Hawaii: Big Island

Sad to leave Oahu but excited to continue exploring Hawaii, we left the North Shore bright and early for the drive down to Honolulu to catch our flight to Big Island. The journey should have been a simple 40 minute ride down the highway, but our rental car unfortunately had other ideas: the battery died suddenly and we came slowly to a halt on a flyover on a 4-lane motorway. Good. An hour, several phone calls to the rental company, many frantic arm gestures to get other motorists to slow and move lanes, and a police rescue operation later, we made it to the airport with minutes to spare for our flight. A ride in the back of a police car wasn’t quite how we’d planned on ending our stay in Oahu, but there we are. We’re still alive – and it was an adventure of sorts…

We landed in Hilo on the east coast of Hawaii island and picked up our car (labouring our experience of that morning to get ourselves a new and fully functioning one). We’d decided to stay a bit out of the main city in favour of a more peaceful off-the-beaten-track vibe. Hilo itself isn’t much to write home about – even heading 10 miles south gets you into quieter and more beautiful terrain, a bit closer to the black sand beaches and volcanoes that draw travellers to this part of the island. If you go north from Hilo, you’re closer to the lush Waipio Valley and national park. We drove about 45 minutes south, headed for a small and dispersed town called Hawaiian Beaches. We barely saw a soul as we drove through, and pulled up to a cute bungalow with a great garden and terrace, complete with a hammock strung between palm trees. We went for a wander down the road to the sea – the water can’t have been any more than 30 steps from our front door, but the coastline here is rugged cliffs so we couldn’t go for the dip we’d planned. We walked around the little park by the beach and did a run up to the local store for some dinner supplies and an aperitif – we felt that surviving the motorway events of that morning had earned us a gin or three. We spent the evening cooking and working our way through our bottle of Gordon’s in front of a film. Magic.

The view from our Hawaiian Beaches garden hammock

The next morning we set off after breakfast to explore one of the main draws to Big Island: the Volcanoes National Park. We were hoping to do a big hike, but unfortunately, when we arrived, we found out that most of these were still closed due to volcanic activity in recent months making trails unsafe. We were approached upon arrival by really helpful park rangers who explained what was open and what was closed, and advised what we should see with the time we had available. Definitely make use of these guys at the visitor centre before you do anything, it was a quick but very helpful conversation. It’s also worth noting that it was definitely still worth visiting the park despite the fact a fair amount of it was closed – it’s awesome all the same. We ended up doing a mixture of walking and driving through the park, getting out at different points to follow various trails. We started at the Kilauea crater – which actually became a lot bigger just a few weeks earlier in a collapse with the recent eruption. We moved on to view the steam vents, then onto Devastation Trail – a short walk along the cinders of a much earlier eruption. We continued along the Chain of Craters Road (a beautiful drive through the park down to the ocean) to the Aloi Crater trail and got out for an hour or so’s gentle hike across the lava flows up to a small view point. This trail turns into the Napau trail, which is harder and you need to register ahead for the checkpoints. It looked a great trek if you have time to do this over two days. From here, we continued down to the Holei Sea Arch – and were almost speechless at the incredible views from the road as the ocean came into view. Green, blue and black all joined together in a film set-style landscape, it was quite the drive winding down to the cliffs. The arch itself wasn’t much to behold, but looking back up from here to the landscape above also made it worth the trip: old lava flows spilled over the top and down the green hills, making for quite a dramatic vista. We ate our lunch on a lava flow from 1974 (all helpfully signposted throughout the park), then headed back for another evening of gin and podcasts in the hammock.

Overlooking the Kilauea crater
Lava flows spilling down to the sea

The following morning we checked out of what we’d affectionately (and modestly) named the ‘babe bungalow’, and drove out to our last spot on the east coast before we drove across the island. Kehena beach was our destination: we’d more or less just found it as a result of a Google search for the closest sandy beach to Hawaiian Beaches. We arrived, parked up and spent a little while looking for the way down to the actual beach – it’s something of a clamber down a wooded cliff to get there. Having missed it a few times (it’s actually only about 20m further along from the little lay-by, FYI), we climbed down and jumped onto the beach. It was different to most beaches I’ve been on in that the sand was volcanic so the sand was black. Much darker than the black sand in Canggu in Bali – it really looked like a beach made up of charcoal. There was barely anyone there so we set up camp for a couple of hours enjoying the sunshine, wild waves and the swaying palm trees. Like a picture postcard. Something you find less often on a postcard is full nudity – something we also saw plenty of at Kehena. Little did we know until we got there (and I received an amused message from a better-informed friend) that it’s quite a famous nudist beach. Oops. Just a note for anyone more prudish than myself…

At Kehena black sand beach

When we’d had our fill of sunbathing, we got back in the car and started the drive over the island to Kona, our destination for a couple of days on the west coast of Big Island. It was a pretty 2.5-hour journey, with a highway in the middle snaking between volcanoes Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea which made for an awesome landscape. We climbed to enough of an altitude at the top of the pass to be driving through cloud so thick I could barely see a car’s length ahead of me – only to come back down into brilliant sunshine the other side, which illuminated the beautiful coastline heading south into Kona. Kona’s quite a small town, and that area of the west coast is more a chain of little suburbs which flow into one another rather than there being a huge centre. Kona is where you’d go for things like a bigger supermarket and a few more restaurant options though, so does form a little hub for this part of the island. We checked into another lovely Airbnb then headed into town to get some early dinner (Umeke’s Bar & Grill came highly recommended by our hosts and I’d definitely echo this for seafood and Hawaiian poké bowls) and a sunset wander along the beach.

Kona sunset scenes

The next morning was… an interesting one. We set out early to drive up to the Waipio Valley to do the notorious White Road Trek. This is (sorry) another illegal attraction in Hawaii, being on government property. It’s around a 4-hour round trip, with the main destination being a ‘water slide’ – which is actually an open pipe forming part of an old irrigation system through the jungle. We’d decided to risk the fines and potentially tricky climb to do do it (foolish, perhaps) but just a few hundred metres in, the rain started and the ground became very slippery. At this point, we decided it was no longer worth the risk, and turned back. I was a bit disappointed but I think it was for the best given the conditions, so it’ll remain on my list for my next visit to Hawaii. Remember to take with you plenty of water some kind of inflatable/float – just also remember that you didn’t hear about this from me…

Instead, we drove through some of the lush greenery of the Waipio Valley before heading back south to Kona, where we soaked up the sun for a few hours at Magic Sands beach park. It’s only a tiny beach with a small patch of sand and a rocky outcrop into the sea, but it’s popular with body boarders thanks to the surf hitting the rock shelf, so it was fun to watch. There’s also a great food truck, Magics Beach Grill, serving tasty burgers, salads and bowls – we’d brought lunch with us but we couldn’t resist treating ourselves to the local gelato of the day…

We were excited about what we had planned for that evening: night swimming with manta rays! It’s one of the biggest draws to this side of the island, as the fascinating creatures can be seen very close to shore. There are a number of operators, and most of them do two daily outings: a sunset tour around 5pm, and a night tour around 7:30pm. We booked through the Sheraton Resort, as the hotel is on the bay where the manta excursions take place. It cost $110 each to go out on a boat with 6 guests in total. As it was our last evening on the island and penultimate one of our trip, we decided to go for dinner at the Sheraton’s Rays on the Bay restaurant before heading round the corner for our swim. It was the most expensive meal of the holiday, but it was worth getting a bit dressed up and treating ourselves: the fresh catch seafood was delicious, the view over the ocean was stunning (particularly at sunset), the service was good – and the cocktails were top notch.

