Before my trip to Hawaii started I promised myself that the one island I would absolutely visit was the Big Island. Originally, I was going to carve a few days out of my trip in Oahu, but then realized (1) one month on Oahu was going by really quickly and there was too much I wanted to do/see to lose a few days, (2) there is far too much to do/see on the Big Island to only spend 3-4 days, and (3) the Big Island is expensive, and going while I already had an apartment in Oahu was doubling the cost. So I decided to push the trip until after my lease in Oahu ended. Now that this trip is over with, I’m sad I waited so long because this island is amazing (rivals Kauai as my fave in the entire state) and I could have easily spent 1 month exploring here!
The trip started with a quick 50 minute flight from Honolulu into Kona, the smallest, cutest airport I’ve ever been to! Though, if you have a layover here, be warned: cute and small = pretty much nothing to do and very limited options in terms of food, so be prepared in advance.
You need a car to explore Hawaii; with one exception (keep reading) there isn’t any public transit I could see. Kona does have a trolley that costs $2 per person (or free if you’re staying at certain hotels/stops along the route) and will take you as far south as the Sheraton Kona Resort, through most all stops in and around town you’d want; so if you’re not leaving Kona (or want to omit a couple days of rental car fees while in Kona), this works great- as long as you have a flexible schedule, given that the trolley runs only every 2 hours from about 9am-9pm. I then picked up my rental car. More info on the trolley here: https://www.konaweb.com/forums/shuttle.shtml. Taxis on this island are very expensive, so my advice is to avoid like the plague. They do have both Uber and Lyft, though they tend to be pretty expensive too (but cheaper than taxis!). If you can get a good deal on a rental car, you’ll probably pay less to have the car for a few days than the price just to/from the airport in a cab or even uber. There is a shuttle service available, which will take you to/from the airport for a rate of $22/person one-way, which is WAY cheaper than what a cab would cost (more here: https://www.airportshuttlehawaii.com/shuttles/hawaii/?gclid=EAIaIQobChMI-6nsrtaR3wIVENNkCh31awoNEAAYAiAAEgLYMPD_BwE). Pro tip: rental cars here can be very expensive, so make sure you check through rental car companies and if nothing below $50/day, you’re better off using Turo, which is like Airbnb but for cars. Not limited to just Hawaii (or even just the US). If you haven’t used it before, follow this link (https://turo.com/c/annisem ) and we both get $25 off our next ride, so it’s a win-win!
I divided my week into 2 days in Kilua-Kona, 3 days in Pahoa (Hilo side of the island), and final 2 days back in Kilua-Kona (for proximity to airport). I’ve had to reevaluate my travel strategy somewhat, and because everything on this island costs a lot (accommodation, food, and especially tours), I decided it was smart to save where I could, so I booked myself a room at the Kona Beach Hostel (https://konabeachhostel.com/). With taxes, it ends up costing $50/night for a bed in a dorm room (yup, that’s how expensive this island is). But I got lucky! The girls’ only dorm room was actually full, so Annie (the lovely manager) upgraded me to a private room at no extra cost. WINNING! This hostel is very clean, draws an international group of travelers, and is super walkable to everything in downtown Kilua-Kona, but just far enough away to be very quiet. And free parking onsite. I’d definitely recommend if you want a budget stay.
After my first two days of solo adventure in Kilua, Mike joined me. It’s nice to have a travel buddy every now and then! (And in 6 months of travel, I’m happy to say all my travel adventures with others have been brilliant! Except for Morocco, that turned out to be a fail. Live and learn!) Despite living in Maui for 14 years, somehow Mike had never made it over to the Big Island (gasp!!). I was happy to provide an excuse. For the next few nights, we stayed in the most fabulous Airbnb in Pahoa, which is just south of Hilo and super proximate to the neighborhood most severely impacted by the recent volcanic eruptions. That’s all stopped, so it’s perfectly safe, and this part of the island can definitely use your tourist $$, making it an even better place to stay!
