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Trying to get a handle on the Big Island

Gosh it's big. Obvious, dumb statement, but I never realized it was Connecticut big. We're spending three nights at Waianuhea and four at the Fairmont Orchid, and given the size, I'm trying to trim down our food itinerary to what's truly worth the drive (and the money). Most of my research has been on the New York Times website (I saw a handful of critique-my-itinerary posts here, but none seemed quite on point), so I'm hoping that the CH community can let me know whether I'm going wrong with any of the following:

- Hilo Bay Cafe (Worth the hour-long drive from Honokaa? Anything to do in the area after dinner?)
- Waianuhea (Have to stay in at least one night)
- Merriman's
- Rapanui (Possibly before/after visiting Mauna Kea)
- Kenichi Pacific (though I welcome any other sushi recs)

Not planning on Brown's - $15 green salads and $57 steaks only seem fun when the company is paying, in my book, but please tell me if I should reconsider.

Two specific requests: are there any tiki joints left now that Okolemaluna closed? And if we do one classic, touristy, dinner-and-a-show type deal, what's our best bet?

Many, many thanks for your help. I'm feeling much more lost about this than I usually do.

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  1. I'm a big fan of Hilo's grab-and-go, local-style casual foods, and really think it's more of a breakfast-lunch kinda town than a dinner one.

    One of my favorite Hilo meals is to visit the historic Suisan fish market, grab some poke, and walk over to either Liliuokalani Gardens, or Coconut Island, or really anywhere right nearby, and have a picnic lunch by the bay. You get a gorgeous view of the coast, and sometimes Mauna Kea will peek out.

    You can mix-n-match a variety of poke in a rice bowl. I like to get the classic, simple Hawaiian ahi version.

    Or, you could pop by the Hilo Farmer's Market, and cobble together a meal from the vendors there. There is also the Farmers Kitchen Cafe at the Farmer's Market, and lots of other little mom-and-pop eateries nearby. It's fun to walk around Old Hilo and just soak up the ambiance, and local characters. The KTA around the corner from the Farmers Market is a hoot.

    The much-loved Hawaiian Style Cafe in Kamuela recently opened a branch in Hilo, but it sounds like it's bit rough around the edges right now.

    And if by chance Volcano is on your itinerary, you could get a classic Hilo plate lunch, drive up to the National Park, and have a lovely picnic there.

    Enjoy your time on the island.

    1. Hilo Bay Cafe is good for lunch or dinner, but no, not much doing in Hilo after dark. Would make more sense to do daytime activities down that way (Kilauea volcano, Puna district) and stop there for dinner before driving back to Honokaa after dark. The one exception to worthwhile evening events in Hilo would be the Merrie Monarch Festival (April 4-6, 2013), but that is a major goal in itself, and would be hard to get dinner reservations then anyway.

      Definitely keep Merriman's on your list...good for lunch, tops for dinner.

      1. If you are going to go visit the Volcano, try and plan to have dinner at Kilauea Lodge. The dining room is a wonderful place, they grow a lot of their own produce, and the menu has an unexpected selection. The soups are especially good. I always have trouble deciding between soup or salad. I've been known to get both.

        1. The Fairmont Orchid is one of our favorite Hotels....Anywhere! It has an awesome old Hawaii vibe and the beach is nice plus there's a Sushi joint right on property, although the service can be a little snarky. Browns is worth a visit. It is a bit pricey but the food is very good as is the service. What makes it worth every penny is having a table over looking the ocean at sunset as they light the Torches, often with local music. I wouldn't miss that opportunity, after all that's exactly what so many go to Hawaii for but I'd put this as a solid contender even if you just go for a drink and a appetizer.
          It's a little OT but if you stay on the Gold floor in the Fairmont the food is freakin killer. Their pastry Chef is very talented. The Gold floor here is better than the concierge level at any of the Four Seasons properties in Hawaii with one exception, Alcohol is not included. Oddly enough the Garden view rooms on the Gold floor have the best views (except the ocean front rooms).
          Merrimans is simply awesome. The veggies alone are worth the very scenic drive. Every trip we've taken to the BI we have gone to Merrimans at least twice and have never been disappointed.
          It's a bit touristy but if you are on the Hilo side the Mauna Loa factory store is worth a visit. We never did the tour but we do stock up on snacks. When you are the Kohala coast Costco is just down the road in Kona so you can grab wine and other snacks and save some $$$.
          I'd really like to hear where others suggest for LocoMoco and Spam Musubi.

          1 Reply
          1. re: TraderJoe

            Your mention of Mauna Loa reminded me to mention Big Island Candies in Hilo. Mostly cookies etc, well worth the visit.

            I'm sure there are others, but anywhere in Hawaii, 7-11 has some of the best Spam Musubi (distressing isn't it?)

            For a loco moco I'd check out Ken's, Tex's, Blaine's, and K's. But then, I'm just a guy from Honolulu.

