Hi everyone, thought I'd post what I learned and saw during my trip. Although I was debating whether to post here honestly, because I've found some of the advice off-putting, but I've also learned a tremendous amount as well and wanted to contribute. Warning, this post is long!
First, for pre-trip planning, I used lonely planet and (mostly) the revealed book. I know the experts on this forum hate this book but I know that many of us first timers love this book. One thing I found helpful in planning was to try to read reviews/get advice from ppl like us - i.e. we are not a family with young kids, so our needs are different, etc.
I had about 7 days on BI, and part of it was spent at a conference. I went with my boyfriend; we are both in our late 20's/30 and fit. I mention this because I felt like a lot of stuff I read was geared towards older people and/or unfit ppl - in terms of what was considered strenuous, etc. We don't like big resorts or super touristy-type things, but I guess that's kinda unavoidable when you're going to Hawaii.
Had no issues with theft/safety. We never left valuables in the car except our snorkel gear in trunk for one morning. No problems. At the beaches - we usually left valuables at home, or just took it with us and "buried" it in sand. At our 2nd stay in Puako - there were reports of lots of recent thefts at the vacation rentals and beaches. Got gas at Costco in Kona, gas is a lot cheaper on the Hilo side (cheaper than costco acually). I'm a bit of a foodie/wine person so def take my food opinions lightly! We ended up BBQ'ing on our own a bunch.
*Itinerary/my personal reviews (take with a grain of salt!)*
Highlights in case you don't wanna read it all ;)
*Mauna Kea at night - drove to visitor's center ourselves - Saddle Road's bad rep is, well a bad rep. I found it to be totally fine to drive, EVEN at night. Details below.
*Beaches: Kikaua, Kua Bay, Wailea (69), Hapuna, Punalu'u
*VNP: Kilauea Crater, and did the Kilauea Iki Trail
*Pololu Valley, Hawi
*Akaka Falls, Scenic Drive
*Lounging/hanging with hosts at B&B
Fri-landed in Kona at night. We rented a convertible for our trip and got it on Priceline - $25/day plus tax - pretty unbelievable!
We stayed at Hale Ho'onanea for the first 3 nights up in Kohala estates. It's around 2500 ft elevation so it's nice and cool, no need for AC. Would highly recommend this place. Prices are very reasonable ($110/night for a big studio type suite, with mini kitchen - fridge, microwave, coffee maker, and toaster oven, plus our own BBQ on our lanai, plus cable TV with movie library). Breakfast was a basket delivered the evening before with freshly ground Kona coffee, home made fruit bread - these were so good - (blackberry bread, pineapple coconut bread, and banana bread), fresh fruit (papaya, whole pineapple), cereals, oatmeal, even gave us cartons of our own milk, OJ and apple juice. Hale also has lots of free things to use/borrow - coolers, icepacks, beach mats, boogie boards, snorkel gear!, umbrellas - imagine what these would cost to rent at a resort!
Sat-We hit up the Waimea Market - just past the main center of town on 19 - really great stuff. Ended up buying fish and steak for the BBQ and bunch of veggies and fruit as well. Had lunch there as well. Great value.
Then we drove up to Pololu Valley Lookout, towards the later afternoon. Wasn't too crowded as we went kind late in the day. We hiked down the main path, walked around and came back up. Easy trail.
Then we drove to Hawi and had to get the ice cream at Tropical Dreams. I thought it was pretty good.
Sun- Beach Day!
We made it to Kikaua Beach around 10am - which was great because there was plenty of room (27 parking spaces - need to get pass at gate). Thought this beach was very lovely! But a lot of development just behind it. Lots of shade between the palm trees and great swimming in the little cove. Then we went to Kua Bay, very pretty beach as well. This beach was packed with boogie boarders. We got a spot on the south side - def need your own umbrella here or you'll get baked. Then we drove down to Kona and got food at the Kona Brewing Co. Great pizza. Didn't care much for the beer though. We also picked up Snorkel gear at Snorkel Bob's. Thought it was kinda pricey in retrospect. But the gear was good.
