Explore the Big Island of Hawaii

Discover the Big Island, the youngest and largest island in Hawaii, by unwinding at a luxury resort on the Kohala Coast and spending unprogrammed days oceanside.

“Nearly twice as big as all of the other Hawaiian Islands combined (hence, its nickname, ‘Big Island’), its sheer size is awe-inspiring.”

The “Big Island” of Hawaii was the birthplace of King Kamehameha I as well as the ancient Mauna Loa volcano. It is a desolate place if you are surveying the lava fields cruising down Highway 19 enroute to my hotel on the majestic Kohala Coast.

In fact, visitors to the Big Island frequently think they landed on Mars when they exit the Kona International Airport. The collective image of Hawaii is green—lush rainforest, fragrant flora, and swaying palm trees.

But my rude awakening that not all Hawaiian islands are the same came as we careened down the highway. How could this be Hawaii? It looked so desolate. We zoomed past fields of black lava rocks. But 30 minutes later, our Uber pulled into the circular driveway of the Fairmont Orchid. 

Fairmont Orchid

A former Ritz-Carlton property, the Fairmont Orchid hotel is aptly named. An orchid is “a plant with complex flowers that are often showy . . .” The hotel blooms in the Hawaiian desert like this rare flower.

Orchid displays abound at the hotel

Its exotic landscaping features tropical flowers set against lush Hawaiian trees and a sweeping ocean backdrop. The architectural style is hotel-without-walls, so you always see panoramas of sea and sand from the third-floor lobby.

“Immerse yourself in an authentic Big Island vacation experience, surrounded by 32 oceanfront acres of lush tropical gardens, cascading waterfalls and a tranquil white sand beach and lagoon.”

Fairmont Orchid
Travel is not anonymous at Fairmont Orchid

The hotel features its award-winning Spa Without Walls, a 10,000 square foot oceanfront pool, Hui Holokai Beach Club, six restaurants, an oceanfront golf course, and a tennis pavilion.

Hawaiian Hospitality

From the moment the hotel bellman hands me a lei, I feel pulled into the old world of the Hawaii nation. Although the traditional lei uses flowers, I am given a lei necklace that I can keep. It drapes over my shoulders and hangs over my blouse. 

“In Hawaiian tradition, lei is a symbol of hospitality, love, respect, and aloha.”

Hawaiian Airlines

I don’t know whether it is from the salty smell of the ocean, the rippling breeze in the foyer, or just the perfume of orchids in the air, but I am on island time … instantly.

Hotel Property

From the moment that I check into the Fairmont Orchid, I want to drop off my luggage in my room so I can go explore. 

View of property from third floor lobby

There are two routes. I can walk through the sushi restaurant to the outdoor cocktail lounge on the third floor, then descend down the regal staircase to the court below. Or I can take the elevator down to the ground level, and follow the sidewalks that meander to the beach, pool, jacuzzi, or golf course.

With any staff (and most visitors) I meet, there is always a smile and the melodic “Aloha!” greeting, with the uptilt on the third syllable. The Hawaiian language is so musical. 

Aloha sounds like the wind that lifts the sail of a boat in the air or the red-headed bird which takes flight after resting on a tree branch.

Water Features

Water surrounds me at Fairmont Orchid. 

View of mountains is backdrop

As the night gives way to dawn, the ocean rolls toward the beach. This is my favorite time of the day when I can wander aimlessly along the beach coast.

After breakfast, my next stop is the sparkling pool. In just a few hours, every lounge chair will be covered with a white towel. Sun worshippers usually descend on the pool by 8 am to grab the best chairs. 

A day can be spent poolside, swimming, listening to book tapes, drinking pina Coladas, and napping. I love to see the chairs begin to empty by 430 pm. Suddenly, no one is splashing or swimming in the pool. I can just float on the surface and stare up at the sky. 

Waterfall near jacuzzi

Within 15 or 20 minutes, I am chilly enough to soak in the whirlpool, hidden from view. It is nestled in a grotto, facing a waterfall. I listen to the sound of the water hitting the rocks while I soak. 

Daybreak Walk

My mornings at the Fairmont Orchid start before sunrise as there is a 6-hour time difference. I get up to drink my Hawaiian Kona coffee at 5 am. Then I open my balcony door and exercise with the swaying palm trees. By 6 am, I race outside to watch the sunrise over the Mauna Kea mountain range. The waves lap onto the lava rocks. Birds serenade me. 

Although walking around the hotel grounds is lovely, I recommend leaving the property and following the lava rock path around the bay. It meanders under palm trees and past a stacked black lava stone path leading into the water. Although I experiment with listening to Hawaiian music, the best audio track is the water lapping over the rocks. 

