In January 2016, we again sought a long weekend’s respite from the gray and gloom of Seattle winter–this time on the Big Island of Hawaii. This was my second visit to Hawaii and I was excited to return after our delightful visit to Maui the previous March. We divided our time between the Kona, Volcano, and Pahoa areas. Activities included visits to a coffee plantation, several beaches and state parks, and hikes at the beautiful Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park.
Note: when possible, links in this post are affiliate links. For planning, we relied a lot on Sean’s childhood memories, but we also like The Ultimate Guidebook series for our Hawaii trips, and their Big Island guide is no exception.
Day 1: Kailua-Kona Beaches
We arrived at Kona around 1pm after a pleasant flight from Los Angeles and clear views upon approach. Upon picking up our rental car, we headed toward our hotel, Kona Seaside (Booking.com). After a quick check-in, we swiftly changed into more appropriate attire (you can’t really start in shorts from Seattle in January… some people can, but not me!).
After settling into our hotel, we drove past the airport to Kekaha Kai State Park to stretch our legs before sunset. I love exploring tide pools and rugged beaches, so this was the perfect spot to say aloha! to the ocean. We parked in the small lot near Mahai’ula beach and enjoyed the warm sea breezes until sunset. I did not spy any surprising creatures in the pools, but we did scrounge up some interesting shells along the beach.
Afterward, we returned to Kona for a delicious dinner at Umeke’s Poke Bowls, where we each enjoyed generous poke bowls and a few samples of the day’s remaining selections. Perhaps because it was our first day, or perhaps because it was the right combination at the right time, this turned out to be the perfect nightcap to our half-day on the ground and a solid foundation for the rest of the trip.
Day 2: Coffee Plantation Tour & Green Sand Beach
Heavenly Hawaiian Coffee Farm
The next morning, we drove out to the Heavenly Hawaiian Coffee Farm for an impromptu tour. The owners were lovely and gave us an informational tour of the grounds, while explaining their approach to growing, maintenance, and roasting. Afterward, we enjoyed some coffee samples on the back patio while taking in the views. (Apparently we didn’t take any photos… I blame not having had my coffee yet!)
Now well-caffeinated, we drove to the trailhead / parking area for Papakōlea Beach (also known as Green Sand Beach, Mahana Beach, and Peridot Beach), at the end of South Point Road. The moderate hike to the beach is roughly 2.75 miles, but you’ll need to wear a good pair of shoes. Once at the beach, you can bask in its famous green sand (the green color comes from its olivine content).
We spent several hours here enjoying the beach and relatively calm surf. The mid-afternoon crowd on this Friday was relatively thin, and there was plenty of room to spread out. Don’t forget to bring plenty of reef-safe sunscreen. The sand might be green, but the sun is intense here on a clear day!
Before heading back to the car, we continued hiking around the cove above and slightly beyond the beach area (another reason to wear good shoes!) for more views.
On our drive back to Kona for the evening, we stopped at Ka’aloa’s Super J‘s for a delicious, authentic Hawaiian plate dinner. Once back in Kona, we stopped at Gypsea Gelato for dessert, as one does while on vacation.
Day 3: Volcano & Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park
Donuts, Church, and Turtles
On Saturday morning, we started the day off right by picking up doughnuts at nearby Holy Donuts (this has since closed, but two of the long-time employees opened Paradise Bakery Hawaii). We then drove up to the St. Benedict’s Roman Catholic Church (“The Painted Church”) in Captain Cook. It was a beautiful, clear day so we took our time walking around the church grounds and admiring the interior.
Next, we drove to Punalu’u Black Sand Beach in the hopes of seeing some sea turtles. With donuts in hand, we lucked out and got to watch a group of turtles come and go.
Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park
Following the turtle stop, we headed to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park to see the distant smoldering of Halema’uma’u Crater. We stopped at several locations along the Crater Rim Drive.
Our final stop in the park was the Kīlauea Iki hike (3.3 mi round trip from the overlook, 400′ descent and ascent). Exploring this crater area is a unique experience, featuring numerous plants and volcanic rock formations.
We then checked into our rental in the small mountain town of Volcano: Dancing Bamboo (no longer available). Next up, dinner in Volcano at Ohelo Cafe.
