Big Island, Hawaii
After Maui, the Big Island was our next stop. Our itinerary there was to spend time in Hilo and Kona, such that we could explore both sides of the island.
This is the one Hawaiian Island that we had not previously visited, so our expectations and imagination was primed. We had a good game plan for what to do & see, we had all of our reservations in order, and we thought we were ready for anything. And then the reality of the "Kona Low" took over on the windward side of the island.
- Hawaii is the World’s Largest Island Chain - It’s also the most remote landmass on the planet. While there are seven inhabited islands, there are another 125 for a total of 132 Hawaiian islands. These cover a span of nearly 1,500 miles across the Pacific.
- The beaches in Hawaii come in 5 different colors (or more) - Everybody knows that Hawaiian beaches are amazing, but not everybody knows that they are also multi-colored. You can find your typical white-sand and brownish beaches, but you’ll also find black, red, pink, and even green. Much of this color variation has to do with the volcanic nature of the islands.
- Hawaii has over 3,000 species of native plants and animals - The islands’ isolated nature makes them home to an impressive amount of different plants and animals that exist nowhere else on Earth. This also means that many of these species are endangered or threatened. You can find an almost endless amount of tropical plants, and there are no native land predators.
- There are only 12 letters in the Hawaiian alphabet - If you have ever wondered why Hawaiian words can be so long and repetitive, it’s because there aren’t many letters to choose from. The only ones used are A, E, H, I, K, L, M, N, O, P, U, and W.
- Mauna Kea is (technically) the world’s tallest mountain - Hawaii is home to the tallest mountain in the world. This is another fact that leaves many people scratching their heads. Manua Kea is not the tallest above sea level, but it is the tallest from floor to summit, measuring in at 33,500 feet. This makes it close to a mile taller than Mount Everest!
- The Big Island of Hawaii is made up of five volcanoes - The island is still growing and is home to the world’s most active volcano, Kilauea. There have been 61 historical eruptions, and since January 1983 eruptive activity has been continuous along the east rift zone. Mauna Loa is also among Earth’s most active volcanoes, having erupted 33 times since 1843. The shield volcano covers half of the island of Hawaii and is the world’s largest, most massive volcano.
- Big Island's Size - At 4,028.0 square miles, it is the largest Hawaiian Island.
- Spam in Hawaii - In Hawaii and Guam, more spam is eaten per person than anywhere else in the world. The average Hawaii resident consumes more than five cans of Spam each year.
- The Kīlauea Caldera - It has an extreme length of 2.93 miles, an extreme width of 1.95 miles, a circumference of 7.85 miles and an area of 4.14 square miles. It contains Halemaʻumaʻu, an active pit crater near the caldera's southwestern edge.
Ohau, nicknamed "The Gathering Place" is the third largest Hawaiian island comprising 597 square miles. Both Maui and the Island of Hawaii (Aka, The Big Island) are larger however Oahu is the most populous with over 1 million people which is approximately 70% of the population of the state of Hawaii. Oahu is home to Waikiki Beach, Diamond Head, Pearl Harbor, and its north shore is famous for its surf and surf culture. Oahu is situated northwest of the Big Island and Maui.
Some people opt to skip Oahu when they visit Hawaii for the first time due to things they’ve heard or read about the traffic and crowds. In our opinion this would be a mistake. Oahu has a lot of things to see and do. Waikiki is known for its shopping, beautiful sandy beach with rolling waves perfect for beginner surfers, wonderful food and an unforgettable view of Diamond Head in the distance. You have to try a mai tai at Duke’s restaurant while watching the surf along Waikiki beach at least once in your lifetime! There is traffic in Waikiki but if you skip the car rental and walk and use the transportation system it’s easy to get around. You can always rent a car for a day when exploring other areas of the island. It’s also easy to get to other islands. So, spend a few days in Oahu checking things out and then hop over to another island or two if you have the time.
