If you live in California, what do you do with a long weekend? Go to Hawai’i, of course!
Jokes, most people in California don’t do this, either. But they should!! We found cheap direct flights to the Big Island from Los Angeles, and we figured, why not? If you keep saying you won’t go somewhere until you have ample time to explore it, you might never go.
So we took a half day from work on a Friday, booked a flight that got us to Hawai’i by 10pm, had two full days and then left on a holiday Monday at 3:30pm to get back by 11:30pm.
Was it a whirlwind? Oh yes. Was it worthwhile? Absolutely!
The Big Island of Hawai’i is, well, much BIGGER than the other islands. So a car is a must. I would suggest booking a rental far in advance. We waited until last-minute, and the car was pretty expensive. But we also heard that certain rental places had run out of cars, so we were among the luckier ones!
WHERE TO STAY
We booked three different accommodations for our three different nights. Where you stay will be dependent on what you want to do. Do you want to see the volcano? Chill at the beaches? Eat local fare in Hilo?
I would recommend doing a mix of everything if you can, because the island of Hawai’i has eight of the world’s 13 climates, and is one of the most ecologically diverse places in the world. Whoever told you that there’s not much to do on the Big Island was very wrong. Sure, it’s much quieter and less populated than the other islands, but where else can you go from tropical humidity to arid desert and snowy mountains to volcanic lava?
The first night, we stayed at Ohi’a Park Estate, a charming Bed & Breakfast 10 minutes from Kona Airport that we really loved. The second night, we stayed at a unique Airbnb treehouse in Volcano Town’s Fern Forest. There are a variety of treehouses on Airbnb that you can find, and I would highly recommend trying it out for a unique jungle experience! After this, our last night was spent at the Inn at Kulaniapia Falls just outside of Hilo, which was such a fun experience because the inn has its own private waterfall!! Would definitely recommend all of our experiences, and it was nice to be convenient to each different part of the island given our activities.
DAY 1 – KAILUA-KONA TO VOLCANO
Our first day, we woke up early (being on “mainland” time) and went down to Kailua-Kona town to explore. We grabbed a coffee at Kona Coffee Café after receiving some free samples and looked at the beautiful Mokuaikaua Church, the oldest Christian Church on the Hawaiian islands established in 1820.
We then headed back to Ohi’a Park Estate for a delicious homemade breakfast by the charming couple who run the B&B.
We then checked out and headed down the coast and stopped at Ali’i Garden Marketplace for “dessert,” some delicious gluten-free crepes at Whale of a Crepe! We got a Mauna Loa crepe, which included Nutella, banana and macadamia nuts.
After this, we drove up toward Captain Cook, where we stopped at The Coffee Shack to enjoy some views and stay dry from the rain.
This was seriously one of my favorite places from our trip. The coffee and smoothies are excellent, and the views are perfect. The portions are also gigantic, and I saved half of my mocha to drink the next morning. Would highly recommend stopping here!
We then drove to the southernmost tip of the Unites States (yep, it really is—look at a map!) and went down to see Papakōlea Green Sand Beach. This is one of only four green sand beaches in the world, the others being Talofofo Beach (Guam), Punta Cormorant (Floreanea Island of the Galapagos) and Hornindalsvatnet (Norway). The green color is from the glassy olivine crystals in the sand.
The beach is about 2.5 miles away from where you must park (tourists are not allowed to drive all the way there), so it’s either a 1-hour hike or a 20-minute ride if you pay a local $15 to take you in the back of their pickup truck. We opted to pay a local to take us there and back as we were short on time, and clung to the sides of the truck next to seven other tourists. It’s definitely a bumpy and unforgettable experience!
We really enjoyed our time at this secluded beach, and while it’s really not quite as green in person as you anticipate it to be, it’s a must-do on the Big Island.
After Green Sand Beach, we drove over to Punalu’u Black Sand Beach, which is far more accessible and a popular spot for sea turtles to bask in the sun. We only stopped briefly on our way to the volcano, and did chance to see three turtles out in the open!
We arrived at Volcano National Park around 4:30pm, and stopped by the Information Center. Silly me, I thought that we could rent bikes from this spot to go to see the lava flow, but we were actually a good hour drive away from the other side of the volcano where you can start the trek to see the lava. It was too late for us to start out for sunset, so I called Kalapana Cultural Tours to reserve us bicycles for 4:30am the next morning for sunrise.
