Having It All On The Big Island

The big island of Hawaii is off the beaten track. It doesn’t get the big tourist numbers like Oahu or Maui, so that alone should make it a draw. But it is starting to get the attention it deserves. The lifestyle on the island is more traditional Hawaiian, with Hawaiians making up a large part of the population.  There is really something for everyone from beautiful secluded black sand beaches to rainforest, desert like conditions to snow-capped mountains, an active volcano to rolling green farm hills grazed by horses, cattle, goats, chickens, even Alpacas.  There’s the sunny and hot beach city of Kona on the west coast and the cooler more temperate climate featuring spectacular waterfalls, gardens and rainforest on the east coast around Hilo. The vistas are spectacular as you make your way along the black lava coast or as you take the roads inland cutting through hills and mountains and through mile after mile of fields of lava – more recent flows still devoid of most life, except for the occasional hardy fern or bush that finds enough nutrition from the cracks in the lava rock to survive almost impossible conditions.  One thing that is a must on the big island is getting a rental car, or better yet a 4wheel drive vehicle. There’s too much to explore on the island to be restricted to one place.   Hilo is a good place to start your journey.  It has a good airport and is accessible from the other islands and via Honolulu from the mainland.  You can find every range of accommodation from hostels to luxury hotels. 

Your first adventure should take you north along The Hamakua Coast –  drive along the coast with the Pacific on your right as you pass through spectacular ‘Gulches’ that are draped in lush green rainforest, and if you peer through the trees, as you speed along the road, look closely for picturesque waterfalls.  There are places to pull off the road to get out and take pictures, but be careful and respectful of traffic.  About 20 minutes north of Hilo you reach the turnoff for Akaka Falls.  It’s worth the look.  It’s a relatively easy hike along a path to a lookout for the falls, again through tropical plants and flowers, including stands of bamboo.

Another few minutes up the coast is the ZipIsle zipline. Again it’s worth it, especially if you’ve been thinking about trying zipline but have been nervous.  The runs are very simple and more picturesque than those set up across an open field.  There’s a link to my post A Zipline Adventure for the story on my experience.

Next stop is the turnoff to the Kolekole Beach Park… a beautiful cove with a waterfall buried in the vegetation, and surfers tempting fate along the huge black rocks along the shore.  When they are tired of the pounding surf they simply let the tide push them up the large stream that feeds the ocean.

I spent most of my time in the tiny community of Laupahoehoe.  A very nice little rural community with a bit of history of its own.  There is a monument set up to commemorate the 20 children and 4 teachers killed in a massive Tsunami that killed 160 people on Hawaii in 1946.  Tsunami zone warning signs and even public alert sirens (that are tested at 11:45am on the first of each month) are also set up all over the island – a reminder about just one of the natural hazards of living in paradise.  And the Laupahoehoe Lookout is one of the locations chosen by the local whale watching society as they count whales every winter.  You might get lucky and witness the power of these giants of the sea… I didn’t.

Further up the coast you will hit Waipio. There is a parking lot where you should leave your vehicle.  Car rentals are forbidden from driving down into the valley. Your best bet is to hike down the long hill, but a warning that you will have to climb up again.  You can read more about Waipio on my previous post.

Next I’d suggest continuing your journey north through the lush farm lands around Waimea… Paniolo Country.  As you move closer to the coast, the terrain suddenly turns desert like.  The earth is still rich but the hot sun keeps the vegetation to a minimum.  Just as suddenly, the desert turns into a black moonscape of lava rock for as far as the eye can see.   As you drive through the lava fields you notice white graffiti written across the rocks, but as you look closer you realize they are actually white stones – not painted graffiti that would permanently mar the landscape, sort of like a temporary tattoo.   The landscape is barren except for the fields of lava punctuated by the white tags dotted everywhere. Apparently locals (and tourists) collect white coral stones from the beach and then use them to memorialize a friend,  pledge their love or just leave their mark on the world – the modern day ‘Kilroy was here’. 

Kona is a great little city with all the big American retailers and fast food joints you might expect. (But bring your own camera battery. I couldn’t find one for my Sony Cybershot in all of Kona – I tried Lighthaus photo (the big photo retailer) Wal Mart, Target, Longs Drugs, Costco, Radio Shack and while many sold the camera, none carried the batteries). The main beachside avenue is like a mini Waikiki. There are all kinds of shops, restaurants and bars – mainly targeted at the tourist market.  There are also all kinds of watersports available, including surf school, diving, parasailing, sport fishing as well as Helicopter tours. You should be able to find accommodation to match any budget.  Kona is also a favourite of the rich and famous and you will often see yachts in the waters in front of Kona or their private planes parked at the airport.

After a couple of days in Kona, head back toward Hilo with a detour to the summit of Mauna Kea.  It will give those on a winter vacation a quick reminder of the weather they have escaped.  You can read more about Mauna Kea in my post From Sea To Sky. 

Head back to Hilo to rest up for your next adventure to Volcanoes National Park. I wrote about that in A Visit To An Erupting Volcano.  But there’s still more to see, after your visit to Mt. Kilauea and South Point  make sure you make some time for a visit to Kalapana.  The community suffered the intrusion of lava flows during Kilauea’s recent return to life.   It’s not a well-publicized tourist attraction and doesn’t really have the facilities to deal with a lot of tourists.  But if you do take the time and effort to visit, make sure to head to the beach.  It’s a short walk across a path through the lava field. When we arrived on a weekday morning we found we were the only ones on the rugged coast.  It was magnificent.  As you make your way along the rugged black lava coastline with the black sand beach below and the pounding surf from the Pacific, you think you have found paradise. Further up the coast we came to a small parking lot for a lookout.  As we snapped photos we discovered a beautiful cove with a black sand beach below, accessible by climbing down a rough rocky hillside. Then we noticed that many of the beach-goers were using it as a nudist beach as well, a perfect location for it, although the huge surf meant sunbathers had to be on alert for the approaching waves.  One more note as you drive yourself around the island… beware of wildlife.  Hawaii doesn’t have a lot wildlife but what they do have they want to protect, well at least the Nene Goose.  But as we drove along a road in Kalapana we saw the infamous island pigs –wild pigs- cross the road in front of us… it was a sow and 3 older piglets.  They are often seen along the sides of the highways and mountain roads as roadkill along with mongoose, so be on the lookout.

Head back north to Hilo where you can conclude your trip.  If you want a relaxing vacation away from it all you can also find that on the Big Island.  Check sites like Craigslist for vacation homes, I just found one in Hilo and another near the beach close to Puna for about $50/night or $850/month… cheaper than rent in most major cities in North America.

If you enjoyed this post, make sure you subscribe to my RSS feed!
Please follow and like us:

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

3 Responses to “Having It All On The Big Island”

  1. Jaime
    January 3 at 10:38 pm #

    Damn, sounds like the BIG Island is amazing. I regret not going to it for a day trip to Volcano National Park. It would have been so cool too go. Its good to know they have hostels I would have never thought that. Great post & pics!!! So where too next??? More Hawaii or???

    • Darren
      January 3 at 10:43 pm #

      Thanks Jaime, it’s an amazingly beautiful island with something for everyone. I will definately be coming back! Tuesday I leave for Taipei and Wednesday on to Saigon!!! looooving this experience… you will too!!!


  1. The First 6 Months: Dec 01.10 – May 01.10 | RTW Travels.com - May 5

    […] So far, after the first 6 months, I can say I’m right on track.  I have ziplined on the Big Island of Hawaii; cycled from Saigon to Hanoi, Vietnam; I rode an elephant in Cambodia; rode a camel in the Great […]

Leave a Reply