From stops for golf or astronomy, white and black sand beaches, volcanoes, or macadamia nut factory tours, circling the Big Island of Hawaii makes for a rich and varied family road trip.
Hawaii or the “Big Island” is one of the chain of islands that comprises the state of Hawaii. Also known as the “Island of Adventure,” it is twice the size of Oahu, Maui, Kauai, Lanai and Molokai combined, and, at over 4,000 square-miles, offers a remarkable diversity of climate, topography and natural features from a hot, steaming volcano to a cool, tropical rainforest.
With so much to explore, including 47 white, black and green sand beaches, consider spending a few days exploring both sides of the island, each with its unique highlights. Also note that driving is slow-going, due to curving roads and the unstoppable impulse to jump out of the car and take photographs at each turn.
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Our suggested 5-day itinerary follows:
Day 1: Kailua-Kona to Kona Coast
Day 2: Kona Coast to Waimea
Day 3: Waimea to Hilo
Day 4: Hilo to Volcanoes National Park
Day 5: Volcanoes National Park to Kailua-Kona
Day 1: Kailua-Kona: Airport to Kona Coast – 28 miles
The western, or “Kona Side” of the island features the Kailua-Kona and Kohala Coasts. This area is dry and sunny with white, sandy beaches, a barren landscape (or rather “moonscape”) that will absolutely amaze you, ancient trails and petroglyphs, and golf courses created out of lava.
Kailua-Kona is very popular with tourists and is where many people headquarter for their whole time on the Big Island. Ali’i Drive is a great place to start exploring and people-watching amidst the strollers and joggers. There are condos, hotels shops and restaurants, and at the south end you will find Kahalu’u Beach Park which many consider the best, calmest snorkeling spot in Kona.
Old Kona Airport Beach Park offers a long sandy beach where lava rocks prevent great swimming, but your family can explore tide pools and snorkel in a protected cove. Not far is the Saltwater Pool, great for swimming and relaxing, located at the edge of the ocean. Heading north from the airport you will find other state parks such as Kekaha Kai, where Kahai’ula and Kua Bays offer sandy beaches lined with dunes where you can swim and enjoy beach-related activities. There is a 4.5-mile trail north on this historic coastal trail which leads to the summit of Pu’u Ku’ili, a 342-foot high cinder cone offering an excellent view of the coastline. Further north, your family will enjoy swimming and snorkeling at mixed black and white sand Anaeho’omalu Beach and nearby is an ancient Hawaiian fishpond, and Mamalahoa Trail, or King’s Trail, great for viewing petroglyphs along a rugged lava footpath.
There are many places to stay along this stretch, ranging from budget-friendly hotels and condos to thatched-roofed cottages to 5-star resorts. A great option is Hilton Waikoloa Village (808/886-1234; 800/HILTON), a 62-acre property that is a destination in itself. Unbeatable as an overall family resort, even non-guests are welcome to take a tour of the hotel which includes riding on the boats and train that transport you throughout the resort. The on-site Dolphin Quest (800/248-3316) program is open to guests and non-guests (although guests do have preference), and reservations are absolutely required.
North of Waikoloa you will find Hapuna Beach State Park, one of the loveliest and most popular white sand beaches on the island. For a traditional Hawaiian experience, visit Pu’ukohola Heiau, a huge stone temple built in 1790 by King Kamehameha the Great as an offering to the gods for success in his attempt to unite the Hawaiian Islands.
Day 2: Kona Coast to Waimea – 22 miles
From your hotel, drive along HI Rt. 190 to Waimea.
Waimea-Kamuela, located in the valley of the Kohala Mountains is the home of the 225,000-acre Parker Ranch (800/262-7290), certainly an unexpected find in Hawaii, where one imagines seeing beaches, volcanoes and waterfalls — but not cowboys. This area is known as Paniolo (Cowboy) Country, and the ranch is one of the biggest in the US. You will learn about young John Palmer Parker who arrived in 1809, began working under King Kamehameha to control wild cattle, and eventually married one of his granddaughters, giving him control of this immense tract of land.
Today with a herd of 55,000 cattle and hundreds of horses, it is still a working ranch, producing 80% of Hawaii’s beef. While you’re here you can experience ranch life, horseback ride through the range, go on a tour via ATV, a 4-Wheel-Drive or even a horse drawn wagon. Don’t forget to leave room for a cowboy-sized barbeque lunch.
