To close my thoughts on planning a trip to Hawaii, I’ll give a small amount of insight on Hawaii and Maui. Small, because my wife and I have spent just over a week on these two islands combined, as compared to six visits to Oahu. Still, I hope your find our impressions useful.
Hawaii (“The Big Island”)
Isn’t it confusing that the state of Hawaii also has an island named “Hawaii”? The Hawaiians deal with that by referring to the island of Hawaii as “The Big Island”. And it is big, about 4000 square miles, bigger than the seven other main islands combined. But, with only 150,000 or so people, it not nearly as densely populated as Oahu with nearly one million people and one-sixth the land area.
We visited the Big Island as part of another time share offer, this time from Hilton. I think it was for 4 nights, which only worked because we tacked it onto our Oahu week. The visit was incredible, but incredibly short and rushed.
When you first arrive at Kona, the main city on western Hawaii, you notice two differences from Oahu. First, the landscape is all ebony lava and sparse grassland. You are on the dry side of the island. Indeed, parts of the island are desert climate, while rain forest climate abounds on the eastern side. Second, you don’t see the steep mountains that cover much of Oahu. Instead, you see the gentle slope of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, two 13,000-foot peaks (as compared to Oahu’s steep mountains that peak out at 4,000 feet). Like Haleakal on Maui, these mountains are long and broad, as you can see from the picture of Mauna Loa at sunrise, above, seen from Kilauea at 4,000 feet.
The Big Island held out one main attraction for me, the opportunity to see an active volcano, Kilauea on Mauna Loa. The volcano is near the aptly-named town of Volcano, which is maybe 30 – 45 minutes from Hilo, the main city on the east side of the island. I also scheduled a full-day photo workshop in areas surrounding Hilo. What made this a whirlwind tour was that we were staying in Waikoloa, north of Kona, which is on the west side of the island (see the discussion about resorts on the leeward side of the islands). Hilo is a 2-hour drive from Kona, so to make a 9:00 a.m. photo workshop, we had to leave at 7 in the morning – arghhhh!
But, we saw a lot of wonderful things.
Hawaii Tropical Botanic Gardens
The photo workshop began at wonderful botanical garden. The workshop, led by the wife-husband team of Ken and Mary Goodrich at Hawaii Photo Retreat. It’s been 3 years since I met them, and I still have fond memories of the day we spent together with them. Especially with limited time on the island, this was a great way to get acclimated to the island.
We spent half a day at the botanical garden, and them moved on to other sites. A number of photos in my Hawaii 2012 Flickr album came from the garden and from other spots that we visited that day. You’ll see lacy trees from Lava Tree Park. From Mackenzie Park you’ll see waves breaking over rocks and abstract views of waves captured at slow speed while panning.
At the end of our adventurous day, we shared dinner with Ken and Mary. Afterwards, well-sated, they guided us to the B&B we had reserved. The accommodation was less than stellar and I can’t remember the name. What sticks in my mind is that the rooms were cold, damp, and spartan. Cold, because Volcano is at 3750 feet elevation. Damp, because Volcano is in a rain forest. Ken and Mary suggest alternative rental options on their Links page (you’ll have to select it from their menu). And, of course, there is always tripadvisor.com. I wish I could give better advice, because I hope to go back and stay for a few days.
Once we had our room settled, we drove to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, only five minutes away, finding our way on the dark park road to the volcano, pictured right. Kilauea is the most active volcano in the world, yet we managed to arrive on Hawaii at a time with limited volcanic activity. The lava level had dropped several hundred feet in the caldera, so we saw no flowing or spurting lava. Still, it was pretty impressive to see the orange glow emanating from a hole in the earth. We visited in the daytime, and the glow wasn’t visible, just the gases pouring forth.
There is much to do in the park. You can walk inside of lava tubes that remain from prior eruptions. you can drive toward the ocean and see fields of lava and other, extinct volcanoes, as we did – the road doesn’t go all the way to the ocean because a recent lava flow covers the road. Or, take a helicopter or boat tour so that you can see lava flowing into the ocean.
We drove clockwise from Waikoloa to Hilo on our first day. So, we decided to continue clockwise after a morning of exploring Volcano and Kilauea. We hadn’t anticipated the significance of our location on Hawaii until we stopped for a treat at the Punalu’u Bake Shop, which proudly proclaims to be “The Southernmost Bakery in the USA.” How cool is that? And, how far south? Ka Lee, is the actual southern tip of the island, at just under 19 degrees north latitude. We drove to Ka Lee, which is the site of some of the earliest Hawaiian settlements. Rocky, barren, and windy, it was dramatically forbidding.
