We noticed that you're using an unsupported browser. The TripAdvisor website may not display properly.We support the following browsers:
Windows: Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome. Mac: Safari.

Trip Report - One Week on Big Island

Richmond, Virginia
Level Contributor
323 posts
117 reviews
Save Topic
Trip Report - One Week on Big Island

INTRODUCTION:

My sister and I spent last week on the Big Island. For context, we are both in our 20s and travel together once or twice a year. Although I travel a lot (60-65 nights in the past year), this was our first trip to Hawaii. While I'm sure every island has wonderful aspects, I think the Big Island was the perfect choice for our first trip.

Both of us were traveling from the east coast and my sister in particular was thrilled to escape the winter cold. We had great luck with Hawaii’s weather: very little rain (and even then, typically 4pm or later), no vog, and high winds on the last day but not any other time during the week.

Due to the time zone (6 hours different from home), we were up everyday by 5:30 or earlier (!) and in bed around 9pm. We had a lot of daylight available based on this schedule and long days of touring.

Richmond, Virginia
Level Contributor
323 posts
117 reviews
Save Reply
1. Re: Trip Report - One Week on Big Island

BUDGET:

Hawaii has a reputation for being an expensive destination and I’m happy to report that it was easier to find ways to cut costs than I had expected. That doesn’t mean it is “cheap” but we were able to make it fit our budget. Generally speaking, we splurged on activities/tours and scrimped on everything else. This is where we personally get the most value. If you were to skip those pricey tours, Hawaii could be within almost anyone’s financial reach.

Richmond, Virginia
Level Contributor
323 posts
117 reviews
Save Reply
2. Re: Trip Report - One Week on Big Island

PLANNING:

We had about 10 weeks between booking and the trip itself and I spent a lot of hours inbetween reading about the island. The hardest part of planning is narrowing activities down. The island isn’t actually that big (we only put about 550 miles on the car over the entire week and we drove all over!), but there is a LOT to do…if you want to.

The folks right here on TripAdvisor are wonderful resources who helped knock some sense into me when I tried to cram a million things into the week in a disorganized fashion. I owe everyone a huge Mahalo! I also used numerous other web articles, guidebooks, and even promotional brochures and materials.

Richmond, Virginia
Level Contributor
323 posts
117 reviews
Save Reply
3. Re: Trip Report - One Week on Big Island

HOTELS:

Despite getting great advice on the forums, I chose to ignore the suggestions on timing hotel stays. Instead of following standard suggestions, we moved around a lot.

Specifically, we stayed:

2 nights at the Big Island Retreat in Kona (highly recommended)

2 nights at the Volcano Artist Cottage in Volcano (okay, nothing special, nothing wrong)

1 night at the Waipi’o Hostel (awkward setup)

2 nights at the Marriott Waikoloa (beautiful but pricey)

This was a great solution for us because it meant we could focus on small parts of the island at a time. Packing up was a breeze because we traveled lightly and it meant a lot less time on the road because we simply drove a single circle around the island instead of doing lots of day trips. I *really* hate driving in unfamiliar places, so the advantages of less time on the road was significant to my stress level!

That said, if I were to do it again, I’d re-organize my time on the east side to 1 night in Volcano and 2 in Hilo. Yes, 3 nights on the east side. That part of the island felt more “Hawaiian” to me and has a lot to offer, including some beaches I wish we had more time to explore. Volcano is small, so 1 night is enough (just long enough to see the lava glow after dark) and Waipi’o is a tiny, boring place with really nothing to offer after dark.

Richmond, Virginia
Level Contributor
323 posts
117 reviews
Save Reply
4. Re: Trip Report - One Week on Big Island

CAR:

We rented from Dollar, which is a disorganized nightmare but had a bargain for $99/week. It took over an hour to pick up the rental car and another 20-minute wait to hand over the keys at the end of the week. Plan plenty of time if you intend to rent from them.

I brought my Garmin GPS from home (an old model) and it worked perfectly. Google Maps on your phone would also be a helpful tool.

Richmond, Virginia
Level Contributor
323 posts
117 reviews
Save Reply
5. Re: Trip Report - One Week on Big Island

KONA ACTIVITIES:

By far, my favorite tour of the week was a trip with Sea Quest Snorkel Tours, visiting Kealakekua and Honanau Bays. They run Zodiac rafts (ours had 12 passengers + 3 staff) and in addition to the snorkel stop(s), they stop at sea caves and lava tubes en route and do their best to help spot whales or dolphins along the way. We got really lucky and saw a baby whale breaching plus lots of spinner dolphins jumping, but even without that, the crew was phenomenal, the snorkeling world-class, and the snacks were pretty tasty.

