The island of Hawaii is the biggest of the Hawaiian Islands, and is locally referred to as the “Big Island” to avoid confusion, since the state name is also Hawaii. If someone tells me they’re going to Hawaii, I usually say, “which island?” because they don’t usually mean they’re going to the island of Hawaii, but rather the state of Hawaii.
I highly recommend Andrew Doughty’s book on Hawaii the Big Island, because he has covered every inch of this massive island, and his book can help you plan out a trip that suits your interests. This island is so big, and there are so many different things to do, that it’s extremely difficult to do it in one week. Use common sense and don’t plan activities beyond your abilities, or that sound questionable. I highly recommend planning an itinerary before booking your trip, so you’ll know how long you want to stay. Even if you’re going to limit yourself to one week, you will need to make a lot of choices beforehand!
The Big Island is unique in a number of ways. It is the only Hawaiian island you can visit that has an active volcano, where you can actually see red hot lava flowing into the ocean and creating blasts of steam (if you time it right). The two mountains on the island, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, are over 13,000 feet in elevation, higher in altitude than some Colorado ski resorts! And yes, it does occasionally snow up there, and yes, you can get high altitude sickness in Hawaii, especially if you go from sea level to the summit in a day. Hilo, on the eastern side, is a rain forest, and when we visited in the summer, it rained every single night. Kona, on the western side of the island, is dry and sunny, like a desert. It never rained at all when we were there. There are black sand beaches made from pulverized black lava, green sand beaches made from volcanic olivine, along with the usual off-white sandy beaches. The snorkeling can be amazing because of the clarity of the water here. So if you’re looking for unique variety, the Big Island would be your best choice.
If you do plan to visit the Big Island, the one piece of advice I can give you is to allow more time to get to your destination than you think. Many naively think they can drive around the island in a day, but with any sightseeing stops at all, that would be close to impossible. The two times I have visited the Big Island, I’ve split the trip into two parts, setting up a home base in Kona, and then Hilo, or vice versa. Just eyeballing a map of the Hawaiian Islands shows that the Big Island is about four to five times the size of either Maui or Oahu. That should give you an idea of the size of the BIG Island!
The fact that there are two commercial airports, one in Hilo on the east, and one in Kona on the west, should give you an idea that this is not a small island. We have flown into one airport, rented a car, and then flown out of the other. You may have to pay a rental drop fee, just check when booking. You could also do a full circle tour, setting up camp for a few days on the opposite side, and then return to your original airport. Just do some advance planning.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
The active volcano on the Big Island must be one of the biggest reasons visitors come to this island, and if your goal is to see Hawaii Volcanoes Nationals Park, then Hilo is the airport you’d fly into. Hilo is an old town, and because of the constant rainfall, everything is very lush, green, and sometimes, overgrown. We rented an apartment-type unit in Hilo and were able to walk into town, past the most lush vacant lots we’ve ever seen!
It is a short 30 minutes up to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park from Hilo, so Hilo can be used as a home base, though there is also lodging closer to the park, but it is usually more expensive. Keep in mind that you will need meals too, and there are more choices of restaurants with better prices in the town of Hilo than near the park. How many days should you allow to see the park? Well, that depends on what you want to do. There are numerous hiking trails in the park, an active volcano you might have to hike out to see, and lots of driving around. One day barely cuts it. In addition, you need to allow for multiple road closures and detours as the volcano’s activity changes. The destination you planned to see may still be open, but might take longer to get to than originally planned. Current, up-to-date information with sample itineraries can be found at the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park site.
We walked through the Thurston Lava Tube, as does nearly every visitor. It’s just a short, maybe 5-minute walk through a lava tube, or the hollow insides of what was once flowing lava. The area around the tube is very lush and full of tall ferns. We visited Kipukapuaulu (Bird Park) outside of the main park and enjoyed it, because the birds here sing actual tunes or melodies. It’s a simple 1.2 mile loop trail through a natural forest that you walk through; it’s not like a theme park where there are bird shows in a theater setting. I don’t remember if I even saw a bird, but I heard a few singing melodies. There may be other trails inside the park with higher bird populations. Ask the rangers at the visitor center if this is something that interests you.
When we last visited, the Halemaumau crater at Kilauea was not erupting; here’s a picture of Halemaumau when it’s quiet. It is active now (March 2012). A park ranger at the Visitor Center told us that if we drove all the way down to the ocean on the Chain of Craters Road that night, we’d be able to see fresh lava glowing in the dark. Be warned that lava has flowed over the road at the bottom where it parallels the ocean, so people drive right up to that point on a two-lane road, and that’s where the parking starts. That’s not where it ends. If you get there after everyone else, you will be parked in Timbuktu, and will spend half your energy just walking past all the other cars that parked in front of you, single file, before you get to the point where you start hiking on new (but cold) lava. Also, be warned that there are no bathrooms (only port-o-potties) or food or water down there, and it was a good 1-hour hike in to see, basically nothing, on the night that we went. The park rangers only let you hike up to a “safe viewing distance” to see the lava. In all fairness, if you truly hike on hot lava, your shoes could melt, which would not be a good thing. From where we stopped, I could see some red embers far off in the distance if I squinted. I think it was a tree burning, and if you’ve ever been to a bonfire, you’ve seen way better. So basically, my “lava hike” a few years ago was a total waste of time. The official map to view lava says “lava viewing conditions are variable,” so just keep that in mind if you choose to make this trek. And I wish you better luck than we had!
If you want to approach the lava from the other side, you would take the other fork in the road from Hilo. In other words, instead of forking to the right up Volcano Highway, you’d fork left onto Keaau-Pahoa Road towards Kalapana. Again, you may or may not see lava, depending on your luck. Kalapana was a residential community that was unfortunately built right in the path of a later lava flow. Can you imagine your home being engulfed by lava?
