Hawaii (Big Island) itinerary critique & recommendations
April 16, 2018 11:47 PM   Subscribe

Help me flesh out my trip to the Big Island (and any restaurant and shops recommendations)! I arrive in Hilo on Friday (4/27) around 1-2p and currently plan to spend 4 nights there, then drive to Kona for the remaining 4 nights, flying out Saturday around 9a. I want to balance not doing too much with not missing unique opportunities. One thing, I'm not too keen on sunbathing since I burn easily. Details inside:

Kona-side (this side is less planned and the second half but I'd like a rec for the summit tour, so it's first):
-Most of Friday (5/4) for Maunakea summit tour: Based on their on-line sites, I've narrowed the choices to Hawaii Forest and Trail or Mauna Kea Summit Adventures. Any recommendations between the two?

Are these four too much for a day?
-Kealakekua Bay & Cook Point
-Pu'uhonua O Honaunau
-Coffee plantation (although not a big coffee drinker)
-South Point & Papakolea Beach

-Kaloko-Honokōhau Park
-Some snorkeling and/or night snorkel with manta rays

-the Saturday farmers market
-Imiloa Astronomy Center (iffy--not sure if it's geared more towards school-aged kids)
-Liliuokalani Gardens
-Most of a day to drive on/towards the Hamakua coast with stops for photo opportunities. (Akaka Falls, the Hawaiian Botanical Gardens, Laupahoehoe, Kalopa Nature Trail, miscellaneous scenic spots).
-Another day to visit Volcano National Park. Initial I was going to go on a tour (one from Kapohokine), but based on responses here, it sounds like the better plan is to it on my own. Are there any good guides for what to see and visit there? Anything I shouldn't miss?

When I leave for Kona, I was planning to travel up the east coast to Waipiʻo for a tour down to the valley and also try to visit Mauna Kea Tea Farm .
posted by MikeKD to Travel & Transportation around Hawaii (16 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I did a time split very similar to yours and wrote 7500 words in my travel blog about it. I recommend taking a read.

Re "Are these four too much for a day?" I think maybe. I recall Kealakekua Bay and Papakolea Beach being pretty inconveniently located. I didn't even go to Papakolea Beach for that reason.

Thoughts on individual itinerary items:

Pu'uhonua O Honaunau sucks. You read it here first. I love history more than most but there is nothing to see or do there. Apparently if you go when the rangers are actually there it doesn't completely suck but don't bother going after they leave at 4pm or whenever it is they leave.

Kealakekua Bay & Cook Point: You have to take a boat to get here. It is convenient to nothing and will eat a good 3-4 hours out of your day. The snorkeling is good but there was snorkeling equally good at our hotel that was not such a pain in the ass to get to.

Mauna Kea Summit Adventures: I had a good experience with these guys. I'm not sure how many people you'll find who have done more than one Mauna Kea tour with different operators to compare and contrast. A lot of it will depend on the quality of your individual tour guide anyway.

Coffee plantation (although not a big coffee drinker): The coffee plantation I went to was highly rated and sucked. I think the appeal of these tours is very blunted if you don't like coffee. Or maybe we just got unlucky.

Night snorkel with manta rays: Yes, do this.

Liliuokalani Gardens: It's very nice for a municipal park, but I wouldn't exactly call it a tourist attraction.

The Saturday farmers market: I didn't go. There's a Saturday farmers market a mile from where I live and I don't go to that either. I feel good about my choice.

VNP: The thing to do here is the Kilauea Iki trail, Thurston Lava Tubes, and the volcano observation center at night. There are lots of other cool things in the park but those are the highlights.
posted by phoenixy at 1:27 AM on April 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

Oh also — there was no surface flow when we went. If there is surface flow I’d make a guided hike to it my #1 priority.
posted by phoenixy at 1:54 AM on April 17, 2018

Best answer: I'll put in a good word for the Hilo Farmers' Market, which I quite enjoyed when I visited some years ago. For me, the fun of it was seeing things like pineapples and breadfruit and all sorts of other unfamiliar fruits in a farmers' market environment. And then buying and eating a bunch of these fruits.

I also agree that surface lava flows, and especially lava entering the ocean, are not to be missed if they are happening while you are on the Big Island.
posted by Johnny Assay at 4:33 AM on April 17, 2018 [2 favorites]

If you are looking for opportunities to snorkel, consider combining the trip to Pu'uhonua O Honaunau with snorkeling at Two Step. It's one of the best snorkel spots on the Big Island. Park in the lot at Pu'uhonua O Honaunau (costs $5). Then you can see that before or after snorkeling, whenever the rangers are doing their interpretive programs.
posted by jazzbaby at 5:22 AM on April 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: We did Hawaii Forest and Trail and had a very good experience with them. I liked the focus they had in the narrative on the flora and fauna of Hawaii.

