What Is The Big Island and Why Go There?

I am a big of a geography nut, so when I would tell people I was going to the "big island" they were a little confused what that meant. When people think of Hawai'i, they may think of Honolulu, which is on the island of Oahu.  Others may have heard of Maui or Kauai, which are also island destinations like Oahu. Well, to make things confusing, the biggest island in the Hawaiian Island chain is simply known as Hawai'i. To defeat confusion, this particular island is just referred to as "the big island."

Why would you go to the big island? Well, I'll give you a few reasons I chose it.

First, it is filled with natural wonders. This island features some of the freshest land in the world. Because of volcanic activity, the island has literally been growing before our eyes. From recent lava flows and caves built from them, green and black sand beaches that are more for the eye than for touristy resorts, sea turtles, Mauna Kea (the tallest mountain in the world if counted from it's base under the ocean), amazing waterfalls, and simply some of the best unspoiled beauty in the world. A photographer's paradise.

Swimming, Snorkling, and Surfing

Note: If you're wanting to swim in the ocean, there are a few spots in Hawai'i to do this, but remember, you're on a mountain poking up from the sea. The sea depths increase rapidly from the point at which the water reaches the shore. If you want to enjoy swimming and bathing, you might choose Maui or Oahu. There are some good spots for surfing, but again limited. On the West side of the island near Kona, you'll find Kalahu'u Bay (good for swimming and snorkling too) and Pine Trees Surfing Beach.

Why Three Days?

I'm a nut, that's why! As you'll see, you can do the island in 3 days, but you'll be on the move and may not get to linger in some places that are truly worth while to explore. I'd say you could easily turn this itinerary into a week or longer. There are great deals into both the Hilo airport on the East side of the island and Kona International Airport on the West side.

hawaii big island day one

Flying in and Getting Accimated

I flew in from Las Vegas to Ellison Onizuka International Airport in Kailua-Kona on the West side of the island. In terms of weather, packing and planning can be a challenge. When you drive the route shown above on the Old Saddle Road, the temperature can change rapidly. You're climbing to higher elevations, so you may need a heavy sweater or even a winter coat. Yes, I said winter coat in Hawai'i. It was 85F (30C) in Kona when I landed. It was 58F (14C) when I was passing Puu Huluhulu near the entrance of Mauna Kea. And if you decide to go up to Mauna Kea, you're most likely looking at winter coat conditions.

Weather Changes From East to West

Also know, because of the two big mountains, weather on the East side of the island can be unpredictable, with a lot of clouds and rain storms occurring. On the West side, the weather is a bit drier and predictable.  I chose to make flexible plans, where I could wake up, see the weather on the East side and decide if it was the best day to travel on that side of the island.  So, don't hesitate to change your days around. I actually did have to do this, as there was bad weather in the Northeastern part of the island on my first full day.

Across Hawai'i on the Saddle Road

After the shock of 85F weather in January, I picked up my rental car and drove north on State Road 19, marveling at the lava and black rocky terrain. It felt like I was on another planet. The I headed to Waikoloa Village to pick up some trail mix and water in case I went long distances without some food. I also got some bug spray, just in case. The pleasant surprise was finding free roaming wild goats. I couldn't get close enough to take a detailed picture with my camera phone, but it was probably for the best. I hear these little fellas like to run out into the road, so be careful. You don't need an unfortunate incident on your trip.

Big Island Hawaiian Lele

I soon joined the Saddle Road (Highway 200), now known as Daniel K. Inouye Highway. As I understand it, this road used to be torture on cars, so your rental car agency would have dissuaded you from driving it. I can't imagine this road in bad shape, it is wide, well-paved, and an excellent way to get across the island.  Just don't get too comfortable with your speed. I also hear that the police do tend to write tickets on this highway, but I didn't see any the day I was there. You'll pass grassy fields and then ride up into the high lava desert around mile marker 28.  You'll see some incredible terrain and you'll also find curiousities like this Hawaiian Lele (alter) found directly across from the entrance to Mauna Kea.

