23rd December 2021 through 1st January 2022
Big Island is similar to Maui yet so very different. Like Maui, it is volcanic, its landscape is covered in lush forests and its beaches are spectacular. However, witnessing the vastness of the lava-land driving across the island was my first and was indeed awe-inspiring. It is the largest and the youngest of all Hawaiian Islands. On this island, you can easily travel through a range of climatic conditions from tropical coasts to the snowy volcanic peaks. It is volcanically the most active island in Hawaii and its diverse topography is sure to leave you humbled and cheered.
Stay in Big Island:
Unlike Maui,Big Island of Hawaii is vast and primarily divided into two: Kailua- Kona Coast on the west and Hilo (or Volcano) on the East. The location of lodging really depends on all the things you want to do on your trip. Staying in Hilo allows for significantly shorter drives to some of the best attractions and sites of Big Island including the Volcano National Park which itself is pretty large and can take two days to cover all of it. There are some very pretty and cozy vacation rentals by the Volcano National Park that gets reserved very soon. While your stay in Hilo is likely to be peaceful and tranquil, the Kona coast is humming with energy, similar to Western Maui. It is where you will find yourself in thick of action due to spectacular beaches, all sorts of resorts, historical and cultural locations, surplus restaurants, bars, markets, stores and shops. We divided our Big Island stay into 3 nights in Hilo and one night in Kona. There weren’t many airbnb’s available in Hilo when we booked so we reserved The Hilo Hawaiiain Hotel. It is an iconic oceanfront hotel in Hilo, situated on the historic Banyan Drive offering beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean as well as the gorgeous Mauna Kea Volcano. The Banyan Drive is worth a mention as it features magnificent ‘Walk of Fame’ of Banyan Trees planted by celebrities that withstood the tsunamis that once devastated the town of Hilo. The hotel is also next door to the very relaxing Queen Liliuokalani Gardens and the Coconut Island. The hotel is newly upgraded and features a swimming pool, sun deck, 24-hour front desk service, bar and restaurant overlooking the panoramic views, free parking, laundry facilities, gift shop, massage services and a banquet/meeting room. The rooms were very spacious, clean and air-conditioned. Each room contained comfortable king-sized beds or two double beds, refrigerator, coffee maker, free WiFi that worked well, all the basic amenities and a private lanai to enjoy the scenic views at leisure. Taken together, we had a very pleasant stay at this hotel.
Our stay at Kona was at the Royal Kona Resort which also is on the Ocean on the Kailua-Kona coastline. It has all the basic facilities you would expect from a resort including a sea-front restaurant and bar, pool, wedding venues, meeting rooms, spa, cabanas for rent and a tennis club. It also features its own Hawaiiain Luau called the Voyageurs of the Pacific Luau. While the resort is not on the beach, it does have its own private saltwater Lagoon. Parking was 18 USD per day. The rooms were pretty basic although quite spacious with a large private balcony with full or partial ocean views. Each room had comfortable beds and linens, a small kitchenette, bathrooms with sufficient toiletries and complimentary Wifi. It was a reasonably priced resort for a one-night stay. In fact, the resort even allowed us a late check-out (until 6pm) for a nominal fee of 100 bucks.
- Beaches and Snorkeling:
There are white, black and even green sand beaches all around Big Island. The kona coast also has several options for snorkeling just like western Maui. Visit these posts for details on beaches and snorkeling options in Big Island. Weather and safety conditions should be confirmed the day off for any oceanfront you wish to visit. We made a short trip to the Richardson Ocean Park that was located closest to our hotel in Hilo. It is a rocky black sand beach and is great place for swimming, fishing, diving, surfing and picnicking. It is also a great spot for snorkeling due to calm and shallow waters. The park has picnic areas, tide pools, bathroom, showers and even lifeguards on duty. Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles and seals are also known to frequent this area. Overall, It’s a nice little park for families. Another beach that we spent significant time at was the Magic Sands Beach. It is a white sands beach with lava rocks situated on the Kona coast. The location of the beach is very convenient as it is flanked by bars, restaurants, condominiums and other city amenities. It has bathrooms, showers, picnic tables, volleyball net and lifeguard on duty. The beach is commonly used for boogie boarding. The water is known to be calm during the summer but can have sweeping waves in the wintertime.
