Hawaii Vacation: 4 nights on Hawaii Island (Big Island)

Our third and final stop on our Hawaiian vacation is Hawaii island, aka the Big Island! Previously we spent 5 nights on Kauai, and then 2 nights on Molokai, before making our way to the Big Island. From Molokai we flew Mokulele Airlines to Maui to pick up a connection on Southwest Airlines over to Kailua-Kona. We spent 3 nights on the Big Island, and having been to this island a few times before, were excited to head back!

Day 0: Arrival/Evening in Kailua-Kona

After spending 2 nights on Molokai, we did some more inter-island hopping to get us over to Hawaii Island aka The Big Island, making our home base in Kailua-Kona. James wrote about our journey from Molokai to Maui (MKK-OGG) and our connecting flight from Maui to Kailua-Kona (OGG-KOA).

Arrival into Kailua-Kona (KOA)

We landed in the late afternoon/early evening to Kailua-Kona, which is always a super cool airport to land at considering you’re landing on a lava field!

We got our rental car, another sweet Jeep, and headed into the center of Kailua-Kona town.

We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express Kailua-Kona. This hotel is in a great location for walking into the main part of town, making it super easy to access all of the great restaurants and bars on the main street overlooking the water.

After checking in, we cleaned ourselves up and headed out to grab some dinner.

Dinner and Dessert in Kailua-Kona

On our way, the sunset was hitting just right on this beautiful church in downtown Kailua-Kona!

We settled into our restaurant of choice, Da Shark Shack, which was advertising street tacos and looked to have a nice amount of beers on tap. Also, the view just can’t be beat!

I was ecstatic to be able to get one of my all-time favorite beers on tap: Kona’s Koko Brown, which is a coconut brown ale. I wish they would distribute more of this to the mainland, even if it’s just in bottles or cans.

For dinner, I got a Kailua pork taco and a shrimp taco, which were decent, as it started to get dark and the restaurant/bar turned on its fun nighttime lights.

After dinner on our walk back to the hotel, we found a shave ice place and decided to split a SMALL one for dessert (this is the small…)

If I’m remembering correctly, I got 3 different flavors: Li-Hing-Mui, Lychee, and P.O.G (Passionfruit-Orange-Guava like the popular juice drink), and then topped it off with some popping bobba pearls (bobba with juice in them). I was tempted to add mochi as well but it was $1 extra which I thought was kind of steep. There were so many different flavors and toppings to choose from, so you really can’t go wrong!

After our shave ice dessert, we headed back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep.

Day 1: Beach Day!

The next day we decided it was a good Beach Day since we wanted to relax. We headed out mid-morning to grab some breakfast and lunch food and drinks at a local mini mart, and then drove about 20 minutes north of Kailua-Kona to go to the beach.

Kekaha Kai State Beach Park

Our destination was Kekaha Kai State Beach Park area. This park was free to enter and only has a gate that closes at the end of the day.

There is a little bit of a drive, first on a paved road and then on a slight gravel road (most cars could drive on it), through a lava field before you get to the parking lot. The van in front of us struggled a bit with some of the bumps and was going very slowly, but made it without any issues. Our Jeep, however, was more than enough to get us where we needed to go.

There are a few beaches in this park, including Mahai’ula Beach and Makalawena Beach. The parking lot is closer to Mahai’ula beach, with a short 1/3 mile walk on the lava field pathway, and Makalawena beach is about 1 mile further.

I originally suggested going to Makalawena beach since it looked larger and sandier, but it was pretty sunny and hot out, so we decided to look at the availability at Mahai’ula beach first which we would pass on the way to Makalawena, and then we could decide to go further if we really wanted to later.

The walk was a bit rocky but doable in James’ flip flops and definitely achievable in a sandal like my Tevas. When we got to Mahai’ula beach we decided to stay because it was relatively empty and we didn’t feel like walking the rest of the mile to Makalawena at that time.

I’m glad we decided to stay at Mahai’ula because it was definitely one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever been to! From the last few times we’ve traveled to the Big Island, we never went to a really sandy beach (the first trip we didn’t know they existed, and the second trip was cut a bit short due to bad weather so we landed a day later than planned). This time I knew we had to make the trip to a white sand beach and it was a gem!

The water was super turquoise and calm, and there were a lot of beautiful palm trees lining the beach. It was so tropical and perfect!

We were able to get a great spot in some shade beneath a beautiful tree, and broke into our breakfast pastries we got from the store. James had a red bean pastry, and I had a coconut cream pastry.

