Friday, July 20, 2012

The Gorgeous Island of Hawaii: The Big Island

Link to the Album:Big Island

One of our best vacations was our trip to the Big Island, Hawaii in the first week of July 2012. We tried to cover almost the entire periphery of the island, making full use of the 4.5 days we had there. We landed in Hilo (ITO airport- east side of the Island) and flew back from the same airport. We chose Big Island over other islands in Hawaii, since it is not too touristy and not commercialized, has active volcano sites and has the true feel of a beautiful, lovely island with rain forests, volcanoes, lava, beaches, waterfalls, valleys and great weather with rain and sun inter-changing roles within minutes. Big Island truly lived up to our expectations. Here is what we did and some travel tips:

Day 1: Landed Hilo around 2:30pm. Small and nice airport, so it was quick getting out. We rented the car from Budget Rentals. We had a bad experience with them since we had to change the car 2 times. We always go with Enterprise and always have had a good experience with them.
After picking the car and buying some food items from the nearby shopping complex which has a few major stores like Walmart, Walgreens etc., we drove to the nearby LILIUOKALANI GARDENS. These are beautiful Japanese-style gardens. It is a great place for picnic, especially for kids. Half-an-hour is good for strolling in the park.

We then proceeded to our hotel in Volcano which is towards south of Hilo and is very close to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. We stayed at VOLCANO FOREST INN. It was a great inn with very nice hosts. Would highly recommend that inn. Nice patio and nice view of the rain forests around. The inn is near to the Volcano Post Office. TIP: Keep an eye on the inn’s signboard at the entrance. The entrance is a short dirt road, leading to the peaceful inn. It is very easy to miss the signboard, especially if you are going there for the first time at night. We had food from the nearby Thai restaurant: THAI THAI RESTAURANT. The food was just ok, not fresh by any means but then there are not many places to eat in that little town. So, was glad with what we got!

Then we went to HAWAII VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK to check out the glow from the volcano at night from the outside viewing area of JAGGER MUSEUM in the park.
It was stunning – a view I have never seen before! The full moon night made it even better, even though it was partly cloudy. The museum is open until 7pm but the park is open all night. There are a lot of people to catch the night views. So, go as late as possible. TIP: It generally gets cold there due to high winds. So, take a jacket or something. Both nights we were there, it was cold there even when in the July summer weather. TIP: Get there a little before sunset to get the before and after sunset views and to get a front place in the viewing area.

Click here for ROUTE MAP FOR DAY 1

Day 2: After the nice, light breakfast by the hosts of the inn, we went to see the July 4 parade in the town of Volcano which starts at the Post Office. It was fun. Seemed like all the people in the town were in the parade!

Then we went to Volcanoes National Park ($10 entry per vehicle, valid for 7 days). When we had gone last night, there was no one to collect money since we had entered the park after 7pm. We started with the Information center and then went for the THURSTON LAVA TUBE which is an easy trail and highly recommended by me. TIP: Get in there before the tourist buses get there. We got there around 10:30am and just after we came out of the tube, we saw several buses. It’s no fun in the tube with people.
Next we continued on to the KILAUEA IKI 4-mile loop trail in the park, near to the tube. It is listed as moderate to challenging. We did not find it challenging though, depends on why you call it challenging, must have been for the uphills on the trail, no shade for major part of the trail and an uneven surface. It was almost a two hour hike for us. Views of rain forests, the huge crater and walking through the crater was awesome. We stopped on most of the overlooks that were on the way while driving in the park.

Around 2pm, we decided to go to the Southernmost Point of the US: KA LAE. It is around mile marker 70, around an hour or more drive from the park. On the way, we stopped at the famous PUNALU’s BAKE SHOP. You cannot miss it. It is on the right side as you enter the town of Na`alehu. Good place to eat and their baked goods were awesome. Just past mile marker 70, you will see a signboard for Ka Lae and you turn right (if driving from Hilo). It’s an easy drive up to there. Nice and peaceful with very few people diving into the ocean. We spend around 30-40 minutes there and then headed to the GREEN BEACH.

There is a signboard which would guide you to the Green Beach area (Mahana Bay/Papakolea). You would see lot of cars parked in the parking area. People generally hire the locals for going to the beach. Hiking the almost 3-mile trail one way is not easy. It is a sandy/muddy uneven terrain and the trails are confusing with no shade at all. We had a 4 x 4 and so we drove up to there. TIP: Advise from a local: While driving, drive on the uppermost trail that you see. There are various trails formed on the ground but the higher ones are safer else there is a danger of getting stuck. It was a nerve-wrecking drive for me in the passenger seat! The green beach is beautiful. It was peaceful with not many people and beautiful views. There were locals on their 4x4’s asking people if they wanted a ride back for $10-15 one way. I would advise going with them both ways if you do not have a 4 x4. It took us around 20-25 minutes on our jeep each way to drive to the beach. It is worth mentioning here that the rental companies do not hold responsibility if anything breaks in the rental while going to Green Beach or Waipio Valley (on the north side of the island - details later in the blog) as they are both considered dangerous drives. Also, the residents offering rides for a fee are operating illegally as Hawaiian Homelands stopped years ago giving out permits for people to drive that road. TIP: As per forums, if you are going to park in the general parking area for a ride or hike, then do not leave any valuables in the car. Even though we are both avid runners, I am so glad we decided against that hike.

