The Big Island of Hawaii: A Tour for Yourself (and Your Wallet)

By Jessica Takach

Tropical rainforests, deserts of cacti, molten lava, snow covered mountain peaks: All of this can be found on the Big Island of Hawaii and it doesn’t have to break your budget. I will outline here the ultimate tour of the Big Island (literally the biggest island, so large that all the other Hawaiian islands could fit within its outline, but still small enough that you can circumnavigate it in just a few hours). Since I grew up in Hawaii I can share with you some insider tips, but I have also traveled back to visit for many years, so I have experienced the island from a tourist’s standpoint as well. The following itinerary and tips are largely from a trip I took last February with my fiance–and we did it on a shoestring budget.

First, arrange to fly into the Kona airport. You can oftentimes get flights directly from the mainland, or you can fly in from Honolulu on a connecting flight–but, FYI, frequent flyer miles probably will NOT cover the inter-island flight. It also tends to be sunnier on this side of the island, which is a great way to start any vacation. It is very dry and covered in lava, but don’t be scared. You have not landed on the moon. The other side of the island is a tropical rain forest, so you will have the opportunity to experience all the various landscapes during the course of your trip. It is nice to start it off with a good tan though.

First of all, I would highly recommend that you rent your car through Discount Hawaii Car Rental. You will need a car while on the island because there isn’t much public transportation, and it is much more fun to explore the island on your own time rather than with a tour. If you intend to be a real adventurer, you may consider renting a Jeep. To be honest, I was hesitant to believe that this website could possibly be true, because it seemed too good. We dreaded our arrival at the airport, fearing we would find we had been duped. But this did not happen, thank goodness! Since we are under 25, most car rental companies charge AT LEAST $25/day extra for the under 25 crowd. We simply could not afford this on a 12 day trip, it would break our budget. So, we did a little research on the internet and found this website, which waived the $25/day fee and also gave us a much better rate. I believe we paid somewhere around $200 for an entire 12 day trip. And, when we arrived at Budget and checked in, we were upgraded to a convertible because they were out of economy cars! Our vacation was off to an excellent start. Here is the site:

KAILUA-KONA: First, visit the city of Kailua-Kona: Getting to Kailua-Kona from the airport is about a fifteen to twenty minute drive. There is basically one major road that loops around the island, so don’t worry about getting too lost. While driving away from the safety of the airport, DO NOT PANIC. You have not landed on the moon, and yes you have actually come to the tropical destination of your choice for your vacation although it may not appear that way right now. You will be seeing different shades of rock for miles upon miles, with the occasional hearty shrub poking through. This is the dry side of the island, and an excellent way to start your vacation, since the weather tends to be much drier and sunnier on this side of the island. Word to the wise: start your tan now! I hope you rented a convertible. You may be disappointed, of course, that you are vacationing on lava rock and the rainforest that you had expected to greet you upon arrival is not there, but don’t worry, you’ll see it soon enough as well as a bit of rain with it, most likely!. But like the Sahara desert, there is much more than meets the eye there is life, history, and stories to be found in this barren landscape. Kona is the most “touristy” town on the island, but it is very quaint and gorgeous, right on the ocean. You can walk around here and visit all of the shops and pick up a few souvenirs. If you stay in Kona, I would recommend staying at the Kona Seaside Hotel because it is within walking distance to everything and extremely cheap compared to other area hotels. Expect to stay there for between $80 and $100, which isn’t bad for in-town accomodations with a peak of the ocean. It is not a luxury hotel, at all, though. Request to stay in the tower, otherwise you may be put in the older section of the hotel which tends to be noisier.

While in Kona…
The following day, go on a Fair Wind Snorkel Cruise out of Kona: I have been on this a number of times and it is simply amazing. You sail along the coast from Kona until you reach Kealakekua Bay, where the Captain Cook monument is (and where he was killed!). It is a beautiful spot and is protected–the Fair Wind is the only ship allowed there, and that is why I recommend this cruise. If you want to snorkel, this is the place to do it — the fish and coral are stunning. You can opt for the breakfast or lunch onboard, which is buffet style and very nice, or the PM snack cruise which is cheaper. If you don’t mind spending a bit of money I would really recommend trying SNUBA. Basically, it is like scuba diving but without all the tanks and scaryness. The tanks remain on the surface in a small little floating boat, and then you take a breathing tube with you so you can stay underwater as long as you like and dive down to 20 ft or so if you want. It is like being a fish! It is, however, very expensive. I was able to try it once for just for a few minutes when I was little, and have never forgotten the experience. So, it is something to consider. Here is their website:

