Rachel has contributed to The World Wanderer twice before, but they’ve always been delicious recipes related to travel. When she told me that she was heading to Hawaii, I knew I wanted her to post something here. Having only been to Hawaii once on a long layover, I know I am long overdue for a trip. I hope you’ll find Rachel’s tips useful, maybe in the next year, I’ll get to use them when I finally get back to the state.
I was a complete Big Island of Hawaii noob when I went for the first time. Now, after my second trip I’m compiling my recommendations to help you avoid the less fun bumps in your vacation and have a well-rounded Hawaiian experience; complete with national parks, historical sites, and natural wonders – while still getting in beach time!
Assuming you won’t have whole days to work with on the day you fly in and fly out (which is best for relaxing at the beach after taking care of logistics), here’s what I suggest for 3 days for first time visitors with a car who are looking to get a well-rounded taste of what the Big Island has to offer!
Wake up early to spend the early morning hours having breakfast (I recommend Island Lava Java Bistro in Waikoloa Village) and enjoying the beach before those harmful UV rays kick in. In the late morning get your road tripping supplies together and head out (play a Hawaiian Pandora station to set the mood).
First stop: Pu`uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park – located to the south of Kona. Here you’ll be able to enjoy great ocean views, learn about how the Hawaiians lived, and explore walls made of lava rock.
Take in the expansive ocean views then jump in your car and continue south to your second stop: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Be sure to arrive at least a few hours before sunset to enjoy driving along the Chain of Craters road and stopping at the viewpoints, the Thurston lava tunnel, the Pu’u Loa petroglyphs, and the sea arch outlook. Right after sunset you can head to the Thomas A. Jaggar Museum to take a look at the Kīlauea Caldera and the main crater Halema’uma’u which glows orange in the dark. Don’t forget to look up on a clear night. The night sky is fantastic due to limited light pollution.
Try to eat dinner on the way back to your accommodation to avoid unnecessary driving. Tip: Stop by a grocery store before you head out (I stopped at Foodland) – they have fresh cut fruits and you can stock up on water and other necessities for your drive around the island. While you’re at the grocery store, be sure to get things you can eat for breakfasts, snacks and/or lunches which you can keep in the car or your accommodation. I recommend local breads (try purple taro bread), halves of papaya, macadamia chocolates, and guava juice.
Wake up early to make the most of time zone changes and changes in daylight hours! Have a bite to eat, get in some beach time, and then pack your things for the day and head out. First stop: Hilo on the east side of the island. Drop by Hilo’s farmers market to pick up some local produce (could be your next day’s breakfast), flowers, or lunch. While you’re in Hilo stop by Rainbow Falls – it’s a quick stop for the waterfall viewpoint.
After stocking up on supplies while you’re in Hilo, such as; snacks, water, and gas, drive over to the second stop of the day: Akaka Falls State Park. Once you arrive, take the loop path through a variety of plants and several waterfalls. Don’t forget the bug spray!
After getting your fill of tropical plants at Akaka Falls State Park, make the drive to the third stop: Mauna Kea. Listen to the park rangers and soak in the beautiful night sky. Don’t forget a coat; it can get cold up there! For dinner, try to eat on the way back from the Mauna Kea- depending on where you’re staying. Tip: try a spicy vegetarian green papaya salad at the Hilo farmers market from the food truck called Ou Thai food truck (located next to the other food trucks on Mamo Street in the farmers market). Bonus tip: bring cash for the farmers market.
Spend time in morning on the beach – or give snorkeling a try! Eat the tropical fruits you picked up yesterday at the farmers market for breakfast! When you’re ready to head out, drive north along the Kohala coast. Make two stops on your way to the end of highway 270. First stop: Pu’ukohala Heiau (a national historical site). You can take in the ocean views as well as learning about Hawaiian history at this site. Continue north along Hwy 270 to the second stop: the King Kamehameha statue, then continue to the end of the road/highway where you’ll find the Polulu Valley viewpoint. You can hike down to the beach, but be sure to adhere to the warnings and be aware that the path is steep and can be extremely slippery.
After soaking in the views and maybe a tropical rain shower, drive back through Hawi to eat lunch (I ate at Sushi Rock- it is fusion food with some unique sushi combinations). Then continue driving onto highway 250 for fantastic views of Mauna Kea, the coastline, and the beautiful volcanic cinder-cones that are covered with grass. To maximize your time in this area of the Big Island, spend the rest of the daylight hours at Hapuna Beach state park -which is directly west facing making it a great place to watch the sunset. Tip: Island Lava Java Bistro in Waikoloa Village is a good place for breakfast and is located next to a gas station and grocery store for your driving needs. Merriman’s in Waimea or a restaurant in the Kings’ or Queens’ Shops in Waikoloa Beach Resort would be convenient for a post sunset dinner.
I hope my tips will help you have a fantastic and well-rounded first time on the Big Island of Hawaii!
If you have more time on the Big Island or have bad weather preventing you from enjoying other activities, here’s a few more things you can do off the beach: Hulihe’e Palace in Kona, Waipio Valley lookout/hike, drive along Hwy 137 and visit Isaac Hale Park and Kaimu Beach Park, or check out petroglyphs in Puako. You can see where these are and more of my tips in my Big Island trip collection on Ramblr.
About the author: Rachel lives for travel and has studied abroad in Japan and South Korea. You can connect with her on Twitter and you can follow her travels on Ramblr.