Farms, gardens, historic houses, and other points of interest that may be open only to guided tours are listed under “Attractions & Points of Interest,” above.
Don’t believe the brochures with pictures of fountains of lava and “liquid hot magma,” as Dr. Evil would say. Although there no guarantees you’ll see any red-hot lava (and for safety reasons, you’re not going to fly all that close to it, anyway), a helicopter ride over hundreds of acres of hardened black lava, Kilauea’s enormous fuming caldera, and the remote, still-erupting Puu Oo vent in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park nevertheless offers a unique perspective on any given day. And if you’re pressed for time, a helicopter ride beats driving to the volcano and back from Kohala and Kona resorts.
Blue Hawaiian Helicopters (www.bluehawaiian.com; tel. 800/786-2583 or 808/886-1768), a professionally run, locally based company with comfortable, top-of-the-line copters, and pilots who are extremely knowledgeable about everything from volcanology to Hawaii lore, flies three different tours out of Waikoloa, at Highway 19 and Waikoloa Road. The 2-hour Big Island Spectacular stars the volcano, tropical valleys, the Hamakua Coast waterfalls, and the Kohala Mountains, and costs $450 to $563 ($396–$495 online, which requires 5-day advance booking). If time is money for you, and you’ve got all that money, it’s an impressive trip, particularly if you ride in the roomier and quieter Eco-Star. If you just want to admire waterfalls, green mountains, and the deep valleys, including Waipio, of North Kohala and the Hamakua Coast, the 50-minute Kohala Coast Adventure is a less exorbitant but reliably picturesque outing, costing $242 to $294 ($213–$259 online).
If you’ve “done” the volcano and have an adventurous spirit, consider the 2-hour Big Island–Maui tour,which includes the Kohala Mountains/Hamakua waterfalls leg and also crosses the Alenuihaha Channel to Maui, where you view Haleakala Crater (a long-dormant volcano) and dozens of waterfalls in the verdant Hana rainforest. It costs $500 to $563 ($440–$495 online, with advance booking). Blue Hawaiian also operates out of the Hilo airport (tel. 808/961-5600), flying the 50-minute Circle of Fire tour, which is significantly cheaper—$223 to $274 ($196–$241 online)—because it’s closer to the volcano and waterfalls. On the other hand, if you’re willing to drive to Hilo, you really should continue on to the national park. Tip: Ask about a AAA discount when booking flights.
The similarly professional Sunshine Helicopters (www.sunshinehelicopters.com; tel. 866/501-7738 or 808/270-3999) offers a Volcano Deluxe Tour, including Kohala Mountains/Hamakua waterfalls, out of the Hapuna heliport, near the Mauna Kea Resort, but it’s even more expensive: $560 to $635 ($510–$585 online) for the 105-minute ride. Less of a splurge—and less dependent on the ooh factor of oozing lava—is Sunshine’s 30- to 40-minute Kohala/Hamakua Coast Tour, which hovers waterfall-lined sea cliffs and the Pololu, Waimanu, and Waipio valleys, for $199 ($169 online).
Note: On all rides, your weight may determine where you sit in the helicopter. You should also dress in light layers; both cool rain and strong sun can occur.
Van & Bus Tours
Many of the outdoor-oriented, but not especially physically taxing, excursions of Hawaii Forest & Trail (www.hawaii-forest.com; tel.800/464-1993 or 808/331-8505) include a significant time in vans heading to and from remote areas, with guides providing narration along the way. Thus, they’re also a good way to see large chunks of the island without being behind the wheel yourself.
For those able to depart from Hilo, Discover Hawaii (www.discoverhawaiitours.com; tel. 808/690-9050) offers the 9-hour Volcano Eco-Adventure Tour, covering all the major attractions of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and scenic sites in Hilo. Led by expert guides, the small-group tours in large-windowed mini-coaches depart at 10:30am Monday to Thursday and Saturday. The cost is $135 for adults, $100 for children 2 and older, excluding lunch (there’s a restaurant stop in Hilo where you pay your own way).
Kailua-Kona visitors can also book all-day volcano trips and “circle” tours, which include the black-sand Punaluu Beach, the national park, Hilo, and Waimea. The cheaper tours, such as those offered by Roberts Hawaii (www.robertshawaii.com; tel. 800/831-5541 or 808/539-9400), use large buses, often with fewer stops and less informed narration than those of the smaller companies. I recommend going with a provider such as KapohoKine Adventures (www.kapohokine.com; tel. 808/964-1000), which offers a variety of tours from Kona and Hilo.
