Christmas on the big island of Hawaii

I’ve always wanted to go to Hawaii but the timing was never right. This Christmas I just didn’t feel like trying to park at the mall, I delayed putting up the lights and just couldn’t bring myself to pull the old fake Christmas tree out of the garage. I had no choice, we had to leave the country.

My wife booked the flight and the hotel that evening and then I began my research. It was super short notice so I only had a few days. One friend of mine gave me a travel book for Hawaii which was helpful. Another recommend I download the app for my phone called, “Hawaii Revealed.” I also did research on the Trip Advisor website. I found that the apps for both Trip Advisor and Hawaii Revealed were an excellent way to check out a restaurant before spending the money. Download these apps before you go and install on your phone. I also strongly recommend telling your phone service provider that you need a US Data Plan for US Roaming otherwise be prepared for a huge bill. If you don’t have US Roaming (about a 20 dollar additional charge, turn the data option off). While neither app was perfect and had some gaps in detail the combination of the two did me well.

We decided to go to the big island of Hawaii as I thought the Observatory and the Volcano would be great for the kids. I knew nothing about the differences between the islands or which was better. Once we had booked I learnt that my kids were too young to take up to the top of the Observatory mountain so we skipped that. 🙁 While this was a bit disappointing I am still very glad we chose the big island. Most people I know went to Maui and complained about the crowds and traffic. The big island is much larger and points of interest are spread out making it feel much less crowded and gives it that small town feeling. Much more relaxed.

I began my research by getting to know the geography and points of interest. Plotting these on Google Maps helped me a lot. Here is my map:


View Kona in a larger map

I also found this website called KonaWeb which was helpful. Kona123 is good for beach info.

After doing some research I soon discovered that a vehicle was a must have for getting around on the big island. While other islands like Maui have great transportation systems the big island doesn’t offer much. Taxis are expensive and only show up when called plus the distances between points of interest is sometimes a few hours. I did see a Kona bus service advertised but the entire time we were in Kona, I never saw a bus. If you go to the big island and you want to leave the Kona strip (Alii Drive), you MUST have a car.

Having discovered this key fact after having booked the hotel and flight for four made the panic that much greater. I called every car rental agency on the island, all booked! They told me it was the Christmas week and every car on the island would be booked. Oh no! I was desperate. I began to troll Expedia and Trip Planner to try and figure out what to do.

After a few panicked hours of searching I finally tried looking at the Hawaii Craigslist site for the big island. Some people were offering their own cars for rent. Some other small agencies also advertised on there. I contacted on company who would rent me flat bed truck for over $200 a day. Ouch! Finally, I found a guy who seemed a bit sketchy and at first and I was sure it was a scam. He explained that he had access to rental cars through the major rental agencies via his corporate connections. It sounded like these large corporations reserved a bunch of cars and then if they didn’t think they would use them they offered the cars to this guy to rent to desperate guys like me. I ended up paying about $650 for 6 days for an economy car but at least it was something. Looking back, the holiday would have been almost impossible without it. The car ended up being a very new Chrysler 200 4 door sedan from Alamo who were fantastic to work with.

We flew out of Vancouver on US Airlines. Since it was last minute we took what we could get. A 2 hour stop over in Phoenix, Arizona wasn’t too bad. US Airlines seems to be the cheap airline. No real food served and the plane was old and super cramped. We flew Alaska Airlines home and the plane was so much better. Newer and much more comfortable. If I had my choice I would likely look at West Jet or Hawaiian.

When we arrived at the Kona airport it was a bit of a shock, First, as you approach the island you see the huge mountain in the middle. It sort of looks like the whole island is just part of the mountain from a distance. Then the plane banks around the mountain and you begin to see the West side of the mountain and it isn’t the lush jungle you expect. It pretty much looks like a desert. As you descend you can see it is all old lava and looks like the moon’s surface. I’ve heard a lot of people are discouraged by this but I thought it was fascinating.

As we got off the plane and walked into the airport I was again surprised. The airport is tiny and a majority of it is outside. The luggage pick up was in a building with no walls and a Hawaiian style roof. The airport has a small restaurant, a bathroom a couple small gift stores and that’s about it. Compared to an international airport the place is super tiny.

For the first time we had a bag lost. Several other people on our flight had bags lost as well. After speaking to people at the airport and hotel it seems like this is very common for Hawaii for some reason. Unfortunately for us the lost luggage had my wife’s bathing suit in it and the kids snorkel equipment. TIP: Pack a change of clothes, swim suit and other necessities for a day in Hawaii in your carry on luggage. This way if you lose your luggage you can survive for 24 hours while you work things out. Our missing suit case went to Honolulu and was flown back to us that night. We got a call from the airlines and they sent it the next morning via courier. We traded several calls with the courier and they seemed a bit confused and disorganized but very polite. We had it at the hotel by 11 am the next day. Whew!

As a tourist I quickly learnt that the speed is different in Hawaii. It is a place you go to relax. So even though our luggage was missing and this caused us panic, we needed to take a moment and not freak out. Throughout the trip this behaviour was reinforced. Everyone was professional and service was great but no one freaked out and no one panicked. After 6 days I had a sense of calm I hadn’t felt for a very long time.

When you get out of the airport and want retrieve your rental car you need to walk to the street and get a shuttle bus. Look for a shuttle bus with the name of your rental company on it. They pass bay ever 10 minutes. We got the shuttle from the airport to their facility which is 5 minutes away. We showed them the paper work and then they let us pick from a dozen cars. When we returned the car we simply drove into the lot and the attendant recorded the mileage, looked at the gas tank to ensure we filled it up and then said we were free to leave the keys in the ignition and take the shuttle to the airport. Super fast and easy.

