Land and Fire: The Big Island of Hawaii

The big Island of Hawaii has become our favorite Hawaiian Island in recent years because of its natural diversity and vast recreational activities for all age ranges. We have visited the Big Island of Hawaii three times over the last two decades, enjoying and discovering more and more with each trip. Hawaii has 10 of the 14 climate zones found on earth, making it a fascinating and diverse place to visit and play.

Our latest trip was a memorable family vacation with our three grown children, spouses, and grandchildren getting together for the first time in years. Bob and I booked a large VRBO in 2021 when Covid was still raging, and Hawaii was locked down. It was a gamble, but it allowed us to reserve a beautiful 5-bedroom home overlooking Kailua-Kona and the Pacific coast for our July 2022 summer vacation for half the regular price. The house was beautiful and perfect for our family, with a chef’s kitchen, pool, and significant outdoor living areas overlooking the majestic Pacific Ocean.

Our Kona vacation VRBOIt was the first time in Hawaii for the grandkids and spouses.  Our kids had been there long ago when they were much younger.  We booked the house for two weeks and encouraged the kids to stay as long as possible.  Everyone had different wish lists of things to do and see.  With two cars, we encouraged them to go off on their own whenever they wanted to explore the island with their families.  Our entire family loves outdoor activities.  We have hikers, bikers, snorkelers, fishermen, scuba divers, and golfers, and all are sightseers. Making sure everyone got a chance to do the things they wanted was easy on Hawaii.

 The Big Island of Hawaii: An Overview

Map of the Big Island of Hawaii

The Big Island is exactly that:  Big.  It makes up 63% of Hawaii’s land mass, with over 4,000 sq miles and growing.  However, it only has 13% of the state’s population, which makes it ideal for visiting.  Hawaii also has no incorporated cities.  Kailua- Kona and Hilo are the two largest towns.  We always think of the island as four different regions.  The East, and West coasts, the central volcanic area known as Volcano National Park, and the northern green mountains.

East Coast of Hawaii:

The East Coast is covered by rainforests, with the city of Hilo as the centerpiece for natives and tourists visiting the area.  You will find lush green forests, hiking, botanical gardens, waterfalls, and a picturesque jagged coastline with limited beaches.  Visiting Hilo is like going back in time, 30-40 years.  You’ll find mural-covered buildings, restaurants, and a active pot business.  This area is famous for its hiking terrain, botanical gardens, and the amount of rain it gets. So light waterproof jackets are advised.

West Coast of Hawaii:

The West Coast is the more touristy and sunnier side.  From bottom to top, the west coast offers a variety of beautiful beaches, golf courses, and great places to hike, snorkel, scuba dive, and fish.  Kailua-Kona is the largest town along the west side, located just south of the Airport.  Kona, for short, has a great selection of restaurants, shopping areas, and beautiful seaside areas to hang out on.  Are you looking for a Tattoo?  You’ll find many expert Tattoo shops in Kona, good restaurants, and souvenir shops.  The all-important Honokohua Harbor and marina are located just south of the airport and are places to go for fishing, diving, snorkeling, and sightseeing charters.   This is where we went out to fish, snorkel, and dive.

The Central Region of Hawaii:

The five big volcanos define the central region of Hawaii from the southeastern Kilauea to the northern Kohala. These Volcanos continue to define life on the island.  When we were there in July of 2022, Kilauea was still flowing, but all other volcanos were quiet.  Since then, Mauna Loa, the largest of the volcanos, has begun to erupt again, getting close to a few of the roads we used to traverse the island during our stay.  Old lava beds slope to the west providing a stark landscape along much of the central west coast. The airport and surrounding areas are all built on old lava flows. I understand this area is alive again with hot lava flows.  Hawaii’s Volcano National Park can be found in the southeastern and south-central regions.  We would recommend researching island lava conditions before booking a trip there.  The Hawaii National Volcano Alert system is a good way of staying on top of conditions around the island.  This site can give more recent information on the active volcanos of Hawaii.

The northern part of the island is famous for its lush green mountains covering dormant volcanos, which is home to one of the largest Cattle ranches in the US.   Parker Ranch is now owned by a charitable trust, but boasts over 17,000 head of cattle grazing on the lush rolling hills between Kohaula and Mona Key.  We visited a Kohua ranch for a fun evening, which I’ll get to shortly.

Land and Fire:

It takes under two hours to traverse the island from Kona to Hilo, either going the southern Route 11 through Volcano National Park, central  Route 190, or northern Route 19 through Waimea.  You will go through vastly changing terrain and likely different weather conditions during your travels.  We went back and forth to see the scenery and enjoy other activities.

