Hawaii Road Trip: Around the Big Island in 3 days
A guide to the top attractions along the Hawaiian Belt Road that encircles the Big Island of Hawaii.
Hawai’i Island – commonly referred to as the Big Island – is one of the eight major islands in the State of Hawaii. It is the largest island in the Hawaiian archipelago, with an area of 4,028 square miles (10,430 km2). To visit the Big Island, you will need more than one day! The 3-day itinerary featured in this hub is only a suggestion. You may start the road trip in any order or direction, it depends on which side of the island you arrive from mainland.
Big Island, Hawaii
DAY 1 (Hilo to Volcano)
Start off this road trip with a leisurely drive south on Hwy 130 to Puna. Notoriously known as the “hippie capital” of the state, this area is mostly agricultural and still retains the charming look of a yesteryear Hawaii. Take a cruise along the enchanted Red Road Scenic Byway. First stop is Kalapana where a short hike takes you to Kaimu Black Sand Beach for a sweeping vista of ocean and lava land as far as the eye can see. Next stop is MacKenzie State Park. Listen to the whooshing wind in the ironwood forest and thunderous crashing waves on the sea cliffs. Continue on to Isaac Hale Beach Park - a popular surfing spot where you may catch some exciting wave-riding actions, with your camera that is. Next, Kapoho Tide Pools is a Marine Conservation reef area where you can snorkel and discover a magical world under the calm, clear water. Be careful, do not touch or step on the beautiful but fragile corals. After frolicking with the colorful critters, you head back to Pahoa Village for lunch. This quaint little town is one of the few dwindling places in the state left untouched by time and progress. Take a stroll through the historic downtown quarter, admiring old wooden homes and shops built at the turn of the century. Kaleo’s Bar & Grill is a good choice for delectable island-style dishes or Nings for healthy, authentic Thai cuisine.
Leaving Pahoa, you head north on Hwy 130 and then southwest on Hwy 11 toward Volcano Village. Next stop is Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Established in 1916, this massive park is home to Kilauea and Mauna Loa - two of the most active volcanoes in the world. Hike across a moonscape crater floor at Kilauea Iki Trail or through a lush rainforest at Thurston Lava Tube. Don’t miss the fascinating Jaggar Museum where you can learn more about volcanic activities. Stay for the night at Volcano House - a cozy historic lodge located inside the park, right on the edge of Kilauea caldera! At their restaurant (aptly named The Rim), enjoy your dinner with a stunning view of the glowing plume from Halema’uma’u Crater under the starry sky.
Optional things to do if you have an extra day: Volcano Golf & Country Club (when was the last time you got to play golf next to an active volcano?) and Volcano Winery (offers tours and wine tasting).
DAY 2 (Volcano to Kailua-Kona)
Follow Hwy 11 to the south end of the island. This area – called Ka’u District – feels somewhat isolated, but astonishingly scenic with rain shrouded mountains, windswept hills, and serene pastures. Macadamia nut and coffee plantations abound. Keep an eye out for the rare nene or Hawaiian goose – an endangered native species – along the roadside. First stop is Punaluu County Beach Park where you get to see the honu or green sea turtles – another endangered species – basking on the beach. These animals are protected by law, do not get close as you may disturb them. Next stop is Naalehu at the famous Punaluu Bakery, known as the “Southernmost Bakery in the USA”, where you can satisfy your sweet tooth (and caffeine crave!) with Hawaiian delicacies like malasadas, sweetbreads and aromatic cups of Hawaiian coffee. Moving on, you pass what was to become the world’s largest housing subdivision Hawaiian Ocean View Estates with over 10,000 one-acre lots, however only less than 1500 houses have been built, the rest is still vacant land. The highway gradually turns north and you head straight into Kailua-Kona. This picturesque seaside town hosts the famed Ironman World Championship triathlon every October. Take a stroll through downtown and browse the myriad of souvenir shops. Visit interesting landmarks like Hulihee Palace (former residence of Hawaiian royalty) and Mokuaikaua Church (Hawaii’s oldest Christian church) on the bay front. For lunch, walk over to Huggo’s on the Rocks on Alii Drive, relax at a table on the sunny deck and enjoy the sparkling view of Kona Bay. Try the seafood pupus platter (fresh catch tuna sashimi, grilled Big Island abalone, etc.) and wash it all down with a cold golden pale ale from popular local brewery - Kona Brewing Co.
