This past February, I finally decided to fly over the other pond, and visit Hawai'i for the first time. I decided on Big Island for no particular reason, except that there’s a National Park there, and from some quick Google searches, it looked like it had a good mix of touristy stuff, as well as local culture. Looking back, I think I picked the perfect island to visit for my first time, and I would come back here in a heartbeat.
So let’s get down to the details – I spent 5 1/2 glorious days and 6 nights on Big Island.
So, as you might have guessed, Big Island is big. Crazy right? But just how big we talking? According to pbs.org, it’s 4,028 square miles, and encompasses 63% of the Hawaiian archipelago’s combined landmass, and is the largest island in the United States. In other words, you need to rent a car if you plan on seeing more than just the downtown touristy spots in Kona. I’m serious- you will need to rent a car, no ifs, ands, or buts. Uber/Lift/Taxi or public transport is sparse, especially if you want to go to Hilo or Volcanos National Park. If you want to just hang around your resort, then honestly why are you reading my blog? I do not condone this. Anyway, book your car rental in advance- do not expect to get off your plane, walk up to Enterprise, and get a car. They book up fast, especially if you want a specific type of car. I would suggest booking it about a month in advance, depending on the season. I think I booked mine maybe 2 weeks in advance, and most of the car rental places were already booked up. I specifically wanted a high-clearance vehicle though, since many of the non-main roads are not paved, and my one Airbnb actually suggested it to get to their home. I booked with Budget Car Rentals, got a Jeep (ended up being a Jeep Gladiator), and it cost about $1,200 for the 6 days.
So you have your car- now what? Well, how about I just give you my itinerary, day by day, and we’ll go from there.
Day 1- Land in Kona International Airport, because it’s cheaper than the Hilo airport. You’re probably starving from the long flight- so food first. After grabbing your car rental, head on over to Ola Brewing Company and eat the best burger you’ve ever had in your life, while drinking a refreshing beer. Now I’m going to do a whole other blog post on the breweries of Big Island, so I won’t go into too much detail, but this burger was literally amazing. After eating, I drove about 2 hours across the island to my first Airbnb over in Volcano. Volcano is a small town outside of Hilo, close to Volcanos National Park. Obviously, the park was high on my list of things I wanted to do, so the Airbnb I booked was only about 5 minutes outside the park and about 20 minutes from Hilo. It was perfect, and I’ll link the Airbnb I booked at the bottom.
Day 2- Volcanos National Park. Now, when I came here, I was extremely lucky- there was an active lava lake flowing in Halema’uma’u crater created by the Kīlauea summit caldera. I literally got to see an active volcano and real life lava- it was breathtaking. But even if there isn’t an active lava flow, this park is magical and a must-do. I would suggest at least spending one full day here- there is tons to see and do, including:
Kīlauea Overlook - overlooking the Kīlauea caldera, and where I saw the lava flow
Steam Vents at Wihinekapu - hot steam rising from cracks in the earth
Ha'akulamanu (sulfur banks) - smell the sulfur and see colorful mineral deposits
Nāhuku (Thurston Lava Tube) - very neat lava tube hidden in the rain forest
Drive Chain of Craters Road - I love a good scenic drive at a national park, and this one was captivating - lots of places to pull over and hike, miles and miles of old lava flows, multiple different volcanic features to stop and take pictures at, with all this ending at the ocean and the Hōlei Sea Arch
Pu'uloa - along the Chain of Craters Road, this 1.4 mile easy hike takes you to one of the largest petroglyph fields in the world
Visit at night - now if there is an active lava flow, you have to come at night. Sure, I saw some lava sputtering during the day, but at night? You can see everything. It does get busy though- I would suggest going late, like between midnight and 4am, to avoid the traffic.
Also on this day, before heading to the park, I grabbed a quick breakfast in Volcano at Eagles Lighthouse Cafe (fried rice bowl, it was fine). For lunch, I left the park and swung over to Volcano Winery, the only winery on Big Island. This winery also features their own grown tea, as well as fruit wines and mead, with honey coming right from the islands own bees. The wine and mead here was unique and delectable, and they also offered different cream cheese based dips with crackers to snack on. Then for dinner, head over to
Pineapples Island Fresh Cuisine. Located in downtown Hilo, it offered fresh local cuisine, live music, and a variety of local beers and island inspired mixed drinks. I got the local Hilo plate and a bowl of clam chowder - both were very good!
Day 3 - Start off your next day in Hilo with a trip over to Akaka Falls State Park. For a $5
entrance/parking fee, you can take the short hike down through the rainforest to see some cascading waterfalls. Walking on this paved trail was an absolute trip- all the plants, flowers, smells- an absolute must-do. You'll notice in the photo I'm wearing a poncho - this was a must-have for Hilo in general, as it gets the most rain of any city in the USA! The rain wasn't too bad though, it was still warm, and I honestly like the rain.