Lava Tree State Monument is a small park off Kapoho Road and is worth a stop if you’re already out in this area anyway. As expected, there are lava trees, or lava shaped like the tree it engulfed. The ground is also split open into deep fissures in some places as this picture shows; pretty amazing. If you decide to drive out this way, do allow yourselves plenty of time. The map is deceiving, because it looks like you’re just driving to a small corner of the island, but it seemed like I was driving forever and going nowhere when we drove it.
According to my brother, the most impressive way to see the active volcano is in a helicopter tour. You cannot fully appreciate the size and extent of the lava flows unless you’re in the air. It is spectacular even in a daylight flight if it’s erupting. He said they were close enough that they could even feel the volcano’s heat.
The Hilo Farmer’s Market, with over 200 local farmers and crafters in downtown Hilo, is best visited on Wednesday or Saturday. The variety of things for sale boggled my mind, and if it were practical, I would’ve spent a fortune. But we were visiting, which meant anything I bought would have to be hauled back on a plane, unless I wanted to pay for shipping back to the mainland. So no, I didn’t buy any of the beautiful orchids, or the fresh produce, other than what I could eat in a few days. I did buy some delicious bread, something like pineapple coconut pecan, and my family polished that off in a couple of days before we had to fly back to Honolulu.
Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Visitor Center
While I’ve never toured a pineapple or orange factory, I did take the time to see this, out of curiosity. I have citrus and pineapples growing in my yard, so I know what those look like. But what does a macadamia nut tree look like? And how do they get it out of its shell? You can tour the orchards and processing plant, then visit the gift shop and sample a wide variety of flavored macadamia nuts. They did have some flavors here that I’d never seen at Long’s Drugs, which is where I buy most of my mac nuts. Located 5 miles south of Hilo on (guess what?) Macadamia Road.
Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden
A tropical rainforest just north of Hilo has trails you can walk through. You will pass through a palm jungle, Onomea Falls (shown here), and areas with heliconia, orchids, and bromeliads. Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden is a small non-profit nature preserve and sanctuary dedicated to educating people about rainforests.
Akaka Falls is just another beautiful Hawaiian waterfall north of Hilo. It’s a very short hike to the waterfall from the parking lot, and you’ll pass a bamboo jungle, ferns, and wild orchids in this rainforest.
Laupahoehoe Point Beach Park
Laupahoehoe has historical significance because a tsunami on April Fool’s Day in 1946 took 24 lives, most of them schoolchildren. You can get a view from the top, or you can drive downhill from the main road through a residential area until you reach the ocean. The waters here were very rough the day we visited and swimming or fishing is not advised for that reason. But what a beautiful beach–brilliant blue surf crashing on black lava rocks.
Kalopa Native Forest State Park
We stopped here on our way from Kona to Hilo and walked the short, ¾ mile nature loop. It was a pretty hike through an ohia forest, not too strenuous, and I would certainly return. There are longer trails through more rainforest if you have the time and energy.
Kahaluu Beach Park
Kahaluu Beach, a little south of Kona, has an amazing number of fish and the tamest turtles we’ve ever seen. If you want a picture with a turtle, this is the place to get it. To get this picture of my husband and son, I had to swim as fast as a turtle and could barely keep up (they have true flippers, mine were plastic)! I never kicked so hard in my life, trying to get all three of them in my viewfinder! At low tide the water is extremely shallow, barely knee-deep, yet the rip current is extremely strong, so be careful when snorkeling here.
Honaunau, south of Kona on the western side of the island, is a sheltered bay with the most crystal clear water I’ve ever snorkeled in. The reason? The lava hasn’t broken down to fine sand yet, so you don’t get stirred up sand clouding the water. We could see straight down almost 40 feet, and see turtles resting on the sea floor. It was the most amazing thing to watch them rise, all the way from the sea floor to the surface; the water is that clear.
Honaunau Bay is also right next to Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historic Park, which is worth a visit if you’re interested in Hawaiian history and the laws of the people back then, for Honaunau was a Place of Refuge for lawbreakers.
I wanted my mainland son and husband to experience a real luau and decided on a Big Island luau instead of one on Oahu, because it’d be smaller and more intimate. The luau was held outdoors, right next to the beach, and there was a unique variety of good Hawaiian food, which was exactly what I was looking for. Real kalua pig, purple sweet potatoes, poi (mashed taro root), and haupia (coconut jello-like dessert), were some of the foods my son got to try at this luau. They actually roast a whole pig in a pit in the ground (an imu), like the ancient Hawaiians did. We arrived before it was dark and were just sitting around, so I pointed my 13-year-old son towards the back and told him to go check out the imu, since he’d never seen one before. He came back with an angry look on his face and said “Mom, there’s no emu or any other birds back there,” in a typical teenager’s tone. My Mom and I burst out laughing when we realized the only emu in his vocabulary was a wingless bird!
Found at the northwest tip, this is the Big Island’s version of the Na Pali on Kauai, but since the Big Island is a much younger island, the giant cliffs still look like big blocks, with none of the deep crevasses that make the Na Pali so stunning. You drive all the way to the top, park, and can hike a path all the way down to Pololu Beach below. We went down the path just a little, took a few pictures, and realized if we went all the way down to Pololu Beach, that also meant we had to hike all the way back up, so didn’t go down. But it’s a pretty view up there, and if you have the time and energy, you might plan ahead and bring some water to enjoy the hike.
Well that sums up the places we visited while on the Big Island. We spent nine nights there and still did not see everything, so I encourage you to form an itinerary before booking your flights. It IS one BIG island!