My Hawaiian Vacation - The Big Island Part One: Places To Go

Instead of having one long mega blog that details all of my happenings while on the Big Island in Hawaii, I've decided to break it up into 3 different ones. The first will be my top 10 places I went/did, second the top places I ate, and third my overall thoughts and final opinion on the trip. But first a little about the island.

The aptly-named Big Island is, by far, the largest island in the Hawai'ian chain – combine the size of all the others, double that figure, and the Big Island is still the larger land mass. Interestingly enough, this extra space does not translate to population since approximately 140,000 people, many of them living in urban areas like Hilo and Kona (We stayed in Kona), call the island home. A nature-lover's paradise, the Big Island has remained relatively unspoiled, and its protected forests include the Kau, Kapapala, and Ruu Makaala Reserves in the south and the Mauna Kea, Kohala, and Hakalau Reserves in the north. At the heart of the island are two towering volcanic peaks, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. Those visiting Mauna Kea will, quite literally, find their heads in the clouds, as the mountain's summit is some 13,700 feet above sea level, making it a prime spot for stargazing. Meanwhile, Mauna Loa is the dramatic centerpiece of Volcanoes National Park. Over the years, park sights have thrilled countless visitors – Kilauea Caldera, which has been spewing lava since 1983; ancient lava chutes and smoldering cinder cones; and the dramatic Kau dessert, which is home to the Pu'u Loa Petroglyphs.

Top Ten places I went while in Hawaii:

#1) Volcanoes National Park
Everything I read said the Volcanoes National Park is the highlight of any trip to the Big Island and I would have to agree 100%. The place is amazing. You could spend a two days there and not see it all. Since we had only 4-5 hours there (it's a 2 1/2 hour drive one way from Kona) we only hit the highlights. The part I enjoyed the most was the Kilauea Iki trail, a 4-mile (2-hour) hike, descending 400 feet through native rain forest, into a crater, and across lava flows still steaming from the 1959 eruption. Words and pictures can not do this place justice. You just have to experience it to appreciate it.

#2) Ocean Kayak and Snorkeling Tour We began our kayak adventure at Keauhou Bay with We joined a group of 14 other kayakers and headed off for our 4 hour tour to the surrounding coastline. After some practice getting use to paddling and getting in and out of our kayaks we headed to check out a sea cave and then some snorkeling. The cave was a bit scary as Beth and I both felt we would be thrown into the rocks at any second. Once we arrived at the snorkel/rest spot, everyone dove in and begin to check out the what seemed like thousands of tropical fish all around us. While most were busy snorkeling, some guys began climbing a cliff and doing some cliff diving / jumping. The cliff was about 20-25 feet high. As I watched, my natural male cave man ego kicked in and I thought, "I can do that". My temporary insanity causing me to totally forget all about my fear of heights. As I climbed to the top and looked down, Beth was begging me not to. I'm not sure if beth was more worried I may get hurt or the fact that if I did get hurt it would cut into her vacation plans. Whatever her motives might have been didn't really matter. As I looked deep within my soul I knew there was no way I was jumping off that cliff. So what does my wife do as I decided to come down? She walks right up and jumps off the very cliff she begged me not to. Honestly I was surprised she jumped and very proud of her. She had more faith then I did. After a quick snack we jumped back in our kayaks and headed back to the bay. I can;t say enough about how great the tour company was. very friendly, helpful, and genuinely nice people. they made the tour very relaxing and fun.

#3) Pearl Harbour (USS Arizona, US Missouri, USS Bowfin)

This was an intense thing to see. Being on Oahu, we couldn't miss this. We get to Pearl Harbour and had to get a number since the memorial can only handle one tour at a time. Our tour wait was about 90 minutes. Once our tour number was called, we were taken into a theater and were shown a 20-minute video on the attack on Pearl Harbour before we were loaded onto a boat and taken to the memorial. The memorial was very powerful! It is the final resting place of 1000+ soldiers killed in the attack and you can see the USS Arizona in the water below you. A wall has the names of all the dead inscribed in it. Lots has already been written about this so I will keep it short but if you are interested in US history or WWII, then you must go to Pearl Harbour. One of the gems at Pearl Harbour is USS Bowfin Submarine, which is right next to the spot you go for the USS Arizona Memorial. The Bowfin fought in WWII also and was responsible for sinking many ships according to its history. On this tour ($10 per person), you could walk through the submarine, which is still maintained the way it was when it fought and you could see how sailors lived and worked. Definitely worth it! After the sub tour we visited the US Missouri. Beth and I have visited several battleships in our visits around the country but none as impressive as this. You could spend hours at this one ship alone because of how much they allow visitors to see and do on it.

#4) Pololu Valley Overlook & Beach The scenic point overlooks the beautiful Pololu Valley and offers a breathtaking look along the North Kohala Coastline. It's a moderate hike down to the black sand beach that will take about 15 minutes to reach the valley floor from the top. They say the return trip up from the beach will take 30-40 minutes depending on how many photos and breaks you take but I made it back up in an amazing 13 minutes. The hike was tough in spots but the black sand beach and view at the bottom are worth every drop of sweat and energy you spend getting to it.

#5) Kekaha Kai State Beach Park A local told us about state park that very few people know about or go to. And was he ever right. Makalawena is a large white sand section of coastline that is hid like an oasis in a lava desert. To reach Makalawena beach you must hike in about 30 minutes over some lava rocks but this beach is well worth the trek. When we arrived there were only a handful of people on the first beach and only one on the second. The snorkeling was awesome as all you had to do was walk out into the water knee deep then put your face in to see hundreds of different types of tropical fish.

#6) Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation Tour
Mountain Thunder offers daily tours of it's award winning coffee plantation. Currently, the tour begins with a short video from the Dirty Jobs (Mike Rowe filmed an episode there a couple of years ago) and the Food network, coffee samples, and a walk around the plantation. On tours, you will be able to visit all the animals at Mountain Thunder and learn the process of making coffee from seed to cup. Visitors will be able to experience pulping through fermentation, husking, and grading as well as roasting. I'm not even a coffee drinker and I found the tour very fascinating. Since it's family owned you have the actual owners giving the tour. When we went we were the only ones there so got a little extra attention which was cool.

#7) Punalu'u - Black Sand Beach On our way to the Volcano National Park from our condo in Kailua Kona we stopped at Punalu'u - Black Sand Beach. It was a great place to get out and move our legs before heading up the volcano! The sand is pitch black and the beach gently curves. We were welcomed by some giant Sea Turtles who were swimming just a few feet from the shore.

#8) Snorkeling at Pu'uhonua o Honaunau (Place of Refuge)
Another local favorite to snorkel is the Place of Refuge. It's a rather small beach with lots of fish and sea turtles to swim with. My only regret is that I didn't have better snorkel gear. Mine kept leaking so I could never fully enjoy just floating on the water while taking in the amazing coral, fish, turtles, and other sea life that was just inches from your mask.

#9) Hapuna Beach Park We stumbled upon this beach by accident and it turned out to be the beach everyone has in their minds when they think of Hawaii. White sand, clear water, and palm tress all bookended by high rocky cliffs. We really wanted to get back and spend more time there but we stayed so busy we never had the chance. By far the best sand beach on the island.

#10) Akaka Waterfalls Park
Akaka Falls State Park has a beautiful self-guided 0.4-mile loop that meanders through lush tropical vegetation to a scenic vista point overlooking the free-falling Akaka Falls, which plunges 442 feet into a gorge.


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