Earlier this month we spent a week on the big island of Hawaii. We spent most of our time on the sunny Kona side of the island, but that does not mean we ignored the wetter Hilo side. Larger than all the other Hawaiian islands combined, Hawaii offers plenty for the casual and adventurous travelers alike.
Visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
One of the coolest things you can do on the Hawaiian islands is to visit a volcano. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is home to two volcanoes: Kilauea and Mauna Loa. If you're wanting to see lava in action, I recommend going at night to the Jaggar Museum lookout point. The crater is only a mile away and the view is phenomenal.
Other things to see at the park are the thousands of petroglyphs, the steam vents around Crater Rim Drive, the lava tube cave, and an informational video at the visitor's center. The petroglyphs are definitely worth the forty minute drive down to the coast and the short mile walk. The majority of these carvings are circles where ancient people placed the umbilical cords of newborns so they could be returned to the umbilical of the earth.
Explore Hawaii's Rich History
Petroglyphs are not the only remnants of Hawaii's long and rich history. Visitors can explore the island's history and culture at Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park. The historical park preserves the site where up until the early 19th-century Hawaiians who broke kapu could avoid certain death by seeking refuge. Kapu is the ancient code of laws and regulations of Hawaii and includes kapuhili, the restrictions on contact with the chief, and 'ai kapu was the system governing contact between men and women. Those seeking refuge here would be absolved by a priest and freed to leave.
The park features a number of historic structures and recreations including temple platforms, royal fishponds, sledding tracks, coastal village sites, and the Hale o Keawe. The Hale o Keawe is a reconstruction of a temple originally built by a Kona chief for his father. The nobility of Kona continued to be buried here until 1818.
The Great Wall around the park is nearly eighteen feet thick and made of lava rock. It's an incredibly impressive structure. I would recommend all visitors to the island check out this historic park.
Go on an Agricultural Tour
We went on two agricultural tours while we were on the big island. The first one was to Greenwell Coffee Farm in Kealakekua. The tour is free, is every half hour, and lasts about twenty minutes. It includes a free coffee tasting of some fantastic Kona coffees. The tour itself was pretty uninteresting, as I've been on better and more in-depth coffee plantation tours before, but for a free tourist attraction, it wasn't bad.
The other agricultural tour we went on was at Big Island Bees. This wasn't a real tour, though they do offer an hour-long beekeeping tour for $10. It was more of an information session and free honey tasting in the museum. Free honey and a chance to learn more about beekeeping without having to traipse around for an hour in the sun was fine by me. One of the coolest things about Big Island Bees are the beehive sculptures. These metal and beehive sculptures are a hybrid of organic and non-organic materials that are truly fascinating to look at.
Head to the Beach
Most of the well-known beaches on the big island are on the Kona side of the island near Waimea and Kailua. These are the beaches with the white sands. We did not spend any time at these beaches, but they're very popular with tourists.
Where we did spend time at were the black sand beaches on the south of the island close to our vacation rental in Miloli. Access to this beach requires a somewhat sketchy trek through the jungle for about fifteen minutes, but it was totally worth it. The water was clear and there was coral which made it great for snorkeling. Just watch out on black sand beaches: the rocks can be sharp and the sand heats up to brutal temperatures.
Another black sand beach to check out is Punalu'u Black Sand Beach. Considered to be the most famous black sand beach on the island, this beach is easily accessible from a parking lot, has picnic benches, lifeguards, and we saw sea turtles here. It didn't look easy for swimming and it was pretty crowded, but if you're looking for an easy to get to black sand beach this is the place the place to go.
There are also two green sand beaches on the big island. We tried to hike to one: Papakolea. It requires an hour and a half hike with no shade through wheel ruts and mud. We gave up about halfway there because it was incredibly hot and we wanted to get to our vacation rental. Also, the beaches along the way were filthy with refuse from the ocean. I think the surf here is strong and trash from the ocean just ends up on the beach here. There are people offering rides in a four-wheeler for twenty dollars a person if you've got cash to burn and are really keen to see the green sand.
Check out a Waterfall or Two
If you read this blog or follow me on Instagram, you know that I love waterfalls. I seem to find a waterfall in almost any country or state I go to. The big island of Hawaii is no exception with its many accessible waterfalls. Unfortunately, we only had time to check out one of them: Rainbow Falls. Rather short at 80 feet when compared to the nearby 422 foot 'Akaka Falls.Rainbow Falls makes up for it with accessibility. It can be found within the city limits of Hilo and it's a super short walk to see the falls. Seriously, walk twenty steps from the parking lot and you can see it.
