With its diverse and amazing scenery, the Big Island offers the best of Hawaii and the most variety of all the islands. You have the stark desert-like beauty of Mauna Kea, lush waterfalls, breathtaking beaches, and the power of the Kilauea volcano. There are also simple island pleasures everywhere, like beach walks, Japanese gardens, ancient Hawaiian historical sites, and good food.
With so many attractions, you’ll need these tips and tools to stay on budget while you’re on the Big Island of Hawaii.
Inexpensive and Free Fun for Your Family
Volcanoes National Park (Hilo)
For just $10, you’ll get a seven-day entrance pass for your car, and I recommend spending at least a full day and an overnight stay so you’ll have enough time to see most of the park. Inside the park you’ll find a visitor’s center, a museum, a ranger program, as well as rental cabins and tent camps.
There’s also a hotel, Volcano House Hotel, but it’s closed for renovations until late 2012. We stayed in the cabins, which are rustic and simple, but adequate. The showers and bathroom facilities were within walking distance. If you want to camp out in a tent, you’ll be glad to know that camping is free – no permit necessary.
The park has plenty to see. Start with the 11-mile Crater Rim Drive, then make your way to hiking trails or petroglyph viewing. Check out the nighttime lava viewing opportunities all over the park. I recommend a visit to the Thurston Lava Tube, which was created during a previous lava flow. It doesn’t take a lot of time, and it’s worth every minute.
Insider’s Tip: Lava viewing locations change periodically, depending on the flow of lava, so check with a park ranger when you arrive.
Hiking this relatively flat terrain isn’t very difficult, but this area can get very hot. Wear tennis shoes, not sandals, because the many tree roots along the path have a tendency to trip those without proper footwear. The Puako Petroglyphs are in the historical park at the Mauna Lani Resort. Some petroglyphs are outside, while others are in a cave, and there are plenty of them, so give yourself at least an hour to explore.
Queen Liliuokalani Gardens
The free Queen Liliuokalani Gardens are a beautiful tribute to Hawaii’s last Queen, Liliuokalani. The Japanese gardens offer 30 acres of tranquility and beauty with koi ponds, Japanese pagodas, bridges, and lanterns. Just off Banyan Drive in Hilo, this spot is great for a family picnic.
Rainbow Falls (Hilo)
Eighty feet tall and not far from a parking lot, this waterfall is one of my favorites for two reasons: it’s a double waterfall, and you can get very close for viewing the falls and taking photos.
Akaka Falls State Park (Hilo)
The waterfall is 422 feet tall and is beautiful for photos. The walk to the waterfall is about 15 minutes long on a paved walkway. When you visit, bring mosquito repellent.
Pe’ epe’e Falls
Sixty feet high, this one is one large waterfall with additional small falls running off to the side. There is a paved trail to the falls.
Historical Explorations on the Big Island
Pu’uhonua o Hanaunau
On this sacred spot called Pu’uhonua o Hanaunau (“Place of Refuge,” in English), ancient Hawaiian priests were required to offer shelter and forgive wrongdoing for anyone able to swim to the heilu (temple) without getting caught. Still a place of serenity and beauty, the energy of this area will fill you with a calm peacefulness.
You can explore replica buildings showing what ancient life may have been like in the heilu. You can swim and snorkel, and you may even get an unexpected visit from some of the large sea turtles. These turtles are protected, and a park ranger will stay nearby to be certain that they’re not disturbed. The park falls under the United States National Parks system, and admission is $5 per car.
Insider’s Tip: I suggest bringing snacks or drinks if you want them. On my last visit I don’t remember concessions.
Once the summer residence of Hawaiian royalty, this Hawaiian home is on the water and contains artifacts and beautiful Koa furniture, showing how Hawaiian royalty lived long ago.
This 1500-year-old heilu on the northwest tip of the island is a beautiful spot to visit. It is a very sacred place in Hawaii and must be respected by visitors. A short walk from here you will find a sign for the birthplace of King Kamehameha.
