When asked, “Which is your favorite Hawaiian island”, one in particular tempts me most in my reply. The truth is that I do not have a favorite island. I love Oahu because it is my home, offers the most beautiful beaches, has rich culture, delicious food, and the coolest offshore islands. Kauai’s Napali Coast is stunningly other-worldly, and its Grand Canyon of the Pacific is unlike any terrain found on any of the other Hawaiian Islands. Maui is waterfall heaven, and the island where I have experienced the best snorkeling to date – off of the pristine crater of Molokini. It is the big Island, Hawaii, though, that harbors a special place in my heart. The people are kind, the vibes laid back, and the variety of terrain is fascinating. Kona has it all, from surfing, rooftop bars, beautiful beaches, snorkeling, and more. Mauna Kea is an incredible experience in itself, as you drive to an elevation of 12,000 feet straight from sea level. The Kilauea crater in Volcanoe’s National Park makes you feel like you are experiencing a young Earth, and the Waipio valley is steep, raw, and lush.. With green sand beaches, the most southerly point of the United States, and the chances of dolphin encounters (twice, in our case), this island is one to not miss.
Clay and I allotted 6 days for our adventure on Hawaii Island. With it being the biggest island of the bunch, we decided we would need the most time to properly explore it. (And our six days were still jam-packed!) By flying into Hilo and out of Kona, we planned to explore Hawaii’s waterfall jungle and the magnificent Mauna Kea before continuing our road trip adventure to Volcanoes National Park and beginning to head north and around to the Kona side of the island. Our plan was to camp nearby all of our stops for the first four nights before heading to Kona where we had a time-share waiting for us for some (greatly needed, by this point!) luxury and R&R.
DAY 1: AKAKA FALLS, RAINBOW FALLS, MAUNA KEA
Akaka Falls is a beautiful sight. It is a sweet and easy hike along a paved walkway, just a 30 minute drive from the Hilo Airport. Did I mention how stunning this 450 ft waterfall is? With several other waterfalls along the way, Akaka is the grand finale.
From here, Clay and I drove along the coast, visited Rainbow Falls and the Boiling Pots, grabbed some tasty lunch in Hilo, and enjoyed the scenic route when possible before heading up to the base of Mauna Kea. The dense, wet, and lush environment of this part of the island was impressive!
We arrived at Mauna Kea in time to complete the hike to the world’s third highest altitude lake. (Clay will argue with you that Lake Waiau is more like that of a pond, but it was stunning!) This hike, despite being short, was challenging as we both felt the altitude and quite a bit loopy from traveling from sea level to 13,000 feet of elevation within such a quick span of time! As the sun continued to set, the lake slowly changed colors from green to blue. This is quite the peaceful place!
This volcano is stunning. Clay and I had time to relax and enjoy the views before heading to the peak of Mauna Kea in time for sunset. We attended an astronomy discussion and viewing at the visitor center that evening – with all of the hot chocolate a person could ever want available for purchase! With a full moon in effect, the stars were not what I had quite hoped for, but as it turns out, there was a benefit to be received by the full moon later.. 🙂 Clay and I had planned to camp somewhere on Mauna Kea to enjoy the night time sky. As it turns out, we were informed by the hosts at the visitor center that camping is prohibited, but all-night sky gazing is welcomed. You can figure out what that one means!
DAY 2: MAUNA KEA SUNRISE, KEHENA BLACK SAND BEACH, VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK
Clay and I awoke to darkness at 4:30am to begin our drive back to the peak of Mauna Kea. Shivering, and unable to feel our hands for 15 minutes, we blasted the heat in an attempt to warm up! We made it to the peak (well, not quite the peak, but undoubtedly the best pull-off spot to enjoy the sunrise) just in time.
From here, Clay and I headed back down into Hilo for some much needed Starbucks, restrooms, and refreshing. We drove towards one of the famous black sand beaches: Kehena Beach. We found fresh coconuts and enjoyed the black, volcanic sand, and swam in the significant shore-break.
After a refreshing dip we continued to Volcanoes National Park. Not knowing entirely what we wanted to do here besides see the Kilauea volcano, we left plenty of room for improvisation. In the afternoon, we drove the Chain of Craters Road and walked to where the lava flowed over the road and into the ocean. We found a beautiful patch of palm trees along the way!
We continued to explore that afternoon before heading back to the Kilauea Crater in time for sunset and darkness. As it turns out, that crater glows red! It was a stunning site and a novel experience to be so close to molten lava!
On the evening of night two we camped in the park after grabbing a beer at the Volcano House. We chatted with Scott, a local and the bartender at the Volcano House who was able to tell us all kinds of interesting facts about the volcano, its eruption history, and local info. The next morning we awoke early once again to enjoy a sunrise hike on the ‘Iliahi trail before hopping back in the car to head north along the east coast. I highly recommend this hike, as you walk through steaming sulfur and discover a great variety of native plant life!
