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  • Janis Nunez

Hawaii: The Big Island

Updated: Jul 1, 2023

Spring Break 2017 & Christmas 2017 were spent on the Big Island of Hawaii. We loved Hawaii so much in March that we went back with my mom for Christmas that same year! In our search of the Hawaiian Islands, we ended up choosing the Big Island because of the variety of things you can do there. One side is sunny beaches and relaxation, the other side is rain forest and waterfalls. You also have Volcano National Park for hiking, and there is snow on top of Moana Loa and Moana Kea summits. Literally all seasons all the time on one island. I'll run you through all of the things we did on our trips and let you know where we stayed. We did a couple hotels and also Airbnb when we went with my mom for Christmas.


BEFORE YOU GO

WHERE TO STAY: With so many things to do on the island, we recommend staying half the time on one side, and half the time on the other side. We really enjoy the Waikaloa area. Our first trip there we stayed a night at the Hilton Waikoloa Village resort. It's a huge resort. The amenities are many, but the price is high. The boys and I really enjoyed the pool there, and the grounds are just stunning. It's very large, so you can take a ferry or tram to get from the lobby to your room. There are restaurants on site, as well as a dolphin cove, small lake with waterfall to rent kayaks, several pools, and beautiful walking trails all around the resort. Extra fees included $30/day for self parking and a $30/day resort fee. We only stayed here one night as we came a day early and needed a hotel on the spot. You can also go walk around the grounds if you are not staying there.



When we arrived, it was very late and the only thing open at the hotel was Nui Italian. It was a bit pricey, but we were able to place our order and then take it back to the room and relax after a long day of traveling. There are a number of coffee shops you can get a coffee and grab a pastry to start your day. We ate at the Lagoon Grill for lunch. The meal was delicious and it was nice to sit outside and look at the water. It's right next to the dolphin area. Finally, we had desert at Shaka Cones. Everything was excellent.

 

Our next hotel was King Kamehameha's Kona Beach Hotel, which was a huge disappointment. You can see my review on TripAdvisor if you want details, but after the Waikaloa Beach Resort it was a let down. We made the most of it. This was a photo from our balcony. Looks amazing right? Well, if you look straight out its a dirty roof, then an ugly concrete pier.


The hotel is extremely outdated, and the service is about the same. Like I said, it served its purpose for the couple of nights we stayed in Kona, but overall, not recommended. This hotel had a $17 daily parking fee.

 

When we went back to the Big Island with my mom for Christmas, we found a great villa through Airbnb in Waikoloa Beach Villas, which is run by Rustica Hawaii. This is a great option for families. It is in a gated community, and you have your own garage. The door entry was a keypad, so we didn't have to wait on anyone to let us in. They provided us with all of the beach items we would need. It also had a washer/dryer which I always try to get when we stay at an Airbnb. My mom had her own bedroom and bathroom, my husband and I had our own bedroom and bath, and the boys slept on the pullout sofa and shared the bathrooms. They have a couple of pools and other facilities too.



Right across the street from the development you have a grocery store and a number of restaurants in the plaza. It's really a great setup. We had breakfast outside on the patio every morning before heading out to explore the island. It overlooked the golf course, and the ocean was in the distance.

 

In Hilo we stayed at the same hotel both trips because we loved it so much. The Grand Naniloa Hotel by Doubletree is the best bang for your buck in Hilo. The staff is amazing and the views are stunning. We had Christmas dinner at the Hula Hula restaurant on site with live music, and it was just amazing. There is also a shop downstairs that does a number of tours. You can also rent bikes and kayaks there to take out on your own.



You can park in the lot (free) or on the street out front. Our room (both trips) had a balcony with a view of Hilo Bay and Mauna Kia with two large beds. Since my mom was going with us, we requested a roll-away bed if one was available. They didn't have one when we arrived, so we just picked up an airbed at Walmart for one of the boys to sleep on. It worked out just fine as they provided extra bedding for the mattress. This is also a good location because you are close to a number of waterfalls, sightseeing, and driving distance to Volcano National Park.

 

TRANSPORTATION: We rented a car through Costco our first trip. They almost always have the best deals, and they have free cancellation if you find a better deal somewhere else. We planned to explore the island, so we definitely needed a car. When we went with my mom, she found a great deal bundling her flight with the car where it was almost free for the car, so do some research.


