The Big Island (Hawaii) for 4 days, help me plan a great trip!
January 28, 2016 11:38 AM   Subscribe

I (36-year-old female) am traveling from Boston to Hawaii in early March for 10 days. Planning on 4 days and 4 nights on my own on the Big Island, sandwiched between three days on Oahu and three on Kauai where I will have company. For logistical reasons, I’m in some hurry to book my flights to/from TBI, and so am trying to nail down my itinerary. I’m also inflexible on days of the week on TBI. I’m thinking of one of these two itineraries:


Monday, day 1: Arrive in Hilo in the morning, depart for Mauna Kea tour around 2pm (
Night 1: Hilo
Tues, day 2: Volcanoes National Park
Night 2: Hilo, meet up with friends of friends
Wed, day 3: Hilo
Night 3: Uncle Robert’s
Thurs, day 4: Early morning drive to Kealakekua Bay for an 11:30 am, 3 ½ hour kayaking and snorkel tour (
Thurs late afternoon: Meet friends of friends at their Mauka coffee farm
Night 4: Hotel in Captain Cook
Fri, day 4: Fly Kona to Kauai in the morning

ITIN 2 (abbreviated)

Mon: Kona arrival for kayak
Tuesday: Mauka + Mauna Kea tour
Wed: Volcanoes National Park + Hilo arrival, Uncle Robert’s at night
Thursday: Hilo day and night
Fri morning: fly Hilo to Lihue

Is one itinerary superior to the other for any reason? Solid lineup in general? Best to do a guided summit and sunset tour of Mauna Kea, or easy to do on one’s own (I don’t plan to hike the whole summit, and I don’t plan to rent a 4WD vehicle). Best to do a guided tour of Volcanoes Park? (I’d like to do some or all of these things at VNP: hike Kiluea Iki trail, see Thurston Lava Tube, Volcano House and the Kilauea Caldera and Halema’uma’u crater). Recommendations for tour outfitters at any of these attractions (especially those not too pricey)? I’m pretty independent, quite fit, and willing to do stuff on my own and without an outfitter, but would rather not stare down at a map the whole time, and can’t rent a kayak and expect to get it off the roof of my rental car on my own, for example. Also want to be safe and avoid isolated areas by myself, late night driving, etc. MAHALO!
posted by AlmondEyes to Travel & Transportation around Island of Hawai'I, HI (19 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Don't miss the Hilo Farmer's Market. According to the website, it's Wednesday and Saturday.
posted by matildaben at 11:45 AM on January 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Is there a specific reason you want to do a guided tour of Volcanoes Park? I really don't think it's worth it. We had a great time doing it alone and we saw most of the park on our own schedule. Some of it can be a little boring (I mean, it's huge so you have to drive a lot), so I suggest just pick the things that interest you and then go see them.
posted by carmel at 11:53 AM on January 28, 2016

I did a lot of this same itinerary on my own as a 36-yo female and then with my family 7 years later. I think your Itinerary 1 sounds good but I'd be careful about the drive from Puna (Uncle Robert's) to Kealakekua Bay for Kayaking. That's a pretty long drive but the kayaking there is amazing (assuming you're doing the snorkeling there as well). Yes, if you want to go all the way to the summit of Mauna Kea, do the guided tour - the drive is tough. I did it on my own in a rental car and I was completely freaked out and would never do it again. No need for a guided tour of VNP - it's easy to figure out on your own.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 12:07 PM on January 28, 2016

can’t rent a kayak and expect to get it off the roof of my rental car on my own

There's a very run-by-locals kayak rental place right next to Napo'opo'o Beach Park, on Manini Beach Road (on the other side of the bay from the monument). They are like, two guys who hang out and will rent you a kayak and help you put in/take out. We were there a few months ago and stayed at a rental around the corner, so we walked past them several times a day on our way to the beach. We didn't rent from them, but they had plenty of business. The snorkeling you can get to from the park itself - by walking into the water - is pretty damn good.

