Hawaii's Big Island

Guest Author: Rachel - About My Trip to the Hawaii's Big Island

Hi! I’m Rachel, and I’ll be sharing some of my adventures from my first ever solo travel trip! I’m guest blogging for Buzz, who was my inspiration for giving solo travel a try. After reading about some of his epic experiences and talking to him, Buzz’s confidence in my ability to not die while traveling alone was just what I needed to go ahead and book a short trip to Hawaii! It turns out it was a fabulous experience, and he may have just created a life-long solo traveler! Now I’m hoping to offer some inspiration and tips/tricks to the rest of you who may be where I was a few months ago. 

I spent 3.5 action-packed days on the big island of Hawaii. I decided the best way to get the most out of my short time on the island was to book a separate tour for each day. I ended up deciding on the Hawaii Small-Group Volcano Experience with Lunch and Restaurant Dinner for the first full day, the Mauna Kea Summit and Stars Small-Group Adventure tour for day 2, and the Morning Kealakekua Snorkel Tour for day 3.

Kilauea Iki
Kilauea Iki

I booked the trip in March 2021 for June 2021, hoping that Covid restrictions would be reduced by then. While these restrictions were not entirely gone, they did not hinder my trip in any way. Just make sure you pack a few face masks and get Covid tested within 72 hours of the takeoff of the plane that will be taking you to the islands. You will need to upload your negative Covid test result and fill out a health survey on the State of Hawaii Safe Travels website. I completed the 24-hour NAAT test offered by Walgreens and had no problem being admitted to the island. A tip for the flight (not Covid related): make sure you have a pen handy for the Hawaii agriculture declaration forms that you’ll need to fill out mid-flight. There was a lot of getting into overhead bins and pen sharing when these forms got passed out on my plane!

 

Punalu’u Black Sand Beach
Punalu’u Black Sand Beach

First Time Solo Traveler - Hawaii's Big Island - Table of Contents

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Day 1 - Hawaii Small-Group Volcano Experience

I purchased this tour for $190.83 in March when Covid was still lowering the price. It appears it will now cost you $309.73 to book and I highly recommend this tour! It was one of my highlights from the entire trip. My tour guide, PJ, had the gift of storytelling that added richness to this experience.  This tour was a 12-hour experience that took us around the island and to the highlights of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. 

Our first stop was at Greenwell coffee farms, where I learned that every part of a coffee tree is caffeinated, and coffee beans are actually the seeds inside the cherries that grow on these trees! Light roast coffees also contain more caffeine than dark roast coffees! PJ passed all the females in the group Plumeria flowers and informed us of the custom that the flower is to be worn behind your right ear if you are single or unhappily married and behind your left ear if you are happily married. It was funny to watch some of the married couples on the tour teasingly switch the flowers from ear to ear throughout the rest of the day.

Sampling the Coffee
Sampling the Coffee
A Lizard Joined me for Breakfast
A Lizard Joined me for Breakfast
The Coffee Trees
The Coffee Trees
Banana Trees on the Farm
Can You Find the Chameleon?

Lunch consisted of a deli sandwich, chips, cookie, water, and juice was included in the tour and served to us at Greenwell Farms.

Our next stop was at Punalu’u bakery (the southern-most bakery in the United States) and Punalu’u black sands beach. Hawaiians take it quite seriously that if you remove black sand from this beach, and believe you will be cursed until it is returned. We had to shake out our shoes and socks and scrape the bottom of our shoes with a brush before PJ would let us back into his van. He shared with us that he has had people who were on his tour mail him sand and request that he return it to the beach due to bad things happening to them. I’m skeptical but didn’t care to test it myself. Besides, keeping the sand where it belongs is helpful to Hawaiian beaches.

Punalu’u Black Sands Beach
Punalu’u Black Sands Beach
Sitting on the Black Sand Beach
Sitting on the Black Sand Beach
My Plumeria Sitting in the Black Sand
My Plumeria Sitting in the Black Sand

I was bummed to learn that Kilauea had stopped erupting about two weeks before my visit, but my trip to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park was still really amazing! I explored the Nāhuku (Thurston Lava Tube). If you come here, make sure you bring a flashlight! While it is lit up with red lights, a flashlight will help you explore the dark areas that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to see.