We were walking distance to a nearby black sand beach (which also happens to be a nude beach), had awesome views of the ocean and sea cliffs from our lanai (porch) during the day, and at night it was so quiet you’d think you were in the middle of a jungle. Spectacular for viewing stars, and I love a good outdoor fire (especially when it’s not so cold outside to be uncomfortable). The outdoor kitchen was fantastic, and I highly recommend you travel with a professional chef too (or feel free to visit Mike at the Ritz in Maui if you want to taste his super yummy cooking!). If you’re coming to Hawaii and want to stay on the Hilo side, I can’t recommend this place enough! Find it here: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/16522369?s=51
When Mike headed back to Maui, I spent my last two nights at the Sheraton Kona, which was the perfect way to relax (and get in great workouts- one of the best hotel gyms I’ve ever seen!), and finish off 6 weeks in Hawaii. I owe a HUGE thanks to Mike for this hotel hook up. And with the trolley going into town, it was super convenient.
Yummy, Yummy, Get in my Tummy: Where to Eat & Drink
Dinner my first night was at Herbivores, which was amazing! Just check out these nachos! One of the best BBQ-jackfruit dishes of any sort I’ve ever had. And though expensive ($13) the portion was so big I ended up eating it for 2 meals, making it a steal! If you’re vegan and want something healthy and fresh, Under the Bodhi Tree has loads of options, a great staff, and great wifi so you can hang out for awhile. If staying in/near Pahoa, you can get a great breakfast at Pele’s Kitchen and a mean coffee at Sirius Coffee Connection. If you’re more in the mood for a quick breakfast sandwich, bagel, and/or coffee, definitely stop by Just Cruisin Coffee. They have an awesome staff and are soooo dog friendly.
If burgers are your thing, Hilo Burger Joint is sooooo good!! Both Mike (a meat eater) and I opted for the homemade, sweet potato based, vegan patties on one of the custom burger options, and damn. Super tasty. Unlike so many restaurants in Hawaii, the kitchen is open until 11pm on weeknights (most close at 9pm, even on weekends). Also, the Hilo Farmers Market is a MUST when on the Big Island (http://hilofarmersmarket.com/)!
They have everything you could want or need, and prices are amazing. Not Hawaii amazing, but mainland amazing. Produce is fresh, most of it organic, and SO cheap!! What a farmer’s market should be. The largest markets are Wednesdays and Saturdays, so you could definitely load up on enough produce twice/week to cook your way through your vacation (and save soooo much $$ compared to grocery stores). I also checked out two different breweries in Kona; no, I still don’t drink beer. But Ola Brew has some awesome cider options (despite the fruity varieties, they are surprisingly drinkable and not sugary sweet), and Kona Brewing Company has great food, plus one of the best happy hours I’ve ever come across (loads of pints and appetizers for only $4!!!!). And they are within walking distance of each other, so it’s a great way to spend part of a day. (I have to take a moment and give a shout-out to two fantastic women I met and brew-hopped and spent a good part of a day with: Shelly & Suzanne, from Seattle. Meeting people like you are why I love traveling so much! Oh, and we met on the Kona trolley, so it not only provides transit, but you never know what fantastic new friends you may meet.)
Things to Do
I could have spent one full month on the Big Island and not managed to check out everything there is here to see and do. So I’m just highlighting what I did fit in during my short, week long visit. Pro tip: if you take nothing else from this post, please see my advice (below) re a trip to the summit of Mauna Kea. Seriously.
Coffee Farms. Kona coffee is some of the best in the world. So while here, why not visit a coffee farm and learn about how it’s made (plus, free samples!). There are loads of coffee farms, so I found the following website invaluable in helping me decide where to go: https://www.lovebigisland.com/kona-coffee-tasting/ I figured, with as much as this island costs, no point in spending $$ on a coffee tour when plenty of free tours available, and Mountain Thunder (https://www.mountainthunder.com/) had one of the best tour schedules (plus, was a close 20ish minute drive from Kilua-Kona). The tour was good, and the free samples even better. I can’t compare/contrast with other coffee farms, but I was quite pleased with my visit! Plus, it gave me an excuse to continue driving north, and end up driving through Waimea, Hawi, and so many other beautiful spots in the NW part of the island.