We hung out for several hours: James dug a hole, I went for a few swims, we ate lunch (a sandwich for James and sushi topped with poke for Val), and watched some Monk seals on the shoreline.

This was an absolutely great beach day!

Waipi’o Valley

At some point in the mid-afternoon we decided to drive northeast over to check out Waipi’o Valley since we had not been over to that part of the island before. It was about an hour and 20-minute drive from the Kekaha Kai State Beach Park.

On our drive it started to drizzle a bit and was pretty cloudy so we were hoping we would be able to get a good view of the lookout when we arrived.

We got to the parking lot and walked the short distance down to the overlook. It was foggy and a bit drizzly but clear enough to get a glimpse of the impressive cliff side and waterfall. It was definitely a beautiful sight with the black sand beach down below!

At the time of our trip, the road down to the bottom of the Waipi’o Valley was open to all traffic as long as you had a vehicle with 4-wheel drive, or you could walk down the steep 1.5 mile road to the bottom. At this point in time, the road is entirely closed to all, both vehicles and pedestrians, with the exception of residents and property owners of Waipi’o Valley alone, due to the “the hazardous conditions of Waipio Valley Road, which are a threat to public health and safety” according to the county.

Some sources I have read have said that this is temporary until the county can assess the road conditions and make updates to make it safer. Other sources have said it will be closed permanently. If you plan to go to Waipi’o Valley, you can still get to the lookout which is worth the trip alone, but if you were planning on going down into the valley you should check on the current conditions and be respectful of road closures.

I was a bit weary of driving down the Waipi’o Valley road when we did it, simply because we didn’t know the conditions of the road, it was wet and rainy, and the sign said it was very steep. Also, there didn’t look to be any way to turn around along the road, since it was so skinny, if we felt it was unsafe along the way. But because James is a really good driver and knows how to properly operate a 4-wheel drive vehicle, we decided to take the drive down in our Jeep. It took a good amount of time to get down there because the road was very windy, and we had to go even slower around any pedestrians (I might not recommend walking on this road if it ever opens back up because the road was pretty tight with a single car and people walking beside the car).

Once we got down there, we had to drive through some muddy spots with some pretty large puddles, but the Jeep did its thing and got us through with ease. We were careful to try and park somewhere that was far enough away from any “sacred burial site” markers, and found a spot close to the entrance to the rocky beach area near the water.

The views from down in the valley along the black sand (rock) beach were amazing as well. The waves were pretty rough so we didn’t go in the water at all, but we walked along the beach a bit and then sat on the back of the Jeep with the door open and admired the views while eating some leftover brownies we had from lunchtime (not special, just normal brownies lol).

After a bit, we headed back up the road to the lookout area and checked it out once more time as the clouds cleared up a bit. You could now see even more of the coastline beyond the first set of cliffs which was cool!

Then we headed back toward Kailua-Kona. We decided to stop in Wailua town on the way to Kailua-Kona for some beers and snacks at Big Island Brewhaus. We figured if the food looked good then we could even eat some dinner.

Unfortunately, they were at capacity for tables, but they allowed us to order a beer and sit outside where they had a barrel with some chairs in a little garden near the entrance. The beer was decent, but since we weren’t staying long and the chairs were wet from the rain we only had one beer and then left to head back to Kailua-Kona for dinner.

The drive back west was much drier and sunnier, which is common for the Kona coast.

For dinner, we decided to get some poke takeout from one of our favorite places, Umeke’s Fish Market Bar & Grill. On our first trip to the island, Umeke’s was just a small fish market with takeaway only at the counter, and since then they have expanded to a restaurant, still keeping their takeaway counter for poke.

We got a couple of different types of poke and a large amount of rice and headed to the hotel to eat next to the pool like we did on our honeymoon (awwww) and take a dip in the hot tub before bed.

Day 2: Southern-most Point of the USA, Punalu’u Black Sand Beach, and erupting Kilauea Volcano

Our plan for our second day was to drive to the Kilauea Volcano at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in the late afternoon so that we could see the currently erupting volcano at night! There were a few other stops we wanted to check out along the way as well, so we made a day of it. Before we headed out for the day, we wanted to get a nice, big breakfast so we headed into the main part of Kailua-Kona town.

We walked along the water’s edge and tried to get into a great breakfast place we had been to before: Island Lava Java. We went to the original location that I had saved on the map before, but it turned out they moved to a new location down the street.