HILTON WAIKALOA: After you’ve gotten your fill of Kona, I would recommend driving out to stay at the Hilton Waikoloa Village Resort for at least one or two nights (about 20 minutes from the Kona airport, and about 40 from Kona-the airport is between Kona and the Hilton). It is my favorite hotel of anywhere I have been–it is an amazing resort, constructed by the Japanese in the 1980s. It has a monorail, and you can also travel by boat around the hotel because it is so large. You can also swim with dolphins here! It is rather ridiculously expensive to do, so if you opt not to do that you can still enjoy seeing them jumping around in their lagoon when you have lunch, or on an early morning jog. There are a bunch of pools and waterslides as well. We dined at the Kamuela Provision Company, and although it severely offset our budget for the rest of the trip, it was an incredibly delicious meal and you simply could not beat the atmosphere: overlooking the Pacific ocean, sipping a pineapple mango martini, with tiki torches blazing. In the past I have also eaten at Donatello’s, which is a really great Italian restaurant that overlooks the little river the boats travel up and down. Here is the website:

KAIWAIHAE: : Once you’ve tanned, swam, and frolicked at the Hilton enough, drive from the Hilton towards Waimea. But WAIT! You are going to pass the island’s, and perhaps the world’s, most delicious mexican restaurant, Tres Hombres. Here is a brief segway on the town of Kawaihae, home of the best shredded beef taco. To get to Kawaihae, you will drive out of Kailua-Kona the way you came in and follow that road all the way until you come to a fork with road signs pointing to Waimea (y-may-ah) and Kawaihae (ka-y-hi). Go towards Kawaihae and keep an eye out on your left for a sign that says Puukohola Heiau, a leftover relic of the native Hawaiians. After you visit here, continue towards Kawaihae. It is the major shipping port of the island, and there isn’t much here, so you might miss it. But I would recommend eating at Cafe Pesto while taking in views of the harbor, and then heading upstairs to the ice cream store for the best tahitian vanilla bean and passion fruit sorbet. A little fact of interest: the film Water World starring Kevin Costner was filmed here. Some of the remains of the huge water island seen in the film were used at local schools for sets for plays. I have a friend who had a sister who had a friend that Kevin Costner stayed at their house while filming. Yeah, pretty cool, I know.

WAIMEA (KAMUELA): After a delicious meal or hike around the heaiau, it is time to head to Waimea. This is cowboy (or “paniolo”) country. This is where we lived for the majority of our time on the island. It is absolutely gorgeous, although it can be quite windy. I went to school at HPA which you might see when you’re driving through town. There are quite a few bed and breakfasts in the area, although I can’t say I have stayed at any of them. You might consider taking a horseback riding trip while in the area because the views are phenomenal. There is another trip in the area called “flumin’ da ditch” in which you boat down the old ditches in the mountains. They also have Humvee tours. You can find both here: Pay attention to the environmental changes that you will experience on your ride from the Hilton up to Waimea. You go through an extreme elevation change, and the lava rock gradually turns into desert, and then becomes lush, green hillsides. As your journey progresses to the other side of the island, it will become more and more green. Because of the way the mountains on the island formed, all the water tends to form on the Hilo side of the island. From Waimea you will also have a phenomenal view of the major volcanoes: Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa and Holualoa. Mauna Kea is a dormant volcano and the Kek observatories sit on the top, an excellent spot to view the stars and gallaxies from. Mauna Loa is predicted to be active again sometime in the next few hundred years, as well as Holualoa. From the Hilo side you will see Kiluea, the currently active volcano on the island.

TEX’S: Continuing your island tour, you will drive from Waimea to Hilo but on the way there are a few important stops. The first of these is Tex’s. You’ve got to stop here to try some real local food (and hopefully your stomach will survive). On your drive from Waimea to Hilo, you will pass through Honoka’a. On the lefthand side of the road (I believe) you will see a sign for TEX’S MALASADAS. They have the most delicious portuguese donuts here, and it is famous on the island. Even though they are probably very bad for you, you should at least try one.

WAIPIO VALLEY: After you’ve fueled up, head to Waipio Valley: Near Tex’s you will see signs for Waipio Valley. You could spend an entire day here hiking down into the valley. It is gorgeous. It probably takes a good 4 hours to hike down and back. If this sounds like too much there are many different tours that take you to the bottom of the valley. I highly recommend it. You will pass through roaring streams, see taro fields (which poi is made out of), and be able to walk on one of the most beautiful and physically remote beaches of the islands.

