Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Big Island, Hawaii

The Big Island really lives up to its name  it’s so expansive that we spent an entire week there, staying on both the west and east coasts, and still didn’t get to see and do everything. On the west side are Kona and Waikoloa Village, where we stayed to enjoy the beaches on the Kohala Coast, and on the east side are Hilo, a laid-back town with a hipsterish vibe and excellent casual food, and Volcano, where Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is located. 

The weather is consistently beautiful on the west side, and consistently variable on the east, with both showers and blue skies happening throughout each day. Here’s a map of the Big Island, so you can visualize the various locations. It takes about two hours to drive from one side to the other.

On a previous trip to Hawaii, we visited Oahu and Maui, and both felt very different from the Big Island (and also from each other). The Big Island is more low key and there are fewer tourists, which has its pros and cons. Of course, the lack of crowds is a major pro, but that also means that many attractions lack the polish that you’ll find in Oahu and Maui. Still, the Big Island is definitely developed for tourism, and it totally feels like paradise. If you’re into being just slightly off the beaten path, the Big Island is a good bet for you. 

Where to Stay 

For the first half of our visit, we stayed at the truly grand Kings’ Land by Hilton resort in Waikoloa. The grounds are expansive  maybe too expansive, as we had to drive to get everywhere. (Pro tip: If you want to stay near the main pool, ask for a room in buildings 5 or 6; we stayed in building 1 and couldn’t walk to the pool.) Our two-bedroom suite was unbelievably luxurious. I adored spending time on our lanai (outdoor living space), where we were able to watch both the sunrise and the sunset from that balcony  I didn’t think that was physically possible! 

The pool at Kings’ Land is huge, but as it turns out, it’s a baby pool compared to the labyrinthian swimming facilities at Hilton Waikoloa Village, located down the street and which, as guests at Kings’ Land, we had access to. I would return to Kings' Land in a heartbeat.

For the second half of our visit, we stayed at an adorable rental home in Volcano, called the Lava Tube Hale. The two-bedroom home is cozy and situated in the middle of the rainforest, just five minutes from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. I particularly enjoyed the outdoor shower and fireplace, and we all loved the hot tub on the back deck after a long day of hiking. Coming from the splendor of Kings’ Land, this little retreat isn’t nearly as grand (and could use a dishwasher), but I really appreciated the host’s sweet little touches, such as the fresh fruit and bread as well as the robes in the closet.

And we stayed at one more hotel back in the Kona area for one night before leaving from the airport: The Courtyard King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel. This hotel was just our speed, with a cute pool, fun beach area, lawn games, a shave ice stand, and a luau that happens three times a week.  

The Island Breeze Luau is really lovely and intimate, unlike the last luau we attended at the Polynesian Cultural Center in Oahu. The stage was small, with a cast of seven talented dancers, five-piece band, and, of course, the fire performer. All the seats were up close and we got to see everything, from the dancers’ lovely smiles to the fire performer touching the flame with his bare hands. The food and service were excellent as well. I’d highly recommend this luau experience.   

What to Do (Hikes)

We did a number of low key hikes on both sides of the Big Island. In the Hilo area, we started off with Akaka Falls State Park in Honomu (about 20 minutes away). The hike is an easy 0.5 mile loop (with a lot of stairs descending into the rainforest) to the spectacular Akaka Falls. You also get to see the less impressive Kahuna Falls along the way. However, accessing this hike cost $5 per person, plus $10 for parking. For me, the steep cost of $30 for my family of four to hike for half an hour left a bad taste in my mouth and prevented me from really enjoying the experience. If you’re a serious hiker, I’d recommend skipping this one; if you just want to be able to experience a waterfall hike without breaking a sweat, then maybe it’s worth it. 

In contrast, Rainbow Falls, just outside Hilo, is free to experience and the viewing area is literally right by the parking lot. There’s a 0.3 mile hike up to the top of the falls, but sadly for us the path was closed during our visit. 

At Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, we did two fun hikes: the Sulfur Banks Trail, an easy walk mostly over a boardwalk area to view the steam rising from crevices in the ground, and the Kilauea’iki Trail, a much more intense but completely unique hike that takes you directly into a crater. Here’s more on how to do those hikes with kids and our visit to Volcanoes National Park.

What to Do (Beaches)

The first beach we visited was Hapuna Beach on the Kohala Coast, and it is picture perfect, with soft white sand that stretches for half a mile and gentle waves in the turquoise waters. This is the quintessential Hawaiian beach, and I would categorize it as a must-visit if you’re in the area. From our experience, the only thing that it lacked was good snorkeling, although maybe it was just our luck that day. 

The next day, we checked out Waialea Beach (aka Beach 69), which is actually an extension of Hapuna Beach but couldn’t be more different. The beach is narrow and shady, from the many trees that line the shore, and the snorkeling is fantastic, particularly around the rocks that jut out in the ocean, not far from the beach. We were able to walk into the water and swim out just a short distance to see schools of beautiful fish. 

While staying in the Volcano area, we decided to drive south for about 35 minutes to check out Punalu’u Beach, famous for its black sand and sunbathing sea turtles. While turtle sightings are reportedly quite common, they aren’t always a sure thing  but we got lucky and saw just one turtle during our visit! It was having a meal by some tide pools, and my daughter was mesmerized by its sporadic movements. There’s nothing like a turtle cameo to brighten a beach day! Aside from that, the black sand is an interesting thing to experience (albeit too pebbly to enjoy barefoot) and the tide pools are great fun to explore. The water was a bit rough for swimming, but people did manage to get out there anyway (not us, though). 

On the final leg of our trip, we headed back to the west coast of the Big Island and made a stop at Honaunau Bay (aka Two Step Beach) to check out the legendary snorkeling. There’s no sand at this beach, just rocks and tide pools, and one of those rocks features “two steps” into the ocean. The waters at that point of entry was actually too rough for my kids, so instead we entered from a downward sloping ramp situated at the left of the beach. Once in the water, we immediately saw plenty of yellow tang. Two Step is supposed to also have turtles and dolphins, but we saw neither during our visit. 

What to Do (Other Attractions)

On our last day on the Big Island, we visited two farms situated near the airport, one for seahorses and one for octopuses. Both places are trying to raise animals at these farms in order to save their endangered brethren in the wild. 

The first facility was the Ocean Rider Seahorse Farm, where we got an hour-long tour and witnessed seahorses at all stages of life. They were adorable to look at, and at the end, we got to hold one for a few seconds (or rather, the seahorse held onto us). 

The second place we visited was the Kanaloa Octopus Farm. This visit was more of a petting zoo experience, where we spent the whole time getting to know two dozen or so octopuses. They live in separate tanks, and we were free to put our hand in the tank and see if the octopus was interested in touching or grabbing onto us. We also got to give them toys and food. Some were more shy than others, and one particular octopus was the opposite of shy, grabbing onto whoever was nearby and crawling up their arm! 

If my family had to choose one attraction to visit, it would be the octopus farm. While we learned a lot from the seahorse farm — and seahorses are just adorable  the octopus experience was more interactive and kept my kids interested for the entire hour. Plus, the octopuses all had such different personalities, which was fascinating to witness. I do highly recommend both experiences if possible, though. If you are touring both farms in one day, you must visit the seahorses first, for bio-security reasons.  

What to Eat in Waikoloa/Waimea

In the Waikoloa/Waimea area, there are many places where you can have a nice (and expensive) sit-down lunch or dinner, and I had a couple of places noted in my itinerary, such as the Lava Lava Beach Club. But in the end, we decided to do takeout for all our meals so we could eat in our fabulous lanai. 

For one lunch, we stopped at a strip mall where we grabbed sushi and poke bowls from Kawaihae Kitchen (I actually my daughter’s super fresh California roll more than my ahi poke), hamburgers made with Hawaiian beef from Kohala Burger (so good), and shave ice and Kona coffee brownie ice cream from Anuenue Ice Cream & Shave Ice (both were top notch). My advice: Call ahead for the sushi (it took 45 minutes for them to prepare our order), but be prepared to stand in line for the shave ice anyway, since there’s no ordering in advance and there’s literally one person manning the window and preparing every single order. The line we got on was maybe 10 people deep, and it took about five minutes for each shave ice to be made, so we literally stood in line for almost an hour. Even so, it was worth it!

