those weird Coffee Connoisseur families, but visiting a native coffee bean plantation was high on my priority list. I committed to an ambitious 11-hour Volcano by Night tour through my solo-traveling fairy godmother Expedia, and I’m ecstatic that I did. First stop on the Kailua-Kona, Hawaii Evening Volcano Explorer? A tour and tasting at Kona Joe Coffee Farm with stunning views and delicious picnic lunch.

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I’m a firm believer in dessert after… well, everything, and apparently Hawaiians are, too. I think that rocks. Our next stop was Punalu’u Bake Shop, dubbed the “Southernmost Bakery in the US.” If you’ve ever tried Hawaiian sweet rolls from Publix or your local grocery store, you’ve been cheating yourself and your families. The Punalu’u Bake Shop’s world-famous Traditional Hawaiian Sweetbread is to die for. I demolished two of their guava flavored and taro flavored malasadas, which are authentic, light, and fruity mega donuts with sugar and airy goodness baked inside, in record time.

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After we were all full from lunch and high off sugar from the bakery, we visited the Punalu’u Black Sand Beach Park for some sea turtle watching and black sand relaxation. The tour guide, who was awesome, was probably getting annoyed with my disorganized miscellany of questions, but seriously, I needed some answers. A black sand beach that functions like any other beach and attracts sea turtles during the day? Doesn’t black sand absorb excessive heat? Are there snakes there? How do the green turtle hatchlings survive? My tiny brain couldn’t handle the mystery. Apparently, the sand is made up of tiny lava particles which harbor no more heat than regular white sand. There aren’t any snakes in Hawaii, although there are predatory caterpillars (gross), and the baby green turtles hatch from their black sand nesting site and are helped to the water by the national park’s turtle program volunteers.

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Warning: Do not play on rocks. OopsSimilar outfit post here.

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The next adventure to be crossed off my bucket list? Hike through a rainforest. We embarked on a mild, and if I say mild, it means toddler-level-of-exertion, 1-mile hike to the Thurston Lava Tube through Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

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On the way to the lava tube, our group encountered this little guy! He was Hawaii’s sassiest Kalij pheasant who really didn’t want us to reach Thurston without acknowledging his pheasant beauty.

Big Island Travel Guide

Then out of nowhere— literally, the Kīlauea Iki Crater appeared before us. Craters may not be the first wonders that come to mind when contemplating the splendors of Hawaiian geography, but photos just don’t do them justice. Although high amounts of dangerous sulfur dioxide may allegedly be present in certain areas of the park, this felt like the cleanest, most open air I had ever (or will ever) breathed. Take that, Grand Canyon.

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During the remainder of our rainforest hike, I couldn’t take my eyes off the aforementioned crater, so before I knew it, we made the 1/3 mile walk through a tree-fern forest to Nāhuku (aka the Thurston Lava Tube). This pre-historic lava tube, discovered in 1913, was created several hundred years ago when a river of red lava rushed through solid ground. Some areas in the tube had such low ceilings that barely I, a resident 6th grade limbo champion, could squeeze through, while some points reached magnificent heights with dramatic evidence of gorgeous lava stalactite formations, most of which had already been collected long ago by souvenir-ists.

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Our tour stopped for dinner at my new favorite US restaurant, which once inspired the likes of Mark Twain and Jack London– the historic Volcano House Restaurant and Hotel. It’s perched at the edge of Kilauea Caldera, and the views are awe-inspiring to say the least. As a leader in community sustainability, 95% of the products used in the restaurant are locally sourced from Hawai’i Island. I enjoyed some relaxation by the very fireplace known for inspiring Mark Twain’s volcanic creativity, mouth-watering almond crusted Mahi-Mahi entrée, and most importantly, a dinner table planted perfectly for watching an eruption safely through the grandiose crystal clear windows. When I come back to visit, I don’t care how busy I am; a one night’s stay at the Volcano House will make its way into my agenda.

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Regardless of the fact that it was somehow freezing (who are you, Hawaiian altitude?), our tour group requested to stop and see the two steam vents on Steaming Bluff. They look lackluster, but it was a pretty hot (pun intended) thing to see. If you stood where the wind was blowing, the steam was so intense that you essentially put yourself in an outdoor sauna.

Big Island Travel Guide

After we were all warm and toasty, we re-entered what felt like sub-zero temperatures to see Steaming Bluff Overlook. Even with steam coming from every which way and no real way to thrive, gorgeous flowers still bloom among the shrubbery. Big Island Travel Guide Big Island Travel Guide

When we asked our tour guide what these ripe red flowers were, noting that tulips would never survive such in an environment, he explained that many native Hawaiians present sacrifices and perform rituals around this sacred site. It’s essentially a Hawaiian Holy Land.

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Once the sun started to set, we hopped back on the bus and headed to the Thomas A. Jaggar Museum and overlook for some nighttime volcano hunting. A little background on the museum itself–In 1908, an earthquake killed 125,000 people near Mt. Etna in Italy. With this disaster, Thomas A. Jaggar declared that “something must be done” to support systematic, ongoing studies of volcanic and seismic activity. He traveled to Hawai’i in 1909 at his own expense, and after a lecture on his Martinique expedition in Honolulu, he was approached by Lorrin A. Thurston, a prominent Honolulu attorney and businessman.