Entering Nāhuku (Thurston Lava Tube)
Entering Nāhuku (Thurston Lava Tube)
Nāhuku (Thurston Lava Tube)
Nāhuku (Thurston Lava Tube)
Kilauea Volcano
Kilauea Volcano
Kilauea Volcano
Kilauea Volcano

We stopped at an overlook for both Kilauea Iki (small Kilauea) and Kilauea, which was the volcano responsible for the 2018 eruption, and admired both craters from a distance.
Next, we briefly stopped at some steam vents on our way to Kilauea Lodge for dinner. There is a strange custom of throwing money into these steam vents. If you do get overcome with the desire to throw some $20 bills away and drop them into the steam vent apparently you aren’t alone. The bottom of the vent was covered in soggy paper money and coins. 

While I’d think it would be common sense to not climb into a steaming volcanic vent for extra pocket change, our tour guide told us that someone had tried this because of a $20 bet and, unfortunately, (unsurprisingly?) was burned.

The Steam Vent
The Steam Vent
Looking Into the Steam Vent
Looking Into the Steam Vent

The last stop of the day was at Kilauea Lodge for a restaurant dinner, which was included in the price of the tour. We could choose between the catch of the day (fish), chicken, or ribs as our entree. Each meal also came with a salad and non-alcoholic beverages!

Dinner at Kilauea Lodge

Day 2 Tour: Mauna Kea Summit and Stars Tour

Manuna Kea Summit and Starts Small Group TourMauna Kea Summit and Stars Small-Group Adventure Tour - $287.60

Head to the Mauna Kea Observatory, nestled high in the mountains of the Big Island, and experience an intriguing and provocative journey through space and time. Discover Hawaii from the top of the island's tallest peak, Mauna Kea, also known as 'White Mountain,' located 13,796 feet (4,200 meters) above sea level. Limited to 28 people, this small-group star-watching tour ensures a personalized and unique experience at the enchanting Mauna Kea summit.

I did not get much of a discount booking this tour in March. I paid $235.60, and it would now cost you $287.07.

I decided to walk the 2.8 miles along the side of the road to get to the pick-up location for this tour in order to save some money. Their webpage states they pick up from central locations in Kona, however, 95% of the tour group was picked up at the Courtyard by Marriott hotel. The other 5% were staying in Hilo and met up with us close to Mauna Kea. Be prepared to find transportation to this particular hotel no matter where in Kona you are staying.

While waiting for my tour, I bought some yummy Italian Ice.

My Italian Ice
My Italian Ice

Jason was my tour guide, and I was very grateful for his knowledge of the area! We drove by Mauna Loa on our way to Mauna Kea, and he pointed out the HI-SEAS Mars Simulation colony that is run by NASA to test the psychological effects of being isolated in a pseudo-Mars base for 4-12 months at a time! It only looked like a small white speck from our viewing location, so I absolutely would have missed it if it wasn’t pointed out! The astronauts have to wear spacesuits every time they exit the base, and all communications entering and leaving this colony are purposely delayed by 20 minutes to stimulate the time gap that occurs when messages are sent back and forth from Earth and Mars.

Mauna Kea, our destination, is the tallest mountain in the world as measured from the base of the mountain which is deep within the ocean. Mt. Everest’s peak is the tallest spot above sea level. A good metaphor is how a toddler may appear taller than an adult if the adult is standing in a swimming pool and the toddler is standing on the deck beside the pool. The adult is actually taller, but the toddler appears taller.

On our way up Mauna Kea, we stopped at the visitor center (altitude 9,200ft) to eat a dinner of beef stew and to begin to acclimate to the altitude. If you have certain health issues or are under the age of 13, it’s not recommended that you go any higher than this. If you do decide to continue to the summit, you will need 4-wheel drive. Jason told us that 99% of the people on his tours would feel some effect from the high altitude.

On our way to the summit, we stopped at the Very Long Baseline Array Radio Telescope. This telescope is one of eight radio telescopes that worked together around the globe to capture the first-ever picture of a black hole in 2017!

Very Long Baseline Array Radio Telescope
Very Long Baseline Array Radio Telescope
Very Long Baseline Array Radio Telescope From Behind the Fence
Very Long Baseline Array Radio Telescope From Behind the Fence

Watching the sun go down on top of Mauna Kea was a magnificent and cold experience. We were provided parkas, gloves, and blankets, but I was still chilly throughout the rest of the evening. The views were worth getting a little cold! We were even treated with an observable green flash as the sun dipped beneath the horizon! This phenomenon happens when the sun’s light is dispersed just right through the Earth’s atmosphere, and a prism effect will occur, causing the green light wavelengths to get scattered. It was only visible for about one second.