HILO: Next, continue your drive to visit Hilo: Hilo is the major town on the island, other than Kona. It is on the opposite side of the island. This is the “real Hawaii” and not nearly as touristy. This is also the rainier side of the island, which is why it is primarily rainforest.

Things to do in and around Hilo:
Visit the Big Island Candy Factory (delicious cookies and candies, all made right at the factory! Free samples)
Visit Rainbow Falls
Visit Akaka Falls (some light hiking)
Visit the Botanical Gardens/scenic drive
Go to Richardson’s Beach (public black sand beach with good snorkeling)
Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Factory
Hilo Public Market (see picture — all the most amazing fruits and veggies, extremely inexpensive!)

Dining in Hilo: Cafe Pesto, Harrington’s, Seaside Restaurant and Aqua Farm (

Cheap Lodging in Hilo: If you don’t mind staying in a hostel, the Hilo Bay Hostel is extremely affordable, clean and in the downtown Hilo area which is very fun. You can walk to all the shopping and the bay. You can have your own private room with a view of the bay, but you will have to share a bathroom and kitchen. I’d consider doing this just because it is a really charming place, and it will save you money so you can do fun things like go on the snorkel cruise or a horseback ride. Here is their website:

Other things to do around Hilo:
Swim In Natural Hot Ponds: You can find these in any guidebook. There are some near Hilo and are really fun—they are heated by the underground steam from lava..

VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK: When you enter the park, the first stop you’ll want to make is the Volcano House. It is the original and only hotel inside the park, with a visitors center and an amazing view over Kilauea Crater. This is much larger than the Kilauea Iki but you can also hike this crater. Here is the official website: This is really one of the major highlights of the trip. There are many opportunities for hiking and lots of sights to see. Brendan and I hiked the Kilauea Iki Crater and that was a lot of fun. You hike around the top of the crater through an ohia forest, and then you eventually get down to the crater floor and hike across. It isn’t TOO strenuous but it does take a couple of hours. It is a pretty amazing experience though.

Thurston Lava Tube: This is in Volcano National Park and is really fun. You walk through a real lava tube! Lava tubes are formed when flowing lava hardens on the outside, and liquid lava continues to flow through until a hollow tube remains.

Dining in Volcano: If you want to have a fancy dinner in Volcano I would highly recommend the Kiluea Lodge:

Where to stay in Volcano: Although the Volcano House is right on the crater, the rooms are old and the rates are quite expensive. Brendan and I stayed in a little bed and breakfast cottage about 2 miles down the road from the entrance to the Park in a fern forrst and it was really nice. Here is the website:
We stayed in Kate’s Cottage and loved it. We only stayed one night but would have stayed longer if we had known it would be so pleasant. They provide juices, pastries and breakfast foods in your fridge for the morning–it was also very cheap compared to hotels.

See Real Lava: If you have the time and the lava flow is good, you can drive down to where the lava is flowing into the ocean. This is NOT an easy hike and you’ll want to start the hike right before nightfall. They have made it progresively harder to get near the lava with barriers and such, because chunks of land have been known to randomly fall into the ocean (a few people have died). It is a few mile hike across lava fields in the dark (bring a flashlight) but if you do get to see some lava it is a pretty amazing experience.

Volcano Winery: Take a tour of the United State’s most southern winery and sample their assortment of wines: Hawaiian Guava, Macadamia Nut Honey, and our favorite, Symphony Dry. The wine tasting is a lot of fun, and they have an excellent staff that explains each wine clearly and in interesting detail. Also, free wine is just simply always a good time. The winery is also open 365 days a year! It is a pretty impressive little winery.

At this point you have seen all of the island that I would highly recommend. But the most important aspect of this trip I cannot explain to you: explore. Drive off south of Hilo towards the southern most point of the United States. I guarantee you will find some incredibly interesting houses, people, and views. When in Hawaii, I highly recommend just setting off and seeing where you end up. If you simply stay on the Kona side of the island at a resort, you will have a lovely time, but it will be like any other vacation–and you sat on a plane for a very long time to get here. Make it worth it! Be an adventurer! That is the biggest piece of advice I can give when visiting Hawaii.

This is the end of the tour, but it takes you through all the major sites that you should definitely see while on the Big Island of Hawaii. All of this can be accomplished in 10 to 12 days, but of course I would recommend staying as long as you possibly can. At this point in the trip, you could go back and re-visit parts of the island that you liked a lot and would like to spend more time exploring. You can then gradually return to the Kona side of the island for your return trip home–not that you’ll ever want to leave this beautiful place.

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