Big Island, Hawai’i (2/15-2/18)

Welcome to our 3 day tour of Big Island, Hawai'i. We hope you enjoy traveling with us and are inspired to take your own trip. This trip was part of our seven month journey around the world which began in Flores, Guatemala. See a summary of the destinations we traveled to over our seven months here: link.


From Kauai, it was a short hopper flight to our next island, the “Big Island”. 


Why Travel to Big Island, Hawai’i?

It seems every island in Hawai’i is a great choice for a vacation, or if you are lucky enough, a place to call home. But why is the Big Island a must travel destination? Because, where else can you hit the beach, swim with manta rays, hunt for lava, and have a snowball fight all in one day? The Big Island is also home to one of the most active volcanoes in the world, Kīlauea and the Earth’s largest volcano, Moana Loa.

The two most common locations travelers book accommodation when visiting the Big Island are Hilo on the East Coast and Kona on the West Coast which are about an hour and a half drive from each other. From what we understand, Kona is a bit more upscale and touristy while Hilo is cheaper and more historic. We stayed in Hilo because the flight into and accommodation in Hilo were cheaper (check flight options both into Hilo and Kona for what works best for you). 

Overall, the majority of our time was spent doing activities rather than exploring the towns so we don’t have an informed opinion on which is better. If you are like us, figure out what you want to do while on the island and see if one location makes more sense than the other. 


How Long to Stay in Big Island, Hawai’i?

We spent three days on the Big Island and wish we had more. Our days were very full. One day we biked and hiked for three to four hours to see active lava flow and on the same day we drove to the other end of the island (two hours) to do a night snorkel with manta rays (followed by a two hour drive back to our hotel). Talk about a full day!

*UPDATE* – Unfortunately, for lava seekers, the volcano has not had lava flow since our visit in 2018, so this may take a day off of your itinerary.

However, there are plenty of other activities and ways to relax that can keep you on the Big Island for a week. If we had more time (and money), we would have added three more days to fit in some beach hopping/exploring (including snorkeling/maybe scuba), star gazing, a helicopter tour, and a hike on volcano Mauna Loa. 


Top Things To Do in Big Island, Hawai’i

1) Drive Up Maunakea (a dormant volcano) and Play in the Snow 

Maunakea peak, 4,207 meters (13,803 ft), is the highest point in all of Hawai’i and is one of the only places in the world where you can drive from sea level to over 13,000 feet in less than 2 hours. The drive from Hilo to the peak will take you less than an hour and a half if you don’t stop along the way for pictures. But who would do that? 

It was 80+ degrees when we left Hilo, but by the time we reached the top we could make a snowman. ☃️

Maunakea is supposed to be one of the best places on the planet for star gazing and has a private observatory at the top. Unfortunately, the observatory is not open to the public and stargazing can only be done by visitors at the visitor information station level (9,200 ft) and below. Fortunately, the weather is warmer down there and still provides for epic star-gazing.

2) Hunt for Lava Flow/Visit Kalapana 

In 1990, the town of Kalapana was engulfed by lava from Kilauea Volcano. No lives were lost but 182 homes were consumed. The town is now a relic of the destructive power of volcanoes. 

A visit to Kalapana to view the aftermath is worth it alone, however, when we were in Hawaii it was also along the route to a viewing point for active lava flow. Time to hunt for lava! 

Map from the Jaggar Museum

When we visited there were two trails that you could take to view the lava flow (pictured above). One hike started from the National Park and was a 9-12-mile round trip hike. The other trail started in Kalapana. We opted for the Kalapana route as we were able to bike a large portion of the necessary path. At the time of our visit, we had to bike three miles (one-way) and then hike by foot an additional two to three miles to reach the lava flow. 

Armed with water and a bike lock, we started our journey (full disclosure, this picture was taken towards the end of our hike)

After the ride, we locked up our bikes and started hiking. 

We could feel the heat emitting from the depths of the volcanic ground

The hike was long, hot, and nerve wracking with no shade or protection from the elements as we were hiking across barren lava flows. We were told to hike towards the ridge and you might be able to see the lava flow. We hiked for what felt like an hour before we saw anything that looked like lava. We had doubts we would see anything, and even talked about turning back a couple times. Ultimately, we kept trudging along. Even when we saw the first glimpse of red/orange on the ridge we still had doubts about it being lava or just rock. 

But we kept on walking and eventually…… BOOM!

