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Last summer, we spent two weeks on the Big Island of Hawaii. We did so many awesome things, I had to break my MUST-DO post into two segments. Last week, I posted about the Best Big Island Beaches, and today I am writing about the other activities you don’t want to miss if you are traveling to the Big Island!
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Best Big Island Activities
I visited the Big Island when I was in the sixth grade and immediately fell in love with its unique terrain. I could not wait to bring my kids here so they could see the endless fields of lava rock that butt up against the world’s most gorgeous beaches. On this trip, we spent two whole weeks on the Big Island – 8 nights in a Keauhou condo (just south of Kona) and 5 nights at the Waikoloa Beach Marriot.
We rented a car (read my best car rental tips here), and mixed up our beach days with sightseeing around the island. We did so much, but honestly two weeks wasn’t enough – is it ever? But here are our recommendations for the best Big Island Activities:
Volcanoes National Park
The Big Island is synonymous with its black lava and erupting volcanoes. Even though this was my third visit to Hawaii, this was my first visit to the Volcano Park. Volcanoes National Park is on the southeast part of the island, about 82 miles from Kona. This ride will take you close to two hours.
This is a National Park, and there is a $20 fee to enter (per vehicle). Your first stop will probably be the Kilauea Visitor Center, which is located near the entrance. Here you can use the restroom, get a park map and orient yourself. It is also important to check current conditions because this is an active volcano. Lava flow and air quality change daily, and only areas deemed safe will be open to the public.
At Volcano National Park, you can do hikes and tours, but we opted to drive the length of the Chain of Craters Road, all the way down to the Holei Sea Arch, which is on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. This drive is about 19 miles long and it will take you alongside various fields of lava rocks. We stopped along the way at different scenic spots, parking on the side of the road, and getting out of the car to walk on the lava rocks.
Along the route our favorite spot was the Thurston Lava Tube. From the road, follow the signs to the small parking lot. From here the trail takes you down a lush path to a tunnel that was formed by lava! You can walk through the tunnel, coming out the other side where you can walk back through the rainforest to your car.
With stops, it took us about an hour to reach the sea arch. Here we took photos, looked around, and then drove back up to the Visitor Center. Unfortunately, on the day of our visit, it was an 8-mile round trip hike to see the actual lava flow, which was too long for our kids. We also had not prepared for an all-day hike. If you are interesting in seeing flowing lava, definitely call ahead in the morning so you can plan accordingly.
VOLCANO NATIONAL PARK PRO-TIPS:
- Gas up before you head out of Kona. The drive is long and boring and you will meander through some very small towns with little amenities.
- Bring snacks for the journey. OR stop for a Malasada at Punalu’u Bake Shop, the Southern Most Bakery in the United States. We hit this spot up on our way home and the Malasadas were sold out.
- After visiting the Volcano Park, head into the town of Volcano and have lunch at the Lava Rock Cafe, this was a fun, family friendly spot with a diner-like feel and good food.
- On the drive back to Kona hit the black sand beach at Punaluu. Unfortunately it was pouring out when we arrived here, we were only able to stay for a few minutes.
Greenwell Coffee Farm
Despite active volcanoes and beautiful beaches, Kona might be most famous for its coffee! The hillsides and climate of the Big Island make it an ideal coffee growing spot. One morning, we decided to head to the Greenwell Coffee Farm for a tour and some tasting.
This farm is located about 6 miles from Keauhou. When you arrive, you can run around, check out the gift shop and sample some coffee while you wait for the next tour, which begin every half hour. The tour was about a half hour long and took you through not just the coffee farm, but where they harvest the beans as well.
Coffee is such a labor-intensive process, this tour really made me appreciate the work behind growing my favorite bean! This tour helped me understand why coffee, good coffee anyway, can be so expensive!
This activity is something I, coffee lover that I am wanted to do. The kids tolerated it, and it was outdoors so they could run around. I would recommend this farm for families because of its proximity to Kona and the tour itself was short and sweet. I also loved Greenwell’s coffee!
