A Paradise Of Rainforests, Volcanoes And The Sea.

Big Island


She is Pele-honua-mea, Pele of the Sacred Land. She is Pele-‘ai’houna, Pele the eater of land, when she devours the land with her flames. She who rules the volcanoes of Hawai’i, and Mankind has no power to resist her. When Pele is heard from, her word is the final word.” - by Herb Kawainui Kane

Finally coming back to the beautiful state of Hawaii! It might be a bit of a stretch to include these reports in a blog about the west coast but, forgive me, we wouldn't want to miss this state when writing about fantastic travel in the American West.

We've invested a lot of time in planning and researching for this 10 day trip. The island is the biggest of all the Hawaiian islands and requires much more time to visit all 4 coastal regions and the interior. Hawaii is commonly divided in two halves, the sunny and more frequented Kona side and the lush green, more wet and easy going Hilo side. Kona has the beaches, the resorts, the sun and overall more infrastructure while especially the southern region below Hilo, has a unique charm of the laid-back, nature connected mentality we've appreciated so much on Kauai.

Circling the islands by car would probably take about 6 hours to make a full roundtrip and over 250miles so we've split our trip into two parts, 4 nights Hilo side, staying in a rainforest cottage in Pahoa, followed by 6 nights in an apartment in Waimea in the Kohala area. As on Kauai, we've went with AirBnB and didn't regret it. Beautiful places and just perfectly equipped for adventure-addicted travelers like us.

These 10 days were full of adventures and this post would become incredibly long if we'd describe it all in one story. This article will provide some details about our itinerary, places to stay, eat, play and photography highlights. More detailed reports on our adventures underwater, hiking through Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and getting up to nearly 14,000ft on Mauna Kea will follow soon.

The Essentials

Where to stay

When it comes to finding a place to sleep, I'd say what you can get really depends where you're going.

The West - Kona
The Kailua-Kona area offers a lot of places to stay for small and medium budgets. Budget-friendly hotels, medium-range resorts and a lot of condos are spotting this more crowded area of the island. A lot of the action happens here as the best snorkeling spots are nestled among the Kona coast so if you plan to spend a lot of time diving and snorkeling and don't care about the tourists, this is your place to stay.

The North - Kohala
The Kohala coastal area has the big and fancy resorts where you can easily spend $600 a night if staying in the upscale Hapuna Prince or Mauna Kea resorts. In addition to the resorts, expensive timeshares and some residential estates are nestled among the most picturesque sandy beaches you can imagine. Kohala has white sandy beaches, clear blue waters and almost always sun. The very northern part reminded me a lot of Kauai, especially the town of Hawi and surrounding area with its lush green forests, rugged cliffs and valleys that are just out of this world. We've stayed in Waimea for the second half of our trip, as we liked the proximity to both the interior attractions like Mauna Kea as well as the beaches and beauty of the coast.

We're big AirBnb fans and again made a good choice of a private residential area apartment that offered us all we wanted without needing to adjust to the rhythm of a hotel. Going back to Hawaii again, I'd love to stay a bit farther up north as I really loved Hawi with its eclectic and rural charme, however, it would also require more driving. We've stayed in a small but surprisingly luxurious garden apartment that made up the lowest floor of a 3-story house. It features a hot tub and BBQ on the patio and came with a fully stocked fridge and full beach equipment. Check it out here.

The Southeast - Puna
The eastern side is also the more rain-heavy side but features the ultimate island highlight - the active Mauna Loa volcano with the Kilauea crater. Besides the bigger town of Hilo, the southern area below the town features primarily vacation rentals and residential neighborhood. You can find a few hotels and lodges around the National Park but this area is everything but touristy.

We chose Pahoa, a quirky hippie and artist town in the southeastern Puna area. Our gorgeous cottage was located in the middle of the rainforest, only surrounding by frogs, birds and luscious green wilderness. The highlight of this place was the surrounding lanai and outdoor shower, nothing better than listening to the sounds of the jungle after a long day of adventures. Check it out here

Where to eat

This trip wasn't really about food and restaurants as our fully booked days didn't really fit well with the last seating times of the restaurants. Regardless, we had some fantastic food and got spoiled with sweet treats but also made a few very very bad decisions.

Thanks to Yelp and our fantastic guidebook (find a link in our Shop), the good ones definitely outweight the few bad ones.

The Good
It's all about fish when you're on an island, so we indulged with lots of great sushi, poke and fresh grilled treats. Our favorite sushi place was located in Kona in a quite unattractive shopping center. Lunching at Shimaichi Sushi was so good and so cheap, we went there twice, usually a no-go for us, but it was too good. Highly recommended is the Tropical Tuna roll with pineapple and the Dragon roll with crispy fried shrimp. All together, 4 super tasty rolls plus beer and miso soup for $26 is a great deal.

