A week on the Big Island?
December 21, 2011 3:03 PM   Subscribe

Camper-vanning it on the Big Island of Hawaii next week: what should two Alaskans not miss?

The boyfriend and I are going to be on the Big Island of Hawaii next week (12/27-1/04). We have a camper van for the week and...basically no plans beyond some time at Volcanoes National Park. We land and leave from Hilo, and neither of us have been to the Big Island before (I actually haven't been to Hawaii at all before, or to to any warm tropicalish place).

Things we love: hiking and walking , kayaking, snorkeling, tidepools and other wildlife/outdoorsy stuff, farmer's markets, good meals at places which include a vegetarian option for me (we are probably mostly going to get groceries and cook from the van this time, but will definitely go out a few times), worthwhile and interesting tourist attractions.

Things we're not great at: lying on a beach for hours and hours, fishing, typical tourist traps where the main focus is the adjoining tee shirt shop.

So, we'd love some help planning. We have the blue book but it's a little overwhelming. If you have insight into particularly nice campgrounds, great things to do or a good way to spend New Year's Eve, we'd love to hear that.
posted by charmedimsure to Travel & Transportation around Island of Hawai‘i, HI (10 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: I should add: we are very experienced/confident hikers- up for almost anything- and fairly experienced but generally quite cautious ocean kayakers- and we'd need to find a rental boat, obviously.
posted by charmedimsure at 3:09 PM on December 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Ooh ooh! My wife and I just spent a week on the Big Island and had a blast. If you look at a Google map of the Big Island you'll distinctly see it has a wet side and a dry side. Hilo is the city on the wet side, Kona is on the dry. Hilo side has amazing greenery and tropical fruit, Kona side has beaches. It's not a big island at all, so make sure you check out both. Waimea straddles both sides and you can literally see the line between wet and dry in a matter of city blocks.

Hilo is right in the Puna district, which is hippie heaven. Head to the SPACE market in Pahoa for amazing food, and check out any of the (many) intentional communities if you like that sort of thing (my dad lives in one, message me for more info if you are interested. I can also tell you about the ecstatic dance at a gay hippie resort).

Along that side of the island there are some amazing tide pools and warm pools: we went snorkeling at the Kapoho tide pools and it was AMAZING.

Beaches on that side of the island are for the brave - rocky and tons of currents. We swam at the Kehena Black Sand (nude) Beach, which was incredibly gorgeous, but a little too risky for me to get in the water. Still, worth it to climb down and enjoy the view.

Drive out to Kalapana to see amazing lava beds right over where a village used to be only a couple of years ago. The lava is constantly flowing on the Big Island, and the geography changes drastically in short periods of time. Amazing.

You can drive from the Hilo side to the Kona side by going through Volcano National Park, which was pretty cool. We only spent a day there, which was enough to see the caldera, the intepretive centre, the Thurston Lava Tube, and some of the drives. If you want to hike, you could certainly spend more time there and check out the trails.

We camped at Ho'okena for three or four days and had a lovely time. It's smaller than it looks from the site, but you camp right on the beach only meters from the ocean. It's pretty... rustic, but we like that sort of thing. Wonderful camping experience, and only a short drive from the city if you need anything.

We drove back to Hilo through the north route, and picnicked at the overlook of the Waipio Valley. If there was anything I wish I had more time for - this is it. Also known as the Valley of the Kings, this is a historic and AMAZINGLY beautiful region of the Big Island, and you can only go down there with a guided tour or by hiking. The road is so steep most vehicles can't take it. It is protected and looks like it's out of a storybook or video game. Look into this one for sure.

Those are the main things that stick with me from our visit in August/September. The Big Island is gorgeous and varied, and (especially on the Hilo side) full of tasty organic vegetarian food.
posted by arcticwoman at 3:34 PM on December 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: A few quick recommendations:

*Hike (more of just a "walk," actually) across Kilauea Iki

*Rent snorkel equipment, throw it in the back of the car and you can go snorkeling whenever/wherever. This was the thing that blew me away about Hawaii; you didn't have to go to the "snorkeling place." You can just snorkel off many of the "regular beaches" and see cool stuff (we used and liked Snorkel Bob, but it doesn't look like they have a place in Hilo)

*We liked the vanilla lunch/tour at the Hawaiian Vanilla Company.

*In the "expensive but worth it" category, the dawn boat tours through these folks are supposed to be awesome. We had a trip booked, but the seas were too choppy the day we were planning to go. However, my Mom works in the tour boat industry (in CA, not HI) and these guys are supposed to be great.
posted by Betelgeuse at 5:05 PM on December 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Some quick thoughts:

arcticwoman beat me to the Waipio Valley recommendation. My partner and I were just on the Big Island in Sept-Oct., and we're still talking about how gorgeous it was. We wish we'd planned more time there, too.

We spent several days on the Hilo side and around Volcano; when you go to Volcano National Park, I'd recommend building in time to take the long drive all the way to the sea, which was stunning.