King Kamehameha Statue
This statue of King Kamehameha was commissioned from an American living in Florence, Italy. The statue is a reminder of the fact that King Kamehameha united the islands of Hawaii after years of discord. Known as a great warrior and diplomat, he is considered a great leader by Hawaiians.
Big Island Beaches: For Families, Swimmers & Snorkelers
The Big Island of Hawaii has so many beautiful beaches, but you must respect each one of them. While they’re gorgeous, they can also be deadly. Some island beaches have rip currents and dangerous undertows. Before swimming at any unknown beach, review a local beach guide; you can pick one up in most tourist areas.
Insider’s Tip: Beach conditions change periodically so it is best to confirm the safety of the beach before taking a dip.
Kahaluu Beach Park
This family friendly choice is one of several great beaches for swimming and snorkeling along the Kohala Coast. The protected beach cove offers an opportunity to view beautiful fish. Kahaluu Beach Park has a life guard tower, shady trees, a pavilion, showers, restrooms, and limited parking. Because the beach is near a hotel, you will find concessions nearby.
Kikaua Point Beach
This beach is accessible through a guard gate on Kukio Nui Road off of Route 19 near mile marker 87. It’s a public-access beach, but it’s a little tough to find. It’s even tougher to park, but it’s worth the effort. This white-sand beach is perfect for swimming, snorkeling, and just taking in the view. There are bathrooms, showers, and a water fountain available.
Insider’s Tip: Arrive early; there are only 27 parking spots.
Just a short walk from Kikaua Point Beach, this beach is accessible from the Four Seasons Resort. During my visit I had to pay a few dollars for parking at the resort, or purchase something at the resort to have my parking validated. It is well worth the money and gives you access to both Kukio Beach and Kikaua Point Beach.
Punaluu Black Sand Beach
This beautiful black-sand beach is well-known, and you may see turtles from this beach.
Spencer Beach Park
This family friendly beach is another great place to spot turtles. It’s a white-sand beach with shade trees, barbecue grills, restrooms, showers, and a picnic pavilion. The beach offers excellent snorkeling and swimming because it is protected by a reef.
The Old Kona Airport Beach
This beach offers something a little different, an opportunity to drive on what used to be the actual airport runway. This little treasure is serene and has a small park with picnic tables and restrooms. You may find locals here enjoying an afternoon off.
Big Island Food
The Big Island is home to a variety of reasonably priced restaurants with delicious foods. I discovered some on my own, while others came recommended to me by locals. Each one of these places has local flavors and island ingredients.
Bamboo Restaurant and Gallery
Your best bet on a budget is to enjoy lunch at Bamboo Restaurant and Gallery, which is closed for dinner on Sunday and Monday, and is located on the northern tip of the island on Hwy 270. The restaurant offers a fun, kitschy environment, and an art gallery and gift shop. They have slack-key guitar music and hula dancing on Friday and Saturday nights. The restaurant received a Zagat award for excellence, and Rachael Ray even recommends it. Menu options include Ka’ lua Pork, tropical fruit salsa, macadamia nut crusted Mahi Mahi, BBQ Ribs, and desserts.
Huggo’s on the Rocks
Located on the water with a marvelous sunset, at Huggo’s on the Rocks you’ll enjoy live music and dancing on the sand. The menu describes the food as light fare and cocktails. I felt the menu offered an extensive choice of items, like Ka’ lua pork nachos, blackened Mahi Mahi tacos, burgers, Poke, and a shrimp and lemon grass salad. These items range in price from $9.95 to $12.95.
Hayashi’s You Make the Roll
Get great sushi at take-out prices. This place is a local favorite, and has an incredible selection of made-to-order sushi. The prices are as impressive as the tastes. This restaurant is really a small “hut” with counter service, but ono (Hawaiian for good) food.
Island Lava Java
In addition to great food, like free-range chicken, local organic vegetables, and freshly baked desserts, Island Lava Java offers a patio overlooking both the ocean and a two-lane road, so you will see cars driving by during dinner. At certain times of the day the flow of traffic is a distraction to the peace of the water view. The great food, Wi-Fi access, and organic ingredients kept me coming back again and again during my visit, despite the occasional traffic irritation.