*Important* In 2018, an eruption of Kīlauea volcano devastated Hawai’i. From May through August of 2018 lava flows and a series of earthquakes destroyed over 700 homes and altered the landscape including the collapse of the Kīlauea caldera.


*Left image: Kīlauea summit on April 13, 2018 Photo courtesy USGS – Hawaiian Volcano Observatory
 *Right Image: Kīlauea summit on July 28, 2018 Photo courtesy USGS – Hawaiian Volcano Observatory

However, since September 2018 there has been no active eruption or lava flow on the Island of Hawai’i. What does this mean for you? There is no lava glow to see anywhere in or out of the park. So for those looking to hunt for lava in Kauai you’ll have to watch the news for any updates. 

Our trip occurred in February of 2018. It was a shock for us to see the destruction that took place just a few months after our visit. It was a horrible thing to have happened to thousands. We consider ourselves lucky to come out unscathed and to have been able to see the active lava flow.

3) Manta Ray Night Snorkel in Kona

Here is an experience we had never heard about prior to our trip to the Big Island; a night-time swim with manta rays. Yes the thought of being in the ocean in the middle of the night with rays was daunting at first, however, this was another unique experience we had to try. 

Our tour operator captained the ship into a bay and instructed us to jump out into the water. The crew then placed a long buoy into the ocean that projected a light to attract plankton the manta rays eat. We then grabbed hold of the buoy, put floatation devices under our feet, and waited for the gentle giants to arrive. 

We never knew manta rays were such acrobats in the water, they danced around and calmly enjoyed our company. We marveled at these peaceful creatures and enjoyed every minute. The rays would swoop up towards the buoy and back down into the ocean in large circular motions generally coming within a few inches of us. One ray even got friendly with me and lightly grazed me a few times. This whole adventure was indeed magical. 

We booked with My Kona Adventures. This unique experience costs $110 USD; however, we got 50% off with Groupon, since you know, we’re budget travelers. 😉

4) Akaka State Park

Akaka State Park is home to Akaka Falls, a 442-foot free-falling waterfall into a gorge.

You can see the waterfall in the background. It gets much bigger.

When visiting the park you can also take a nice walk around a man-made half-mile loop trail. 

The highlight of course are the views of Akaka falls.

5) Other Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Activities – Jaggar Museum and Nāhuku, also known as the Thurston Lava Tube  

Steam escaping the cracks in the ground on our drive to the museum

The Jagger museum included displays and exhibits of volcano history on the Big Island. Outside of the museum was an observation deck with a great panoramic view of the Kilauea Caldera.

When we were there we were able to view the caldera, seeing plumes of smoke and glowing lava from within the Halemauma Crater. 

Unfortunately, the Jagger Museum is now closed due to the instability of the caldera’s ledge, where the Jaggar Museum is located. The area has been labeled by National Park Services geomorphologists as “extremely unstable” due to the thousands of earthquakes caused by the volcano in 2018. Many of the exhibits, however, have been transferred to the Pahoa Lava Zone museum on the southeastern side of the island. 

After visiting the Jagger Museum, we had enough time to visit the Thurston Lava tube which is a subterranean cave formed by old flowing lava.


Where To Eat in Big Island, Hawai’i

We tried to keep the costs down for the trip so elected to cook our own food or stop at some cheaper alternatives. One place we did stop at was: 

What’s Shakin’

We highly recommend What’s Shakin’! This is an off the beaten path eatery serving American & Hawaiian fare. They also offered several healthy, vegan, and vegetarian options including delicious shakes with fruits grown from their own backyard. 


Other Recommendations of Things to Do

These are all adventures that we unfortunately didn’t have time to do on our own but would have considered if we had more time:

  • Maunakea stargazing
  • Visit the Earth’s Largest volcano –  Moana Loa. We traveled across a large portion of the island but never got a chance to hike up near Moana Loa. You can do a hike to the peak, but it would be an all-day strenuous hike. 
  • The beaches are one of the main attractions on the Big Island and we really didn’t get to explore any of them. Next time we could try out the various beaches with different color sand: Punalu’u beach (black sand), Papakōlea (green sand), and Hāpuna beach (white sand).
  • Golfing on the Big Island is popular as there are several courses available developed by some of the most well-known course designers.
  • Helicopter tour – seems as if there is always a hidden wonder on each of the islands.
  • Snorkeling and/or Scuba diving at many of the popular destinations.
  • Whale watching


Question For You

  • What was your favorite big island experience?



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