Most people get confused with The Big Island and Oahu (even we did before planning our trip). They are both separate/different island, Oahu is a more populated city with many locals, and the island of the famous Pearl Harbor and Honolulu.
Our trip began in the Big Island where we arrived Friday night and were pretty surprised to see the size of Kona Airport. It looked like a bus stop with regular benches, huts and was basically outdoors. From there we took a shuttle to our car rental company. Thanks to our cousin, Shaq (who lived in Hawaii), told us to rent a 4×4 and gave us some real good tips for our trip, however we were not able to get a 4×4 but instead got an all wheel drive (we would highly recommend you to rent a 4×4 on The Big Island).
We drove to our hotel which was another surprise because we had no idea how amazing our hotel would be. The lobby area had an amazing view of the ocean, the staff was very friendly and gave us a warm Aloha and put leis on us to welcome us, our room was fantastic with ocean view from the front and mountain view from the back. We also lucked out with getting an amazing deal through orbitz and got complimentary breakfast buffet at one of the restaurants at the hotel. The buffet was great and they had everything from the continental breakfast to traditional Hawaiian breakfast items. We ended the night by eating dinner at one of the fancy restaurants of the hotel, and taking a mini tour of the resort.
P.S. Definitely have a GPS, Hiking shoes, clothes for chilly weather–keep reading to find out why. Also, we would highly recommend to read “Hawaii The Big Island Revealed: The Ultimate Guidebook“.
Day 1 – 09/01/2012:
We woke up late (being tired from our 12hr flight), after breakfast we visited the concierge at the resort to get some ideas and feedback on what we can do for our stay and what is possible for us to do the first day with the time we had, so we decided to drive up to Mauna Kea.
For those, who don’t know what Mauna Kea is, well it is a mountain which is about 13,700 ft elevated. That’s right 13700 (that is not a typo), so when you drive, you are literally driving up hill and your ears start to pop. We took Saddle Road for about 2 – 2.5 hrs with a lot of curves and hills. Make sure you Pee/Kaka before leaving and grab some snacks because you won’t see anything except dry land, cows and horses. It is a beautiful drive but could cause road sickness. There is a restroom area right before the Mauna Kea visitors area on Saddle Road. Then you make a turn towards Mauna Kea visitor center and drive even more uphill. Few minutes later, you actually drive through the clouds which is cool as hell. Minutes later you are actually over and above the clouds (amazing view – you have to be there to witness) and reach the visitors center. The visitors center is a very small gift shop/information center. There we found out that the road up to the observatories is not paved and none of the staff would recommend us to drive up there. We were told:
- cars can get stuck very easily
- it is very very difficult to get a stuck car out of there
- it is very very expensive to get a stuck car out of there
- the rental company do not provide coverage on an unpaved road so you would have to cover all expenses on your own.
However, the people who had gone up there were very encouraging and supportive and we looked at it as one time opportunity so we decided to go. (DO NOT GO if you don’t have a 4×4 or if you have any doubts). It is a bit scary going up but I have to admit it was pretty cool. The road is pretty much all gravel and very steep for about 20 minutes but as you get closer to the observatories the last 10 minutes of the drive is all paved. After we got up there we took a big sigh of relief for finally arriving, we were just amazed at where we were and how beautiful the clouds looked below us and the observatories around us.
Since it was getting close to sunset time, we headed back down to the visitors center. At the visitors center we were told about the hike up the mountain to see the most beautiful sunset. We hiked up the mountain for about 15 minutes and waited as we slowly watched the sun setting into the clouds. It definitely was worth the hike as it was very romantic and one of the best sunset experiences we will ever be able to share together–Ayesha felt like it was a scene from the movie What Dreams May Come. After the sunset we hiked down
to the visitor center where they were setting up the telescopes. We waited till it got darker and once it was dark, you could notice all the stars in the sky. We have never seen sooooo many stars in the sky before, it was like glitter sprinkled on the sky. It was truly unbelievable and every time we would look back up there were literally more stars visible. Then we lined up to look in the telescope where we actually saw Saturn completely clear with the ring around it and three moons (Saturn has more than 3 but I could only see 3).
