Mike and I have fallen in love with the Hawaiian Islands over the past five years and decided it was time to explore the Big Island. Big is an accurate description for this vast island!
Our vacation can be divided into three parts.
- Volcano National Park area- just us.
- Hilo Side – the kids joined us on the last few days.
- Kona Side – the whole family.
The first two photos below were taken from the car after landing in Kona. We were pretty shocked at all the rock near the airport and were even MORE surprised when we took the Saddle Back Road toward the town of Volcano.
Saddle Road bisects the Big Island, cutting over the raised slopes (the saddle) between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. It has said to be one of the most scenic drives in the world, but I’m confused by that! It was basically all lava rock with occasional goats along the way. Admittedly, we were quite surprised at the scenery and kinda wondered if were in Hawaii!
As we neared the Volcano area, we could see the glow. I mean – WOW, the glow was amazing! Again, we were wondering where we were vacationing. But we we loved the magic of this island. Rocky in parts but lush in others. And just plain beautiful!
We celebrated New Year’s Eve with dinner at The Rim in the Volcano National Park. Red wine, pasta, seafood, and a sushi stack to start. Delish! It was a rainy, foggy night so we couldn’t really see the glow of the volcano beside from the windows of the restaurant.
New Year’s Day was spent on an e-bike tour in the National Park. We had a great day cycling around the park, slowing down for informational chats with our guide and then speeding up – trying to catch up to him as he had an extremely heavy foot! Those e-bikes had some serious power!
During our tour, we saw dormant and active volcanos, walked through lava tubes, and saw beautiful plants along the way. We were lucky to get a clear day with no precipitations, which is not normal for this part of the island.
After our e-bike tour, we drove the Chain of Craters Road out of the park to Holei Sea Arch. It was an exceptionally scenic and spectacular drive, and it dead ends at the sea. As you can see below, we packed a bottle of wine and some snacks (along with a blanket) and sat along the cliffs taking in the beautiful scenery!
We stayed at an airbnb on the east side of the island, north of Hilo. The home was built on the edge of a cliff above the ocean and it had a cave below it (that the kids ventured in when the arrived at the island). The views were amazing and we spent hours on the decks sipping coffee or wine or fresh coconut water!
In fact, there were so few restaurants in the area around our airbnb that we ended up picking up food at either food trucks or the local general store. Also, many places were short staffed and forced to close due to the pandemic. But we really enjoyed this down time and loved the lazy hours spent on the decks of our airbnb.
As you can see below, Zach and Kirsten braved the cave that was FAR underneath our airbnb. They had to get a little bit wet to get there and said that it was full of crabs and moths. But look at that gorgeous sunset that they witnessed from the cave!
Whale watching was a major plus of staying in this location. We saw mommas and their babies sleeping in the bay each morning and then occasionally jumping out of the water. Mike enjoyed the best show (more than one full breach!) one morning while I witnessed only the tails after hearing Mike’s whoops and hollering!
My favorite place on the Big Island is hands-down – Waipi’o Valley!
Waipi‘o Valley was home to old Hawaiian kings and once upon a time was densely populated. Now however, the valley is mostly wilderness interspersed with taro fields (Taro is a traditional Hawaiian staple food) and a couple of dozens of inhabitants.
Waipi‘o (or Waipio) Valley is named after the river that runs through the valley (wai-piʻo means curved water in the Hawaiian language) and is about one mile wide and six miles deep. Towards the back the valley splits into many ‘fingers’, each one with its own waterfall. The valley meets the ocean towards the north with a beautiful black sand beach that is cut in two by the river.
During our stay, Mike and I went down to the valley three times and the kids joined us on the final time after they arrived at the island. We loved so many things about this spot!
- The wild horses!
- The black sand beach.
- The valley.
- The hike. (Mike hiked down to get a feel for the valley before we attempted the drive.)
- The drive! More on this later!
On one of our ventures to the valley, the wild horses were practically on top of us. They were definitely in search of food and were snooping around our beach bag as we sat reading. They were a beautiful sight to see and one of the highlights of our trip.
When the kids arrived, we knew that they had to see this gorgeous part of the island. We packed food and beverages and spent most of the day hanging out, hiking into the valley, and strolling the black sand beach.
