I will never forget the smell of plumerias after going to the Big Island! As soon as you get off the plane, you are engulfed by the lovely smell. The warm rays caressed my face while the gentle trade winds blew. At that moment I knew I had found paradise.
My mom is originally from Oahu, but moved to the Big Island in 1996. I have been visiting her regularly for the passed thirteen years. In that time I have learned a lot about the Big Island. I know where to look for lava, where to look for black sand beaches, where to find turtles, and how to find magical green sand. In this article I will be outlining the best features that the Big Island has to offer.
The best way to travel to the Big Island is by plane. There are people who sail, cruise and even swim to the Big Island, but I recommend arriving by plane either to Hilo or Kona. There are a few airlines that I recommend when flying to Hawaii and two, in particular, I would stay away from at all costs. Hawaiian Airlines was established in 1929 and is the longest running airline that flies to and from Hawaii. They rely on their flight history, reputation, and loyal customers to stay in business. Hawaiian Airlines is generally on time and they provide sufficient customer service. Alaska Airlines has always treated me very well. They fly directly to Kona and Hilo from a number of cities on the west coast of the U.S., have noticeably more leg room, and best of all they provide a complimentary glass of wine, beer, or Mai Tai before landing, something that has become rare in domestic flights. If you are flying from Australia or New Zealand, Quantas and Air New Zealand are both reputable. If you are on a tight budget, look into Jetstar. Keep in mind that Jetstar is a pay as you go airline. The flights are very cheap because anything extra you have to pay for (i.e. blanket, soft drinks, head phones, pillows, food, and basically anything but the lavatory.) If you cannot fly directly to Hilo or Kona, then you will most likely fly into Honolulu and must transfer to an inter-island flight. When getting off your plane you will have to follow signs to the inter-island terminal (Use the wiki wiki bus! It will save you from a twenty minute walk in 80% humidity which you will not be used to yet.) The airline that I recommend for inter-island travel is Mokulele. They have impeccable customer service, their flights are always on time, and they still provide complimentary juice on the short flights.
IMPORTANT: When you book your initial flight, make sure you never fly United. For inter-island flights, never fly Aloha Air. These two companies have given me the most trouble out of any airline that I have flown in the entire world. The customer service is atrocious, the flights are regularly late or canceled, and both charge for checked bags. DON’T FLY THESE TWO AIRLINES!
There are plenty of hotels stay at around Kona and Hilo, but I recommend looking up homestays and vacation rentals online. These are usually private listings from locals who want to rent out their home for certain parts of the year. They tend to cost less than hotels and you can save by cooking at home. If you are backpacking, there are hostels in Hilo, Kona and Volcano. The Holo Holo Inn is the best for your money in Volcano. Dorm beds start at $ 17. Anyway, lets get to what there is to see on the Big Island!
Volcano National Park
Volcano National Park is located 30 miles west of Hilo on Highway 11. This is one of few places in the world you can see an erupting volcano. In 1983 Kilauea Volcano started erupting and has not stopped since. That is 16 years of continuous lava flow! In the park you can see a more recent surge at Halemaumau crater. Plumes of sulfur smoke rise up to 1000 feet in the air and the glow of lava can be seen from the famous Jagger Museum. Visitors can also drive down the Chain Of Craters, through historic lava from previous eruptions, down to where the lava meets the ocean. On the way visitors can walk through the Thurston Lava Tube, a 100m tunnel left behind by lava traveling under ground. Note: Sometimes the lava flow changes direction, creating an extremely long hike to see the flow into the ocean from the park. If this is the case, then ask a park ranger for direction to the Kalapana flow which is back down the road toward Hilo.
30 miles further down the road from Volcano National Park is a black sand beach called Punalu’u (there are signs that lead you off the highway 1 mile). I absolutely love this beach! I don’t really recommend it for swimming or snorkeling, it’s just beautiful. When you get there, park your car take your shoes off and walk to the other end of the beach. Bring your slippers (sandals or flip flops) as the black sand can get very hot depending on the time of day. On your right you will see local kids playing in the water and waves breaking on the reef. To your left, there is a small merchant stand that sells water, snacks and souvenirs. Make sure to walk all the way to the end of the beach! This is where the Honu (turtles) rest. Note: They are more likely to be there in the morning hours. If you feel like taking a dip, watch out for rocks as the beach is not all sand in the water. If you have young children, keep an eye on them for there is a moderate undertow. To rinse off when you are done there is fresh water spring at the far end of the beach. The water is cold!
