Hawaii’s Big Island Part 1: North Kohala


We may as well have been on the moon.

With no street lights at all, we could see nothing to the right or left of us – just the  smidgen of road in front of us lit by our rental car headlights.

So when we pulled through the gate of Puakea Ranch, our first lodging on a 9 day trip to the Big Island of Hawaii, we saw only the tall ranch grasses lining the bumpy dirt road.

I recognized the lovely “Miles Away” ranch cottage from the many photos I had seen. But since it was 2 am to our poor, east-coast bodies, which included those of myself, my husband, and 10-year-old daughter, we opened all the windows, prepped our morning coffee and dove into bed.

Saturday morning, after being awakened by the sound of a fountain and unfamiliar bird chirps, I walked to the front door.

Remember how Dorothy felt when she opened the door from black and white Kansas farm house to technicolor Oz?

That’s just how I felt when I walked outside and saw this:


Oh, and there were some charming ocean-front cows mooing in that field that morning, too.  Then I turned around and saw this…

pool view 1

Yes, this pool – complete with waterfall and two lounge chairs – was just for us.

Puakea Ranch, a former cowboy ranch near the tiny town of Hawi, fits perfectly into my ideal vacation lodging: laid-back luxury.

From the private, tropical pool to the Japanese bathhouse with soaking tub and our very own ocean view swing and hammock, Puakea had already made it worth every minute of the 20 hour trek from North Carolina.

After enjoying the sweeping views over coffee, farm-fresh-ranch-eggs, and pan-fried Spam (yes, Spam. My husband insisted), we headed out to explore the ranch.

Puakea has 4 charming cottages, each completely renovated with a detached Japanese bathhouse and access to a garden, “Jay’s Pond” a hidden lava rock pool which took us a while to find, and the ranch’s goats, a pig (who gets very excited at the prospect of food when visitors approach), 2 bunnies, and many chickens who graciously provided our breakfast each morning.

Next, we headed out to explore North Kohala.  While South Kohola is the main resort area of the Big Island, North Kohala is rural, farm land, small towns and beautiful lush vistas – vistas that are exactly what you picture when you think of Hawaii.

Our primary destination for the morning was the hike to the black sand beaches of Pololu Valley. Before our trip, I read lots about how difficult this hike was.  Actually, it was the perfect hike – not too time consuming, with enough elevation on the way back up to work up a hearty appetite for the ice cream I was prepared to eat later that afternoon.

As you can see, it was quite stunning:

Pololu Lookout

Your reward for the steep hike.  The only black sand beach you need to see for your trip to be complete:

Black Sand Beach

On the drive back to Hawaii, I saw this sign: Lunchtime!

Gill's Lanai

If there are lobster tacos, at a tiny open air restaurant, I will be stopping there. Gill’s Lanai, in Kapaau was a crowd pleaser – they even did an off-menu cheese quesadilla for those in our group with less sophisticated palates.

Gill's Lanai has lobster tacos.

Gill’s Lanai has lobster tacos.

A short drive away from Puakea is the adorable town of Hawi. We got more coffee at Kohala Coffee Mill.  This is where we discovered Tropical Dreams Ice Cream.  This ice cream rocked. my. world.  Locally made, with all local ingredients.  There was pineapple cream.  There was coconut cream.  There was banana. WHAT TO DO?

Get one scoop of each.  And I did.  I was unstoppable.  This is what vacation is all about.


Local coffee and local ice cream. Together.

After all that exertion and ice cream, there was only one thing to do.


Handstand contest.

This pool, Jay’s pond, was simply amazing. It looked like lava rock and was the perfect temperature. The only person we saw there in three days was the gardener checking on the tropical plants.  It was so hidden on the ranch property, it took us a while to find it.

Dinner time.  Sushi Rock.

Up until recently, I’ve been “fine” with sushi.  Now, I get it.

Sushi Rock, in “downtown” Hawi, is simply excellent. We particularly enjoyed the seasoned edimame, orange and tuna appetizer was to die for.  While some of their special rolls are made with Hawaiian ingredients like macadamia nuts, ahi poke, and papaya, even their most basic rolls, like the unagi (eel) and avocado were the best I’ve had.

I wanted to check out Bamboo, but they were closed. So we ate at Sushi Rock twice.  Such a fun, delicious dinner.

Day 2

One again, we began our day with Kona coffee, eggs from the farm’s own chickens, Hawaiian bread and fresh pineapple (but sans the Spam this time).  Breakfast was promptly followed by snail races.

Any day that you can sit and watch giant snails locomote is a very. good. day.

After the exciting conclusion of the race, we ventured to South Kohala to check out those amazing Big Island beaches and do some off shore snorkeling.

Since we needed some guidance on this matter, Josh, the ranch host, suggested we try beach 69 for the best off-beach snorkeling on the island. “It’s quiet, great swimming, nice reef.  It’s where all the locals go.”  It wasn’t in the guide book. Off we went.

Josh was right. It was hard to beat for easy access, loads of parking, and a nice variety of fish and coral to warm up our snorkeling fins.

When we were worn out from our leaky masks, we hopped one beach up to the heavily lauded Hapuna Beach.

Hapuna Beach is gorgeous.  Perfect white sand, crystal clear calm waters, and unlike most Atlantic Coast beaches, no pesky shells to slice up your feet.  Yet it does feel crowded like any awesome state park should, especially on a Saturday.


We enjoyed swimming (and people watching) for a while, then moved on for a shot of Hawaiian history.

Rule #6 of the “Mehr Rules of Travel” is that if the US government has deemed a site of national historic importance, and has invested in it as such, it is worth a stop. Pu’ukohola Heiau was no exception to this rule.


Like many Hawaiian Historic Sites, Pu’ukohola Heiau has a morbid backstory. Kamehemeha built it as a sacrificial temple where he “sacrificed” his cousin to prove himself worthy of leadership.  He then, of course, proceeded to “unite” the Hawaiian Islands.

Also part of the park’s 83 acres is the lovely Pelekane Bay, where the high chief understandably chose to set up residence.

I was pondering why no one was using this beautiful beach.  Then I read that there were sharks all over this bay. So many, in fact, that the Hawaiians used to feed people to the sharks as offerings to the shark gods.


Fortunately, the site lent itself to a quick visit since we were exhausted, salty, and sweltering in the heat. Sadly, we elected to pass up a visit to Lapakahi State Historical Park, located 5 minutes from Puakea. But Rule #4 of the “Mehr Rules of Travel” clearly states that, when traveling, you must respect your energy level at all costs.  Not to mention… the Puakea pools and cold Kona beer were beckoning.

So back we went for swimming, Tropical Dreams ice cream, and Sushi Rock take out on our cottage lanai.

Next Up: Big Island Trip Report Part 2 – Volcano!


  1. That was fun. I want some of that ice cream!

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