Now, we were ready to drive back to Volcano. On the way back, we stopped at PUNALU BLACK SAND BEACH. We did not spend much time there since there were a lot of people out there. Clicked a few pictures and then drove back to the Volcanoes National Park. We did the easy 1-mile one way DEVASTATION TRAIL there. Nice views. Then we drove up to the Jagger Museum to once again capture the night views of the volcano. It was a beautiful glow. What better way to celebrate July 4 by looking at those natural fireworks!

Then we drove back towards our inn to catch dinner at the nearby restaurants. The little strip is all that is in the town of Volcano. This time we went to the KIAWE KITCHEN. It is well known for its thin-crust pizza.

Click here for ROUTE MAP FOR DAY 2

Day 3: Went to Volcanoes National Park again to drive through the CRATER RIM DRIVE. It is a paved 23-mile road. This was when our 4 x 4 had some electrical problem and wouldn’t start. Good thing, we were inside the park on the crater rim road and so we hiked around 2-3 miles, viewing the craters and walking on lava, while we were waiting for the rental company to replace our car. It was a fun walk. We drove to the end of the road in our new car to see the HOLEI SEA ARCH. Awesome views and overlooks on the drive. Be sure to make a stop at all overlooks. They are all worth it. We missed the Pu'u Loa Petroglyphs trail since we had recently seen a lot of Petroglyphs in our last month's trip to Utah.

By 2pm, we were out of the park to drive towards Kona. We stopped for lunch in Na`alehu at HANA HOU RESTAURANT since it is the southernmost restaurant (until some other restaurant pops up south of it!). I would not recommend it. The food was not good and there were flies/bugs around. Not a very clean place to eat.

Next we drove to PUUHONUA O HONAUNAU NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK on the way to Kona, almost 10-15 miles before Kona. Spent around an hour or so there, relaxing near the waterfront and watching turtles. Nice, relaxing place and at the same it tells you about the native Hawaiian culture. There are picnic tables near the waterfront in the park. Then we drove to Kona. Our resort, the Keauhou Beach Resort, had great ocean views. It’s a nice place – not too modernized but the great views made up for everything. So, we decided to relax there in the evening. They had good complimentary breakfast in the morning. Careful of the birds there. They love to peck in your plate if you are eating on the patio.

Most restaurants on the famous Alii drive close by 9pm but we found a few open for dinner until late also. We went to Rosa's Cantina and Sunset Grill. They had live music and great ocean views, with full bar. Not a bad place for my birthday drinks!

Click here for ROUTE MAP FOR DAY 3

Day 4: Checked-out from the resort to drive towards Hilo from the north side of the island. We first stopped at KALOKO-HONOKOHAU NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK. We did not hike the trails there since it was too hot for me by that time. Nothing much there - we could have skipped it but it was on the way. It hardly took us any time there.

Our next stop was Hapuna Beach State Recreational Area. Beautiful beach with lot of people. There is no parking fee, so it is advisable not to keep costly stuff in car.
Next we went to PUUKOHOLA HEIAU NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE and went on the short trail there to see the Heiau (religious place of worship) built by King Kamehameha. Tourists are not allowed inside but it was a nice, short walk up to there. They also show informative videos in the information center. For this park, 45 minutes to an hour is enough. Next on the way, we stopped in the small town of Hawi for 30 minutes, walking down the little street for window shopping and peaking in their stores. Just outside Hawi, is the famous, original KING KAMEHEMA’S STATUE, where we stopped for pictures and relaxed for a while on the green grass around the statue.

Then we drove to POLOLU VALLEY lookout.
Amazing views from the lookout and so we decided to hike it to go to the bottom of valley. I am so glad we hiked it. It is somewhat strenuous but people who think they cannot do it, should do it by taking stops. The sceneries on the trail are so beautiful, that you are forced to stop! Totally worth the effort. It took us 25 minutes downhill, stopping for pictures and 20 minutes uphill without stopping, drenched in sweat. It generally takes people longer than this, as per the forums. The trail is rocky and not smooth. The valley-views down there were stunning and so was the beach. Since there were not many people out there, it was relaxing at the beach.

After Pololu valley, we stopped in WAIMEA for late lunch. It was a beautiful drive to Waimea, very beautiful. Waimea has a lot of places to eat and shop, easy to find.

Next we drove to the Hamakua Coast for WAIPIO VALLEY lookout. It was gorgeous. Since we had 4 x 4, it made it easier to hike it. Not sure how a few people were doing it on foot. We had to give ride to those few people on our way back since they were done walking and were soaked in sweat! The trail has 25% gradient and is not easy. I wanted to try walking it but we did not have enough time for that. Maybe next time, even though I know it would be painful! The Waipio valley trail is maintained only until a few miles. Driving beyond that point is dangerous as per the signs out there. This was a nerve-wrecking drive for me in the passenger seat due to the slope of the single-lane road, all uphill but totally worth it. We could see WAIHILAU falls from distance. They are apparently the highest waterfall in the US and one of the highest in the world with a drop of 2600 feet.

