Everyone knows my favorite part of any meal is dessert. When we visited Hawaii's Big Island earlier this summer, I made it my scientific duty to test every sweet delicacy across the archipelago to bring you this definitive list of the best treats. Thanks to the island's large East Asian and South Asian populations, it was easy to find indulgences like handmade mochi, sugar-coated Portuguese malasada donuts, purple taro treats, and refreshing boba smoothies. I hope you're ready for a sugar rush!
And if you're looking to try a little bit of every flavor on Hawaii's Big Island, click here to read our go-to guide for navigating the culinary scene from Kona to Hilo and back, called "Pizza and Poke - Savory Eats on the Big Island."
Funny story for the photo above: I ordered a piña colada (of course) at the hotel bar, and we asked for a MAI TAI for Brandon, but the server misheard us and gave us a huge slice of MUD PIE sprinkled with macadamia nuts, a Hawaiian specialty. Huge bummer, right? We told her that though we were sooo disappointed by the mix up, we would find a way to eat the entire ice cream cake and then lick the plate, no worries. 10/10
You'll notice I've rated our dining experiences in the paragraphs below. Not something I typically do, but it seemed appropriate for this long list, which is ten days worth of eating. None of the ratings go below 7/10, mostly because I'm too nice, but also because all the food on the island was truly wonderful. I would be honest with you if anything was inedible. I've supplemented this post with some photos from Unsplash and Pixabay for those times when we were so busy savoring the food, I forgot to take pictures! After all, this was a #selfietrip.
Let me tell you, when we walked out of the shop holding this astonishing platter of colorful mochi, heads turned, mouths gaped open. Yes sir, we knew what we were doing. If you've never had mochi before, or maybe have only had the ice cream version, it's a chewy, room temperature Japanese dessert made of sweet glutinous rice flour. When it's stuffed with traditional sweetened bean fillings, sweet potato or whole fruit, like strawberries or pears, it becomes daifuku.
At Two Ladies Kitchen, they take their mochi one step further by also offering contemporary fillings like brownie, Oreo, peanut butter cup and s'mores. We had such a fantastic time guessing what would be inside each shape, always delighted with the scrumptious results. You'll notice the tray also contained a few manju cakes, made of baked wheat flour and lots of butter. Highly recommended! See the full list of filling options here. 10/10
We stopped here twice while in Hilo for the day for their creamy blended taro boba smoothie and brown sugar milk tea. I sample the taro smoothie wherever we travel. It's always fascinating to experience how various shops interpret this classic Taiwanese refreshment; it tastes different every time! Have you ever tried a taro smoothie? It's like a subtle, nutty version of a vanilla milkshake, but purple because it's made with purple taro root, similar to sweet potato. 10/10
Let's get one thing straight, on the Hawaiian islands it's called shave ice, not shaveD ice, and it's way better than a snow cone. We tried this frosty treat at many different snack stands around the Big Island and Oahu, but this place in the tourist area had the best ice texture, very thinly shaved without any crunch.
You'll notice in this photo that my glasses are all fogged up from walking in the rain. Hawaii's Big Island has fascinating weather patterns that run like clockwork. Each morning, we woke up to cloudless blue skies and a gentle breeze. Then in the afternoon, the clouds rolled down the mountain and a light rain would fall before clearing up again just after dinner.
It reminded me of the second Hunger Games book/movie, Catching Fire, where *spoiler alert* the gamemaker designed the arena as a giant clock with crazy things happening every hour, like blood rain at 1pm and killer monkeys at 3pm. Of course, Hawaii's Big Island wasn't trying to kill us, thankfully, but the predictability of the weather every day was eerie.
I believe it's important to try new foods wherever you go, including any native fruits and vegetables when you can find them. Eat like the locals do! At the various farmers markets across the island, we picked up juicy exotic fruit like rambutan (shown above), mangosteen and lychee to nibble on. They may look alien, but they're tangy treats with crisp textures that remind me of grapes and citrus. Have you tried these fruits before? 8/10
Located right outside of the Royal Kona Resort in a tiny room upstairs from a snorkel gear rental shop, this café serves frozen purple acai bowls loaded with toppings like strawberries and bananas, granola and coconut flakes, peanut butter and goji berries, bee pollen and cacao nibs. An island staple! 10/10
Everyone insisted that we try the pineapple upside down cake from this bakery factory in the north part of the island, so we made the trek. Oh boy, they were right! Rich and caramelly, the cake was close-your-eyes, melt-into-your-chair euphoric. I imagine the loads of sugar and butter had something to do with it. We also recommend the lilikoi (passionfruit) cheesecake and cream cheese Danish, all heavenly. 10/10
My favorite farm tour we experienced was the apiary at Big Island Bees. After a captivating tour meeting the Queen Bee, we sampled all the specialty single-floral honeys the company sells, plus several delicious enriched honeys like cinnamon, vanilla bean, and red chili pepper. Yum! 10/10
Located on the side of Mamalahoa Highway, this little coffee room sells scrumptious baked goods like the broccoli cheddar scone and cream cheese carrot cake we enjoyed, plus many vegan desserts and sandwiches. We rested in the laid back hippie vibe when grabbing a bite on the way to snorkel at Two Step Beach. 8/10
Pro tip: Eating out while on vacation can get expensive! You know this, everyone knows this. To cut costs, we decided in advance which meals were most important to us, and which ones were okay to gloss over with cheap snacks.
For instance, if you're a self-proclaimed breakfast junky, perhaps you'll choose to go all out in the AM and then eat beef jerky and granola bars for lunch. Or, if it works with your activity schedule, you might combine breakfast and lunch for a mid-morning meal called brunch (a word I just made up), to feed two birds with one scone and save some coin before splurging on dinner at a fancy restaurant.
On some trips, and especially if you rent an Airbnb, the accommodations may come with a full kitchen, or at least a fridge and microwave. This is ideal for travelers looking to cook a few meals "at home" instead of eating out every 5 hours or subsisting on PB&Js slapped together on the hotel bathroom counter.
At the Royal Kona Resort where we stayed in Kailua-Kona, we only had a mini fridge and a wet bar sink, so our options were limited. Breakfast was leftovers from dinner or cereal and almond milk from the store, consumed out of reusable plastic bowls. Who needs a full meal at 8am anyway?
So that's it, that's the pro tip: go to Costco or a local supermarket instead of eating at the overpriced resort breakfast buffet for $35 per person. And while you're at it, try buying and grinding a big bag of surprisingly good coffee at Costco to brew in the hotel coffee maker or visiting a new coffeeshop every day to support local business.
I'm full of sage travel advice. (And I swear I'm not sponsored by Costco.)
Craving something salty to go with all these sweets? I feel ya. Time to head over to my blog post about our favorite restaurants on Hawaii called "Pizza and Poke - Savory Eats on the Big Island."
Or if you want to get moving to avoid the inevitable sugar crash, here are some farm tours we recommend experiencing on the Big Island, "5 Farm Tours Across Hawaii’s Big Island + Bonus Activities!"