View of the coastline from the Waipio Valley Lookout as taken by my iPhone
The Big Island was the third and last leg of my two week trip to Hawaii. From my perspective, Oahu is the city, Maui is the suburbs, and the Big Island is the farmland. Compared to Oahu and Maui, the Big Island definitely feels a lot slower. When I landed in Kona International Airport (west side of the island), the airport looked like an outlet mall. Hilo International Airport (east side of the island) is similarly small. Nevertheless, there is plenty of attractions to make a trip to the Big Island make it. Like the rest of Hawaii, there is natural beauty to behold from magnificent valleys to an active volcano that highlights Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. You can also drive up to the summits of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. However, it requires a 4X4. Since I already drove to the summit of Haleakala in Maui, I did not feel a need to do it. Another attraction I bypassed on the Big Island is going night scuba diving to see manta rays, which are giant rays that can reach 23 feet in width. A couple of fellow travelers from Australia told me it was an amazing experience. While I did not take time to do those two things, I had a good time on the Big Island. I definitely recommend spending two days in Kona and two days in Hilo to take advantage of what both sides of the island have to offer.
- Kailua Village
The Kailua Village has plenty of shops and restaurants to choose from and a great location with beautiful views right on the ocean. A couple of the big resorts are located directly south of the village. It is also a popular point of shore excursions for cruise ships. As a result, you will see them anchored off shore. Parking can be difficult to find. However, there are paid lots. I paid $8 for two hours.
Below are some of the places I visited in the village:
- Holy Donuts (Kona Marketplace 75-5729 Alii Dr, Ste T-103 Kailua-Kona, HI 96740)
This donut shop reminds me of a poor man’s version of Voodoo Donuts from Portland: unique designs but not as good. Nevertheless, the presentation and designs of their donuts are unique and look great. Like Voodoo Donuts, they are more about looks than amazing taste. Nevertheless, it is a decent donut shop if you are in the mood for donuts in Kona. They also have some pretty good malsadas.
- Basik Cafe (75-5831 Kahakai Rd, Kailua-Kona, HI 96740)
If you are looking for a healthy option in Kona that will also provide energy for the day, I recommend acai bowls. Basik Café is a solid option. I ordered the Drifter: acai bowl with raw cacao, house made cashew milk, granola, banana, cacao nibs, crushed almonds, strawberries and local honey. All the ingredients in the bowl are awesome. It should have been great. When I read about the café, I know that it used to utilize a blender for the acai. Unfortunately, it got rid of the blender and serves it like a sorbet now. It is still good but blended acai is much better in my experience of eating acai bowls.
- Umeke’s (75-143 Hualalai Rd Ste 104, Kailua-Kona, HI 96740)
Poke is one of my favorite dishes in Hawaii. Umeke’s is a great place to get poke in Kona. I actually tried another location, Umekes Fishmarket Bar & Grill (74-5563 Kaiwi St Kailua-Kona, HI 96740), and loved it. It gives you 5 options of poke to pick from for your poke bowl. The bartender was kind enough to bring out one of each for me to try before I ordered. The two that are the most memorable for me are “da sweetie” and “da hottie”. Both types are full of flavor. Of course, the fish is very fresh. The Bar & Grill location has pretty good atmosphere and décor.
- Scandinavian Shave Ice (75-5699 Alii Dr Kailua Kona, HI 96740)
Naturally, you need to get shave ice in Hawaii. As a result, I tried shave ice in every island I visited in Hawaii. Scandinavian Shave Ice is an excellent shave ice shop and the best I tried on the Big Island. The syrup is solid. I ordered the Hawaiian sunset: mango, guava, and passion fruit. The aspect of its shave ice that sets it above others is the technique it uses to blend multiple flavors. In other places I get shave ice, they simply pour syrup individually in different sections of the cone. As such, each flavor is segregated from the others. Scandinavian Shave Ice does a great job rubbing and compacting the cone so that the flavors actually blend together. I absolutely love how it tastes.