Location for Watching the Sunset - Hawaii's Big Island
Location for Watching the Sunset
Sunset - Hawaii's Big Island
Sunset Photo
A Beautiful Sunset Seen from Hawaii's Big Island
It was a Beautiful Sunset

After the sunset, we went down to a slightly lower altitude, and Jason pulled out an 11’’ Celestron telescope so we could do some stargazing. Hawaii is the only U.S. state you can easily view the entire Southern Crux (Cross) constellation from. It was my first time ever seeing this constellation, and we even got to look at the Jewel Box star cluster that is found in this constellation through the telescope. My thinking started feeling a little foggier than usual due to the altitude, and I had a slight headache that began while stargazing. These feelings seemed to go away pretty quickly as we were driving down and away from the mountain.

Jason was very kind and went out of his way to drop me off at my hostel so I wouldn’t have to catch a ride from another source in the middle of the night.

Day 3 Tour: Morning Kealakekua Snorkel Tour

Morning Kealakekua Snorkel TourMorning Kealakekua Snorkel Tour - $176.96

Cruise the Kona Coast and enjoy a morning frolicking in the warm Hawaiian waters. Snorkel equipment is available for use and expert instruction makes the Kealakekua Bay Deluxe Snorkel Cruise a great activity for the whole family.

Right off the bat, the most valuable tip I can offer others is that if you are a fellow near-sighted person – ASK TO BORROW A PAIR OF THEIR PRESCRIPTION SNORKEL GOGGLES! This resource is not mentioned on most of the sites you might book through, and just by luck, I noticed this was an available resource on the company’s official website. Everyone who overheard me asking had no idea this was even an option. While their range didn’t extend to my actual prescription, what was available still significantly improved my vision! Being able to see better under the water made this experience extra special for me.

If you are planning on bringing some stuff on board with you, try to get a seat on the lower level of the boat. There are buckets under the lower-level seats for storing things in. It didn’t sound like there were designated storage areas on the top deck. They also provide SPF 30 reef-safe sunscreen where you check-in for the tour and in various spots on the boat. They request that you only use their sunscreen. 

This tour includes breakfast and lunch. The food was all plant-based and quite delicious! If you are a big-breakfast eater like me, you might want to bring along a snack or eat something small before the tour because the provided breakfast was on the smaller side, but the provided lunch was huge! The breakfast included a very tasty small bowl of overnight oats with cut-up fruit and a piece of banana bread. The lunch had a little bit of everything and featured BBQ’ed dragonfruit sandwiches, chickpea salad sandwiches, purple sweet potatoes, and a salad with tropical fruit dressing! 

I brought along my Go-Pro camera and tried to capture some underwater footage!

 

Snorkeling Photo - Hawaii's Big Island
Filmed with My GoPro
Snorkeling Photo
Another Underwater Photo
Snorkeling Photo
A Photo of Me Snorkeling
Departure Point for My Snorkeling Tour - Hawaii's Big Island
Our Departure Point for Snorkeling
Snorkeling Boat - Fair Wind II
Our Snorkeling Boat

My plane did not leave until 10:30 pm the evening of this snorkel tour. I spent the rest of the day finding beach access points, watching the ocean, and relaxing before a long night of flying!

Looking back at my trip, I really enjoyed the freedom that solo travel gave me. I only needed to consider what I wanted to do when I was making plans! I thoroughly enjoyed my trip visiting the most active volcano in the world, the tallest mountain (from base to peak), and snorkeling in the pristine, beautiful waters of Hawaii! Paradise.

Accommodations - My Hawaii Hostel

I stayed at My Hawaii Hostel. I booked a private room so I could see what a hostel was like while still getting my own space. I discovered it was a great way to save money and make connections with other travelers. It also had everything I could possibly need! While the majority of people staying here seemed to be in their 20’s-30’s, there were some older travelers as well.

A heads up, if you are planning on taking tours that include hotel pick-up, or if you have booked a shuttle to/from the airport, they may not know where this hostel is. This surprised me because it is on Ali’i Drive, and a lot of Kona hotels/resorts are also located along this road. I solved this by getting picked up and dropped off at the Kona Bali Kai, which is directly across the street instead.