Mauna Kea

If you're a hiker and in good health, you may want to hike to the top of Mauna Kea. You can also drive to the 13,800 foot (4200 meters) summit, but you must have a 4-wheel drive vehicle. They also suggest you take some time at the visitor's center (around 9,000 ft) to get acclimated to the high altitude. Remember, not that long ago, you were at sea level.

As the Saddle Road closes in on Hilo, you'll descend through Hilo Forest Reserve and Upper Waiākea Forest Reserve and catch wonderful views of the ocean in the distance (on a clear day). It could be a good chance to visit Rainbow Falls on your way in, or I saved that for another day when I had more time.

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Hilo and Lili'uokalani Park and Gardens

I like to take it easy with my schedule on the first day, to get in tune with the local time zone. So, with the sun starting to set, I headed to Lili'uokalani Park and Gardens. Parking on the street is easy and this is a wonderful park to walk around and stretch your legs. There is a Japanese Tea House and 30 acres of ponds and gardens.

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There is also food down in this area, but I found it to be quite pricey. So I chose to let my belly rumble a bit until I could get away from the downtown area. However, if you don't mind the expense, there is the Hilo Bay Cafe, which has a nice view of the bay from it's windows. You'll need to climb some stairs to reach this elevated restaurant and you may need reservations, as it was quite busy when I looked at it.

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This was my first experience with banyan trees and I found them absolutely fascinating. It looks like natures own umbrella. Banyan Tree Drive surrounds the park. There were apparently a lot more of them here. In fact it was known as the Hilo Walk of Fame at one time because celebrities including Franklin D. Roosevelt and Cecil B. DeMille planted trees here, but tsunamis have claimed a few of those banyans.

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Walk out a little further to catch a 360 sunset on Coconut Island.  A perfect end to my first partial day on the big island. I headed off to my AirBnB in the Keaau/Pãhoa area. I found this a great starting point for travels on the Big Island. Then I found some dinner at a local Thai restaurant.

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DAY TWO: The Southeast

After a night of listening to Coqui tree frogs and an early morning of rooster crows (there are a lot of free roaming chickens and roosters on this island) I was ready to start my day of exploration. First, I needed to grab a coffee, so I headed to Sirius Coffee Connection in Pāhoa and got a muffin and some amazing Kona coffee. I swear, that coffee restored my faith in a good cup of joe. My next destination may surprise you - a solid waste facility.

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Pāhoa Transfer Station

Back in 2014, apparently some active lava flows made their way down to the Pāhoa Transfer Station, but amazingly, none of it crossed the fence! That is good fencing! A natural wonder to behold, it's a great spot to get your first view of the wonders of nature. To get to it, make your way down Apaa Street which turns a corner and becomes Cemetery Street. It's a little county road, but easy to drive down and turn around.

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Lava Tree State Monument

Going back to the Southeast on State 132 near the intersection with Pohoiki Road, you'll find Lava Tree State Monument. Take a stroll around the circle and see how lava petrified these trees and experience the wonderful plant life that gives Hawai'i it's unique look and feel. This is a state park, so don't let the term "monument" through you off. And it is free of charge. Bring a picnic lunch if it is later in the day.

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However, leaving the park and heading to my next destination was a challenge. Recent lava flows have destroyed some roadways, so I had to take an extended drive down some small one lane roads to reach my next destination.

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What you see in the picture above is the beautiful lush green drive I was experiencing on Highway 137 while heading North to Isaac Hale State Park. But if you look closer, you'll see the road is about to change. What lies ahead on this highway is total destruction. A large flow came through and decimated the roadway. For a long stretch you'll see nothing but dried lava fields, then you are back in lush green vegetation. Truly nature's fury hit this landscape.