After leaving Akaka falls, I headed to downtown Hilo, as it was there Saturday Hilo farmer's market. The farmer's market was huge, with lots of different venders selling everything from fruit to potato chips to jewelry. It was bustling, and I had a blast eating poke at Poke n Sides, while listening to live music. Next, I stopped for a beer at Hilo Brewing Company, and then decided it was time to check out Mauna Kea. Mauna Kea is a dormant volcano and the highest peak in Hawai'i, sitting at 13,803ft above sea level. It's located kind of in the middle of the island, so it was about an hour drive from Hilo to the Visitor Information Station (VIS), located at 9,200ft up on this mountain. Unfortunately, this was as far as I could go this day- on some days you can drive up if you have the right vehicle (4WD/HCV) or take a tour up, but for some reason it was closed this day. I could have hiked, but hard
pass, it's long and very cold. Visiting the VIS was pretty neat though, they had lots of information posted about the volcano and the astronomy projects they do up there. If you do plan on visiting Mauna Kea, you'll have to stop at the VIS whether you like it or not- altitude sickness is a real thing, and if you plan on going all the way to the peak, you have to stop here to acclimate to the elevation for at least 30 minutes.
Day 4 - This was my last day on this side of the island, so in the morning, I headed over to Punalu'u Beach. Punalu'u Beach is a black sand beach, and just that makes it worth visiting, but there's more. This beach is also frequented by sea turtles, and you can see them swimming in the water or catching some sun on the sand. I probably saw over 20 sea turtles here! This beach is a beautiful spot to relax or take a dip. I even got a fresh coconut cut open for me by a local.
After this, I started my drive over to Kona. I took the southern route to get there, and although it took a tad longer (maybe 2.5 hours?), I got to see more of the island. I stopped at Honuas Coffee House for a quick pick me up, and then ate lunch at Shaka Restaurant, the most southern bar in the USA.
After arriving on the other side of the island (Kona side), I decided to hit up another beach. I went to Manini'owali Beach, also known as Kua Bay. This beach was perfect- warm water, whales in the distance, beautiful sunset. If you're looking for a beach on Big Island to relax at - this is the one.
For dinner, I went over to Kona Brewing Company, arguably the most famous brewery in Hawai'i. They mostly served pizza, it was pretty good I guess, and of course, the beer was wonderfully refreshing.
Day 5 - On the morning of day 5 I was supposed to do a whale watching tour, but it got pushed back to the afternoon, so I decided to drive to the north side of the island to check out another brewery- Big Island Brewhaus. Located in Waimea, the drive here was about an hour from Kona through rolling hills and grasslands. I ate lunch here as well, and it was delicous.
After this, I finally got to go on my whale watching tour, which was a great experience. I got to see lots of whale tails, but unfortunately no full breaches appeared for me. Still worth it though.
Later that night, I had another tour- night snorkeling with manta rays. While doing my research for this trip, I kept seeing this tour pop up again and again, so I thought, why not. It was INSANE. We took a high-speed boat out in the middle of the night to where the manta rays congregate to eat. I donned a snorkeling mask, held on to a surfboard, and had a floatie under my ankles to stay afloat. Then you just watch these enormous, scary-as-hell looking sea monsters come about 5 inches away from your face as they eat plankton and such. Absolutely, terrifyingly cool. I was literally screaming into my snorkel mask. There were so many, and they are so big. I also got slightly sea sick and may or may not have puked a little into my snorkel mask. Would I do this tour again? Eh, maybe (because it was terrifying and I got sea sick). Am I super happy I got to do it once? Hell yeah!
Day 6 - This was my last full day on the island, and you can't go to Kona as a coffee lover without taking a coffee farm tour. There are many coffee farm tours to partake in, but I decided on Heavenly Hawaiian Kona Coffee Farm.
It was an awesome experience, and I learned so much about coffee and how it's made. I got lots of free coffee samples, and they were all mouth-watering. I even bought some of their chocolate covered peaberries (10 of these little beans are equal to a cup of coffee in caffeine!).
After drinking a weeks worth of coffee in one morning, I headed over to Da Poke Shack for some lunch. If you don't like poke, then I don't know what to tell you, you're in Hawai'i. This place was awesome, the portions were great and the poke was fresh! After this, I wanted to take a stroll and learn more about this gorgeous island, so I headed over to Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historic Park. There's some beautiful hikes here, including one that takes you to Honokohau Beach. This beach was lovely and not very crowded. I hiked along the Mountain-Ocean trail here, and saw lots more sea turtles basking in the sun.
After enjoying the National History Park, I decided to check out the "touristy" area of Kona, down near Royal Kona Resort, and all the other resorts. Holyyyy crap was it crowded down here- just, like, masses of people that I really hadn't experienced anywhere else on the island. Lots of shops and restaurants in the area, all overpriced and crowded as hell. I grabbed a $16 beer at one of the restaurants here, people-watched a bit, and then left. No thanks, not worth it to me.
Day 7 - This was my last morning on Big Island, and had a flight this afternoon. So all I did
this day was grab a coffee and some Hawai'i style avocado toast at HiCo, a
Hawaiian Coffee Cafe. It was wonderful.
Damn, you read all the way to the bottom of this? Well, that's great lol. Here are the links to the Airbnbs I stayed in- both of them were wonderful and I would highly recommend them-
Volcano (Hilo area) Airbnb - here
Holualoa (Kona area) Airbnb - here
Other links if you're interested:
Manta Ray Night Snorkel tour - here
Heavenly Hawaiian Coffee Farm tour - here