Big Island - Kona, South Point, Volcano National Park, Hilo, Puna, O'ahu / Honolulu - Waikiki and Diamond Head Trail
We flew to Hawaii in February while airfare is still low, although it's supposed to be a peak season. Hotels are still reasonably priced at this time, too. I booked my flight through expedia.com and got a direct round trip flight to Honolulu (about 5 hours each way) for $420. Citibank was giving away a $50 credit for new card members so I was able to get the flight for less than $400. It got even better. It took a while for the bank to approve my credit card application and by the time I got my card, expedia will not credit me with the $50 offer. Citibank was offering bonus points through thankyounetwork.com but instead, I decided to accept the $100 hotel coupon that expedia was offering. The coupon got us a free one-night stay at Kona Seaside in Big Island. It's a great 2-star hotel and right in the busy town of Kailua-Kona. It's a walk to all the great shops, restaurants, bars, library, grocery store... everything and only a few miles away from the airport. They even allowed us to stay past our check-out time. You can check out as late as 5PM if there is no reservation made to that room that day.
In Honolulu airport, we took the free Wiki-Wiki bus to the inter-island flights waiting room. Our inter-island flight through Go! was about $80 per person. There are also direct flights to the Big Island (Kona or Hilo) from San Francisco but they're a hundred or more expensive than our indirect flight. The terminal has a night courtyard garden but it's a little chaotic and disorganized. We were all lined up in gate 34, as directed by this lady who checked our tickets. Then, there was a guy in the intercom who keeps on telling us to go to a different gate number. Everyone was confused and has this puzzled look in their face. Eventually, we were able to board from the same gate. One guy shook his head and said "Only in Hawaii...". And he was right. In Kona, a storekeeper asked us to come back later because she's going out to lunch with her friend and her dog (I think they were about to go surfing). When we came back later that afternoon, the store was open but she wasn't there so we waited. Another customer came and said the same thing - "only in Hawaii...". Gosh, this is such a laid-back town - it's sooo cool! Anyway, while waiting for your flight, do not miss out on the free magazines and booklets they have, which have coupons and lists of things to do and places to check out for each of the islands - Maui, Kawaii, Oahu, and the Big Island. My favorite was the "101 Things to Do" magazine. I remember how I picked one up in Napa, CA and I still have it to this day. I found some really cool tips and offers in this magazine. This is where I found out that we can check out the Manta Rays in Hilton hotel at night during their feeding (across the Crystal Lounge balcony). Also, we found a discount offer for our snorkeling gear at Boss Frog's in Kona with a 2-for-1 discount, which amounts to $4.50 per person for one week. We only had it for 2 days but it was cheaper than the daily $2.50/day regular rental. The magazine also has lots of coupons for tours like helicopter tours or Glass-bottom Catamaran tours.
Kona airport is very serene and pretty with its hut-like terminals. Our 3-day car rental with Budget costed us about $100. We were glad that we turned down all the extras that they were offering us and decided to go with the basic economy car. We actually got an upgrade maybe because they overbooked their basic economy car. They tried to get more money from us by charging us for gas (even though we opted out of it and refueled the car ourselves) but after disputing the receipt, we were able to keep our savings. One thing you need to watch out for in Hawaii is your speed. Police cars are unmarked and getting a ticket is very expensive and can be a big headache. The speed limit in the main road is usually 35-55 mph that sometimes what takes 10 minutes here can take 20 minutes to drive just because of posted speed limit. Plan ahead if you're planning to take the bus that runs from Kona to Hilo and back. There are no marked bus stops and no one knows what the bus schedule is like but there's supposed to be a bus every half hour until about 6 pm.
We booked our first night at Manago with a room and a shared bath ($25/person/night) and had dinner their. Their fried fish was delicious and they serve it with sides (macaroni, lima beans, and coleslaw). It's an old hotel so it's just right for sleeping. The next day, we got our snorkeling gear and headed to Hilo. On our way, we checked out the Southest part of US at South Point, which is 12 miles off the main highway. Afterwards, we stopped by Hawaii's famous Punalu'u Bakery (the southernmost bakery in US). I love their taro bread and their apple pecan bread pudding! There are a lot of must-see spots along the way. We checked out the Black Sand beach and watched the green turtles (named after the color of their meat) lazily sunbathing near the shore. The tiny, black sands that cover this area is just amazing! I was planning to take some sand with me but beware! There was a belief that taking any rocks or remnants of the lava from the island brings bad luck that there are several people who actually shipped back the rocks they took and pay high-postage stamps to break the curse. So, I decided to just take more pictures. Our next stop was the National Volcano Park. Here, we checked out the steam vents, sulfur build-ups, lava tubes, and several craters along the Chain of Craters road. We saw a full rainbow that ends in a crater near us. At first, it appears like an illusion but then another rainbow starts to form on top of it! This is probably the only place on earth where you can see full, endless rainbows - stacked in doubles! There was no live lava flow that day. We were able to get a glimpse of some of the gleaming lava during a night hike. At the end of Highway 37 is a dirt road and a small park covered with cooled, black lava. At night, cars can enter until 8PM and the park closes at 10 PM. After a 10 minute hiking in the dark with headlights and flashlights, we were able to see the orange glow of smoke and lava as the lava hits the ocean water. I think that if you really want to see a live lava flow, the helicopter tour will be your only option since they close most of the roads to protect the people. Unless one of the craters becomes active again during your visit, your chance of seeing one inside the park may be slim.