We also did the famed Manta Ray swim. I went on a snorkel with Coral Sea Adventures and unfortunately the lone manta of the night had swum away before I got in the water. Amazingly, it was still a good tour with whale spotting, a great crew, and a lovely sunset so I’d recommend the guide but of course I was a bit disappointed not to have seen a manta. My sister went separately on a dive with Big Island Divers (to the same location) and did get to see a manta ray. Her video is incredible but she admitted there was only that one manta and only for a few minutes. Apparently the swells/weather impact the plankton supply and thus the mantas, with winter being the diciest time of year.

And since I love to be on the water…we booked yet a 3rd snorkel trip for our final day on the island, this time with Splashers since the operators we had gone with earlier in the week were fully booked for our last-minute decision. Technically there was nothing wrong with Splashers, but I felt the other companies did a better job and if you can, I’d choose one of the aforementioned trips (or one of the numerous other options on the island). This particular tour included a swim in the ocean with a dolphin pod which was absolutely incredible but I wish I had known that the dolphins are in “rest mode” in the morning when we were swimming with them and thus disrupting their natural behaviors even though we were careful not to swim next to them or otherwise physically intrude their space. I’ll accept full accountability for this one and I’ll be honest that I didn’t spend any time researching it ahead of time since we literally booked the night before we went. I won’t preach one way or another but do be aware of your potential activity before making an informed decision.

That’s enough on boat trips :) In the Kona area, we also toured Greenwell Farms (coffee), went to Pu`uhonua o Honaunau historic park, and Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park all of which were interesting, but not highlights of the trip. We spent about an hour at Kahulu’u Beach as well, which has okay snorkeling (not as good as Kealekekua but the advantage of being free and easy…) but not a great beach otherwise.

Hint: The beach equipment rentals (e.g. SUP, surfboards, kayaks) are cheaper in Kona than up near the Waikoloa resorts. We didn't rent anything anywhere but something to keep in mind.

Richmond, Virginia
Level Contributor
323 posts
117 reviews
Save Reply
6. Re: Trip Report - One Week on Big Island

VOLCANO & PUNALU’U ACTIVITIES:

From there, we headed southeast to Volcano via Punalu’u Black Sand beach. I’ve been to black sand beaches before so the novelty has worn off for me and I didn’t find it to be anything special. We saw 4 or 5 turtles resting on the beach and it was right on the way, so not a waste of time but I wouldn’t go there expecting to spend a lot of time.

As for Volcano National Park itself, we had a really enjoyable time but spent far less time than expected. It took us 6 hours to explore the park fully, including numerous photo stops along Crater Rim Drive and Chain of Craters Road, short hikes to Thurston Lava Tube, Devastation Trail, and Pu’u Loa petoglyphs, and the Klauea Iki trail (about 90 minutes for us, though I had read estimates of 2-4 hours). We also had stopped at the Jagger Museum the night before our real visit to see the lava glow. Because we were in the park at sunrise and out around 12:30, we really didn’t need a second night in the Volcano area.

Also near Volcano we visited the Volcano Winery which was fun though I didn’t really enjoy the wine, Bird Park which was peaceful but not a must-do, and went to Akatsuka Orchid Farms. Although they offer tours of their greenhouse a few times a week, it’s primarily a retail store and a quick stop for non-shoppers.

Richmond, Virginia
Level Contributor
323 posts
117 reviews
Save Reply
7. Re: Trip Report - One Week on Big Island

HILO & SURROUNDS:

Our time near Hilo and Pahoa really surprised me – I loved this spot on the island and wish we had more time to explore (an excuse for a return visit). My favorite spot was the Kapoho Waiopae tidepools, which ironically was a last-minute addition to our plans. We saw tons of crabs, urchins, corals, and small fish, not to mention it was incredibly relaxing to lay out on a flat rock and read, sunbathe, and absent-mindedly watch fish swim by. Previous reports listed the area as dirty, declining in quality, and unfortunately a bit of a wasteland, but it was in good condition for our visit and well-worth the $3 parking fee (plus $0.50 to use the toilet).