Thurs, day 4: Early morning drive to Kealakekua Bay for an 11:30 am,

This is a long-ass drive, and you will then be in the sun for several hours, doing possibly physically strenuous (depending on your inclinations and the weather conditions) activities. I'd reconsider this especially.
posted by rtha at 12:17 PM on January 28, 2016

Oh, and I forgot: No need to get a tour outfit for going around Volcano. Everything is really well-marked. Stop at the visitors' center on your way in to fill up your water bottles and check to see if any roads or trails got closed because of toxic fumes, and then go explore.
posted by rtha at 12:19 PM on January 28, 2016

Agreeing with everybody else:

I've never done a tour at Volcanoes either. It's big, has a museum, has places you can drive to. Depending on what the caldera is doing, sometimes you can see it glow when the sun sets, but I've always had to get back to Kona so never have seen that. The lava flow, when there is one, is not at the central part of the park itself.

A rental or tour at Kealakekua/Capt Cook Monument is required - not only do they handle the kayaks for you, but you need a permit. I think we used Kona Boys but I think they're probably all good.

The Hilo Farmers Market is pretty cool.

On the way from Volcanoes to Kona we like to stop at the Hana Hou Restaurant for Mac Nut Cream Pie. I'm also a fan of pork chops at the Manago Hotel in Capt Cook - very old school Hawaii. But restaurant recommendations could take up the whole thread so I'll be quiet.

Either Hilo->Kona or Kona->Hilo is fine. You're hitting the highlights away from the resorts.

On preview: Yes, Puna->Kealakekua is a super-long drive, even for an 11:30am kayak time.

Here's the current lava situation: Halema‘uma‘u Crater is closed but you can see it from the museum, and it does glow at night.

The kayak guys at K Bay are illegal and don't have permits - use the commercial outfits up on the main highway.
posted by troyer at 12:21 PM on January 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

I was just on Big Island for new year's! The Crater is definitely closed but the current flow is very visible from the Jaggar museum. Don't bother with a tour in Volcanoes NP because you can drive around on your own schedule, including entry/exit to the park for a week if you keep your receipt. Make sure you have a good amount of water for the Kilauea Iki caldera; it can get really hot down there.

If you're not renting a 4WD you will not be able to visit the Mauna Kea summit unless you take a tour. The sunset is actually better at the small hill across from the visitor center, but the summit is awesome and worthwhile to do - NB, I drove up rather than hiking, though the hike doesn't look as rewarding as the Sliding Sands on Haleakala which I did.

If you have time and you're so inclined, there's a geothermal pool at Isaac Hale (Pohoiki) Park in Pahoa.
posted by a halcyon day at 12:39 PM on January 28, 2016

Response by poster: All great feedback. Leaning towards Itinerary 2 now to avoid the early morning drive to Kealakekua Bay. I’m convinced to do Volcanoes National Park solo now, too. About how much time should I allow myself there for the (~4 mile, I think?) Kiluea Iki trail, see Thurston Lava Tube, Volcano House, Kilauea Caldera? Should I plan on arriving early in the day and leaving before sunset? Good nightlife (entertainment or dancing or people watching) in Captain Cook and environs on a Monday or Tues night?
posted by AlmondEyes at 12:53 PM on January 28, 2016

I went a few years ago and got great advice, mostly matching what other folks have said. I certainly agree that you don't need a tour guide for the volcanoes, but what no one has mentioned is the vast superiority of seeing the volcano flows at night. Not the crater, but the ocean entrance, and not from the visitor center, but at the end of a strenuous 3-hour hike to get around to the east side, away from the steam (then, of course, retracing your steps in the pitch blackness). That was one of the best things I've ever done, and definitely the highlight of the trip. You'll need hiking boots and a headlamp and food and water, but it's way better then a Mauna Kea hike, in my opinion.
posted by MrMoonPie at 1:07 PM on January 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

Get a drink at the Volcano House (or dinner) at night so you can tell everyone you're drinking a cocktail on the rim of an actively erupting volcano and feel like James Bond. Definitely nthing that you don't need a guided tour of the park, and honestly on my last trip we stayed in Mountain View to be close to it and spent most of two days there, so you may want to allot more time.
posted by skycrashesdown at 1:13 PM on January 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Big Island, and South Kona Coast in particular, is pretty sleepy at night. Most people go to bed early, get up early. The water is often better in the morning -- depending on the season it can be sunny and nice in the morning but you can get rain and vog (volcanic fog) later.