Now let’s talk about the journey to GET to the beach! At the Waipi’o Valley lookout, there was a guard booth that monitored who could venture down the slightly treacherous path to the valley. It was required to have four-wheel drive and we were fortunate to have rented a jeep.
Mike was the driver each of the three times we ventured down, and the path was extraordinarily steep in sections and one-lane in parts as well. In fact, the rule was that if you met someone on the one-lane sections, the person driving down had to back up. We had to do this a couple of times, and Mike was white-knuckling it each time (as I covered my eyes and prayed).
Unfortunately, Waipi’o Valley is now indefinitely closed to visitors due to landslide risks and possible rockfall. They closed this road the month following our visit to the island and so are extremely grateful we were able to safely experience it!
While on the Hilo side of the island, we took short adventures.
- Scenic drive on the way to Hilo to see Rainbow Falls and the botanical gardens.
- A short hike in Akaka Falls.
- Walking among the beautiful Banyan trees.
- Food trucks for kimchi pork bowls – so delish!
- Tex Drive-In at Honoka’a for malasadas (A malasada is a fried type of Portuguese doughnut – coated with sugar, glazed or stuffed with cream, or fruit flavored pudding.
- Farmer’s Markets for HUGE avocados and rambutan fruit.
We extended our stay (a couple to times) in advance of our big trip so had to swap cars in Kona at one point. Heading south around the island made for a scenic tour and we stopped at the Panalu’u Black Sand Beach for a bit to snap some pictures of our toes in the sand (and it was a little HOT!), watch the many sea turtles bobbing around the beach, get a quick coffee, and get back on the road. What a gorgeous area!
When the kids arrived at the Big Island, we tried to give them a quick tour of the Hilo side since the majority of their stay was planned for the Kona side of the island. They also ventured out on their own which is one of the reasons they like to vacation with us. Ha!
- Josh and Tiff went to Hilo for Acai Bowls, Opa Brewery for beer and dinner, to Volcano National Park, and to golf on our final day on that side. They also spent some time at a few beaches in the area.
- Zach and Kirsten are all about exploring and they did their fair share of that on the Big Island. They explored the national park, went to museums, and climbed through massive tunnels and caves – even making friends in one of them!
We also did a little wine testing at the Volcano Winery. We thought it was just “ok” but it sure was fun teaching Josh and Tiff how to actually SIP wine instead of guzzling it. See below!
Our last portion of our trip was spent on the Kona side of the island. Mike found a beautiful airbnb right on the water where we experienced gorgeous sunsets along with the nighttime roar of the ocean from our open bedroom window.
We found Kona Brewery a few times on our trip and brought home some souvenirs – t-shirts, sweatshirts, and Tiff got a blanket. Great beer, average food, and awesome conversation!
Mike and Josh decided to try all the different craft beers on our trip – no surprise. They have a rule about not drinking the same beer twice because they’re on the beer app (go find them and join in the fun)! I prefer to stick with what I like, but again, I’m not on the app.
The family enjoyed a luau (as seen from the pic below!) one night as well. We had Mai Tais, a pork buffet with all the sides, and great entertainment. A Luau is required on a Hawaiian adventure!
The other fun family activity was a catamaran adventure with Paradise Sailing. (Note our family vacation shirts I had made (in two colors) before our trip!) A husband and wife team took our family out for about four hours for snorkeling, dolphin watching (we saw several schools of them!) and sailing. We packed our own food and drink and enjoyed family time together.
Josh and Tiffany joined us for another snorkel adventure toward the end of our trip. We went to Two-Step which is several miles south of Kealakekua Bay on the Kona side of the island. We found sea life in abundance, healthy coral, and amazing topography to explore in a variety of depths. It is a fairly protected bay with a lava rock shoreline which made entering the water a little difficult. We all made it unscathed and thoroughly enjoyed the underwater views!
We all decided that our (over-priced) food experience on the Big Island was hit or miss. Some of our favorites, however, were fish tacos, sushi, and poke bowls. We had pizza on more than one occasion and that was pretty tasty too.
Mike and I always use our time on vacation to enjoy reading. Bonus when you read to the background sound of the ocean! We both read about four books on our stay this time, and it’s one of our favorite things to do. No TV, no streaming podcasts, and minimal music. Just reading, chillin, and enjoying the quiet (but not so quiet sound of the ocean).
Big Island – we loved you. We’ll be back again someday! Mahalo!