Guided Walking Tours
The Kona Historical Society (www.konahistorical.org; tel. 808/323-3222) hosts two historical walking tours in the Kona region. All walks must be booked in advance; call for reservations and departure locations. If you can put together a group of 10 or more, try the 75-minute Historic Kailua Village Walking Tour (tel. 808/938-8825), the most comprehensive tour of the Kona Coast. It takes you all around Kailua-Kona, from King Kamehameha's last seat of government to the summer palace of the Hawaiian royal family and beyond, with lots of Hawaiian history along the way. Tickets are $15 for adults, $7 for children 5 to 12, and include a 24-page booklet with over 40 archival photographs of Kailua village. The self-guided Kona Coffee Living History Tour takes you through the everyday life of a Japanese family on the Uchida Coffee Farm during the 1920s to 1940s. Interact with costumed interpreters as they go about life on a coffee farm. The tour is offered Monday through Thursday on the hour from 10am to 2pm; $15 adults and $5 kids 5 to 12. Meet at the Kona Historical Society office, 81-6551 Mamalahoa Hwy. (next to Kona Specialty Meats), across from mile marker 110, Kealakekua.
Self-Guided Driving Tours
Big Island Audio Tour (tel. 808/883-2670), a self-guided audio tour on CD, features 36 tracks of information, including directions to the well-known sights plus tracks on beaches, short hikes, side trips, and information on Hawaiian language, history, and culture. The cost is $20 plus $2 for shipping.
Experience How the Locals Live (and Eat!)
"Go local for a day" is the mantra of Home Tours Hawaii (www.hometourshawaii.com; tel. 877/325-5772 or 808/325-5772), which features chef Ann Sutherland, who was born and raised in Hawaii, and earned her sterling reputation as a gourmet chef here. She invites visitors to experience what it's like to live (and, most important, eat) in Hawaii for a day. Chef Ann and her partner, Pat, pick you up in an air-conditioned van and then escort you to various private homes in the Kona region (from an upscale, multimillion-dollar oceanfront home to a handmade cottage in the middle of a coffee plantation to a luxury estate) with a progressive brunch, prepared using local products, at each home you visit. Chef Ann is a funny storyteller who entertains you with history and trivia as you drive from one home to the next. Don't be too shocked when you hear the astronomical prices of real estate in Hawaii. You won't want to miss this insider's look at how residents live in Hawaii. Chef Ann's mouthwatering masterpieces are worth the price alone. The 4-hour tour, with transportation, brunch, and a gift bag of local products to take home with you, is $139, the memories from the trip -- priceless.
Crazy for Kona coffee
More than 600 farms grow coffee in the Kona Coffee Belt on the slopes of Hualalai, from Kailua-Kona and Holualoa in North Kona to Captain Cook and Honaunau in South Kona. The prettiest time to visit is between January and May, when the rainy season brings white blossoms known as “Kona snow.” Harvesting takes place by hand—one reason Kona coffee is so costly—from late August through early winter. At least 40 farms offer regular tours with tastings, and many more provide samples at farmstands. Much of the fun in visiting is simply making impromptu stops along Mamalahoa Highway (Hwy. 11 and Hwy. 180), but you can also search the online listings of the Kona Coffee Farmers Association (www.konacoffeefarmers.org) to locate more obscure farms or those that require tour reservations.
Here are some highlights, heading north to south, of coffee growers ready to show around drop-ins and offer free samples:
* Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation, 73-1944 Hao St. (off Kaloko Dr.), Kailua-Kona (www.mountainthunder.com; tel. 808/325-2136): In the hills known as Kaloko Mauka above the airport, Trent Bateman mills award-winning coffee from his own 21-acre organic farm Mountain Thunder, as well as from other Kona growers. Mountain Thunder also grows organic coffee, pineapple, mamaki (used for herbal tea), cacao, sugarcane, and green tea at another location: Kainaliu, on Highway 11, just south of mile marker 113. Both farms offer free tours on the hour from 10am to 4pm daily; farmstands open at 9am.
* Kona Blue Sky Coffee Company, 76-973 Hualalai Rd., Holualoa (www.konablueskycoffee.com; tel. 877/322-1700 or 808/322-1700): The Christian Twigg-Smith family and staff grows and sells its coffee on a scenic, 400-acre estate, with free guided walking tours Monday to Saturday from 9am to 3:30pm.
* Holualoa Kona Coffee Company, 77-6261 Mamalahoa Hwy. (Hwy. 180), Holulaloa (www.konalea.com; tel. 800/334-0348 or 808/322-9937): Owned by Desmond and Lisen Twigg-Smith, this farm and mill sells its own and others’ premium, organic Kona coffee. Tour the orchards (mowed and fertilized by a large flock of geese) and witness all phases of processing, weekdays from 8am to 4pm.
* Kona Joe Coffee, 79–7346 Mamalahoa Hwy., Kainaliu (Hwy. 11 between mile markers 113 and 114; www.konajoe.com; tel. 808/322-2100): The home of the world’s first trellised coffee farm offers a free, self-guided tour with 8-minute video, as well as guided tours by request ($15 adults, free for kids 12 and under) daily from 8am to 5pm. Guided tours of the 20-acre estate include a mug, coffee, and chocolate, with reservations recommended for groups of six or more.
