The Big Island is geographically diverse and so is its weather. The Kona/Kailua side of the Big Island is sunny and has many beaches and resorts. The Hilo side is the wet side with tropical rainforests and waterfalls. The middle of the Island is home to Mauna Kea, the tallest mountain in the world (as measured from the ocean floor) and the Mauna Kea Observatories. Theoretically, you can snow ski in the morning and snorkel in the afternoon. In fact, when it snows, locals drive up Mauna Kea and shovel snow into the back of their pickup trucks, haul the snow back down to Hilo and build snowmen in their yards. Waimea is also centrally located and is surrounded by the several thousand-acre Parker Ranch, which carries on the paniolo (cowboy) tradition. Here you can ride horses, take an ATV tour, and hunt. Of course, Volcanoes National Park is full of lava formations and craters.
Where to Stay
We wanted an inexpensive bed and breakfast off the beaten path and found a real jewel called Halemalu – The Place of Peace. For $65 per night, we enjoyed a two-bedroom suite with a private balcony and our host, Eric, was extremely helpful without being intrusive. The Captain Cook location worked well as a home base – the temperature really cools off at night and we slept under a blanket with the windows open.
We enjoyed a continental breakfast, personal use of the kitchen, the workout room, and the office with Internet so we could check in for our flight home. With no strict check in or check out times we were able to have a beach day our last day on the Big Island and return to our room to shower before going to the airport.
The grounds are really an orchard and we were treated to fresh star fruit, mangos, and guavas.
Where to Eat
We kept our dining out low key since dining in Hawaii is more expensive than on the mainland. We allowed ourselves one splurge and headed to Keei Cafe on the recommendation of our host since his friend Bob owns the restaurant. It is tastefully decorated with a lovely view of the ocean. All food is from local markets – even the salad was extraordinarily fresh. The service is island service – no one is in a hurry. They do not take credit cards so make sure you have cash and reservations are recommended.
Although a continental breakfast was included with our lodging, we woke early the day we ventured to Volcanoes National Park and found a gem of a restaurant with the unassuming name of the Coffee Shack. It’s not a shack and I had the best Eggs Benedict while sitting outside enjoying the view of Kealakekua Bay where Captain Cook landed. When I inquired about how islanders feel about Captain Cook, the owner regaled us with the tale. Click here to read it.
Another morning when we rose early, we were introduced to Hawaii’s comfort food, the loco moco, at the Aloha Theater Cafe. Read my article about the loco moco here.
During our day in Hilo, we ate at Ken’s House of Pancakes. They offer breakfast 24 hours a day and are famous for their Oxtail stew. They offer several “sumo” selections and when some brave soul orders one (think of super-size and then some), the wait staff bangs a gong and all yell “sumo!”
Where to Play
If you are up for an adventure, why not zipline through the forests on the north end of the Big Island? We took a beautiful drive to Hawi to Big Island Eco Adventures. After about 25 minutes of offroading in their Pinzgauer (a six-wheel drive Swiss Army vehicle), we arrived at the first zipline – low to the ground to get used to the equipment. The lines got longer and higher as we progressed through the course. After our sixth zipline, we were treated to a snack in the Mac Nut Hut (that’s macadamia, not McDonalds) next to a gorgeous waterfall. After a trip over a suspension bridge, we had two more runs that literally astounded us. We were impressed with the safety harnesses, our very funny guides, and the scenery. The course ends where it begins so there is not much hiking involved. You’ll want to swear a shirt with sleeves and knee length shorts or pants (the harness will not be comfortable on bare skin), and closed toe shoes. Bring your camera and some mosquito repellant – there were swarms of them – remember it’s jungle-like there.
We found ziplining to be exhilarating, but not exhausting. The complete tour takes about four hours and Luke’s Place and the Tiki Lounge is within walking distance. Our entire tour group met there for drinks and a snack after our adventure.
We can’t say enough good things about Bottom Time. Our dive was extraordinary. We saw spinner dolphins, a frogfish, and an eel, swam with a giant sea turtle, and swam through some gorgeous coral and rock formations. If you are a scuba diver, our dive sites were Pyramid Pinnacle and Nai’a Bay. Our dive master recorded both dives and we purchased the DVD.