Mon- Had conference in the AM. Moved to Puako B&B. Another great place and value! Punahele, the owner, is full of aloha! Breakfast there was made in the kitchen by him, always had breads, with lots of spreads including homemade lilikoi butter, kona coffee, juices, cereals, and sometimes fruit. Also made us eggs/omelets and sausage 2 of the mornings! Full use of kitchen and BBQ, not to mention lots of "local" advice. We had a late night flight on Fri and he let us stay till we had to leave for the flight since no one was checking in, no extra charge.
In the afternoon, we snorkeled/swam at Wailea Beach (Beach 69) just up the street from us. Watched the sun set from Puako Bay, really amazing and lots of turtles here!
Tue- Had conference in the AM. PM we drove to Waipi'o valley. So, we were debating whether to go, because a lot of posts here say that you can't except see it from the overlook. Our B&B owner and his friends said that was a load of BS. So we went. We did the steep hike down, and just walked just at the beach, didn't go any further, then hiked back up. This IS a strenuous hike back up, but really not bad if you're in shape , especially if you do squats & lunges regularly ;). Plus there was a ranger up at top who said it was fine to just hike down and back, and plenty of folks were doing just that. Then we drove towards Hilo just for fun. Thought this side of the island was really nice! Def less people, which I like. We went to Akaka Falls. It was raining lightly.
Had dinner at Daniel Theibaut in Waimea. Good food for the most part (duck bbq appetizer not good, chicken pasta was really good, as is their butternut squash soup and fish dishes). Our waitress was kind of weird and not that attentive, but I didn't really have high expectations.
Wed - We drove to VNP via 19 - made a stop through the "scenic drive" that passes through Onomeo Bay. Had a shake and pastry (from Mamane) at the shake stand - their shakes really are good! At VNP we drove until Jaggar Museum (park closed past that), saw some steam vents, the crater, saw snow capped Mauna Kea in the distance! We did the Kilauea Iki Trail - backwards/counterclockwise. I def think this is the way to do it, we were the only ones doing it that way at that time. Great hike/views/scenery, would consider this an easy hike counterclockwise, probably a bit harder the "right" way. Then we drove back the other way - south, so we ended up driving the whole island in one day. Tiring! That night we went to a private lua'u at the Hilton for the conference. Thought it was very good - the show, and surprisingly, the food was also very good, as was the open bar :).
Thurs- We relaxed most of the day. Went to Hapuna beach in the PM, waves were rough though. Honestly not sure why this is/was rated #1 by Conde Naste?? Fortuitously, one of the ppl staying at our B&B had a jeep and was interested in going up Mauna Kea. I really wanted to do one of the tours, but couldn't fathom paying them $170+ each for it! So, we all ended up driving up there after dark - not ideal I know, but that was the only time we could go. Saddle road is totally fine. yes there are some rough patches and fog, but I really think its rep is totally overrated. My boyfriend has friends on the island who also told us that driving it is not a big deal. So, yeah, not a big deal, but def be careful when it's foggy. Thurs night was the night before the new moon so it was almost perfect. We got there kinda late but the visitor's center was still open and a volunteer showed us saturn, some nebulas, and other cool stars - what a treat, esp since I live in a city and I never see stars!
Fri- Snorkel trip with Dolphin Discovery. Would recommend this place to anyone. Small group (12 max, we had 10), shaded boat, and we were the first to arrive at Captain Cook, and also to Honaunau (Place of refuge). As we were leaving CC, gobs of boats started arriving! We saw a BUNCH of whales, everywhere! Def one of the trip highlights. Also saw some sea caves up close as well. They had drinks (water, juices, sodas), assorted chips, and fresh fruit on board. I know some of the other outfits have more food, but this was more than enough for us and being the first to snorkel was a HUGE plus. We had lunch at cafe pesto - i hate to say that I think this place is overrated. The pizza at kona brewing co was WAY better. Their Poke salad was good though.
Hope someone can benefit from this info! All in all, we had a wonderful time and would love to go back someday, perhaps with a stay in Kauai as well.