“Where are you going on vacation?”
“Oh! Which island?”
“So, like Honolulu?”
“No, like the Big Island. It’s called Hawaii.”
I had some version of this conversation at least a dozen times prior to my recent Hawaii vacation. It’s incredible to me that a place as popular and touristy as Hawaii can still have parts unknown. And the Big Island is one of those places that hasn’t officially entered the mainstream.
Since this was my fourth trip to the Rainbow State, I was looking for a new experience that could bring both adventure and relaxation. I wanted to enjoy the Hawaii I know and love and yet still see something new. The Big Island ended up being the perfect solution.
Even though it is far and away the largest island in the Hawaiian archipelago, it only contains 13% of the population. The lack of people made me feel like I was exploring uncharted territory, which was far from the truth but still exciting.
Location Location Location
Unsurprisingly, where you stay can have a major impact on how enjoyable of a vacation you end up having. This is especially true on any Hawaiian island where trade winds cause substantial rainfall on their north and east flanks during the colder, winter months.
For our mid December trip, we opted to stay on the Kohala Coast which is super sunny year round and granted us a rain-free stay at our Mauna Lani resort. The scenery was more volcanic than tropical, but the tradeoff was worthwhile for sunny skies and close proximity to some of the best beaches on the island. You’re going to want to rent a car anyway to properly explore the island, so you may as well stay as dry as possible.
I absolutely love coffee and have fallen in love with the Kona varietals over the last few years. It is consistently ranked among the very best coffee in the world. Unfortunately for me, it is also one of the most expensive coffees in the world. But, that did not stop us from making a visit to Greenwell Farms. After sampling a wide assortment of fresh brews, we met our guide for a free tour of the farm, showing us every stage in the coffee-making process. Delicious and educational – not to be missed!
Located just an hour south of our home base in Puako is Kealakekua Bay. This spot is significant because the first documented European to reach the Hawaiian Islands, Captain James Cook, was killed there in 1779. The site is now marked by a white obelisk. But, our reason for visiting was for the brilliant waters filled with coral and schools of tropical fish. The bay is a marine life conservation district perfect for snorkeling so we boarded a late afternoon cruise on a 45 foot trimaran with Sea Paradise and even got a lucky sighting of the famed spinner dolphins on our way back.
No trip to the Big Island would be complete without a visit to Hilo. In addition to being the largest city and capital, it also holds the title of fourth wettest city in America. We timed our day trip to the eastern side of the island carefully so as to enjoy beautiful blue skies as we explored the Japanese themed Lili’uokalani Gardens and famed Banyan Drive.
The main reason for our trip to the Eastern side was really to chase all the waterfalls (sorry TLC). We started at Akaka Falls State Park where we hiked a short and pleasant loop through lush rainforest (perks of all that precipitation) to see the towering 442 ft Akaka Falls.
Next up was Umauma Falls which is only accessible through the Umauma Experience. The most popular activity here is ziplining but you can also just drive up to view the falls and walk through the gardens, which is what we did. The riverwalk is beautifully manicured and we didn’t see another person the entire time, although it’s important to note that early December is not peak season.
Mauna Kea Beach
Not too far from our villa is the one of the prettiest white sand beaches in all of Hawaii. We set off to arrive early in the day to secure one of the 40 coveted visitor parking spots. With boogie boards in tow we set up camp for a perfect morning of sunbathing, napping, and playing in the waves. Can you believe that at 30 I’d never boogie boarded before? Better late than never.
Hamakua Macadamia Nut Co
We made a very important fuel stop at the “Nut House” prior to getting our hike on in the Pololu Valley. We tasted as many free samples of both sweet and savoury macadamia nuts as we wanted before inevitably purchasing our favourites – Coconut glazed, Kona Coffee glazed and the traditional lightly salted.
In the Northern Kohala Coast are some gorgeous valleys that we were very excited to check out. You can drive right up to the stunning Pololu Valley Overlook, where we also opted to hike down the steep cliffs to check out the Black Sand beach below. The view definitely got better as we descended so it is worth going at least part of the way down.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
It’s crazy to think that a mere 5 months after these photographs were taken, a surge in volcanic activity has now led to the crater in the photo above doubling in size. The fissures and lava flows from this most recent eruption have destroyed over 700 homes and displaced more than 2000 people in the surrounding communities. I imagine that tourism in the area has changed some now that the park has re-opened, but visiting one of the most active volcanoes in the world should still be at the top of your Hawaii to-do list.
Our favourite activity at the park was one of our first stops on the Crater Rim Drive. We hiked around the rim of the Kilauea Iki overlook and down through the crater below. In 1959 it was a seething lava lake, but today it is a dry lava field a mile long and 3,000 feet across. We opted to hike along the rim first before descending into the crater as this makes the ascent much easier on the return. The desolate landscape reminded me of scenes from Lord of the Rings – vast and foreboding. However, the resurgence of life was also stunning to behold.
The best thing we did in all of Hawaii was probably our visit to Kiholo Bay which we affectionately call Turtle Island. With no real signage or path, this picturesque bay is a true hidden gem. We parked by mile marker 82 along Hwy 19 and carried our picnic supplies through the bush on foot for about 20 minutes. The bay is filled with a series of calm, turquoise tidepools making it the perfect place to spot sea turtles. We spent the afternoon observing and swimming with turtles… so yeah, it was worth the effort.
Waipi’o Valley Lookout
My personal favourite view on the island is the Waipi’o Valley. Waterfalls tumbling down steep tropical cliffs into the crashing ocean waves below… what’s not to love. Once again, this is an easy one as you can drive right to the lookout. The facilities are quite nice so it’s also a great spot for a picnic.
It’s hard to believe we packed so many activities into just one week. This trip to Hawaii was the perfect combination of relaxation and adventure. I absolutely loved having a car rental and getting to explore with it. We ate delicious food which I didn’t even touch on in this blog, but if you go, you have to try the malasadas from Tex Drive-in, Shave Ice, Kona coffee, Hamakua macademia nuts, pancakes with coconut syrup, and at least one Mai Tai. There’s so much to see and do that the island warrants multiple visits. I for one, can’t wait for my next trip to the Aloha State.