Lava rock beach

Sometimes I meet a walker toting her Kona coffee in a styrofoam cup and following the beach path. But I mostly have the beach path between the Fairmont Orchid and the Mauna Kea Resort to myself at daybreak. 

I think of all those weeks spent in isolation during the pandemic lockdown in spring 2020 in Washington DC. It seemed impossible to ever get on a plane and fly anywhere. But now, two years later, I am in Hawaii, chasing down island cats, like Midnight, just like I did pre-pandemic during hiking trips in Croatia and Portugal. Like a cat’s swishing tail, no one can guess where the future points.

Meet Fairmont Orchid’s black cat (Midnight)

The definition of “Aloha” is one of unconditional love. In Hawaii, it rushes like a waterfall over the rocks and then streams into an ever-widening pool. 

Big Island Sunset

Everyone makes an appointment to be outside to watch the sunset nightly around 6:23 pm at the Fairmont Orchid. This is the free polytechnic fireworks show for anyone staying at the hotel (or on the Big Island). 

At the Fairmont Orchid, the best seats in the house are the Adirondack chairs facing the ocean, the beach recliners on the lawn, or the white gazebo near the golf course.

Sunrises and sunsets mesmerize me. On the second to last night, before I flew home, I spend an hour meditating at the water’s edge. You can stare into the horizon and forget all the competing thoughts bothering you. 

Big Island sunset

Suddenly, the sun seems to catch fire. You are riveted. A cauldron of lava bubbles in the sky. Then the bright orb slips under the blanket of night and disappears. 

“No sun outlasts its sunset but will rise again and bring the dawn.”

Maya Angelou

Watching a sunset teaches patience and exaltation. You can always bring life into perspective if you can stop to watch and wonder. “Sunset is the opening music of the night,” writes Mehmet Murat ildanz. 

Island History

Centuries ago, seafaring people from Polynesia discovered the Hawaiian islands. They brought with them their folk tales about ancient gods and respect for the ocean.

“1,500 years ago: Polynesians arrive in Hawaiʻi after navigating the ocean using only the stars to guide them.”

Go Hawaii

Then in 1778, British Captain James Cook steered his ship fleet into Waimea Bay on the Kauaʻi island. He was the first European to make contact with the Hawaiian Islands. 

Many native Hawaiians perish over the next 100 years as they had no immunity to fight epidemics like measles, smallpox, and other diseases. “Until their contact with Europeans, Hawaiians had lived in an isolation that helped their culture and population flourish,” according to The History Channel.

King Kamehameha II and Queen Kamamalu died in 1824 after contracting measles during a visit to London. 

Hawaiian Books

I regret that I didn’t read more about the nation of Hawaii and its monarchy, particularly how the last Queen of Hawaii was disposed and the kingdom of Hawaii was annexed to the United States in the 19th century. Looking back now, I wish I had devoted several weeks (pre-vacation) to read about Hawaii’s history.

Instead, after my vacation began, I quickly read Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen. It was written in 1898 by the last Queen of Hawaii Lili‘uokalan.

I also recommend reading the novel Moloka’i written by Alan Brennert. It tells the heartbreaking story of how Rachel Kalama, a 7-year-old girl growing up in Honolulu in the 1890s, is diagnosed with leprosy. She is separated from her family and sentenced to live in isolation in an isolated colony for lepers on the island of Moloka’i. Some of my favorite chapters were about the native healer, Haleola, who teaches Rachel about Hawaii’s rich culture and mythology.

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  • Natalie
    September 24, 2022 at 10:06 am

    This sounds like such a wonderful and peaceful stay! And as always, I really enjoyed reading about your travel experiences 🙂 Both of those books seem really interesting; I’ve noted them down to read when I find time sometime. So thanks for the recommendations!

    • Terri
      September 24, 2022 at 1:13 pm

      I highly recommend both the books if you want to learn more about Hawai’i. I really lost myself in the novel. The characters are so compelling. I think most tourists flock to the Oahu and Maui islands so the Big Island feels more like a secret hideaway. I hope you get to visit Natalie!

  • Bejal
    September 24, 2022 at 2:03 pm

    Oh my goodness, you have no idea how much I want to go to Big island now. Hawaii has always been on my bucket list. Good call on those books, will have to read them when I plane my trip and those sunsets. Brilliant read. Wow.

    • Terri
      September 24, 2022 at 4:16 pm

      If you read about Hawaii and its culture, you will enjoy more about what you see and hear during your stay. The Hawaiian myths fascinated me. And the island cats!