DAY 3: WAIPIO VALLEY, BIG ISLAND BREWHAUS, CAMPING NORTH OF KONA
Our first stop of day three was Waipio valley. We stopped to enjoy the view and speak with the gate attendant before driving down the steep, narrow road (45% grade at some parts!). Pictures of this rowdy ride do it no justice. The alternative to driving, and the only option if you are without four wheel drive, is to walk down (and later up) this steep, steep incline. Needless to say, we were thrilled to have upgraded our rental to the jeep!
Once at the floor of Waipio Valley, we walked the beach and ventured to a waterfall off to the right (if you are facing the ocean). Clay once again found coconuts for us to snack on, and we sunbathed on the beautiful black sand beach. The waves were massive and powerful, and the valley walls were lush and enveloping. From here, we drove to the back of the valley to enjoy views of Hiilave Falls. While this waterfall is known to be accessible by hiking, it is all on private property and there is no clear trail. Clay and I opted to enjoy the valley via jeep and remain the law-abiding citizens that we are! We encountered some friendly, beautiful valley horses, and saw the homes of people who reside in this pristine valley.
After driving up the steep valley road (and holding on for dear life), Clay and I made our way to north westerly part of the island by way of Waimea, where we made sure to stop at the Big Island Brewhaus for some local brews and fresh food. This was a bonus stop and came highly recommended by a friend who attended college at UH Hilo! After roadtriping through the central/northerly portion of the island, we headed to Kapaa Beach Park where we set up our hammock camp nearby Kapaa Beach Park and enjoyed a picnic dinner complete with a sunset. We enjoyed a quiet evening of ocean views and read in our hammocks until we fell asleep beneath the full moon.
DAY 4: KEALAKEKUA BAY, SOUTH POINT, GREEN SAND BEACH
We awoke early on day four to break down camp and head just south of Kona, where we planned to rent a kayak from the Kona Boys to go kayaking in the famous Kealakekua Bay. This Bay is where Captain Cook was once generously welcomed by the Hawaiians, and then later killed by them. (A really interesting history, and much more intricate than what I just disclosed!) Kona Boys were wonderful and easy to work with. As sea kayak guides on Oahu, it was interesting to see another operation! We loaded up our kayak, snorkel gear, and lunch pail, and drove a few short miles down the road to the launch site for the bay.
Paddling above the ocean in a depth of 300 feet was exhilarating. Clay and I took turns peering into the depths of the water with our snorkel masks on. With being the only ones in that part of the bay at the time, hopping in for a swim did not seem appealing! We paddled a mile or so to the Captain Cook monument, located just on shore of the shallower part of the bay. We got out our snorkel gear and rigged the kayak to ourselves as we swam towing it behind us. The snorkeling was superb, as we followed the shelf and checked out a great variety of fish and coral. After spending a good bit of time swimming, snorkeling, nd exploring, we got ready to paddle back to our launch site. It was then that we passed a kind couple who let us know there were dolphins in the bay, and they pointed us in the right direction. Dolphins? Clay and I put it into high gear in hopes of encountering these creatures. (I’m fairly certain it was this moment in which I paddled at a record speed.) And then, this happened.
The dolphins stuck around for a while, and we enjoyed their presence and the opportunity to experience these beautiful creatures! Once we had worn ourselves out thoroughly, we paddled back and loaded up the equipment to return to Kona Boys. We let them know about our dolphin encounter, and the woman helping us responded by saying, “Oh, I figured so much with the full moon”. The amazing part is that our experience is none to rare. Swimming with dolphins seems to be a normality of life for people on the Big Island.
From here, we headed further south to spend the afternoon at South Point and the Green Sand Beach. Clay being the adventure-seeker that he is jumped off the 30ft cliff (twice) while I happily snapped his photo. (May I mention that fishermen had hooked a shark just 15 minutes before his second jump?) After cooling off, we made the trek to the Green Sand Beach. This was the second instance in which we celebrated our four wheel drive jeep for the win! This hot, shadeless, rutted-out area makes for a sluggish hike to the pristine, famous beach. We were able to make it in about 45 minutes in the jeep – and it was quite the ride!
The green sand beach was the perfect spot to watch the sunset. It was undoubtedly our first green sand beach, created by a lava flow and the elements that affected it. After our long, adventurous day, Clay and I opted to camp off the road leading to South Point. It ended up dumping rain on us throughout the night – making us very ready for a bed at the timeshare for the evenings to follow!
DAY 5: KONA COFFEE, SURFING IN KAHULUU BAY, SUNDAY MARKET, KONA BREWING
Leaving South Point on the morning of day 5, we headed back to Kona Boys to pick up some surf boards for the day. On the way, we stopped at one of the many Kona Coffee farms to sample the famous coffee and pick up gifts for our family. At Kona Boys, we got two long boards and headed to Kahuluu Bay. The waves were fun!! For the first time ever, someone told me that I made surfing look easy. Best. Compliment. Ever. After our surfing fix, Clay and I headed back to Kona Boys to swap a long board for a short board. On our way to Kona Brewing (because you can’t visit Big Island and not go to the original brewery!), we stopped at a fun, fresh Sunday market just down the road. We got more coffee (we really like coffee), and bought some local Big Island Honey.
DAY 6: BANYANS, KUA BAY, MANTA RAY DIVE
On day six, after a refreshing evening in air conditioning with a television, and a bed (the tri-fecta!), we went to check out the Banyans surf spot. Clay went for a quick rip in this famous, renown surf spot while I opted to read on the beach (I’m not a short-boarder – yet.). With some time to kill before our Manta Ray Dive, we drove just north of Kona to check out one of Big Island’s famed beaches – Manini’owali beach. Sure enough, it was stunning. This beach was wonderful for body surfing. We caught some fun waves, and swam further out in this sandy-bottom beach.
For those wanting a slightly more remote, off-the-beaten-path beach, be sure to check out Makalawena Beach – accessible either by hiking from Manini’owali or by 4WD in Kehaka Kai State park.
Just a few hours later, Clay and I arrived at Big Island Divers to get ready for our Manta Ray snorkel that evening. This had come highly recommended to us as a must-do while on the Big island. With this being our first dive since becoming certified, I was a little nervous for a night dive. I was surprised to learn that our first dive was at a depth of 80 feet (!) at Garden Eel Cove, before our Manta Ray night dive. The dives were a success (other than Clay releasing his GoPro while at a depth of 80 feet – we luckily learned that its handle floats and were able to retrieve it at the surface). That evening we saw seven Manta Rays, including a fly-by encounter with one in the shadows of the dark water as we retreated to the boat.
On the boat ride back to the harbor after our night dive, we saw some of the most beautiful skies I have yet to see. The ocean glowed from the bio-luminescence as we sped back to shore. We were stoked on the experience as we did two of our most challenging dives – the deepest dive we have yet competed at 80 feet as well as a night dive. Big Island Divers did a wonderful job in educating us about the Manta Rays, ensuring safety, and providing a fun and thrilling time.
That evening, Clay and I enjoyed a hot meal at one of Kona’s many rooftop bars – the only thing that our little town, Kailua, lacks! After a hot meal and a hot shower, we were out for the night.
DAY 7: HO’OKENA BEACH, PUUHONUA
On our last day on the beautiful Big Island, I was confilcted as to what to do. Clay left it up to me, as he was happy to do whatever I most wanted (he’s a sweetie). Our choice was between a famed and beautiful hike on the north shore of the island; Pololu, and visiting a bay great for snorkeling further south of Kona, where we had heard dolphins often rested. I desperately wanted to encounter dolphins again, and was willing to forgo the hike even for the slightest chance to possibly encounter them. Clay feared that I may be disappointed, being that dolphins are chance encounters – but I’m a dreamer. Ho’okena Beach it was. By the time we arrived it was around 11am. I studied the horizon line looking for dolphin activity but spotted nothing. In a walk to the restroom I spotted someone who looked like a local, and stopped to inquire about swimming with dolphins. The gentleman kindly pointed me in the direction of the channel in which they liked to hang out, and suggested we swim out 200 yards. We snorkeled closer to shore at first, checking our corals and diving for shells. We continued to swim further out, until we found the end of the reef and had reached the channel. At this point, I looked back at the beach, which was a good distance away. Holding hands while snorkeling (because sharks are scary), I gave one last attempt by offering my best dolphin call imitation. I brought my head up out of the water to once again look around – and I saw FINS. Coming towards us. Diving back down below I saw a pod of 20-30 dolphins – coming to swim with us. My heart started racing (as it did the first time we swam with dolphins just several days before), because it is possibly one of the best feelings in the world. The dolphins did flips, and we swam with a mother and baby dolphin. For twenty minutes we enjoyed the company of the dolphins all to ourselves, until other beach goers noticed the activity and decided to join. At this point, my day was made. I could leave the Big Island (for now) with 0 regrets. We swam with wild dolphins yet again.
On our way back to the airport, we stopped at Pu’uhonua Park and soaked up the rich culture before departing for Oahu. The self-guided tour is awesome as you learn about the history of the structures and statues at our own pace. I was happy to spend our last afternoon beneath impressive statues and beautiful palm trees.
Before we knew it, it was time to pack up and return the Jeep and head back to Oahu. Seven days spent on the beautiful island of Hawai’i, yet it felt like much more. Waterfalls, volcanoes, valleys, dolphins, and surf – this island is a special, special place.