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“I spent $22,000 on a weeklong trip to Hawaii for my family of four,” a hairstylist recently told me. “My husband says no more trips for us because this one broke the bank.”
I was surprised, especially since she’d mentioned that the flights for her family of four were FREE(!), due to her jealousy-inducing side hustle with a client who was a flight attendant trading haircuts for free airline tickets.
The truth is that Hawaii doesn’t have to be expensive, despite its reputation as a luxury destination. Yes, if you book a last minute mega resort for your large family during high season and eat out in fancy restaurants with lots of high-end excursions, I suppose it’s possible. (Full disclaimer: I have not yet splurged for a helicopter ride in Hawaii and I’m sure it’s worth it.)
But when I travel, I’m always weighing what I choose to spend against my goal to afford a next trip as soon as possible. Here’s what Steve and I did instead on our recent trip to the Big Island…
First Up: A $99 Alaska Companion Fare for Steve
Alaska Airlines offers an annual companion fare for $99 plus taxes to anywhere they fly (hello Mexico, Cuba, Costa Rica and Canada) to holders of their credit card. Since the card costs $75 and it comes with 30,000 bonus miles after you spend $1,000, it’s a no brainer for Hawaii lovers, if you ask me.
And it’s not just for west coasters. Alaska flies to and from lots of Midwest and east cost destinations. We also booked our trip for after Labor Day but before the dead of winter to take advantage of the cheapest full fare for me.
Four Days on the Kona Side
The first thing we do when we head to Hawaii is stock up at the grocery store (or Costco if the kids are with us). When I’m in Europe, I pretty much plan on a daily three course meal, but in Hawaii not so much. Eating out is expensive and not typically memorable. Instead, we pack an insulated cooler bag for sandwiches and cold drinks at the beach, make our own coffee in the morning, and cook quick and easy meals at our apartment. We supplement this with an occasional take-out or burger out. (After all, it’s vacation, right?)
Because we love to meet locals (and benefit from their locals-only tips on what to see and do), AirBnB and VRBO rentals are often a great fit for use when it comes to accommodations.
For our stay in a private apartment on a coffee and macadamia nut farm near the Captain Cook monument, we woke up to this stunning ocean view of the Kona coastline every morning:
Not bad for $85 per night. Especially since the apartment was adorable with luxury linens on a comfortable bed.
Plus, our host picked us some spiny, pink rambutan from a nearby tree and explained how to peel and eat them. I’m pretty sure I would’ve never braved this fruit if she hadn’t showed me how.
Snorkeling South Kona
A visit to the Big Island deserves half of your time on the beachy Kona side and half on the lush, waterfall laden Hilo side fine tuning based on what you like to do.
Flying into Kona can be a bit disorienting at first when you land on what looks like a lava moonscape, but were anticipating a lush beach scene. But don’t worry!
Unlike, say, Maui and Kauai, the Kona coast is mostly comprised of hardened lava. That’s because the Big Island is younger than other Hawaiian islands, with active volcanoes. That also means the island is home to some incredible black and green sand beaches.
Despite the rocky coast, there are so many stunning sandy beaches tucked into the volcanic rock for snorkeling or diving, and they are mostly on the Kailua Kona coast. Like one of our favorites, Manini’owali/Kua Bay, which is a little over a half hour drive from Kona:
As avid snorkelers, we opted for Sea Quest’s full day Expedition South Kona boat tour to sample three locations over the course of a day. With fewer than 10 people on a rigid hull inflatable raft, we bounced along on a sparkling Kona day powered by warm turquoise waves to our first snorkel stop at Place of Refuge, otherwise known as Pu’uhonua o Honaunau. (Hawaiian is always super challenging for me because they seem so stingy with the consonants, but I suppose it’s a small price to pay for Paradise.)
Place of Refuge offered a peaceful secluded bay for snorkeling on the day we were there. I even cavorted with a small sea turtle for a few minutes. We were so intrigued by the totems we could see from the water that we elected to return to this national historic treasure on foot later.
Why is it called “Place of Refuge?” Until the 19th century, if a Hawaiian broke a “kapu” (i.e., ancient law), he was protected from certain death if he could elude his captors and make it here. A few powerful chiefs lived just outside its boundaries. And yet, defeated warriors were still safe here.
After nosing the boat into a few sea caves, we motored over to the famous Kealakekua Bay, home to the Captain Cook Monument, which marks a decisive battle between the natives and the first European to reach the Hawaiian islands in 1779.
We were all appropriately reverent as we passed the face of Pele, Goddess of Fire, hidden in the rock formations on the cliffs of Kona along the way.
Kealakekua Bay is a beautiful little protected bay, and as such, it’s the premiere snorkeling destination across all of the islands that make up the state of Hawaii. The variety of neon colored fish we saw there was unmatched among any other snorkeling destination we’ve so far enjoyed in Hawaii.
The challenge is, of course, overcrowding. When we visited, there were strict and convoluted rules about how people could access the bay independently of a tour. In theory, you should be able to rent a kayak on your own (although then you have to keep track of it while snorkeling). So the tour was perfect.