The weather in Hilo side is really unpredictable with several outpours of mild rain. After a while, we stopped running after the umbrella for every sign of rain and instead, we learned to just wait for a few minutes until the rain stops and the sun comes out again. In Hilo, we stayed at an international lodging place called Arnott's Lodge for ($20/person/night). The room is inside an apartment-like area with shared kitchen, bath, and living room (with an extra bed). This place is so lively with people from different places, age groups, and language. You can even camp for $20/night/tent in the front lawn area. This is also a good place to buy discounted tours to Mauna Kea or helicopter tours. Definitely check out Hilo's Saturday local Farmer's Market. I was in tropical fruit heaven with all the chicos (pear-like but sweet!), papaya, starfruit, rambutan (lychee-like), mangoes, and guyabanos I can eat! The have a lot of good food and fresh tropical flowers in banana-leaf covered pots. Hilo is great because it's where you can really be in the local scenes. Not far from the farmer's market is the Banyan Tree park and the Japanese garden where you can bring all that good food and enjoy a little picnic. In Puna, we passed by the lava trees park on our way to Isaac Hale State Park where watching surfing pros can be as thrilling as soaking in its hidden hot spring. The hot spring was small but very nice and warm. Facing the ocean, it's in the right side of the pier across the beach area where locals surf. There's a much bigger hot spring (looks more like a public pool) in another park not far from this park but the water there was not warm and it's more crowded, too. We tried snorkeling in this part of the island as well but the waves were rough and the underwater lava rocks can be sharp. But, it's definitely a good place to see the green corals (I even found a bright pink/red one).
We drove by the small town of Pahoa to get something to eat before we headed back to highway 11 and north towards highway 19 to head back to Kona. In the map, you'll find Saddle Road, which can take you up to Mauna Kea (the world's tallest mountain by measure, taller than Mount Everest - the higest mountain above sea level). Mauna Kea's summit houses the world's largest observatory and it's usually covered with snow in winter. Driving in Saddle Road is difficult and rental companies does not allow rental cars to be driven along this road. So, the best and safest road to drive between Kona and Hilo is highway 11 in the south and 19 in north. Highway 19 can be very rainy and foggy at times but the best route to catch a view of tall, lively waterfalls in your left and the beautiful coastline in your right.
Kona is the best place to snorkel and for beginners to surf because of its calm water. My most unforgetable experience here will be swimming with the Spinner Dolphins by Kelakekua Bay/Captain Cook monument for free! It's a little scary at first because the water keeps getting in my snorkeling mask and the water is a little cold in the morning. Also, the sea floor is bare - no tropical fish or anything, maybe a few corals and some rocks. I finally found courage when I saw a lady head out with her underwater camera. I forgot all the fears and worries after I saw a group of spinner dolphins swimming underneath me. I started following them around to take pictures. It's kind of hard to take pictures with a disposable camera when you're snorkeling because of its small view finder and the snorkel mask that keeps on getting in the way. Fortunately, I got some great shots! By the way, if you happen to have problems with your mask, just make sure it's really tight and keep pushing it towards your face to maintain some kind of vacuum and good seal.
The nightlife in Kona is wonderful. There's a lot of places to go dancing, such as Hugo's, and eat! I love the Monte Carlo sandwich I tried at Quinn's (next to Kona Seaside hotel). It's a turkey, ham, and cheese sandwich deep-fried in batter and served with confetti sugar and fries! Another food to try in Hawaii are the yummy Malasadas. We got some in Crisy's Bakery along highway 11 but the best ones are at Leonard's (a chain bakery). I tried some in Honolulu and the Malasada puffs stuffed with pineapple custard was the best! Before we flew back Honolulu, we decided to take a coffee plantation tour at Mountain Thunder. There we watched how hard and dirty making coffee can be. We tried some of the cherry-red coffee buds from the plants and they were a little sweet!
In Honolulu, we had some drinks at Duke's and listen to the outdoor live band as we watch the sunset. Unfortunately, there were some clouds and we didn't get to see any green flash. On our last day in Hawaii, we hiked the Diamond Head Trails (park entrance was $8/car) to get to the summit. It's an interesting hike along dirt roads, steep stairs, up to a spiral staircase and out to this narrow opening to the top of the tower. The 360-view up there was amazing. It has a great view of Waikiki and you can even see a part of Molokai. There is tram that goes around Honolulu that can take you to this park. Finally, we wrapped up our trip by hitting all the ABC stores along Waikiki beach. They have the best, cheap, and good-quality souvenirs and macadamia nuts! Surf board rentals in Waikiki is about $20/hour and it goes up with lessons. A lot of people just soak under the sun and enjoy people-watching and playing in the sand. There is also a zoo a few blocks away from the beach. There are so many more of Hawaii to explore that it gives you more reasons to go back and catch more rainbows!