* Greenwell Farms, 81-6581 Mamalahoa Hwy., Kealakekua (www.greenwellfarms.com; tel. 808/323-2295): If any farm can claim to be the granddaddy of Kona coffee, this would be it. Englishman Henry Nicholas Greenwell began growing coffee in the region in 1850. Now operated by his great-grandson and agricultural innovator Tom Greenwell, the farm offers free tours daily from 8:30am to 4:30pm.
Sweet on chocolate
Tucked between coffee orchards in the uplands of Keauhou, the Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory (www.ohcf.us; tel. 888/447-2626) began growing cacao in 1993. It was the first in the islands to produce 100-percent Hawaiian chocolate. The 1-hour walking tour ($15 adults, free for kids 11 and under) includes the orchard, small factory, and chocolate sampling, plus the option to buy the expensive but delectable chocolate bars and plumeria-shape pieces. Tours take place Wednesday and Friday at 9am by reservation only; book well in advance.
Planting a koa legacy tree
One of the most inspiring and memorable experiences I’ve ever had in Hawaii has been with Hawaiian Legacy Tours (www.hawaiianlegacytours.com; tel. 877/707-8733), which allows visitors to help restore the native koa forest high above the Hamakua Coast. More koa means more native birds and less runoff, which can harm the reefs far below. Over its lifetime, the tree can also offset the carbon impact of a week’s vacation on this beautiful island. The freshly baked scones that await in the welcome center are pretty awesome, too.
After you check in at the welcome center, itself a handsomely restored ranch house in the tiny village of Umikoa (at 3,200 ft. elevation), guides in ATVs, or a Pinzgauer six-wheeler for larger groups, drive you even higher up the misty slopes of Mauna Kea, to the former personal forest of King Kamehameha the Great. Later cleared for ranchland, these fields at 5,000 feet bear only a few remaining old-growth trees, from which Hawaiian Legacy Hardwoods (the tours’ parent company) extracts seeds to propagate seedlings in its nurseries. Amid the new groves growing on the mountainside, where the mana (spiritual power) and beauty of your surroundings are spine-tingling, you’ll be shown how to plant a seedling. You can dedicate it to a loved one on a special commemorative certificate, and you’ll also receive its GPS coordinates, allowing you to monitor its growth via Google Earth.
The 2-hour Planters Tour, including one tree for planting, costs $110 for adults, $55 for kids 5 to 18, while the 3 1/2-hour Grand Tour, which spends more time in the nurseries and on the Umikoa Trail, costs $180 for adults, $90 for kids 5 to 18. (Children’s rates exclude a tree for planting, but additional trees may be purchased for $60 each.) Private tours and shuttles (from the Kona and Hilo airports, Four Seasons Resort Hualalai, and Hilo cruise terminal) are available for additional fees.
Seeing Stars while others drive
Don’t want the hassle of driving yourself up Mauna Kea? Several excellent companies offer tour packages that provide cold-weather gear, dinner, hot drinks, guided stargazing, and, best of all, someone else to worry about maneuvering the narrow, unpaved road to the summit. All tours are offered weather permitting, but most nights are clear—that’s why the observatories are here, after all. For both of the following tours, be sure to read the fine print on health restrictions before booking, and don’t forget to tip your guide ($5–$10 per person).
* Hawaii Forest & Trail (www.hawaii-forest.com; tel. 800/464-1993 or 808/331-8505), the island’s premier environmentally and culturally oriented outfitter, operates a daily Mauna Kea Summit & Stars Adventure, including a late-afternoon picnic dinner, sunset at the summit, and stargazing at the visitor center, for $199. The company uses two customized off-road buses, with a maximum of 14 passengers each, for the 7- to 8-hour tour, open to ages 16 and older (due to high altitude). Tours depart from Hawaii Forest & Trail’s headquarters in Kailua-Kona, Waikoloa Kings’ Shops, and the junction of Saddle Road (Hwy. 200) and Highway190 south of Waikoloa Village.
* Monty “Pat” Wright was the first to run a sunset and stargazing tour on Mauna Kea when he launched Mauna Kea Summit Adventures (www.maunakea.com; tel. 888/322-2366 or 808/322-2366) in 1983. Guests now ride in a large-windowed, 4WD van instead of a Land Cruiser and don hooded parkas instead of old sweaters, but otherwise it’s much the same. The 7 1/2- to 8-hour tour costs $204 (check for discounts on the website) and is open to children 14 and older. Pickups are in Kailua-Kona, Waikoloa Queens’ MarketPlace, and the Highway 200/190 junction.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.