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Last Updated on January 16, 2023 by Amy
We’d just arrived in Hawaii on our first ever visit. We had a week planned, and that started with a four day Big Island road trip!
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I rented us this amazing and serene AirBNB for our first night.
Our friends invited us out for dinner, and we met at Pineapples for a really delicious meal.
Our Airbnb provided us with an amazing breakfast – waffles (a special treat for David) a tropical fruit platter, and continental offerings. A great start to a Hawaiian visit. Did you know that passion fruits are known as lilikois here? My favorite was lychees, which our host said are going out of season. When I enthusiastically finished them off she brought me another bowl!
We picked up our rental car at the airport and made our first stop for our Big Island road trip at Carlsmith Beach, which I read is the best place to spot sea turtles. No turtles were around while we were there, but it was beautiful. We also drove down Banyan way, where we spotted our first mongoose (an invasive species here in Hawaii).
Suisan Fish Market
We stopped in at the Suisan Fish Market for a traditional Hawaiian lunch of poke. We had it three ways, and our favorite was definitely the spicy poke, which is mayo-based.
Hawai’i Volcano National Park
After lunch, we headed off for our big activity of the day – the Hawai’i Volcano National Park. This park is home to Kīlauea, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, and Mauna Loa, the world’s most massive shield volcano. We watched a free 20-minute video about the history of Hawai’i. The video taught us that the Hawaiian islands were formed by the earth’s crust moving over the volcano….sort of like the belt on an assembly line forming Hershey kisses from underneath. In fact, the next Hawaiian island is already forming on the ocean floor.
Chain of Craters Road
The park is open 24 hours a day and your pass is good for a week. That gives you plenty of time to see the whole park. We started by driving all the way down Chain of Craters Road. The drive took us through many environments – lush tropical rainforests, the arid Kaʻū Desert, and the rugged and dark landscapes of old lava flows. Most of the lava flows were labeled with the year of the flow. This was pretty neat as you could see how the vegetation was growing back from 1969 versus 1986.
Hölei Sea Arch
The end of the drive has a small parking area. A short hike away is the Hölei Sea Arch, and during the walk, you can see the smoke from the current lava flow. It’s a 5-mile walk to where the lava flow meets the ocean (the west side), which we opted not to do. But we did walk about 15 minutes until we got to a large rocky protrusion that we could climb up and look down the coast from.
Pu‘u Loa Petroglyphs
Back on the road, we stopped to see the Pu‘u Loa Petroglyphs. This area contains over 23,000 graphics carved into the rocks by the native peoples. In particular, when a child was born, the family journeyed to this location to carve a small hole and bury the umbilical cord of the child.
Thurston Lava Tube
Next, we drove to the Thurston Lava Tube. The premise of the tube is really similar to the one we walked through in the Galapagos – the top of lava flows harden and then drain, leaving a cavity in the earth’s crust. The tube in the Galapagos was short and the rocks were very angular and geometric. Here, the tunnel is long and the walls are smoother.
Nighttime Volcano Viewing
Our stomachs were grumbling, so we drove to the nearby town of Volcano to have dinner at the Kilauea Lodge. Then, back to the park for a nighttime viewing of the Halema‘uma‘u Crater. The lava boils and glows in the night, which is amazing to watch. You can see the lava harden, and then the crust breaks apart as the lava below bubbles.
We drove off to our Airbnb – I made a rookie mistake. I booked an Airbnb near the lava flow, but, of course, you have to drive ALL THE WAY AROUND the lava flow, which takes an hour from the visitor’s center. However, the drive was pretty worth it. The Airbnb was the closest house to the lava flow on the east side (roughly 4 miles away) and built on the old lava flow. It also survived a lava flow, and we could see the glowing lava flowing down the mountainside from our porch.
If I had planned better, this is the side to make the trek to the lava flow. There are hundreds of bikes for rent at the end of the road. We arrived too late to rent a bike to go see the flow at night.
Day 2 of Big Island Road Trip
Tuesday we got up and had a fantastic breakfast at the Tin Shack on our way back to the park. We had to pass by the park anyway to head to Kona, so we stopped to view the crater during the day. There were only a handful of people at the crater, so we got to eavesdrop on a private tour.
Punalu’u Black Sand Beach
The rest of Tuesday was a designated beach day for our Big Island road trip. First, we drove to the Punalu’u Black Sand Beach. It was easy to get to and had services (picnic benches, restrooms, lifeguards…). The sand was truly gorgeous, and we enjoyed sitting back to relax for a little while.