Loved the Hilo farmers' market! But I'm a sucker for that kind of thing. We didn't do the Astronomy Center - I think if you're doing Mauna Kea that's probably enough astronomy for this trip.

Liliuokalani Gardens: It's very nice for a municipal park, but I wouldn't exactly call it a tourist attraction.
Don't miss the Botanical Gardens though.

We did horseriding in Waipiʻo which was unexpectedly really fun.
posted by peacheater at 5:48 AM on April 17, 2018

Best answer: Your list and the comments cover all the usual suspects. The only other thing I would like to add is that I really enjoyed the Puako Petroglyphs (Kona side.) Unusual, not beach related, and after going there, you will see the glyphs on every t-shirt, ball cap, sign, etc. They are used in graphic designs everywhere, but I only realized after visiting Puako that this is the spot where the designs came from.

Oh, and if there is surface lava flowing, definitely make the effort to see it. I stood 20 feet away from flowing lava once and consider it a lifetime top ten.
posted by eleslie at 5:59 AM on April 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I was in a club in high school where we went to the Big Island every year and we always used Mauna Kea Summit Adventures and I don't remember having any problems.

Akaka Falls is gorgeous! And re: Kilauea, I remember the lava tube hike being pretty cool.

If you have time to swing by Big Island Candies, I strongly recommend it. Their stuff is SUPER GOOD.
posted by helloimjennsco at 7:31 AM on April 17, 2018

Oh, and if there is surface lava flowing, definitely make the effort to see it. I stood 20 feet away from flowing lava once and consider it a lifetime top ten.

Agreed! We weren't able to do the hike because of the direction of the wind, but we did see lava flow into water which is something I am so happy to have experienced. I think that's not possible at the moment but if you get a chance to do the hike, do it!
posted by peacheater at 7:32 AM on April 17, 2018

Best answer: Food wise...Broke da Mouth Grindz - Do not let the name or the fact that it is strip mall in an semi-industrial area off town fool you. It is hands down the best food I had on the Big Island last summer. It is a mix of Hawaiian and Filipino and it is was amazing. Also very reasonably priced.

South of Kona, I thought Sun Dried Specialties was also excellent. It too looks completely shady from the outside but great fish and Hawaiian dishes. Also very reasonably priced. I get the sense that most of their business is wholesale seafood to restaurant. You aren't eating here for the ambiance but rather the great food. In general I found outside of the highest end resort restaurant, if a place is advertising a view the food will be substandard.

This is very close to the Greenwells Coffee plantation tour. The tour was free and I learned some things about how the product is produced. It didn't take up a lot of time.
posted by mmascolino at 9:01 AM on April 17, 2018

I have done the Mauna Kea Summit Adventures and really enjoyed it. It's a long ride down the mountain so you will get back to your place kind of late.

The Waipio Valley in Hamakua is spectacular and one of my favorite places on the island. The Volcano park is easy to do on your own. Lots of roads and trails through the park.
posted by Justin Case at 10:40 AM on April 17, 2018

Best answer: I also loved the Hilo Farmers' Market. We bought tons of fruit, delicious baked goods, and trinkets for friends back home. We spent about an hour here.

We did Waipiʻo on the way to Kona as well. We loved that drive!

We also did Greenwell Farms tour. You could pair it with Cook Point if you are inclined. We did not and opted to visit the Painted Church and stopped by Magic Sands beach on the way back to Kona.

Agreed that you could do the Volcano park by yourself. The staff at the visitor center is extremely knowledgeable and can help you plan your day. One thing about the lava tubes: it was really dark in there, and we don't have the greatest night vision. Coupled with the damp ground, we decided not to walk all the way through. It was pretty cool, though!
posted by BlueBear at 10:44 AM on April 17, 2018

Hey, just got back from 10 days on the Big Island, so boy do I have opinions. Overall I feel like there is a lot more on the west side. Certainly all the classic swimmable beaches are on that side, so I might switch one day to the Kona area.

Kilauea has no active flows that you can hike to at the moment, even if you're willing to carry 5 liters of water into the forbidding landscape and hike 1500 ft of elevation. But absolutely do have a look by yourself at the lava tube, hike to the petroglyph field, and observe the glow from the caldera at night. I would devote a full day to Volcanoes. There's really nothing around there except for some restaurants outside the park, even the convenience store closed before the posted time of 7. We liked Ohelo Cafe for pizza and housemade pasta. In Hilo we enjoyed Poke N Sides at the Farmers Market and Ono Ice Shave (in Hilo shave ice is backwards but just as delicious) at 57 Mamo Street, just up from the market (not in Google Maps).