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Isaac Hale State Park was unfortunately closed when I arrived.  They are apparently still recovering from damage. But I found some amazing spots to stop along Highway 137.  This coastal drive is a true representation of Hawai'i as a paradise.

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The power of water and lava created this tenuous bridge.

Kehena Black Sand Beach

As you head back to the south, you'll pass Kehena Black Sand Beach. I didn't get a chance to stop at this beach because it looked pretty busy, but apparently on Sunday mornings they have drumming circles there.  I've also read that it has a bit of a Woodstock feel to it and you may see some public nudity, although that is not legal in Hawai'i.

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Kalapana may be my favorite spot on the big island. Parking in front of Uncle Robert's Bar, head down toward the sea.  I was told to bring lots of water and prepare for a difficult journey. It was anything but. However, it's still always a good idea to bring some water when you walk. Go up the hill, you'll run into a red rock path (seen above) and then just follow your ears to the crashing shores.

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Along the way you will see incredible terrain and lava flows (understand that the volcano is no longer erupting, so these will not be active lava flows).

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You'll also get some Hawaiian politics.

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And at the end, the payoff is incredible. Watch the beautiful blue waters crash against this black rocky lava shoreline.

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Local artists make this walk one to remember.

Day Two Goes Wonky Thanks to a Government Shutdown

This may be a spot where you get to complete a trek that I was unable to, due to a government shutdown.  My plan was to drive out to experience some local fare for lunch and then double back to Volcano National Park. However, a government shutdown at the time left me dumbfounded as they had said the park was accessible. However, all that was accessible was the Visitor's Center and bathrooms. Not really what I flew thousands of miles to see. To make matters worse, I drove right past the park and could have stopped in to find out what was opened, but my hunger pains were taking precident.

You can't drive straight into Volcano National Park from Kalapana. There used to be a road there, but alas, lava! So, you have to head back to Keaau. Along Highway 130, I saw steam rising from the sides of the road. Apparently this is not unusual, as there are hot springs in the area. I gassed up the car in town and then headed towards food.

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On the Trail of Mack Salad and a Plate Lunch

Whenever I can, I like to eat like the locals. Apparently the local favorite is to get a "plate lunch" including mac salad. Mission accomplished. This was at Hana Hou's in Naalehu. Here I got my first chance to practice my Hawaiian. Aloha is pretty universal and easy to remember. It stands for "hello" and "goodbye" but it also is a spiritual term to Hawaiians and so they will talk about the spirit of Aloha, which I translate as kindness and love.  Very nice. As for mahalo, this is usually used for "thank you" but is used as a blessing. So with that in mind, use these words freely and enjoy the spirit of them. Mahalo! 

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The drive to Naalehu was beautiful. There are a couple of really nice overlooks. You also again climb in elevation and there are some spots where the road has been damaged, so be alert. It's not bad, just in a couple of spots. The speed limit drops to 25 mph around the national park also.

Punalu'u Black Sand Beach

On the way back to Volcano National Park, I took a side trip to Punalu’u Black Sand Beach. As you can see above, there are some beautiful lava rocks and multi-colored moss along the lava. What I didn't see were sea turtles, which I was told would be visible from this beach. But apparently sea turtles like sun, so I just happened to be there as it was clouding up.  If you do happen upon sea turtles, do not get too close. They are a protected species and you may get in trouble with the law, as well as disturbing nature that you should just be enjoying.

I have seen white sand beaches, and later I'll show a green sand beach, but black sand beaches are my favorite.  You feel like you're walking on gunpowder. The colors are surreal.

