With 10 days on Hawaii (“Big Island”) there is plenty of time to experience the range of activities available, from snorkelling with the colourful marine life to gazing at glowing lava and walking through lush rainforest to beautiful waterfalls. The change from hot black lava fields to the cooler, misty green side of the island is fairly extreme, and even though it’s the big island – the driving distances are not really too far.
After a short flight from Honolulu we arrived at the Kona airport, which is mainly open air, lending it a nice tropical feel. We picked up our hire car and set off over the barren lava fields to begin our Hawaii adventure. Driving south past Kona, our first stop was in the highlands famous for “Kona Coffee”.
It was interesting to drive up from the lava fields and see how quickly the land rises to the higher elevation and changes to the lush greenery of the coffee plantations.
We stopped in at Greenwell Farms, one of the older coffee plantations and went on an interesting tour. There were lots of ripening coffee cherries, which are still picked by hand. Greenhill have facilities for pulping, drying, a dry mill, greenbean grading and a storage facility. They sell green beans around the world and also roast on site, one traveller was very happy to sample the various coffees on offer!
There were also a few cute (non-native) residents in the citrus trees near the shop.
We had a late but tasty lunch at Annie’s Island Burgers, a bit of a Big Island institution, and then went to the Donkey Balls Shop. Although these chocolate treats are quite expensive, we bought some tasty Chafed Balls (cinnamon and dark chocolate macnuts) and Goat’s Balls (mango covered in dark chocolate).
Later we checked into our accommodation at Kanaloa at Kona by Outrigger, in Keauhou Bay. We decided not to stay in Kona itself, opting for an appartment further south, closer to some of the snorkelling spots we wanted to visit over the coming days. The complex was very relaxing and we were right on the coast presenting a good opportunity to observe the green flash. Alas, there was too much vog (haze from the volcanic gases). We admired the sunset anyhow, with a few local Kona Brewing Company beers.
We had an early start today, driving south to Kealakekua Bay. Here we joined an Adventures in Paradise kayaking trip across the bay to the Captain Cook monument, which is only accessible by a steep trail or by kayak. The bay was stunning in the morning light and about halfway across we were lucky to see a pod of spinner dolphins. These dolphins are nocturnal and very acrobatic! They were having their last ‘jump’ before daytime resting and the number of twists and turns they executed before slapping back into the ocean was pretty amazing.
The snorkelling at the monument was great – the visibility was excellent and there were lots of different fish and corals to spot, including masses of very colourful yellow tangs. There were a couple of fresh water seeps and it was interesting swimming through these as refractive index change between the fresh and salt water creates blurry vision all of a sudden!
We also learnt about the history of this area which was sacred for the Hawaiians, with the crevices in the sheer cliffs being burial places for Hawaiian royalty.
It is also where Captain Cook died. Initially he sailed into Kealakekua Bay during a religious festival, makahiki, and was treated like a god. After staying for a couple of weeks he and his crew then headed back out to sea. However, the ships were damaged in a storm and they returned two weeks later. The festival was over and the people were surprised to see such damage to the boats of a ‘god’. A small boat was stolen, which prompted Cook to lure the Hawaiian chief onboard, who was then taken hostage until the boat was returned. A skirmish ensued and Cook was killed, not far from where he first landed.
In the afternoon we went to Kahaluʻu Beach Park, down the road from our accomodation, for more snorkelling. It was pretty shallow and quite crowded but there were still lots of great fish to observe. For dinner we drove out to Holuakoa Café, a slow food restaurant, which was delicious.
We started the day with snorkelling at Two-Step, named for the two lava rock steps that provide access. There was again good visibility, lots of yellow tangs and some turtles (honu). The turtles were not as skittish as those we’ve previously seen at Ningaloo, they were happy to swim gracefully below us amongst the coral.
There was a variety of depths and great coral structures to explore and we saw lots of butterflyfish, parrotfish, Moorish idols, sturgeonfish and triggerfish. I think we even saw the Hawaiian state fish, a trigger fish called Humuhumunukunukuapua’a (which means triggerfish with a snout like a pig)! Overall the Hawaii Big Island snorkelling was much better than expected and a highlight of the trip.
Just south of the snorkelling area is the national park of Pu’uhonua o Honaunau. With its sheltered bay and fresh water supply, this was a residence for the ali’i, royal chiefs of the Kona region. There are remains of the royal fish ponds, canoe landing areas and temples.
