Big Island Guide: How to Prepare and Where to Stay
Tips and tricks on how to vacation in Big Island with ease.
THURSTON LAVA TUBE, HAWAI’I VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK.
PHOTO: JACK WOLFORD
HOW TO PREPARE
THE BIG ISLAND IS ANOTHER WORLD.
They do things differently there. All the molten mana bubbling under the volcano seems to spin a normal traveler’s compass sideways. So the secret to a successful, laid-back, gonna-cruise kind of holoholo is to plan the hell out of the sucker on the front end of the trip.
RENT THE CAR FIRST.
Why? Because as we’ve discovered, Hilo doesn’t have near as many rental cars as Kailua-Kona, so if you’re thinking of picking up in one airport and dropping off at the other—which seems so logical on the face of it—you may find yourself out of luck. And that’s an expensive taxi ride, my friend.
If you’re leaving from Kona and returning your car there: go early and do something fun near the airport, like swimming and lounging at Hāpuna Beach or, even closer, Kikaua Point Park Beach (limited parking) or Manini‘ōwali Beach at Kua Bay (Hwy 19 between mile markers 18 and 19). Don’t spend the last few hours of a relaxing Sunday stuck in a chain of 25 hesitant tourist drivers all heading to the same Kona rental car return.
NAIL DOWN SATURDAY NIGHT.
What is it about Saturday? A kama‘āina couple can fly in, enjoy a great day, relax in a romantic resort or country lodge, have another great day and fly home Sunday night. Yes, the Big Island is for lovers. Unless you waited too long to book a room; then that fragrance in the air is likely eau du flop sweat as your honey watches you pacing tight circles in the parking lot of another sold-out hotel, cell phone clamped to your ear. Fortunately, there always seems to be a room somewhere on the Big Island, thanks to tons of resort stock in Kailua-Kona. “When in doubt, call the Royal Kona Resort,” advised a Hilo friend, Mark Panek, who gets the $110 kama‘aina rate whenever he and his wife decide to extend an afternoon into an evening.
WHAT TO PACK.
In general: underpack. Unless you’re going to make this a resort weekend, carry only a big shoulder bag or a small backpack and the roller suitcase—which should be mostly empty when you leave and on your return overstuffed with omiyage and loot from your farmers market visits, outdoor adventures and fashion/crafty-treasure hunts.
Besides clothing, here’s the stuff you need: good walking shoes or all-terrain sandals, a swimsuit, a light waterproof jacket, phone charger and a map. Don’t rely on GPS—reception is notoriously spotty. Take, but don’t rely on, the tourist map at the car rental or airport kiosk. A real map will unlock places where all the other people aren’t. Don’t even bring that wrinkled, paperback novel you’ve been meaning to read; Hilo has at least three bookstores.
WHERE TO STAY
HAWAIʻI VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK
There is no better way to home-base a Volcanoes National Park experience than in this alpine-elevation hotel, newly refurnished in 2013.
$185 kama‘aina rate for a standard room ($285 regular), 1 Crater Rim Drive, Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, (866) 536-7972; hawaiivolcanohouse.com
Splurge on Victorian elegance and enjoy the long lawn, koa beds and yukatas to lounge around in.
$219/night and up, 131 Kaiulani Street, (808) 834-9002; hilo-hawaii.com
HILO SEASIDE HOTEL
Want to save money? Just need a place to sleep? The Hilo Seaside Hotel is there for you.
$105/night and up, 126 Banyan Drive, (808) 935-0821; hiloseasidehotel.com
HILO HAWAIIAN HOTEL
This recently renovated spot has a touch of ‘60s big-resort attitude.
$160/night and up, 71 Banyan Drive, Hilo, (808) 935-9361, castleresorts.com/home/accommodations/hilo-hawaiian-hotel
This local favorite is prized for its central location, paniolo-style quilts and décor, and lack of pretension—meaning it’s cheap, with rooms starting at $79 a night.
65-1300 Kawaihae Road, Waimea, (808) 885-4243, thekamuelainn.com
Choose between four private vacation homes and two cottages with names like Cowboy House, Miles Away, Yoshi’s House and Red Ohana.
$275 to $899 a night, 56-2864 Akoni Pule Highway, (808) 315-0805, puakearanch.com
KAILUA-KONA, KONA-KOHALA COAST
COURTYARD MARRIOTT KING KAMEHAMEHA’S KONA BEACH HOTEL
This hotel and its grounds have a stately and restful effect. Yes, there’s a lu‘au and staged show, but you’ll enjoy the lobby full of feathered capes and murals.
$159 for a basic room ($135 for prepaid, non-refundable option), 75-5660 Palani Road, (800) 367-2111, konabeachhotel.com
This is a condo property, not a hotel, but it does have perks that include a fitness center and an outdoor lap pool, and the Lava Lava Beach Club mai-tais have a deserved reputation.
CAPTAIN COOK, KA‘Ū
The charms of this Japanese plantation-style hotel totally outweigh the thin walls and funky, actually almost ancient, furnishings.
Rooms start at $61, and if you don’t mind sharing a bath, go down to $35. 82-6151 Māmalahoa Highway, (808) 323-2642, managohotel.com
If you must get a car in sold-out Hilo: Harper Car and Truck Rental, (800) 852-9993; on Hawai‘i Island, (808) 969-1478. Its stock runs to four-wheelers and trucks, which can be pricey, and those suckers guzzle gas; also, you can expect a “white-gloves” inspection when you return it. You ding, you pay. But it will take you to off-road places, including Ka‘u, Kohala and Waipi‘o Valley. (You don’t need four-wheel drive to reach the summit of Mauna Kea, unless it’s snowbound, and the rental car contracts allow you to drive over the vastly improved Saddle Road. Do check the fine print, though.)
BIG ISLAND BUCKET LIST
Rainbow Falls, Hike.
Photo: Jack Wolford
Go on a horseback tour of Waipi‘o Valley
Take a zipline ride over Akaka Falls
Spend the night in a treehouse during gentle trades
Fly in a helicopter above the volcano and eruption
Swim at a green sand beach
Hike through a field of ancient petroglyphs
Enjoy a week in Hilo with no rain