Our Big Hawaii Vacation, Week 2: The Big Island

After our week on Maui, we took an inter-island flight to the big island, returning there for the third time. (You can find a chronicle of our first trip here, and our second here.) Though we enjoyed our week on Maui, we were even more looking forward to this leg of the trip, since we really like the big island.

As we did with Maui, we used the latest edition of Andrew Doughty’s guidebook, Hawaii: The Big Island Revealed, to help us out on this trip.

Unfortunately, this leg didn’t start out very promisingly: Debbi was disappointed in our rental car, which was a Mercury Grand Marquis, or as she put it, a “grandparent car”. It’s a pretty big boat, and not as nice as the cars we had on Maui (its controls suck, and feel like they’re straight out of the 70s), but it served us reasonably well in the end.

The Hotel

We stayed at the Marriott Waikoloa, which is where we’ve stayed before. It’s a pretty good hotel, but it takes a little getting used to because the rooms are pretty small, smaller than those at the Westin Maui. But we’ve been through this before, it just took a little getting used to. And besides, it’s not like we spend a lot of time in the room.

On the other hand, we like the grounds at the Marriott quite a bit: A deeper pool to swim in, a better selection of breakfast food at the cafe, three hot tubs, and they’re open 24 hours a day. It’s a little further to the beach, but the sunsets are brilliant.

We were definitely spoiled on Maui by the short drive from the Westin to Lahaina. From the Mariott, it’s about 15 minutes to a small town to the north, and 30 minutes to the major town of Kona to the south, which means planning ahead for meals and trips unless you want to eat at the hotel or do a lot of extra driving (which we sometimes did). And meals in the Kohala area where the hotel is are expensive, and not always worth it. Still, I’m not sure I’d want to stay in Kona instead – not as pretty, often much hotter, and sometimes rainy.


The biggest disappointment was learning that several of our favorite restaurants were closed. The big blow for me was that Huli Sue’s BBQ was closed for remodeling (nope, no mention at all on their web site). I had been hoping to eat at least a couple of meals there, having loved it the first time. And Jackie Rey’s Ohana Grill was also closed for remodeling. Lastly, the Aloha Theatre Cafe has apparently gone out of business (I’m not certain of this, but their phone was disconnected and they had a big “closed” note at their front door), which is a bummer since we loved their breakfast last time we visited. Really disappointing all around.

Well, on the bright side Jackie Rey’s reopened Friday evening, and we went there for dinner, enjoying their terrific cocktails and rich dessert.

We also discovered some new restaurants: In Hilo we really liked the Hilo Bay Cafe, which had terrific onion rings and mixed drinks, and the entrees were pretty tasty too!

South of Kona we loved Annie’s Island Fresh Burgers: Also fantastic onion rings, wonderful burgers, and killer chocolate pudding for dessert. We went twice. This was one restaurant not mentioned in Doughty’s guidebook, but it’s the best restaurant we discovered on this trip. Highly recommended.


We drove down to the Punalu’u black sand beach, a pretty long trip from our hotel, but worth it because, as advertised, it’s loaded with sea turtles: We saw four lying on the beach sunning themselves, and several others swimming in the tide pools dining on seaweed. Really cool.

We also saw a couple of turtles swimming along the shore at the beach by our hotel. One of them I followed down the beach, and he turned, reared up out of the water looking at me, then went back down and swam out to sea. I love sea turtles, even if they’re not exactly the prettiest animals when looking at them face-to-face.

We also walked to Kiholo Bay, which was a disappointment: We saw one sea turtle (okay, that part wasn’t disappointing, but I was expecting more), and the walk there – which I’d expected to be on either dirt or maybe a gravel road, was actually on a difficult mix of gravel-sized rock and sand. I hear this bay can be a terrific place to visit, but on this day it was just a bay.

Coffee and Donkey Balls

We always visit a couple of coffee farms while we’re on the big island, since Kona coffee is pretty much the best in the world (apologies to the rest of the coffee-growing world). We bought several pounds at Greenwell Farms, including their chocolate macadamia nut (I’ve also ordered from them online, so check them our if you want some Kona coffee), and another pound at Bay View Farm.

We also picked up a bunch of chocolate-covered macadamia nuts at the Donkey Ball Factory. We later learned the location in Kainaliu has split from other locations selling Keoki’s Donkey Balls from Surfin’ Ass. A little confusing, but they’re all good.

We also made a return trip to the Place of Refuge, which is one of the most impressive sites on the island.

Saddle Road and Hilo

Some years ago it was against many rental car agreements to drive over Saddle Road, which goes over the center of the island between the Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea volcanoes, but no more, so we decided to drive it on the way to the town of Hilo on the other side of the island. Other than a few miles on the Kona side of the island, the road is a well-paved 2-lane road (sometimes wider), and you only get up to about 5000 feet, so it’s a pretty easy drive. (Even the bumpier parts are quite navigable in any standard car.)