- Pu`uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historic Park (1871 Trail, Captain Cook, HI 96704)
This park is a sacred site. It is a place of refuge for those who broke the sacred laws to get sanctuary and absolution from priests. As a result, the park still has relics from that past that includes stone statues. There is also a nice, short 0.5 mile hike on the rocks along the ocean. There are also self-guided tours that I did not take. The beautiful Honaunau Bay is north of the park. It is a great place to see the sunset. Unfortunately, there was stormy weather when I visited so I did not get the best views. It is $5 to park but I got in free an hour before sunset but it may have been because it was rainy.
- Pololu Valley (End of Highway 270, North Kohala)
The valley is in North Kohala at the northwestern corner of the island. The Pololu Valley lookout is at the end of Highway 270. It is an hour and thirty minute drive from Kona. Highway 270 runs along the west coastline of the island so you will get a beautiful view of the ocean on the drive. There is limited parking at the lookout. However, you can park on the side of the road before the parking spots. The round trip hike to the black sand beach on the valley floor of the valley is only .75 mile. Even though the uphill climb is .38 mile, I definitely underestimated the heat and steepness of the climb. I had to stop a few times, sucked some wind, and sweated a lot. Nevertheless, the beach and view into the valley from the floor is worth it. There are plenty of rocks big and small on the path down. It could be slick and dangerous on a rainy day. However, it is fine in good weather. The beach is a great spot to just relax and maybe have a picnic. The currents of the ocean are very strong there so I would caution against swimming.
On the beach, the Pololu river cuts the beach and empties into ocean. However, it is a small stream by the time it gets to the beach. If you cross the stream and walk back towards the trees, there is a path that cuts through bright green ferns. The path eventually takes you to the next lookout so you can see Honokane Nui Valley. While there are many trees on the path for shade, you need to navigate more rocks and low hanging trees. In addition, there is a gate that marks where the private/ government property begins before you get up to the next lookout. Since I did not have a permit, I did not go any further. Unfortunately, there is no clearing before or at the gate where I could get a good view of the coastline since there are a lot of trees in the way. While it is a good workout, it is a complete waste of time to go up the trail if you do not have the permit to get to the next lookout to see Honokane Nui Valley.
After a hike at Pololu valley, I recommend cutting inland and driving through Waimea on the way back to Kona. It is an extra 15 minutes more than driving on Highway 270 again. The road from North Kohala to Waimea is gorgeous. There are a lot of farms/ pastures on the hills. You are also driving on an elevated part of the island. When I drove through, there were also clouds so it felt like I was driving through a cloud on hills. Naturally, I drove very slowly because of the lack of visibility. There are also a couple of spots in Waimea that are worth a stop.
- The Fish and the Hog Market Café (64-957 Mamalahoa Hwy, Kamuela, HI 96743)
I tend to stay away from barbecue from the west coast and beyond but I decided to try The Fish and the Hog Market Café. It is a solid barbecue spot. I tried the barbecue sampler which includes pulled pork, ribs, brisket, sausage, corn, French fries, and cole slaw. The meat is acceptable. It is not as tender and a little dry when compared to some of the best barbecue places I have visited. However, it definitely features a few items that are very memorable. First, their barbecue sauce is excellent. It makes up for the meat being a little drier than I usually like. Next, the corn is amazing. It is grown locally and ridiculously sweet. The truffle fries are also very good. The portion sizes are very generous. I could not finish the sampler. In addition, I really enjoyed the service.
- Waimea Coffee Company (65-1279 Kawaihae Rd Unit 112 Kamuela, HI 96743)
It also serves food but I visited for the coffee. It is arguably the best coffee shop on the Big Island. The barista that made my drink is awesome. He definitely made the best latte art I had on the Big Island.
