With a whopping 63% of all the land in Hawaii, Big Island is certainly a descriptive, if somewhat direct moniker. Despite hogging all the space, only 13% of Hawaii’s population actually call it home. What’s the deal? Well, the five volcanoes, three of which are active might have something to do with it.
Then again, THAT’S COOL! The raw, unrestrained power of mother nature stops at nothing to shape, shift, and carve out Big Island. It is not a stretch to say that volcanoes are its metaphorical and physical heart. To see, hear and yes – feel – this in person is something that’s simply not reproducible anywhere else. There is nothing quite like getting up close and personal with earth’s unchecked might made manifest. Welcome to Big Island. Still keen? Read on!
Date of trip: 5/Aug/2017 – 16/Aug/2017
My friends and I personally incurred all expenses and planned our own itinerary for this trip; no component of this post was sponsored
Table of Contents
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
– Chain of Craters Road
– Pu’u ‘O’o Volcano Lava Flows & Kamokuna Ocean Lava Entry Point
– Kamokuna: Lava Entering the Ocean
– Kilauea Iki Trail
– Thurston Lava Tube
– Kilauea Volcano: Jaggar Museum Outlook
Akaka Falls Loop
Richardson Beach Park – Black Sand Beach
Papakolea Green Sand Beach
The indigenous people of Hawaii refer to big Island as “Hawai’i”, so you can see how this could get confusing really quickly. As such despite it being a nickname, ‘Big Island’ is used ubiquitously – you should too when visiting.
Formed from five shield volcanoes, Big Island’s had a lot (of lava) going for it – past and present. It’s already by far and away Hawaii’s biggest, but continues to grow due to activity from the three remaining active volcanoes. One of them – Kilauea – has been continuously erupting since 1983.
It is precisely Big Island’s volcanic activity that drew my starry-eyed attention. How many photos of you standing next to active lava flows do you have on your phone? None: I thought so. On Big Island, this isn’t just possible – it’s virtually guaranteed, and completely legal.
While there is no doubt in my mind that Kauai is the prettier island, Big Island’s volcanic ace is all it needs. If you don’t let a lava-spewing fire mountain erupt all up in your personal space, why are you even visiting?
Climate / Getting Around
Big Island is big enough that there are two climates: cold & wet near the top due to elevation, and mild to hot (and humid) near sea level. It’s like this all year round and, at the risk of sounding like captain obvious: lava tends to make things hotter.
As with Kauai, renting a car is your best option for getting around. However, if you intend to visit the summit of Mauna Kea, be sure to upgrade to a 4WD as it’s the only vehicle type permitted on the summit. While I would have loved nothing more than to watch the sunset & stargaze from one of the earth’s clearest vantage points (it is a must-do while on Big Island), the summit trail was closed at the time of our visit. Talk about being dudded 🙁
ANYWAYS, onto what we did see!
Activities / Sights
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
It wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say that virtually all of the action is at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Both the mighty Kilauea volcano and lava flows from Pu’u ‘O’o, one of its most active cones, can be found here. If that isn’t enough, you can also find the Kamokuna viewpoint, where you can see lava enter the ocean. This is one of the exceedingly rare places in the world where you can witness the literal creation of new landmass!
Chain of Craters Road
Many of the sights in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park can be seen with little effort from the Chain of Craters Road, a surprisingly well-maintained, 30km stretch of windy asphalt that truly exposes the austerity and desolate character of the land that covers much of the national park. Seeing so much dried lava covering literally everything as far as the eye can see truly made it difficult not to be humbled by the power of mother nature.
Thought bubble: perhaps the road is well-maintained because every now and then, they literally have to rebuild it after a lava flow bubbles over the top?
Pu’u ‘O’o Volcano Lava Flows & Kamokuna Ocean Lava Entry Point
I don’t condone a visit to the Pu’u O’o crater itself, as it’s likely to come with the side effect of a (drastically) shortened lifespan; however, we were still able to experience one of its highlights: lava in (and hopefully not on) the flesh.
Getting here is actually quite simple – once you actually do it. Here’s the condensed summary:
1) Drive as far as you can towards this spot.
