“Big Island, small world,” said Todd Wright, silver-goateed salesperson for Big Island Brewhaus, through a gentle smile. I’d just run into him for the third time in 36 hours. On the biggest island of the Hawaiian archipelago.
It makes a lot of sense, though. Hawai’i island is full of surprises, including the fact that, for a large island, there are only a few small towns that bring people together. There are 12 thousand people in Kailua-Kona, nine thousand in Waimea, 43 thousand in Hilo and another 40 thousand sprinkled around the island. If you stay on the leeward side of the island, you’ll run into people you know. Often.
There are other surprises. For a state that’s thought of as lush and green, all you see as you land at the airport are the bushes of dry yellow grass growing among the dark black volcanic rocks. Hawaii is supposed to be all about the beaches, but the beaches on the Big Island take a back seat to the other forms of natural beauty. You think heat when you think Hawaii, but the Big Island is home to eight of the 14 climate zones across the world – you can snowboard on the top of the volcano during the winter, even. The state is expensive. The Big Island is cheaper.
Hawai’i is also the home of the best brewery in the state (Big Island Brewhaus) and the best yearly beer fest (The Kona Brewer’s Festival every March), so it’s a great place to combine your interests of lazy, warm relaxation and drinking good beer.
Remember, it’s big though. So let’s do our best to identify three day trips that will showcase the breadth and depth of the beauty and the beer on Hawai’i Island.
Do the hike first, the beer will taste all the better for it. On second thought, your hike will end in beauty you may want to savor. Stop by the Kamuel Liquor Store, pet the dog, and pick up some Maui POG IPA in the cans – no glass on the beach – and head to the Waipi’o Valley trailhead on Waipi’o Valley Road off of highway 19.
The Valley, though it was once the permanent residence of the early Hawaiian kings, is not a hike for the faint of heart for a few reasons. In a little more than half a mile, you’ll drop over 800 feet, so it’ll get you sweating.
And then there are the locals. The signs will tell you to be respectful, sometimes with colorful language, and you should listen. The little trails that splinter off to the left and right will be tempting, but you won’t know exactly when you’re trespassing, and you may make a reclusive local resident upset. I wouldn’t make them upset.
Continue on down through the lush green valley – now home to many of the most important farms in the state – all the way down to the beach. It’s there you’ll find a majestic waterfall dumping its wares into the ocean.
Sit on a rock, take your socks and shoes off, and drink the POG IPA. It’s sweet, but it contains the passionfruit and the guava that call the islands home, and it’s not too sweet. You’ll need to rest up for the walk back.
Now that you’re hungry and thirsty, head to Big Island Brewhaus for a meal. You might like the traditional fish taco, but if you’re feeling at all adventurous, try the fried wonton version. Start off with the Paniolo Pale, it’s bright, fresh, and crisp, and it will wipe the salt from your upper lip. Then it’s time for some Overboard IPA, their flagship, before at least trying a taster of some of their darker stouts and porters.
Don’t you dare leave without buying some Red Sea of Cacao for your abode. That world class, award-winning amber ale, brewed with molasses, chocolate, pink sea salt and pink peppercorns, is an eye opener. It’s local – all the adjuncts come from the island – but it’s not a beach beer. It’s a lanai beer.
Get back home, put your feet up on your porch (or lanai as the locals might call it), pop the top on your Red Sea, and reminisce about the day as the sun sets.
Hilo / Volcano
The Big Island is the one with the active volcano. You have to check it out. Get as close to the lava as your nerves let you, and appreciate how these islands were birthed. Before you go, stop by Kona Brewing and pick up one of their local beers. I had a Lemongrass Luau when I was there that would go perfect with a hike – golden, bright, and spicy.
The drive from Kailua-Kona over the volcanoes to Hilo will take you through the entire process of turning a volcano in the sea into a lush island. You’ll see freshly made black lava from Mauna Kea, and then the small, almost desert-like shrubs that start to pop up once the lava collects enough dirt and water. After a while, short trees will appear, and by the time you drop into Hilo, you’re in a full fledged tropical jungle.
Once you get into Hilo and finish your luscious jungle hike – try the Tropical Botanical Garden or the Rainbow Falls hike – park near the water. Everything’s within walking distance from there. Yes, even the airport and Mehana Brewing are hoofable.
There, in a building that used to house the old Hilo Soda Works, you’ll find Mehana and Hawaii Nui Brewing. The Mauna Kea Pale Ale, made from rain water filtered by volcanic rock on the island, is fresh and bright enough to satisfy your thirst.
But, like with Big Island Brewhaus before, it’s a different sort of beer that should get most of your attention while you’re there. Hawaii Nui’s Southern Cross is an Amber Ale made with Belgian Yeast, so it gives you caramel and toffee before it hits you with the bitterness you normally get with Ambers.
While you’re in Hilo, photographer Casey Anderson says Pineapples is the most popular spot for food and drink, but while their food is great, the drink menu is fairly boring. Yours truly had a nice plate at little Cafe Pesto, and Lucy’s Tacqueria fills things out on the food end. For drinking, other than Hawaii Nui, there’s really only Cronie’s on Bayfront, which is best if you’ve got a sporting event you’d like to catch.
Hilo was the first city on the Big Island, and is still bigger. But more people fly into Kailua-Kona, and stay in the resorts that pepper the west coast. More on those later.
For your day trip on this side of the island, we’re going to visit Captain Cook. Well, the spot where he was killed. You see, Captain Cook arrived at Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island in 1779 during the Makahiki Festival, which honors the fertility god Lono, and the locals thought he might be Lono himself. They honored him, but when he came back a week later with wrecked ships, they realized their error, and a few locals killed Cook and four of his sailors.
Anyway, today it’s a very peaceful place, with some of the best snorkeling on the island. Get some Ahi poke at Da Poke Shack and eat it along the way, or make it a slightly weird brunch. There’s no bad time for Poke.
Since you can’t or shouldn’t bring glass to a beach, you’ll have to stop by Kona Wine Market on the way to Kealakekua. There, you can say hi to Sterling, the affable owner, and ask him what’s on tap. The Wine Market usually has (peaceful!) local tunes on the radio and short-run beers from Big Island Brewhaus and Kona Brewing on tap, among others. Get a hydro flask growler filled, and you’ll have a water bottle souvenir for when you get home, and excellent beer for the beach, before or after snorkeling.
Later, when you return to the city, you’ll find that your resort has a decent selection of Kona or Big Island brews at your bar. But you won’t get the full feeling of drinking with the locals unless you walk the strip.
The main attraction is Humpy’s Big Island Ale House and their 36 taps. When I was there, it was split roughly half and half local and West Coast, with standouts like Kona Kua Bay IPA, Sierra Nevada Ginger Barrel Aged Bigfoot, and Maui Black Barrel Aged Pearl Imperial Stout (maybe the best beer I had on this trip, which included a beer fest). Something for everyone, including a seat about thirty yards from the beach.
If you truly want the local experience, have a couple Kona Longboards at Laverne’s around the corner. They’ve got pool and the game on, and a raucous crew of Kama’aina. Nearby is Paradise Brewing, which often has live music and though they’re light on their own beers, they have a good collection of West Coast beers.
When you’re done, walk yourself home along the water’s edge if you can. You’ll be full of great beer, but it’s that memory of that walk – and the places you went, and the people you met – that will stick with you the longest.