Waimea was very scenic, loved the chill Saturday farmer's market at Parker Stables (go for lunch). Merriman's is justly famous (also much cheaper at lunch), but we also really liked Fish and Hog.

Waipi'o is a very pretty overlook, but the hike is down an active road with other tourists roaring by in Jeeps. Polulo is a bit smaller in scale and just a trail, but there's no vehicle traffic. We quite enjoyed a hike in rainforest at Kolopa, but we choose to hike into the interior rather than the short, educational loop. The trails are only identified at crossings, and there were a few places where we crossed through gullies of volcanic rock, but we only saw two other people the whole time and it was gorgeous.

For education and entertainment, I thoroughly enjoyed Hawai'i Island Legends, which is all the legends specifically about the Big Island. And you can visit these places! It's like going to Mount Olympus.
posted by wnissen at 11:48 AM on April 17, 2018

I agree with above commenters on Mauna Kea Summit Adventures - my experience was excellent. Also agree that Pu'uhonua O Honaunau was kind of boring but it is right next to the best snorkeling at Two Step - don't miss that! Also close by is a Farmers Market in Captain Cook, which was great. I have detailed reviews on my trip to the Big Island - Kona side only, which includes some restauarant and whale watching reviews on Yelp Have fun!
posted by j810c at 1:33 PM on April 17, 2018

Consider spending more time on the Kona side than the Hilo side. Possibilities for your agenda: (1) a quick stop in Waimeia and Parker Ranch if you're interested in horse ranch history and seeing a completely different climate (2) a shopping run through the very cute town of Havi with lots of art galleries.

Go snorkeling in the early morning for clear waters, and if you're lucky, there will be some dolphins around - keep your distance please. Pick one of these two:

1. Honaunau + Two-Step snorkeling - bring your own gear and people will help you get in and out if you are skittish getting on and off the "two step" rock. The Honaunau ranger tour is good and it's a very historic site. Stop at the Painted Church on the way out!!

2. Reserve ahead of time (Kona Boys?) a kayak trip to Captain Cook monument + snorkeling. Nice snorkeling, shallow, not scary, but you have to kayak. They have gear. You can't go there without a reservation. Don't hire a kayak from the guys at the launch pad - illegal.

Use Yelp to find a place to eat afterwards that fits your style: Manago Hotel is super old school pretend you're in the 50's eat a pork chop; Teshima's is super old school Japanese; Kaaloa's Super J's is a very informal place eat a plate lunch on a styrofoam plate on a plastic chair; Coffee Shack is a cafe with a nice view.

Going down to South Point is a long way even when you're already headed to the Volcano and Hawaii benefits from not driving every single minute. I wouldn't go down there and then all the way back up in one day. If you do go, get a slice of Mac Nut pie and a "Southernmost Restaurant in the US" T-shirt at Hana Hou Restaurant and buy something to take with you at the Punalu'u Bake Shop across the street.

You've never seen a farmers market like the Hilo one, so take people's advice and drop in. Stop at all farmers markets that you drive past, actually.

Coffee tours for non-coffee drinkers? People like Greenwell and Hula Daddy and they're free and right off the road, but unless you are a farming or coffee nerd, I might not bother. If you buy coffee for gifts, know if you want 100% Kona (expensive) --just get it from any place that looks intriguing on the way or a Kona blend (cheap) -- stop in town at Walmart, Costco, or Longs Drugs and stock up on that and boxes of Hawaiian Host.

You can totally do the Volcano yourself - go to the museum first and talk to the rangers and you'll be set. I also liked the petroglyphs a lot. If you go down and back in one day, it's fun, but if you stay down near there, you can be there after dark and see the glow of the caldera from the overlook near the museum.

The Big Island is not a great place for driving after dark - be like the locals and keep to an early schedule instead.
posted by troyer at 4:14 PM on April 17, 2018

Best answer: To add a different perspective, I loved Pu'uhonoa O Honaunau. The reconstructed areas were a lovely little walk and the place had a feeling of intensity. On the Kona side, those 4 are definitely too much for a day- the drive takes longer than it looks from just the map, and the roads aren't normally picturesque- I find that none of the drives to a nice new place feel quite as nice as being in the lovely place we just were for a bit longer would have been.

There is a tiny tree to bar chocolate factory south of Kona with a good short tour that takes you into a cacao forest.