2. Coconut Island and Queen Liliuokalani Gardens :
The Coconut Island or Mokuola as its called, is a great place to relax. It is situated at the Hilo Bay with Mauna Kea Volcano as its backdrop and is connected to Mainland, Hilo by a 250-foot bridge that begins off of the Queen Liluokalani Gardens on the Banyan Drive. Fortunately for us, the gardens and the island was right next door to our hotel. The island is small but offers several picnic tables, pavilions, two little sandy beaches and tide pools for swimming. Swimming is especially safe here for kids as the water is very calm here and the tide pools offer another level of variety for the kids to play with the water. You can also kayak and SUP board in the bay with rentals available nearby. The water is not very clean for snorkeling though. The north end of island also has a tower that is usually occupied by kids taking the opportunity to show off their acrobatic skills and jump off a 10ft or a 20ft height into the water.
The Liliuokalani Garden is a Japanese garden, along the Banyan Drive, just before the bridge connecting to the Coconut Island. It is the largest ornamental Edo-style Garden outside of Japan, overlooking the Hilo bay. In addition to its well-kept landscape made of a mix of grand banyan trees and Japanese plantations, you will find yourself strolling through arching bridges, pagodas, stone lanterns and a teahouse over a Waihonu Pond. The land for the Garden was donated by Queen Liliuokalani to pay tribute to the first Japanese immigrants that helped build agriculture in Big Island.
3. Hawaii Volcano National Park:
This park is home to the two of the most active volcanoes in the world: Kilauea and Mauna Loa. Kilauea is the most recent one that erupted in Dec 2020 and ended in June 2021 and erupted again in September 2021. Mauna loa is the largest volcano on the planet and its summit sits at 13000 ft elevation. The entire park is magnificent with its giant volcanic craters, rainforests, ocean vistas and incredible hikes. Try to dedicate at least 2-3 days for this park to be able to grasp most of it.
- Crater Rim Drive: This is a 11 mile drive starting from the Kilauea Visitors Cneter leading you upto the Kilauea Caldera. Common Stops along the way include: a) Volcano House that is right by the Kilauea Visitors center and features a restaurant, an art gallery and lodging options. Even if you don’t stay there, I highly recommend having lunch or dinner at the restaurant that offers a varied menu of American and Hawaiiain fine dine cuisine. The restaurant is aptly designed to include glass windows that overlooks panoramic views of the Halem’uma’u Crater in Kīlauea. Apparently, the night views are better than day views; b) Sulphur Banks and Steam Vents: This is a nice and easy 1.2 mile stroll through the rainforest with several sulphur steaming vents along the way; c) Halem’uma’u trail is a moderately difficult 1.6 mile hike that takes you from the crater rim drive to the floor of the Kilauea Caldera. We didn’t have enough time for this but would love to witness the crater floor up close next time and ; d) The Kilauea Caldera Overlook: Stop at this point for some remarkable views of the steaming crater. If you want to see the red hot lava underneath, make sure to come back to this spot after sunset.
- Kilauea Iki and Crater Rim Trail: The Kilauea Iki trail is one of the most popular hikes at this park. It takes you right down into what was once a boiling lava lake that is now a hardened volcanic surface. It starts with the overlook at the top taking you straight down into the floor and then back up the other side. It gives a great feel for how the crater was formed.
- Devastation Trial: The trailhead is right next to the Kilauea Iki trial and is a short 1 mile flat walk through the damaged and barren land from the volcano with few charred trees and shrubs.