There is a shared bathroom set-up at the hostel. There was one (co-ed) shared bathroom and two smaller, private bathrooms. While my personal preference was using one of the private bathrooms when they were available, I did end up showering in the shared bathroom once and felt perfectly comfortable with the set-up. At first, I admit, I was surprised to see the showers of the shared bathroom were separated only by curtains and not locking doors, but this ended up being a non-issue.

The hostel also had a full kitchen that could be used to prepare your own food and a community fridge. There were a few shelves in the fridge and in the pantry area that were community, free-for-the-taking, food items to help you spice up anything you may choose to prepare!

The Exterior of My Hawaii Hostel
The Exterior of My Hawaii Hostel
My Hawaii Hostel Room
My Room

Magic Sands Bar and Grill

I was warned by my Speedi Shuttle driver that food establishments close early in Hawaii and to stock up on snacks. He was not kidding. My flight landed later in the afternoon, and upon dropping off my luggage, I decided to walk down the street and find somewhere to eat dinner. At this point, it was about 5:30 pm, and the first two places I stopped had already closed. I asked someone who looked like they might know what they were doing if there was anywhere within walking distance that might still be open, and they directed me to the Magic Sands Grill, which was about a 1.5 mile walk away. However, it must not have been my evening because when I got there, I was told that they were booked for the entire night and would likely not have any openings for me. They must have seen the look on my face, so they took my number and said they’d call me if a spot at the bar opened up. Tip: Look for dinner places in advance, and make sure you call at least a few days ahead and make a reservation!!

Magic Sands Grill is located right next to Magic Sands Beach. The beach is called this because the ocean will sometimes carry the sand away revealing, the black lava rock underneath. This beach could be covered in soft white sand one day and be a sandless, rocky landscape the next! The waves at this beach were significantly more powerful than I was expecting. I’d been to continental U.S. beaches before, but these waves were something else entirely (or maybe this is just what my bruised wave-attacked ego would like me to think)! I decided to wade in while waiting for a call from the grill, and a large wave took me by surprise, knocked me off my feet, rolled me in the surf, and proved my swim top was not designed for such conditions. The next day someone on my tour mentioned they had lost their sunglasses due to a wave on this same beach, and the tour guide said locals will sometimes hang out around this beach, just to watch tourists not put on sunscreen properly and get taken out by the gigantic waves.

 

Magic Sands Beach
Magic Sands Beach
My Feet in the Ocean (Just Before the Giant Wave Hit)
My Feet in the Ocean (Just Before the Giant Wave Hit)
My Dinner at Magic Sands Grill
My Dinner at Magic Sands Grill

Thankfully a spot at the grill’s bar opened up, and I was able to eat dinner. I got a delicious fried fish sandwich and a drink, and my meal came to $35, but it was so worth it. If you eat here, and the weather is nice, request to sit on the patio. It overlooked the ocean!

Big Island Tours and Packages

Below, are some additional tours featuring some interesting places on Hawaii’s Big Island.  These tours feature the history and culture of Hawaii, snorkeling, swimming with dolphins, sunset cruises, waterfalls, and more.  Please note that as an affiliate of Viator I will receive a small commission if you purchase a tour using one of my links.  This commission is at no additional charge to you.

Prices are accurate as of April 2023.

Kona Histroy and Culture Tour
Intimate Kona History and Culture Tour from Kona South - $167.54

Ancient Hawaiians used Kona, on the island of Hawaii, as the main capital city during the reign of King Kamehameha the Great. The area is rich with Hawaiian folklore and stories. From land divisions, ancient fishponds, Heiau-temples, and royal palaces, we will take you on a journey through this historic area. Pickups at all locations in Kona and south, including Kona and Keauhou.

Expedition South Kona
Expedition South Kona - $180.41

Snorkel at 3 unique and pristine locations including Kealakekua Bay, the culturally significant Pu’uhonua O Honaunau, and a third remote location you wouldn't be able to access any other way. Perhaps you’ll snorkel at a black sand beach and have it all to yourselves. Maybe a stone arch or a spectacular lava rock formation created thousands of years ago. We will take you to locations even residents of the Island have yet to see.

Explore sea caves and lava tubes in our safe, exciting, and maneuverable vessels designed to get you up close and personal with the coast. Scout for marine life such as pilot whales as long as your boat, Hawaiian spinner dolphins, green sea turtles, and more.

A deli lunch is provided, as are snacks, water & juice throughout the day. All the snorkeling gear and flotation devices you need as well. You simply show up in your swimsuit with your reef-safe sunscreen and towel in hand and away we go!