We capped this lovely day with a sunset Mai Tai at the gorgeous tiki bar at Royal Kona Resort. (The annual Mai Tai Festival they hold there in August sure looks like fun!) If I were in the mood to spend a bit more for a hotel, I’d probably head here.
One experience not to be missed (that we did in fact miss by not booking ahead) is a night swim with the manta rays. I heard nothing but the most enthusiastic endorsements from those that did.
Night snorkeling? What?
The story goes like this: Back in the late seventies, the Sheraton Kona Resort decided to illuminate the waves for guests’ nighttime viewing pleasure. That attracted loads of plankton, which in turn, attracted the giant manta rays that learned that the lights meant a ready source of food.
Today, you can head out at night with a tour company (Sea Quest also offers these tours) for an awe-inspiring intimate encounter with these gentle giants either in a group dive, if you are SCUBA certified, or while floating on a giant Styrofoam noodle if you are a snorkeler. Or, if you missed this opportunity like we did, you can catch glimpses of them for free by hanging out at the Sheraton Kona bar (after 8 pm for best viewing). We caught glimpses of several in the hour we watched under a misting rain.
To Hilo via Volcanoes National Park
It’s just a 90 minute drive around the southern tip of the island to the fabulous Volcanoes National Park so we elected to see the park as a day trip, then continuing on to our digs in Hilo. However, I think next time I’d spend one night near by to minimize driving and maximize opportunity to see the lava flowing under a black starlit sky. (Sidenote: If you’re looking for a drive that’s worth every mile, don’t miss Maui’s Road to Hana.)
If you’re a hiker, you’ll definitely want to stay to take advantage of the many jaw-dropping hikes in the park. Kilauea, here at the park, is the world’s most active volcano. The volcano flows are constantly shifting so be sure to stop at the Visitor Center on the way in to hear where it’s flowing and how to best see it.
We packed a picnic lunch and hiked the moderately challenging Kilauea Iki trail, a four mile loop that took us about 2.5 hours, including time for a picnic and so many stops for gawking. We descended through a lush rain forest to the floor of the solid—but still steaming—Kilauea Crater lava lake and than back up through the rain forest.
Before heading out of the park, we took 20 minutes to walk through the Thurston Lava Tube and imagine the river of red lava that had rushed through a few hundred years ago.
One of the highlights of our Big Island adventure was watching the lava rushing into the ocean outside the park near Pahoa, on the south end of the island. We did this as an evening drive from Hilo, but if you’d like to avoid backtracking, stay near Volcanoes National Park for faster access.
When we saw it, we rented inexpensive bikes for an easy 20 minute ride. We also met a couple who booked a lightweight boat to see it up close and personal. However, where the lava is flowing constantly shifts so be sure to ask in the park about best viewing opportunities. After all, it’s not every day that you can watch the actual crust of the earth being formed!
Hilo: A Rain Forest Paradise
If downtown Kona is a bit touristy (ouch…such expensive parking!) on the dry side of the island, Hilo is its polar opposite. This is old Hawaii at its finest with ramshackle shops and rain. Folks who live in Hilo tend to roll their eyes a bit at the tourist mayhem in Kona. They prefer the lush rain forest and waterfalls only found on the east side.
Our private Airbnb apartment was located in tiny, upscale Reed’s Island, a residents-only area that came with our own private rushing waterfall:
Yes, that’s where we breakfasted every morning! Can you imagine? Our host, Gary, couldn’t have been more helpful. He loaned us beach chairs and towels and even has bicycles and kayaks he’ll share. Just ask.
What to Do on the East Side of the Island
While there aren’t a lot of beaches this way, you could explore funky Puna to the south and swim Ahalanui, a naturally heated spring-fed pool or snorkel the clear and interconnected tide pools at Kapoho.
Those will most definitely be on our list for a next visit. This trip, we headed north up the wild Hamakua Coast, stopping first at the jaw-dropping Akaka falls.
Whatever you do, make time to see the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden past mile marker 7 at Onomea Bay on the old coastal highway here. Not really a gardens person? Already seen lots of beautiful native flowers? Doesn’t matter. Go here.
I am a gardens person and it’s the most stunning botanical garden I’ve ever seen. Photographers and nature lovers worldwide flock to this 40-acre natural greenhouse home to 2,000 species.
Mahalo, Big Island for a memorable tropical adventure.
We will be back.
If you go:
Our apartment south of Kona with a view for days. You can check prices and availability on this VRBO rental here.
***Please note: Wifi is sketchy here so you won’t be streaming Netflix if it rains buckets (which it may) one day.
On the Hilo side of the Big Island, stay at our Airbnb, a waterfall paradise on Reed’s Island. Five stars. Highly recommended. (No A/C but you’re unlikely to need it.)
Mai tais, of course, at the at Royal Kona Resort Tiki Bar
The Coffee Shack for an island-style breakfast or a cup of Kona coffee en route to Volcanoes National Park from Kona. Stop here for the stunning view and bathroom break, not the food, which is just adequate.
What’s Shakin’ food stand (north of Hilo)
Wraps and smoothies that are worth the $ and prove there’s an exception to every rule (i.e., that Hawaiian restaurants are overpriced for the value.)
Seaquest Hawaii snorkel tours.