- Thruston Lava Tube: Walking into the lava tube is a unique experience of a lava cave that is formed when the lava cools to make a conduit for continuing flow of lava. The trail begins through a rainforest leading downhill to the lava tube that is only 600 feet long. Make sure to carry a flashlight as certain parts of the tube are entirely dark.
- Chain of Crater Scenic Drive:This drive is considered one of the best drives in Big Island. It is a 19 mile drive descending 3700 feet and offering several overlooks and vistas on the way. The Pu’u Loa Petroglyph Trail (0.7 mile RT) and the Holei Sea Arch are the most popular stops. More on this drive can be found here.
- Mauna Loa Scenic Drive: this drive takes you to the world’s massive volcanic mountain all the way to its summit. Along the way, stop for some photographic landscapes and colorful lava. Details of this drive described here.
3. Mauna Kea Volcano:
Mauna Kea is a dormant volcano in Hawaii and is the tallest sea mountain in the world standing 33000 ft from the sea floor. Its is considered as the region of gods by the locals due to the yearly snowfall at its peak. The volcano is popular for its sunrises and sunsets at the summit at 13000 ft elevation as well as for stargazing programs that’s offered by an observatory at the top. An AWD vehicle is required to drive up to the visitors center and the summit. Further details about visiting Mauna Kea can be found here. For Avid hikers, there is the Humu’ula trail off of the Saddle road that is about 6 miles from the visitors center. It is a 12 mile RT trek beginning at a high elevation and further gaining 4500 ft. Check this post on more info on this hike.
4. Hilo-Hamakua Heritage Coast Drive:
This 45 mile stretch is one of the top 5 scenic drives on Big Island and will likely take you all day to complete unless you only want to cruise through it without stopping. The drive is a comprehensive mix of spectacular waterfalls, stunning vistas of the blue ocean, curvy lanes through refreshing rainforests and several short hikes along the way. Carry food and water from Hilo with you as there aren’t many options along the way. Following is the recommended route:
- Begin in Hilo at the Rainbow Falls State Park. You will see them right from the parking lot without having to hike. Lookout for a rainbow just above the waterpool, immediately to the side of the falls.
- Get on to Hwy 19 and follow paths of the Onomea bay/Pepe’ekeo scenic route . Its a 4mile stretch and has multiple lookouts. On the way, stop at the Onomea bay and walk the Onomea bay trail that cuts through the Hawaii tropical botanical garden. Its only 1 mile RT.
- Visit the Hawaii tropical botanical garden. There is a fee to get in (20 Bucks for adults, 5 for kids). It’s a soothing stroll through more than 2000 tropical plants, beautiful water streams and waterfalls that ends with energizing ocean vistas.
- Continue driving further north to stop at the ‘Akaka Falls that are the most famous waterfalls in Hawaii. While you can see the falls immediately from the parking lot, I suggest you take the 0.4mile, hike to enjoy the falls dropping 422 feet into a water pool in the middle of a dense forest made of orchids, bamboo and fern.
- Further up there are another multi-tiered Umauma Falls that can be visited for a 10 dollar fee although they aren’t as popular.
- The Laupahoehoe Point Beach Park is a fantastic park with unfortunately a tragic past. A curvy road on the drive takes you to this small little park that will surprise you with absolutely gorgeous baby blue colored ocean. The park also has restrooms and picnic tables as well as a monument to the 20 students and 4 teachers who lost their lives during the 1946 tsunami. Carry warm jackets as it gets a bit nippy as you travel north on this scenic drive.
- Next, stop at the charming town of Honoka’a for Malassada’s (Hawaiiain Doughnuts) from Tex Drive Inn. Nearby there is also the Mauna Kea tea farm, if interested in some tea tastings and farm tours.
- The last stop on this drive is the stunning Waipo Valley Lookout. Waipo Valley is called the valley of kings that used to be the political and religious center of Hawaiiain Culture. However, currently less than 100 people live in it, although the valley offers gorgeous hikes, waterfalls and a black sand beach. Getting down into the valley can be challenging as the road is very curvy and steep and requires a 4WD vehicle, although I hear there is shuttle service to take you into the valley.