FYI, take a jacket with you, it gets pretty cold up there. We could actually see the temperature drop as we drove up to Mauna Kea. We were told it could get below 30F but luckily for us it didn’t get crazy cold although it was pretty chilly. So as it was getting cold, we decided to head back and drive back down through the clouds. To our shock, as we drove though the clouds and under, it was raining. The sky was clear and completely covered with stars when we were over and above the skies and as we drove down we found realized we were driving into the rain.
We got back to the hotel after about 2.5 hrs of drive, can’t remember what we ate, and then passed out.
Day 2 – 09/02/2012:
Since Hawaii is five hours behind CST, we were able to get up early at 7am and ready to go. We had our great breakfast buffet and then decided to do the other most recommended activity in The Big Island which is to visit Volcano National Park.
We drove for about 2 – 2.5 hrs through mostly one lane city area. We did drive through a lot of curves at one point and it had scenic lookout stops on the way. Once we got there we paid $10 entrance fee, which was good for the whole week, though we had no idea what we can do in the park. I was under the assumption that we would be able to see active lava but that was not the case as we found out from the visitors center. There are three active volcanoes in The Big Island, one of them you can see from an helicopter, the other one you could see from the park, however, you can only see it from a distance and the third I don’t know (apparently it is under water). At the visitors center the park ranger gave us a guide of what we can do in 2-3hrs.
We started our tour with Jagger Museum where we could see the active volcano from a distance. If you come at night to this place then you would see the smokes in a red glow because of the lava. The museum itself was decent with some old volcano history. The only thing, I found interesting was they had live reading and monitoring of all the active volcanoes in Hawaii. And where we also initially learned about Pele. I had no idea what or who Pele is but Pele got my attention from a really energetic and dramatic tour guide that we ran into.
After spending about 20 minutes, we moved on towards the steam vents. We were told by the park ranger, one of the traditions in Hawaii is to start of your journey of your tour with the steam vents in order to cleanse and purify yourself before visiting the volcanoes. When we arrived to the steam vents and standing in front of it, it felt like a hot sauna. There we also found out that you can actually walk or bike to all these point of interest in the park if you want but we preferred driving. From there we headed towards the lava tubes, which is in the middle of a rain forest. It is very interesting how a small area of the park is a rain forest and it was raining when we got there, the rest of the park was dry and clear. The lava tube was not very impressive. It was just a walk through a tunnel, although it is pretty cool, I guess, how they are formed. It was like a perfect cylindrical shape. After getting out of there, we started driving through the chain of all passed craters. There were so many of them and it was very interesting to notice the flow of all the lavas from many years ago. There were a lot scenic areas where we stopped and took pictures. There are also a lot of trails for hiking. We kept on driving for maybe 30 minutes when we realized the road actually goes all the way down to the water by the latest lava flow from 2003.
All this time we were driving on top of a mountain and as we drove through the craters we were actually driving downwards towards the ocean. That made us very excited (it is very hard to explain how beautiful all this looked) and eager to get towards the water. We approached the 2003 lava flow where they have closed the roads and at the edge of the cliffs that were made out of lava formations. After looking at the water crashing against the walls created by the lava flows, we walked over 2003 lava. The flow of the lava was about
3 miles wide and you could see how it flowed from the top of the mountain. That drive was totally worth the time and we would recommend everybody to go all the way down if you ever go to the Volcano National Park.
After the park, we drove back towards the hotel, however, we made few stops on our way back. We wanted to checkout:
- Black Sand Beach
- Sea Turtles
- Green Sand Beach
We got to the Black Sand Beach and other than the sand being literally black, the beach itself was pretty ghetto. Mostly it was locals having picnics and camping. The sea turtles decided to go back in the water as if they knew we were coming to see them. All the locals at the beach told us that the sea turtles were chillen and hanging out right before we got there. So we didn’t get lucky with the sea turtles. We saw their resting area but we were disappointed as we were told that we would see quite a few turtles. Anyway, we started to make moves since we wanted to see the Green Sand Beach before sunset. On our way to the green sand beach, we saw signs to the south point before the green sand beach so we head our way to south point. We also saw a LA Lakers fan house, which was literally purple and yellow. We had to stop and admire the fanatism and take a picture. We reached South Point which turned out to be more of a scenic look out. It is suppose to be the southern most point of The Big Island. Other than us being at the South Point, we saw couple of fisherman fishing. Then we started driving towards the Green Sand Beach. The signs to the green sand beach were very confusing and misleading. Several of the signs said “Government Property”, “No Trespassing” and “Private Property”, however, there was a sign of which way to head for green sand beach. Ignoring some of those sign we got to the beach with few tourist but no green sand. We were very confused and puzzled and questioned if we were even at the right place. We ran into two guys on the beach who said that we are at the right place and they said “YES!, the sand is REALLY green”. So we got excited and walk even more deeper towards the beach but all we could see was regular orange earthy sand. At this point we were disappointed and thought the two guys were maybe joking with us, so we headed back. While we were driving back we ran into the same two guys and asked them again about the Green Sand Beach. This time, they told us that the green sand beach was actually another 30-45 minutes drive through the gates. There were gates by the beach which had a sign “Government Property, No Trespassing” and apparently (we found this out from another local) we were suppose to drive through the gates and the trail would have taken us to the green sand beach through private properties and farm. To make this drive, I would recommend you to have a 4×4 since everything is unpaved or be prepared to hike.