Thurston believed that Kīlauea was a prime site for a permanent volcano observatory. The question of money was brought up, and within a year, Thurston and other businessmen raised the financial backing for the Hawai’i Volcano Research Association, and a small observing station was consequently set up on the rim of Halema’uma’u crater. In 1912, support was forthcoming from world-renown M.I.T. alumnus, and construction of the new-and-improved Hawai’i Volcano Observatory began. The present site of the museum was built in 1985, and the eponymous Thomas A. Jaggar Museum in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park is appropriately named in Jaggar’s honor. 

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Oh, and the overlook outside of the Jaggar Museum offers a breath-taking panoramic view of Kīlauea Caldera with several interpretive displays of the history of Kīlauea, one of the world’s most active volcanoes. From this newly renovated overlook, you can view the ongoing gas eruption of Halema’uma’u crater. On a clear night, which I was fortunate enough to experience, viewing the Halema’uma’u crater eruption can be quite spectacular. I think it goes without saying, a picture in no way does justice to the natural exquisiteness of my experience. Just beautiful. 

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Wearing my philosophical Indiana Jones hat for one day completely bewitched me  with the Big Island’s wonderland of adventure. Before embarking on my 2-hour Paradise Helicopter tour, which was conveniently booked through Expedia, I snapped some more outfit shots with Karen Loudon Photography for this nautical Labor Day look. It’s spot on for looking like you belong either on a boat in Nantucket or in a Hawaiian helicopter. Full outfit post here.

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Another natural perk worth mentioning– walking in any which direction you choose, you’re surrounded by a sea of stunning tropical flowers. If you’re a big botany lover, you should definitely visit the mile-wide Hawai’i Botanical Garden, which suggests the use of a Segwei for exploring the paths quickly and without dying from heat stroke.

There are also appetizing fresh fruit and Açai stands everywhere, and I’m so grateful one of my drivers recommended Basik Cafe, known for their unique menu of açai bowls and smoothies in Kailua-Kona. As a Hawaii-based, mom-and-pop establishment, they incorporate the culture and style of the islands into their products and have evolved into a refined assortment of dairy-free, plant-based products that are just too healthy to actually taste that good. I went with their popular Islander Bowl, which was topped with fresh strawberries, banana, goji berries, organic coconut shavings, and Hawaiian honey, and I am now officially advocating for a Basik Cafe to be opened in Central Florida. I mean, they opened another location in San Fransisco, and they already have Full House and Rice-A-Roni. It’s only fair that the next lucky city be Orlando.

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On my very last day, I spent all my time walking around the island, trying to absorb as many Hawaiian air particles as I possibly could. Full outfit details for this relaxed exploration look, shot by Karen Loudon Photography, will be up sometime this week.

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For some surely profound reason, I felt compelled to select this shot as the perfect photographic summary of my two-week journey and comprehensive Big Island travel guide. As a girl who never, and I mean never, steps out of her comfort zone, booking a spontaneous two-week solo vacation, flying in a helicopter, hanging around a volcano, hiking through a rainforest, and… well, the list is really endless, just makes me so proud of myself for finally choosing adventure over complacency.

At the risk of sounding morbidly cynical, complacency is the death of happiness. Complacency inhibits the formulation of lifelong dreams and ambitions. Complacency makes it nearly impossible to love people– including yourself– unconditionally. I’m not saying I’m throwing my life’s rule book away and compulsively traveling the world (yet), but my personal bucket list of hopes, dreams, and aspirations just tripled. Off to plan my next adventure!


26 thoughts on “Travel Recap: Hawaiian Retreat on the Big Island

  1. Jordyn

    Loving all of these photos! Your trip looks like it was so beautiful and relaxing. I’ve been to Hawaii and handful of times and I can vouch the big island is totally relaxing. I also thought Kauai was super laid back and great for a mental detox!

  2. Alicia C.

    I went to the big island like 8 years ago on vacation and it was the best time I’ve ever had. I agree, it’s definitely a relaxing vacation and the perfect place to detox! Your photos are making me want to go back!

    xo, Alicia | Alicia Tenise

  3. Dani

    These pictures are great! You had a wonderful detox vacation. I am so jealous. I can’t wait until I visit Hawaii. Your post has really inspired me.

    xoxo Dani

  4. Jazmine

    Such a fun & beautiful trip!! It makes me homesick for Guam. Though I’d have to argue Hawaii is definitely beautifuler. 😀

  5. Tiffany Khyla

    I’ve always wanted to go to Hawaii. Literally all of these pictures are gorgeous, even the food. That food looks so fresh and delish. I need to go to Hawaii ASAP! I’m glad you had an amazing time.

  6. Sienna Apis

    This is by far the most informative blog that I have found about visiting the Big Island–so rich and full of vibrant details about the places you visited. And the photos–including those from your photo shoot–were just absolutely stunning and gorgeous! I think it’s time for another trip to the Hawaiian Islands, only this time I will make it a point to visit the Island of Hawaii. Thank you for inspiring me!

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