We then checked into our treehouse Airbnb and settled in a bit before heading back to Volcano National Park to see the sunset over the Halema’uma’u crater from Jagger Museum. Watching the color gradually get vibrant and orange as the sun sets is a fun experience.
We then grabbed a dinner at Thai Thai Bistro & Bar around 7pm. We had wanted to check out Ohelo Café for Hawaiian-American-Italian food, but as we did not have a reservation, the wait was going to be about an hour. There is very little to eat in Volcano Town and it will all be overpriced, so just be mindful of this when you go.
After dinner, we went back to our treehouse and slept. Until 3:30am!
DAY 2 – KALAPANA LAVA FLOW TO HILO AND THE NORTHERN VALLEY
At 3:30am the second day, we woke up and started our 1-hour drive to the Kalapana Lava Viewing area to pick up our bikes. We were a bit confused as nobody was there to meet us, and drove in circles until a helpful cop saw us and helped us find our bikes under a tent (they had a tag with our names on them, so…cool!). He then pointed out the path to us (“Go straight until you see the third gate, then leave your bikes and turn right to walk straight until you get to the lava.”)
Riding bikes on a bumpy gravel road in pitch black while it’s raining is a very unique experience! Thankfully Michael brought flashlights, but only one was really working, so we shared this and biked for about 20-30 minutes until we reached what we could only assume was Gate 3. We left our bikes and started our hike toward the streams of molten red lava we saw in the distance—by climbing over sharp black volcanic rock!
The hike took us about an hour and a half. We passed over some volcanic steam vents about halfway through, which initially sent me into a panic (I wondered, “Are they burning hot?” “Will we die from volcanic fumes?” “HOW DO WE GET AROUND THESE?” “I guess we’re walking on top of them OH MY GOODNESS!”). When we finally reached the lava, dawn was just starting to break. You really want to see the lava in the dark because it looks much more impressive, which is why you do this hike either at sunrise or sunset.
While sunset might have given us more time with the lava in the dark, sunrise was a lot of fun because we were literally the only people out there. I changed from my sweats into a dress (no shame) for photos, and set the camera and Joby tripod up on some jagged volcanic rocks, praying it wouldn’t melt.
Thanks to the rain, my DLSR camera was soggy and had water spots all over the lens that I couldn’t wipe off long enough to get a capture. Oh, also, it decided it didn’t want to change settings AT ALL for me and that I was stuck with what I had from taking photos of stars the previous night (couldn’t adjust aperture, focus, etc.).
Thankfully, we managed to get some decent(ish) looking photos, but it was quite the adventure! Just goes to show that travel is unpredictable and chaotic, but utterly amazing.
Being so close to the volcano was an UNFORGETTABLE experience. I still marvel that we were allowed to go all the way out with no cell service, no guide and nobody around for miles. We watched the molten lava bubble and flow, and stood close enough to reach out and touch it (if we were, you know, idiots). The area surrounding the lava was hot and we were sweating. Also, we completely lost the bottom half of our shoes. Do NOT do this hike in sandals!
Once we got back after all was said and done around 9:30am, we happily sat in our car and took a breather before getting ready to drive to Hilo. We took the Kalapana Kopoho Road as a detour, because we had been told that this was one of the most beautiful roads on the Big Island. It did not disappoint! Surrounded by lush jungle, we nearly forgot about the jagged and barren volcanic rock we had just walked across.
When we got to Hilo, we found a nice beach that we laid out at and stared at cute fish and sea anemones until 11am, when Pineapple’s Restaurant in Downtown Hilo opened. We parked and walked by the farmer’s market and cute shops and sat down to our first meal of the day—8+ hours after waking up.
We loved this cute open-air space and were happy to find that they had a gluten-free menu for me. For appetizers, we ordered Cheesy Garlic Fries with sour cream, pineapple salsa, grilled onions and bacon (YUM) and a Big Island Onion Soup for Michael. I got Island Style Tacos for my gluten-free main course, and he got a Teriyaki Flank Steak. Oh, we also got a Mai Tai sampler (mango, lilikai, guava and hibiscus) and their signature Pineapple Pow—a frozen cocktail with Hawaiian moonshine served in a pineapple.
After our meal, we food coma’d and realized how sleepy we were, so we tried to check in early to our hotel at 1pm. We were unfortunately unable to do this, but met the adorable house cat and saw a glimpse of the waterfall. After I drank some of the complimentary Kona coffee and we signed up for waterfall rappelling the following morning (that’s right!), we got back in the car and headed up to Waipi’o Valley.