Safari Helicopter offers a deluxe volcano and & coastline safari tour. They seemed the most economical since taking a helicopter tour is not cheap. We saw lava pouring into the ocean, waterfalls, and our pilot offered a fascinating narration of our tour. We purchased a DVD of our tour for $30.
We kept to the Kona side of the Big Island when we wanted beach time because it is sunnier than Hilo. Kekaha Kai State Park contains three beautiful beaches: Mahaiula, Makalawena, and Kua Bay. It’s closed on Wednesdays so the famous people who have houses there can have the beach to themselves. When we arrived at Makalawena Beach, I thought I had walked into a picture postcard of what I imagined a Hawaiian beach would look like – gentle waves, white sand, palm trees, excellent snorkeling, and not too crowded.
If you have children and need a nice calm beach, try Kamakahonu Beach.
If you want a black sand beach, Punalu’u Black Sand Beach is the most famous. We saw giant sea turtles resting on the sand while we were there.
What to See and Do
Hilo – Akaka Falls
Since our helicopter tour departed from Hilo and we were staying on the Kona side of the Big Island, we made a day of it while we were on the Hilo side of the Big Island. On our way to the airport, we stopped at Akaka Falls and enjoyed the two waterfalls, Akaka at 760 feet and Kahuna at 800 feet. We were glad we took our rain slickers because the Hilo side of the island is quite wet.
Volcanoes National Park
We spent half a day exploring Volcanoes National Park. It’s best to begin at the visitor’s center so you’ll know exactly what is going on in the park. Remember that volcanoes are unpredictable. We began at the Kilauea overlook where steam was billowing from the crater. Kilauea is the home of Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess. Kilauea has been continuously erupting since 1983. Next, we drove the 18-mile Chain of Craters Road and stopped at every crater. The road ends at a parking lot with an overlook where you can see the spectacular Sea Arch. As we made our way back to the visitor’s center, we toured the Thurston Lava Tube where we learned that lava flows through tubes out to the ocean. The area around the Thurston Lava Tube is a lush tropical garden that bird watching enthusiasts will cherish. We ended our tour of the park with a stop at the steam vents where I received an unanticipated facial as the warm steam covered me. It smells like sulphur.
Of course, we wanted to know where we could see lava. The folks at the visitor’s center gave us a map to the lava viewing area, which changes depending on what Kilauea is doing. We arrived at the viewing area just before 5:00 pm and walked the uneven terrain to the viewing area. We could see the steam rising from the ocean as lava poured in and the eerie red glow of the lava. As the sun began to set, the scene changed dramatically with the glow of the lava intensifying. Once it became completely dark all that was visible was the lava and it was not nearly as spectacular a sight without being able to see the terrain. You will need a flashlight to make your way along the path. Vendors set up tents to sell their wares and we could rent a flashlight for $3, but opted to buy one for $5. We got a very cute and very bright LED flashlight for about a dollar less than what the local ABC stores charge.
Although we were not close enough to hear the lava, a local told us that lava sounds like the snap, crackle, and pop of Rice Krispies® cereal, but on steroids.
Ali’i (pronounced ah lee ee) Drive
We walked along Ali’i Drive (the long main street in Kailua) and listened to the ocean waves as we window-shopped. The street is lined with restaurants and little shops where you can buy souvenirs of all kinds. We had some of the best clam chowder we’ve ever tasted at the Kona Canoe Club as well as reasonably priced happy hour drinks and sliders. The sunset was spectacular as the restaurant is right on the water. We stayed away from the resorts and chain restaurants.
What We Missed
Our tour of Mauna Kea was cancelled because of overcast conditions. Mauna Kea Summit Adventures provides a tour that features star gazing, dinner, and a spectacular sunset at the summit of Mauna Kea (elevation 13,796 feet). They also provide parkas as the temperature at the summit is quit cold. Our neighbors took the tour and highly recommend it. If you are a scuba diver, you must wait 24 hours after diving before summiting Mauna Kea.
A Special Note about Wal-Mart on the Big Island
Of course, I forgot to pack something, which prompted a trip to Wal-Mart. Walmarts in Hawaii are the only Walmart stores in the US with unique bags (complete with palm trees and a map of the islands). Our cashier told us to keep the bags as a souvenir.
I hope this article was interesting and helpful to you and mahalo (thank you) for reading it!