The land:

The landscape is incredibly diverse from one area of the island to another and offers so many different fun activities:

Hiking:

During our stay, we hiked on both the east and west coasts, including Volcano National Park. Here are a few summaries of our trips:

Makaula’O’Oma Trails

Roughly 8 miles from our house, we discovered an excellent hiking trail about 4 miles in length with some steep terrain but all beautifully wooded Makaula’O’Oma Trails.  We left Bob home to watch the younger kids enjoy the pool one afternoon while the rest of us hit this trail.  Some of us handled it well, while others struggled with the steep areas and narrow paths.  I would call it a definite intermediate trail, but manageable by most.  We loved hiking this trail so much that I returned with my daughter, Lori, to attack it again and shave off some time.

Some of the best forest hiking is on the east coast north of Hilo. We planned a trip to the east coast with my daughter-in-law Kelly, my grandson, Austin, and my daughter, Lori, and her two children, Ella (9) and Ben (6).  The guys and my daughter Danielle were going out deep-sea fishing.  Lori and I both remembered previous trips and knew what to expect, but Austin, Kelly, and the kids were amazed by the quickly changing terrain as we traversed the island along the northern route.  They also loved the cute little goats seen all over the rocky lava terrain. Our destination was Akaka Falls State Park, located just north of Hilo. When we finally arrived at the small state park, we were anxious to get out and stretch our legs.

Hiking Akaka State Falls Park:

After finding a parking spot and paying the $8 fee, we headed down onto the well-defined cement, wood, and soil ¾ mile trail.  We were treated to great views of the 422’ Akaka waterfall in the middle of the trail.  The vegetation was beautiful, and we all took lots of great pictures.  This was a fun start to the day and a perfect beginner hike for the younger kids. From the falls, we headed south towards Hilo for lunch at a DDD restaurant picked out online called the Hilo Bay Café.  Lunch was delicious, but we were anxious to get going as we still had a few hours to go.  Heading back along central Route 190, we found ourselves driving in a misty, foggy rain.  After about forty-five minutes, we emerged into the dry arid sunlight of the northwestern edge of volcano national park.  Unfortunately, this part of the drive resulted in a poor explanation of volcanos for my grandkids.

Zip Lining Hilo Hawaii

Several days later, some of us discovered the Umauma Falls near Hilo during our Zip Lining trip, where several tried Zip Lining for the first time. The Zip Lining was fun for everyone, but only a few of the last segments went over steep ravines, with the last part zipping past the beautiful Umauma Falls and gorge below.   We all had fun and brought back more great memories and pictures. Much of the terrain was through pineapple and banana plantations, with many hogs roaming about.  They left us alone, but we spotted about a dozen rummaging through the vegetation.

Botanical Gardens north of Hilo:

Our Last trip to the Hilo side was with Bob, me, and my son Craig with his family. On this trip, we Hawaii Tropical Bio-reserve and garden flowersvisited the Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve and Garden.  This is a remarkable place, and we highly recommend a stop here.  You’ll find winding trails over brooks, past waterfalls, and beautiful seaside cliffs, all filled with fantastic vegetation.  These gardens are the life’s work of Dan Lutkenhouse, who bought the property in 1977 and began creating a botanical garden.

The botanical gardens are not easy to find, but google maps will get you there while winding through narrow dirt roads and over one-way bridges.  We all loved the gardens, and my grandson, Austin, took many excellent pictures during our visit.

Note:  You can also book several Helicopter Tours of Hawaii, which leave from the Hilo airport.  My son and grandson were supposed to go, but a user error with their reservation system resulted in the trip being canceled.  However, we have taken helicopter tours on previous visits, which are usually excellent, weather permitting.

Coffee Plantations: 100% Kona Coffee

Another fun land-based activity is to take in one of the local coffee plantations. There are several of them along the Kona coast due to the many micro climates which provide excellent growing conditions for coffee.  Bob and the guys took a memorable trip to Heavenly Hawaiian Coffee plantation.  Here they brag that they produce the best 100% Kona coffee on the island.  Their story is interesting, and the guys thought the short trip south to Holualoa, Hi, was well worth it.

Fire: Volcanos on the Big Island

Volcano National Park Crater

A trip to the Big Island of Hawaii is not complete without a trip to Volcano National Park on the southeastern side. During our first trip back in the 90s, we could walk right up to the slow lava flows and watch it move inches from our feet.  Conditions and safety concerns have taken over, and it is no Ben climbing on the lava formationslonger possible or advised to get too close to the lava flows of Kilauea.  We hiked through one of the main trails that overlooked the large, then inactive volcano crater, passed through a few of the dormant lava tubes, and then drove down near the coast covered in jagged rock formations.  Today, the inactive crater shown above has erupted again.  It must be a fantastic site but check with the Volcano National Park advisory to find out where you can safely travel.  After the Volcano park visit, we headed to Hilo along Route 11 for lunch before heading back through central Route 190.  This time we found a great burger place called the Hilo Burger Joint.

Golfing on the Big Island of Hawaii:

Bob and I love to golf almost anywhere we go, especially on the Hawaiian Islands. The contrasts between lush forests, lava rocks, and the mighty Pacific Ocean make for jaw-dropping views. In winter and spring, whales can be spotted off most islands’ coasts. It’s sometimes difficult to focus on golf with such amazing views. However, when our golf game is not at our best, the spectacular views make it easy to relax and go with the will of the golf gods.