Black sand beaches hold a special place in our heart, as David proposed to me on a black sand beach in Costa Rica.
A much longer drive took us to the Papakōlea Beach on the very south tip of the island. The southernmost point in the United States, the beach is only accessible via a rugged road. Most cars won’t make it, so some enterprising locals have old beat-up trucks, outfitted to hold about a dozen people standing up in the back. Working for tips, they shuttle tourists down to the Papakōlea beach, where after a short hike down, we were rewarded with a beautiful swimming beach, with sand a unique golden-green color.
We had a picnic of sandwiches we got from the Punalu’u Bake Shop, including our first taste of malasadas. Malasadas are a Portuguese fried dough treat, usually stuffed. I went for a full swim, and it was the first time in a long time to really swim (with the exception of New Zealand which was really too cold to enjoy).
On the truck ride back, the driver stopped at a nearby shoreline and picked up a big handful of emerald green sand to show us. That shore was just small and rocky, not really a beach or place to hang out at all.
Thanks to a FB page follower, we know the story behind the colors: “The green grains in the sand are indeed made of the mineral olivine, a magnesium-iron silicate eroding out of the beds of Pu’u Mahana (the volcano that encircles the beach) and concentrated by wave action because it is denser. Olivine is also known as peridot, which is the August birthstone. Waves and current transport some of the sand along the beach and then deposited in small pockets. This process further concentrates the olivine grains, which is why these small pockets of sand are even greener.”
The green sand definitely makes a highlight of our Big Island road trip.
After the beach, we headed north up to Kailua-Kona, the most touristy section of the Big Island. We stayed at a lovely Airbnb and grilled up a nice simple dinner.
Our host made us breakfast and we took off to drive north again.
Searching for Rainbow Eucalyptus Trees
We attempted to see some Rainbow Eucalyptus trees, but they were a bit of a letdown, so here’s the picture that inspired the side trip:
The article says Rainbow Eucalyptus trees can be found in several places, so I’m guessing the pictures were from the location on Maui.
Waipiʻo Valley Lookout
We drove up to the Waipiʻo Valley Lookout to get a view over one of the most beautiful valleys in Hawaii. There is a hike, which is downhill out and then VERY uphill back, plus you have to ford a river. However, at the end of the hike is the tallest waterfall on the island. We opted not to do the hike, but we walked for a short way just to get some exercise and enjoyed the views from the lookout.
We made a stop at Tex Drive-In, for another tasting of malasadas, which ended up being our favorite malasadas; hot from the oven and a great dough to filling ratio.
Our last night on the Big Island was spent in Pepeekeo, a tiny little town north of Hilo. Our Airbnb was a new inn, just minutes away from our morning destination – Akaka Falls.
Akaka Falls was a short walk and a stunning 442-foot waterfall.
After that, we had some errands to run in Hilo, grabbed a fantastic lunch at Puka Puka cafe, and went to the airport for our flight to Honolulu.
Big Island Road Trip Tips
We had a great time on our Big Island road trip. In particular, we had a ton of great food, I don’t think I was disappointed by a single meal. Also, just the drive itself was stunning. The island of Hawaii posses 10 of the 14 original zones of the Koppen Climate Classification System. We drove through the arid desert, lush jungle, and temperate forests.
Not only was the climate and vegetation interesting, but the shape of the land varied greatly between the east and west sides. The east side was a lush jungle in valleys and peaks, much like the Marquesas islands. The west side stretches flat for a few miles and then sharply climbs upwards. It’s good to note that as we drive north from Kona, we took highway 190 instead of 19. 190 is at the higher elevation and gave us a beautiful view looking down over the flat stretch of shore where 19 runs. We also scaled up above Kona on our search for the eucalyptus and drove through clouds!
Kona and Hilo both have international airports. Hilo is on the east side and Kona to the west. Since our four day Big Island road trip was a loop, you can start at either place. Hilo only has international flights coming in from Los Angeles, whereas Kona has many more options. Another option is to fly into Honolulu first and then fly Hawaiian Airlines within Hawaii.
We rented a car from Hertz at the Hilo airport.
Since we booked just one night in each place, we found it easiest to book through Airbnb, and we enjoyed all of our hosts and sites.
As always, we were sad to end our Big Island road trip but felt our four days were very well spent.