          2. Thank you all for your replies. Sounds like Merriman's is the real deal, and I think we'll try to work in Kilauea Lodge for lunch on the day we visit Volcanoes Nat'l Park, then hit Hilo Bay Cafe for dinner on the way home. And, with that calorie intake, maybe walk home from Hilo.

            Any other feedback on sushi? Is Kenichi Pacific the place to go, or does anyone else recommend the Fairmont's sushi joint? Any other lighter fare for a more casual, less caloric dinner if we need a break from Merriman's, etc.?

            1. For sushi go to Monsterra which is in the shops at Mauna Lani - best sushi on the island and very close to the Fairmont. The owner/ sushi chef is Norio, whom is the namesake of the sushi restaurant at the Fairmont. Norios at the Fairmont now has a new chef and I have not tried it since the real Norio left, though reviews and pictures have looked promising.

              Look into the Canoe House at Mauna Lani. Allen Hess is the chef there and he is getting great reviews. Many say he is the best on the island right now. I would go there over Browns. Also at mauna lani is a restaurant right on the beach by the homeowners area. The name escapes me but again very good and great atmosphere.
              Four Seasons Hualalai is a magnificent property with some great options and the prices to match. I recommend the Beach Tree restaurant there.

              In Kona, Rapanui is good - not fancy and no atmosphere, but good.
              I would recommend Lemongrass in Kona for excellent asian inspired cuisine.
              Have a great trip !

              2 Replies
              1. re: btcol

                where would you go for fish tacos? I also read something about a bbq guy on the side of the road on the big island. Have you been?

                1. re: dlbrack

                  You talkin' about Big Jakes down near Capt. Cook? If so, move on.

              2. Sad to be back on the East Coast after an amazing week in Hawaii. Somewhat surprisingly - or maybe because my wife and I both got horribly ill for a day halfway through our trip - we didn't feel as motivated by great restaurants as we typically do on vacations (though the fresh fruit was spectacular). Anyway, a few brief thoughts on where we ended up:

                - Dinner at Waianuhea (our B&B): Solidly good. If anyone staying there in the future wants details, respond and I'll post something in greater depth.

                - Hilo Bay Cafe: We had dinner here on the drive back to our first hotel from Volcanoes N.P. Fantabulous shrimp salad with chevre and somen noodles; those noodles in particular may have been the best thing we ate all night. Mushroom pot pie and ribeye were both very good - the pot pie had an excellent flaky crust - but not exactly great. Unfortunately, halfway through this meal was when we both started feeling queasy (not because of the restaurant; I think we caught something on the flight), so entrees were abandoned and we drove back to the hotel to recuperate for the next 36 hours.

                - Norio's: Really, really overpriced sushi. OK, $24 for five pieces of chu-toro sashimi doesn't sound like all that much, but when it tastes like maguro and the waitress talked you into it after you've placed your initial order, it's hard not to feel taken. Chef's special rolls, at $20 and $24, were probably the most cost-efficient way to eat, but the "Fairmont Roll" (ono wrapped around a roll with a bunch of veggies) was bland, and the "Red Dragon" pretty standard.

                - Manta: Easily the culinary highlight of our trip. We ended up here because Brown's was booked solid, Canoe House was closed for a private event and we wanted something on the water for our last night. Chevre ravioli with edamame and bacon was simply perfect; filet was one of the best steaks I've ever had (and I don't usually order filet); mahi-mahi with some sort of curried vegetable side was delicious even for a non-mahi-mahi-fan; and they nailed the souffle. All of this in a much more dramatic setting, and at a lower price point, than Brown's. Win all around.

                All of that being said, what I'm going to miss most are (1) breakfasts at Island Lava Java and (2) the fresh fruit. I can find great restaurants in Boston or New York; papayas as sweet and juicy as honeydew melon, but with all the body of a banana, are going to haunt my dreams.

                1. Hey there,
                  You'll have a great trip! My wife and I were lucky enough to spend our honeymoon on the Big Island and it was truly remarkable. It was a few years ago but my general impression was that the fresh ingredients at the markets (and even in some supermarkets) were better than most of the sit down restaurant meals. Will you have a kitchen anywhere?

                  We had decent sushi throughout the island but mostly westernized rolls. Delicious but not life-changing Japanese.

                  We did have the best meal of our trip at Merrimans and I understand that it has gotten even better more recently. Service was perfect and they have so much information about their ingredients and even taught us about other local fruits and produce that they didn't have on the menu that night. Really fun to hear about unfamiliar tropical fruits especially for someone living in the Northeast!

                  I would do the meal at Merriman's and check out the fish markets when you can.

                  Have fun.


                  1. Love Rapi Nui cafe. I would highly suggest you go there. It's not fancy and totally unassuming looking. However, the food is excellent. We love the Thunder Steak, Shrimp macadamia stir fry w/ peanut sauce on the side and the house fried rice which includes onions, coconut and lemongrass.