Big Island, the largest of the Hawaiian Islands, has something for everyone. But as we only had a few days to explore, we squeezed in as much as we could.
Flying into Kona, we stayed in the area near the airport the first night. With the time difference, we were all up early and went out to explore the area. We wandered around the historic Kailua Village and Niumalu Beach, where beautiful turquoise water crashed against black lava rock.
There’s a sacred archaeological site, Ahuʻena Heiau, found near the pier with woven huts and tiki statues that can be viewed from a distance.
Before starting our drive around to Hilo, on the other side of the island, we stopped at the Puna Chocolate Company. There are four different locations on the island, two cacao orchards where you can do a walking tour, and two smaller chocolate factories and cafes. This one was the Kona Cafe & Chocolate Factory. We read about the local Hawaiian-grown cacao and how the volcanic soil and climate here are ideal for growing excellent cacao to make delicious chocolate and watched them churning chocolate through the viewing window.
We bought a variety of chocolate including peanut butter, molasses caramel toffee, and macadamia nut with toasted coconut and headed upstairs to enjoy our own chocolate tasting! Kona Brewing Co is located next door, so we hoped to do a beer tasting next, but unfortunately it was closed, so we continued on our way to the other side of the island to our Airbnb in Hilo.
There are some beautiful scenic lookout spots as you drive around Big Island and we stopped at quite a few as we made our way to Punalu’u Black Sand Beach.
I have never seen sand this black. It was beautiful watching the huge waves crashing in and wading in the chilly water, but the highlight was seeing six Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles basking in the sand!
Sea turtles are protected in Hawai’i under both state and federal law. There were volunteers at the beach ensuring the sea turtles were roped off and that everyone stayed at least 10 feet away from them.
After, we stopped at Punalu’u Bakeshop, the southernmost bakery in the USA. It smelled amazing and the Hawaiian sweet bread was delicious.
Hawai’i is known for its volcanoes, so while on Big Island, Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park is a must-do! There is a walking tour led by a park ranger that leaves from the visitor’s centre every day at 11am and 2pm, which I highly recommend. We had Ranger Dean, a conservation biologist, who was so enthusiastic and clearly loves his job. He was a wealth of knowledge on the unique geological, biological, and cultural landscapes here. Two of the world’s most active volcanoes, Kilauea and Mauna Loa, are found here and the park has been designated as an International Biosphere Reserve as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ranger Dean told us that 90-95% of the plants found here are unique to Hawai’i.
Some were very interesting, including a giant fernlike tree that had ‘fur’ patches growing on it that felt just like petting a cat! He explained that the fur protects the plant and if it’s removed, the plant dies. Another type of fern becomes mulch when it dies, creating ‘soil’ on the lava rock so the plant can continue to grow! The adaptability of vegetation here is amazing.
We soon made our way to a clearing in the trail, and in the distance, you could see the giant crater-style volcano, Kilauea, smoking away. There are some interesting ancient Hawaiian stories about how the volcanoes here came to be. They call her ‘Pele-honua-mea’ or ‘Pele,’ and she is the goddess of volcanoes and fire in Hawai’i.
The volcanoes here each tend to erupt every 2-3 years. Kilauea just erupted again in January 2023.
After the tour, we stopped for lunch at Volcano House. This restaurant is located in the hotel with a great view of the volcano. I had their Hawaiian pizza…always a favourite of mine and felt I needed to have one in Hawai’i!
Inside the park, there are numerous hiking and driving trails for guests to explore. We drove along Crater Rim Drive, stopping at several lookouts along the way as we made our way to Na’huku – Thurston Lava Tube. This is a 500-year-old cave where a river of lava once flowed. It was quite dark inside the lava tube, but it was cool to be walking through a tunnel carved by lava.
We drove along the Chain of Craters Road, which is 18.8 miles long, where you pass several old lava flows. It’s a pretty barren landscape with lots of lava rock, but interesting to see how vegetation has started to make its way back, depending on how long ago the lava passed through.
The road ends at the Holei Sea Arch, an arch that was created by lava flowing into the Pacific Ocean.
If you enjoyed the volcano by day, you can also head back after dark to really see the glowing red lava.
(Entrance fee – $30 per vehicle, good for 7 days.)