5. The Red Road Scenic Drive:
This is another of the top drives on the island. Click on this link to find out more.
6. Other Hikes in Big Island:
- Kalopa Nature Trail: 0.7 mile easy
- Kaumana Caves State Park: 0.5+ miles (upto 2) Easy.
- Kiholo Bay: 2.8 mile easy
- Makalawena Beach: 2.2+(upto 4) miles easy
- Pololu Valley Awini Trail: 05mile Easy
- Kalopa State Park Perimeter Trail:3.5 miles moderate
- Kealakekua Bay:3.8 Miles Moderate
- Napau Trail:12 Miles Difficult
- Papakolea Green Sand Beach: 5.5 Miles Moderate
- Mauna Loa Trail: 13 Miles Difficult
- Waimanu Valley: 16 Miles Difficult
Details of the trails on alltrails.com or here.
7. Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park:
This park, situated on the Kona side of Big island is a great way to experience the hawaiiain culture. Sadly, we didn’t have enough time to go to it. Check out the things to do at this park here.
8. Luau on Big Island:
Top Luaus on Big Island at this link.
Day 5: Fly from Maui to Kona. Drive to Hilo. Check into hotel. Beach time at Coconut Island.
Day 6: Short stop at Richardson Beach Park. Visit Volcano National Park. Dinner.
Day 7: Hike and Drive the Hilo Scenic Drive. Dinner.
Day 8: Drive to Kona Coast. Check into hotel. Beach Time at Magic Sands Beach. Dinner.
Day 9: Shopping for souvenirs on Kona Coast. Lunch. Relax at the Resort and Prepare for the night flight back to San Antonio.
Day 10: Back home.
You would think that vegetarian options will be a scarcity on islands with primary culinary demand being seafood. Meat-eaters, of course will want to try all sorts of Poke and salmon and other seafood. However, vegetarians need not be disappointed. I was pleasantly surprised to see that almost everywhere we went, there were vegetarian options on the menu and all of it was delicious (even steamed veggies and rice that I normally would never order for my meal :). We found all types of cuisines on both islands including American, Continental, Thai, Indian and Italian. The only time we had to scout around for food was during the Christmas days when either the restaurants were closed or the ones that were open were slammed by customers resulting in long wait times or cancellations of to-go orders. It is recommended that you make prior reservations ahead of time, especially when visiting during the peak season, if you wish to eat at the most popular restaurants.
Knowing that the tropical climate of the state can grow copious amounts of fruits, vegetables and nuts, you certainly don’t want to miss their home-grown specialties including flavored macademia nuts, various concoctions of pineapple, passion fruit or coconut in meals, desserts, snacks or drinks, sugarcane juice and Lychee drinks. Most popularly advertised Hawaiian eatables (apart from POKE, shrimp, fish tacos and all the other seafood) that are a must-try are the POG (passionfruit orange and guava) juice, Banana Bread, Malasadas (no hole doughnuts),Coconut water straight from the fruit, Maui Beer, Maui Wine, locally grown coffee and tea and shaved ice. Of the two times I tried shaved ice, I absolutely loved the Kona Sunset which was made of Vanilla Ice cream, Waialua lilikoi(passionfruit) and Lychee Syrups, Lilikoi Puree, Coconut Cream Snow cap and Mochi.
Essential Packing List:
- Swimming Suit
- Sun glasses
- Rain jacket
- Warm clothes
- Water shoes
- Hiking shoes
- Sunscreen (reef safe)
- Straw Hat
- Small towel
- Turkish Beach Towel
- GoPro camera
- Rash guard
- Cooler bag.
- Bug spray
Thank you to my friend Niranjan Karandikar for taking the Volcano National Park pictures with his phone for this post, as my phone went out of charge.
For General Information on Hawaii, Best Time to Visit and Commute options, refer to Part 1 of this post.