Kailua-Kona (the town a bit north) might have more tourist-oriented nightlife, and certainly more restaurants with music and bars.
posted by troyer at 1:27 PM on January 28, 2016

Could you reconsider and do more time on another island? Hawaii Island is in the middle of a dengue fever outbreak and it won't be over for quite some time. :(

And it's being transmitted by a day-biting mosquito. Plus there are likely many unreported cases (people who don't show symptoms until they return home, people who don't go to the doctor, people who assume it's the flu, etc). Maui's outbreak lasted ten months, this one looks worse.

Due to the long incubation period, a healthy person can aid in the transmission of Dengue Fever to the young, infirm, or elderly for days without knowing. This mosquito bites at any time during the day. Captain Cook and Kailua-Kona are considered high risk zones right now. This includes KOA airport.

Do some research, and if you go, come prepared to exercise the appropriate precautions (avoid being outside at dawn or dusk, avoid shady areas, wear long sleeves and pants, apply DEET based repellant, etc). (Also know that insect repellant is also terrible for ocean reefs.)
posted by kathryn at 4:52 PM on January 28, 2016

The snorkeling at Kealakua Bay is some of the best in the world, but as others have said, don't try to get a kayak from the park at the bottom of the road to the bay - if they're even still there, that's no longer legal. I don't know if the kayak tour you're on will take you this way, but the south side of the bay (by Manini Beach Park) is probably better for snorkeling than the area around Captain Cook, although they're both great spots.

If someone tells you you'd enjoy the hike from the highway above Captain Cook down to the monument, laugh at them and walk away. That hike is...not fun.

As far as Mauna Kea, a guided tour is definitely the way to go - the last half of the trip up the mountain is generally not suitable for rental cars (and most car companies won't let you take non-4WD vehicles up it anyway), and getting down is hell on brakes. It is a spectacular thing to do, though.

Bug spray is a must, dengue fever or not. Apply sunscreen first, then bug spray on top of that. The Big Island is my favorite part of Hawaii and I'm envious you're going.
posted by pdb at 6:18 PM on January 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Eek, dengue. I knew about it but didn’t realize it was concentrated around Captain Cook. I may risk it anyway and just layer on the deet (though am curious to hear from others).

Thanks to your advice, I’m now planning on:

Mon: Fly Honolulu to Kona, ~9am arrival for 11:30 or 12:30 kayak/snorkle + Mauka. Sleep in Captain Cook.
Tuesday: Volcanoes National Park all day, sleep in Hilo
Wed: One Hilo site + Hilo Farmer’s Market + Uncle Robert’s at night
Thursday: Morning in Hilo + Mauna Kea guided tour
Fri morning: fly Hilo to Lihue

- Would I really be cheating Kealakekua Bay if I only snorkeled and skipped kayaking? (I'd do this to save time, only…I do want to get to my acquaintances’ coffee farm in Mauka in daylight)

- Hiking 3 miles in the pitch blackness to see lava by myself at night sounds scary as MrMoonPie suggests. Walking out across the lava fields after dark sounds more approachable – is this really safe to do by myself after dark, self-guided?

- If I had to drop a half or full-day in this itinerary, what should it be? (West side, given dengue?)
posted by AlmondEyes at 6:12 AM on January 29, 2016

If you intend to go on this kayak trip still, I would look for a way to wash off the DEET before you get in the water, and put it back on when you get out. DEET has been shown to damage coral, fish, and other marine life. Note also that it is best to use sunblocks that do not contain oxybenzone while snorkeling, since that also damages coral.

Unfortunately, March is generally the poorest month for ocean conditions at the prime snorkeling spots on the west and northwest coasts on the Big Island; Maui has more sheltered snorkel spots during the winter, for example.

If you want to hike to see red hot lava up close or see lava enter the ocean, well, lava stopped entering the ocean around 2+ years ago in 2013, so any info about lava hikes to ocean entry is not up to date. You can see the old flow on this map.