From Waimea, HI Rt. 250 bisects the peninsula off the northwest coast of the island. If you detour onto this road, it is about a 45-minute very scenic drive to Hawi, where your family can take an exciting kayak trip through the Kohala Ditch, the area’s major irrigation system from the days of the sugar plantations. Visit Flum’in Da Ditch for details. On the east coast of this peninsula is the gorgeous Waip’io Valley. Get out of your car to do a bit of hiking here, in an astonishing gorge with numerous waterfalls, a beautiful black sand beach and cliffs rising 2,000 feet.
Return to Waimea and spend the night at one of the B&B’s, hostels, hotels or resorts.
Day 3: Waimea to Hilo – 55 miles
The eastern (or “Hilo Side”) of the island is a tropical rain forest and a good jumping off point for visiting the volcanoes. In this moist region, you will find gorgeous flowers, sweeping waterfalls and gentle tidepools, as well as the capital city of Hilo.
From your hotel, drive along HI Rt. 19 to Hilo stopping at some of the beautiful beaches along the Hamakua Coast before arriving in this sleepy city.
For some background on the history of the island, their inhabitants and culture, plan a stop in Hilao at the Lyman Museum and Mission House (808/935-5021), whose exhibits focus on the and culture of the native Hawaiians, as well as that of the immigrant groups (Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese etc.) who played an important role in Hawaii’s development. The ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center (808/969-9703) a state-of-the-art educational facility, located on over 9 acres overlooking Hilo Bay will peak the interest of budding astronomers in your family. ‘Imiloa means “explorer” or “seeker,” and the center provides a unique experience for visitors interested in the connection between Hawaiian culture and astronomy.
Bring the kids to Mokupapapa Discovery Center (808/933-8184), a fascinating facility where they will learn about the life of the coral reefs of the Hawaiian Islands through hands-on displays and multimedia exhibits. Younger kids, in particular, will enjoy a stop at the Pana’ewa Rainforest Zoo (808/959-9233), the only US zoo located in a tropical rainforest. Many unusual mammals, reptiles, amphibians and birds, including the nene, the state bird of Hawaii live here. There is a petting zoo open on Saturdays afternoons, and admission is free to all.
Who doesn’t like macadamia nuts? Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Visitors Center (888/628-6256) is the place to find out everything about these irresistible treats right here, where they’re grown. A free, self-guided driving tour takes you through the orchards and then to watch the nut roasting, candy-making process and chocolate demonstrations. Enjoy free samples and see if you can resist shopping in the gift shop.
In the Hilo Area, Onekahakaha Beach Park is perfect for young keiki (children), with its big, protected, sandy-bottomed sea pool, perfect for splashing about. The Hilo Farmer’s Market is open every Wednesday and Saturday and its 200 vendors offer a huge variety of Hawaiian food, clothing and arts.
A bit to the west of Hilo, Onizuka Center for International Astronomy (808/961-2180) also known as the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station is a fascinating place to visit. The facility, located at the 9,300 foot level of Mauna Kea, is operated under the aegis of the University of Hawaii at Hilo and is considered the best site in the world for astronomical research. Every evening between 6 and 10pm your family can enjoy the free Star Gazing Program which begins with a screening of a video. Then, telescopes are set up and naturalist guides share their knowledge of the night sky with a constellation tour, and then point out planets, galaxies, supernovas and more from this spectacular vantage point. As the temperature can get pretty cold up there at night be sure to dress warmly.
Plan to spend the night in Hilo at one of the B&B’s, hostels, hotels or resorts.
Day 4: Hilo to Volcanoes National Park – 27 miles
From your hotel, pick up HI Rt. 11 and drive 27 miles to Volcanoes National Park.
Madame Pele, the goddess of volcanoes, lives on the Island of Hawaii, and is ever continuing to expand her home. No trip to the Big Island is complete without visiting her and seeing her handiwork at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park (808/985-6000).
The Park’s 333,000 acres include the dormant Mauna Kea, the tallest and only glaciated volcano on Hawaii; Mauna Loa, the earth’s largest volcano, whose most recent eruption was in 1984, and Kilauea, Hawaii’s youngest volcano (previously thought to be part of Mauna Loa) the world’s most active, whose continuous eruptions since 1983 have added 500 acres of land to the Big Island.
Start at the Kilauea Visitors Center where rangers are available to provide information on volcanic activity, maps, and a schedule of guided tours. Ask about the Junior Ranger Program for kids 5-12-years-old. There is also an introductory film that offers a good orientation and some spectacular footage. Plan to spend the better part of a day driving and walking around taking it all in, and be sure to wear long pants and comfortable, closed shoes. Bring lots of sunscreen, water and binoculars, and a camera with extra memory cards. These are sights you’re not likely to see elsewhere.