Separated by a large wall, there was also a pu’uhonua This was a place of refuge for noncombatants during war (those too young or old), defeated warriors and those who violated kapu, the sacred laws. If someone who broke the kapu made it to a pu’uhonua, then a priest could perform a ceremony of absolution and they could return home again.
This was an interesting site to visit, and learn more about the original Hawaiian inhabitants. We also played a traditional game called konane, a two player game with coral and lava pieces for each player. Mark ended up the winner.
For lunch we headed to Da Poke Shack, which had been recommended by our kayaking guide. We tasted a few of the different poke flavours first before choosing what to add into our poke bowl – so much beautifully fresh tuna!
In the late afternoon we drove up to the Kona town area. It was pretty touristy with lots of shops, restaurants and bars along the oceanside, and I don’t think we were really missing out on much by not staying there. We also saw the start of the infamous Kona Ironman, it would be incredibly tough for the cycle and run in the hot lava fields surrounding Kona.
In the evening we thought about swimming with the manta rays or even just heading to the nearby resort hotel where they can apparently be seen in the evening while you enjoy a drink, but in the end we were too tired and happy enough to enjoy our Kona brews at home!
We decided to have a final snorkel at our local spot, Kahalu’u Beach Park. The visibility wasn’t so good, but there were lots of turtles munching on the algae of the shallow rocks so we just chilled out watching them. They didn’t mind our presence at all.
We packed up from our apartment and drove to South Point (Ka Lae), the southern most point of the United States. Here there were some crazy people jumping off the cliff into the beautiful clear water below. It was so clear we could easily make out the yellow tangs from high above! We were not tempted to jump though…
We had packed lunch in our car, due to the excessive wind, but then stopped at Punalu’u Bake Shop for a dessert. The shop is famous for malasadas (doughnuts with fillings) and my liliko’i (passionfruit) malasada was very tasty.
Next stop was the Punalu’u Black Sand Beach, which was a nice volcanic sand beach, but a bit cold and choppy for swimming. However, we were lucky to see a few turtles hauling themselves out of the waves for a rest on the beach.
Finally in the late afternoon we arrived at Volcano National Park. We talked with the rangers about hiking options and the best way to see the lava in the following days. We thought we would have a quick look at the lava lake in the Halema’uma’u Crater, but soon after we got there was much more activity than usual, so we stayed mesmerised for quite a while. We went to check in to our B&B, and then came back in the dark to continue observing the lava spectacle!
After lava watching, we had a good meal at the Ohelo Cafe. It was quite crowded, so we sat up at the bar and watched the kitchen work their magic.
We woke up to the rainforest birdsong after a very comfortable night’s sleep in Lava Pond Lodge B&B. Our host made us a lovely breakfast and we discussed what to do in the national park. We hadn’t previously stayed in B&Bs, I’ve always been a bit worried about how much interaction would be required, but Regina was lovely and it was great to get some local information and advice.
After breakfast we headed back to continue sightseeing in Volcano National Park, mainly focusing on the Chain of Craters Road and it’s many attractions. For details of all the amazing volcanic wonders, check out the Running and Roaming guide to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
We had another great breakfast at our B&B, and then went to see the last couple of sites in Volcano National Park, the steam vents/sulphur banks. We also had a farewell look at the Halema’uma’u Crater. The lava lake level was much lower than a couple of days ago and it wasn’t nearly so active.
Our next stop was Akatsuka Orchid Gardens, just out of Volcano, on the way to Hilo. There were lots of beautiful orchids blooming and we went through the ‘Orchid Maze’ which had information about growing orchids, living walls and lots of cattleyas hybrids that Akatsuka is renowned for.
Continuing on to Hilo, we headed to Suisan Fish Markets for lunch. We indulged in some more fresh poke, this time claiming to be the best on the island! It was hard to decide which flavours to go for in our poke bowls and they ended up being huge, so much fresh fish for what was a very reasonable price.
We checked into our accommodation at Lotus Garden of Hilo. It was really cool and seemed very ‘Freo’ to me, and when we met the owners (an American man and Australian lady), we found out that she had previously lived in Fremantle!
We wandered around Hilo and stumbled on to the Mokupāpapa Discovery Center. This is an interpretative centre for Hawaiian marine life with a huge aquarium full of the types of fish we had previously snorkelled with, and could now identify! There are a couple of other museums in Hilo which sounded interesting like the Pacific Tsunami Museum and `Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii which would have been good to check out if we had more time.