Here is a bunch of more current maps. There's no hiking to live lava or boat tours to see it enter the water. The current outbreak of lava is outside Volcanoes National Park & closed to the general public. There was a while last year where it was threatening settled areas (Pahoa), which meant lots of possible explosions, burning vegetation, noxious fumes, and bad news all around (this doesn't happen when new lava flows on top of old lava). People also got arrested last year for trying to get up close in Pahoa! You might be able to see some activity via helicopter, if you are lucky and visibility conditions are right.

You can see the glow from Halema'uma'u Crater from Jagger Museum at night, but that's about it for red hot lava unless you have a time machine. Sorry!
posted by kathryn at 6:57 AM on January 29, 2016

I'll reiterate what kathryn says and add where the lava flows can change at anytime. It is possible that the flows will change again in 6 weeks. I was one of the one's commenting on MrMoonPie's thread. I was one of the lucky ones who got to do a dusk hike over the lava fields to see molten lava mere feet from my feet. After it was dark out, you could see rivers of red slowly oozing down the hillside above you. Of course I also twisted my ankle and scraped up my shin and had to endure that while hiking back to the car in pitch blackness and driving back to Kona.

I was a little bit underwhelmed by driving around the main Caldera especially so after an extremely long and early drive from Kona. Now with that said, the Kīlauea Iki trail exceeded my expectations by many orders of magnitude. The stark difference between the lush rain forest and the utter abrupt death of the crater is shocking and magnificent. Being out on the crater floor really feels like you are in an alien environment.

The Thurston Lava Tube was interesting but won't take a lot of time to see.
posted by mmascolino at 8:05 AM on January 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Would I really be cheating Kealakekua Bay if I only snorkeled and skipped kayaking? (I'd do this to save time, only…I do want to get to my acquaintances’ coffee farm in Mauka in daylight)

The best snorkeling really requires that you either boat or kayak out to the monument across the bay. You can hike down to the monument area but it's a long hot hike. It's really much better (and more environmentally responsible) to go out with a permitted outfitter. It's a really fragile ecosystem and you need to know what you're doing there.

- Hiking 3 miles in the pitch blackness to see lava by myself at night sounds scary as MrMoonPie suggests. Walking out across the lava fields after dark sounds more approachable – is this really safe to do by myself after dark, self-guided?

I would not attempt this.

- If I had to drop a half or full-day in this itinerary, what should it be? (West side, given dengue?)

Don't miss the snorkeling at Captain Cook. It's incredible. I'd guess that the mosquitos are actually worse on the east side since it's so much wetter there but I loved that side of the island so would not want to miss it. Just wear repellent.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 11:59 AM on January 29, 2016

I think you're actually better off skipping the kayak and just snorkeling - the snorkeling is good by the monument, but as I mentioned the south side of the bay is every bit as good and far less crowded (tour boats don't go there).

From Kona, drive down Mamalahoa Highway to Napo'opo'o Rd (there's a Chevron on the left hand side as you approach Napo'opo'o) and take that road down to the bay. Once you get as far down as the park (the road dead ends into it), take a left, follow that little road a few thousand feet until you get to Kahauloa Rd. Turn right on Kahauloa and follow it around the bend. Park, get out, and walk less than 1 min from there to Manini Beach, where you can basically just walk into the bay and snorkel for hours almost unbothered by people.

I've seen octopi, eels, rays, and all manner of other awesome things on that side of the bay - it's worth the trip.

And yeah, walking across lava fields at night is great, if you don't mind a broken/sprained ankle or two. I wouldn't recommend it.
posted by pdb at 2:21 PM on January 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

And yeah, walking across lava fields at night is great, if you don't mind a broken/sprained ankle or two. I wouldn't recommend it.

I actually sprained it while it was light out. I was taking a photo for a couple and as I changed my stance to frame the photo, my foot went through the lava crust into the void below. In any case you certainly should have proper footwear on if you venture out on the lava. It can be sharp as glass. Please don't be the family of four with small children who I saw wearing flip flops.
posted by mmascolino at 2:28 PM on January 29, 2016

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