When we got there we saw that it was not the small, cute café it had been before but a huge restaurant that was packed! We asked the hostess how much time the wait would be, since there looked to be several parties waiting outside for tables, and she said about 30 minutes. We were very hungry and wanting to get on our way, so we decided to put our names down just in case but walk around to see if we could find anywhere else to go. It was a busy day in town! When we got to the other end of the main road, we were pretty close to 808 Grindz Café so we decided to check it out and see if they had any availability.

They were doing takeout only at that point due to covid, but had a few tables outside. The line wasn’t too long so we grabbed a table and placed our order. This ended up being a great choice because the food was amazing! I got a loco moco, and James got Portuguese sausage, eggs, and rice.

Southernmost Point of the US

Once we were very full and happy, we drove out of town toward the Southern-most point in the United States which took about an hour and a half. We parked in a gravel lot and walked down to the point.

It was cool being somewhere geographically “significant”, but a little underwhelming. I’m not sure I would spend the effort to get out there. It was also quite windy so we didn’t spend too much time walking around.

However, it was also the starting point for a short dirt road over to Papakolea Green Sand Beach that we wanted to check out. We read on Google maps reviews that the drive to the beach was doable with a 4×4 from the end of a real road, but that the rest was definitely considered “off roading”. Since we were conscious of our rental agreement, we were weary of doing this. The other options were to walk along the road, which was about 2.5 miles, or to hitch a ride from some locals that charged $20 to act as a “shuttle” down to the beach. We decided that none of these options were ones we wanted to take, so we headed out toward the volcano a bit earlier than planned.

Punalu’u Black Sand Beach

We still had some time to kill before dark so we decided to drive over to Punalu’u Black Sand Beach for a bit, which was on the way to the volcano, and enjoy our beverages and snacks that we had packed for the green sand beach.

We got to the beach parking lot which was relatively busy, and found some picnic tables along the beach where we sat and enjoyed the scenery and our snacks. The weather was a bit cloudy and looked like it might rain so we didn’t venture into the water, also not wanting to get wet since we were going to the volcano next and had a long drive back.

This beach is super pretty, even when cloudy, and kind of had a natural black-and-white-photo aspect to it due to the black sand.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

We hung out until close to sunset when we drove the 30 minutes or so over to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

We arrived just in time to catch the park ranger before closing, and to ask where the best place to see the eruption would be. He guided us to a parking lot that would be open, but said that if it is full that we would be directed to another one that would have us hiking on a short trail to the eruption site.

We were one car too far back in line when we got to the first parking lot, so unfortunately we were unable to park there. But luckily we found one of the last spots at the second parking lot, and the hike was a short 1.5 miles on a paved trail so it was not bad.

The hike was actually really pleasant since it had just rained and the temperature was a bit cool. Part of the short hike was through a beautiful tropical forest.

It was also neat to walk through the lava fields knowing that it was “relatively new”!

So new in fact that part of the road we walked on was split in half due to recent lava flow!

We got to the overlook spot just in time for a beautiful sunset behind some clouds, and stared down at the glow.

We also saw some flowing and spewing lava!

I had a point-and-shoot camera with me and I was able to zoom to get pretty good closeup photos and video.

The scenery got even better as it got darker, and we couldn’t look away!

It was a bit crowded at the site, and so they asked people to limit their time in the area to 30 minutes so that others could have a chance to look. We followed their guidance and left shortly after dark.

This was definitely one of the coolest experiences! We were so happy to have been visiting the island when we did, and that the volcano wasn’t also producing a lot of ash and vog like it was when my parents visited during the eruption in 2018. We were lucky to be able to have gotten so close and see some cool volcano action!

It was after dark when we headed back to the parking lot and out of the park. We hadn’t eaten dinner yet since we had a huge breakfast (more like brunch) and a snack pretty late in the day, so we thought we might find something on the way out of the area after the volcano. Unfortunately we didn’t see anything open until we got close to Kailua-Kona which was a good 2.5 hour drive away! It was still worth the drive out there and back though.

When we got into town we noticed that a lot of restaurants were closed or about to close since it was approaching 9pm on a weeknight! We were worried we were going to have to have a fast food dinner, but found a late-night street taco “stand” that was open late.

This ended up being a great choice because the tacos were amazing and really cheap! I could see this being a popular spot after a night out at the bars!

Day 3: Kona Coffee and another Beach Day

The next morning, we woke up and decided it would be another relaxing beach day since it was our last full day on our trip (sad face!). I had realized that I hadn’t had a cup of Kona coffee yet so I knew we had to go somewhere to get some with our breakfast.

Breakfast: Kona Heaven Coffee

We went to a café called Kona Heaven Coffee and I got a cup of Kona. Unfortunately they were all out of hot breakfast food for the morning so we got a pastry to split to hold us over until our lunch on the beach.

After breakfast, we picked up some drinks and lunch stuff at the ABC store down the street to complement our leftover poke, and headed out to the beach.

Kekaha Kai State Beach Park (again!)

We ended up back over at Kekaha Kai State Beach Park. We talked to a friend who had gone to Makalawena beach and said it was worth the hike, so we thought we would try it. We also read that there was another way to drive over to the beach on a separate road that had us slightly off-roading, so we decided to drive close to it and see if others were driving there.

We did see a few trucks make the drive, which looked a little bumpy. We thought the Jeep might make it but we were also a bit afraid to get stuck. After a few minutes of contemplation we decided against it and headed toward the main entrance of Kekaha Kai State Park to park in the lot and try to walk.

Once we got to the parking lot we were started the walk and then again decided to just stop at Mahai’ula beach on the way. Both of us were again not really feeling a longer hike on the lava rocks (which were a bit difficult to walk on and made the hike a lot slower than you would expect). Looking back I wish we either drove or made the hike so we could check out a new beach, but I was definitely happy going back to one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever been to, so it wasn’t a total loss.

The beach was a bit more crowded this time, so we didn’t find anything in the shade. A bit of sun was welcomed though as it wasn’t too hot and the water was nice enough to cool off with a swim.

We enjoyed our fun in the sun as well as some lunch. I ate the rest of the poke we had leftover as well as a spam misubi (like a large piece of sushi topped with marinated spam, a must-try!).

At one point, a young kid was in the water and got chased out by a Monk seal! I guess he got too close, either knowingly or unknowingly, and almost got bit! The Monk seals are very protective of their habitat, so if you see them make sure to keep your distance. They were super adorable to watch, sunbathing and rolling and shifting around to make themselves more comfy on the sand.

We stayed until late afternoon and then went back to the hotel to clean up before dinner.

Before dinner we stopped at Ola Brewing Company for some local beers. We didn’t really have specific plans for dinner, although we thought about going back to Umeke’s for a sit-down dinner. We passed by and it was a bit crowded so we decided against it.

We ended up at a place called Ono Loa Island Grill, which advertised as having “Yelp’s 8th best cheeseburgers in the USA” as well as having fresh ono fish tacos.

James got a local grass-fed burger and I got a salad with grilled ono and locally made macadamia nut goat cheese, and a side of pineapple cole slaw. Both dishes were really good! (Apologies for the weird yellow lighting, it did kind of make eating what I imagine was a colorful salad an interesting experience!)

Day 4: Kona Coffee Farms, Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park, and Departure

We woke up on our last day pretty bummed about having to travel home that evening. We hadn’t yet gone to a Kona coffee farm so I knew that was going to be on the list of things to do. Also, we needed to stick to the Kona region so that we were close by to catch our evening flight.

We decided to head into Kona Town for some breakfast. We wanted to sit somewhere outside overlooking the water, so we decided to check out Papa Kona Restaurant & Bar. There looked to be a good amount of open tables on their balcony, but they were reservation only so we ended up sitting inside.

The good thing was that the doors were wide open so there was a nice breeze and we could still see the water, so it was good enough.

The food was pretty good, I got a kalua pork eggs benedict and James got Portuguese sausage, eggs, and rice again. I also got a Kona coffee, even though we were about to go to some Kona coffee farms (I needed some caffeine badly!), but this was a bit of a miss and wasn’t as good as some other Kona coffee I’ve had.

Kona Coffee Farms: Greenwell Farms

We hit the road toward the Kona coffee farms and stopped at Greenwell Farms which was open and had free samples.

This farm had great reviews and was a family owned farm for generations. We got there and sampled a bunch of coffee and then got a bag of beans to take home. We wandered the grounds a bit, checking out what we assumed was a very old manual coffee harvester or roaster.

There was a farm tour starting but neither of us really wanted to spend an hour doing that, so we decided to head out. We considered going to another farm but I was already feeling pretty buzzed at that point and knew I shouldn’t have any more coffee or I’d be bouncing off the walls more than I already was (caffeine really affects me for some reason!).

Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park

There were a few historical parks that I wanted to check out, and we were really close to the Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park so we decided to go there.