WHEN YOU ARRIVE AT KONA INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT


THE AIRPORT: When we arrived, we were surprised that you get off of the plane using portable stairs. You will need to carry your bags down the stairs. It's not a big deal, just something we didn't expect as it was our first time there. Also, the airport is all open. There is a small area that is covered (in case it rains), but it's an open-air airport.


CAR RENTAL: There are shuttles right outside of the airport to take you to your car rental company. They are constantly going back and forth, so you should not have any issues finding them.


GROCERIES: The airport isn't far from Walmart. When we land, we like to stop and get water, snacks, sunscreen, and anything else we may have forgotten. If you don't bring a soft cooler in your bag, you may want to buy a cheap one to take to the beaches. They don't use plastic bags on the Big Island, so you will need to either bring a reusable bag or just buy one there.


We also shopped at Island Gourmet for groceries when we stayed at the Waikoloa Beach Villas. You can get breakfast, lunch and groceries all in one stop. It also has items you may have forgotten like sunscreen, plus souvenirs.


SIGHTSEEING


There is so much to do and see on the Big Island let's start with the west side and work our way around. In the Waikoloa area there are a number of beautiful beaches that we love, but there are hidden beaches all up and down the coast. Do some research and you can find some really secluded beaches.


BEACHES

Kua Bay: Park in the lot and walk over the lava rocks and down to the beach area. You will want to get here early because as the day progresses the beach will disappear. There are bathrooms at the top by where you park. There is no shade so either bring your own or be sure to bring lots of sunscreen. This is an excellent place to boogie board as the waves are constant. It's a beautiful beach! Some people prefer to unpack higher up in the lava rocks, so that they can stay longer.



Hapuna Beach: This state park has lifeguards and bathrooms on site, as well as showers to rinse off the sand before you leave. It is one of our favorite beaches. They also have some covered picnic tables behind the beach. The boys spent a day boogie boarding here as well. If you walk down to the left, you can find a hidden cave that's fun to walk inside.



Waialea Bay (Beach 69): This is just south of Hapuna Beach. Showers and restrooms are available. This is a more shaded beach. We didn't spend a lot of time here, but it is beautiful to look at. It is a popular snorkeling and diving site as well.



Two Step Beach is right next door to the Pu'uhonua National Historic Park. This is the place with the famous tikis on the beach. If you go to the park first, you can park for $5 and then just walk over to two-step to snorkel. I read online that two-step is the best snorkeling in the area, and they were right! This is a very popular diving and snorkeling destination. You will see a number of colorful schools of fish, sea urchin, possibly turtles and dolphins (they say in the morning). It's not a sand beach, but mostly lava rock that you walk over to get to the two steps that get you into the water right off shore. We really enjoyed snorkeling here.



WHERE TO EAT IN KONA



Kona Brewing: No trip is complete unless my husband finds a local brewery. We went with the kids for dinner and enjoyed a couple of pints here. It was a bit of a wait, but the beer and food were both good. Worth checking out, but no ocean view.


Huggo's on the Rocks: This place was a great place to watch the sunset. Beautiful view if you get right by the water. The tables are in the sand, so don't wear any shoes you are wanting to keep sand free. The chairs and tables are plastic, which is kind of tacky to me, but again the view is why we went. We tried a number of appetizers that were nothing special. It's a good place to grab a drink and watch the sunset.



Splashers Grill: We had breakfast at Splashers one of the mornings and the service was good. The food was good but overpriced for what we got. The view is nice as it overlooks the ocean, so I guess you pay for atmosphere. My husband tried the Loco Moco here. He said it was average.




Island Lava Java Bistro Grill: Another beautiful place to watch the sunset was this Bistro. When we arrived, there was a young lady playing and singing beautiful Hawaiian music. We got a dessert and just took it all in. This was a nice dessert spot to watch the sunset. UPDATE: I believe is now permanently closed.




Chirashi Sushi - Don by Jiro: This amazing little shack is run by a Japanese couple who know how to make a sushi bowl. I read about it online and let me tell you, they do not disappoint! One of our favorite meals. There are a couple picnic tables, but it's basically in a parking lot, so take your food and go sit on a beach somewhere if you want a view.





Sumo Deli: My oldest son loves a good bowl of ramen. And all online sources pointed in this direction. It's in the same plaza as Chirashi Sushi. If you are a ramen lover, you will love it. And you get a huge portion too. It's nothing fancy, but the food is great.