When I arrived at Volcano National Park, I got the bad news. The shutdown was ending but they didn't know when the park would reopen. No worries, my friend Park Ranger John has been there and has a full breakdown on how to spend your time there on his website. My plans were to see

  • Devastation Park Kilauea Hikes
  • Chain of Craters Road
  • Petroglyphs
  • Hōlei Sea Arch
  • Kealakomo Lookout
  • Steam flows

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When Life Gives You Lemons, Find a Lava Tube

With an afternoon to kill, I decided to knock a couple of Hilo area activities off my list.  First, the Kaumana Caves. These lava tubes are deep caves that you can partially explore. I say partially because they lead to private property. But you can go pretty deep into them.  Note that there is parking freely available but once you cross the street you climb down a very steep metal stairway. Then, you need good grip on your shoes.  I attempted to head into the caves with what I thought were grippy sandals - uh, no! I heard that Paul Simon song, "Slip Slidin' Away" as I tried to navigate the wet rocks.  Also, these caves are extremely dark. A flashlight is necessary - and no, not the one on your cellphone. These caves are free to explore.

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Rainbow Falls

Ahh, the payoff. Not far from the caves and on the way into Hilo, Rainbow Falls calls. Another fantastic free attraction, you can walk above the falls, and you do get a wonderful view, as you'll see below.  But walking to the observation area just above the parking lot, you'll get a lovely view.

I actually stopped at Rainbow Falls twice. This time was in the afternoon. I also wanted to see it in the morning, because it apparently gets its name from the rainbows it produces with the morning sun. However, I never really had a clear enough day to get that sunlight effect.  Still, it is a beautiful slice of paradise, not far from town.

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Richardson Park sans Sea Turtles

Another spot I went to expecting sea turtles were Richardson and Carlsmith Park's, just past Hilo and the Hilo Airport. As the sun was getting ready to set, I thought this would be the perfect spot.  Well, it was gorgeous, but I didn't see a single sea turtle. I was told they would be closer to Carlsmith Park. No dice.

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But seriously, this area is beautiful. And this was the one place I saw people running out into the water. I also thought I saw a scorpion on the black rocks (can't see a sea turtle, but I see these things?). But it actually was a black crab, which apparently are all over the shores.

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Seriously, this is a beautiful spot. If you're near Hilo, it's worth a walk around.

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That put an end to my second day on the island.  I covered a heck of a lot of territory, but if you that that was a lot, day 3 was circumnavigating the entire island! Not my original plan, just worked out that way.

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DAY THREE: How Having Limited Roads Made for a Long Driving Day

First, I did not plan to drive 300+ miles this day, but once I got to the Painted Church, it was going to be the same distance to get back to Keaau and my AirBnB. This was the only time I probably could have done with a flexible lodging plan. You could just plan a hotel on the East side and West side, but remember, you're at the mercy of the weather.

I started off with a tasty breakfast of eggs benedict, coffee and had some good conversation at Bears Cafe and Deli downtown. I laughed because the woman working that morning said she was cold. It was about 68F. Coming out of 40F weather, this was great weather to me. Everything is relative.

By the way, this may shock some people, but this was my only meal until about 9 PM (other than that trail mix and water I had in the car). I was so enthralled with incredible landscapes, I forgot to eat. Then I ended up in the middle of nowhere with no way to get food. So, buy the trail mix and snacks! But this breakfast did sustain me for a long time.

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Akaka Falls

My original plan had me heading to the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens. However, they weren't open at 8:30 AM when I passed by, so I was going to head to Akaka Falls and then double-back. But road construction between the two that would have caused major delays made me give up on the Botanical Gardens.

Akaka Falls did not disappoint. It was a little confusing when I first got there though. There was no attendant. I was apparently there too early. It tells you to pay, but it was unclear how to. So, I walked the trail and when I got back, I asked a park worker who was sitting in his truck. He said the attendant hadn't shown up yet. You are supposed to pay $3 to park. My car was still there when I got back, with no ticket, so I survived the experience.

There is a wonder walking trail with a few steeper inclines, but nothing too difficult. You'll see a variety of waterfalls, not just Akaka Falls. It's a long drive out there, but worth it. Enjoy the circle. You'll see beautiful rain forest vegetation.

