Hawaii, The Big Island—the youngest and still growing thanks to the active volcano Kilauea on the northern side of the island—is often known for its luxe accommodations, such as the Four Seasons Hualalai and Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. While these high-end hotels attract guests from around the world with their 400-plus thread counts, specialty cocktails and attentive staff, some vacationers—like Julie Sinclair of Los Angeles—are called to the Big Island for more than mai tais and a suntan. Sinclair describes her first couple of experiences on the Big Island as staying at large family-oriented resorts, noting that they were the perfect introduction to the island. Little by little, though, with each successive visit, Sinclair felt she was able to experience a deeper connection to Hawai‘i by trying smaller, independent properties. “The big resorts were wonderful, but there was something missing for me,” she says. “There was definitely a shift in my experience once I started sleeping without air-conditioning and allowed myself to fully connect with the island’s elemental qualities: rain forest, volcano, hot springs, lava fields.”
Her “really-get-to-know” Hawai‘i trip began with a two-week stay at the 30-year-old nonprofit Kalani Oceanside Retreat in the tropical Puna district on the island’s southeastern shore. She was there for a three-week immersion course to study an energetic healing modality. Between classes she would swim at the nearby black-sand beach (dolphins playing just on the other side of the breakers), head to Hilo to shop (where Spam sandwiches sold in delis provided another surprise) or just kick back at the retreat’s pool.
Accommodations at Kalani range from tent camping to hales (with shared bathrooms) to multiroom lodges with private baths. Food, all organic, is served up informally three times a day in a lanai. Only a 45-minute drive south from the Hilo Airport, Kalani offers workshops and personal retreats year-round. Day trips might include a visit to Kilauea, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, and the thermal spring pool at Ahalanui Park up the coast. Sinclair also did a one-day drive around the entire island, beginning in the early morning and arriving on the western coast north of Kona in time to watch the sun set from Kekaha Kai State Park.
“Each day brought moments of profound connection with nature,” she remembers. “Just across the road from Kalani’s front entrance, I’d walk to dramatic lava cliffs, from which I’d meditate on the ocean while large sea turtles swam below. With no TVs, and cellphone reception being spotty, it’s an amazing place to unplug and refresh.” Rates start at $40 per night for camping, $90 for a lodge room with a shared bath; kalani.com.