Hawaii: Beyond Sunsets and Mushrooms



A colorful Big Island sunset over Kealakekua Bay

During a recent trip to Hawaii, I had the pleasure of road tripping around the Big Island, beginning in Hilo and ending in Kona. I spent a week exploring, touring organic farms, having exciting adventures, indulging in local foods and, the highlight for me, seeing the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen (Seriously! Big Island has super low hanging clouds that look otherworldly, while the colors of the setting sun last for hours). To give you an idea of my experience — and inspire your itinerary — here’s a photo essay of my time on Hawaii’s Big Island.

Sunsets Like I’ve Never Seen

As someone who is constantly on the road, I’ve seen my fair share of gorgeous sunsets; however, none compare to what I recently saw on the Big Island. The clouds are extremely low, allowing you to see every curve and cotton candy crevice (and feel like you can reach out and touch them!). Additionally, while many sunsets happen quickly, the Big Island’s seem to last for hours, the sky lighly emitting hues of pink and orange even after the stars are out. Then there are the colors, rich hues of pink, purple, orange, yellow, red, blue and green bursting from the sky like paint on a hippie’s canvas. Tip: Big Island sunsets are best paired with a tropical drink, like a “Chi Chi” with fresh pineapple juice, vodka, cream of coconut and crushed ice.

volcano winery

Wine tasting at Volcano Winery

Quirky Wines At Big Island’s Only Winery

Volcano Winery is Big Island’s only winery, known for creating atypical wines that might appall a wine snob, but are perfect for the drinker looking to enjoy something delicious and fun. Some of their most unusual offerings include an “Infusion” mead blended with their homegrown tea and 100% Macadamia Nut Honey; a “Volcano Red” made with 85% wine grapes and 15% fermented Jaboticaba; and a semisweet “Hawaiian Guava Grape” blending wine grapes with local guava. Do a structured tasting in their retail store and pair with unusual cream cheese blends like feta and black olive; artichoke and Parmesan; smokey salmon and fresh dill; sun-dried tomato and fresh basil; and dried cranberry and smokey bacon. Additionally, tastings of their silver needle, white and black teas — grown onsite — can be savored for a sustainable pick-me-up.

coffee cherries

Beautiful coffee cherries at Greenwell Farms

Drink World-Renowned Kona Coffee For Free

At Greenwell Farms, they have over 70 acres (28 hectares) of delicious and sustainably-produced Kona Coffee beans, and work with more than 300 farmers to produce it. It all started in 1850 when an English man named Henry Greenwell — who had hurt himself in the California Gold Rush — flew to Hawaii for some rest and relaxation. He then began planting coffee beans from Brazil and Guatemala around the island, until he discovered Kona’s volcanic soil transformed the beans into something low in acidity and exceptionally smooth. This is how Kona Coffee was born. Visitors can enjoy free tours of the farm, as well as complimentary tastings of 10 different Greenwell coffees — including a few blends like Macadamia Nut and Chocolate Macadamia Nut — and organic honeys from the local Big Island Bees.

cliff jumping

Cliff jumping at The End of the World

Jump Off The End Of The World

In Kona, where the main artery of Ali’i Drive once ended, you’ll find an idyllic place lined with lady bug and butterfly filled noni trees. Past the blossoming fruits, an open lava field covered with hiking trails leads you to the sea, as well as a place known as The End of the World. Here, adrenaline junkies can jump from a jagged 40-foot- (12-meter-) high cliff ledge into deep crystalline waters filled with tropical fish. Bring a mask and fins, as it’s an excellent cove for snorkeling. Additionally, the finger-like islands pointing out from the coastline add a dramatic beauty to the spot.

manta rays

Swimming with manta rays on Big Island. Photo courtesy of Mr. Thomas.

Swim With 20-Foot-Long Manta Rays

Big Island is one of a very few destinations in the world where one can swim with manta rays with up to a 20-foot (6-meter) wingspan. These gentle giants are seen after sunset, with divers and snorkelers attracting plankton with flashlights, which the manta rays flock to as it’s essentially a free buffet. With snorkel gear on and a floating island to hang on to, you’ll float on the surface, looking down at these amazing creatures as they glide and perform underwater gymnastics. There are a number of companies that do the tour, although I personally recommend Fair Wind Tours, whom I used after a number of locals recommended it. Staff are knowledgeable and professional, plus the photographer/videographer is from National Geographic.

hamakua mushrooms

Hamakua Mushrooms bouquets. Photo courtesy of Hamakua Mushrooms.