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We do not normally describe, or talk about, airports in our Travel Blog. However, Kona is unique in that as you land here and notice all the blackened ground in and around the airport, you realize that the blackened ground is the result of lava flows. Much of the runway is built on lava flow from the 1801 Huʻehuʻe flow from the Hualālai volcano. This flow extended the shoreline out an estimated 1 mi (1.6 km), adding some 1.5 sq miles of land to the Big Island and creating Keāhole Point. The airport opened on July 1, 1970, with a single 6,500-foot runway; the previous smaller airstrip was converted into the Old Kona Airport State Recreation Area.
Even after we picked up our rental car and proceeded north on Hawaii route 19, there were a number of blackened areas that we could see. It was only after we reached the eastern swing of route 19, that the blackened areas were no longer visible. Click here for a map of our driving route to Hilo from the Kona Airport.
Even though we flew into the Kona Airport, we decided to drive around the northern coast of the Big Island Click here for a map of our Hilo to the Hilton Waikiloa route. because we had never been here and we wanted to see everything we could. Besides which, there was a Portuguese Bakery in Honokaa that we wanted to stop at! The drive is interesting because as you proceed north you depart the "high desert" like environment of the leeward side and you enter the rain forest appearance of the windward side of the island. Little did we know yet, that a Kona Low was going to bring occasional torrential rains to the eastern side of the island! A "Kona Low" describes a switch in the prevailing wind direction over the islands. Typically, Hawaii's weather is dominated by the trade winds which blow from the northeast - however the Kona Low causes moisture rich air to go to places that it does not normally go to and precipitation increases are the end result.
The eastern side (AKA windward side) of the Big Island is covered in green, lush, tropical rainforest. This is made possible by the large amount of rain that falls there, averaging around 140 inches of rain per year! This area is home to many of the Islands' waterfalls, and has interesting terrain, shaped by the rains and winds. Banyan and Bamboo trees are common, and grow to considerable size.
This was our hotel while we were in Hilo for 4 nights, good location as regards beautiful bay views, restaurants, etc - but - the weather was frequent intense rain showers. We had brought good rain gear with us, so we decided that we would just deal with the rain and not let it disrupt our explorations. The weather pattern known as the "Kona Low" was the cause of all the increased rainfall, and given that Hilo is already known as the "fourth wettest city in the USA" (averaging 126.72 inches yearly), residents & tourists alike were utilizing rain gear of all types to deal with the heavy rain.
The Liliʻuokalani Gardens
Liliʻuokalani Park and Gardens is a 24.14-acre park with Japanese gardens, located on Banyan Drive in Hilo adjacent to the Grand Naniloa Hotel. The park's site was donated by Queen Liliʻuokalani, and lies southeast of downtown Hilo, on the Waiakea Peninsula of Hilo Bay.
Carlsmith Beach Park & Richardson Ocean Park
We had been told that turtles were quite frequent at one (or both) of these two beaches, and since both were just a short distance east from the hotel on Kalanianaole Street, we decided to visit both. Unfortunately, the turtles did not get the memo that we were looking for them, but we did find some pretty neat lagoons at these two locations.
Akala Falls State Park
Located 16.6 miles from our hotel, there are actually two waterfalls; Akaka Falls (442 feet high) and Kahuna Falls (100 feet). The walkway is paved for the entire route around the grounds (.4 mile) and there are roughly 200+ steps, so the trail is not wheelchair accessible. The parking lot is not large, and you should arrive here early in the day to avoid the tour buses that will start arriving after 10am.
The hike through the jungle to see the two waterfalls is not strenous, and the views are constantly changing as you walk along.
The Boiling Pots
Within the 18 mile-long Wailuku River, near downtown Hilo, one can find the Boiling Pots. The almost cauldron-looking formation was formed as a large vertical column from lava flows years ago. The lava flows created huge spaces within that have now created the large cylinders as well as many underwater tunnels.
According to the United States Geological Survey, the river was formed by at least two lava flows coming from Mauna Kea, the oldest being as old as 10,500 years old, which is the same flow that formed Rainbow Falls. The “Boiling Pots of Wailuku” article by Katie Yamanaka states that the Boiling Pots get their name due to the sensation that happens when it storms, making the river rise and creating the “Boiling” look within the pots.