Kona Pub and Brewing Company
Every day from 10:30 am to 3:30 am, this popular brewery offers site tours. They support the local community through an annual brew festival that brings in thousands of dollars for 12 local non-profit organizations. Days after the March Tsunami hit Hawaii, Kona Brewing Company held a brew festival and raised $65,000 for the local community. They are the epitome of a successful green company. They use a solar generating system that offsets at least 60% of their energy use. Kona Brewing Company is involved in several green initiatives including composting, recycling, water conservation, and the use of sustainable building materials in their brewery and pub.
On the beer front, Kona offers seasonal selections including a summer Wailua Wheat Beer. This sunny yellow ale has a citrus flavor from the passionfruit that they brew into every batch. They have five beers available only on draft, including Lavaman Red Ale, a red ale with a subtle chocolate and malt ale flavor. They also serve five other bottled beers, which are available in 23 states as well as Japan and Hawaii. Their beers give a nod to the islands with the subtle flavors of coconut, fruit, and hops.
On the food front, they offer local Hawaiian favorites, including macadamia nut pesto, Imu pork, BBQ, and green papaya slaw. Sandwiches cost between $12 and $16. Pizzas, priced from $11 to $28, come with traditional toppings choices, or you can try island favorites such as the Kulana bacon cheeseburger pizza with marinara, mozzarella, local Kulana farms ground beef, sweet Hawaiian onion, chopped bacon, cheddar cheese, tomato, lettuce, and a special KBC sauce.
Luke’s signature drink is a passionfruit martini, and the food they serve is made from locally raised beef and produce. The restaurant includes a tiki bar, and you can reserve an area with a great view for your party. Located in the North Kohala area, Luke’s Place has live music six nights a week, and an art gallery that features work from local artists.
Most appetizers and salads are in the $4 to $10 range, and sandwiches are around $9, with some costing up to $12.95. Sandwiches come with a choice of salad, fries, or macaroni salad. Luke’s also offers desserts and ice cream starting at $3. Dinner is more expensive, with items starting at $10.95 to $19.95; dinners come with two sides.
A new restaurant on the Big Island, Lemongrass serves an excellent lunch special for $8.95 with generous portions. The lunch menu includes basil shrimp sauté, lemongrass pork, orange chicken, pan-seared salmon, red or green curry, and other selections.
L&L Hawaiian BBQ
Visit the Lanihau Center to try their great Hawaiian plate lunch combo with drink, for about $5! The plate lunch special comes with Hawaiian BBQ, macaroni salad, and rice. Hawaiian BBQ is a fusion of Asian, Hawaiian, and American BBQ, and it’s very popular on the islands.
Another environmentally conscious restaurant, Pico’s uses local produce as well as biodegradable plates and cutlery. The restaurant is island casual, with outdoor seating and local music. Pico’s Bistro is closed on Tuesdays, and their daily business hours are 11 am to 6:30 pm. Picnic lunches are available for take-out. Their menu includes lamb kebobs, burgers, chicken, seafood, and a turkey burger with feta. Meals range in price from $10 to $15.
Mi’s Italian Bistro
With menu items costing $15 to $32, Mi’s Italian Bistro is a pricier option, but locals recommend this restaurant as one that has food comparable to what you could find at the Four Seasons, for half the price. Chef Morgan Starr trained at the Culinary Institute of America, and opened Mi’s in 2007 with his wife. He has a staff of only three, including himself.
There are a limited number of hostels on the Big Island, and some didn’t receive rave reviews by guests. Here’s the one that I feel is the best option:
Hilo Backpackers Hostel
Located just one block from the beach and Hilo Bay, this hostel offers free WiFi, free breakfasts, cheap tours, and free airport pick-up. Dorm rooms that sleep eight run $27 whether you choose a same-sex dorm or a co-ed dorm room. A private double room with a shared bathroom is $34 per person, per night.