There’s not a lot to see up there, but the stark landscape is rather pretty, gradually transforming to the lush greenery of the Hilo side of the island. But it was something new to do.

The only comic book store on either Maui or the big island is Syzygy Comics in Hilo, and I wanted to stop by. It turns out they’re only open 3 days a week for part of the day, and they were closed when we went by. Looking through the window their store is only half-full, with some long boxes of back issues and a few graphic novels and perhaps new comics. My guess is they mainly serve locals who want to buy new comics and that there’s not enough of a market on the big island for the sort of store I’m used to in the bay area. Kind of a bummer, though.

We did stop in a couple of nice bookstores and got some shave ice in Hilo. Then we drove down into Puna to drive along the coast and take in the sights along the ocean, before coming back to Hilo for dinner.

By the time we were done with dinner it was dark out. Usually we drive back from Hilo along the north coast, which is very scenic but has many twists and turns due to the river gulches you have to drive over. And of course it’s not scenic at all in the dark. So we decided to take Saddle Road back. We were worried briefly about visibility as we ascended through the clouds, but it actually went perfectly smoothly (and there was a smattering of other traffic which could have helped if we’d stalled out or something), and I think it cut at least 45 minutes off our return trip. Quite a good idea, I think.

Mo’okini Heiau

We’ve visited many of the historic sites on the big island before, but one of the ones we haven’t been to is the Kohala Historical Sites State Monument on the north side of the island, which comprises Mo’okini Heiau (an ancient place of bloody sacrifice), and the birthplace of Kamehameha the Great, who united the islands in the late 18th century.

Although only a mile and a half from the small Upolu Airport, the road there is a poorly-maintained dirt trail, and at times it can be a tough drive even for a 4-wheel-drive vehicle. My hope was that we could drive a third of the way, to the end of the airport runway, and walk the rest of the way, and that’s exactly what we did. Although the road was in much better condition than that described in this account, I still wouldn’t have wanted to drive it in 2WD. Indeed, we encountered two other cars which turned around and gave up – and no other hikers. (We did see a 4WD vehicle taking in the scenery, though.)

The hike is hot, humid, and windy, but at least it’s mostly right along the coast, so it’s pretty.

The Heiau itself is a very impressive large stone construct on a sloped plain of matted grass-like plants amidst the brown, wind-swept landscape. It’s pretty eerie, although not quite enough to be sppoky. Kamehameha’s birthplace (which I suspect is actually the town near where he was actually born) is a collection of stone walls with not a lot to see. Neither landmark has any real displays describing the site, so you need to read about it elsewhere.

These are not essential viewing, but if you appreciate the stark beauty of the north shore, as I do, and enjoy going for an unusual hike, then it’s worth a look. Allow about 3 hours and bring plenty of water.

We rewarded ourselves with Tropical Dreams ice cream in Hawi after our successful trip.

Other Things

Our rental car agent claimed that “everything is cheaper on the big island”, compared to Maui. In fact gas was 10¢/gallon more expensive on the big island compared to Maui, which is a bummer since one does a lot more driving on the big island. We made a point of gassing up at Costco whenever possible. (Gas is somewhat cheaper in Hilo, but still a bit more expensive than Maui.)

We dropped in at Kona Bay Books, an impressive used bookstore even by mainland standards (and maybe the largest bookstore on the island now that Borders has closed), and Debbi bought a number of things, while I found one book. I always feel a little guilty buying used books in Hawaii, since I’m effectively taking them out of circulation there by bringing them back to the mainland.

We made a point of getting shave ice several times in Kona – great to stave off overheating while shopping there. We each picked up a number of souvenirs and trinkets in Kona, mine mostly turtle-related. Debbi bought a really nice necklace.

We mostly lounged by the pool in the mornings, but the last two mornings we hit the beach instead. We learned that a good chunk of sand at our hotel’s beach had been washed away by the tsunami last spring (the one that devastated northern Japan). I wonder whether it’ll come back any time soon? We only had to go out a few dozen feet to see some small coral clusters with some tropical fish swimming around – and that was just with goggles and no fins. Apparently the sights were much more impressive if you went farther out with snorkeling gear. Neither of us is especially excited to see an eel, though!

All-in-all we had a great vacation to both islands, even if we had a few disappointments along the way. 2 weeks is a really long time to be away from home, though (it’s my longest vacation since I finished school, actually), and we were both happy to head home to our kitties, which took the edge of being sad to leave Hawaii.

I’m sure we’ll go back in the next few years.

(I’ll also post some photos from our trip in further entries over the next couple of weeks.)