We returned to the Halema’uma’u Crater viewpoint to see the eruption at night. This was magical. The lava illuminated the rising vapors and crater walls beneath a starry sky.
Day 4: Chain of Craters Road & the Eastern Shore
Chain of Craters Road
The next day, we drove from Volcano to the Chain of Craters Road in Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park. Once inside the Park, this road ends after 19 miles, near the Holei Sea Arch. Along the way, we stopped frequently for expansive views of the lava flows. The sea arch is quite impressive and only a short walk along the road. We then walked a bit past the gate at the end of the road, turning back when the midday sun felt like it was getting too intense.
Despite the intense midday sun, we then stopped at the Pu‘u Loa Petroglyphs – an archaeological site with more than 23,000 petroglyphs. The short hike here is easy and straightforward, with boardwalks and walking paths through the best areas of the petroglyph field (1.4 miles, 1 hour or more, depending on your pace).
Pahoa & the Eastern Shore
With our tour of the Chain of Craters Road complete, we backtracked toward route 137 (Kalapana-Kapoho Beach Road) for another scenic drive. The first stop was at an unmarked sea arch, just before the T-junction with Nalu Place (at approximately 19.409, -154.904). This section of coastline was purchased for conservation. It is worth a stop to admire the crashing waves and stretch your legs. We later stopped at Isaac Hale Beach Park (Pohoiki) for another short walk, and to see the totem poles.
Note: Pohoiki / Issac Hale Beach Park was partially transformed by the eruption of Kīlauea in 2018. Our experience, and the photos shown below may not represent the current state of the park, its beaches, or facilities.
We concluded our scenic drive that evening in Pahoa. There, we checked in at The Kimos’ Ohanas B&B (unfortunately, the owners are no longer inviting guests). We enjoyed a nice dinner at Kaleo’s Bar and Grill in Pahoa.
Day 5: Scenic Drives
For our final day on the Island, we set out from Pahoa (toward Hilo) for a tour of multiple parks before our redeye flight home.
First up was a short walk to an overlook of the 80-foot Rainbow Falls in Wailuku River State Park. I recall this being somewhat crowded, but we managed to have a few moments of zen watching and listening to the roar of the falls. After the waterfall, we moved to the Boiling Pots area to walk among some beautiful banyan trees with the late morning light streaming through their canopies.
Next up was Akaka Falls State Park. We parked and quickly made the short walk to the main overlook of ‘Akaka Falls. Surprisingly, we were the only people there. You have the option of a short walk to a second overlook of Kahuna Falls, but we skipped this in the interest of time.
To continue our northeastern shore loop (counterclockwise), we drove next to Laupãhoehoe Beach Park and watched the surf break over the scenic coastline and rocks. The volcanic rocks are quite sharp but ruggedly beautiful, especially with a rough surf crashing over them.
Our next stop was the famous Waipi’o Valley Lookout. Unknown to us beforehand, the valley was closed due to a dengue outbreak. As a result, we only got to look down at it from the road closure point, which was incredibly congested
NOTE: At the time our visit, you could still drive down into the valley. As of 2022, the Waipiʻo Valley Road beyond the Lookout is closed to tourists. Access to the valley floor and hikes requires a guided tour. Please check with local authorities for the most up-to-date information.
With evening upon us, we made our way westward back to Kona. Based on some research for best places to watch sunset near Kona, we chose the Old Kona Airport State Recreation Area. We arrived with enough time before dusk to explore the tide pools (have I mentioned how much I enjoy tide pools?), then watch the fiery sun sink into the sherbet-colored horizon.
For post-sunset dinner, we selected Broke Da Mouth Grindz – which we are happy to see is still well-reviewed. One cannot skip dessert on the last night of vacation, so tonight’s choice was a return visit to Gypsea Gelato. And with that, it was time to return our rental car and begin airport formalities.
Where we stayed
We stayed at three different places on this trip, to best facilitate seeing different parts of the Island.
- Kona: Kona Seaside (Booking.com)
- Volcano: Dancing Bamboo (no longer available)
- Pāhoa: The Kimos’ Ohanas B&B (no longer available)
View Sean’s full set of photos on Flickr.