Drive the 11-mile Crater Rim Drive around Kilauea Caldera and walk the short trails from roadside parking areas to view the steam vents and lava flows and look over into the huge, bubbling caldera. You can also arrange a helicopter tour and view the crater from above. Be sure to walk along the eerie half-mile paved Devastation Trail to see the 1959 effects of Kilauea on an ohia forest, now barren, but miraculously sprouting re-growth. Also be sure to check out the 400-foot Thurston Lava Tube, created by a lava flow. Bring a flashlight and walk through — it’s very cool and nearly pitch black inside and it’s quite a jolt when there’s the “light at the end of the tunnel” and a feeling of elation (and relief) when you walk out the other side.
Chain of Craters Road is an 18.3-mile-long drive descending from the Rim Road down to the coast. Due to continuing eruptions, sections of the road are sometimes closed, so inquire at the Visitor’s Center. Here you will be able to see two types of lava – large smooth blocks called a’a, and the twisted, ropey coils called pahoehoe that continue to enlarge the Big Island. The sight is truly amazing.
Volcano Village, on the outskirts of the park is a quaint artist’s community where you will find Kilauea Lodge (808/967-7366). Built in 1937 as a YMCA lodge, it has been updated and expanded into a cozy and charming inn offering 12 rooms and 2 stand-alone cottages, plus a restaurant. Your kids will love to tell their friends that they slept on the rim of a volcano!!
Day 5: Volcanoes National Park to Kailua-Kona – 50 miles
After leaving the park, pick up HI Rt. 11 towards Kailua-Kona.
Located on the southeast coast is Punalu’u Black Sand Beach, very popular with families who come here to marvel over the amazing Hawaiian green sea turtles, or honu. Continuing on Rt. 11 will return you back onto the Kona Coast where more awaits you. Hookena Beach Park is a good place to stop to explore a soft black sand beach surrounded by lava sea cliffs. In winter this is a great spot to pull the boogie board out from your trunk, and in calmer weather it’s a great snorkeling spot, where you may even see pygmy dolphins.
Still south of Kona, Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historic Park (808/328-2326) is a sacred site of Hawai’ian history allowing visitors to experience ancient Hawaii. Established in the early 15th century and in use for 300 years, it was a sanctuary for those who sought absolution after breaking kapu (religious law against the gods). The journey here was no easy feat, but to avoid severe punishments those seeking forgiveness swam here through strong currents in shark-infested waters. Once inside, kahuna (priests) handed out appropriate penance and performed ceremonies of pardon. It was also a safe haven for defeated warriors, and the widows and children of warriors. The refuge became obsolete in 1819 with the abolition of the kapu system, and the 180-acre park was established in 1961. In addition to the pu`uhonua you can tour a complex of archeological sites including a temple, royal fishponds, and several thatched structures, and artifacts such as a canoe, petroglyphs, and ancient game board within the great rock wall.
Not quite as exciting for kids as macadamia nuts and chocolate, the Kona Coffee Living History Farm (808/323-2006) is still a fun place to visit. Started in the early 1900s by the Uchida family of Japan, this is a typical example of the many coffee farms that spread up along the Kona coast, taking advantage of the rich volcanic soil to create what some consider the best coffee in the world. Currently under the aegis of the Kona Historical Society (808/323-3222), restored buildings include a farmhouse, a Japanese-style bathhouse and coffee processing and drying equipment, and offer a glimpse into the lives of the Japanese coffee pioneers. A complimentary cup of 100% pure Kona coffee for mom and dad await.
If you’re looking for a snorkeling tour on your way back to the airport, contact Fair-Wind Snorkel Cruise (800/677-9461, 808/345-0268) for a gentle snorkeling excursion on Kealakekua Bay. Children as young as 4-years-old can participate and toddlers can come along too. Everything (meals, snacks, equipment, instruction, flotation devices) is included, so just bring the sun screen. For extra fun, there is a 15-foot-slide and dive platform attached to the boat. And, for the more advanced snorkelers, there is an optional snuba add-on.
If you have time while you wait for your flight, the Ellison S. Onizuka Space Center (808/329-3441), on the premises of Kona International Airport, is an interesting facility is dedicated to the memory of Hawaii’s first astronaut who died in the space shuttle Challenger in January, 1986. Displays include a moon rock brought back by astronauts in 1972, a NASA space suit, a model of a space station, and several hands-on activities.
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