It’s time to hit some of the best beaches on the planet! Head north on Hwy 19 toward Waikoloa Resort area. There are several great white sand beaches along this stretch of Kohala Coast. Your choices are Kua Bay Beach, Makalawena Beach, Hapuna Beach, Beach 69 and more. Each beach has its own charm, all are spectacular! Lounge lazily at a favorite beach or zip from one beach to another (i.e. beach hopping) just for the fun of it! Whatever you do, look offshore for humpback whales (during whale season December-March) and spinner dolphins as they love to show off their breaching skills to beachgoers. Also, do not miss the glorious sunset from the beach! Spend the night at the classy, elegant Mauna Kea Beach Hotel - built by a Rockefeller heir and first opened in 1965. For equally luxurious dining, make your reservation at Roy’s Waikoloa Bar & Grill - an upscale eatery owned by celebrity chef Roy Yamaguchi, featuring gorgeous Euro-Pacific fusion cuisine. Or skip out of the resort area and drive to nearby Kawaihae Harbor for casual dining at the hugely popular Café Pesto (pizza, pasta, etc.) and then dance the night away at the fun and festive Blue Dragon Restaurant.
Optional things to do if you have an extra day: Papakolea Green Sand Beach (located near the South Point, hike the dramatic shoreline and yes, the sand on this beach is really green!) and Captain Cook Monument & Kealakekua Bay (take a guided kayak tour across the bay to an incredible snorkeling spot).
DAY 3 (Kailua-Kona to Hilo)
After a morning jog on the beach (and maybe one last dip in the ocean!), you leave the resort area behind and follow Hwy 19 to the north end of the island. First stop today is Waimea - a former plantation town with a unique country western vibe. This is home of the pianolo or Hawaiian cowboys and cowgirls. It’s also home to one of the largest cattle ranches in the United States – Parker Ranch – where the celebrated July 4th Rodeo is held every year. Continue on the road, take a short detour over to Waipio Valley Lookout for an unforgettable breathtaking birds-eye view of this legendary valley and rocky beach below. The next stretch of highway is called Hamakua Coast which curves south, with the blue Pacific on one side and lush rainforest, cascading waterfalls, deep gorges on the other side. Next stop is the iconic Akaka Falls State Park. A little trail from the parking lot leads you to two spectacular waterfalls. The larger one plunges 425 feet from a cliff down into a stream below. Next, take a 4-mile scenic drive just off Hwy 19 to the magnificent Onomea Bay for more selfie ops, then stop for lunch at What’s Shakin’ Shack. This funky roadside stand offers delicious picnic-style food – salads, burgers, and wraps – all made with fresh ingredients from the owner’s farm. Try their tropical fruit smoothies - simply divine!
After lunch, follow Hwy 19 back to Hilo where you started the road trip 2 days ago. It’s still early in the afternoon, you have several options: go to Hilo Farmers Market for more souvenir bargains; take a walk in Liliuokalani Park (Japanese garden and ponds) and cross the footbridge to Coconut Island in Hilo Bay; explore yet another splendid waterfall – Rainbow Falls – located just a few miles uphill above downtown area. Or visit the Imiloa Astronomy Center at the University of Hawaii-Hilo for a spellbinding 3-D planetarium show and Polynesian seafarers “The First Astronomers” exhibit. You can stay the night at Hilo Hawaiian Hotel on historic Banyan Drive. The giant banyan trees along this street were planted decades ago by celebrities like President Franklin Roosevelt, explorer Amelia Earhart, baseball legend Babe Ruth and more. Dinner is just a short stroll from the hotel at the eclectic Hilo Bay Café. Out on the open-air terrace, you lean back in your chair with a glass of wine, taking in the dramatic view of Mauna Kea volcano across the bay, feeling the balmy evening breeze on your face. What a perfect way to end your 3-day road trip adventure around the Big Island of Hawaii.
Optional things to do if you have an extra day: Kalopa State Park (hike through an extraordinary native rainforest) and Tropical Botanical Garden (located on the 4-mile scenic drive, amazing collections of tropical flora and more waterfalls).
ABOUT THIS HUB
The author lives on Big Island. His most favorite place on the island is Puna where he lives with his partner and a lazy cat named Kungfoo.
All photos were taken by the author with an Olympus Stylus TG-630 iHS digital camera and iPhone6.
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Copyright © 2016 Viet Doan (punacoast)