Next on the way to Hilo, we stopped at AKAKA FALLS STATE PARK for evening views. There are signs which lead you to the falls. The park gates close around 6pm. The park is still open but you cannot park inside. We parked right outside the gates where others had parked. The falls were awesome and the melodious voice of the Coqui Hawaii frogs was making it even better. Can you imagine frogs being melodious? Yes, they were in Hilo! Walking through the rainforest trail to the falls was awesome. TIP: Do their suggested trail which is 0.8 miles moderate and covers two waterfalls. We found the trail easy and interesting. After the gorgeous views, we drove towards our inn through the 4-mile scenic drive ONOMEO BAY trail. It was gorgeous during late evening but we decided to return for day-time views the next day. It was on way to Hilo and there was a signboard for it. You can get from one side and come out the other side, on the same road. Basically, it is a worth-it detour for 4-miles to get back on the highway.

One of the most interesting part of our trip was our third place to stay: The Inn at Kulaniapia Falls in Hilo. It was an interesting road that led to the inn. If you are staying there, then would recommend to go there during daylight for the first time. Google maps strayed us off of our path, even when the inn had directions written on the road at various places. We decided to follow Google maps and wandered on a single-lane dirt road at night with no street lights and forests all around. This made our trip even more adventurous (and scary)! Before booking it, I had no idea that the inn was so close to KULANIAPIA falls. Awesome views of the falls. It was amazing. The inn was great too, well-kept and great breakfast. The inn has several houses. We stayed at the “Residence.” I would return to Hilo anytime, only to stay at that inn again.

And now, it was dinner time. I would have ordered food from Dominos Pizza, as the host at the inn suggested since I was too scared to go to the town on those roads again but I had my brave husband with me, who remembered to not follow Google directions and use his direction sense. It was not too bad getting to the town once he understood the roads. There were hardly any places open around 9:30pm. We went to an Italian place, Pescatore on Keawe street. They had good service, great food and great wines. Little expensive but good food. On the way back to the inn, we stopped for some beautiful, star-gazing moments in the clear sky in absolute dark on the single lane road to the inn. Good thing that there was absolutely no traffic that late. Only the tall trees around and us!

Click here for ROUTE MAP FOR DAY 4

Day 5: Relaxed at our lovely inn with waterfall views during the day. Hiked down the waterfall and it was even more gorgeous. The inn-owner maintains the trail and a bamboo garden there. We loved it there. Very relaxing and totally recommend the inn. Then we decided to return to Akaka Falls State Park once again, driving through the 4-mile scenic route of Onomeo Bay trail.
The drive was totally worth taking the roof off while driving through it. At Akaka falls, this time we parked inside and paid the $5 self-pay fees. Since there is a machine for paying the fee, it accepts both Visa and American Express. We spent some good time at the park and then drove back towards Hilo to drive to RAINBOW FALLS.

Rainbow falls were nice falls and had a short trail to a huge, interesting tree. We must have spent around an hour there before driving to our next destination nearby – The PEEPEE Falls. Rainbow Falls park did have restrooms. The Peepee Falls area had a park and the falls were just ok. We could have skipped that but it took us hardly 15-20 minutes there.

Back to Hilo for lunch. This time we had lunch at: CAFÉ PESTO on Kamehameha Avenue. They had good seating capacity and even then, it was fully occupied. They had good food and good service. We liked their food so much that we decided to return for dinner. They have a full bar and are open until late. Since there are not many options to eat, this one was good for us and they had some good vegetarian options for me.

After lunch, we drove to LAVA TREE STATE PARK, towards Kalapana. Around over an hour drive to the park from Hilo. Awesome park for how it was made. Nice drive to the park with trees all around. Must go. Next we drove to KALAPANA for viewing lava. We can only go to a certain point to see the destruction that lava caused several years ago and in late 2011, unless you take a private walking tour. On entering Kalapana, there was a sign which says private land. We were not sure but good thing that we decided to go ahead. There was a person guiding people where to park and he showed us where we could walk up to. We walked on the lava there.TIP: Wear shoes if you want to walk on lava.

We spend around an hour there before proceeding to KAIMU BLACK SAND BEACH. It is a newly formed beach and not too crowded. We were there before sunset. Got some amazing sunset views in the somewhat cloudy sky and saw some really crazy tides. It was a beautiful beach and had some places to eat as well. We had to walk (short walk, less than 0.3 mile one way) through the lava on a dirt road to get onto the beach. The beach was peaceful since there were not many people around. So, we spend the evening there. Got back to Café Pesto in Hilo by dinner time.

Click here for ROUTE MAP FOR DAY 5

Day 6: Got our early morning rainy views of the Kulaniapia Falls before getting ready to proceed to the Hilo airport. If you are going out of Hawaii islands, then they do not allow any fruits, seeds, raw vegetables or nuts with you, neither while coming in nor while going out of the islands. Being a small airport, everything was quick and before we got to know, we were back home, only to bring back sweet memories of the great trip we had.

Link to the Album:Big Island