A couple weeks ago Rob and I went on a long-needed vacation to the Big Island of Hawaii. A while ago, we both agreed that we wanted to go somewhere warm at the approach of the cooler season here in the Pacific Northwest. Even though Hawaii wasn’t our first choice (we just went to Maui last year, and this time around we were considering Caribbean), we were glad that we decided to give it a go. Today I’d like to share with you our experience with finding vegan food on the Big Island in the hopes that you may find it useful for your own future travels.
Last year in Maui we stayed at a condo that we booked via AirBnB. My favorite part about that condo was the opportunity to make our own meals a few times, which was way cheaper than going out to eat three times a day. This time on the Big Island, we stayed at a hotel (Hilton Waikoloa Village), and even though our travel package included some perks like free breakfast buffet and some room credit, it couldn’t quite compare to the freedom of having access to a kitchen. Our room had a mini fridge but no microwave, which was also pretty limiting on what we could stock up on at a grocery store. Thankfully, even though the price point for most meals on the Big Island was more expensive than back home, we were glad that this place turned out to be pretty vegan-friendly. So here’s my list of our vegan findings during this trip:
Vegan-friendly Restaurants on the Big Island of Hawaii
Under The Bodhi Tree (Mauna Lani shopping center, Waikoloa). This was one of the places that had quite a few mentions online as I was doing my research of vegan-friendly restaurants on the Big Island. We went there for lunch on our first day, and the food turned out to be just what I needed – lots of fresh vegetables arranged into wraps, salads, sandwiches, smoothies, etc. Under the Bodhi Tree is overall vegetarian, with a few good vegan options like this wrap that I ordered:
Charley’s Thai (Queen’s Marketplace, Waikoloa). This restaurant was one of the dinner options closest to our hotel but located outside of the main hotel area, in a neat shopping mall. The menu was pretty standard for a Thai restaurant, with plenty of tofu options. We had the same waitress both time we went there. Both times she asked if we were vegan when we ordered our tofu curries, saying that she would let the cooks know to omit adding fish sauce. The food may not have been the best Thai we’ve ever eaten, but overall it was ok.
Local Dish (Hawi). We drove up to Hawi on Sunday planning to stop by their famed all-vegan Sweet Potato Kitchen restaurant. However, it turned out that it was closed on weekends, so we had to look for lunch somewhere else. There were only a handful restaurants open, so we tried our luck with a place called Local Dish. The guy behind the counter (potentially the owner) was very attentive to our requests, pointing to the vegetarian section on the menu. Rob picked the eggplant sandwich while I went for the roasted Portobello mushroom panini (we asked to omit cheese and butter). My sandwich came out with a nicely grilled mushroom cap, mustard, sauteed greens and lots of red bell peppers, which turned out to be a delicious combo. It may have been a little greasier than I like but I wasn’t complaining.
Monstera (Mauna Lani shopping center, Waikoloa). This was one of our favorite meals during our trip. Monstera came up in my online search as a vegan-friendly Japanese restaurant in the nearby shopping center. Their menu showed that they had tofu steak, which we found intriguing. Once we got to the restaurant, our waitress told us that they could make just about anything off the menu, or replace seafood with tofu/veganize the sauces in a lot of the existing menu options. Rob went for an udon noodle bowl with tofu and vegetables, and I ordered a couple of custom veggie rolls. Rob’s noodles looked and tasted spectacular, and my veggie sushi also turned out nice, with crunchy asparagus, Kabocha squash, avocado and some other tasty bits. No pictures here because we started devouring everything as soon as the food was brought out.
Café Ono (Volcano Village near Volcanoes National Park). On our way to the Volcanoes National Park, we stopped for lunch at Café Ono – another all-vegetarian/vegan-friendly restaurant with lots of online reviews. It turned out to be the cutest little place located inside an art gallery on a private farm that doubles as an artists’ retreat. The owner of the place gave us lots of tips on what to do in the national park. We both ordered vegan chili with brown rice that was a part of a generous platter with side salad, toast and some amazing purple sweet potato chips that I’ve never seen or eaten before but was totally fascinated by:
We also took a giant slice of vegan carrot cake to go, and ate it later on the edge of a volcanic crater inside the national park. Hands-down the coolest place to eat carrot cake!
Gypsea Gelato (south of Kona). I was so impressed with vegan gelato options in Maui last year that when we went to the Big Island, I kind of expected to see a similar situation there. Unfortunately it wasn’t the case, but we still found one gelato place located to the south of Kona. Gypsea Gelato makes everything on site. While the overall flavor variety was pretty big, they only had 3 nondairy sorbet flavors. The scoops were very generous though! I had a scoop of raspberry sorbet while Rob went for mango:
Our Vegan Findings at the Hilton Waikoloa Village Resort
Hilton resort in Waikoloa Village turned out to be a great place to relax by any of the three available pools or a beach lagoon, take nice walks and enjoy gorgeous sunsets every night. The Hilton facility included a few on-site restaurants, and thankfully, a few of them offered decent vegan options or at least the good ol’ ‘take the cheese off to make it vegan’ things. The expectable downside was the fairly high prices of the food offered. Anyway, here are our vegan picks among the Hilton Waikoloa Village restaurants:
Big Island Breakfast. We were lucky that our travel package included coupons for free breakfasts every morning, otherwise this buffet-style restaurant charges $32.95 per person for an all-inclusive breakfast. We found quite a few vegan-friendly options like steel-cut oatmeal with various toppings, rice, toast, peanut butter and tropical jellies, lots of fresh fruit and some vegetables. I was fascinated by a nice variety of Asian pickled and marinated vegetables (the area is heavily favored by tourists from Asia). Also, the sight of people eating bacon and eggs with chopsticks was quite unusual 🙂
Lagoon Grill (the same building as Ocean Sports). This burgers and fries-type restaurant is conveniently located between a pool and a lagoon beach. We found a specifically marked vegan burger made with a Boca burger patty, served on a vegan bun with vegan mayo (!) and all the trimmings. At 17 dollars, this was definitely the most expensive vegan burger I’ve eaten to date, but I appreciated the thoughtfulness of this place to add a vegan option to their menu.
