Hawaii: Big Island Travel Guide

Aloha, bruddah! Looking to vacation in paradise? Known to tourists all over the world for its tropical flora and fauna, crystal clear waters, and larger than life volcanoes, the Hawaiian islands are the perfect spot for your next getaway. Here’s everything you need to know if you’re lucky enough to find yourself traveling to the Big Island:

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Best Time to Visit the Big Island: Beat the crowds from September through November. The island houses high temperatures all year long, so you’ll still get to swim in bright blue waters and enjoy weather in the 80’s, without the distraction of tourists in floppy hats dominating the beaches.

Two Sides of the Same Coin: The western side of the island is home to Kona. Kona is typically sunnier and is where you’ll find the bulk of the resorts and white sand beaches. Hilo is on the eastern side and is no stranger to rain storms, lush vegetation, and gray days, Hilo is also well known for its black sand beaches. Both halves of the Big Island are worthy of your time, and you might even feel like you’ve traveled to another location entirely, when in reality, it would only take you one hour and 40 minutes to drive from one side of the island to the other.

Language: Essentially everyone you meet on the Big Island speaks English. But some islanders also speak Hawaiian. Although it’s based on the English alphabet, traditional Hawaiian uses just 12 letters and relies more heavily on vowels.

Transportation: It’s true that people in Hawaii are prone to operating on “island time.” There’s a bus that runs all around the island, but you can count on it running late. The Hele-On bus stops at most of the island’s major resorts as well as most of the island’s major cities and shopping hubs. We relied on the bus a few times during our stay, but more often than not, hitchhiked our way around the island. We found locals to be friendly and accommodating–we actually found some epic secret beaches from asking our hitch pick ups for recommendations. However, if you have the means to rent a car–do it! You won’t regret it. With your own transportation you can jet around the island and venture to hidden trails you won’t find from your bus seat.

Nightlife: Every hour of the day spent in Hawaii is worthy of a party. But if you find yourself looking for some nighttime shenanigans to get into, you’ll find bars galore. The Big Island isn’t home to too many nightclubs, but you can shake your booty on the beach whenever you please. For travelers on the west side of the island, be sure to hit up Lava Lava Beach Club near the northern resort area. If you’re in the heart of Kailua-Kona, grab a beer at Kona Brewing Company (Castaway IPA was my favorite) or head to Sam’s Hideaway for a local dive bar that supplies cheap drinks. For Hilo travelers, say “Aloha”to Legend’s Bar and Grill for a cheerin’ good time at a sports bar, or Cronie’s for an expansive beer selection and a creative assortment of frozen cocktails.

Iron Man: The world renowned Iron Man World Championship takes place in Kona each year in early October. This might not sound like a big deal to you, but it’s a big freaking deal. The event brings thousands of people from all over the world to the island to cheer on over 2,000 athletes as they swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, run 26.2 miles. Why am I telling you this? Well, for starters, you might want to view or participate in the race. Secondly, everything on the island will be boooooked, bruddah. We accidentally found ourselves in Kona during Iron Man and couldn’t rent a car or find a decent hotel rate. Luckily we were able to borrow a car from someone off Craigslist and found an affordable accommodation on AirBnB. The event is only a weekend long, so beat the crowds by planning your trip either before or after the triathlon.

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Mauna Kea Observatory: When you imagine Hawaii, white sand beaches and breaking waves come to mind. Naturally we never expected to find ourselves 14,000 feet in the air, surrounded by several inches of snow above the clouds at the Mauna Kea Observatory. This was one of my favorite moments of 2014 and a memory I’ll treasure forever. We had just come from spending all day at the beach and drove up the mountain in a rickety old car we had borrowed from someone off Craigslist. Tay was wearing a tank top and swim trunks and kept posing with hordes of tourists in thick puffy snow jackets. Whether or not you’re prepared, the summit is breathtaking, especially if you make it up in time for sunrise or sunset.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park: Explore the island’s volcanic past and present on the Hilo side of the island. Checking out the national park was definitely one of the coolest thing we experienced during our trip. Active steam vents, massive craters, and gargantuan lava tubes await you. My favorite part of visiting the park was learning about Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire, who rules over the island’s volcanoes, controlling lava as she sees fit.

Rainbow Falls: Hum along to the ukulele version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as you take a two mile drive west from downtown Hilo. Rainbow Falls is one of the island’s best known waterfalls, and one of the tallest as well. Rushing water dips down from an 80 foot drop, causing small rainbows to form from its mist. Those who dare to journey farther into the forest can also explore Peepee Falls and the famous boiling pots nearby.

Turtle Takeover: Raise your hand if you are turtley enough for the turtle club. Go on, really wave those flippers around (awkward turtle…). Whew, now that I got that out of my system, let’s continue. Turtles are (literally) crawling all over the Big Island’s beaches. You’ll see them at nearly every beach, but we found a disproportionate amount at Kahaluu Beach, one of Kona’s top snorkeling spots. The beach houses a shallow cove where you’ll find tons of bright colorful fish, as well as oodles of turtles. It was exhilarating to swim near them, but remember that they’re a protected animal in Hawaii. The state advises people to remain six to 10 feet away from turtles at all times, so that definitely means you shouldn’t try to touch, toss, or feed the gentle gliders.

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Ahi Poke: In my happiest dreams I’m back at Da Poke Shack, munching on a bowl of Wet Hawaiian poke with seaweed salad and freshly steamed rice. This classic Hawaiian dish is made of fresh, raw tuna and a variety of seasoning. Most commonly the fish is marinaded in a soy sauce and sesame oil blend and topped with sesame seeds and avocados. The fish from Da Poke Shack is so fresh, that you can witness employees bringing in newly caught fish from the beach down below into the back of the restaurant. We ate there four times during our 10 day stay and regretted not being able to take some tuna back on the plane with us.

Loco Moco: Loco moco is fun to eat because it’s fun to say–LOCO MOCO. Just messing with you, the dish has more appeal than just its name. Take for instance, its ingredients: White rice topped with a piping hot hamburger patty, covered with brown gravy and topped with a fried egg over easy. There are lots of different loco moco styles that incorporate additional ingredients, but stick to the classics if you’ve never had the dish before. We tried out several varieties at Cafe 100 in Hilo. The restaurant boasts over 30 different loco moco dishes. Filling and savory, you’ll be thinking of this nontraditional patty preparation for days to come.

Lava Flows: I have tried looking for scrumptious lava flows in California and they’re just not the same. There must be something about the tropical island air that makes these drinks so damn irresistible. This frozen drink is similar to a pina colada at its base, but the addition of cold strawberry puree knocks it into an entirely different league. I’m not usually a fan for sweet drinks, but this one had me hooked.

Spam Musubi: Spam is not for the faint of heart. The mystery meat is off-putting to some, but those who forge on in the pursuit of musubi will be rewarded. The Spam is coated in a sweet teriyaki and soy glaze, fried, surrounded by rice, and wrapped with a leaf of seaweed. Spam Musubi is not fancy by any means, but it certainly hits the spot.

I didn’t expect to love Hawaii as much as I did during our trip last fall. When I thought of the Big Island I imagined beautiful beaches, but in my mind they were littered with tourists in Hawaiian shirts. Before traveling there I pictured tasty restaurants that had been ruined by kitschy tiki statues and cocktails in punch bowls. However, the Big Island exceeded all of my expectations, offering up friendly locals, unexplored jungles, tons of turtles, and stunning oceanic views. I can’t wait to go back to beautiful Hawaii and explore more of the state’s stunning islands. I’m not sure when I’ll return, but one thing’s for certain, I don’t want to get on Pele’s bad side.

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