Mauna Kea is the dormant volcano on the big island of Hawaii. It stands at almost 14K feet above sea level, so it’s hard to miss. We ascended Haleakala (10K feet), the crater on Maui, but on top of Mauna Kea you can stargaze through telescopes.
Four nights a week (Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday & Saturday), astronomers from UH Hilo set up telescopes outside the Visitor Information Station (VIS) and open to the public – free of charge! (update: the website now says only the first 115 cars will be permitted, when we went in August 2016, there was no cap, although parking was chaotic). According to the website the program begins at 6:00 with the showing of a movie in the Visitor Information Station.
We planned this for an evening where the weather looked clear. In our compact rental, we drove up to the Mauna Kea VIS at 9,200 ft . There are paved roads so going up and down the steep volcano was not a problem. From Keauhou it took about two hours to the VIS.
Despite being warm and sunny near the coast, when we arrived at the VIS it was 41 degrees Fahrenheit and completely fogged over. We arrived at sunset (around 7 pm), and had to wait until 8:30 for the fog to clear and the telescopes to be set up. Needless to say, it was freezing waiting for the skies to clear. But it was worth the wait! NOTE: Stargazing is subject to weather, which can be quite different from conditions at sea level.
Even without the telescope the sky was breath taking and I know for a fact my suburban kids had never seen so many starts in their life! We waited in line for the telescopes and saw Saturn – yes with all the rings, and another planet, I honestly forget which one. My son still talks about seeing Saturn through that telescope and it is something I will never forget!
- Get gas BEFORE you set out for Mauna Kea. The closest gas station is 35 MILES from the summit (which is 70 round trip!). Once we turned onto Daniel K. Inouye Highway, we realized we were going to be cutting it real close with fuel, so we had to double back all the way to Waikoloa to the closest station.
- Same tip for FOOD PROVISIONS. The VIS sold little snacks and hot chocolate, but Waikoloa is the closest place to get an actual meal.
- It will be cold at the VIS. VERY COLD. We brought sweatshirts to Hawaii, but we did not have pants, winter jackets or hats/gloves. Not sure I would lug this stuff (in August) just for this activity, but looking back we should have packed a blanket from the condo or worn more layers.
- NOTE: We did not go to the summit. This is a daytime activity and requires a 4-wheel drive vehicle.
Keauhou Cultural Events – FREE
This activity I read about on blog I found through Pinterest! The Keauhou Shopping Center hosts weekly, FREE, cultural activities. On Friday night there is a hula show (which sadly we missed) and every Thursday there are crafts from 10am-12pm.
We stopped by one Thursday morning and there were two crafts available for the kids! We made real Hawaiian leis, and a beaded bracelet. This was free, although donations are accepted. And P.S. the senior ladies who run this are so great with the kids- we loved sitting and talking with them!
I love my alone time, and I love a spa. So on a three-week family trip, I needed to plan an afternoon just for myself (my husband did this too). I came across a review of Mamalahoa and I knew this place would be perfect for me!
Mamalahoa is a spa that offers massages, which I love. But the best part is with any massage service, you can use the private hot tubs for a half hour! You can also rent time in just the hot tub.
Mamalahoa is located in a tucked away location, up on the hill, about a 15-minute ride from Keauhou. When you book, the woman will give you directions on how to find it and where to park.
I love hot tubs. The 30-minutes to relax in a private hut was incredible. And the soak was followed by an invigorating Swedish massage. I honestly wish I could go back right now!
Annie’s Island Burgers
Okay, so for us, eating is an activity! And since most days we brown-bagged it to the beach, and saved lots of money by cooking dinner in our condo, we only went out to eat a few times on the Big Island. And we ate at Annie’s twice!
This is a burger place with a wide variety of options. Everything we tried was so delicious (we were partial to the Goat Cheese Poppers with Sweet Chili Sauce). Our kids loved the food and the service was great. I highly recommend Annie’s!
The big island is very low-key and I think people sometimes overlook this hidden gem. I would love to go back and see the Hilo side and get to that flowing lava!
Have you visited the Big Island? What are your favorite Big Island activities?
I highly recommend THIS book for planning your next Hawaiian adventure!
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