We were able to cover quite a bit of ground during our stay in Hilo, as far north as Akaka Falls State Park, Rainbow Falls & Boiling Pots, as well as downtown Hilo. Carl Smith Beach Park to the east of Hilo, as well as Richardson Ocean Park. Point being, there is quite a bit to see and do here. If the weather had cooperated, we had plans to do even more but that will have to wait for another trip here.
As you can in the above images, we narrowly avoided getting caught in a rain induced rock slide that closed the highway we were taking down to the beach near the Hawai‘i Tropical Bioreserve & Garden (Old Mamalahoa Highway, Papaikou). Needless to say, we had to turn around and go back up to the highway! The size of those boulders made it clear that it was going to take some effort to clear the road.
We had plans to visit the Waipio Valley area, but discovered that Hawaii had stopped allowing private vehicles to traverse the only road in that valley. Waipio Valley Road is open to locals who live or work there, or if you are in a tour bus - but otherwise you are precluded from driving on that road. We might have taken the tour bus, but with the weather being so erratic, we decided to skip it.
Since we were going to be driving from Hilo to Kailua-Kona anyway, and since the park is sort of "on the way" and as we have never been that close to a volcano, it was an easy decision to make to go to the park. Wow, we toured about amazed at the Kīlauea caldera (see above image). If you go there, be sure to stop at the Visitor Center as they have maps and a great deal of good information for your visit.
The concept of standing next to a caldera this large, and realizing that what you are looking at is a "volcano plug" and that if that plug were to "let go" that you would be obliterated - is amazing. And then we walked through a "lava tube"!! The entire experience was something that defies explanation, it was other worldly indeed!
The caldera is massive; it has a length of 2.93 miles, a width of 1.95 miles, a circumference of 7.85 miles and an area of 4.14 square miles. That is a huge whole in the ground! You can drive around the caldera on Crater Rim Drive and that will allow you to circumnavigate the entire caldera. We decided to only drive around the northern and eastern side of the caldera, as we wanted to be in the Pahala area of the island next.
This was a day trip we made from Hilo, just to get out of the constant rainfall! This 62 acre oceanfront resort offers a taste of the island life, poolside relaxation, a really nice Dolphins lagoon, multiple pools, beaches/lagoons and even a Disney style tram to move people about the facility.
There are tennis courts, a fitness room with fitness classes, and a running track. They also offer all sorts of water sports including paddle boarding and kayaking in the 4 acre saltwater lagoon. There are also three swimming pools, including one with a spectacular 175 foot water slide and a waterfall, and one that is an adults only pool. There are two championship golf courses available at the resort; You can play a round at either the Waikoloa Beach Resort’s oceanfront Beach Course or the King’s Course on the sunny Kohala Coast.
Hilton offers a "Day Pass" (good for 10am to 5pm) which allows you full access to all of their amenities. If you make a minimum $50 food and beverage purchase, they will also validate your parking ticket as well. It isn't cheap, but given that Hilo was going through torrential rains, it felt great to kick back and enjoy a sunny day, watch the Dolphins play, and explore.
As you can see in our images, this is a very large hotel complex but it is really nicely laid out. Each of the pools (and the lagoon) are widely separated from each other, and there are numerous facilities to make your visit or stay as comfortable as possible.
The drive from Hilo to Waikoloa brings you alongside Mauna Kea on Hawaii route 200. It is an interesting drive, and it is fascinating to see that Mauna Kea has snow at the top! It is a wee bit nerve wracking to think that you are on a road, in an area between two huge volcanoes (Mauna Kea & Mauna Loa), and if either were to erupt, you could be obliterated!
The height of Mauna Kea allows the summit to be constantly snow covered, as you can see in the above image. Click here for a map of our Hilo to the Hilton Waikiloa route. We could have made a stop at the Mauna Kea Observatory, which is approximately 15 miles from Hawaii route 200 (formerly known as Saddle Road), but we could already see the snow on the summit and we were ready for some sunshine that we knew we'd have at the Hilton Waikoloa Resort. If you have more time, then you might want to consider visiting the summit observatories - they are described as providing the best star gazing that you will have ever seen.
