People will tell you that you have to spend at least a week on each of the major Hawaiian islands. They’ll say that it’s not worth going for only a few days. I know, because I got a lot of that when I asked in online travel forums earlier this year.
Of course these people are just trying to help you have the best trip you can. But sometimes “slow travel” proponents don’t realize that a short trip is still better than no trip. In a perfect world, we WOULD spend more time in each location, to really get a more local perspective and have a chance to really meet people. But it’s not always realistic.
We only had one week for our very first trip to Hawaii, and we chose to plan an itinerary that gave us a small sampler of the Big Island.
We gave ourselves two full days, plus a bit extra on either end for travel, and while indeed it was a whirlwind circuit, it was more than adequate for us to get a taste. If you find yourself in a time crunch like us, take a look at our itinerary and see if it might work well for you too.
Starting in Kailua–Kona with your rental car from the airport, head south on the main highway alongside the ocean. If this is your first time here, the views might stun you.
If you need to, grab some snacks at the nearby Target or Walmart in case you can’t find a place to get lunch later. When lunchtime rolled by for us, we were in an area that didn’t have restaurants, so we were happy to have something with us.
There are several coffee farms nearby your starting point that offer tours, samples, and local treats. Research in advance which one suits you and make sure they are open when you are driving through. We went to Greenwell Farms, which has free tours, coffee samples, umbrellas for the sun, and knowledgeable guides.
Not very far down the road is a great breakfast spot with an amazing view, called The Coffee Shack.
It’s a relaxing spot to fuel up for your day ahead and have some great food and coffee.
Hop back on the road and enjoy the next 50 miles of views as you make your way to Punalu’u Black Sand Beach.
It’s not really a great swimming beach, but the black sand is otherworldly and worth a stop. But it’s HOT! Be careful if you’re in sandals; the dry sand seeped into mine and was… not comfortable.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is up next. There were no active lava flows when we were there, and I was worried it wouldn’t be worth the entrance fee, but that was a needless concern. At some point I will write up a summary of the views we saw there, as it is enough to fill its own post.
Now it’s time to head to Hilo and check into your hotel. We stayed at Hilo Hawaiian Hotel, which we were very pleased with. It was in a great location near the water.
There are plenty of dinner options to chose from in Hilo. We were over being in a car for the day, so we walked to a restaurant right around the corner from our hotel, called Hilo Bay Cafe. We didn’t think the menu had too many good casual options for us (it was fancier than we were expecting, with “cafe” in the name); Kevin got a regular burger, and I got the one and only vegetarian option, which turned out to be a delightful risotto.
The rest of Day One is for relaxing in any way you choose! After a day of “go-go-go,” I like to make sure I schedule in a break, or else I may not take one!
Another full day is upon you. After checking out of the hotel, head into town and look for some breakfast. We went to Conscious Culture Cafe. My veggie scramble came with “macnut pesto,” which looked like a weird green dollop, but was really a tasty addition to eggs!
Then take some time to wander around Hilo if you didn’t the day before.
Nearby is Rainbow Falls, which isn’t huge, but is very beautiful and worth the short drive.
When you’ve had your fill of Hilo, continue north on your way to the second waterfall of the day, Akaka Falls.
Here, you will have to pay to park, but then the walk to the falls is free. Akaka Falls is pretty magical, so you won’t want to skip it.
Waipio Valley is next. Rental companies do not allow you to take their cars down into the valley due to the steep road, but the lookout at the top offers beautiful views. If you’re insistent, you can probably find someone to take you down in their 4WD vehicle. Do not attempt it on foot without proper hiking experience.
At this point, I will recommend two different options. You can choose to return to Kona via Highway 19 and stop at some beaches along the way. Or you can turn inward to the center of the Big Island towards the volcano Mauna Kea.
We chose this second option, but I’m not sure I would do so again. I had wanted to do some stargazing at the Mauna Kea visitor center, but our other activities of the day had taken less time than I anticipated, and we were hours early for nightfall. The drive to the volcano took us through desolate open fields, and I worried what might happen if we had car trouble.
Mauna Kea itself has some interesting views, but I’m just not sure it’s worth it, as there is nothing else in this area.
I would be surprised if you weren’t tired of being in a car by this point. Head back to Kailua-Kona to relax for the rest of the day.
Check into your hotel (we stayed at Kona Seaside Hotel, which was unexciting, but sufficient), and then head to my high recommendation of Kona Brewing Co. for dinner and a drink.
Kevin enjoyed his beer sampler and burger, and I LOVED my half and half pizza! One of the best pizzas I’ve ever eaten!
End the night by enjoying your last Big Island sunset.