Bob and Danielle at Wiakoloa Beach Course

The Waikoloa Beach Resort Beach Course, located in the Waikoloa Resort, is home to hotels, timeshare condominiums, shopping, and a few great restaurants, such as Roy’s Asian Cuisine and Tommy Bahama’s.   Bob, Danielle, and I took on the Beach Course one afternoon.  It was a good golf course with a few signature holes built into the lava formations on the Ocean.  The afternoon was fun; as always, we hit some inspiring, good, bad, and a few ugly shots during our round.

After the kids left, Bob and I played the Mauna Lani North course.  This course was lush and often spectacular as it is Lush fairways and lava hazards define this course at Mauna Lanibuilt into the lava beds.  The 17th par three hole is the signature hole which presents the fun challenge of hitting over the lava cliffs onto the green while the wind blows hard against you.  For whatever reason, the course was pretty empty, and we never saw other golfers for the entire round.  What a great experience.  We were hot, tired, and hungry when we were finished, so we headed to Waikoloa Village for a snack before making our way farther north to Kahua Ranch for a special dinner.

If you enjoy golfing, we highly recommend the courses along the west coast of Hawaii.  They are all good and feature amazing views as you golf.

Cattle Ranching is big business on the big island of Hawaii:

Or final land-based trip, unfortunately, happened after everyone else had left.  It’s too bad because the kids would have loved it. While looking through our copy of “Hawaii the Big Island Revealed: The Ultimate Guidebook,” we found an ad for dinner at Kahua Ranch,  one of the working cattle ranches on the island’s north side.  It boasted great food, beautiful vistas, music, sightseeing around the ranch, and more.  We made reservations and decided to golf at Mauni Lani early the next afternoon and head up to the ranch for dinner.

Driving up along the northwestern shore from the Mauna Lani resort and golf club was fun and as quiet as we remembered it.  The villages are small, with just a few stores and restaurants as we wound our way up the scenic coast.  The inland terrain changed from black lava fields to lush green rolling hills that worked their way up to a reasonably high mountain peak of the extinct Kohola Volcano.  Following our GPS, we arrived in the northernmost town of Hawi and took a right onto Route 250 into the mountains to find our destination.  Our GPS took us right past the entrance, but we missed it, having to turn around as there were no signs.  They had sent us directions with our reservation confirmation, but we were still a little nervous driving on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere.  Luckily, we were in the right place.

A Special Dinner at Kahua Cattle Ranch:

We were greeted for our sunset dinner by the amiable and proud owner of the Kahua Ranch, who encouraged to walk around, try our hand at roping or horseshoes, take pictures, etc.  The land was indescribably beautiful.  With lush green-covered peaks, shrouded in a misty fog, surrounded by heard of horses, sheep, and cattle depending on what direction you looked.  Later when the sun did peak through, we could see the sprawling Pacific Ocean off in the distance, along with several rainbows.  It reminded us of Ireland. It was so green and lush with views of the Ocean.

Kahua Ranch Valley

Quickly, we stumbled into a small gift shop where a friendly woman proceeded to give us, and others, a personal account of the ranch’s history, showing several historical pictures.  The story involves a King and a trade.  You can watch a video about it here.

After we visited the gift shop, we were invited to sit at a picnic table inside a large covered building as dinner would be served shortly.  A single cowboy musician began playing who was very good and funny.  We met several other travelers from all over the world at our table. The food of roast beef, chicken, ribs, and all the expected sides were delicious.  The rancher was very proud of his ranch and the beef they raised on the ranch.

Darkness came along with home-baked pies, brownies, and cakes with coffee or tea.  Outside, they had S’mor stations set up for the kids and a branding station where they carefully helped all interested in making a ‘K’ brand into a piece of wood to bring home as souvenirs.

Sheep at Kahua Ranch

At about 9:30, we decided it was time to head back.  Ahead of us was a two-hour drive off the mountain and south to Kailua-Kona and our rental house.  The drive home was interesting.  It was a pitch-black night, with the moon being partially obscured by the clouds.  We descended about 3,200 feet back to sea level along somewhat winding roads.  I was driving and found it fun but challenging.  I kept an eye on an altitude app on my phone to track our progress down the mountain.  We were tired when we arrived home and hit the bed with the sound of wind rustling in the trees and the waves hitting the shoreline below, wishing the kids could have been there with us.

Check out Part 1 (Night Diving with the Mantas) and Part 3 (Sea and Salt) of our 2022 Hawaiian Vacation, which covers our fun and exciting sea adventures.

Important note:  few of the houses and hotels on the Hawaiian islands are air-conditioned.  They rely on the steady temperate temperatures and the Hawaiian breezes to cool their homes.  This does not always work as well as you may wish.  Our house was equipped with five large house fans that did an excellent job of pulling the heat out of the house each night, but it can get warm during the day in summer. 

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