A Traveler’s Guide to Hawai’i
We were determined to leave the bitter cold in Seoul for warmer days. Last year, Ashlee’s Mom made the long journey to Korea and we spent two bone chilling weeks touring around the peninsula (Pork Chop Meets Korea). This year we decided to leave the frigid temps behind and spend our winter break in Hawai’i. The East side of the Big Island boasts the most sunny days in the State and so we met Ellen, who was coming from Texas, in Kona. For the weeks leading up to our trip, the forecast was calling for rain, flooding was being reported, and a blizzard dumped 14 inches of snow on Mauna Kea. Prepared for the worse we were instead pleasantly surprised with two weeks of brilliant weather. We kicked back on beaches, snorkeled in the aquatic world, sampled cuisine and libations at local establishments, hiked to waterfalls, and walked along the lava fields. Regardless of your ambition to get after it or simply chill, the Big Island will heal your mainland stress and let your soul shine through.
If your goal is to truly explore the Big Island, you will want to rent a car and expect to pay a pricey fee ($100-$150/day). There would be many benefits to having a 4WD vehicle when it comes to accessing some of the beaches but we were able to get by in a Chevy Spark. Although, on the days when we were transitioning to different accommodations we were a sight to see with 3 of us crammed in the tin can with all of our luggage. We went the Air B and B route when booking accommodations and stayed right on Ali’i Drive which is the main drag in Kailua, Kona. We mainly stayed in two different condos, the Royal Ka’hili (Google Maps) and White Sands Village. Both places had two bedrooms/two baths which was ideal for 3 of us. Whites Sands was a bit more spacious and is right across from Magic Sands Beach Park (featured below). We preferred the Royal Ka’hili as it had less units meaning there were fewer people in the pool/hot tub/BBQ area. Directly across from Royal Ka’hili is a secluded little cove shaded by a Banyan tree that offered amazing sunsets and Lyman’s Surf Spot was a stone’s throw from our condo as well. By going the Air B and B route we were able to cook meals at home, do laundry, and could utilize all of beach and snorkeling gear that was provided.
If you only have 5 days, I honestly think there is enough to keep you busy just in the Kailua area without needing to rent a car. You can stay right on Ali’i Drive and either walk, bike, take the bus trolley, or the occasional Lyft to check out all the hot spots with cool drinks.
The first beach that we went to the morning after landing was Magic Sands Beach Park (Google Maps). This is very centrally located making it consistently packed with people. I did not get in the water on the day we visited as the break was pretty gnarly and I was watching kids on boogie boards getting their vertebrae’s stretched to the limit. The Magics Beach Grill has a little booth that you can grab cold beer, iced coffee, or Acai’i bowls and the restaurant has plenty of outdoor seating to enjoy their tantalizing Mai Tais and toasted macadamia nut Pina Coladas.
Just down from Magic Sands Beach is Kahalu’u Beach Park which offers incredible snorkeling. We heard that it fills up by 9am, so Ashlee and I went on several sunrise sessions where the long extended reef is teeming with all kinds of different fish. There is also a surf shop here that offers lessons and is a decent place for beginners.
I highly recommend taking a snorkeling boat tour which takes you from Honokoahu Marina to Captain Cooks inlet. We had amazing guides through Kona Snorkel Tours and on the zodiac boat ride saw schools of dolphins, humpback whales, and in one spectacular display watched as a Mama Humpback was teaching her newly born calf how to breach the water as a shark was circling to eat the placenta. While snorkeling around Captain Cooks Inlet we were able to see a 6 ft long reef shark, spotted eels, and an endless array of vibrant fish.
Hawai’i is crazy expensive so we would stock up on groceries and cooked the majority of our meals at home. There is also a plethora of establishments to get full and tipsy like a teapot and here are some of our favorites:
Da Poke Shack (Google Maps)- This place sells out daily for good reason. Grab some tuna loaded bowls to go and park yourself by the water.
Humpy’s Big Island Whalehouse (Google Maps)- Same Humpy’s Alehouse from Anchorage, AK with better weather. This a great spot to sample some local brews on draft with a view of Kalaepa’Akai bay and a chance to see spinner Dolphins or Humpback Whales.
