My favorite book for Hawaii travel is: Hawaii The Big Island Revealed. Published by Wizard Publications and written by Andrew Doughty and Harriett Friedman. there are also other books in the series covering other islands.
Check Wizard Publications website for updates. This book covers activities including hiking, golf, swimming, kayaking, whale watching, etc. It rates places to stay and eat and we found it invaluable. This guide book is one of the best I’ve ever used for any vacation.
We hiked Kilauea Ike, a three-mile hike on the Hilo side of the island that covers forest and crater floor. We started as the book recommended at the Kilauea Overlook. The whole time we hiked we wondered who the crazy people were that were down in the crater—not realizing we’d be joining them.
The floor of the crater creaks, smokes and wheezes in several spots. It’s a little spooky and felt like walking across the moon (not that I’ve had the opportunity to do that—yet!)
We took lunch and had a nice day of it.
Warning: It rains a lot on the Hilo side so you might need raincoats or other weather gear. During the other three days we were on this side of the island it rained often. On the day we hiked, the sun was out and we needed sunscreen once we were crossing the wide-open crater. The hike was a most excellent way to sample the volcanic flavor of Hawaii as well as get a taste of the rain forest.
There were no easily visible lava flows while we visited (darn), but we did drive to the end of Chain of Craters Road (20 mile descent to the sea). In the evenings and very early morning, we could see the hot, red reflection of lava in the clouds/steam above Pu’ u’ O’o crater. The roads through the Hawaii National Park are interesting and there are several things to stop and see along Chain of Craters Road. The mounds of lava that cover the end of the road is fascinating. The seaside is pretty spectacular also.
Best Place to get Macadamia Nuts
The coffee plantation we stopped at (Greenwell farms) had these nuts and they were fresher, better tasting and less expensive than buying them at the old Hilo Hatties tourist traps. I recommend a stop at one of the coffee plantations to obtain unroasted or roasted Kona coffee beans and macadamia nuts.
Other good places to get macadamia nuts are the bakeries listed in the guidebook, although the guidebook doesn’t mention that the bakeries might sell bags of these nuts. We got some excellent macadamia nuts at a bakery north of Hilo when we were coast driving.
Best Place to Eat around Hilo
Our favorite place to eat and the most reasonable turned out to be Lava Rock Internet Café. It’s not actually in Hilo, but rather Volcano Village close to Hawaii National Park on Old Volcano Road. Once we found this place, we returned several times.
We stayed in Volcano Village while in the area. There are a few choices, most of them very nice. We liked the property we stayed at (one of the Chalet Kilauea properties—Olena room) but it was around 100 dollars a night. We’d probably try their bed and breakfast listings on a return visit in the hopes of getting the price down.
Best Lava Tunnel
This was a great tunnel, but you do have to hike through the forest to get to it and reservations are required. While you can get a flavor for lava tubes by visiting Thurston Lava Tube inside the park, if you want to see one that hasn’t been “improved” and lit up, this one was great.
Look for the “Wild Lava Tube” guided hike. Phone number that worked for reservations when we were there: 808.985.6017. The rangers don’t charge for the tour and provide helmets with lights. Bring a set of D batteries as a donation or ask when you call if there is a fee/donation suggestion. Only 12 people go at a time and the trek requires climbing over some rocky and uneven ground in the tube. Pretty darn cool.
Punalu’u Black Sand Beach
This was a beautiful stop. There was a sea turtle basking on the sand when we were there. Fabulous! Swimming in the area isn’t the best because the visibility is poor. I tried it and promptly stepped on a sea turtle, which immediately rose to the surface knocking me over and scaring the daylights out of me. They have very, very large…beaks.
Additional worry: If you get very far past any of the jutting shorelines, there are riptides to worry about. While we were there, a swimmer got caught in one. Luckily he was from Australia (almost took the sea ride back!) and familiar with dangerous currents. He was able to swim out of it, but it took him a long while, and he didn’t recommend the experience. His comment, “I wondered why there were no other swimmers out past the area close to shore.” He didn’t get back in the water, and neither did I!
Best Snorkeling and Kayaking
The snorkeling we did on the Kona side—all I can say is Wow! We took masks and snorkels and were able to rent fins.
The kayaking we did is appropriate for beginners. Very beginners–we’re talking never kayaked in the ocean beginners. We rented a Kayak at Kona Boy Kayaks (there are many other places) and went across Kealakekua Bay to the Captain Cook Monument. The one-mile (each way) trip was very, very calm and there were spinner dolphins jumping about, which was a pure delight.
I did practice rowing at the gym, but the ride across the bay was pretty easy. The snorkeling at Captain Cook was spectacular. The water is deep so getting in and out was a bit of a chore—the waves want to smash you up against the concrete wall that borders part of the beach and the shoreline is rocky with little or no gradual decline. If a wave catches you just right, you can get a bit of a bruising. If you’re not comfortable in the ocean or where your feet don’t touch, save your snorkeling for some of the other beach areas.
Take plenty of water/gatorade and lunch! There are no facilities at Captain Cook monument—sunscreen, snorkeling gear, and WATER are a must.
Kahalu’u Beach had very accessible snorkeling and swimming. In many spots you can touch the bottom, although with all the corrals and whatnot, it isn’t recommended because you will damage them. There is a breakwater area that helps keeps the waves calm. We saw sea turtles, parrot fish, you name it. Very, very enjoyable. I highly recommend this area, especially off-season and during the week. Snorkeling here is one of our best memories.
We stayed at Kona Seaspray and our condo unit had a kitchen and washer/dryer. The kitchen proved a good idea since we didn’t find any real food bargains on this side of the island. All the places that we tried (as recommended in the guide) were good and as advertised, but they weren’t cheap.
We ended up taking advantage of the grocery store (Waikoloa Village?) and eating out once a day—lunch when possible because it was a bit cheaper.
Teshima’s had excellent Japanese Curry at a reasonable price.
The condo was right across the street from Kahalu’u Beach so we could walk across the road to swim. We’d stay there again. The only annoyance was the presence of large ants—they were everywhere, especially the bathroom and kitchen. From talking to other people, it was a common occurrence in hotels.
Hawaii is an excellent vacation, but it isn’t cheap—food, gas and accommodations all add up in a hurry.
I spent some time on Oahu (the main airport and capital are on Oahu, as well as Pearl Harbor, etc.) Oahu was nice and had good opportunities such as pineapple farms, waterfalls and forests as well as the snorkeling and surfing activities. It was slightly cheaper to stay there since it cut off the short flight to the other island and the accommodations had a better range of prices.