2) Once parked, you’ll see a plethora of bike rental vendors. it’s a 12km return trip – and that’s just to the start of the lava fields. Consider saving your energy over saving some Benjamins – rates vary between $15-$25pp.
3) At the end of the bike trail, you can go left (lava entering ocean) or right (up close & personal with lava). My recommendation is to turn right first, get the photo of a lifetime, then head back the other way in time for sunset, giving the best lighting for lava hitting the ocean (visibility during the day: steam city). Allow for about 1.5hrs for the lava fields hike, greatly dependent on how far you have to walk before you find any.
But the results at night? A MasterCard moment: priceless.
Bonus: Holei sea arch
From the other side of the lava entry point, accessed via the end of the chain of craters road is the Holei sea arch. A bit of a detour, to be sure; however, erosion means it won’t last forever: see it while you still can.
Kilauea Iki Trail
Walking the Kilauea Iki trail is probably the closest I would ever get to actually reenacting the Fellowship of the Rings’ trek to Mordor in the J.R.R. Tolkien classic. Desolate landscapes, harsh sun, powerful winds all make this walk an epic, unique experience. It’s low-moderate difficulty, most people shouldn’t have much difficulty.
At the end of the trail, you’ll find:
Thurston Lava Tube
Several hundred years ago, Kilauea had a wild night and got totally pissed, erupting with a magnitude that makes today’s sputters look like a leaky tap. This resulted in the formation of a series of lava tubes, with Thurston (aka Nahuku in Hawaiian) lava tube being one of particular prominence. Lava tubes are formed when a heck of a lot of super hot gooey stuff gushes through earth and mountain alike, cooling rapidly and then allowing further goo to continue unabated, carving out literally miles of tunnels through the earth. Walking through one is once again a reminder in not messing with that mother nature chick.
Kilauea Volcano: Jaggar Museum Outlook
Finally, after seeing lava up close, walking on volcanic flats and through lava tubes comes the sight of Kilauea crater itself. The best place to see it is from the Jaggar Museum Outlook, which is also the best place to learn more about the volcano itself.
Akaka Falls Loop
Big Island’s tallest and likely its most beautiful waterfall, Akaka Falls is the answer to the question ‘which waterfall should I visit if I only have time for one?’ All the more so when only a 600 metre, low difficulty walk is required to get there.
A small town of less than 600 people on the northeast side of Big Island, not much happens at Laupahoehoe, other than fishing and having a picnic. It wouldn’t have made it on our itinerary at all if it weren’t for its unique lava tip formations on its coastline, formed by ancient pahoehoe (smooth) lava that created the entire surrounding area. A solid choice the landscape photogs out there.
Richardson Beach Park – Black Sand Beach
Given Big Island’s volcanic tendencies, black sand beaches made from crushed lava aren’t all that big of a deal. That said, if you had to visit one, make it Richardson Beach Park. It’s a bigger one than most and if you’re lucky, you’ll even be able to spot green turtles lurking around!
Yeah nah, we weren’t lucky. Aiya.
Papakolea Green Sand Beach
Stop me if this sounds familiar: black sand beaches are so pedestrian. Well, how about green sand beaches instead? That’s what you’ll get at Papakolea Green Sand Beach, with a special type of ‘olivine silica’ that gives off its distinct green hue. Be prepared to hike up to an hour one way if not visiting with a 4WD, as it’s only reachable after traversing a heck of a lot of sand. Alternatively, you can pay a sum of money to get a ride from kinda-sorta official operators of vehicles in the area. Whichever method you choose will be worth it: Papakolea is one of only four green sand beaches in the world!
Hawaiian Style Cafe
Hawaiian Style Cafe tells and sells it like it is: this cafe’s 100 item(!!) menu has pretty much everything, including the plumber for the kitchen sink. Be it Hawaii’s love affair with plate lunches (2 scoops of rice, mac salad & a main meat), loco moco, kalua pork or essentially anything we Aussies would consider ‘American’, Hawaiian Style Cafe has it. We didn’t really expect the world at this cafe. In true super-size-me form, the world on a plate was exactly what we got.