Continuing on toward South Point, you will pass a little town called Na’alehu. You have to stop at two places here. First is the Punalu’u Bakery. They have amazing pastries, including Malasadas, a traditional Hawaiian doughnut that is to die for. Across the street (near the field, public toilets and basketball court) is the Na’alehu Lunch Shop. They have ono grinds (good food), especially the fish burger if it is available. After you have filled up on lunch continue around 5 miles down the highway and turn off at the sign that marks South Point (12 miles off highway). Drive down about 12 miles and take an unmarked right turn as soon as the road flattens out and follow that to the end. This is the furthest point south in the U.S. It really is a magical place there. To be standing at the edge of America and literally be able to jump off it. I do when I go there. It’s about a 30ft. jump into the ocean. It looks somewhat shallow, but I assure you its not. Probably about 30 feet deep. I don’t recommend doing this unless there are other people jumping as the ladder up is very old and may no longer be functional when you get there. After you get your thrills from cliff jumping return to the road you turned off and take a right. Between one and two miles down the road is another pull out (unmarked as well – get used to this) where you can park. This is the entrance to the trail that leads to the magical green sand beach. If you have a four wheel drive, you can continue driving. If not, this is the end of the road for the car and you must walk. Continue toward the ocean. Right as you get to the shore, turn left onto a very, very rough road. Continue on here for about two miles until you arrive at the top of a very steep embankment. Park here and walk down to the beach. Note: For the walkers, make sure to bring lots of sunscreen, water, and sunglasses. This beach is great to swim and snorkel at. Enjoy!
On the way to Kona you will see plenty of lava. There are few places worth seeing on the way. At Kealakekua Bay, there is a monument for Captain Cook. This is the location where the Hawaiians decided Captain Cook was not welcome and they murdered him. I highly recommend renting Kayaks and paddling across this bay. On the far side, where the monument is located, the snorkeling is extraordinary! If you are lucky, the Nia (dolphins) will be playing in the bay and you will get to see them show off!
Another great snorkeling spot before you get to Kona is Honaunau National Park. There is a fee to get into this park so have cash with you.
Kailua-Kona is the tourist town on the Big Island. If you are after night life, this is the town you will want to go to. Actually, it would be Honolulu, but because that is on another island, Kona will do. This is a good place to stop and eat, go shopping, use the bathroom, etc. I would park a few streets up Alii Dr., then walk there as parking is hard to come by without paying.
Hapuna State Park
Hapuna State Park is a beautiful white sand beach that is located about 30 miles north of Kona. If you and the family want a nice beach to spend the day at, this would be it. The only downside would be the crowds. It is a tourist beach and is often very crowded (for the Big Island). Bring sun screen and water. There are rentals shops that rent boogie boards, towels, and snorkel gear. This place is not very good for boogie boarding or snorkeling so I don’t recommend renting here. The snorkeling will seem dull compared to Honaunau and Kealakekua Bay.
I saved Waipio Valley for last. This place is amazing! From Hapuna State Park, it is about a thirty minute drive to Waipio through the town of Waimea and Honoka’a. Most people don’t get to see what Waipio Valley has to offer because two-wheel drive vehicles are forbidden to drive down the road. It is about a two mile walk which is not so bad, but the walk out is tiring to say the least. As you approach the bottom of the hill on your way in, turn right and continue until you hit the ocean. Waipio is the sight where the 1995 film Waterworld ended. The valley itself has steep cliffs carved out by millions of years of erosion. In the back of the valley a waterfall plummets toward the Taro fields. The river meanders through the valley running directly into the ocean. The black sand beach is about a mile and has horses grazing up and down the beach. Most of the land in the valley is private and due to the geography of the land, the horses can roam freely. You should not feed the horses! And be careful because they are known to buck. Waipio is known to be a great camping and surfing spot as well.
There is more to be seen on the Big Island than what I described. These are just some of the highlights on the Big Island. One of my favorite things to do is explore the island. I encourage anyone spending time there to explore and see what the island reveals to you. You will be amazed at what you will find. Safe Travels.
Ian A. Steger has found a passion for traveling. He is originally from Bellingham, WA. He hopes to continue his travels, see as much of the world as possible, and learn about different cultures. He currently resides in Melbourne, Australia.
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