It helps to have read that Mauna Loa last erupted in November 2022, so we could somewhat assume that we would not be caught in that volcanoe's eruption as we drove by. Mauna Kea last erupted 4,500 years ago - so it was reasonably safe to assume that we would not be caught up in an eruption from that volcanoe either. Note that the USGS says that Mauna Kea will eventually erupt again.
Because the drive from Hilo to Kailua-Kona via Volcanoes National Park was a very long day, with a lot of stressful driving, we wound up stopping at several interesting coffee establishments along the way, including; Kaʻū Coffee Mill Plantation (Pahala, HI) where we got to see a huge macadamia nut tree grove as well as the coffee farm.
After we got a few more miles down the road, we stopped at the Miranda Coffee Farm Cafe (Naalehu, HI) and had an excellent iced coffee. In between those two stops, we had malasadas at the Punalu'u Bake Shop also in Naalehu.
There are more than 650 coffee farms of all sizes clustered along the ±20 miles of scenic roads on the Hualalai and Mauna Loa slopes. Many of these farms offer tours to the public, click here to view a web page describing various Kona Coffee tours that are available.
This turned out to be a 145+ mile drive, through some really interesting areas - however - all on curvy, narrow two lane roads. (click here for a map of Hilo to Kailua-Kona)
NOTE 1: Ka'u coffee beans are recognized around the globe for their intense flavor, smooth delicate flavor and low acidity. Grown next door to the Kona Coffee belt, Kau Coffee has been dubbed the "cousin of Kona." Point being, both the Kaʻū Coffee Mill Plantation and the Miranda Coffee Farm Cafe sell Ka'u coffee and not Kona.
NOTE 2: Coffee comes from trees and not bushes. Coffee trees are pruned short to conserve their energy and aid in harvesting, but can grow to more than 30 feet in height. Click here to read a complete description regarding coffee plants.
NOTE 3: Kona coffee is the market name for coffee (Coffea arabica) cultivated on the slopes of Hualalai and Mauna Loa. Ka'u coffee is also considered to be "coffee arabica". Click here for a more detailed description of Kona and Ka'u coffees.
Coffee Plantations Explorations
On our drive through Pahala and on to Kailua-Kona, we passed through areas where coffee plantations are numerous.
Since we were scheduled to fly back to the mainland from Kona Airport to Los Angeles, our plans were to depart Hilo and move over to Kailua-Kona. This would leave us within 7 miles of the airport, in a town that is loaded with restaurants and beautiful coastline. As you see by our images, the coastline is very pretty, and cruise ships arrive here frequently. However, we had thought we had left all of the rain behind in Hilo, but it chased us all the way across the Big Island and we got rain in the morning of our last Saturday.
We didn't realize how popular the area was until we started doing some research for this web page, ie; Kailua-Kona is the start and finish of the annual triathlon Ironman World Championship, the Kona Coffee Festival, and the Hawaiian International Billfish Tournament.
Our condo was situated in a great location, and there was a great view of the bay as well as the surrounding area. Numerous restaurants and pubs surrounded us. The front steps of our condo were on Ali'i Drive, and the Ocean was just on the other side of the street. Image # 1 above was our view as we came out the front door of the condo building, image # 2 was the condo building, image # 3 was south of the condo approximately 1/2 block and image # 4 was our condo building's parking lot.
NOTE: Just wanted to point out that we rented this nice condo through VRBO, and we have always had very good luck with them! I dont' want to sound like an advertisement for VRBO, but they have global reach now that they are a part of the Expedia Empire, and we've used them for rentals all over the world and have never had any problems.
Searching for Pele's Well
We wanted to search for and visit "Pele's Well" (located within Wawaloli Beach Park) which is a lava tube that surfaces just below the surface of the Ocean. We were sure that we were pretty close, but we did not apparently get to the correct location. Even so, this area was interesting and we explored it as far as we could.
Manini'owali Beach at Kua Bay
Once the rain relented, we decided to drive up to Kua Bay as our research had shown us that the beach there was very pretty. What we did not discover during our research, was that parking there is limited and is available only along the narrow road that leads there. We were fortunate to be in a tiny car and were able to grab a parking spot!
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