Papa Kona Restaurant and Bar (Google Maps)- In terms of being on the water, Papa Kona’s is built right over Oneo Bay. We came here a couple of different evenings to catch live music.
Kai Eats and Drinks (Google Maps)- Macadamia nut flavored iced lattes with macadamia milk could only be better with fresh baked chocolate chip macadamia nut cookies.
Umekes Fish Market Bar and Grill (Google Maps)- Ahi fish tacos, poke, and fish and chips are fresh off the boat!
Kenichi Pacific (Google Maps)- Nothing spells a Christmas dinner like Japanese cuisine! On the pricey side but well worth it as the sushi rolls were stuffed with seafood and no matter how full you are, make room for dessert.
The Beaches of Kohala
If we ever have the opportunity to return to the Big Island, I would choose to leave the hustle and bustle of Kailua behind and stay further North in Kohala. Many of our top beaches were past the airport and it would be a way to spend more time with your feet in the sand instead of in the car. During peak tourist season, I’m unsure if you will find any secluded beaches. However, if you can arrive by 8am you can grab a choice spot with some shade and have some semblance of solitude.
Mahai’ula (Google Maps)- In our economically compact Chevy Spark Rental, speed bumps would rattle our bones. So, for Mahai’ula we parked in the pullout off the highway and walked the two miles on the gravel pot holed road to the beach. There were cars that scraped paint and streaked oil along the rocks to save the walk and having a vehicle with a little clearance would have made all the difference. Even if you drive until the payment ends, hike the trail to Mahai’ula Bay for calm waters to swim and snorkel. You can literally float the whole bay and we saw some sea turtles along with schools of fish.
Makalawena(Google Maps)- From Mahai’ula Bay (above), walk another 30 min over the lava rock to find powdery sand and even more pristine water.
Manini’owali/Kua Bay (Google Maps)- Parking is at a premium here so arrive early, bring your cooler, beach chairs, and post up shop with everyone else in Kona. There is a reason it is crowded and the surf here was too big to snorkel and is probably better suited for boogie boards.
Beach 67 (Google Maps)- In our search for Beach 69, we stumbled upon an even more secluded spot. We didn’t arrive until the afternoon and the waves made the water too murky to view fish.
Hapuna (Google Maps)- This is often makes the top 10 list of World’s best beaches. If you are in the area you have to checkout this picturesque stretch of fluffy sand. We arrived just after 8am and were able to grab a spot in the shade. Even though the surf was big, there is a protected bay on the North end of the beach. There is a trail that leaves the sand just below the Westin Hotel and hugs the coastline for 5min before reaching steps that drop you right into the water.
Beyond the East Coast
The weather and beaches made it tough to leave the East Coast but we went on a few different road trips that had us wishing we had even more time to explore the Big Island.
Hilo Loop- From Kona go up Hwy 19 through Waimea and along the North Shore with a must stop at Tex’s Drive In (Google Maps). Although the name would indicate different, there is outdoor seating and they feature local cuisine including Malasada’s which are a Portuguese Donut. We went on a beautiful little hike through the lush jungle to Akaka Falls (Google Maps). From there we went to Hilo and grabbed a bite on the water at Ponds (Google Maps) where we were treated to some live music as we watched kids jump off the bridge. We walked around Hilo Bayfront Park before getting back in the car and taking the 200 Saddle Rd through the Mauna Kea volcanic are and back to Kona.
Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park- There are plenty of hikes or short walks to go on that will allow you to marvel at magma’s carved creations. We parked at Kilauea Overlook and hiked a loop (All Trails) that that went along the rim of the crater, through a diverse forest, and across the scorched out lava flats.
The Southern Coast- Following Hwy 11 on the Southern shore provides magnificent views of green flowing fields falling off into the sea. Start your day by stopping into the farm at Paradise Meadows where you can sample and purchase their different types of coffee, eat all things Macadamia nut, and soak in the owner’s paintings. From there, check out the sea turtles sunning themselves on the gunpowder colored sand at Punalu’u Beach (Google Map), grab a pulled pork chili verde burrito at Taco Tita (Google Map) and have a picnic lunch at Whittington Beach Park (Google Maps).
However you choose to spend your time on the Big Island, you will find your experience well worth the trip!