To me, Hawaii has always felt like another country. Sitting there alone, off in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. A tropical paradise, just out of reach from the mainland United States. Which is partly the reason why my girlfriend Court and I chose it as the destination for our most recent trip. And because flying anywhere far from Utah takes forever and can be quite expensive. Nevertheless, we planned to road trip around the entire Big Island of Hawaii, despite the endless news coverage of the erupting volcano and lava flow. And thankfully we did, because this trip was incredible (and the eruptions didn’t affect us at all).
Road Trip Duration: 10 Days
The best way to see the Big Island is by car. Or, I guess, helicopter if you can afford such things. But for the rest of us, a car will do just fine. So we planned a counter-clockwise loop around the entire island starting and ending in Kona. After a layover at SFO, we arrived at Kona in the afternoon with plenty of time to still hit the beach. But we weren’t staying for long. The goal for the road trip was to see as much of the island as possible, without spending long days behind the wheel between stops. So our itinerary was broken down like this below:
Yes, I understand moving 7 different times on a trip is an exhausting way to spend a vacation. But to us, it feels normal. We chose these cities/towns because they were close to a major landmark or place that we wanted to see along the way. Not to mention, these towns were never more than a 1 hour drive from one another which was another plus. Even though Hawaii feels like you’re in another country, driving down there was a breeze, but that’s mostly because there are only a few major routes around the island. And speed limits are relatively slow, so you can enjoy the scenic drives just a little more.
Things to Do:
The Big Island of Hawaii has no shortage of things to see and do. Actually, more than you could ever do in a short trip there; which is probably why so many people never leave. Even though we tried to plan as little as possible, so that we could explore while we were there, here are a few things I definitely recommend you check out on your trip.
West Coast (Kona)
Manta Ray Night Snorkel, Kona Brewery, Aiopio Fish Trap, Mahai’ula and Makalawena Beach, Captain James Cook Monument/Bay, Kona Coffee Tours, Napoopoo Beach Park, Da Poke Shack, Black Sand beach at Kahalu’u Beach Park, and of course the Alii Drive.
The most Southern Point in the United States, Papakolea Green Sand Beach, Punalu’u Bake Shop, and Whittington Beach Park.
Volcano National Park (if opened by then), the lava flows near Leilani Estates, and the Wai’opae Tidepools (were blocked off due to lava).
East Coast (Hilo)
Carlsmith Beach Park for Sea Turtles, Rainbow Falls, ‘Akaka Falls State Park, Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, Star Gaze at Mauna Kea Observatory, and Suisan Fish Market.
Waipio Valley, Kapa’a Beach Park, and Spencer Beach Park
Finding a beach was something I did not think I would need to be worried about when I booked a trip to Hawaii. Growing up in New Jersey, every bit of land that touched the ocean was a white sand beach. Which is why I thought the same would be true about Hawaii. Unfortunately, it is not. Most of the coastline is incredibly rocky and inaccessible by people. So sure, you might book a place with an “ocean view”, but you’ll still end up having to drive 15 minutes to find a beach where you can get into the water. But have no fear, there is plenty of beach access on the island, and it’s apparent that it is a priority to the locals. After a few days of driving around the island, it was clear that no-once can own the beach access. You’ll notice blue signs on the side of the road that point to a beach access. Some times those signs point to large state parks with sprawling beaches, and other signs point to small walkways that pass behind a mansion that sit ocean. So no mater what building, resort, or park is on the beach; you’ll be able to access the ocean. This website does a great job listing all the public beaches and providing a great description of each. And just so you know, not all beach access is easily accessible. Most beaches outside of Hilo and Kona require you to walk on large lava stones to get into the water. But there are still plenty of opportunities around the island to easily walk into the water via a sandy beach.
Where to Stay:
There are plenty of options for where to lay your head at night, but it will depend on your budget. We were hard pressed to find places that cost less than $100/night. Hotels were out of the question due to resort pricing, so we searched high and low on AirBnB to find what fit us best. Ideally, we wanted to be as close to the ocean/beach each day so that we could maximize our time in the water. But for less than $100, we really couldn’t find anything. But we were able to find some great options for around $70-$90/night in each town we wanted to stay in. But if you’re really up for adventure (or would like to save a few $$), I recommend camping. Using Hawaii County Camping Registration we were able to reserve beach front campsites for two nights on our trip. There are options to camp around the entire island, both near the ocean and in the jungles. The cost for camping is $21/night for non-residents. Camping was incredible, seeing as the overnight lows were in the 60s, which are perfect temps to sleep in. But if you’re not into camping or AirBnBs, you can always find a room at one of the many resorts, hotels, and B&Bs scattered around the island.
What to Eat:
Two words: Poke Bowls. Every chance we got, we tried to eat Poke Bowls. It’s a raw fish salad consisting of seasoned, cubed raw ‘ahi (yellow fin tuna), served over a bowl of rice, with a topping of some type of seaweed salad or similar. It might not sound that appetizing now, but once you’re on island time it will be the only thing you’ll want to eat. If raw fish isn’t your thing, I recommend going for the fish tacos. They will be as easy to find as the ocean is on the Big Island. Prices for any meal out will be around $10, so plan accordingly. Another thing to try are the locally sourced hamburgers, since there are a substantial amount of farms on the northern part of the island. To save on money, normally we try to hit grocery stores when we can to buy food to cook ourselves, but sometimes the grocery stores on the island cost just as much as eating out or the drive was too far. Whatever you decide on eating, I recommend getting shaved ice for desert. Even if you’ve had shaved ice before and aren’t the biggest of fan, Hawaiian shaved ice is on a whole new level of delicious! In the end, just remember that Hawaii, though a chain of islands in the Pacific, are still a 1st world country. So you’ll always be able to find something good to eat, whatever your preferences are.
If you are looking for any more info about rental cars, lodging, things to do, places to go, or what to eat, feel free to reach out in in the comments and I will gladly do my best to help share any info I can. I hope you have a great trip and create a ton of memories. Just remember, adventure doesn’t find you. You have to seek adventure!
My name is Zachary Kenney and I’m an adventure filmmaker & photographer. My passion is to tell stories that will hopefully motivate you to go live a more adventurous life. Whether that is to experience the view from the summit of a mountain, or wandering through a new town on a road trip. Currently based out of Park City, UT.