If I would have known we would have gone to 2 national parks on this trip, in addition to having already been to Zion National Park earlier in the year, we could have gotten a National Park Annual Pass but we didn’t think that far ahead. There was also an option to get the Hawaii Tri-Park Annual Pass but it was $55 compared to only $30 for Volcanoes NP and $20 for Pu’uhonua O Honaunau NP, so it wasn’t worth it anyway. But if you have the chance to go to those 2 and also Haleakala National Park on Maui, getting the Hawaii Tri-Park pass is probably worth it, even if you don’t use it as an “annual” pass and only use it just the once it would be worth the money (Haleakala entry fee alone is another $30).

The Pu’uhonua O Honaunau park is small but really interesting. There is a walking path that takes you to a handful of sacred sites within the park, and the brochure explains what the significance of each spot is to ancient Hawaiian culture and traditions.

It was easy to see why this place was considered sacred considering how amazingly beautiful it was.

There were many beautifully carved wooden tiki statues everywhere, a few thatched roof huts, and a calm beach with lots of palm trees and lava rocks surrounding it.

The site was a refuge to those who had broken sacred laws, and were able to get to this location where they would follow ceremonies to be able to be forgiven and return back to society.

It also was really interesting learning about the ancient Hawaiian rituals and customs that took place here.

We also checked out a hut where they used to build outrigger canoes.

There was a guy in one of the huts doing some woodworking, so we stopped to watch briefly.

There were also a bunch of fish pools that the ancient Hawaiians built to capture and store the fish they caught.

We also spent some time walking around some of the natural fish ponds created by a lava field separating the site and the ocean.

We tried to see if we could spot the Hawaiian state fish: in Hawaiian it is known as the humuhumunukunukuapua’a (much easier to pronounce than it looks!), also knwon as the reef triggerfish.

We are pretty sure we saw one but it also could have been a similarly colored fish (the one in the picture is definitely not it!)

Dinner in Captain Cook: Shaka Tacoz

After we toured the park, we were getting hungry and still had some time to kill. We decided to check out a local taco place that was recommended to me by a coworker, called Shaka Tacoz.

It was originally just a food truck but then they opened a brick and mortar shop, which is in a great location on a cliffside with an amazing view.

We were able to sit outside and ate our tacos with an incredible view. The tacos were amazing! I got 3 tacos, 2 pork and 1 veggie, with a mango chile sauce. James got all pork with a very hot sauce on top.

We also got Jarritos sodas, which I always love with tacos. I got the guava flavor which I had not really been able to find anywhere back home and it was delicious.

Saying A Hui Hou (Goodbye/Until We Meet Again)

After we ate, we had to head back toward the airport to catch our flight. We were flying an evening flight from Kona to Honolulu, as James detailed in this post, and then flying back to the mainland on a late red-eye flight.

We got settled in at the airport just as the sun was setting, and that made for some gorgeous photos.

This is one of the coolest airports I’ve ever been to, and it’s just so nice and relaxing sitting there waiting for your flight, which is not a common feeling at most airports.

Layover in Honolulu Airport: Cultural Gardens

Once we got to the Honolulu airport, we had a good amount of time to kill on our layover before our next flight to the mainland, so we decided to check out the Cultural Gardens in the middle of the airport.

There were a few different types of gardens: Chinese, Japanese, and Hawaiian.

It was a really beautiful set of gardens and was a lovely night for walking around outside.

It was also nice to be able to take our masks off for a little bit while outside and get a breather before having to sleep in our masks all night on our flight.

Layover in Honolulu: Delta Lounge

After touring the gardens, we went into the Delta lounge, which at the time was only allowing vaccinated travelers to enter.

We got some snacks (they had ahi poke!) and drinks (I had a Mai Tai because it was still vacation for a few hours…) and relaxed before heading to the gate.

Final Thoughts

This was another amazing Hawaii vacation in the books for us! I’m very glad we got to go, considering we had canceled our original itinerary due to the covid spike they were experiencing. Covid was much better during this new itinerary, so we were happy to be able to travel more safely and support the local economy.

I’m also very glad we were able to spend more time on the Big Island this trip, considering our last trip out here several years ago was cut short due to bad weather delaying us a full day. I had planned a lot for that portion of the trip and was sad that we didn’t get to do much at all. This time we did a lot of what I had wanted to do then, so I was grateful.

I absolutely love everything about Hawaii, from the amazing beaches, food, drinks, and local culture. It is one of my favorite places on earth, and I just love being out there. Hawaii is trying to cut down on over-tourism though, so if you travel there please be respectful of the locals and what they are trying to do to curb over-tourism, and make sure you are aware of what is closed to the public or what is limited. This is important not only for the locals but to preserve the land and sites for future travelers as well.

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