Hotels & Resorts
Hawaii is both a tourist destination and a chain of islands, so realize that what may be a bargain in Hawaii might seem expensive compared to prices in other resort locations. These are the best deals I discovered:
I discovered the $119 bargain rate on this four-star hotel on the water in Kailua-Kona. The $119 rate is for a mountain view room; the rate for an ocean view is much higher. Rooms got mixed reviews, but guests seemed to love the outdoor areas, pool, and water view locations.
Holau Resort at Mauna Loa Village
These condo accommodations come in at $112, a bargain price in Hawaii. Holau Resort has a pool and BBQs available, and each unit comes with free WiFi and a kitchen.
Finding good internet access as you travel is essential. On the Big Island of Hawaii I found Island Lava Java, Luke’s Place, Pico’s Bistro, and Kona Brewing Company providing free WiFi access with good food.
Kona Country Club
It’s not easy to find reasonably priced golf on the island. The Kona Country Club, however, has an afternoon golf deal that keeps the game affordable. They offer a nine-hole rate after 3 pm every day for $60, which includes cart rental. The nine-hole rate is for the front nine of the Ocean Course. They offer a driving range, as well as putting and pitching areas, and you can rent clubs for $25.
Shopping Splurges Worth Spending On
Under the Koa Tree
Under the Koa Tree is a wonderful shop to explore while in the Hawaiian islands. I visited the Waikoloa location, where you can find a showcase of Koa wood art, paintings, and island treasures by island artists. Just walking through this shop filled with Hawaiian handcrafted art is joyous; taking one home is even more memorable.
According to Under the Koa Tree’s website, Koa wood is the mahogany of the Hawaiian Islands. It was wood reserved for royalty and used for royal canoes, canoe paddles, and surf boards. Koa wood handcrafting was watched over by priests in ancient times. It was a wood associated with wealth and well-being. Today, the trees have experienced extensive damage due to cattle grazing, and there are ongoing projects in the islands for reforestation of Koa wood. Native Hawaiians believe Koa will continue to live on and flourish.
In addition to the Waikoloa location, you can visit Under the Koa Tree at the Waikiki Beach Walk on Oahu. Both locations have an extensive and beautiful collection of Hawaiian wood products, paintings, sculpture, and treasures. During my visit I purchased a Koa wood game board, which I continue to enjoy today.
Lomi Lomi Massage
This Hawaiian specialty uses long strokes that work different areas of the body at the same time. This helps to relax the mind, because the mind cannot focus on two areas at the same time. Lomi Lomi therapists use thumbs, forearms, and elbows to work the muscles of your body. They use broad strokes and a lavish amount of oil to keep the fluidity of motion as they work across your muscles. I suggest enjoying a Lomi Lomi massage while on the island.
Mauna Kea Observatory
This splurge is certainly worth the spend. Tours take seven to eight hours, and the $189 to $200 price tag includes dinner, star-gazing, and a professional guide. Your tour will include a trip to the public telescopes at Keck Observatory, but only the pros are allowed to use the scopes in the Mauna Kea Observatory.
Be prepared for the high altitude (13,000 ft) and its effects on your body. This trip is not recommended for anyone with health issues, pregnant women, or children under age 16. When I visited the summit, I felt light-headed and a little sick to my stomach. Your time on the summit – checking out the telescopes and watching the sunset – will take about 45 minutes. You’ll start feeling better as soon as you start your descent, and the public scopes, visitors center, dinner tables, and star-gazing center are all at a lower elevation. The drive and the view of sunset from the summit are something you will long remember.
The Big Island is a dream destination for honeymoons, family trips, and romantic getaways for couples. No matter what time of year you visit the Big Island, there will be much to discover and enjoy. This island offers the most rugged beauty of the Hawaiian islands I’ve visited. It gives you a taste of wild, uninhibited beauty, as well as culture and beach activities suited to you, your family, and your budget.
Have you ever visited the Big Island in Hawaii? What were some of your most memorable sights and activities?