The couple at right can’t go much further south in the USA without falling into the ocean!
One other site of interest is the rusted remains of the Kamaoa Wind Farm, built in 1986. Thirty-seven turbines stand in silent disrepair, missing one, two, or all three blades since 2006. This sad site is offset by fourteen new turbines built in 2007 – the southernmost wind farm in the USA.
Wikipedia says that the old turbines have been disassembled, so it may be too late to see the relics. I’ve included a photo here for posterity’s sake, not because you would travel to Hawaii to see this less than scenic, but still industrially-cool, attraction.
From South Point, we drove back to the main road and continued our clockwise journey. On the leeward (eastern) side of the islands as you near Kona, is the town of Captain Cook and related historic sites. We arrived too late in the day to visit, but it is on our wish list for the next Big Island visit.
Hawaii Leeward-Side Lodging
There are several resort areas both north and south of Kona. We stayed at the Hilton Waikoloa Village. It was an amazing collection of facilities, with multiple housing towers, restaurants, pools, tennis courts, a lagoon, and shopping, all connected by a tram. For those with time to spare, a canal system also ferries you throughout the resort. Although it is on the ocean, and I think it has a small beach (we had very little time at the resort), it’s main attraction appears to be the variety of things you can do while traveling throughout the resort. There are several other hotels in the area. Some, such as the Marriott Resort and Spa, are closer to Waikoloa Beach, which is a more protected area for swimming.
Because I covered our experiences in Hawaii with a series of blogs, starting with Hawaii 2014 – Day 7, I only have a few notes of commentary to add here.
- As we were riding the rental car shuttle back to the airport for the flight home, we encountered a man with a huge bag of Krispy Kreme donuts. We had visited the store once on our travels, but we didn’t know that it was the only Krispy Kreme store in Hawaii! This man was taking them back to Oahu – presumably to sell for exorbitant prices, although I’d like to think he was being nice to lots of friends.
- The Marriott Maui Ocean Club at Kaanapali, where we stayed, is a more all-in-one resort than the Ko Olina Beach Club, our Oahu resort. It has tennis courts and more shopping. More interesting is that the resorts are densely packed and you can easily walk to the restaurants of other resorts, as well as to Whaler’s Village, a collection of upscale restaurants and shopping. Be warned, these are popular spots and waiting times for a table can be 30 to 60 minutes.
- Maui felt more touristy to us than Oahu and Hawaii. Perhaps because the long beach at Kaanapali, coupled with the view of Lanai, attracts so many people, that is to be expected. Another part of this observation is that we saw fewer native Hawaiians working in the resort and the stores than we see on Oahu.
- Lahaina, to the south, has great restaurants and great art stores. One antique poster dealer pointed out that Lahaina commands some of the best prices in the world. That aside, I was taken by the variety of artwork, especially some of the fantasy and surrealist paintings.
- There is a Costco on at least three Hawaiian islands: Oahu, Maui, and Hawaii. On Maui, Costco is near the airport so you can do your final fill-up there and save a few dollars – just a drop in the bucket, but it’s the principle that counts.
Inter-Island Travel Lessons
A word of caution: I tried to save money on our flight to the Big Island, and it cost me more.
First, I booked our trip from Oahu to Hawaii on the budget airline, Mokulele. They were 2 or 3 hours late leaving Oahu for the less-than-an-hour flight to Hawaii, so it was dark before we got settled in our room – a total waste of the afternoon. So, we booked Hawaiian airlines for the return flight at twice the cost compared to what it would have been had I booked it 6 months in advance.
Second, I found our round trip from the mainland would be about $100 cheaper for each of us if we flew back from Oahu instead of from Hawaii. Big mistake. In addition to the extra costs for rebooking with Hawaiian, it was an unnecessary hassle to add the connection through Oahu. I can’t remember if we had to collect our bags and then re-check them, but it still added 3 or 4 hours to the return trip just to ensure we’d make our connection.
On our Maui trip, we flew into Oahu for a week, took Hawaiian Airlines to Maui, and then flew home from Maui. This was much more relaxing all the way around.
The End … At Least for Now
In a collection of twelve posts on Hawaii, I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface. I’m not a travel writer or travel consultant by any means, but if my observations from a few visits have been helpful or interesting to you, then I am glad to have written.
By all means, if you have questions, feel free to put them in a comment and I’ll do my best to give a useful, or at least creative, answer.