    September 24, 2022 at 2:13 pm

    Wow! That is such a beautiful place to visit. The photos are just amazingly beautiful.

    • Terri
      September 24, 2022 at 4:15 pm

      Thank you!

  • Jasmina
    September 24, 2022 at 3:08 pm

    Oh wow, it sounds like a perfect place for a peaceful stay to recharge your batteries. I would need this right now. And the photos… incredible beautiful place!

    • Terri
      September 24, 2022 at 4:14 pm

      Thank you! The resort is incredible.

  • Becci Abroad
    September 24, 2022 at 3:58 pm

    Wow, Hawaii looks so so pretty and with so many interesting things to do! Thank you so sharing!

    • Terri
      September 24, 2022 at 4:14 pm

      Hawaii is spectacular!

  • Emma
    September 24, 2022 at 4:41 pm

    The Big Island was amazing, I can’t wait to go back. I also stayed at the Fairmont Orchid and loved every minute. The private beaches, the fun activities and I really enjoyed hanging in the outdoor bar with some fun cocktails.

    • Terri
      September 24, 2022 at 4:45 pm

      We visited for 2 weeks so I had lots of time to investigate hikes plus a black sand beach in the area as well as travel around the island. I loved the Fairmont Orchid. Pure luxury!

  • Linda Jane
    September 24, 2022 at 5:52 pm

    I would love to visit Hawaii and the oceanfront acres of lush tropical gardens, cascading waterfalls, and white sandy beaches are very appealing. I enjoyed reading about your experience. Thank you!

    • Terri
      September 24, 2022 at 7:07 pm

      Thank you! It was truly a fantasy to spend this time in Hawai’i. I loved being immersed in nature.

  • Catherine - Savvy Family Travel
    September 24, 2022 at 8:45 pm

    We are hoping to visit the Big Island for Spring Break this year! Love the book recommendations too to grasp a deeper awareness of the history. Thanks Terri, great content as always.

    • Terri
      September 25, 2022 at 6:35 am

      This is wonderful that you plan to visit Hawaii in 2023. It is really like no place in the United States that I have ever visited, with the exception of St. John in the USVI. I highly recommend doing a deep dive into books about Hawaii’s past as a separate nation to understand its culture.

  • Fiona Mai
    September 24, 2022 at 10:50 pm

    This is exactly the kind of holiday I need right now. A luxury stay at the Fairmont Orchid, great swims in the pool or the beach, quiet morning walks to enjoy the beautiful nature, and interesting books to read about Hawaii’s culture and history. Thanks for sharing such an inspiring article!

    • Terri
      September 25, 2022 at 6:33 am

      Your comment makes me so happy! I was afraid that my readers might be bored by my account of how I recharged my batteries at the Fairmont Orchid. The resort (and Hawaii) worked its magic.

  • Soumya Nambiar
    September 25, 2022 at 3:48 am

    Hawaii has been on my bucketlist for so long and these are some great recommendations for a trip to Hawaii.

    • Terri
      September 25, 2022 at 6:31 am

      You definitely must visit Hawaii one day. It took me 13 hours to fly to Hawaii so it is unlikely I will visit again. But I am so glad that I experienced Hawaii’s magic.

  • Katy
    September 25, 2022 at 4:29 am

    I was sold as soon as I saw the sign (“a place of calmness”) I’m there! Looks like a beautiful island.

    • Terri
      September 25, 2022 at 6:30 am

      I loved that sign too! I saw it on the second day of my arrival. I made a point to walk by the sign every day. It honestly made me feel calm.

  • Andrea Cannon
    September 25, 2022 at 11:29 am

    Wow I loved reading your account. This is the island where I have spent the least time in Hawaii. Sounds like I need to get back there!

    • Terri
      September 25, 2022 at 12:54 pm

      So many people have never visited the Big Island, preferring Maui & Oahu. But the Big Island is the most diverse with different ecosystems. I hope you get to visit it!

  • Anja
    September 26, 2022 at 12:00 pm

    Love the Big Island (its the only one I have been to) , well worth the 15-hour flight,Thank you so much for your great intro to the hotel, places to visit and showing the relaxed atmosphere!

    • Terri
      September 28, 2022 at 1:33 pm

      I love the Big Island too! Thank you so much for reading. I hope you get to visit again.

  • Denise
    September 27, 2022 at 11:22 pm

    I haven’t been to the Big Island since high school! Ohhh, this sounds so good right now!

    • Terri
      September 28, 2022 at 1:31 pm

      The poke is AMAZING!