11/29/2011 07:47 am ET Updated Jan 29, 2012

Hawaii: Big Island Essentials

When travel editor and FATHOM contributor Becca Bergman Bull was planning her honeymoon, the last place she thought she'd end up was Hawaii. In the end, it was the perfect choice. Here's what she did.

For our honeymoon we spent eleven days on the Big Island of Hawaii, flying in and out of Kona International Airport (KOA) on the west side. I'd recommend staying at least three nights on the Hilo side (the east coast), for the attractions and the dramatic landscape, and a few nights on the Kona side, the dry, beachy west side. You'll want to be close to the airport on departure day.

Most of the island's resorts are grouped together on the Kailua-Kona coast, with the ritzier ones to the north. Elsewhere on the island, it's mainly small hotels and bed-and-breakfasts.

Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows: Located on the dry Kona-Kailua coast, Mauna Lani is one of the few independent hotels on the island, and it shows. The resort feels big, but the staff, many of whom have been there forever, are nearly all local and provide indispensable advice for exploring the island like an insider. The amazing beach is a private crescent of powdery sand lapped by calm turquoise water where sea turtles bob in the waves. Beach chairs are plentiful and free (at a certain resort a coconut's throw to the north, the same chairs run $45 a day). Mauna Lani prides itself on having no hidden costs, so amenities like valet parking, snorkel gear, WiFi, and rental bikes are gratis. The spa is sublime (get the Lomi Lomi massage) and the hotel is kid-friendly. Rooms start at $395 a night, which counts as affordable in this category. Rooms are on the small side, but that's not where you will be spending your time.

Four Seasons Hualalai: Conversations about this Four Seasons are generally accompanied with a wistful sigh and glazed eyes -- it's that dreamy. It is rumored to have the highest occupancy rate in the state, which is surprising considering it is one of Hawaii's most expensive hotels. The resort is low-lying and accommodations are buried within leafy foliage, producing a manicured jungle feel. Individual outdoor showers burst with orchids and notes of lemony L'Occitane products. The manmade King's Pond is filled with saltwater and over 4,000 fish. The ruler of the roost is a giant spotted eagle ray who will nibble little fish from your palm with a gummy, old-man mouth. Although it feels a bit like cheating, the pond is meant for snorkeling. Swimming among jewel-colored creatures without fear of hungry sharks or rogue waves is a singular experience. The pond's perimeter is ringed by beach chairs and waitstaff who will clean your sunglasses and bring you a sandwich. The Achilles' heel of Hualalai is that it doesn't have much of a beach, though a small cove for swimming and many pools compensate. One thing you hear about this resort is that if you have to ask the price (of anything), it's not for you. Rooms start around $650, but many things are free, like self-parking, snorkeling equipment, chairs, and, most notably, an all-day kids program.

Ala Kai Bed & Breakfast
: Several hours and a world away, the Ala Kai is one of many B&Bs sprinkled throughout the forests of the east side. There are only a few rooms and one standalone cottage. They are clean, cozy, and outfitted with thoughtful amenities like picnic baskets, guide books, bottled water, a DVD library, chocolate-covered macadamia nuts, and earplugs to block out the nightly tree frog symphony. In the morning, the kind proprietors, Mary Roblee and Pat Fay, turn out a tasty breakfast on the lanai with Kona coffee and banana-nut muffins. Though located a block from the ocean bluffs in a sleepy residential neighborhood, Ala Kai is close to many of the east side's major sites, including Volcanoes National Park, Akaka Falls, Kapoho Tide Pools, and a farmers' market.

Kona Village Resort
: An authentic Hawaii experience, with thatched-roof beach huts, without televisions or telephones, where little has changed in the past 30 years. Unfortunately, the property is closed indefinitely due to tsunami damage, and some speculate that it may never reopen. Here's hoping.

Mauna Kea Resort: The classic Laurence Rockefeller resort has recently undergone a major renovation and the rooms are subsequently bigger and nicer (and pricier). If you don't want to stay at the hotel, you can visit the spectacular public beach.

Shipman House: A Victorian B&B mansion in Hilo set amid tropical gardens.


Photo: The Beach Tree pool at Four Seasons Hualalai.

Hilo Farmers Market: The island has many farmers markets, but this is the flagship. Stock up on giant avocados, exotic peppers, and addictive, intensely sweet white pineapple.

Waipi'o Valley: The sacred valley is home to only about 30 people, mostly privacy-loving taro farmers who live without plumbing or electricity and whose only access to the outside world is one skinny, extraordinarily steep road. Many visitors go to an overlook for a glimpse of the valley's beauty from afar, others take van tours down to its depths or hike the steep road in the hot sun. But you can drive down yourself for a scary, exhilarating, and fun experience -- provided you don't topple over the side. You must have four-wheel drive to navigate the road -- a guard at the top won't let you down otherwise. The reward is getting to feel like an illicit explorer on the hushed, verdant valley floor, winding up at an ancient burial site that abuts a dramatic black sand beach being pounded by the crashing surf.

Mauna Kea: It's debatable which drive is more exciting: Waipi'o or Mauna Kea. Both are challenging in different ways. Waipi'o is steeper and narrower, but over in four minutes. Mauna Kea is grave and goes on for half an hour. But the end result! Mauna Kea is an immense dormant volcano that looms over the island, topping out at an impressive 13,796 feet (in the winter, locals use their surfboards to sled and snowboard down its snowy flanks). Supposedly, from its summit, you can see more stars with the naked eye than anywhere else in the world. And nowhere else can you ascend to such a height so quickly. (The advice is to acclimate at 9,000 feet for 30 minutes.) This drive also requires a 4WD and an indifference to hairpin turns with plunging edges and no guardrails. The top is freezing cold, but the sunset is spectacular, and, boy, is it worth it.

Volcanoes National Park
: The sprawling park is home to active volcanoes, miles of hiking trails, hissing steam vents, and the occasional cinematic opportunity to see flowing lava hit the ocean with a great showering of sparks. If the lava isn't flowing, you can hike through giant lava tubes and rain forests without seeing anyone else for great stretches of time. Not too shabby. Bring a raincoat.

Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden: A private paradise on the east side of the island with a rather high price tag to enter ($15). But it's Hawaiian beauty distilled -- spectacular plants condensed into a walkable hideaway. Nearby Akaka Falls is better known, but less impressive after the Tropical Botanical Garden. The drive there is also one of the island's prettiest.

Also on the To-Do List:
- Visiting a coffee plantation in bohemian Kona.
- Seeking out the seemingly endless array of hidden beaches tucked behind imposing fields of black lava.
- Finding the secret hot thermal pools around Puna, one in particular that is alluringly called Champagne Pond. (We tried, but it may be a myth.)
- Eating more poke.

For tips on where to eat, what to drink, and how to know what the locals are up to on the Big Island, visit