Kohala Coast and Waterfalls Tour
Kohala Coast & Waterfalls with Remote Hike from Kona on Hawaii Island - $585.00

Fly with Paradise to the Kohala Valleys to hover amidst the breathtaking 2500’ waterfalls and sheer cliff faces. View lava fields from the 1801 Hualalai eruption and the 1859 Mauna Loa eruption, which traveled over 31 miles before reaching the now world-famous Kohala Coast. Mid-flight your aircraft will touch down at a remote location deep in Kohala Mountains to explore and enjoy a moderate 0.5 mile pilot-led hike through a Guava (waiwi) forest. The meandering trail immerses you in the flora and fauna of Kohala and surprises you with a dramatic coastline vista, offering views of the Mokupuku island formations and waves crashing along the rugged north shore of Hawaii Island. All the while you will learn about the culture and diverse natural habitat of this untouched serene location that most people never see. After your refreshing hike, take to the air again and view the world-famous white and black sand beaches and resorts of the Kohala Coast en route to back to Kona.

Kona Sunset Sail by Catamaran
Kona-Kohala Coast Sunset Sail by Catamaran - $151.58

Explore the Waikoloa and Kohala-Kona coastline aboard The Spirit of Aloha, a 54-foot sailing catamaran. Catch the moment the sun slips below the horizon. You may even see the green flash. Board from Anaehoomalu Bay (A-Bay) to sail, enjoy and relax. The custom-designed sunset-orange and maile lei sail is a stunning contrast to the azure Pacific as it sails along the blue Pacific ocean. Bask in the romance and relaxation of a stunning Kona-Kohala sunset cruise. Snacks and beverages served aboard. Unlimited non-alcohol beverages. Two free bar drink tickets per adult.

When boarding at A-Bay, it is a beach-loading process with transfer from a tender-boat, with barefoot entry that takes a few steps into the seawater from the beach. Come in casual clothing that may come in contact with water.

Beach check in at 4:15pm

Big Island Swim with Dolphins
Swim with Dolphins Big Island Kailua-Kona Hawaii - $171.57

Drawing on years of experience, our captains and crew will take you up close and personal with the dolphin. As we search for these beautiful creatures in the warm tropical waters off the coast, our crew will share their knowledge about these fascinating creatures, how they live and their role in the ocean’s ecosystem. Nearly every day, year-round we are able to encounter these beautiful animals in their natural habitat. We have 98% success rate of locating the dolphins and letting them "choose" whether to swim with us or not. However the utmost respect and care are given to our aquatic friends to assure that we do not disrupt their rest, nursing and breeding behaviors.

When they do choose to swim with us, it is truly magical and can be a life changing experience.

Maunakea Stellar Explorer from Kona Tour
Maunakea Stellar Explorer from KONA - $263.79

For an out-of-this-world experience, check out Maunakea Stellar Explorer from KapohoKine Adventures. This thrilling adventure is the only Big Island star tour to feature nighttime astronomical observing AND safe daytime solar viewing with all ages welcome! Our in-house stellar explorers are the best and most experienced in Hawaii with one having created the Mauna Kea Visitor’s Center and operated it for a decade. Others on staff have written noted articles and reviews for well-known astronomy magazines and have worked at world-class observatories.

Surf Lessons in Kona
Semi Private Surf Lesson in Kona, Hawaii - $210.08

Kahaluu Bay Surf & Sea is Kona's number one choice for professional surfing instruction. Our surf shop is conveniently located directly across the street from the BEST beginner surf spot on the Big Island. We offer our guests a unique and V.I.P experience that if fun and safe for the entire family!

Our staff of friendly instructors are all CPR, First Aid and Lifeguard certified to ensure that you receive the best and safest experience possible.

Heavenly Hamakua Tour
Heavenly Hamakua: From Kona - $174.36

Adventure North, and experience an older, more traditional Hawaii on the famous Hamakua Coast.  Mauna Kea volcano last erupted some 4,600 years ago.  However, that hasn't changed the fact that the volcano is still impressing visitors and locals alike.  Along highways old and new, we'll head from the highlands of Waimea, to the coastal jungles of Hilo down Hawaii's Hamakua coast.  Our trip along this historic and beautiful part of the island begins with a drive along some of the most scenic backroads on the island.  The backroads of the Hamakua coast wind through lush jungle gulches, crossing rivers, and passing scenic ocean vistas.  It is an afternoon drive through a Hawaiian slice of Heaven.

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