What to do with a week on the Big Island

Oh man, did you miss me?! I didn’t miss me. I hope, like me, you’ve just been enjoying the fabulous summer off-line, finding time in between the typical adulting/life things to bask in the sun, the heat, the green, and whatever cool water you can find. Maybe I should have actually tried to tackle some things on my to-do list, though? (Looking at you, French language workbook.)

It’s been a pretty intense summer of transition for me, and I was feeling overwhelmed. Thankfully, a week of vacation came up at the perfect time. We just came back from an incredible week-long vacation on the Big Island with Chris’s sister and brother-in-law, and I feel more refreshed than I have in a while. It was one of the most fun and amazing vacations I’ve ever had. I married into just the best family and feel so lucky to have in-laws I genuinely love and enjoy spending time with. And because it kind of marked the end of summer for me, and because I’m not ready to dim the afterglow of a Hawaii vacation (I FINALLY KNOW WHAT THAT FEELS LIKE), I wanted to pull together the best parts of our vacation into a list of recommendations for anyone traveling to the B.I. Trust me, you should go. It’s magical and totally worth all the extra driving you’ll do there, as opposed to when you visit other Hawaii islands.

Where to stay

We stayed in Waikoloa, which I loved. That part of the island is pretty much always sunny, which means any day is good for beachin’, poolin’, or sunset cocktailin’. The only downside is you have to drive quite a ways to do anything else. We drove into Kailua-Kona almost every day, which is 45 minutes each way. Not terrible, but time spent driving is time you aren’t doing funtivities! Bottom line: if you’re looking for a more resort/escape experience, go Waikoloa. If you are looking to stay “out and about,” I recommend Kailua-Kona. And if you are going to Volcanoes National Park (you should), it might be worth staying one night in Hilo, just to avoid all the driving to and from Kona. There aren’t many hotel options in Hilo, however, so make sure you vet your AirBNB place thoroughly.

A view of the Hualalai volcano from our lanai in Waikoloa.

Where to eat

We had some amazing meals on the Big Island. Our first stop off the plane was for cocktails at the Lava Lava Beach Club. It’s right on the beach in Waikoloa and has a good-for-Hawaii (ha) happy hour. We had pina coladas, chips and pineapple-mango salsa, and chicken tenders, and were able to catch our first Big Island sunset. While sweating. Because it’s hurricane season and perma-hot and humid. But don’t we look happy to be on vacation in Hawaii?!

The best breakfast we had BY FAR was Kamuela Kitchen & Coffee Bar. The breakfast burrito is bomb, the breakfast sandwiches have LEGIT Canadian bacon, and the French toast? We all fought over the last bits. It’s a super cute little restaurant on the way out of Waimea, and worth a stop on your drive along the Hamakua Coast.

Tex Drive-In. BEST MALASADAS EVER. My sis-in-law created the best malasada ever by mashing together the guava malasada and the Bavarian cream malasada. Be forewarned: this place is a mere 10 minute drive from Kamuela Kitchen, so try very, very hard not to stuff yourself silly whether coming or going.

Hilo Bay Cafe. We stopped here after a day exploring what little there was to explore in Volcano National Park, and it was totally worth it. The fish and chips are delicious, and the mushroom curry pot pie is something I am dying to recreate this fall (though without the mushrooms, per husband’s picky palate). Good beer and wine selection. Good bay views if it’s not 9pm! (Oops.)

Kona Brewing. Their mac and cheese has bacon on it, their nachos have kalua pork, and they have a great mix of seasonal beers on tap that you won’t get anywhere else. I got the Hibiscus Brut IPA and was VERY happy about it. (PS — for those not in the know: all Kona Brewing bottled beers are brewed on the Mainland, even the bottles you buy in Hawaii. The only Kona Brewing beers brewed in the islands are the ones on tap in Hawaii, so it’s another reason to visit Kona Brewing Co while on the Big Island, if you’re into beers. And why wouldn’t you be?!)

Annie’s Island Fresh Burgers. OMG best burger in Hawaii. Make sure to order the tempura green beans and a Lilikoi Rum Sparkler for the true island experience. Also an oatmeal mac nut cookie — ask them to warm it up for you.

Mi’s Waterfront Bistro. Ok, this was a restaurant I had my eye on since we’d started talking about the trip. Beachfront Italian restaurant on the second floor of a Kailua-Kona shopping center, so you’re right over the water. Even with reservations, waterfront seating is first-come-first-serve, so to guarantee a waterfront seat on our last night of vacation, we got there around 4:15/4:30 and enjoyed a couple cocktails during happy hour while they turned over the tables for dinner service. All the dishes were fantastic, the fresh pasta was legit, and the wine selection perfect and decently priced. Be sure to get the ravioli and save some room for the Meyer lemon creme brulee. YUM.

Champagne+maxi+slides is my ultimate vacation outfit.
Ugh, that Kailua-Kona sunset. Gross.

What to do

There are a million things to do on the Big Island, so I’m just going to highlight our favorites and some of the ones we wish we could have done.

Punalu’u Black Sand beach. I think black sand beaches are magical. Maui also has a black sand beach, but the sand on Punalu’u was finer. It felt more like actual sand than little rocks. Plus, if you go out to the rocks to the right of the restrooms, you can find sea turtles feeding in the waves.