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As you continue the drive North on Highway 19, if you're into Ziplining, you'll find a few companies offering this. As I drove North I also spotted several waterfalls and saw rainbows as well. It's a truly magnificent drive. I remember crossing one bridge and doing a double-take to the left as I saw a stunning, unmarked waterfall from the bridge. I had to go back and walk across the bridge and enjoy it.

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Waipi'o Valley Lookout

Probably the most talked about and busiest places I found on my drive was the Waipi'o Valley lookout. Not too difficult to get to but definitely not close to Hilo or Kona, it features a walking trail that looks pretty aggressive. However, from the lookout point, you get a great view of the valley.  It is also the starting point for your hiking adventure if you so choose. Be ready for some aggressive climbing! Maps show that you climb that hill across the valley. You can however, just stop at the black sand beach and make a day of it there or take a shuttle. Your rental car agreement most likely prohibits you from going down to the valley.

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There is also the ability to drive around the Pu'u O Umi Natural Area Reserve to get to the other shore on the West side. The views along the ocean are incredible as you scale up and down the sides of mountain-like hillsides.

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You might even make a few friends along the way.

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Pololu Valley Overlook

Once you reach the other side on State Road 270, you'll find a dead end. But at this dead end is a brilliant view of the Pololu Valley. Again, you can walk down into the valley if you like, but the views from up above are stunning. Parking is limited and a little cramped, so you may choose to park further up the hill and walk down.

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West Side Driving

Staying on State Road 270 affords a change in landscape from green lush hillsides to grassy mountains gently sloping down to the ocean and then as you get closer to State Road 19 toward Kona, you find the rocky terrain and black lava returns. These are not gentle beaches, this is rocky terrain with aggressive waves.

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St. Benedict's Catholic Church (Painted Church)

When planning your trip around the Kona area of Hawai'i, two things that should be near the top of your agenda are coffee tours and the Painted Church.  Unfortunately the coffee plantations were closed when I was coming through (Saturday afternoon), but I did get to St. Benedict's. The beautiful gardens and the wonderful paintings inside the church make it worth a visit (and donation when you come in the door).

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This is still an active church, so you may find people congregating. The church has been active here since 1880 and the interior is painted with religious scenes inspired by the Bible and the lives of the saints. 

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Take a walk around the grounds and enjoy a wonderful hillside view.

This was the point where I realized, it was going to be just as long to get to the other side of the island whether I went back to the Saddle Road or drove South and past Volcano National Park again. I wanted to see the Green Sand Beach, so I decided to make my way there at the Southern most point of the island.

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Papakōlea Green Sand Beack

It is my understanding there are only 4 green sand beaches in the world. This one is at the Southern most point of the United States (sorry Key West!) and it's not easy to get to.  You drive a long distance down a very skinny road, where many times you'll have to consider how you're going to work with the car coming from the other direction.  Once you get down into South Point Park, you're now going to have to figure out how you're going to get to the Green Sand Beach itself, as it is not near the parking lot.

I read somewhere that it was worth walking to. What I would suggest is that you take advantage of the people who will shuttle you down there. For $15 you're going to take one of the bumpiest rides you've ever taken. There are no roads and the vehicles you're in will bottom out over and over. And having never seen a green sand beach, I didn't really know what I was looking for. The sand seemed an odd color, but I didn't consider it green.  Well, that's because I wasn't there yet.  And there is no signage. You really have to know where you're going. I would have given up 3 times had I been walking. When we finally arrived, it was about 5:30 and the sun would be down in the next hour, so I rode out and rode back.  It was worth it.  With more time, I might have walked back.

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The cove is beautiful and tretcherous. I slipped multiple times on the way down. There is somewhat of a rock staircase to get down to it (I use the term staircase very loosely here). The sun was setting, which made it beautiful. The sand is an olivy green. When you're down in the cove sometimes it's hard to get a feel for it being "green" until you look at the more red-based brown sands far above your head. The people I rode out with were from Canada and had no problem taking off their clothes and going out in their swimsuits. I had not planned for this, so I just took in the scenes from the beach.

I asked the driver if they had deer in Hawaii. He said no (not sure if this is entirely true, but took his word for it). I asked that because I really wanted to get back to my AirBnB and didn't want to have to worry about animals jumping in the road in the dark. All went well, and my long long day of driving came to an end.

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DAY FOUR: Last Day and Back To The Airport

When I woke up on the last day, I had a choice, head back to Hilo and the Botanical Gardens, then straight across on the Saddle Road or go South and try Volcano National Park one more time.  I went South.

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Volcano National Park

I was told limited parts of the park were opened. Stupid me believed it. When I got back into the park, one road had opened, but not enough to see more than one overlook. Otherwise, the hiking trails all had these signs.

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Kilauea Iki Crater

This was the only overlook I could enjoy. Oh well, someday maybe I'll go to the park when there isn't a government shutdown.

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Napo'opo'o Park

First, I drove one of the scariest roads to get here. If you can avoid going down State Road 160 - AVOID IT! It looks like pavement up on stilts with dropoffs big enough to swallow your car. And guess what, I saw a car that had gotten too close to the edge sitting on it's nose down in one of the gullys. Seriously, these are not ditches that ride along side, they are car graveyards. Sadly, that is the direct line route between Pu'uohonua o Hoaunau (The Place of Refuge) and Napo'opo'o. For what I risked, I wish I had gone to the former.

When I got to Napo'opo'o Park (locals I think just draw out those last two "o's" instead of enunciating them, which helps) there is little space for parking and the local businesses know parking is a premium, so you'll get an earful if you park in the wrong spot. But Kealakekua Bay is a spot to behold. 

Napo'opo'o is where you'll find the Captain Cook Monument across the bay that was errected in 1874. It marks the area where the captain met his fate on February 14, 1779. As the story goes, he was thought by the natives to be a god, but after some roudiness by his men and then an incident where his ship was damaged, thus changing the Hawaiians opinion of his god status, he was killed near this spot. You have to walk to it. Since I couldn't find parking, I missed that opportunity. The roads down here are also very narrow. I'd suggest maybe trying to park at the pier.

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The End of the World

I'm going to point out a fantastic spot that I have no idea how I found. Here is a Google Map pointing out the location. It's known as the End of the World and it is a spot where you'll see wild goats, beautiful turquois water and black lava rocks. The place is absolutely stunning. Watching the water explode into the black coves was like watching fireworks on the 4th of July. It was the perfect spot to wind up my 72 hours on the big island.

Back to Kialua-Kona and the Airport

My last stop was the Magic Sands Beach Park in Kialua-Kona, a good spot to hunt sea turtles (of course I didn't see any) and take a dip. It's a very popular beach. They are doing some restoration down there and some historical artifacts are hidden at the moment, but a park is apparently being built so you can see these seashore gems. This is also where I tried some Hawaiian Shaved Ice. Not being one for sugary things, it was a little overwhelming, but when in Hawai'i! I then stopped off for lunch at the Da Poke Shack which features rice bowls filled with a variety of spiced local seafood.

One note on the airport, I had to drop my car off at 3 PM. I was told at the car rental counter that there was a restaurant and bar in the airport. My plane wasn't taking off until 9:45 PM. I took the advice and went into the airport and through security. To my dismay, the restaurant was closed until 6 PM, as were the two shops.  Take an Uber into town, if you run into this situation. The airport is no place to hang, unless you want to listen to Hawaiian music's greatest hits for 6 hours!

I hope this guide helps you find some inspiring places and helps you plan out your own trip to the big island. It was an incredible 72 hours that was a feast for the eyes!

And if you're looking for accommodations in Hawai'i, give AllTheRooms.com a try. They have a full listing of rentals and hotels available.

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