Mauna Kea (the most important travel advice in this article!). The tallest mountain in Hawaii (tallest in the world, beating Everest, if you measure from Pacific Ocean floor to Summit), and also a very significant and holy/spiritual site for Hawaiians. If you want to learn more, start here: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/sacred-scientific-clash-hawaiis-mauna-kea. This is also one of the MUST DO activities when on the Big Island. If you look for tour companies, you’ll find that each one will charge you about $250/person. Thanks to Raymond at the Kona Beach Hostel, Mike and I did not fall into this trap. Instead of paying $500 (total) to get to the summit and star gaze, I rented a 4-wheel drive (massive Ford truck, OMG), which cost me only $33 for the day (from Hilo airport) and we took ourselves to the top. After factoring in the cost of gas, and leaving our other rental car at the airport for the day, final cost was $75 (total). While 4-wheel drive is necessary to get to the summit, a tour is NOT. And NOT worth the money. However, bring every layer of warm clothing you own or stop by a local store and pick up warm clothes, because it is well below freezing at the summit! So worth it. On the drive up, you’ll stop and spend 30 mins- 1 hour at the Visitor’s Center, to acclimate. Then you’l continue the drive another 15-20 minutes to the summit, to watch sunset. After the sun goes down, I recommend pulling into the first parking lot you pass (it will be on your left, just a few minutes after you begin descending the summit). Several tour companies tend to pull in here and when it’s pitch black and the sky is illuminated (I’ve never seen a stary sky like this in my life!) , they bust out their laser pointers and begin explaining constellations to their guests, who paid $250/each for the tour. But it’s a tiny parking lot, so you get the benefit of their knowledge for free! But please, no matter how you visit, respect the sacredness of this site.
Cacao (Chocolate) Farm. Thanks to an AirBnb Experience, I learned about Lynda’s chocolate farm tour. Lynda has this spectacular property that overlooks the ocean, and happens to be just outside the path of the recent eruption. Because of that, ours was the first tour she’s given in 4 months. So not necessarily the best tour I’ve ever had, but she is lovely, and her chocolate is BOMB!! OMG. That alone made it worth the visit!! And she is also the most affordable chocolate farm tour on this side of the island. I would recommend it if you’re a chocolate lover, and curious about the process (plus, supporting local, small business owners/farmers is awesome!).
Black Sand Beach. There are several on the island, and the one closest to our Airbnb was Kehena Beach (aka, Dolphin Beach). It’s clothing optional, which means you can let it all hang out, or keep your beach clothing on; there were equal mixes of both when we visited. The sand was surprisingly soft (for being ground up lava!) and it was beautiful. I couldn’t take many photos though, due to quite a few nude yogis practicing all around 😉
Road Trips! This is one big, beautiful island, and one of the best ways to explore is to just jump in your car and hit the roads. Two of my favorite discoveries were on my road trip from Kona heading up to Waimea, then continuing north to Hawi, and completing the triangle by driving south back to Kona. This will take you past Kekaha Kai State Park (highly recommend!), cute towns, and a great scenic viewpoint up north.
Kekaha Kai State Park
Scenic Viewpoint in NW Hawaii (just north of Waimea)
Volcano National Park. Hawaii has loads of state parks, but only two national parks; one happens to be VNP. A good chunk of the park is still closed down due to significant damage from the recent eruptions (and thousands of earthquakes that occurred at the same time), but a lot is open for viewing, hikes, and driving. We happened into a talk given by one of the park rangers, and she was fabulous! Learned a lot about the volcanic activity on the island.
I ran out of time to explore the many hikes, snorkeling and diving opportunities, swimming with the huge manta rays, etc. SO MUCH TO DO HERE! This place is spectacular and I can’t wait for my next trip back. It is very bittersweet for me to leave Hawaii, this place is magical and has started to feel a bit like home; plus, I’ve added some spectacular people to my life, and I’m going to miss them very much. But I know it’s time to move on, because I’ve gotten a little too comfortable, and I’m not yet ready to settle down and stop exploring the world! Time to push a bit outside the comfort zone again, and after so much time settled in one spot, I have the energy to bounce around! The next few months are looking to be a whirlwind, so stay tuned. I’ll end this post with an “awwwwwww” moment…