Manta Ray snorkeling. THIS WAS AMAZING. By far the coolest thing we did (IMHO). There are a bunch of companies that offer tours, so you have many options, but we used My Kona Adventures and would all recommend that company to anyone. Their dock is only a 2-minute boat ride from the dive site, so you don’t have to worry too much about getting seasick or cold on the way back (nor of wasting valuable vacation time on boat travel!). The creatures are elegant, soothing, gentle butterflies of the sea. When they did their little spin move, we got some belly kisses as they rubbed up against us. Pretty incredible that they are totally unafraid of humans.

Snorkeling at Manini Beach. This was a super cool little beach and decent little snorkel spot. It’s a bit of an adventure timing your swim through the channel to get to the fishies, but it’s worth it.

I’m a mermaid!

Akaka Falls outside Hilo. As you approach or leave Hilo for Kona, be sure to drive up to Akaka Falls. It’s a short 10-minute drive, and the “hike” is only about 1/2 mile roundtrip. It’s a wonderful little rainforest that feels so far from civilization. Chris said he wished we could set up a little hut just off the hiking path. I think I married a Mountain Man.

Volcanoes National Park. Ok, real talk: I was super bummed with what was open when we went. No visible lava flows, the Thurston Lava Tube was closed, pretty much all the coolest stuff was unavailable. But we took the 17-mile drive down to the Holei Arch and saw a bunch of holes in the ground (what Jen called the craters), so it was worth it. Definitely worth a full day if you are interested in hiking around — there are TONS of hikes off various pull-outs and we could have spent so much more time exploring.

Holei Arch.

Another stop I wish we could have done, but we couldn’t (because #TMTprotests), is stargazing at the Mauna Kea Visitor Center. It’s supposed to be amazing. One day…

Hapuna Beach. One of the most beautiful beaches in Hawaii, and in Waikoloa! I mean, look at that sunset. LOOK AT IT.

Papakolea Green Sand Beach. My BIL and I were all about going, but Chris and Jen were not. Thus, this remains on my Hawaii Bucket List. It’s about a 2.5 mile walk from the parking lot, so it’s a bit of work to get there, but there are only 4 green sand beaches in the world, so why wouldn’t you?! (Be right back — just planning my next work trip to the Big Island to include a day trip to Papakolea.)

Aloha Day at Anaeho’omalu Bay. $40 gets you unlimited use of their stand-up paddleboards, kayaks, weird floating bike things (like, if Jesus liked biking?!), and snorkel gear. We had a blast, AND saw multiple sea turtles! Definitely one of our favorite days.

I might be my happiest self on a SUP.

Where to stop

One of the best parts of Hawaii, all islands, is the little places to stop on your drives around the island. Here are some places for you to bookmark.

Are you driving along the Hamakua Coast? The aforementioned Akaka Falls and Tex Drive-In are musts. Also take the Hamakua Heritage Corridor. Then the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens and the World Botanical Gardens. Also the Waipio Valley Lookout. On the way to and from Akaka Falls, there’s a cute little strip mall with weird and wonderful local shops. Take a gander. There’s also a farm where you can play with BABY GOATS!!! but only Friday – Monday, so plan accordingly. We went on a Thursday and Chris has not stopped complaining that he didn’t get to hold a baby goat. Greeeeeeat.

Are you driving to Volcanoes National Park? I would not be me if I didn’t tell you to stop at Volcano Winery, the southernmost winery in the US! Their red and their blush are fantastic (I bought a red for Thanksgiving), but Chris and I most enjoyed their Hawaiian Guava-Grape. They have several unique and distinctive wines (get ready to learn all about the jaboticaba berry) and a couple meads that are much tastier than any other mead I’ve had. The tasting menu is well worth the stop.

Wine made with guava is pretty dang awesome.

Are you driving from Kona to Ka’u (the southern part of the island)? So many little stops along the way! Start with acai bowls from Basik Cafe on your way out of Kona, which is in a little roadside hut up the stairs from Snorkel Bobs. Our two favorites were the Punalu’u Bake Shop (get the taro sweet rolls for unique and delicious sandwiches) and Ailani Orchards (get the dehydrated mac nuts for a seriously unique and delicious mac nut experience — sweeter and more flavorful).

I got the Kilauea. I’m not a fan of goji berries, I discovered, but the rest was delicious. DO NOT GET THE LARGE. It is literally a half gallon of acai. Everything’s bigger on the Big Island, I guess.
The smell of this place is INCREDIBLE.

Are you in Kailua-Kona? We all stopped for some jewelry at a little stand underneath Mi’s after dinner. I got the prettiest silver plumeria ring and got Chris a titanium + koa wood ring to replace the one he left in a casino in Montreaux last year (don’t get me started). For a relaxed lunch, go to the Island Ono Loa Grill for a damn good burger. It’s apparently the #8 burger in the world on Yelp (but still not better than Annie’s!).

Oof, listing all these makes me want to go back already. So much to see and do on such a cool island. It’s BIG, so be prepared for quite a bit of driving, and if you can space out the driving days with some fantastic beach and pool days, you’ll have a really wonderful, relaxing, exciting week.

Now back to real life…. in Honolulu. Oh, the struggle.

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