Be aware, this place is busy and full of idiotic tourists. I try not to get judgmental about people enjoying themselves, but when I see people getting dangerously close to a waterfall to get a selfie then all bets are off. People have died recently at this waterfall, and I personally don't think any kind of vacation photo is worth dying for.
Eat all the Food
I knew the food in Hawaii was going to be good, and I certainly wasn't disappointed. What I was surprised by was how affordably we were able to eat. Coming from California where we grow most of the nation's produce and pay exorbitant prices for it, it was surprising that an island would have cheaper food than us.
Here are some of our food highlights on the Big Island.
Keoki's Ono Fish N Chips in Captain Cook
Recommended to us by our vacation rental host, we hit up Keoki's Ono Fish N Chips in Captain Cook after our trips to the coffee plantation and honey farm. We ordered the fried ono with half onion rings and half french fries for two. I was starving, so I ended up eating more than my share. The batter on the ono was adequately crispy and the oil they used is fresh, but I didn't consider that to be the star of the show. The star of the show for me was the beer battered onion rings. These were some of the best onion rings I've ever had: the batter was light and crispy and the onions were sweet. Plus, they weren't huge. I hate really big onion rings where you take a bite and the onion isn't cooked enough and you end up taking out half the onion when you bite. The french fries were so-so and I wish we had ordered all onion rings.
L&L BBQ in Captain Cook
Now, we have L&L BBQ on the mainland. It's a chain and not particularly good, but in Hawaii, it's much better. The food is flavorful, cheap, and fast. I ordered the Kalua Pork with Cabbage which came with shredded roast pork, white rice, macaroni salad, and another kind of pork cooked in some type of green leaf. The roast pork with cabbage was very good as was the rice. Macaroni salad is definitely not my thing, but this wasn't the grossest one I've ever had. I'm not sure how I feel about the pork wrapped in an unidentifiable green leaf. It was interesting.
The boyfriend ordered Spam musubi, which was good, but a little heavy on the rice to Spam ratio. I prefer a Spam musubi that's a little heavier on the Spam.
Punalu'u Bake Shop in Naalehu
Considered to be the southernmost bakery in the United States, Punalu'u Bake Shop in Naalehu is a must-go-to stop on your way to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park or Punulu'u black sand beach. While you can get a number of baked goods and sandwiches here, the thing to get here is the malasada. The malasada is a yeasted Portuguese donut that was introduced to the island by Portuguese sugar workers in the 19th century along with other Portuguese baked goods.
You can order a malasada plain with sugar, or with a number of toppings or fillings. I ordered mine with the lilikoi (passion fruit) topping. The lilikoi was both sharp and sweet, contrasting with the sweetness of the donut. The boyfriend ordered a chocolate filled one that I thought was just okay. They also have clean restrooms and nice grounds. I would recommend going early because I heard they run out of malasadas fairly early in the day and don't bake anymore in the afternoon.
Cafe 100 in Hilo
If you're looking to try the famous Hawaiian dish Loco Moco, this is the place to try it on the big island. Cafe 100 in Hilo serves more than 30 kinds of loco moco. What is loco moco? Traditionally, loco moco is a ground beef patty served on top of white rice with beef gravy and a sunny-side-up egg. Cafe 100 serves a number of variations on this gut-busting dish, such as a chili loco moco and a Spam loco moco.
Cafe 100 doesn't look like much from the outside. It's a breakfast and lunch counter serving ridiculously cheap fast-food fare. While none of us ordered the famous loco moco, we were pretty happy with our food (especially the price). I ordered the miso soup and taro toast. Taro toast is a purple-hued lightly sweet bread made from the taro root. It was a light and tasty way to start the day. The boyfriend ordered a ham and cheese omelet with toast, which he said was good but basic.
This wasn't everything we ate. We also ate at Thai Thai Bistro in Volcano, which was decent; Volcano's Lava Rock Cafe in Volcano, which was a little overpriced and slow, but had the most amazing macadamia nut pie; and ate some extravagantly overpriced fish at the Four Seasons Resort.
Do you have any places that you love on the big island of Hawaii? What other activities would you recommend to first visitors? Feel free to share in the comments.