Basik Cafe: is also in the plaza with the sushi and ramen. It was one of our FAVORITE places to eat! The smoothies and acai bowls are amazing. They also make tacos that are to die for. We tried it all and were beyond impressed with the freshness and flavor. Definitely don't miss it.



Scandanavian Shave Ice: This is the best place for shave ice in Kona. It's right on Alli Drive. You can get your ice filled with ice cream (get the coconut), and then pick your flavors for on top of the ice. We took ours across the street and sat by the water. Great way to cool off on a hot day. We went on both trips!


WHAT TO DO ON THE BIG ISLAND


This will take you through Kona, the southern tip of the island, and up the east side to Hilo and beyond. The quickest route from Kona to Hilo is to take Saddle Road. It's a boring drive, but you can get from one side of the island to the other in 2 1/2 hours. There are no gas stations on the road, so make sure you fill up your tank before heading across.


Ali'i Drive is the main drag in Kona where all of the shops and restaurants are located alongside the ocean. You can find your basic tourist shops, hotels, and overpriced restaurants. There was a farmers' market one day, but nothing we felt we needed to purchase. There are several ABC stores that sell basic necessities that you may have forgotten at home. We were able to get long sleeve swim shirts, cooler bags and sunscreen at the one in the hotel, but they also have them on Ali'i Drive.


If you head south, you will run into Greenwell Farms. They do a 20-minute tour of the grounds on their coffee farm. You then get a chance to taste the various coffees that they sell. This was a nice stop and broke up the drive going south to our next stops.


There are lots of roadside stands with fresh fruit along the drive. Definitely stop and try some. The small bananas were called apple bananas. They had a very different flavor than the bananas we are used to on the mainland. And the sweetness of the pineapples is definitely worth a purchase


.Green Sand Beach is absolutely stunning; however, you need to decide how you want to get to it. If you have a 4x4 you can drive to it. There are also a number of trucks that can take you out to it. It was $10 per person round trip I believe, and my husband wanted to walk to it. We had our hiking boots, but beware it is a LONG walk. Along the way you may have 4x4s go by and blow-up dust around you. It is beautiful and the land changes as you go, but I believe it's 5-7 miles to get out there. You need to take water and sunscreen as it gets hot. There were people swimming down at the beach, but we didn't go down after that long hike. Allow yourself lots of time here if you hike to the beach.



Punalu'u Black Sand Beach Park has free parking on site, and a spot blocked off for the sea turtles to sun on the beach. We saw turtles both times we were there. The black sand is a fun change from the soft white sands from the other beaches. There is always a guy chopping off the tops of coconuts for a drink if you want one. There are rest rooms and places to change clothes if you want to swim or hang out at the beach.



Take time to pull over to the side of the road and take some photos. Everywhere you look seems to have a stunning view, so take advantage of it.



Laupahoehoe Harbor and Beach Park: We made a quick stop here to take a look around on our way to Hilo.



Volcano National Park: Pack your hiking boots and go to Volcano National Park. You do not want to miss it! There is a $20 per vehicle entrance fee and you are on your way to seeing things you won't believe.

The visitors center is a good place to start to get a map and check to see if everything you want to see is open. If you can take a walk through Thurston Lava Tube. It's an amazing site. If you have time, take a whole day at the park and explore on your own. There is so much to see and do. We packed a lunch and stopped at one of the overlooks to eat.



Rainbow Falls is a must see in the Hilo area. There is a parking lot, but if it's full you can park on the side street. There are bathrooms if you need them. You can climb to the top of the falls via the stairs. Use the handrail if it's wet out. At the top there are a number of trees and roots you walk through to get to the rocky area at the top of the falls. My boys enjoyed climbing the big tree both times we went.



Boiling pots and Pe'epe'e Falls are about 5 minutes from Rainbow Falls. There is a view from a cemented overlook where you can see the Boiling Pots and the Falls.


It's beautiful, but nothing I would make a special trip to get to. There is information online that say some people take trails to go swim by the falls, but it is not recommended.


Akaka Falls and Kahuna Falls is about 30 minutes from Hilo. You take a self guided walk that is a full loop of about 1/2 a mile. We were only able to do the left side (Akaka Falls) of the loop as some of the path on the other side was damaged from a storm. There is a parking lot or you can park along the street. There is someone at the entrance collecting money. I believe it was just a few dollars per person.