- Coffee Plantations
Kona coffee is world famous. As a result, I recommend touring at least one coffee plantation. I visited Greenwell Farms (81-6581 Mamalahoa Hwy, Kealakekua, HI 96750) and took the tour. If is a huge farm but you only see a small part of it. Nevertheless, it is a very good tour for various reasons. First, the farm is conveniently located on the main highway that cuts through Kona: Mamalahoa Highway. Next, the tour is free. While you see only a limited part of the farm, you still get to see groves of coffee trees as well as other fruits that are grown on the farm such as bananas, lychee, and avocado. The guide also brings you to the processing facilities. More importantly, he is very informative about the history of coffee in Kona and the farm as well as the process to extract the coffee beans. Coffee beans are actually inside coffee cherries. I had no idea before the tour. The guide walks you through how local farmers drop off their crop at the weigh in station then how the beans are extracted and dried through the facility. You absolutely get educated about coffee on the tour. There is also a beetle infestation spreading around the world that is eating the coffee beans. As a result, they ask you not to pick up and keep any coffee cherries to prevent further spread of the beetles. The farm also features free samples of coffee for you to drink. For all these reasons, I recommend this tour.
- Other Coffee Shops
1. Kaya’s Store (79-7300 Mamalahoa Hwy, Kawanui, HI 96750)
In my opinion, Kaya’s serves the best coffee on the Big Island. The latte is very smooth and rich. Waimea Coffee Company has a slightly better appearance with the latte art. Both coffee shops taste great but Kaya’s tastes a little better. It is also conveniently located right on the road on Mamaloahoa Highway and I stopped by at the beginning of my drive to the east side of the island. It definitely gave me the caffeine boost I needed for the day.
- The Kona Coffee and Tea Company (74-5035 Queen Kaahumanu Hwy, Kailua Kona, HI 96740)
This coffee shop is not amazing but it is very solid. It is located at the beginning of Kailua village. It is in a shopping plaza that has its own parking lot. As a result, you will not have to pay for parking just to get a cup of coffee.
- Daylight Mind Coffee Company (75-5770 Alii Dr Kailua-Kona, HI 96740)
I had high hopes for Daylight Mind Coffee Company. Unfortunately, I had an uneven experience. To be fair, I have a feeling it was an off day for the baristas. I ordered a latte and paid an extra $2 for 100% Kona coffee instead of the blend. Accordingly, it is the most I have ever paid for a latte. When the barista was making my drink, she was obviously struggling with the milk and could not get it right. Nevertheless, she forced the issue and poured it into my coffee. The result was a hot mess. For the price I paid, I would have expected her to get the milk right before pouring it onto the espresso or remake the drink once she realized it was bad. After I finished the drink, I wanted to give this shop a second chance by trying a latte made by the second barista. I appreciated that he did not charge me for the second drink and promised to make me a latte that I did like after he heard my feedback that the first latte was not good. I might have made him a little nervous because the drink he made for the customer before me appeared to be much better. He admitted the latte he made me did not have the best presentation but should taste good. It was not amazing but it was acceptable. I wanted to come back and try this place before I left Kona but never got a chance.
This coffee shop is in a great location in Kailua village. The seating area up on the second floor is awesome. It is a great place to sit and enjoy beautiful views of the beach, ocean, and coastline.
Compared to Hilo, Kona feels like a major city. Of course, Hilo has its own charm too. The residential areas have a suburban feel. Downton Hilo has a nice, small town feel with plenty of restaurants and shops. In addition, Hilo claims to have the best tap water. I do not argue with it. It tastes better than a lot of bottled water. In addition, the sun rises in the east. Accordingly, there are plenty of great spots to see the sun rise. I had a great view from the house I was staying at in Hilo. It is also close to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park which is the biggest attraction on the Big Island. The drive to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park from Kona takes about 2 hours. I went the route that swings around the bottom of the island. The actual bottom of the island, South Point (Ka Lae), is the most southern point in the United States. You need to go off road to get to it. As a result, it is good enough for me to see it from the main road during my drive to the east side of the island.
- Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
This national park features an active volcano. In the past, there have been eruptions and lava flows. Crater Rim Drive runs along a lot of devastation from those events as evidenced by the solidified lava. I spent 6 hours in the park and you can easily spend a whole there exploring the park and hiking the trails. When you arrive, definitely stop by the visitor’s center. There is a good, short film that details the history of the volcano. The park is open 24 hours and costs $15 per vehicle for a 7 day pass. It is absolutely a must see if you are visiting the Big Island. Below are the must dos while in the park:
- Jaggar Museum
When you leave the Visitor’s center, go right and drive to the end of the road to the Jaggar Museum. There is an overlook to get close to the active volcano in the Halema’uma’u Crater. You will see the steam coming up from the ground. It is unlikely that you will see hot lava in the park. At night, you can see the glow from the hole. If you are lucky on your visit, there are sometimes small eruptions or flows so you can see hot lava. Do not be afraid of the volcano. The volcanic activity is monitored all the time and the park would not be open unless it is safe.
