Big Love for Hawaii's Big Island
During my first two visits to the Big Island, I mostly stayed in the Pāhoa area at Kalani, a volunteer-supported, educational retreat centre that celebrates nature, culture, and wellness.
My third visit, a surprise 30th birthday gift from my boyfriend Chris (thanks, babe!), was the first time I got to explore the rest of the island, most of which I had never seen before. It didn’t take long for Chris to experience the magic of Hawaii and see why I love it so much.
Our trip was almost perfect, but we made two mistakes.
First, we didn’t rent a car at the airport. The Big Island received its name for good reason. It has 63% of Hawaii’s combined landmass, but only 13% of the population. It takes forever to get anywhere, and you need a car to explore and enjoy the island properly.
Also, we didn't really have a plan in mind, and it's so big that you need to plan to make the most of your time there. We stayed at Kalani on the eastern tip of the island for the whole week, which meant a lot of driving back and forth. Not ideal.
In hopes of preventing others from repeating our mistakes, I’ve planned the perfect Big Island itinerary for future visitors. (So the many hours spent driving circles around the island weren’t a waste after all!)
Fly into Hilo and stay for two nights
Hilo is the island’s largest city, and it has some fantastic restaurants. Hilo Bay Café is set on stilts and has a wrap-around patio overlooking the water, and Naung Mai Thai Kitchen is a delicious Thai restaurant that was extra special for us since we ordered takeout the night we got engaged. Conscious Culture Café is home to my favourite kombucha—and the only kombucha Chris will drink—Big Island Booch. They also have great vegan food options! We picked up breakfast one day and road our bike to Rainbow Falls to eat it. (Fun fact: Big Island Booch started out at Uncle Robert's in 2013, at a time when there were only six vendors, 100 patrons, and one person who actually knew what kombucha was and was nice enough to buy a bottle! Now, it's they distribute to all of the Hawaiian islands, and run a successful restaurant. I love stories about people making their dreams come true!)
Hilo is also near two waterfalls, Rainbow Falls (go early in the morning to catch the rainbows on the falls) and Akaka Falls, one of the Island of Hawaii's most famous and most beautiful waterfalls. Make sure to follow the signs for the Onomea Scenic Route en route to Akaka, and get out of your car for the Onomea Trail.
You may want to consider staying near Pahoa instead of Hilo. If at all possible, plan your trip so you are able to go to Uncle Robert’s Night Market, which takes place every Wednesday night. The whole town comes out for this weekly event, with drinks, dancing, and tons of local vendors selling treats and wares. Don’t eat before you go! If you’re around on a Saturday, the Maku'u Farmers Market is my favourite farmers market on the island. It has so many cool vendors and it’s open and airy so it’s the perfect place to be on a beautiful, sunny day. One of the big draws to the area is the lava viewing in Kalapana (which is very close to Uncle Robert’s). Somehow, in my three trips, I haven’t been here yet, but I’ve heard great things. It’s the only place you can see active lava up close. Surprisingly, Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park doesn’t have active lava flows, and you can only see lava (if the conditions are ideal) from afar, otherwise, it’s just a lot of steam.
Drive south to Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park for two nights
Though you can’t see lava, Volcanoes National Park is still a beautiful place to visit. There are so many different sites and scenic hikes and walks throughout the park, that you need a couple of days to experience it properly. When we visited, we only had four hours, and it was tight. We just drove along the Chain of Craters Road to the different viewing areas and walked through the Thurston Lava Tube. We didn’t go on any of the hikes, which take several hours apiece. So, if you have the time and are interested in hikes, give yourself a couple of days in the park. On a previous trip, I hiked the four-mile Kīlauea Iki Trail, which descends through a lush rainforest to the floor of the solidified but still steaming, Kīlauea Iki Crater lava lake. It was like walking on another planet.
Punalu’u Beach Park is a must for nature lovers. The black sand beach is home to endangered Hawksbill turtles and green turtles basking in the sun. When we arrived, three turtles were laying out on the sand. But when we went into the water, dozens were floating and swimming around us. Bring your snorkel gear to this spot! We were shocked at how few people were swimming at this spot (just us and another Canadian couple), but it’s a once in a lifetime experience.
Drive west to Kailua-Kona for two nights
The weather in Kona is much nicer—typically very dry and sunny. While you don’t get the beautiful and lush rainforest environment that you do on the Hilo side, you get lots of sun and beautiful beaches. Plus there is a ton to do in the area.
By far and away my favourite activity was the night swim with the manta rays. We sailed along the coast of Kailua-Kona on the Kamanu Catamaran to Pawai Bay. The sky, still alit with the remnants of yet another mesmerizing sunset, allowed us to get situated around the paddleboard floating in the dark waters, its LED lights casting an eerie glow beneath us. We watched as several manta rays performed graceful backflips while feeding on the microscopic plankton drawn to our lights. The 45 minutes we spent in the water flew by and the experience of seeing manta rays swimming right beside us was incredible.
We also visited the Ocean Rider Seahorse Farm and spent an hour learning about seahorses, eating seaweed and, ultimately, holding a live seahorse! And by holding, I mean standing very still with my hands in the water, while an employee put one on my finger—briefly. But so cool for those fleeting moments! As a vegan and someone who just generally gives a damn about animals, I had several reservations about the manufactured elements of a sea horse farm. That said, my tour guide Raechel (who was also vegan) did a good job pointing out the wildlife conservation aspects of the facility, which made me feel a bit more comfortable.
Two Step (named for the two stone steps that have naturally formed in the rock, allowing snorkelers easy access in and out of the water) was an incredible place for snorkeling in Honaunau Bay. Not that I have a ton of snorkeling experience—or any—but in my opinion, it was the best snorkeling ever! We spent an hour just floating, in awe of the hundreds of colourful fish.
Also, go to Mi's Waterfront Bistro. It has a beautiful patio overlooking the water, and several locals named it their favourite restaurant in the city. We weren’t disappointed.
Drive north to Waimea for two nights
The hike down into the Waipiʻo Valley is stunning. There is a private black sand beach, a massive waterfall, and people even live down there! But the hike back up is not as fun. The trail gains 800 vertical feet (243.84 m) in 0.6 miles (0.9 km) and is the steepest road of its length in the United States. If your rental is a 4-wheel drive, you can make it down and back up on the road. We walked, and I almost died. The only thing that kept me going was a large number of people more than twice my age that did the same hike without complaining half as much.
Close to Waimea is Hapuna Beach, regularly voted among the best beaches in the world. The sand is soft and white, and the water is beautiful. It’s also a great spot to hang out and to watch the sunset.
Mauna Kea Observatory is pretty much right in the middle of the island, so it makes sense to go there when you’re in Waimea, perhaps even after hanging out at Hapuna Beach as we did. Make sure you call ahead to find out the conditions on the mountain because, even though the weather is beautiful on the beach, it’s unpredictable at the higher altitude. We didn’t call ahead and arrived only to find out it was overcast and hailing, and we weren’t able to see the sunset or the stars. Too bad, because Chris was planning on proposing under the stars! Mauna Kea is an exceptional place, as it’s one of the only places in the world where you can drive from sea level to 14,000 feet in about two hours.