We drove back disappointed to a local shopping/restaurant area by our hotel to have dinner. BTW, if I haven’t mentioned it before, the food in Hawaii is pricey and no flavor. Dinner at LavaJava was actually pretty good but pricey.
P.S: Take hiking shoes and gear with food if you like hiking.
Day 3 – 09/03/2012:
For our last full day on the Big Island we knew we wanted to do something extraordinary for our excursion. As soon as we awoke we started calling up companies that offer helicopter tours, we found one that had availability for the day and right after breakfast drove off to Hilo International Airport. On our way to Hilo, we found a cave and decided to stop there for few minutes to explore. There were already some other tourist in the dark slippery cave, from the San Francisco and told us not to go in the cave since we didn’t have proper gear on. We took a few pictures and the headed back towards Hilo Airport.
We arrived an hour before schedule and decided to explore downtown Hilo before our helicopter tour. Driving around we actually weren’t impressed with the more industrial feel and were glad that we were staying on the Kona side of the island. We drove down to Hilo International and realized we had about an hour to spare so we decided to explore a little bit of downtown and check out the Hawaii University, which happend to be smaller than my elementary school.
It was finally time to get on our helicopter ride. First we had to sign in and get our weight checked and then we were briefed on safety. We were then introduced to the Captain, who guided us on how to get safely seated on the helicopter. We got lucky with the best seats (front two) and once everybody got seated we took off. As we approached the volcano area we could see the smokes coming from the ground and the mountain. We reached the top of the mountain which has an active volcano for a while (can’t remember how many years) and the lava has been flowing for years. It was cool to see the boiling lava and the flow of it towards the water. It is actually flowing over a once populated town which has been burned down to ashes. We could see the broken highways and a house was still intact in the middle of the lava flow. The pilot told us that he and his friend had a house, and a restaurant which got burned down. After we spend a good amount time around the volcano site, we started flying over the waterfalls and rain-forest area. It was very serene and beautiful to see all the pretty waterfalls from the helicopter. An opportunity we would have not gotten otherwise by foot or by car. We also learned how all the waterfalls are created by rain water since all the waterfalls are situated away from the ocean. By this time we had spent a good hour and half on the helicopter ride and headed back to the airport.
It was an exciting ride and a worthwhile experience. After the helicopter ride, we decided to have lunch at Cafe Pesto (good food). After lunch, we followed the map and stopped at all the waterfall areas.
The Botanical Garden is a highly recommended tourist spot, but we didn’t have time to stop and explore. We stopped at all the marked places in the map and our favorite waterfall stop was the Akaka Falls. I don’t think we have ever seen a bigger waterfall and more beautiful. The trail to get to the amazing waterfall is full of exotic plants and flowers, but I would definitely recommend to carry an umbrella because while walking on the trail it was sprinkling and then all of a sudden it started raining cats & dogs and everyone was looking for shelter, however lucky for us I was smart enough to be carrying an umbrella.
Our last stop was the Waipio lookout. Really beautiful lookout area with a mountain and beach, however you need a 4×4 to go all the way down to the beach area. The road is paved but very steep . One of the locals did not recommend us to go down and told us that she has seen even 4×4 having trouble making it back up. We saw the sunset there and then headed back to hotel.
The Big Island definitely had a lot to do for FREE if you rent a car. We felt The Big Island is more for hiking, scenic lookouts, volcano trails, caves and etc.