Ka Lae Cafe
An artistic, hipster space nestled in lush forest more than 1500m above sea level, Ka Lae Cafe could be the coolest on Big Island – in both senses of the word. The coffee here matches the space, with a brew that’s about as good as it got from all the ones we visited on the trip. It was unfortunately quite chilly and raining on the day of our visit, but it’s not difficult to see myself losing hours sipping a cuppa at this comely space that’s almost like a well-tended farmhouse & garden.
The original Hawaiian franchise that became so popular it made its way over to the US mainland, a visit to L&L’s BBQ must be made for the trip to be considered complete. It’s a chain that’s made the most of the Pan Asian-American creation known as the plate lunch, with almost every menu item based off of this classic rice + mac salad + meat combo.
It’s ridiculously cheap and food is…let’s just say can be described as extremely comforting. Two winning combos, really. In my case, paying twelve bucks for two small mountains of rice, two fried eggs, meat from four animals, and some gravy for good measure is nothing short of the literal definition for value.
The plate lunches at L&L’s BBQ should be renamed to what they really are: meat boxes. Golly yes.
Oh hello, Ohelo. Situated in the town of Volcano, Ohelo Cafe was our refuel stop after some serious volcano exploring (specifically, see the segment on Kilauea Iki Trail). Like many of my cafe experiences in Hawaii, Ohelo isn’t exactly offering cutting edge stuff, but delivers enough to satisfy a hungry stomach. For example, while the burgers of the day ordered by my travel buddies turned out subpar (dry patty, insufficient sauce), my local fish (opakapaka or pink spanner) curry w/rice was a joy to eat. You won some, you lose some.
Moon & Turtle
Asian fusion, fresh & locally-sourced seafood, plus a menu that changes on the whim of what’s good and what’s in season is the premise behind the family-run Moon & Turtle. About as high-end of a dining experience as we had on Big Island, the restaurant’s menu features such heavy hitters such as miso chilli yaki udon, wild local boar sausage pappardelle, and local marlin ceviche. Not quite Japanese, not quite Italian, but definitely delicious.
We greedily over-ordered, but it was worth it when you get to reheat leftover fried rice the next day. No seriously: incomparably good 😀
Easily the best restaurant I visited on Big Island!
Hana Hou Restaurant
Excellent positioning along the Mamalahoa Highway and a rich variety of Hawaiian cafe nosh makes Hana Hou an easy recommendation for a pit-stop meal when travelling down to the South-East side of Big Island. We got reacquainted with our friend loco moco, while also experiencing a cultural bridging with the Mexi Hash. I only found out later that they bake their bread in-house, and their macadamia nut pie is ‘to die for’ – two things I’ll definitely have to order if I’m ever revisiting Big Island.
Daylight Mind Coffee Company
With our Hawaii trip definitely focused on the outdoors, visiting a cafe in an actual city was a rare, but welcome occasion. Daylight Mind Coffee Company is however no mere cafe: this is a full-on, two-story operation with hundreds of seats, views out to Kailua beach from nearly every table, and a proper, full-on restaurant offering. Coming here, ordering a lilikoi soda and taking in the view while downing local chow is pretty much the closest we got to enjoying Hawaii in a way that most honeymooners would.
And yet, I still get myself a loco moco. LOL. In all seriousness, Kailua-Kona is be full of excellent restaurants with beach views; however, Daylight Mind Coffee Company was a great experience: can, and do recommend.
P.S. don’t forget to order coffee. It’s proper stuff, none of that pot water.
Don the Beachcomber
Allegedly singlehandedly spearheading the Polynesian-style tiki bar and popularising the mai tai (not the Thai one), we couldn’t ignore the opportunity to visit the legendary Don the Beachcomber at the Royal Kona Resort – and I don’t even consider myself much of a drinker.
Don the Beachcomber’s got literally a whole book of cocktails – with two of them solely devoted to mai tais – to assist in the awakening of the inner raging alcoholic. I personally think I could be out-competed by a toddler when it comes to alcohol tolerance, so the mai tai tasting platter – allowing for a quadruple induction into this famous drink – was more than enough on which to get merry.
Ke aloha (cheers)!
A Big Experience on Big Island
This post covered a lot of ground, but there’s so much more to Big Island that I haven’t seen: the stunning north & west coasts, Mauna Kea, green sea turtles and more. Give yourself at least 4-5 days here, and maybe a sixth day just to recover from a mai tai hangover. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!