Hawaii: The Big Island

Trip length: 6 days (May 2017)

Go: if you love hiking, biking, kayaking, beaches, avocados the size of your head, waterfalls, donuts, volcanos and swimming with wild dolphins.

Don’t go: if you are looking for a place with nightlife or shopping, cannot drive your own rental car and expect to rely on public transportation.

Packing List: Swimming shoes as the beaches can get a bit rocky, good hiking or running shoes for all the trails, and a sense of adventure!

We rented a car so had the freedom to not have to plan too much in advance for this trip. Other than the Hawaii Volcano House cabin on the 3rd night and our accommodation on the first night, we left things fairly open to allow for flexibility once in Hawaii. Right up until we arrived, we weren’t sure which direction we would drive around the island and in the end we opted to go counter clockwise. Although it is called “The Big Island”, 6 days was sufficient time to drive around and explore many of the naturally beautiful spots in this paradise.


Day 1: Kona 

We arrived at noon and wanted to get to the beach as soon as possible. We picked up our rental car and stopped at Target for a few essential supplies before heading to one of the nearest beaches to Kona,  Kahaluu beach park. This beach was nothing too special and was quite small but was perfect for our first afternoon as it wasn’t too far from our base for the night, Kona. There was free street parking and it was only a short (less than 15 minute) drive from the central part of Kona. We had some Hawaiian shave ice (which I dumped and spilled as soon as I sat down with it) and snorkelled around the bay a little in hopes of seeing a turtle (no luck). If you don’t bring your own snorkel set, there are some places to rent them near this beach.  If you are coming here picturing beautiful white sand beaches, you will be disappointed. Keep in mind that Hawaii was formed by volcanic activity in the middle of the Pacific ocean which you will notice with the rocky entry and exit from the water at this beach.

Day 2: Kealakekua, Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park, & Kona

We started our day our pretty early (thank you jet lag) with the worst breakfast ever from some little cafe on the main street of Kona (this is why checking Tripadvisor reviews can be useful) and then redeemed ourselves with cinnamon buns and donuts from Irene’s Holy Donuts. Ridiculously expensive, however I have to admit, the best cinnamon bun I have EVER tasted.

Best cinnamon bun ever – Irenes holy donuts

We rented a couple more snorkels from a snorkel shop on the main street as we had only brought one with us and then headed down to Kealakekua Bay in hopes of kayaking or snorkelling with dolphins. We first stopped at Napoopoo park which neither had kayak rentals, nor a safe entry to go swimming as the waves were quite high. Parking was also a nightmare here. We continued down a bit further towards Limukoko Point where we found some people renting kayaks out of their home. If you are not an experienced kayaker, I would suggest kayaking with a tour from Kona, but we felt confident enough to rent kayaks on our own and paddle out to find some dolphins. We paid the man $30/kayak and left our car parked on a side street.  We paddled back towards the Captain James Cook monument (north) and revelled in the fact that we were the only ones on the water. One benefit to doing things like this is the lack of crowds. We came across some tour boats who led us to the best

Kayaking and swimming with spinner dolphins in Kealakekua bay, Hawaii

snorkelling in the area (near the Captain James Cook monument), and then a pod of Hawaiian spinner dolphins let us jump in and swim with them. They weren’t as curious or playful as dolphins I have encountered in the past and were more interested in their own spinning jumps than the handful of tourists in the water with them. The tour boats had already left so it was only us and a few other kayakers hanging out with the dolphins. After this experience, we returned our kayaks and headed to the nearby Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park. The $5 entry proved to be worthwhile as we were treated to a self guided tour and learned a small amount of history while admiring the beautiful statues and beaches of this national park. We were also able to observe a filming of a show of some sort. I’m not hugely interested in history/museums, but when I can learn a few things about the place I’m visiting while outside in the sun watching turtles swim around in the water below, I don’t mind.
We headed back to Kona where we managed to score a fantastic deal on a last minute hotel on Hotwire at the Royal Kona Resort. This hotel has an amazing location, close to everything with beautiful morning views and a nice pool. It however, is a bit dated and probably not worth paying the full rack rate for. We found a sunset yoga class (by donation) at Pahoehoe beach park hosted

Sunset yoga near Kona, the big island

by Hawaii Beach Yoga which was the perfect way to end our first full day in Hawaii.  After a few rum and Redbull drinks we were ready to seek out some Kona night life. We were disappointed when the only folks wanting to party were the group of homeless individuals outside of our hotel. It was a Thursday night so perhaps Kona nightlife picks up on weekends?

Day 3: Ke Lae, Punalu’u Beach, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and Kalapana Lava Flow Viewing 

Having learned from the breakfast fail the day prior, we started our day with the trusted Evolution Bakery & Cafe with some amazing vegan food before driving out to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park where we had reserved a small cabin at the Volcano House hotel ahead of time. We stopped at the Ka Lae lookout, the most southern point in the US. It was incredibly windy and probably the only time on this trip we actually felt a bit chilly.

Our next stop was for some beach time at Punaluʻu Beach (black sand beach). We were able to watch turtles swimming around and climbing up onto the black sand. We hiked around a bit behind the

Turtle hanging out at Punalu’u beach or black sand beach

beach and came across an old abandoned hotel where we hunted for ghosts. The only thing out to get us were the mosquitos.