Another good place for sushi on the other side of the island is Ocean Sushi. Super fresh and very good quality for incredible small money (rolls start at $3) but you gotta deal with the unfriendly staff and waiting area lookalike restaurant. Just take it with you and eat at the beach, easy-to-solve problem.

As we're poke-lovers and can't imagine a Hawaii trip without a selection of this tasty and fresh dish, we stopped at
a href="http://www.yelp.com/biz/da-poke-shack-kailua-kona">Da Poke Shack on our way from the airport to Pahoa. We went with a combo plate with Dynamite (Aioli & Avocado) and Wet Classic Ahi Poke that came with a side of brown rice and two sides by choice (we went with crab and seaweed salad). Great and cheap $23 lunch for two.

No Hawaii vacation without fruit stands and smoothies: We loved What's Shakin' and their fresh smoothies, delicious chocolate-covered coconut macaroons and the cute grey cat strolling around us. Great spot for a quick bite when you're visiting the Botanical Garden (read more about it here).

For breakfast, we tried the Waimea Coffee Company which reminded me a bit of sunday mornings in Palo Alto, CA including the folks you'd see there. Maybe a bit of a too much Silicon Valley experience but the coffee was good and the food too.

Hands down best breakfast sandwich I ever had is featured at Kohala Coffee Mill in Hawi. I might be a bit biased by the overall gorgeous little town of Hawi but nothing beats a morning coffee and fluffy crisp bacon and egg on croissant sandwich with a rich and nutty cup of Kona coffee while sitting on a pink painted porch overlooking watching folks strolling down the main street.

We usually fancy having dinner in breath-taking locations with equally great food and views. However, our sunset photography trips almost always killed our dinner plans so we ended up having only one "date-night" dinner at Merriman's in Waimea. The MaiTai was absolutely fabulous and so was the Macadamia crusted Monchong which came with a mushroom sauce, wild rice and grilled brokkoli. The mushroom sauce was so good, we ordered extra and the Monchong was prepared just on the point. We finished off with the coconut creme brulee that just melted in our mouth and a glass of Moscato to finish. Absolutely recommended!

Lastly, to get back to the sweet treats: We probably had 20 Malasadas each in 10 days. Malasadas are sweet yeast-dough rolls filled with fruit jams, chocolate, cream or just plain. They're covered with sugar and you look like a toddler after eating them. So good! Highly recommended two places on each side are Tex Drive-In in Honokaa and Punaluu Bake Shop near Volcano.

The Not So Good
I don't want to waste too much space with these spots, just call them out for not making your vacation more memorable. First on the list is Quinn's almost-by-the-sea which featured mediocre burgers, watery cocktails, a roach on the floor and diarrhea as a dessert which made us cancel our snorkeling trip booked for that day. We shared tuna sashimi and each had a fish burger, one with Ono and one with Tuna. Not sure what was bad but it was even before the diarrhea nothing to write home about.

Besides this absolute showstopper, just mediocre and not very memorable money experiences were Kaleo's Bar & Grill, the breakfast at the Volcano House and the overpriced though not bad burgers at Village Burger (though their Parmesan fried nearly got them in the upper group. Lastly, our after sunset stop at the Seafood Bar, provided good cocktails but uninspiring coconut shrimps, so we skipped a main dish.

Best photography spots

It is tough to say which are the best spots as this entire vacation was a photography wonderland. But we did have a plan with special places we wanted to shoot so check out the gallery for some impressions of these trips.

Anaehoomalu - a beautiful spot for some sunset shots as you can feature the fishponds are picturesque alley of palms as a foreground for the sun sinking into the ocean. We got lucky with some interesting clouds and rainy weather that resulted in some great colors and cloud formations. To get there, park at the Waikoloa Beach Marriott Hotel and walk 5 minuted towards the fishponds. One shot below was taken from the small bridge between the ponds, but for the majority of the pictures we walked up the lava fields and left the path to get closer to the water.

Keahole Point - This is a long stretch of rugged coastline and the most western point of Hawaii, featuring multiple blow holes and strong currents. Thanks to the typical Kona area late afternoon weather, it almost always comes with beautiful clouds and the blowholes give a great foreground motive for some sunset shots. We initially drove up to the most northern end of the road but ended up taking all our shots at the blowholes located south of the main beach park area, driving down the car as far as possible and then walking down for a few yards to the blowhole.