- Kīlauea Iki Trail (4 mile hike)
This hike is amazing. You start out at the Kīlauea Iki parking lot, which will be on the right as you drive from the Visitor’s center. The trail is a loop that gets you back to the parking lot. I recommend going counterclockwise but either direction works. At the beginning of the hike, you walk through a rain forest on top of the ridge of the crater. The views of the crater from the rain forest are gorgeous. Eventually, there are stairs that take you to the floor of the huge crater. It is easy to get lost on the floor. There are stack of rocks that serve as markers. However, they are sometimes difficult to spot and you can go the wrong way. Nevertheless, there will be hikers going in the opposite direction so you can figure out where they are coming from. Of course, the crater can get really hot on a sunny day as the solidified lava is a great conductor for heat. In addition, it will take some time to walk across the large expanse of the crater so bring plenty of water. Furthermore, cooled lava solidifies in all kinds of shapes so there will be sharp and jagged rocks. It is not overly dangerous but stay alert.
- Thurston Lava Tube Trail (1/3 mile loop)
This trail is left of the Kīlauea Iki parking lot. It is a short hike that is totally worth the effort. You walk through a beautiful, forest that brings you to the entrance of the lava tube. At some point, hot lava carved a tube through the rock. As a result, it is called a lava tube. If you have ever been in a cavern, it is exactly the same experience. It is very cool in there so it is a very refreshing walk if you just completed the Kīlauea Iki hike and still sweating and hot.
- End of Crater Rims Road (22 mile drive from the Visitor’s Center)
I highly recommend driving to the end of Crater Rims Road. Along the way, you can see craters and lava flows from the road. Consequently, you can pick and choose when to stop if anything caches your eye. Eventually, you will see a significant drop in elevation. During the big eruptions and large lava flows, the lava reached the coast and fell into the ocean. When the lava cooled, it created more acres of land. Accordingly, the sharp drop represents where lava reached the coast and started forming new land. There are switchbacks on Crater Rims road that allows you to descend towards the end of the road. As you descend, you will be treated to breathtaking views of the ocean. Cars park on the side of the road before the part of the road that is closed off to cars. You are allowed to park and keep on walking. However, some visitors told a bunch of us that there is nothing great to see so I turned around and just enjoyed the view by where I parked. There are lookout points at the edge of the lava created cliffs where you can admire the beauty of the ocean hitting the jagged coast. You will also get a great view of the Hōlei Sea Arch.
- Akaka Falls State Park (875 Akaka Falls Road, Honomu, HI 96728)
Akaka Falls State Park is 20 miles northwest of Hilo. The park has a short 0.4 mile loop in a rainforest. The suggested walk is in a counter clockwise direction, which is the longer route on a small loop. I could not really see the first water fall. It is buried behind the fauna but I could hear it. Akaka Falls is absolutely beautiful. However, you cannot get close to it. The lookout point is much higher than and far from the bottom of the falls. Nevertheless, it is totally worth a short stop to see them. The fee for a vehicle is $5.
Again, it is not a place you will spend much of your day at because it is small. I visited it when it opened on my way to Waipio Valley.
- Waipio Valley (48-5546 Waipio Valley Rd, Waimea, HI 96743)
The valley is sacred and known as “The Valley of the Kings”. Today, it is home to taro farmers and natives who want very little to do with the modern world. As a result, it is best to be respectful, stay on the main roads, and not trespass on private property. The parking lot and lookout is right before the beginning of the access road. There is a beautiful view of the coastline and black sand beach from the lookout but you really need to go down the steep access road to see the valley. The access road is an extremely steep .75 miles. A 4X4 is required to drive down. Of course, you can hike down too. The hike back up is very strenuous. However, I enjoy the challenge and it is the fun part for me. Another option is going on a tour that will drive you around the valley. When you get to the bottom of the road, you can turn right or left. If you go to the right, it is a .4 mile hike to the black sand beach. If you walk to the stream in the middle of the beach, you have a gorgeous view into the valley. While I was there, I noticed a few families having a picnic on the beach. It is definitely a good place to have one especially if you have a 4X4 to drive down.
If you go left at the bottom of the access road, it brings you to the direction of Hi’ilawe Falls. You do not have to go too far to get a good view of the falls from a distance. Another hiker advised me not to go to the falls. Although you can get to the bottom of them, you need to cross a stream. You can take off your shoes and hike up your pants to pass but I did not want to do it. Moreover, you will need to cross private land to get to the falls.
If you want a day long hike, I found a 16 mile one at http://www.bigislandhikes.com/waimanu-valley/. The path starts at the end of the black sand beach and brings you up the next cliff. The hike will also give you a spectacular view of the Hi’ilawe Falls. I decided against trying to do the hike because it was way too much for my last day in Hawaii.
- Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Corporation (Macadamia Nut Rd, Hilo, HI 96720)
Mauna Loa has larges orchards of macadamia nuts in Hilo. While you see the farm on the drive on Macadamia Nut road to the Visitor’s center, there are no tours that allow you to walk around. Instead, there is a self-guided tour of the factory where you look through glass to watch the process of cracking the nuts to packaging. Unfortunately, I visited during the weekend and there were no workers. In the store within the visitor’s center, there are free samples of all the flavors [12 at the time I went]. Although I was too full at the time and did not order ice cream, there is also macadamia ice cream for purchase. While I recommend stopping by this place if you are in Hilo, it is not a must see.
1. Café Pesto (308 Kamehameha Ave Ste 101, Hilo, HI 96720)
As a general rule in life, I generally refuse to eat pizza west of Chicago. Accordingly, I tried my best to resist ordering the pizza at Café Pesto. However, it looked really good so I chose to take a leap of faith with the full expectation that I would regret it. Accordingly, it was one of the biggest shocks of my foodie life when I absolutely loved it. I ordered the smoked salmon pizzette. The salmon was very good. The pizza dough was awesome. New Yorkers believe that it is our water that is needed to make great pizza. Hilo tap water is amazing. Consequently, the great pizza at Café Pesto is consistent with the water theory. I also had the grilled chicken risotto which is stellar. Everything that came out of the kitchen looked great. Without a doubt, Café Pesto is the best meal I had on the Big Island.
- Poke to Your Taste (790 Leilani St, Hilo, HI 96720)
It is a hole in the wall that serves excellent Poke at reasonable prices. The fish is fresh and the shoyu is very good. You order your fish plain and put on the toppings/ condiments afterwards which is what the name of this place means. It also offers an excellent spam musubi for $1. Definitely get here at least an hour before its listed closing time if you go at the end of the day. It may close early at the end of the day.
- Ken’s House of Pancakes (1730 Kamehameha Ave Hilo, HI 96720)
It is open 24 hours. It is exactly like a diner. It is a solid option close to the airport but it is not incredible or a must try. I ordered the Macadamia pancakes which are very good. Their syrups are awesome: lilikoi, guava, and coconut. The hash brown is also solid.
- Pho Viet Restaurant (80 Kilauea Ave Hilo, HI 96720)
I am a big fan of Pho. I go to a restaurant in New York that is amazing. Since I saw a lot of Pho/ Vietnamese restaurants on my trip to Hawaii, I wanted to try one to compare. The key to a great Pho dish is the broth. It adds the taste to the noodles. Pho Viet Restaurant Pho is not bad but not great either. The broth is nothing special and there is a hint of mint that I did not like. I also ordered spring rolls as an appetizer and they are very ordinary. If you are feeling Pho in Hilo, this restaurant is acceptable.
- Hilo Bay Sugar Shack (330 Kamehameha Ave Hilo, HI 96720)
I tried Hilo Bay Sugar Shack because I had to eat one more shave ice before I left Hawaii. It is solid but not as good the best shave ice spots during my two week trip to the Hawaiian Islands.
For my guides for other Hawaiian Islands, please see: