My first trip to the Big Island was everything I expected and more. After this winter in Portland, I was desperately in need of a warm, relaxing tropical getaway. So when my parents mentioned that they were going to Hawaii and asked if I wanted to join, I could not say no.
Some of you may think it’s odd that a 25-year-old went on a vacation with her parents, but you’d be wrong. I feel very fortunate that I was able to spend that time with them – our week on the spectacular island of Hawaii was beyond memorable.
A few quick fun facts about the Big Island of Hawaii:
- People often confuse the island of Oahu with the Big Island of Hawaii, because Oahu is the most popular & touristy of the islands (Honolulu is on Oahu).
- You can fit all other six Hawaiian islands into the area of the Big Island.
- Hawaiian language has only 12 letters, so it’s very hard to remember street names because they all look the same… it’s also quite hard to pronounce names of towns or parks. We struggled with this
- The island has 10 of the 13 climate zones in the world, which is fascinating. There’s even snow (crazy, right?) on the summit of Manua Kea!
- Most all species of animals (excluding birds) that live on the island are considered invasive species. And weirdly, there are lots of feral cats that call the island home.
- You can drive around the entire island in one day, but you wouldn’t leave much time to stop and enjoy anything. But it’s definitely doable, would take about 6 hours.
Now, if you’re not interested in reading all of the trip details (because it’s quite long and the photos are the best part), here’s a quick recap of our week including my favorite places we visited, best restaurants, secrets, etc. But read the extended version below for all the details!
Best Restaurants: Splasher’s Grill, Bongo Ben’s, Chill’n On The Bay (great for drinks), Fish Hopper
Best Luau: King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel, $100/person
Best Beach/Hidden Gem: Makalawena Beach in Kekaha Kai State Park (stunning beach, bluest of water, fairly uncrowded, plus we spotted both a Hawaiian monk seal & a sea turtle here)
Best Shaved Ice: Anuenue Ice Cream & Shaved Ice (really far north, but great place to stop if you’re in the area)
Best Boujie Resort Area: Waikoloa Village – golfing, restaurants, beaches, fancy hotels, shopping center, etc.
Best Restaurants: Pineapples, Coconut Grill (old fashioned, but great food), Ponds, Miyo’s Japanese, Hilo Ono Kine (great lunch spot, amazing acai bowls)
Best Smoothie: What’s Shakin’ (near the Botanical Gardens)
Best Places to Explore: Pe’epe’e Falls, Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens, Akaka Falls (tallest falls in Hawaii), Volcanoes National Park
Best Beach: There aren’t many on the Hilo side, but Reed’s Bay Beach Park is sandy and a great spot to BBQ
Sunday Eve: We landed in Kona on the evening of Sunday April 23rd. We picked up our rental car and drove 10 minutes south of Kona to Keauhou to our incredible Airbnb right on the ocean. Except for the giant cockroach that greeted us on the doorknob, we couldn’t believe how gorgeous the accommodations were…. Seriously, AirBnb is so much better than hotels. Here’s where we stayed in Kona: Kona AirBNB
Monday: We spent our first day wandering around Kailua-Kona, hopping from beach to beach, basking in the perfect 82-degree weather. The Kona side of the island is known for it’s manicured beaches, sea turtle sightings, famous coffee, and is the hub of tourism for the big island. That being said, the town is quite small with only about 13,000 inhabitants (compare that to over 400,000 in Honolulu).
Our evening was spent at Kohanaiki Beach, were I climbed mini-trees, hunted unsuccessfully for sea turtles and did some yoga with my mom while my dad obsessed over the best place to photograph sunset (a large portion of this vacation was spent watching my dad do what he does best – landscape photography. He’s incredibly talented, you can check out his website here.) Kohanaiki seemed to be a favorite amongst the locals and didn’t attract many tourists, probably because the beach is covered with sharp rocks and coral over soft sand. But it was a spectacular place to watch the sunset. As dusk approached we headed back into Kona for dinner & drinks at Splasher’s Bar & Grill, where we “cheers”sed to our fabulous first day in paradise.
Tuesday: My morning was spent enjoying a fresh acai bowl by the oceanside pool of our airbnb complex. Can you think of a more perfect morning? Today, my folks and I ventured south to Pu’uhonua o Honaunau, a sacred national historic park that was once the home of royal grounds and a place of refuge for ancient Hawaiian lawbreakers. I tend to wander a lot while on vacation, so I strayed from my folks for a bit and found a perfectly private untouched beach just beyond the park where I sat under a picture-esque palm tree and enjoyed a few moments of solitude. I later found my parents again so I could bring them to my secret hideout.
By mid-afternoon we made our way back to our AirBnb so my mom and I could change and get ready for a very touristy but much-anticipated Luau! Early evening, Dad dropped us ladies off at King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel (he decided to sit this one out, not his thing), where we were greeted by our luau host and escorted to a beautiful oceanfront patio. Before the meal was served, the crew performed the ceremonial arrival of the Royal Court and taught us how to hula. Then, we gathered around an underground oven to watch the “Kalua’ana o ka Pua’a,” the uncovering of the pig. The meal was incredible – I think I ate twice my body weight. Along with traditional Hawaiian dishes such a kalua pig, poi, poke, and haupia, they also offered an array of fruits, sides and desserts… oh, and did I mention there was also an open bar? I had six Mai Tai’s over the course of two hours. The actual show lasted about an hour, where many different Polynesian dances were performed and historic stories were told. The show’s finale included an amazing Hawaiian hula and a very skilled fire dancer. Although it was admittedly a very touristy thing to do, it was well worth the money to me. Highly recommend this luau if you’re ever on the Big Island.
Wednesday: Our morning and early afternoon were spent at Makalawena Beach in Kekaha Kai State Park, just north of the Kona airport. This was by far my favorite beach we visited while on the trip. It’s a must-visit location if you’re traveling to Hawaii. You have to drive down a very bumpy 4-mile unpaved road to get to this secluded beach, but the trek is absolutely worth it. This beach has some of the clearest, most blue water I’ve ever seen. I’m not much of a swimmer, especially in saltwater because I always end up swallowing too much and making myself sick, but I couldn’t help but immerse myself in the perfect cerulean pools. Also, almost right as we arrived, we spotted a Hawaiian monk seal! We didn’t realize it at the time, but Hawaiian monk seals are extremely endangered, there are only about 1,100 left in the wild, so the chances of us seeing one were very rare. What’s even more lucky is that a short while later, as the monk seal was basking in the sun, a giant sea turtle decided to take a rest on a rock several yards away from the seal. We couldn’t believe it!
I easily could have spent the whole day exploring Kekaha Kai, but my parents wanted to venture north to check out a few other beaches. We made our way up to Hapuna Beach, which is notorious for being one of Hawaii’s best beaches, but other than the sexy lifeguards, I wasn’t overly impressed. The beach itself was beautiful, but it was overcrowded and very loud. The waves were also much stronger so it wasn’t ideal for swimming (but a great place to surf!) By early evening, we found ourselves in Waikoloa Village, a very posh, resort-y community. We wandered down to Waikoloa Beach and sat under the palm trees to catch yet another spectacular sunset to close out our last night on the Kona side of the island.
Thursday: My goal for this morning was to catch one of the florescent green geckos that inhabited the area around our complex. I came so close… but they’re too quick for me. We said our goodbyes to our beloved AirBnb and traveled south on highway 11 along the coast, leisurely making our way to the Hilo side of the island via the scenic route. Along our journey we stumbled across an inviting fruit stand, where I bought the juiciest mango and a delicious jar of lilikoi (passionfruit) butter. This was one of my favorite things about island life – the fresh fruit. I would have bought more, but you can’t get it past TSA. By mid-afternoon, we found ourselves driving down a 12-mile one-lane road towards the very south-most point of the United States, South Point Park. Was it worth it? Ehh, honestly there’s not much to see there other than a somewhat green sand beach, but I suppose it’s cool to say that I’ve been there!
The best part of this day was exploring around Punalu’u Black Sands Beach. This area is well known for sea turtle sightings – unfortunately we had no such luck, but the black sand beach itself is reason to stop here for an hour or two. This is also where my parents and I took the best family photo of all three of us in years (see below, ha!)
We reached Hilo by nightfall, all pretty exhausted from the day of travel. We found a fantastic place to eat dinner in downtown called Pineapples (my dad and I had some of the best steak I’ve ever eaten here), then made our way a few miles north of Hilo to our AirBnb. Our accommodations on the Hilo side of the island were incredibly authentic and unassuming. Also the nocturnal frogs that inhabit the tropical rainforest climate of Hilo (they’re called Coqui frogs, an invasive species) are ridiculously loud and made us feel like we were staying in the middle of a jungle… and since we arrived at night, we really couldn’t tell how true that was…. Here’s our Hilo AirBNB
Friday: I awoke in the morning, ventured out on the lanai and was awestruck by the view. Our AirBnb overlooked a lush jungle of tropical plants and trees, a small river and even the Hilo Bay. I sat in silence, taking in my surroundings as I waited for my parents to wake up. It made sense now why the frogs were so loud; there were probably thousands of them in the area surrounding our house the night before.
We spent almost the entire day exploring Volcanoes National Park, and even a whole day doesn’t give you enough time to see everything. We went on several hikes, wandered around the steam vents (smelly, but really cool), explored the Thurston Lava Tubes and drove around the Crater Rim Drive. Unfortunately, you have to venture on a very strenuous 8-mile hike to the ocean to even have a chance of seeing any lava. But the surrounding landscape and history is fascinating.
Saturday: Mom and I were thrilled when we woke up to sun, because today was Farmer’s Market Day in Hilo! Tons of vendors lined the streets of downtown, selling everything from fresh fruit & veggies to Hawaiian trinkets to gorgeous clothing and more. I helped myself to more mangoes and bought a beautiful shell necklace from a local jeweler. Around lunchtime, we met up with my dad and Eddie, a good friend of mine from high school who saw that I was visiting Hilo, at a great lunch spot called Hilo Ono Kine right across from the market. Eddie and I hadn’t seen each other since our high school days and I didn’t even know he was living in Hawaii until he reached out to me. What a coincidence, right? It was awesome to see a familiar face and catch up with him.
Our afternoon was spent chasing waterfalls. First, we wanted to check out the very popular Rainbow Falls, which is located right off the road about 5 minutes outside of Hilo. On a good day, the reflection of the waterfall pool casts a rainbow glow that is spectacular for photography, which is how the falls got it’s name. As we arrived however the clouds set in and we didn’t get any sort of rainbow effect. But the falls itself is really beautiful, and you can climb a set of stairs and wander through some trees above the waterfall for an amazing view.
Next, we drove several more miles outside of Hilo to Pe’epe’e Falls, a hidden gem of a waterfall that is much more difficult to get to. You can drive to the park where this falls is located, but can only walk so far before you have to climb down some pretty gnarly terrain and swim across a pool to get a good look at the bigger falls. While my parents were happy with the viewpoint, I took some time to wander down into the rocks to get as close as I could. Had I not been with my parents, I probably would have swam across the pool to get an up-close view of the falls, but I didn’t have a change of clothes and didn’t want to be wet the rest of the day.
Last, we made the drive to Akaka Falls, one of the tallest waterfalls in Hawaii. The short hike to the falls lookout is almost as beautiful as the falls itself, lined with tropical, Jurassic Park-like foliage and exotic, colorful plant life. Half of the loop hike was closed due to an erosion, but thankfully you could still get a great view of the waterfall plummeting into the green gorge. Out of all three of these waterfalls, I felt Akaka Falls was the most impressive, but all are a must-see when visiting the Hilo side of Hawaii. You will not be disappointed!
Sunday: We awoke to the first heavy rain we’d experienced yet throughout the trip. The Hilo side of the island is known for getting an obscene amount of rain yearly (3 times as much as Portland), and we’d been so lucky with the weather so far. Due to the noisy coqui frogs, Dad needed to catch up on some sleep, so mom and I ventured into town, where we ate breakfast and wandered into several niche shops in search of souvenirs. By early afternoon we picked up Dad and headed to the Hawaiian Tropical Botanical Gardens. Right as we arrived, however, we heard extreme thunder and it began to DOWNPOUR. It was one of the heaviest rainstorms I’ve ever experienced, but because it was warm rain it wasn’t nearly as miserable as you would assume. The three of us powered through the storm and eventually the rain let up so we were able to enjoy our afternoon exploring the stunning gardens. The Botanical Gardens are a can’t-miss – I have never been so stunned by plants. Left and right there are brilliantly vibrant exotic plants stemming from all angles, and the gardens lead all the way down to the ocean. There’s also an amazing fresh smoothie & sandwich shop about a mile away from the gardens called What’s Shakin’, which is a must-stop (and it’s for sale, you got an extra $3 millon laying around? You could buy it! ha!)
Monday: We packed up and checked out of our AirBnb to head back towards the Kona side of the island. We spent the day driving back to Kona, soaking up a bit more sun on a few beaches and shopping for trinkets before mom and I headed to a massage appointment. We had to pamper ourselves on our last day in paradise! There are tons of places to have a spa day on the Big Island, it’s hard to choose where to go. We both had a lovely experience at A Ala Hawaii Massage Oceanfront, where the natural sounds of the ocean provide the best relaxation background noise. For our last meal we stopped at Bongo Ben’s right on the beach, where we got to experience one last incredible breathtaking sunset before heading to the airport & back to PDX.
The Big Island is an absolute wonder and our vacation was fantastic, I strongly encourage everyone to plan a trip in their lifetime if they can. For anyone who is ever planning a trip to the Big Island, I hope this was both helpful and informative in assisting your visit. Also, if you read this entire post, you’re a rockstar. ALOHA!!