Eat Unusual Mushroom Creations

At Hamakua Mushrooms, you can visit Hawaii’s only commercial mushroom factory. They’re grown organically and sustainably, using a byproduct mixture of corncob, wheat bran and grandis eucalyptus saw dust, that is donated to local farmers to use for healthy soil once the mushrooms have blossomed into a bouquet. Their mushrooms are more than just mushrooms, as they grow exotic varieties like Ali’i” Oyster, Gray Oyster, Pioppini and Abalone. My personal favorite is the Ali’i Mushroom, which tastes and feels almost identical to a scallop. They also work with local businesses to infuse the mushrooms into a number of local products, adding a silky butteriness and health benefits. Some of their mushroom enhanced products include sweet potato chips, cookies, brownie crisps, butters, wine, honey, macadamia nut mix with Lehua honey, chocolate and much more. Tours and tastings are offered daily at 9:30 am, 11 am and 1:30 pm (reserve your spot 24 hours in advance).


Ziplining through the Hawaiian rainforest. Photo courtesy of Hawaiian Forest & Trails.

Zip-Line Through The Hawaiian Rainforest

Reaching heights of 100 feet (30 meters) and speeds of 40 miles (64 kilometers) per hour, Kohala Zipline in Kapa’au allows you to feel the thrill of swinging like a money from treetop to treetop. A mix of ziplines, shaky bridges and repelling, it’s an aerial obstacle course and a fun way of experiencing the Hawaiian rainforest.

volcanoes national park

Crater Rim Trail in Volcanoes National Park

Hike In Volcanoes National Park

Encompassing 330,000 acres (133,546 hectares), Volcanoes National Park is a great starting point for understanding Hawaii’s native and introduced flora and fauna, as well as the volcanoes the destination is known for. Founded in 1916, the park is home to one of the world’s most active volcanoes — Kilauea Volcano — which has been erupting repeatedly since 1823, as well as Maunaloa Volcano, whose last eruption was in 1984. Throughout Volcanoes National Park you’ll find open lava fields, beaches, palm trees, lava tubes, steam vents, petroglyphs, desert, rainforest and more. For an energetic experience, the park is home to more than 150 miles (241 kilometers) of trails, with the most challenging being the one-to-four day Mauna Loa Trek.


I went to a historical ranch that dates back to the 1840s, and is home to 23,000 acres (9,308 hectares) of native plants, unobstructed volcano views, historic houses and lava-shaped prairie. After zooming around rough terrain on a quad, head back to the main house to see farm animals like donkeys, rabbits, goats, llamas, buffalo and even an odd cross between a goat and a sheep called a mouflon. Many of the animals you can even pet!

hawaiian food

Hawaiian dinner aboard the Body Glove Historical Dinner Cruise. Photo courtesy of Body Glove.

Take A Sunset Cruise

Not only did I love the historical dinner cruise I took with Body Glove near Kona, but the food was the best I had during the entire trip. It begins with a narration of Hawaii’s history and folklore as you snack on apps like taro and guava bread, fresh fruit, and cheese and crackers, while sipping a free drink (one complimentary drink per person, then it’s a cash bar).

Afterward, there’s an intermission with live acoustic music, followed by more narration and a delicious dinner of pork and taro Lau Lau’s steamed in ti leaves, teriyaki beef kabobs, grilled pulehu chicken, lomi lomi salmon, and steamed Rice with furikake & shoyu. The highlight for me was the mix of sea, mountain and volcano views, ending with a colorful sunset and starry sky (oh yea, and the chocolate cake). It’s a great option for seeing Big Island from a unique vantage point and learning the destination’s background story.

Kealakekua Bay

Hike down to the serene Kealakekua Bay

Have Your Own Private Beach

I’m an avid hiker, and while Big Island has many scenic hikes to choose from, my favorite was to Kealakekua Bay. Park on Napoopoo right, at the top of the incline as it descends down from Queen Kaahumanu Highway. You can type “Kealakekua Bay Bay Park” into your maps app, or simply look for the many cars parked by the trailhead. The moderate trek takes about an hour to an hour and a half each way, with the landscape changing from tall grass to lava fields to woodland to sea. It’s mostly steep and rocky terrain, so make sure to wear sturdy shoes.

Also bring your bathing suit, as at the bottom you’ll find crystal waters perfect for snorkeling and swimming. Big rocks allow you to picnic while dangling your feet in the sea. Bonus: Here you’ll also find the Captain Cook monument, which shows the spot where he landed and was also killed three months later when the locals realized he wasn’t, in fact, a god like they had thought.

My trip to Big Island was sponsored by the Big Island Tourism Board. I was not required to write this post nor was I compensated for it. All opinions are my own.


Jessica Festa
Jessica Festa is the editor of the travel sites Jessie on a Journey (http://jessieonajourney.com) and Epicure & Culture (http://epicureandculture.com). Along with blogging at We Blog The World, her byline has appeared in publications like Huffington Post, Gadling, Fodor's, Travel + Escape, Matador, Viator, The Culture-Ist and many others. After getting her BA/MA in Communication from the State University of New York at Albany, she realized she wasn't really to stop backpacking and made travel her full time job. Some of her most memorable experiences include studying abroad in Sydney, teaching English in Thailand, doing orphanage work in Ghana, hiking her way through South America and traveling solo through Europe. She has a passion for backpacking, adventure, hiking, wine and getting off the beaten path.
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