If you love lush tropical plants and beautiful landscapes, then Hawaiian Tropical Bioreserve & Garden is a must! It was founded in 1978 by Dan and Pauline Lutkenhouse, who bought 17 acres here after falling in love with the overgrown ‘jungle’ on the ocean. They turned it into a garden, which opened to the public in 1984 after spending six years hand-clearing the tropical jungle. They later purchased another 20 acres and donated it all to the Hawaiian Tropical Bioreserve & Garden, establishing a non-profit nature reserve and protecting Onomea Bay. To enter, you head down a steep 500-foot boardwalk leading into the beautiful gardens. I have never seen anything so lush. This is exactly what I imagined when I thought about Hawaii. Huge ferns, birds of paradise, hibiscus, massive sprawling Banyan trees, streams with little waterfalls, a lily pond with koi fish, over 150,000 types of orchids, giant palm trees, and so much more. You can easily spend a few hours here, wandering around paradise!
(Open 9am-5pm, with last entrance at 4pm. Admission – $25)
There are also walking trails around Onomea Bay on either side of the Tropical Botanical Gardens with some gorgeous viewing areas.
As we drove around Hilo and the surrounding area, we stopped at several beaches and waterfalls. Top ones include:
Akaka Falls State Park ($5) – Walk a circle route through lush tropical gardens to falls. 442 feet straight down into the gorge.
Wailuku River State Park – Rainbow Falls – quick stop right off the highway.
Honoli’i Park – popular beach and surf spot.
After enjoying the beach, head for dinner at Pineapples, a popular open-air restaurant in Hilo with pineapple decor and delicious island-inspired food and drinks. I highly recommend their Pineapple Pow drink (a whole Maui Gold Pineapple filled with Maui’s ocean organic vodka, pineapple chunks, watermelon grenadine, and OJ blended and topped with whipped cream and tropical fruit garnish!)
You can also get a Pineapple No Pow as a non-alcoholic version. It was delicious, as was my grilled pineapple burger!
Our final stop on this short Big Island adventure was at Ocean Rider Seahorse Farm. The Seahorse Hawai’i Foundation began in 1998 and they have been saving seahorses and sea dragons ever since. Before this time, seahorses were on their way to the endangered species list as so many were being captured and sold as pets, usually dying off within a week of being captured. At the farm, they have been able to successfully breed them for the pet trade, leading to a drastic decline in those being captured in the wild. We learned that they are hunters who need to be able to swim after the tiny shrimp they mainly eat, which is one of the reasons wild ocean seahorses struggle in aquariums. So, by breeding seahorses that are able to live in aquariums, they have been able to save hundreds of thousands of these creatures from being captured!
During the tour, we learned all about the seahorses here and were able to see them in various stages of growth from tanks filled with hundreds of tiny “fry,” only a week old, to slightly larger ones that were about a month old or so. Seahorses hit maturity around one, and at this time they are separated into smaller tanks containing 2-6 of them. At this age, they find a partner, as seahorses mate for life. It was so sweet watching them swim around, linking their little tails together as a sign of affection. A seahorse’s tail is similar to a monkey’s and it allows them to grab onto things and anchor them to coral. In these couples, it is the male who gets pregnant and has a little pouch filled with babies. The American Seahorse is pregnant for 30 days after the female deposits her eggs in his pouch. After 30 days, the male gives birth to 500-600 fry! They are independent right away and a few minutes after their young swim away, they begin the breeding process again. They look so cute with their big belly sacks!
The highlight of this tour was getting to ‘hold’ a seahorse! We were instructed on how to make our hands into ‘coral’ and lower them down into the tank, and one of the staff helped guide a seahorse over to you. Then, as long as they wanted to, the seahorse would wrap its tail around our fingers and hold on—just like it would with coral.
They didn’t stay long and were never forced to link onto you, but what a neat experience it was to have a sweet little seahorse decide to hang out on your fingers!
At the end, there are a variety of tanks with different breeds of seahorses and sea dragons from around the world.
Ocean Riders is near the airport and was a perfect final stop here before heading over to Kauai.
(Open Monday-Friday. Tours at 10am, 12pm & 2pm.)
This trip was a great way to scratch the surface of this beautiful island. With so much more to discover, it’s a great excuse to book a trip back here!