Last month we decided to take advantage of Ben's spring break and escape the endless Midwest winter by heading to Hawaii to explore the island and visit our friends Kate and Doug, who own a coffee farm in the Kona region.
It was our first trip to Hawaii (well, since I was 18 months old!) and we both agreed it was the best trip we've ever taken - truly magical!
Here's a travel recap of our vacation, and some of our favorite spots on the Big Island that you must visit if you ever get the chance!
We flew into Kailua Kona on Sunday night, rented a car, and drove up the mountain in the dark to our home away from home Sunshower Farms! This is what the house looks like in the day, but in the pitch blackness it was quite the adventure for our little Mazda, up winding steeper-than-Berkeley back roads. But we made it and woke up the next morning in HAWAII!!!
Kona is to coffee like Napa is to wine. So many big and small family farms growing delicious coffee beans on the side of a volcano. We may be biased because it's owned by our good friends but Sunshower Farms is definitely worth a visit for a tour and "cupping" aka coffee tasting on the back lanai overlooking the Pacific ocean!
We hopped on a tour one morning to learn more about the farm.
Coffee beans grow on trees and it takes about four years for a plant to produce fruit. The flowers are small and white stars, the berries turn red when ripe, and inside are usually two mushy slimy beans that are roasted into delicioiusness!
Doug and Kate live entirely off the grid, so all the water for the farm and household comes from these giant rain catchment tanks that look like janky swimming pools.
After the farm tour we headed to the lanai for a coffee "cupping," which basically means a tasting where you take notes on the aroma of dry and wet grounds and taste of different roasts.
I cut caffeine out of my life 2.5 years ago but of course I drank allllllll the fresh coffee while we were in Kona and it was worth it! Fun fact: Kona coffee is the only kind where you can literally say you are "buying local" (as in from the USA).
If you want to learn more about the coffee industry, sustainability, ethical practices, and how a lawyer and financial trader from Chicago left their jobs to start a farm in Hawaii, check out the interview I recorded with Kate here!
On our first full day we dodged the random thunderstorms to visit Pu`uhonua O Hōnauna National Historical Park, an ancient sacred site and place of refuge. It was beautiful and very interesting to learn more about the history of the island and the native culture.
"In old Hawai'i, if you had broken a law, the penalty was death. Perhaps you had entered into an area that was reserved for only the chiefs, or had eaten forbidden foods. Laws, or kapu, governed every aspect of Hawaiian society. The penalty for breaking these laws was certain death. Your only option for survival is to elude your pursuers and reach the nearest pu'uhonua, or place of refuge.
As you enter, the great wall rises up before you marking the boundaries between the royal grounds and the sanctuary. Many ki'i (carved wooden images) surround the Hale o Keawe temple, housing the bones of the chiefs that infuse the area with their power or mana. If you reached this sacred place, you would be saved." (source)
Afterwards we stopped for happy hour mai tai's and fish tacos on the beach! It was the perfect way to kick off our trip.
The next day we drove north along the west coast to check out a couple of gorgeous beaches, Hapuna Beach State Park and Waialea Beach. On the way home we stopped at a little juice bar and I got the best $8 Acai Bowl of my life. Probably because I was so hot and dehydrated, but it brought me way too much joy, haha.
The big island is unique because it's (obviously) the biggest island in the chain and also the only one that still sits over an active volcano. The landscape is varied - dry and volcanic desert-like on the west coast, more lush and rainforesty on the east coast. In the north and center of the island there are rolling fields and ranches, and the two giant summits of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa.
Fun fact: Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain on earth, 33,000 ft from base to peak! It still had snow on the summit.
(more scenes from the farm!)
Another sunny day we went for a hike down to the Captain Cook monument, which took us down through grasses and shrubby woodlands, across a lava field, and finally to a bright blue cove filled with snorkelers and boats. The way down was beautiful. The hike back up ... well let's just say I was sweating more than I do at hot yoga and we had to stop at a gas station for emergency fluids before recouping with the best beers and macadamia nut cookies of our life!
We ended up driving literally all over the Big Island to explore, including a mini trip-within-trip overnight adventure to Volcanoes National Park (just in time before it closed due to the eruption!).
There is an actual little community named Volcano on the outskirts of the park, where we stopped for lunch at the hidden paradise of Volcano Garden Arts, a garden/arts center and cafe.
The eastern side of the island is considered the rainy side, but we got lucky and it ended up being the first sunny day in months according to the locals! We grabbed a delicious lunch in the garden and got to pat the resident giant bunny Noble.
After lunch we headed into the park itself, which is one of the most unique places I've ever been, and one of my favorite things about national parks is learning about the natural history of the area #geographynerd. The park is centered around Kilauea, the only currently active volcano in Hawaii. The big island is currently situated over a "hot spot" in the ocean, and the movement of tectonic plates over time is what caused the creation of the entire chain of islands now called Hawaii.
We came back to the park at night to see the crater after dark, and it was literally the coolest thing I've ever seen -- active lava shooting up!
The next morning we continued to drive north up the east side of the island to visit a couple of waterfalls, the city of Hilo, and the Hawaii Tropical Botanic Garden.
First up was Akaka Falls and it was by far my favorite waterfall. There's a gorgeous path that winds through lush tropical plantings that brings you through towering trees and finally right up to the waterfall.
If you look at the distance you can see Mauna Kea's snow covered peak!
After grabbing lunch at an adorable vegan cafe in Hilo, we stopped by the Hawaii Botanical Gardens and it was another experience I would highly recommend -- it was like stepping inside a tropical oasis.
We stopped by Rainbow Falls on our drive home, which was also beautiful (and randomly located on the edge of a subdivision! You see all these photos and think they are in the middle of the jungle wilderness, ha) but Akaka Falls is still my favorite.
On our final full day in Hawaii, Kate took us on an adventure around the north and east sides of the island, through the adorable town of Hawi and across the Kohala region, which is full of ranches and rolling green hills.
One of the things that struck us the most is the diversity of microclimates, landscapes, and ecosystems on the Big Island! You have lava fields, dry arid deserts, beaches, mountains, rainforests, rolling plains, pretty much everything on one small lump of rock in the middle of the Pacific.
We stopped at the iconic Pololu Valley for a photo op, although decided not to hike down to the black sand beaches, still recovering from our Captain Cook adventure lol.
CLIFFS OF MAGICAL WONDER!
Overall, we were in Hawaii for a week but having at least three more days would have been perfect!
Next time we want to snorkel, have more beach time, and go to the observatories on the top of Mauna Kea (there was a full moon during the week we visited, too bright for good star gazing).
Hawaii is truly a magical place, and I'm grateful we were able to visit and also learn more about the history of the island and the original Polynesians who were the first to call it home.
Living in the US, it's easy to take our colonial heritage for granted but I think the least we can do is bring awareness to the reasons why we have this gorgeous country in the first place.
Ben and I both agreed this was the best trip we've ever taken (especially together), it was truly magical and sad to leave, but we know we'll return!
Mahalo Kate and Doug for being such awesome hosts and friends :)
p.s. if you are a coffee lover, you can order their home grown and hand roasted beans here! THIS COFFEE WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE, it's so worth it. You know you wanna be a coffee snob. Our fave is the Kalikimaka blend!