Kapa'a Beach Park - Our first sunset on the Kohala side. We initially started taking pictures down at the beach but moved back to the upper part of a small shore trail. This allowed us to feature the trees in the foreground which made up a more interesting composition. It's not a sandy beach but has interesting lava formations and offers more serenity than many other places during that time of day.

Mauna Kea - Check out our detail report on sunset shooting and stargazing on top of Mauna Kea here.

Natural Lava Pools & Goddess Pond - we couldn't find it on Google Maps, just this picture which gives you an idea of the location. It was a fantastic sunset but super hard to find. We drove the street up and down to find the small outlet to the hidden path to the coast. We finally found it due to 2 other cars parking on the side of the road without any houses or other reasons to park there, so figured this might be it. Read up on this place in the guidebook, it provides some directions and a map. Fantastic location with volcanic cliffs, rough water crashing against the shore and two beautiful ponds that were so good for a sunset swim.

Other great spots
We didn't go anywhere without our cameras and besides the fantastic light of the golden hour and during the sunset, we really enjoyed shooting underwater and on some of our adventures during the day.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park - A Must-Do when on the Big Island. Both breath-taking during day and night. Read more in our detailed article.

Waipi'o Valley - This beach is just unreal and utterly beautiful and reminded me a lot of Ke'e Beach on Kauai. Read more about the Waipi'o Valley trip in the next section. For the sunset, we hiked up northeast over the rocks in anticipation of the waterfall and to feature the full beach coastline in our shot. We didn't make it far enough to get to the waterfall, it just got to rough to walk. But the sunset on our very last day on Hawaii was also one of the most beautiful we've experienced thus far. The black sand beach contrasted perfect with the coming in sea and lush green valley walls in the back.

Where to play

This section partly overlaps with the photography spots as each spot was also a great activity.

Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden - This is a wonderland of flowers, lush green trees and birds in a valley nestled among the coast of Hilo. It's $15 per person and it was so much worth it. We took beautiful shots of the flowers and vegetation of Hawaii in this hidden paradise and its a great daytime activity, especially with overcast. It felt like walking to a majestic treehouse and every corner had a new flower, small animal or waterfall to discover. Highly recommended for everyone who love macro photography.

Akaka Falls & Rainbow Falls - Don't miss Akaka Falls, a gorgeous 422 feet waterfall that is easily accessible via a short roundtrip stroll through beautiful lush forest. Parking is $5 per car but not admission fee. Ideally, you should visit early in the morning and with overcast to get the best shot of this stunning waterfall. We've combined it with the Rainbow Falls which are located maybe 10min by car away from the park.

Polulu Valley - This is one of the great and majestic valleys of the North. Polulu Valley overlook offers a nice overview and look down to the beach but the best spot for a nice picture is half-way down the steep trail. This is where we took out photo. You can go further down to the beach and spend the day there or even hike further into the neighbor valleys Honokane Nui and Iki, however, these valleys are inhabited by folks who chose to be on their own, so your appearance might not be welcome.

Waipi'o Valley - this is another hidden, beautiful and hard to reach valley at the northern tip of the island. We decided to make the drive down there and spend an afternoon there. The road down from the overlook is the steepest road in the entire United States with a 25 degree decline. You can either hike down the mile long street or take a 4x4 car. You really need a 4x4 car and a be brave to get your car down in low-gear mode. It's a bit of a thrill. Lance Armstrong once lost a bet and had to bike it up, apparently he made it in 9 minuted. I'd assume you'll need at least 45 minutes for the hike up.

We read a lot about the hostility of the people living down there and tried to avoid any and all confrontation. However, even after we entered a marked as "private" road to find our way to the waterfall, we only met though shy but friendly waving people driving by. Unfortunately, we couldn't find the way to Hi'Ilawe Falls and had to turn around. The trail was closed and we didn't want to offend the residents by walking over their property. Ironically, the anti-capitalism attitude and rejection of tourism in the valley is weirdly confronted by the commercialization of this piece of nature. It's completely controlled by the local horseback riding and tour bus companies that control any exploring in the valley. Well, I might be the same if people want to hike through my backyard. But I also don't have a 1,450 feet tall waterfall in my backyard that I should maybe share with others.

We spend the rest of the day relaxing at the black sand beach and did some serious boogie boarding. It was lots of fun and we only shared the beach with a few locals and some kids playing in the water.

KIlauea Iki Hike - Read more about this fun half-day hike through a once active crater in our Hawaii Volcanoes National Park post.

Snorkeling & Manta Rays - We've done some great snorkel adventures which are all described in the following article.

Beaches - Hawaii features a great variety of white, green and black sand beaches. Read more about these in our article around adventures over and underwater.

Big Island (Hawaii)

Big Island Sunsets

Waipi'o Valley

Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden