When we were booking flights out of Vancouver for our trip to New Zealand we found that almost all of the flights went via Hawai’i. Having never been to Hawai’i (possibly the only West Coast Canadians who haven’t), this seemed like a perfect time to build in a stopover. We had grand plans for a month there until we saw accommodation and rental car prices. We found a 12-day window that worked well for flight prices in and out of Hawai’i and jumped.
Our inbound flight arrived on the big island of Hawai’i and our outbound flight left from Honolulu on Oahu. Decision made: We would explore these two islands. No beach resorts for us; instead, we booked AirBnBs in four places around the big island and one spot on Oahu and drove around both islands to see all we could.
We absolutely loved our time in Hawai’i. We were so busy and saw so much that we had no time to write posts. This one is a highlight reel only. If we wrote about everything we saw and photographed this post would become a book.
Our best tip
Other than booking our accommodations in areas we knew there were things to do and see, we had done zero planning before we arrived. Then I remembered that we had tried a free GyPSy Guide tour on a drive from Calgary to Banff, Alberta, and really enjoyed how the narration started up as we neared various locations. These GPS-connected tours are available for the Hawaiian Islands as well, so we purchased GyPSy Guide, Big Island, Hawai’i ($9.99 CAD) for our nine-day drive around the big island and loved it. We were able to sit back and enjoy the scenery while learning about the history of this island, being directed to interesting stops or told how long a stop might take and why we might want to visit (or not) so we could decide if it was something we wanted to do. Suggestions were always great, including recommendations for treats, which we really appreciated. We didn’t have to open a guidebook, use maps, or Google search anything—we just sat back, enjoyed the view, and let Dave (the voice-over actor from Edmonton) tell us all about Hawaiian culture, history, and places to visit. When we flew to Oahu, we couldn’t imagine visiting it without Dave, so purchased the Oahu version as well ($8.99 CAD).
Where we stayed
We were trying to keep our visit to this expensive state under a reasonable budget, and most of the hotels and resorts just didn’t work for us. Even AirBnBs were quite expensive, so we used a bit of creativity, selecting places we wouldn’t normally stay at when prices are more reasonable.
We selected an AirBnB with a private room and private bathroom in what turned out to be a large home not too far from the airport. With a rental car, it worked out perfectly for us. The host provided a cooked breakfast each morning, which was outstanding and included fresh strawberry papaya, passion fruit and oranges from their own trees, mango jam made from a neighbour’s tree, and a taste of local apple bananas.
Our glamping AirBnB was only a few kilometres away from the Hawaiian Volcanos National Park. The hosts had done a great job of setting up a cozy living space inside what appeared to be a soft-sided garage kit. They had built it up on a platform, outfitted it with full plumbing for a toilet, sink, and outside shower, added electricity for lights, fridge, and stove, and provided a comfortable bed with loads of soft blankets and pillows, and warm lighting.
We weren’t sure what to expect with a listing that was described as a surfer shack, but we were pleasantly surprised (reviews suggested we would be, so it wasn’t that much of a risk). The host had built a surf-shack style accommodation into what was possibly a garage. It came complete with a microwave, fridge, and dishes. They provided some fresh oranges off their tree and Keurig coffee. Best of all, we were able to use their snorkeling equipment and beach towels.
This was our least favourite of five places we stayed at in Hawai’i. It was also a private room and bathroom. It was comfortable and clean enough. But we got the impression that the hosts were only renting it out for the money and weren’t that thrilled about having people in their small home. For example, though the living room was described as a common area, they took it over in the evening and didn’t invite us to join them. So we used the kitchen as needed and stayed in our room for the little non-sleeping time that we were there.
We only stayed at one place on this island and our private room and bathroom setup worked very well. Though the hosts lived in the home, they have set themselves up to occupy the back of the house and to use only the outdoor kitchen, leaving the full living room, kitchen, and the majority of the decks to the renters. They have two bedrooms available, but rent only to one group at a time. So if you only need one room, the other remains empty. The kitchen included coffee, snacks and treats, and oatmeal for breakfast. We felt very welcome here.
Highlights: Big Island of Hawai’i
Though this is the big island, you could circumnavigate it in under eight hours without stopping. We did it in nine days. Each day, sometimes even each hour, brought us to completely different climates (according to our airport shuttle driver, there are 13 distinct climates on this island) and geologies. The scenery was nothing short of stunning almost every day.
Kailua-Kona and the south and north coasts
The Kailua-Kona area (the double name distinguishes this Kailua from a different one on another island) is the best place on the island to pick up supplies if you are cooking for yourself. There are several grocery stores, a Walmart, Target and Costco in the area as well as plenty of restaurants and other shops.
We managed a short drive up the coast on our first afternoon. It was a bit drizzly and grey, but we quickly began to appreciate the beauty of the area.
Dave took us to a beach where we were sorely tempted to chuck the drive and jump in, but we held fast to our plan and stoically carried on.
Finally, we reached the end of the drive that we wanted to cover on that first day. Or at least we declared it the end once we arrived at this beach (photo below). One thing we love about Hawai’i is that all beaches are public, even if the land leading up to them isn’t. Resorts and developments are required to provide public access, parking, and washrooms so everyone can enjoy. We reached this beach by driving up to a gated community, telling the attendant that we wanted to go to the public beach, and following his directions to drive down the road for a mile or so to the tennis court, park, and walk the short path to the sandy and calm black (grey?) sand beach.
Pu’uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park
That name is quite a mouthful, but this park that preserves royal grounds and a place of refuge was really interesting to walk around. (Pick up a park map as the exhibits are numbered with few interpretive signs about.) Kapu law was very strict, and if you broke kapu, punishments were fierce. If you could make it to this place of refuge outside of the walls of the royal grounds, you might be absolved by a priest and then you would be free to return to your old life. From here, you can see Two Step, a popular snorkeling area. We were too late in the day to swim here, but it looked like a great spot to stop.
St. Benedict Catholic Church (also known as the Painted Church) was an odd little stop on our way back up the highway after our drive south. Construction of the little church was completed in 1902, and then the missionary Father painted the inside with biblical and tropical scenes. A plain white church on the outside, it is anything but plain on the inside. The churchyard cemetery in front of the church is lovely as are the gardens.
Up in the mountains there are loads of coffee fields and plenty of coffee roasters and growers that you can visit. We went to the Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation (recommended to us by previous visitors–thanks, Sue). After tasting the different varieties of Kona coffee we took the free coffee processing tour. What is surprising (and very sad) is that the coffee that is grown and processed locally, though delicious, is very, very expensive. For example, a pound of coffee at Mountain Thunder costs about $40-47 USD ($53-63 CAD). (When asked by another guest if she used 100% Kona coffee, our AirBnB host laughed and told us that it just wasn’t possible. Instead, she used a blend of about 10% Kona coffee and 90% Starbucks to create a delicious, but more economical cup for her guests.)
Kailua-Kona to Volcano
Our audio tour guide, Dave, advised us to make a stop at the Punalu’u Bake Shop on our way to the Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, and we would advise the same. It’s in a great spot along the route from Kailua-Kona, showing up just when you’re thinking a stretch and/or bio break are due. Though you can pick up lunches and bread there, the star is the malasada—a doughnut-like confection of Portuguese origin but seemingly adopted in Hawai’i as its own. The Punalu’u Bake Shop offers malasadas in many flavours. We ordered a classic plain and a liliko‘i (passion fruit) glazed one for each of us. The winner (and their most popular)? Liliko‘i!
Hawaiian Volcanoes National Park
We arrived at the park in the late and rainy afternoon. Since we were staying in the area for two nights, we were able to enjoy the visitor center for a while and then spend the next day driving and hiking through the park. We learned that nowhere in the park was any molten lava visible at the time, though Mauna Loa is considered the world’s largest active volcano. The Hōlei Sea Arch had been closed to visitors just the day before due to compounding damage caused by the most recent big volcanic eruption in 2018 and the subsequent multitude of earthquakes.
We spent the next full day driving around the park, visiting the different sites, and hiking some of the trails.
Lava flows from the 1972 eruption spill over the old highway, almost completely burying this section.
Volcano to Hilo
If you’re into macadamia nuts, a quick before-Hilo stop (though it’s down a long road through acres of macadamia nut trees) at the Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut visitor center is a must. We’ve tasted plain and chocolate-covered nuts before, but never some of the flavours on offer (taste anything you like before buying). If you like coffee, try the Kona coffee glazed nuts. Yum!
On the drive toward Akaka Falls, there were so many lovely spots and things to see.
Akaka Falls didn’t disappoint. It’s a short walk around a paved loop to get the full view of the falls, but you can even also see them from the parking lot.
Hilo to Waimea
Laupāhoehoe Beach Park
Strong winds, aqua seas and white waves crashing on jutting black lava make for beautiful views here. An engraved memorial speaks to a tragic past, though, where, in 1946, 24 school children and teachers lost their lives to a tsunami.
Also known as The Valley of the Kings, this sacred place was the boyhood home of King Kamehameha I. The valley is almost 2,000 feet below the cliff-top lookout, and is home to about 100 people–a fraction of the thousands who populated it before the 1946 tsunami. We viewed the valley from up above, but you can visit if you have a 4-wheel-drive vehicle, join a horseback tour (4-wheel-drive down, ride in the valley), or hike.
Driving into Waimea, we were reminded that we were in a completely different area from the coastal beaches and rain forests. This is cowboy country, which is made quite clear from the very large paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy) boot at the entry to one of the plazas.
We drove from the west and left the wet side of the town to arrive at the dry side (as residents describe it), and agricultural fields replaced forests. We learned that rainfall on this small island varies from a paltry 6″ per year for the northwest coast to 100″ on the other side of Mauna Loa, the almost 14,000-foot volcano.
Before heading out to the even-drier northwest coast, we curved back in on the north coast to view the Polulu Valley.
Driving south, the rich green grazing lands contrasted with black lava hills.
Back at the west coast, we stopped in at the hot, dry Lapakahi State Historical Park to learn more about daily life in this protected historical village.
Based on what we had heard about Oahu, we thought we only needed a few days there. But it seems people were talking about Waikiki and Honolulu, and not so much about the gorgeous lands outside of these two cities.
After spending six or seven hours driving what should have been a two-to-three-hour loop, we knew we had misjudged and would want to return to explore slowly. However, with Dave’s help, we drove both of his driving routes, and then spent our final day relaxing on the beach and soaking up the beauty.
Beaches and volcanoes loop
What can we say–the scenery was spectacular. From Diamond Head volcano (we didn’t climb it) to an amazing collapsed crater beach, to verdant valleys and fine, soft white sand, it was all amazing.
North shore loop
Our second-best tip
When you come across the Dole plantation, keep going. Or, if you’re into shopping at giant touristy stores, stop. If you have kids with you, maybe stop and do the maze. But definitely skip the train. We should have read the Trip Advisor reviews on this before forking out $12 USD (~$32 CAD for both of us) to ride a two-mile train through some not-very interesting fields while trying to hear the barely audible recorded soundtrack. The information provided could have easily been handled in a small room with dioramas and interpretive signs. (We’ve been on much better in-the-field, hands-on tours of pineapple plantations in other parts of the world.)
We stopped in Hale’iwa to check out the historic surfboards in what turned out to be a surf shop rather than a museum. The ceiling of the Surf & Sea was lined with boards representing what is probably a complete history of the sport and staff-member Tom was generous with his time as he explained some of the treasures there.
At Laniakea Beach, a popular sea-turtle viewing spot, we watched the surf in amazement as turtle after turtle swam parallel with the shore, allowing the rolling waves to toss them about. Finally, one turtle turned in and rode the waves over the volcanic rock until it landed on the wet sand. It crawled up the beach a ways and hung out in the sun for a bit. But when the waves continued to wash over it, disturbing its sunbathing, it turned and slogged down the slope until the waves picked it up and carried it back out to join its friends and family.
We lunched on the beach at Banzai Pipeline surf reef break to watch surfers fight through the tubes. There were several surfers waiting for the perfect ride in these very challenging waters, but it seemed that only the occasional wave was worth hopping onto. In about half an hour of watching as part of a pretty big crowd, we saw only a handful who saw it through. There were lots of cheers from the audience when they did.
There are many shrimp trucks and produce stands to stop at along this route. Though a little pricey at $5 USD for a coconut, another stand on the big island had asked $10 for the same thing. We enjoyed the ice cold coconut juice first, and then handed our emptied fruit back to have the meat cut out and presented to us in a small baggie for later snacking.
Our host and other bloggers had recommended Giovanni’s shrimp truck (Dave told us that they were all pretty good and didn’t weigh in on his favourite). We stopped at Giovanni’s and found a huge covered area behind it filled with picnic tables and lineups of shrimp lovers. It smelled fantastic, but the timing was off for us–too late for lunch and too early for dinner–so we had to take a pass.
We’ve heard many people speak highly of the Polynesian Cultural Center over the years, and our host recommended it as well. However, to get value from the high entry cost, and to participate in a luau, you need to spend several hours there (our host said to plan from 12:00 – 9:00 pm). We popped in just to see what it was all about, visited the ukulele shop, and wandered around a bit. Much of it is behind gates. As we left we noticed a sign about 20-minute canoe rides through part of the park for $8 USD. If we go back to Oahu, we’ll maybe have to plan for a proper visit.
Our last stop was at Kahana Bay Beach Park, just in time to watch teams launch themselves in four red outriggers.
On our final day, we tried to visit the Ko Olina lagoons, which were very close to the AirBnB where we were staying and were recommended by our host. These are four human-made lagoons built for a resort area, but available for the public to use. We couldn’t get a parking spot at any of them in the morning, so made the drive back through the tunneled highway to Kailua Beach Park and spent a pleasant few hours swimming and reading there.
On our way back to our accommodation in the evening, we gave the lagoons another try, just so we could see what they were all about. We found a spot and walked the pathway that crosses behind all of them with resorts and condos on the other side. The lagoons are pretty with clean sand and protected swimming areas. Some have cordoned off areas with resort-only beach lounges and sunbeds, others are completely open. Lagoon 1, by Disney’s Aluana Resort, seemed to have many options for water activities (not sure if these are options for the public, though).
And that was the end of our first trip to Hawai’i, and hopefully not the last. So many of you have been–please offer your tips and suggestions in a comment. We’d love to hear about your favourite spots and tips.
- Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park entrance: $30 USD per car (valid for seven days). We were able to get in free since our National Park Pass from our Utah road trip was still valid (and we remembered to pack it!).
- Pu’uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park entrance: There should have been a fee (which would have been covered by our National Park Pass), but there was a sign at the gate saying to drive right in. Not sure if that’s the norm.