by Kristin Lajeunesse
The orange-purple hues from the sunrise tickled my eyelashes open, and with a big, full-body stretch, I began to wake. One of my hands brushed along the mesh mosquito net that hung from the ceiling and draped down around the bed, nearly touching the floor on all sides. I had slept out on the lanai (a verdana-style semi-enclosed porch), and it was the start of another warm, sun-kissed day on the Big Island of Hawai’i.
Having spent the past three years traveling full-time—initially in search of food, and then as a lifestyle choice—I landed on the Big Island in July 2014 hoping to find a zen-like environment to finish writing my first-ever book: A memoir about the 18 months I spent living out of a vehicle and driving around the US in an effort to eat at and write about every single vegan restaurant in the country.
After renting a cozy, studio-style bungalow-on-stilts for four months in the lower county of Puna, and having successfully completed the book (now awaiting its print and release date from the publisher), I jetted off to Maui before returning to the mainland to visit my family for the holidays.
Sitting here bundled beneath piles of blankets in my parent’s Upstate NY farmhouse, I’m happy to recall and share with you the incredible food finds of the Big Island.
If you hit the road from the town of Pahoa and head south for roughly 15 miles on route 130, you’ll run into the “Red Road.” If you arrive on a Wednesday night, turn right and check out one of the coolest farmers' market on the planet: Uncle Robert’s.
Packed with locals, run by a family of Native Hawaiians; featuring live music, a kava bar, a kombucha stand, dozens of local artists, and so much great food (the green papaya salad with avocado is fantastic and the all-vegan ice cream stand Nicoco is not to be missed). The market is relatively small, but bustling through the wee hours of the night.
If you choose to take a left onto the Red Road instead of a right, make a stop at one of the only non-regulated nude beaches on the Island: Kehena. Its natural black sand is beautifully framed by lush green foliage that bustles from the cliffs above and the glistening blue ocean with waves that are not intended for your average swimmer. Be prepared for a steep hike down and interaction with rough lava before reaching what little is left of the finer black sand.
After sunbathing, trek back up to your car and drive another few miles to have lunch at one of the Island’s most sought after destinations: Kalani Wellness Retreat Center. If you’re planning to be in the Puna area for a while, pick up a schedule from Kalani and jump into one of their classes. You'll find yoga, meditation, restorative programs, dance, and more. Another option is to join one of their week-long retreats for restoration, spiritual connection, and healthy-living guidance.
As you head back north toward Hilo, be sure to stop by my absolute favorite outdoor market on the Island. It’s held every Sunday, just a few miles north of Pahoa Village: Maku’u Farmers’ Market.
Swing by the Filthy Farmgirl soap booth and say hello to Phil or Val. Filthy Farmgirl is a locally made soap company and most of their soaps are totally vegan. They also carry lip balm and body lotion.
The founder of the popular Big Island Kombucha company (which often has a stand at the nearby farmers' markets, including Uncle Robert’s, Maku’u, and Hilo) opened a brick-and-mortar location in the summer of 2014, offering their unique kombucha flavors on-tap, plus a handful of vegetarian and vegan meals. They also have open mic nights a few times a week.
Other noteworthy places in Hilo with some delicious vegan options: Island Naturals grocery store (bigger than the one in Pahoa), Lucy’s Taqueria (Mexican), Kanpai (sushi), Miyo’s (Japanese), Prabha’s Indian Restaurant, and Naung Mai Thai Kitchen.
Before leaving Hilo, plan a relaxing afternoon of sunbathing and snorkeling at Richardson Beach Park. You’ll pass several other beachfront parks on your way, but this one is worth waiting for. Almost immediately after slipping into the water with your snorkel gear, you’ll spot huge sea turtles floating just below the water’s surface, noshing on plankton and other sea veggies. Bring a hammock and do some lava-rock hopping to find the two perfect trees to spend the afternoon lounging away between.
Continuing north from Hilo, stop at Rainbow Falls to experience the beautiful waterfall and it’s humongous neighboring banyan tree! Then, head about 25 minutes north and stop off at the breathtaking 442-foot ‘Akaka Falls.
From ‘Akaka Falls on your way to Hawi (the northernmost part of the Big Island) plan for stops and exploration of other incredible waterfalls, zip lines, and hikes in the Hilo Forest Preserve, the town of Waimea, and the Pu’u O Umi Natural area preserve.
That brings us to another almost-totally-vegan restaurant on the Island (some stuff has honey in it). Sweet Potato Kitchen offers some of the best food on the Island. Clean, healthy, and packed with flavor, it's worth the trip up to the bitty top of the island for a visit. The desserts, in particular, rocked my world. The drive alone—from Hilo to Hawi—is so totally worth it.
As we make our way south now, down along the west coast of the island, we’ll head toward Kona where more vegan noms await However, on your way you MUST stop for some epic snorkeling at Waialea Beach (AKA Beach 69), one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen. Crisp blue waters, easy snorkeling, not too crowded, and white sand beaches. Bring a picnic; you’re going to want to stay all day.
Ready for another day of amazing-ness?! Head on down to Kona for some nosh-worthy pizza from Get’ Sum Pizzeria. In the mood for a vegan brunch instead? Evolution Bakery & Cafe is open from 8am to 3pm and is located in the exact same spot as Get’ Sum Pizzeria (when it merges with and then “turns into” the pizzeria at 12 noon). Continuing south down the west coast side of the island you’ll also find incredible snorkeling in the Captain Cook area.
No one should leave the Island without trying some of Hawaii's luscious tropical fruits: Soursop, sprouted coconut, apple bananas, durian, jackfruit, lilikoi, rambutan, papaya, and mangoes unlike anything you've ever tasted on the mainland before.
Kristin Lajeunesse is the author of Will Travel for Vegan Food: A Young Woman’s Solo Mission to Break Free, Find Food, and Make Love. She is also the founder and manager of the award-winning website: Will Travel for Vegan food. Kristin is a Business Clarity Coach and Creative Marketing Strategist currently immersing herself in the Chicago, IL foodie scene. Keep up with Kristin’s adventures on wtfveganfood.com.