Near Waimea, look for Hawaiian Style Cafe if you like pancakes and Isaac's Art Center if you like art and/or crafts.

Hawaiian Vanilla company does lunches and tours of their vanilla farm east of Waimea which were very interesting, and I didn't think I liked vanilla. I do like agritourism, and now I like vanilla, too.

Broke da Mouth Grindz was definitely magic, and in Hilo look for Moon and Turtle and Nori's Saimin.
posted by slanket wizard at 5:48 PM on April 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, all! I marked best answers to those that I ended up doing or visiting. But I plan to go back--hopefully soonish, so I'm sure I hit up everything else. :)

Had I a blog, I would post this there and link, but I don't so...wall of text...

I ended up planning way more than I got done (I should have pre-vacationed a few days to catch up on rest. :-\ ). One thing I didn't really grok until there was that, compared to Bay Area, sunset was really early. So whereas at home I'm doing things until 9 or 10, that just doesn't seem to happen there.

Hilo-side: I did make it to the Botanical Gardens and Akaka falls (although the weather was not great--a lot of fog/low clouds).

I really liked Liliuokalani Gardens and spent a decent about of time walking & photographing (I like the aesthetics of Japanese gardens, so this was up my alley).

The farmers market was pretty neat, especially Saturday as there were many artists booths (souvenirs & gifts). Just watch how much you buy; I bought way too much fruit and ended up throwing most of it away due to it starting to mold.

Unfortunately I missed out on the Kilauea Iki trail and Thurston Lava Tubes. I tired the trail, but started too late and it was past twilight when I got to the floor; I didn't want to end up on the news as the idiot who fell through a skylight while night hiking. Luckily, a photog at the farmer's market told me about the high lava level at Halema'uma'u, so I made the drive that night (Sat) to see it--especially because on Monday, it was so overcast that from Jagger you couldn't tell there was anything out there. (I will add, I was thinking of driving down to VNP from Kona on Friday the 4th but did the snorkel instead...that was lucky.)

Stopped at Waipi'o overlook but got there too late to do the tour down to the valley; still quite scenic.

Kona-side: I hit up Greenwells while driving down to Kealakekua Bay (actually Napo’opo’o Pier) and Pu'uhonua O Honaunau.
I'm glad I hit the Greenwells--though still not a big coffee guy, the samples they provided were quite good, plus the tour was informative but still fairly short (less than an hour, probably).

Pu'uhonua O Honaunau ended up being a really neat experience for me: first, I got in for free because the person at the booth wasn't allowed to handle money :D. Then, while out at one of the points at the lava rocks, I looked down and bam! there's a little sea turtle floating around right below me. So I took a few pix and watched it swim out (I'll post a link to the photo at some point). Finally, at the gift shop, one of the rangers gave me a lauhala fish (like this one) that someone had just made. But I can see phoenixy's point; what made it memorable wasn't necessarily the place itself.

I did a manta ray dive through Jack's Diving locker (the two dive option). A little bit of a disappointment...mainly because the previous night there were 15 rays but we only saw one; plus I got sea sick. But they seemed to be a good operation--also they rent out GoPros--$50. I didn't see this on there site but I think worth it especially if you end up with a 15-ray night.

Unfortunately, my MK summit tour was cancelled due to weather. So, although, I did book through Mauna Kea Summit Adventures, I can't really say yea-or-nay.

The petroglyphs at Puakō and Waikoloa were neat and fairly quick. I spent about an hour at Puakō and 40 minutes at Waikoloa.

Food wise:
Poke N Sides (at farmer's market) was good
Broke da Mouth Grindz, pork adobo was great!
Sun Dried Specialties, the Wahoo (Ono) Deluxe (deluxe is with a lobster "crab" cake added, definitely "lux").
Big Island Candies, cookies were good but the chocolate mac nuts seemed...off? Perhaps they processed their chocolate in a different way than the chocolate I tend to like?
Two Ladies Kitchen, good mochi, but same problem as the fruit :(. The non-filled mochi were novel and I quite liked them.
What's Shakin, loved the Ginger Twist smoothie, Turkey Rockin wrap was good, too.

For future readers, I enjoyed the tour from Tea Hawai'i Company. It may have been the other group I was with--a couple was looking to start a tea farm and so there was a lot of shop-talking. Mauna Kea Tea was ok; we just stood at the top of of the farm, near the house/store--unlike THC (yeah...), which was walking through the bushes and forest. (But this may have been to avoid spreading Rapid ʻŌhiʻa Death--that was mentioned at MKT.)
posted by MikeKD at 11:19 PM on May 28, 2018

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