Another day we picked up two fast-casual meals: Ippy’s Hawaiian Barbecue in the Queens’ Marketplace, and Island Fish & Chips from Kings’ Shops, across the way. Both meals were quick and easy, and they hit the spot with my family. At Kings’ Shops, there was a huge line leading into the Original Big Island Shave Ice Co., and I kind of wanted to stand on it to see what all the fuss was about, but I was overruled by my family.

One final place I’ll mention in the area is the Hot Malasadas truck (aka Manuela Malasada), which sits in a pull-off area on the Mamalahoa Highway. These freshly prepared Hawaiian donuts are worth the stop. We got a half dozen with fillings that ranged from guava to Nutella, and each one was delicious.  

What to Eat in Hilo

The town of Hilo is a fantastic place to grab a casual and freshly prepared meal, and sadly we only had time for one lunch there before heading off to the Volcano area. But we managed to cram in a lot of eating during that brief time. This was only possible because everything was within a three block radius, and various members of my family wanted to eat different things, so we ended up splitting up to pursue what our individual stomachs desired. 

My husband and son wanted curry and katsu, so they went off to Puka Puka Kitchen and had a reportedly awesome meal. Meanwhile, my daughter and I wanted poke and bubble tea, so we walked to Poke Market to pick up some bowls and then over to Ding Tea to sit down with some drinks and our food. Both were extremely tasty. 

After that, we stopped by Hilo Farmers Market to pick up some fresh fruits (mangoes, pineapple, lychee) to bring back to our rental home. We also bought a single “mountain apple,” which my son wanted to try (he later proclaimed it soft and tart).  

And just before leaving Hilo, we stopped by Two Ladies Kitchen, recommended by my in-the-know friend, to pick up a box of mochi filled with chunks of fresh fruit. You select from an extensive menu of fillings (ranging from Oreo to fresh strawberries), and everything is as fresh and delectable as it is adorable. The only place on my Hilo list that we didn’t try (simply because our stomachs couldn’t fit any more) was Makani’s Magic Pineapple Shack, which sells ice cream flavors like ube and pineapple, covered in edible glitter. 

What to Eat in Volcano

The food scene in the Volcano area is kind of sleepy, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find a good meal. We had breakfast twice in a row from Eagles Lighthouse Cafe (the fried rice breakfast is so tasty), and dined at Kilauea Lodge’s upscale restaurant for dinner. My favorite meal was probably lunch at The Rim restaurant inside Volcanoes National Park, though. The view from the restaurant’s panoramic windows was spectacular, and our food was quite good, especially for a National Park menu; I recommend the Taste of Hawaii sampler plate.

Where to Eat in Kona/Honaunau

Just a few minutes from Two Step Beach are two fantastic takeaway places, Honaunau Poke Shop and Big Jake’s Island BBQ, next door to each other. Once again, my family split up to enjoy both  the seafood lovers (my daughter and me) heading to the poke shop, and the meat lovers (my husband and son) hitting up the barbecue joint. We brought the food to Two Step Beach to eat, and both meals lived up to the hype.

In Kona, we had shave ice twice, at One Aloha and Scandinavian Shave Ice. One Aloha which serves its shave ice with freshly made fruit juices, not the artificial stuff, and it’s truly delicious. Scandinavian does some fun things, like add toppings to your shave ice or give it a Dole whip center. 

What’s Nearby

Three years prior to this trip to the Big Island, we visited Hawaii for the first time, with stops in Oahu and Maui. The two islands complement each other well, and I would recommend seeing both during one vacation. If I had to choose between them, I would pick the more natural setting of Maui, but my husband would pick the more commercial fun of Oahu. Check out my itineraries for both Maui and Oahu