The drive took about an hour from Hilo. The northern side of the island is beautiful, lush and wet. It’s also not terribly populated, but we did drive through the historic Honokaa downtown, a charming area that almost feels like you’re stepping into an old western. We bought water at a supermarket here, but wish we had more time to explore.
The Waipi’o Valley Lookout is truly something to behold. Once upon a time, it was a home to Hawaiian kings. Today, it is secluded, and while the beautiful black sand beach there is accessible to the public, the valley as a whole is considered private property and off-limits to tourists.
The Waipi’o Valley still grows taro and is home to horses and “a couple of dozen” locals. There are sacred sites and waterfalls that you can see if you book a horseback riding tour with a local guide. Also, Waipi’o Valley is where the final scene of the 1995 film “Waterworld” was shot!
We hiked about 3 miles down (6.5 miles roundtrip) to the beach on the steepest path of its length within the United States! It was a challenge, but completely worth it once we got down to the beautiful beach. We could also see a small portion of the Kaluahine Falls on the right hand side as it had just rained.
After the hike we were meant to get dinner at Merriman’s in Waimea, but were so exhausted that we cancelled our reservation and made it back to Kulaniapia just in time to have a complimentary glass of wine together and then go to sleep around 8:30pm (hey—when you’ve been up since 3:30am!).
DAY 3(ish—2.5?) – KULANIAPIA FALLS TO HILO AND WAIKOLOA BEACH
Our third and last day, we woke up around 6am to explore the grounds and see the waterfall when it was just us. After the hike, we ate a quick breakfast at the inn and got ready for our 8am waterfall rappelling tour! This was a fun and once-in-a-lifetime experience.
After the rappelling, we lounged by the waterfall pond for a bit and waded in the refreshingly cool water.
We then packed up and drove to Hilo town for a quick lunch before our flight—AND WE GOT POKE, of course!
The poke at Suisan Fish Market was so good. SERIOUSLY SO GOOD. The sauces weren’t gluten-free (hello soy sauce), but I took the risk to eat deliciously authentic poke AND IT WAS WORTH IT. We shared one bowl because the portions are GIGANTIC (notice a trend in Hawai’i?). After this, we grabbed coffee at a nearby Starbucks and started our drive back to the other side of the island to catch our flight.
The drive from Hilo to Kailua-Kona is beautiful. We drove down Daniel K. Inouye Highway (fun fact—to date, the late Daniel Inouye held the highest-ranking political office of any Asian American as President pro tempore of the U.S. Senate for Hawai’i from 2010 until his death in 2012), seeing Mauna Kea to our right and Mauna Loa to our left—both covered in snow!
We detoured to drive through Waikoloa Village thinking it might be cute, but realized that it’s really just a golf resort and continued down to Waikoloa Beach where we sat out for a bit enjoying the pretty white sand and palm trees.
We then continued on to the airport, where we arrived with enough time to enjoy mai tais in the airport before catching our flight home at 3:30pm!
ISLAND OF HAWAI’I TRAVEL TIPS
Currency: U.S. Dollar
Languages: English (Official), Hawaiian Pidgin, many people can speak Mandarin Chinese and Japanese
Transportation: Public transit is almost nonexistent here, so renting a car is a necessity. If you do not drive, I would perhaps suggest going with a tour group that will take you around.
Food: Where to begin!! Obviously eat ALL THE POKE, tropical fruits (e.g. pineapple, coconut, papaya, etc.) and shave ice. Also notable is Kahlua pork, other forms of fresh fish, loco moco and try Kona coffee (I honestly wasn’t a super fan of Kona coffee, but you’ve still gotta try it, right?).
Research: Definitely do your research ahead of time to see what areas you want to prioritize and also check what the lava flow looks like. If it’s your first time there and you don’t mind a little physical exertion, I’d say that you MUST see the lava flow. A very helpful website to check out is Love Big Island, which has tips on the volcanos, hiking, areas, foods and more!
Other: This island doesn’t stay open too late, so I would recommend sticking to an earlier schedule to hit all the fun nature things Hawai’i has to offer. There were things we would have loved to do but didn’t have time to, like snorkeling and swimming with manta rays (this is a very popular night time expedition) to taking a helicopter ride over the island and seeing the Hawai’i Tropical Botanical Gardens. All in all, we loved our time here and would definitely return—but think we got a decent amount of things done to tide us over until then!