Dona and Toni’s Pizza. This place offers the traditional Italian fare with local produce incorporated in a lot of dishes. It was close to our building, so we went there twice. We loved the fluffy crust on their cheeseless pizza (it could have used a bit more sauce though), and the Primavera pasta was also pretty good. However, the service was slow, and the complimentary bread basket typical for most Italian restaurants isn’t offered with the meals.
Boat Landing Cantina. Probably one of my favorite meals at Hilton happened at this open-air restaurants that was only opened for lunches during our stay (it serves dinners during busier seasons). The menu lists a veggie burrito and veggie tacos that are served with local oyster mushrooms grown on a mushroom farm in Hamakua. We both ordered the tacos, and were pleasantly surprised with how well the mushrooms tasted in them. There was also a good amount of fresh guacamole on top of each taco. Just a heads-up: let your server know that you’re vegan to make sure the kitchen staff prepares your order separately. Also, skip the Mexican rice as it is cooked with chicken stock.
Waikoloa Coffee stands. Hilton in Waikoloa has two of these coffee stands at both ends of the train trek (yes, the resort is so big they have a train taking people to their rooms. And a boat.) In case you don’t feel like shelling out $32.95 for the breakfast buffet, you can find various breakfasty things here: oatmeal packs, granola, smoothies, Acai bowls and naturally, coffee.
Legends of Hawaii Luau. Please don’t roll your eyes, but we did go to a luau 🙂 Our travel package included free tickets to this luau held on the hotel premises, so we decided to use them and see if we could find anything vegan at the traditionally meat-heavy luau buffet. I was ready to settle for a plate of salad if things came to it, but thankfully we found a few other vegan options like white rice (the only thing clearly marked as vegan 🙂 ), steamed broccoli and carrots, marinated tomato and seaweed salad, and lots of fruit for dessert. In case you’re into tropical beverages, the luau at Hilton offers free alcoholic drinks as long as you were willing to stand in line to the bar for 20+ minutes. My Blue Hawaiian (at the beginning of this post) looked just mesmerizing!
Here are a few vegan-friendly restaurants on the Big Island that I discovered in my online search before our trip, but due to their schedules or our whereabouts we didn’t get a chance to visit them:
Sweet Potato Kitchen (Hawi). Supposedly the best place on the Big Island for vegan comfort food. I’m guessing we’ll have to take another trip to find out if this is true 🙂 Open for breakfast and lunch from 10:30 am to 3:30 pm Monday through Friday.
Ai Pono Vegan Cafe, a.k.a. Evolution Bakery (Kailua-Kona). It’s hard to tell from their site where Ai Pono ends and Evolution Bakery starts, but generally, if you’re in Kona between 7 and 11:30 am any day, or in the afternoon or evening Wednesday through Sunday, you may get a chance to get some vegan bagels, pastries and locally grown coffee. We weren’t so lucky.
Sweet Cane Cafe (Hilo). This place on the rainy side of the island offers vegan and vegetarian sandwiches, salads, wraps, etc. Open Monday through Saturday, 8 am to 6 pm. could be a good place to fill up before a hike in the Volcanoes National Park.
Fun Vegan-Friendly Farm Tours
Rob and I are big nerds who love finding out how our food is made, so vegan-friendly farm tours are always on our travel itinerary if we can find them. Out of these four, we went to the chocolate and coffee farms. Bring on the samples!
Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory and Farm (Kona area). A great place to see how chocolate is made! This beautiful place grows their own cacao beans, processes them and makes them into chocolate bars. This was also the only brand of Hawaiian chocolate I could find that had a dairy-free dark variety. Tours are offered on Wednesday and Friday mornings – make sure to schedule yours in advance ($15 per person).
Freshly picked cacao pods at the Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory and Farm
Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation (Kona area). Kona coffee is known all over the world for its high quality beans, and this farm and mini processing plant offer some of the best coffee I’ve tried (also quite expensive, with some varieties marked at $75-85 a pound in their gift shop). A great place to see how coffee is grown and roasted, taste a few samples, and tickle the belly of the fluffiest and friendliest cat I’ve ever met! Free tours happen every day between 10 am and 4 pm.
Hamakua Mushroom Farm (north of Hilo). Mushrooms can be quite fascinating too! I saw mentions of this place’s harvest on menus all over the island. Tours and tastings happen on Tuesdays and Thursdays ($20 per person), reservations required.
Okay, leave it to yours truly to write another 2000+ word blog post about her explorations 🙂 Anyway, I hope you’ve enjoyed my tale of vegan-friendly restaurants and places on the Big Island of Hawaii!
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