Big Adventures On Hawaii’s Big Island
THE FLIGHT TO KONA
Have I told you I love my credit card? Well I do. If you want to read a bit more, here’s a bit about it. The reason I mention it is it paid for our flights from Maui to Kona. The card gives you extra points on travel, and your points are worth more on travel, so it was nice to have these tickets taken care of by points.
The airline was Mokulele, which is a tiny airline. Like, we went to the airport a couple hours early, like always. We started to strip as we walked, preparing for the traditional TSA privacy invasion. But wait…there was no Mokulele airlines…? We finally asked and were told to go to the commuter terminal. I was not aware of such a terminal, and apparently, neither are most people, including airport employees. When we found it, it wasn’t so much of a terminal as it was a roof over a bunch of outdoor seating. And they proudly announced there would be no TSA checks. Which is rad, except that we now had 2 hours to kill. When I asked if there was any place to buy food, I was told there was a vending machine around the corner, but it probably wouldn’t work (it didn’t).
So we’re sitting there cursing ourselves for being so early but rejoicing that we could skip TSA. And then, a true miracle…a helpful airline worker! As we went to check in, we told her the flight. “Wow, you’re really early,” she said as I explained that I’m an idiot. Then, she said something I never thought I’d hear. “Would you like me to book you on the earlier flight instead? No charge.” I fought back tears as I choked out the words, “Yes. Yes. YES!!!” In no time, we were up and away.
The plane was a tiny Cessna. (I once proposed to Caitlin in a tiny Cessna plane, but that’s a different story for a different time). Once I took a flight from Auckland to Hastings New Zealand and I thought that plane was tiny. I knew nothing. This plane was a 12-seater, and it felt like one of those planes you skydive from. It was cool, and the flight was probably as beautiful as any I’ve ever been on. There were no clouds, so I had an incredible view of the Maui landscape and beaches as we left, and once we couldn’t see land, the ocean was beautiful.
It was a super short, 45-minute flight, and I’ll mention it again, but as you approach the Big Island and see a mountain (Mauna Kea or Mauna Loa, not sure which one) with snow? Trip city man.
STAY IN KONA
First things first…stay in Kona on the Big Island. We have a business associate who either has family on the Big Island or is from there…can’t remember…but he said emphatically do NOT stay on Hilo side, stay on Kona side. He told me Hilo is all locals and not much to do for tourists, you’ll end up driving to the Kona side anyways most likely. After seeing both sides, I would wholeheartedly agree, Kona is the way to go. We had a hard time finding much of anything in Hilo like food. But of course, in Hilo’s defense, that’s where we went to Rainbow Falls, the Boiling Pots, and the lava hike, so it might make sense to spend a night there. I’ll get to that later.
SNOW IN HAWAII?!
I know I mentioned this but seriously folks…snow in Hawaii?! It’s one of the weirdest things I’ve seen in my life, flying out of gorgeous Maui, into Hawaii, seeing all these beautiful beaches and coastlines and palm trees and then…boom, snow. My mortal enemy. Later on, as I’ll mention again, we drove from Kona to Hilo, and there’s a road called Saddle Road where you’re driving between the 2 mountains, Mauna Loa and Mauna Kia, and so on your left and your right are these beautiful mountains with snow on both. Just a crazy experience.
THE AIRPORT: SLOW DOWN
Before I move onto the actual adventure, let me say this…Big Island airport police (or security, or whatever they are) are hardcore man. After getting my car (thanks again Avis, die Hertz and Priceline), I was driving past the “terminals” (covered pavilions, basically) and I didn’t realize I was going even moderately fast. Luckily, a heroic cop/security guard/whatever ran out in front of my car and did these absurdly over-exaggerated gestures to show me how fast I was apparently going. Cool. Then, funny enough, on our way out of Hawaii, the EXACT same scenario (I’m slow to learn, I guess), except this time a cop/security guard/whatever actually came out in front of my car and flagged me down. When I pulled over, she lectured me about how fast I was going and how I was doubling the (unposted) speed limit. Cool. Either way, I guess I was going over the 15 mph that is supposedly posted somewhere, but seriously…slow down. I’m a grandma driver and got yelled at twice. However, in true aloha spirit, I wasn’t given a ticket either time, so all good.
While planning this trip, we knew we would be out and about quite a bit on the Big Island, so we booked the cheapest Airbnb (use that link and we’ll both get credit if you book your first trip) we could find. The place was great, it’s a little basement with a private patio. All we did was sleep at the place, so it was nice to save as much money as we did. Plus, it’s very near Ali’I Drive, which is the main drag on the Big Island, and only a few minutes to Walmart and a bunch of restaurants. If you want to maximize your dollars, I suggest this place. It took us a minute to find (you go in the garage to get in), but there was parking and it was just what we needed. The patio is the perfect place for a relaxing chillout at night, or a refreshing Red Bull in the morning…full of geckos and so fun to sit and chill…I mean look at this place!
Speaking of Ali’I Drive, it’s the craziest place on the Big Island. And if you’ve been to a place like Waikiki, or even Whaler’s Village on Maui, Ali’I Drive will seem incredibly tame. In fact, I think the Big Island is the most relaxed of all the Hawaiian Islands we’ve been to…maybe it’s tied with Kauai. Part of it is surely the fact that there’s not many tourists, and it’s a nice change of pace.
Ali’I Drive is your typical tourist trap, complete with millions of surf and snorkel shops, chain restaurants, and tour booking shacks. We actually went in several shacks trying to book a lava tour (more on that later), but each one had only one person working, and that one person was occupied every time we went in. So, we just roamed up and down the street, walking in and out of the usual shirt shops and getting drinks and ice cream along the way.
As we were out and about, we saw these posters for “Bosco, the Amazing One Man Band!” and they made him look like some oaf who most obviously would suck. Then, funny enough, he was playing right there on Ali’I as we walked by, and he was bloody good! He’s an awesome guitar player, which was enough to keep my interest, and it was free. Plus, he gave away fruit for people who knew trivia answers! Totally worth checking out if you see him!
As a funny aside, parking anywhere Ali’I is pretty much impossible. We drove around every place we could find, paid and unpaid, and nobody was leaving and there were no spots. Out of nowhere, on our 18th circle through a free parking lot, this old French guy with a crazy stringy and long skullet, waved us down. He told us to park on this little end spot, kinda up a little curb thing. I asked if we would get ticketed and he said he was local, nobody cares about anything, people do it every night. Sweet! Funny enough, right as we got out of the car, a parking attendant/cop/security guard/whatever came and told us no, we would get a ticket. I have no idea where he came from. Our French friend argued on our behalf for a minute, then took off and we were back where we started, driving around looking for a spot. Like I said, those Kona cops/security/whatever are hardcore. By the way, when we returned that night for the car, there was a new car in the spot he forbade us from, ticket-free. So it goes.
DAY 2 ON BIG ISLAND: PUNALUU STATE PARK
I have to say, this day was one of my greatest triumphs in life. We were wanting a nice relaxing day of sitting on our duffs and catching some rays, and Punaluu was the place to do it. Once again, parking was a bit of a hassle, but luckily it only took us 10-15 minutes to find a spot, and since our flat provided beach chairs and towels, it was off to the black rocks.
Now, after seeing Vik in Iceland, I’m kind of a black sand beach diva, but Punaluu is still rad. There are heaps of black rocks (volcanic, I’m guessing, but not sure) that go out into the water, and since I wasn’t feeling up to doing anything but rolling over like a beached Hawaiian monk seal, I set up my greatest moment.
Chair? Check. Towel over head to block sun glare? Check. Phone with T-Mobile and unlimited data? Check. Sitting on amazing black rocks surrounded by water? Check. Wife occupied with snorkeling? Check. You’ll never believe what happened next!
Wild card NFL Saturday is probably tied with the first couple days of March Madness for me in terms of favorite sports day. I was sad knowing I would be in Hawaii (hard life, I know) and thus miss it. However, Hawaii is several hours behind in terms of time zone, so it just happened to be my lucky day. There, on the black rocks of Punaluu, I watched an entire NFL playoff game (Chiefs Titans, which turned out to be a great game) in HD. No buffering. No frozen screen. No interruptions. Just me, lounging in the sun, only moving my beached whale corpse when a commercial came on. It is so choice. If you have the means, I highly recommend it. (Meanwhile, Caitlin saw a bunch of fish, a few turtles, blah blah blah…but football!!!)
DA POKE SHACK
Now, after my greatest triumph came Caitlin’s. I had picked up some free brochure about the Big Island on Ali’I Drive, and saw that this restaurant had been named one of the best in the entire USA. I had no idea what kind of food it was (I didn’t realize what poke was) but I told Caitlin it was supposed to be good, so off we went. Da Poke Shack.
Sadly, for me, it was all seafood. And not super greasy breaded fish and chips, the only seafood I like, but ultra fishy, raw seafood, the kind Caitlin lives for. Let’s just say Caitlin has not stopped talking about that meal to this day. She had something really raw and fishy and loved every disgusting bite. In fact, she says it was as good as the stuff we had in Thailand, where they basically pulled it out of a tank and put it on your plate.
THIS IS IMPORTANT! If you plan on going to Da Poke Shack, it’s recommended to go early. We got lucky (or, rather, Caitlin did) the first time because we went later in the afternoon and they still had food. Unfortunately for Caitlin, the next day when we went, even earlier than we’d gone the day before, they were closed with a SOLD OUT sign. All good things must end, I guess. So go early and get lots.
MAGIC SANDS BEACH PARK
One of the weirdest things about the Big Island (besides snow) is its lack of traditional Hawaiian beaches. It seems like in Maui or on Oahu’s North Shore, everywhere you look is a pristine sandy beach, and yet in all our time (OK, it was like 3 days, but still) on the Big Island, Magic Sands was the only real white sand beach we came across.
Magic Sands has a big parking lot across the street, which made it nice and quick to get parked and get beachin’. There were heaps of people lounging at the beach, making it by far the most crowded place we visited on the Big Island. Still, it didn’t seem overly packed or anything, and it was fun just lounging around like the beached walrus I truly am. The waves were massive both days we went, so much so that Caitlin barely got in the water and I didn’t at all. It was super fun watching people surf and boogie board, and the sound and smell of the waves is always a plus in my book. Perfect way to end our day and watch the sun set over Kona.
HAUPIA CHEESECAKE FROM KTA GROCERY
I’ve probably rambled about this more than I should, but my weird travel obsession is foregin grocery stores. And yes, I know Hawaii isn’t foreign, but their stores have all sorts of cool things we don’t have in the mainland (like Li Hing, go get some now!). So I dragged Caitlin out for a late night food run, like I usually do, and roamed abound the KTA grocery store aimlessly until she threatened to drive home without me. We picked up some haupia cheesecake, and although it wasn’t phenomenal, it is something you MUST try when visiting any Hawaiian island. (If you are on Oahu, go get some at Ted’s. Your life will change forever).
DAY 3: HELLO HILO: WATERFALLS AND LAVA
When we booked the Big Island, I knew nothing about it save the fact it had lava. So naturally my only plan was to find said lava and enjoy said lava and see said lava and photograph said lava. Unfortunately, I also hate planning stuff and like winging stuff, so we had no lava plans and I was furious with myself. I contacted several lava hikes last minute, and only one wrote back, so Lavaland it was! (More on this below). So day 3 began with us heading to Hilo pretty early, wanting to see everything that side of the island had to offer before starting our 4pm lava hike. In my opinion, we actually went out too early, because by about 2pm we had seen what we wanted to see and basically just sat around until the hike.
FYI, I think the drive from our flat in Kona to the falls in Hilo was about an hour and a half.
I’ve mentioned it like 800 times already, but man…Saddle Road is rad. Driving between 2 snow-capped mountains in Hawaii is just insane and beautiful. Those views alone made the entire Big Island visit worth doing, and I am not expanding in the least.
Once you visit Iceland, you become kind of a waterfall snob. There’s so many and they’re so massive and beautiful that it seems hard to comprehend anything even close to as cool. Luckily, Hawaii rules, so Rainbow Falls is still incredibly worth seeing.
Finding Rainbow Falls was super easy, even though you drive through a bunch of residential areas to get there. There’s heaps of parking and a cool viewing area where you can see the falls from afar, taking in the entire scene. It’s an 80-foot drop and surrounded by lush everything. Just an awesome scene.
Then, you can hike down to the stream leading to the falls and all the way up to the top of the waterfall. While we were there, the water was quite low, so there were many exposed boulders in the water we could walk on to get to the falls. Standing above it and looking down was way cool and a bit nerve wracking. Again, this view alone made the trip to Hilo worth the drive.
Just up the road from Rainbow Falls are the boiling pots. I had no idea what they were but I saw a sign pointing to them so I drove in. Someone mentioned that the water level was super low at the time we were there, so maybe that made the boiling pots kinda…meh. It was basically a viewpoint to look at a slow-flowing river. Don’t get me wrong, it was still pretty, and since we had so much time to kill, it was worth doing, but I wouldn’t consider it essential by any means.
Once we got to Hilo, I was super glad we weren’t staying there. It’s a fun place to visit for a couple hours, because it truly feels like authentic Hawaii. But if you’re in Hawaii for excitement and adventure, Hilo might not be the place for you. After about an hour of driving around and killing time, we felt like we had seen Hilo and were ready to get hiking to some lava.
ZOO? FREE? FREE ZOO! PANA’EWA RAINFOREST ZOO
Luckily for us, we live in 2018 and we have phones which contain a marvelous site called Google. Since we still had a couple hours to kill but didn’t want to stray too far away from the hike site, I looked up nearby attractions, and by divine design we were right by the Pana’ewa Rainforest Zoo…and even better, said zoo was free!
First off, there’s a sign saying this is the only zoo in the USA located in a rainforest…who knows if it’s true but it sounds cool! Because of the unique climate, they say they have certain animals which would only thrive in this weather, so it was rad to see some different stuff.
The white tiger is amazing. The anteater is hilarious. The birds are beautiful. Basically, this place rules and did I mention it’s free? Well it doesn’t cost. It is actually non-expensive. It doesn’t take money from your pocket, wallet, or purse. It’s rad. I would absolutely recommend going if you’re in Hilo.
As usual, I had failed to plan so I’d planned to fail (thanks for that cliché from 8th grade, Coach Kilgore). The night before our planned lava hike, we had no planned lava hike. I emailed and called a couple places, and Lavaland got back to us very quickly and was extremely reasonable ($75/each). As I mentioned, we probably set out for Hilo too early, so by like 2pm we were ready to hike but still had 2 hours to kill, which we did by rummaging through grocery stores and eating not-good Hawaiian plate lunches.
Finally, 4pm arrived and we headed to the rural meeting point. One of the many things I love about pretty much each Hawaiian island is how varied the terrain is, and the Big Island is absolutely nuts. As we drove out towards the lava fields, it actually reminded me a lot of Iceland, going from lush and green to some sort of post-apocalyptic wasteland. Suddenly the ground was pretty much barren and black, and it was trippy and rad.
Apparently all the lava hikes and tours leave from the same area, and once you get there, parking is plentiful and free. Everyone seems to know everyone and we asked around for Lavaland and found the place to meet in seconds. A word of warning though: There are HEAPS of people trying to sell you tours, backpacks to rent, bikes, etc. I really wanted to rent bikes because I thought you actually biked up to the lava. Hah. No. You just bike to the end of the dirt road and everyone hikes from there, so it seems like bikes are kind of a waste of money. Our tour van drove us down the road, but if you go without a tour, I guess maybe a bike is worth it to not have to walk that extra mile? I dunno, seems like a waste to me but to each their own.
PASSIONFRUIT IS MY PASSION
As we were hanging out with Hank, our guide, who was super rad, he showed us a grove of passionfruit trees, which I never would have noticed. As you may remember from my Maui post, I am obsessed with passionfruit and it is basically my #4 reason for being alive. (Reasons 1-3 are confidential and probably made up on the spot).
Let me tell you, chilling with anticipation for a lava hike, relaxing in the shade of these big trees, eating wild passionfruit (free always makes things taste better too IMHO), life is good. I think we ate 5 or 6 and looking back, it is among my favorite memories of that night. Mostly because I’m cheap and like free fruit.
HANK AND HIKE
Hank was our guide, and he was really chill. Like, the word chill actually fits Hank. Hank seems to live the true Hawaiian way, laid back and happy. He was very patient (our group had 12 people, some faster and more nimble than others) and always made sure everyone was safe and together. He answered all sorts of werid questions (mostly from me) and was always informative of how long we had left to go, how far we’d come, etc. After the hike was over and we were driving home, Caitlin and I both agreed it was 100% worth it and we would recommend Lavaland to anyone.
If you’re going on the cheap, however, it really doesn’t seem that hard to find the lava without a guide or a group. Basically just follow all the guides and groups and you’ll get there. We did have a couple stragglers trying to mooch onto our group and follow us without paying, and Hank nicely told them off. (They still stayed close). On the way back though, in the pitch dark, Hank let several people come with our group for safety.