The view from the Sheraton Rays on the Bay restaurant
After dinner we swapped our dresses for swimwear and headed down to the pontoon. We found our boat and stepped aboard, donning the wetsuit tops we were provided with. The boat took us just a hundred metres or so further into the bay, where the captain had learned mantas had been seen. The boats put small but powerful lights into the sea to attract plankton – which in turn, attracts the manta rays. Snorkels on and GoPro at the ready, we jumped into the water. The tours are well run in terms of protecting the animals from harm – rather than just letting loose a group of overexcited tourists, there’s a set routine. The smaller boats like ours have a surfboard modified with handles along the side for guests to hold onto, with foam noodles to sit under knees or ankles – making everyone float flat on the surface of the water. This allows the rays to swim beneath, without risk of coming into contact with a rogue thrashing limb – the natural oils in human skin are harmful to sharks, whales and a variety of sea life. We floated around for maybe 5 minutes before our first sighting of a manta, gliding gracefully below us. From then on, for the next hour, we saw rays every few minutes, coming in with mouths wide open to feed on the plankton. More than once, they swam in big loops turning upside down and arching back to return for more. When this happened they often made the loops larger each time around, coming closer and closer to the surface – at one point, one ray must have come within 20cm of my face. Naturally, I spluttered overexcitedly and my snorkel filled with water. It added an amusing audio to my GoPro footage. They’re beautiful creatures to watch; moving a little like butterflies in the water. The hour or so we were in the water went really quickly but I loved it – I saw mantas in Indonesia, but not nearly as close or as many. We were lucky to see 3 or 4 different rays as operators can obviously never 100% guarantee sightings. I’d highly recommend doing this if you’re in Kona!

We had a fairly leisurely start the next morning, which was the last of our trip. Sad face! We had an afternoon flight back to Honolulu, so opted to spend our final day enjoying a coastal drive and the last slice of beach action we’d both get for a while – what with Fi going back to British winter and me returning to the farm in Australia. There are a number of lovely beaches along the coast, both north and south of Kona. For snorkelling, go to Two Step, where a variety of fish and coral, turtles and even dolphins can be seen. If you’re up for a challenge, head to Kealakekua Bay, where a steep hour-long hike awaits down to the Captain Cook monument (marking the spot where he was killed in 1779). For the ‘Caribbean of Hawaii’, visit Maniniowali Beach to enjoy the fine white sand and crystal blue water. We decided to go to the Old Kona Airport beach park, which sits just outside of Kona town. The old airport runway is now the car park, with a long sandy beach running all the way along the edge. It was really quiet, and although the shore was a little rocky, the water was lovely and not too rough to swim – though the swell can be good for bodyboarding. We relaxed with our books and some music, trying to forget that we soon had to leave.

Our last day, at the Old Kona Airport beach park

Late afternoon, we reluctantly packed up, drove to the airport and flew back to Honolulu. Fi had managed to book her flight for the wrong month so couldn’t join me on my flight, but luckily, was able to get onto another and met me in Honolulu only an hour later. We headed back into Waikiki for our final night, staying at the Polynesian Beach Club hostel. I wasn’t really there for long enough to give a proper review, but it was in a good location, the staff were friendly and the reception is open 24 hours, so it was perfect for what we needed. We changed and set out for the last hurrah, having some tasty food and plenty of tequila-based cocktails at popular spot Duke’s Barefoot Bar. It’s a big place that opens out onto the beach, and has a fab atmosphere with live music. It was a great place for us to chat, laugh, and tell each other several times how much we were going to miss each other until we caught up again. Naw, aren’t we cute.

I left at 5am the next morning for my flight back to Australia, leaving Fi to enjoy Waikiki for another day before her flight that evening. I sat on the plane already half-planning my next trip to Hawaii, which was a nice way to pass the 11-hour flight. I spent a lovely evening and the following day in Melbourne catching up with my friends before I came back up to Red Cliffs, where I’m slowly but surely getting through the rest of my farm days. Thank you Hawaii, what a dreamy break from my ‘real life’. I’ll be back.

Until next time,

Number of strangers I’ve spoken to today: 4, including a very chatty young Belgian girl who knew a lot more about manta rays than I did. Fun fact of the day being that manta rays are park of the shark family, and have special sensors in their skin that measure how far away they are from other living creatures. Fancy that.
Interaction was: very educational, and somewhat inspiring to see someone so young so excited about sharing their wisdom. You go, girl.

One Woman and her Backpack x

Follow me on Instagram @ellielfield

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