Walking around the Liliuokalani Gardens in the late afternoon was very peaceful and from there we could even see the summit of Manua Kea with its many ‘golf ball’ telescopes. The slope of this massive volcano is so gradual it is hard to comprehend that it is actually 4,200m high. For dinner we headed to the Moon & Turtle restaurant. This place has a regularly changing menu (posted up everyday to Facebook!) of local share plates and we weren’t disappointed with some more fresh seafood and tasty vegetable sides.
Since we were now on the green side of the island, we started off the day with a visit to one of the waterfalls close to Hilo.
We then continued on to the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, via the Onomea Bay scenic drive. This was a narrow, windy road through lovely rainforest with great ocean views, I enjoyed it very much as the passenger!
The gardens themselves were planted on a steep slope, containing numerous waterfalls. We enjoyed walking through the beautiful palm trees and spotting the many heliconias, bromeliads and of course orchids growing on the trees everywhere.
After the garden, we had lunch at What’s Shakin, a cafe down the road with lots of smoothies and good sandwiches. A bunch of people on a cycling tour had also stopped there for sustenance, they had ridden along the windy roads of the scenic drive.
In the afternoon we set off to Kalaparna to see the lava flows. The walk to the lava was great fun, and the actual ocean flows were amazing, as described in our post on Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
After beating back the rain, we had a late dinner at Pineapples. It’s a very American bar/restaurant in Hilo that served large burgers, which hit the spot after all our lava hiking!
We left out Hilo accommodation and headed north to Akaka Falls. This is one of Big Island’s most impressive waterfalls with a 130m drop.
Our visit to Hamukua Mushrooms was a surprise package – we didn’t know what to expect and we were lucky to have a personal tour around the facility. Here they grow King Enoki mushrooms in saw-dust filled bottles, based on technology from Japan. We saw the various stages of mushroom growth, learnt about how to properly prepare mushrooms for cooking and tasted some too. They were very yummy and the trip to Hamukua Mushrooms is highly recommended for something a bit different.
We had lunch at the gorgeous Waipi’o Valley Overlook, and would have liked to hike down into the valley (maybe not so keen to come back up), but unfortunately being the green side of the island the weather was not favourable and it started to drizzle.
Instead, we checked out Waimea township, where we would be based for the next two nights. Waimea is in paniolo, Hawaiian cowboy country, and there are lots of rolling green pastures for cattle grazing. It’s an interesting place with a vibe unlike the rest of the island.
In the evening we visited Merrimans for dinner which is famous for ‘Hawaiian Regional Cuisine’, the menu even included some Hamuka mushrooms!
On our final full day, we drove from Waimea to Hawi on the Kohala Mountain Road, which was very scenic. Another hiking option on the north end of the island was at Polou Valley, and we made it down to the rocky beach and part way back up again before the rains started. The steep cliffs were pretty amazing, with lots of waterfalls plunging down into the angry sea.
As it was quite rainy and not very nice weather on the eastern side, we decided to head over the hills and down to the coast on the north-western side of the island. Here it was hot and sunny (a great example of orographic rainfall)! We visited a Macadamia Factory, ancient temple site (Pu’ukohola Heiau) and had lunch at the beach.
In the evening we drove up Manua Kea, to the visitor centre where there are nightly free star gazing activities. Here we saw all the tour group participants acclimatising before they headed to the summit to see the telescopes at sunset, the summit is amazingly high at 4,207m given that most tourists are staying at sea level! Hire cars can’t drive up either, which is why most people end up going on a tour but they are very expensive.
In the end we were again thwarted by the weather, at the lower altitude of the visitor centre there was lots of cloud cover, so we headed home after checking out the very rare silversword plants.
We had a late morning flight back to Honolulu, which gave us time on our drive from Waimea to the Kona airport to stop in a Puako Petroglyph Archaeological Park. There were a few pieces of rock art which seemed to have been moved and replaced at the site, as well as a large area of in-situ rock markings and etchings – which has 3000 carvings! The rock art precinct was wedged in between some large resorts, we reflected on how happy we were with our choice of accommodations over the last week and staying away from the manicured golf courses and private beaches…
We both really enjoyed our time on Hawaii, it was more peaceful than expected with a great range of natural attractions and some very tasty food! 10 days allowed us ample time to leisurely circumnavigate the island and explore the various regions and their highlights.