Lavaland gives you a backpack with water, a poncho, a few snacks, and a flashlight, which, when you travel light like we do, is awesome so we didn’t have to bring anything.
Look, I’ve run out of adjectives on this blog like 8 countries ago. The world is cool, rad, pretty, gorgeous, awesome, etc etc etc. I’m sick of trying to find new words and I’m sure you’re sick of reading my same 5 describers over and over. But seriously, seeing liquid magma? Boiling hot rock? Flows of earth running down a mountainside? Feeling the heat from the ground beneath your feet liquefying? Insane. Absolutely insane. Indescribably cool, like you half expect dinosaurs to show up just because it seems like you’re 40,000 years in the past.
The hike itself is a bit long but not bad at all. You’re basically walking across rocks, but not big boulders you have to jump over or anything, just uneven rock terrain. If you were to fall, you might get a bit cut up because the rocks looked sharp, but it’s pretty easy. Some of the people in our group were a bit unathletic and did totally fine.
Once you get to the actual lava (and there’s heaps of flows), you have pretty much all the time you want to take photos and marvel. Hank gave us all lots of time and we went to several big flows. We didn’t leave until Hank had asked everyone if they’d had enough time. Honestly, if I have to convince you to go see LIQUID HOT BOILING EARTH than maybe this isn’t for you. For everyone else though, go!
The hike back is a little more treacherous since it’s pitch black (although the moon was out a bit and there were some RAD stars) and it did seem to feel longer than the hike out. We were exhausted from a day of adventure and just wanted to be home. Unfortunately…
THE DRIVE BACK TO KONA SUCKS
Again, this complaint is relative, because c’mon, we’re in Hawaii and just marched around a volcano…but that drive back is not enjoyable. We were so bloody tired and kinda already dreading the morning since we had to be up and out of the flat and it was getting late, so the drive seemed to go on forever. Plus, this time we couldn’t even see all the cool scenery. If I could re-do it now, I would have booked this one night in Hilo so I didn’t have to spend 5-6 hours in one day driving to and from Kona. Nevertheless, live and learn.
DAY 4: NEVER ENDING DELAYS
Pretty much anyone who’s ever been on a flight or to an airport knows how miserable delays are, so I’m not going to rehash our scummy crummy day too much. All you need to know is if I didn’t have so many bloody Delta skymiles right now, they would have made my list.
See, we had our final day all planned out with incredible precision. We had to be out of the flat by 10am, so we would head to the beach for a few hours, back to Ali’I Drive for a couple hours to lounge and cram food, then be at the airport 2 hours early and everything would be perfect. How wrong we were.
We got emails saying our flight was delayed. Then delayed again. Oh, and again! We called Delta and waited on hold for nearly 2 hours. Finally, we just drove to the airport since we were close, and there wasn’t even a single Delta person at the desk. Suffice it to say it sucked bad. We headed to Magic Sands again and it was nice but trying to kill time from 10am until midnight is simply not the most fun thing ever. We had to have our car back by 8pm, so despite our prayers and weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth, we spent a good 4-5 hours sitting in the Kona airport. Our flight finally taxied sometime past midnight. Very sad.
Of course, the one bright spot of our night: Burgers! We did end up going to Ali’I Drive just before taking the car back, and we saw an amazing sign that proclaimed this place had the 8th best burger in America according to Yelp. With a sign like that, you’d be stupid NOT to go, right? And go we did! The burgers were really good, and if you’re in Kona I would definitely suggest it. According to Caitlin, she’d eat at Da Poke Shack 10/10 times over these burgers, but if you have a more refined palate like me and despise seafood, hit this place up multiple times!
THE FLIGHT. THE LOUNGE. HOME.
I probably already mentioned this, but seriously Delta, no food on a 6-8 hour flight? “Oh, we only serve meals on international flights.” My man, this is longer than many international flights, come on! And before you ask, yes, I bought a $15 sandwich and yes, I’m still salty about it. Other than that, the flight was uneventful. Since there are no direct flights from the Big Island to SLC, we had a couple hours to kill in Seattle. Thanks to our amazing credit card, we got to chill in the lounge, stuff our faces with free pastries and drinks, and relax until our flight. All in all, the trip was a success and I would love to go back to Kona someday soon.