Additionally, we stopped at Lava Trees State Park (lava trees less interesting than expected, but beautiful foliage and natural setting), Pana’ewa Rainforest Zoo (even my sister, a zoo-lover, said it was depressing), Lili'uokalani Park (pretty and relaxing but smaller than expected), Kaumana Caves State Park (really fun and a great way to cool off in the afternoon, assuming you have proper footwear and flashlights), Rainbow Falls (overrated), Akaka Falls (worth it), the Hawaii Tropic Botanical Gardens (gorgeous, though expensive considering it’s a 90-minute visit), and Laupahoehoe Point Beach Park (LOVED watching the crashing waves).

Richmond, Virginia
Level Contributor
323 posts
117 reviews
Save Reply
8. Re: Trip Report - One Week on Big Island

WAIPIO:

We also spent a morning horseback riding in Waipi’o Valely with Na’alapa Stablse and have mixed feelings on the experience. I’d highly recommend Na’alapa: their horses were healthy and our guides were great. However, I was a little underwhelmed by the valley itself (or at least the area we covered on our horseback ride). The scenery is lovely but I didn’t think it was all that unique compared to other areas on the east side. If you like horseback riding, by all means this is a great option, but if you just want to see beautiful scenery I think there are other places on the island that are easier to access.

Richmond, Virginia
Level Contributor
323 posts
117 reviews
Save Reply
9. Re: Trip Report - One Week on Big Island

KOHALA:

If you want beachtime, there is no question that the Kohala Coast is for you and you could visit a different beach every day for the week without needing to repeat. Frankly…I’m not a beach person, but we visited a few for the different scenery at each location and a touch of swimming mixed in.

We attempted to visit Mauna Kea beach, but by 8:30am on a weekday, the lot was already full. Yikes! Instead we went to Hapuna Beach, which had some good waves to jump. I had been under the impression that they had rentals (chairs, umbrellas, boogie boards, etc.) but the shack was closed during our visit so I wouldn’t count on any of that. We also went to Aneho'omalu Bay since that was where our hotel was located, but it wasn’t anything special. Lastly, we spent about an hour or so at Kukio (I think…it may have been Kikaua Point but we were at the little cove and I’m not sure which is which), which was quite picturesque but inconvenient solely because we had already checked out of the hotel and didn’t have towels to lie on or anything. It was probably my favorite beach though just because it was beautiful.

A big highlight in the area, and the trip in general, was our “luau” at the Mauna Lani shops. We didn’t have a real luau to compare it to, but I thought the dancers were great (both hula and firedancers on a Thursday 7-7:30pm, free). Everyone claimed seats around 6:30 and brought picnic style dinners, which I wish we had done. Instead we ate at Monstera afterwards. Another option would be eating on the outdoor balcony of Ruths Chris Steakhouse which overlooks the stage perfectly…and if you order by 6pm, they have an early bird special.

We also stopped at Puukoholoa Heaiu, which has a gorgeous view of the coastline and interior topography but since we aren’t Hawaiian, the area didn’t hold much spiritual significance to us and the temples themselves are closed off to visitors (justifiably so). It’s a nice stop if you are in the area and have 45 minutes to spare, but I wouldn’t plan it as a special trip.

Admittedly, we spent a considerable chunk of our Kohala time at the resort pool :)

Richmond, Virginia
Level Contributor
323 posts
117 reviews
Save Reply
10. Re: Trip Report - One Week on Big Island

FOOD:

As part of our budgeting, we only ate at restaurants once or twice a day and supplemented our meals with breakfast on our own or picnic-style lunches. That still allows a lot of local flavors, since you’ll find fruit stands and farmers markets all over the island, not to mention things like poke or bento boxes available at grocery stores.

We had great seafood at Quinn’s Almost by the Sea and Bite-Me Fish Market in Kona, both of which I’d recommend for fresh fish and reasonable prices. We also ate twice in the Captain Cook area, once at Hotel Manango (cheap, good breakfast) and also at Kaaloa Super J’s (super salty and not to my taste). And on the “fast food” front, I had a delicious heart-attack inducing Loco Moco at Café 100 in Hilo and a great malasada at Tex Drive-In in Waipio (though their other food was only okay – to be fair, that’s what I expected). Our dinner at Monstera was fine but not particularly noteworthy compared to sushi I’ve had elsewhere.

Okay, this is not a restaurant, but Tropical Dreams ice cream is amazing! We got it three different times and enjoyed it every time and every flavor. Hilo Homemade Ice Cream wasn’t even close to the same, despite them being the same parent company.