The best snorkeling and kayaking is on Kona side, south of Kona at Kealakekua Bay. In general, the Hilo side is less touristy than Kona.
posted by scody at 5:14 PM on December 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

One thing. The green sand beach. It can be difficult to access (bumpy, 4wd road), but it is really worth it. It's as green as it looks in these pictures.

Also, lunch or dinner at the 4 seasons just north of Kona. Also, if you are in the neighborhood, be sure to stop by the Hilton to just walk around the property, it's gorgeous.
posted by Land Ho at 5:46 PM on December 21, 2011

The farmers' market in Hilo, Wednesday and Saturday mornings. Loved that. The sourdough bread was good!
You could spend New Year's Eve watching the lava! You don't have to hike out to the flows but you could go to the end of Chain of Craters or to Kalapana in the evening to see the glow!
When we were there a few weeks ago, we seriously considered taking the Kazumura Cave Tour (and we are not into guided tours and touristy things AT ALL, but it just looked so cool!). It was the "short search for cave spiders" bit that nixed it for me at the time but now I wish we'd gone.
posted by bluebelle at 6:00 PM on December 21, 2011

Best answer: When you go up to the volcano, you might think about staying at Namakanipaio. It's a sweet little campground, with running water, bathrooms, and a little pavilion with these great fireplaces built into the stone. Best part is that right across the entrance to the campground is a trial that leads to the observatory (a volcano observatory, not an astronomy observatory). See this map. At night, you can hike the 0.5 mile or so to the observatory and see the glow from the lava.
posted by lex mercatoria at 7:19 PM on December 21, 2011

Do lots of snorkeling.
Eat lots of poke.
Not sure if this is feasible in the winter, but if you can, get to the top of mouna kea for sunset.

See the lava if you can; there was nothing flowing when we were there in August :(
posted by craven_morhead at 6:56 AM on December 22, 2011

Best answer: nth'ing Waipi'o Valley. Park at the top and walk down the road into the valley. No need for the shuttle bus. The highest waterfall on the big island (Hilawa'e Falls, 1600 feet) is located at one end of the valley, and a black sand beach at the other. Check them both out.

The green sand beach near South Point is also highly recommended, even if you're not real beachy types. The walk in is not that far (2 miles?), but it tends to be hot and windy and will really dry you out. Take more water than you think you need.

Camping on the Big Island is generally not great. You will discover, much to the surprise of Alaskans like you or Minnesotan's like me, that camping is generally a communal event in Hawaii. Sites are not secluded at all -- it's more like music festival camping. Embrace it and get to know people there. The exception is Kulanaokuaiki Campground in Volcano. Cool spot to pitch your tent in between a smoldering volcano crater and a huge fault line. Very few people there, but no running water and you can't drive your van right to the sites but the sites are within spitting distance of the parking area anyway. The beach campgrounds on weekends can be crazy places -- you would be wise to camp in Volcano on Friday and Saturday unless you're looking for a huge all-night drunken bender party. If you find a place you really like, consider making it your base for a while as everything on the island is within driving distance.

My highest recommendation is to spend about $100 each and go on a night time mantaray snorkel tour out of Kona. It is life-altering.

Also, you can walk to Captain Cook's Cove and snorkel there. It's a pretty good hike, especially on the way back up, but great snorkeling and awfully nice not to have to get a spot on a charter boat to get there. I don't remember directions to the trail, but ask around. Someone will be able to tell you.

Have fun!
posted by LowellLarson at 11:14 AM on December 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the advice! We got back this morning.

Things that that we particularly liked:

The farmers' markets in Hilo (we had nothing but fruit and very fresh eggs for breakfast all week, and it was awesome).

Going out to see the lava on the dawn lava boat- this was ridiculously expensive but also ridiculously cool. The tour part was not really worthwhile; our guide didn't seem to know a lot and we couldn't really hear him, besides- no P.A. system. Everyone who had the potential to get seasick on our boat did get seasick, however, as a warning to others.

Waipio Valley was great and super-beautiful, but a little overrun with giant trucks. I wish we had had enough days to do the valley-to-valley hike and backpack a little; I think we would have run out of people quickly. Someone at my work suggested that we do Pololu Valley as well, and I liked that even better- it's pedestrian-only and a lot more isolated.

We did a couple hikes in Volcano National Park and felt that Kilauea Iki was by far the most interesting and the most bang for your hiking buck. We did the Napau Trail and it was sort of sloggy- the most interesting part seems to be the part you can't do right now because of volcanic instability.

We loved camping at Namikanipaio for the hike to the observatory at night, at Laupahoehoe for being crazy beautiful, at Ho'okena for good access a solid beach and decent facilites and at Spencer for the nice and uncrowded beach a quick hike to the south and for the showers.

There was good to great snorkeling to be had at Captain Cook, Mahukona, 69 Beach and at the Kapoho Tide Pools. The water was so cold we weren't in the mood to snorkel at Punalu'u but we loved watching the turtles. Hapuna Beach was great for boogie boarding, it looked like, and for sitting around and sunning etc.

A good time was had by all- thanks again. :)
posted by charmedimsure at 11:16 PM on January 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

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