We checked into our cabin at the volcano national park. A tiny, no frills cabin with shared bathrooms (basically a campsite) for $80/night seemed rather expensive but a bargain compared to some of the hotels in the area. It was cozy and clean, with plenty of space

Cabin at Volcanoes National Park

for the 3 of us and then drove to Kalapana to catch the sunset at the Lava Viewing Area. Kalapana was a bit out of the way from Volcano National Park and something you may want to save for the following day to avoid backtracking. You can join a tour to see this lava flow by helicopter, boat, or hike, or you can do as we did and park at the end of Highway 130 and rent a bike from one of the many bike tents ($20) and cycle the 5 km and then hike for quite awhile to see the lava flow viewing point. If you have binoculars or a good zoom lens for your camera, bring it. The lava is quite far out in the distance,

Cycling to the lava viewing near Kalapana, The Big Island

however stunning to watch while the sun is setting and after dark. That being said, I have seen photos of people getting much closer to the lava flow suggesting things may have changed from when I was there. You will best enjoy this if you time it right at sunset to be able to enjoy the bike ride and lava fields in the light, and the lava flow at dark. Wear proper footwear for this one! The lava flow changes daily so I suggest checking Google for the most up to date information on where the best area to see the lava is.

Lava flow in the distance

Detour: If you have more time, the hike into the Papakolea green sand beach looks like a worthwhile stop. 

Detour: Hike Mauna Kea. We contemplated trying to do this hike however the challenge of finding an appropriate vehicle to drive up to the trailhead made it difficult to do on this trip. 

Lava on the Big Island, Hawaii

Day 4: Volcanoes National Park, Rainbow Falls, Peepee falls, and Hilo

Hawaiian Avocado

We started our day by sharing an avocado the size of a cantaloupe that we had picked up from a market on the side of the road the day before (eat local!) and explored the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the highlight being Thurston lava tubes. This is a must visit! There are so many trails to choose from in this park, you’ll have to have a look at the map and decide what you have time and interest to do.

Volcano in the distance at Volcanoes National Park

We drove towards Hilo, stopping at Rainbow Falls, which were stunning, and then Peepee falls a short distance away.

Peepee falls near Hilo, the big island, Hawaii

These were short stop for a few photos before jumping back in the car to get to Hilo where we stopped at the farmers market to get some fresh, local food. We spent the afternoon at the Onekahakaha Beach Park snorkelling and swimming around. This beach was a little crowded, similar to Kahaluu beach park .

Hilo, Hawaii farmers market

We didn’t have anywhere booked to stay and we found hotel prices to be rather expensive in Hilo. We ended up using some Hiltonhonors points to check into the Hilton Doubletree in Hilo. This is one example of why it is always useful to have a stash of hotel points available for instances where hotels are super expensive. We watched the sunset from our room and crashed out pretty early after another busy Hawaiian day of activities.

Day 5: Akaka Falls, Pololu Lookout, Hapuna beach park, Kona & Keauhou 

Akaka falls, The Big Island, Hawaii

After a short stop at Akaka Falls (photos and a little walk), we headed to Pololu Lookout. This was probably the most beautiful spot on our trip (in my opinion) and the short but steep hike back up from the beach gave us some much needed cardio for another round of Irene’s Holy Donuts cinnamon buns that would be devoured later that day.

Pololu Lookout

We spent the afternoon at the Hapuna Beach Park basking in the hot sun and the white sand beaches. This was definitely the nicest beach we visited on the Big Island and was well worth the surprise $5 entry fee (there were a few of these surprise entry fees throughout our trip).

After a long day of driving and beach time, we returned to Kona where we booked ourselves back into the Kona Seaside Hotel where we had stayed on the first night. This budget accommodation became a favourite due to the super low price, location, and comfort. It was located near the Island Breeze Luau at the Marriot which we didn’t attend but watched a few minutes of the music from the beach nearby.

That night we drove out to the Sheraton Keauhou to try to observe the manta rays from the observatory deck near their bar where they shine a spotlight into the water where mantas are known to gather.  Unfortunately, this is something we probably should have joined a tour for as we did not see any mantas but did observe several boats in the water with snorkelers who likely got a much better up close view of some manta rays.

Day 6: Kona, Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park, flying home. 

We had a noon flight so didn’t have a lot of time left in Kona but managed to finally get an acai bowl (amazing! Why didn’t we do this sooner!?) and wandered around the small town.

We completed our final errands (packing, putting gas in the car) and had a bit of time to kill before we had to get to the airport so we stopped at the Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park for one last beach stroll. Not as beautiful as many of the other spots we saw on this trip, but not a bad place to hang out if you have some time to kill near the airport.

Useful information: 

Rent a car! I am someone who loves backpacking and taking public transit but this island is NOT public transit friendly. You wouldn’t be able to visit half these spots relying on the transit system, and having to book tours would inflate your cost well beyond what you’d pay to just rent a car.

Bring a copy of Lonely planet or another tour book, as it will allow you to plan as go when you’re driving around the island if you don’t have access to data on your phone.

Pack food with you as there can be long stretches of driving with nowhere to eat. There are some amazing lookouts and picnic spots you can pull over to visit, much nicer than a McDonald’s parking lot (I’m not sure they even have McDonald’s outside of Kona).

Kona has all your major stores (Target, Walmart, etc) so if there’s anything you forgot, you can stop on your way from the airport to Kona.

If you have an idea of your itinerary, some advance planning may allow you to save money on hotel rooms, especially in Hilo which we found to be quite a bit more expensive than Kona.

This website was incredibly helpful in planning which spots we would visit and how to get there: www.lovebigisland.com

This site provides the best information on hikes on the Big Island: http://www.bigislandhikes.com/

A wanderlust site for Canadian travellers with a focus on budget travel