On the big island everything is 10 to 15 minutes away. Having a US data plan on my phone allowed me to use the GPS navigation which was huge. Not knowing the streets and not having GPS in the car made using the phone GPS really helpful. In Kona there is the beach scenic drive which is mostly single lane and goes very slow and then the upper levels highway which is 2 to 3 lanes and most much faster. Knowing when to go up and when to come down to the lower level is important and would be extremely hard to do with just a map. TIP: Bring some sort of GPS device. Phones that don’t do true GPS but instead utilize triangulation via cell towers work great 99% of the time.

We stayed at the Kona Coast Resort which was an excellent choice. The service was great, the rooms were huge and you get a microwave, dishwasher, stove and laundry which helps a lot. We had originally reserved a room at a bigger resort but then we discovered that they charge extra for wifi, parking and almost everything else. The semi hidden costs added up to more than we thought was reasonable. The Kona Coast Resort not only didn’t have these costs but offered great value for the money. Perfect location which was in the middle of all the points of interest we visited and our view was of the ocean. Most important to me was that it was quite at night. I have super sensitive hearing and people partying at night drive me crazy when I am trying to sleep. I had the best sleeps at the Kona Coast Resort. I know some people on Trip Planner have complained about the pull out sofa bed not being comfortable but I slept on it and it was fine. Yes it is a sofa bed and the mattress isn’t as thick as a real bed but it was comfortable and perfectly fine. If you weigh over 300 pounds your experience may be different than mine and you may want to use the proper bed.

Day 1: Kona Coast Resort

Arrived at airport in the late afternoon. Reported lost luggage and then went to get rental car. The plan was then to go to Costco to stock up on groceries but we decided to go to the hotel first to ensure we got a good room. Looking back we should have gone to Costco as planned as it is the cheapest place to stock up on water, food and other items like boogie boards for 28$. TIP: Go to Costco asap to stock up on supplies.

We arrived at the hotel and called the airlines to get an update on your lost luggage. Found the resort which was on Alii Drive and very central. Front desk staff at the Kona Coast Resort were super helpful and the accommodations were awesome. Huge rooms, high ceiling, front deck with a view, dish washer, coffee maker, blender, washer/dryer, AC, etc. Great value.

TIP: We decided that with only 6 days on the island we were not going to go too far and focus more on Kona. If I had two weeks I would have booked a few days at a hotel in Hilo as it takes over 3 hours to drive there. Trying to go there and back in one day would take most of the time. If you want to visit Hilo then book at least one night there.

After getting settled at the hotel we were all very hungry and the kids wanted sushi. While most Japanese restaurants were closed, Tashimas Japanese restaurant was still open. After getting a table we discovered they don’t actually serve sushi but instead focus on deep fried items and noodle. They are sort of famous amongst the long time Japanese in the Kona area and that is a huge part of their clientèle. I later noticed the tourist ratings were low for this restaurant and my experience reinforced that. While the prawn tempura was decent, everything else was less than mediocre and I was starving.

If you want to get a quick bit, drive down Alii Drive and park near the coffee shops. Lots of small taco and sushi places plus a few pubs and other selections. Great place for an evening walk and bit to eat.

Day 2: Kahaluu Beach Park & Kona Brewing Company

Interestingly, Hawaii does not like to publish beach reports as they know that if they tell the international community that beaches are closed then people will cancel their flights. When we arrived we were told that all beaches had been closed for a week due to high surf. TIP: Before you travel, find some Hawaii radio stations on the Internet and listen to those for a few hours. This was the only way I knew which beaches were closed. This will allow you to plan your itinerary a bit better. TIP: Always have a backup plan. The beaches close and so does the volcano area due to “vog.” Our backup plan for beach closures was a road trip to Hilo or the Volcano Park for a hike.

On this particular day the beaches were open so we decided to start small with the tourist beach next to the resort. Within walking distance, Kahaluu Beach Park is right next to White Sands Beach on Alii Drive. These are tourist beaches and have life guards. This is a good intro beach to meet other tourists and to get used to the water. It has bathrooms, showers and some shade. It is also right next to the road and has lots of parking. As easy as it gets in Hawaii.

We took it easy the first day. After some swimming and snorkelling we went back to the room and got cleaned up.  Visibility notability cloudy for snorkelling and likely due to the high swells that had closed the beaches the week before.  

One of my wife’s objectives was to bring back a lot of fresh fruit to the room. We found the Kona Inn Market to be the hands down best one. Lots of mango, bananas, papayas, coconuts, ramadans, oranges and other exotic fruits and vegetables. We also visited Ho’oulu Community Farmers Market and Keauhou Farmers Market but found their fruit selection almost non existent and what they did have was expensive. Kona Inn Market is right across the street from Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. Next to the public library parking lot.

After the lousy dinner the night before we decided to go for a sure thing. The Kona Brewing Company was an excellent choice. Fantastic beer, great pizza and excellent service. Environment is great too. My son and I watched them spin the pizza dough up into the air. The guys in the kitchen gave us a good show and we were all very happy with the meal. I highly recommend it. They also sell t-shirts and beer you can take back to your resort. This was the best sit down restaurant we visited. Everyone recommended the pizza and it didn’t disappoint.

Day 3: Two Step

On day three I decided everyone was rested up enough and our time was running out. According to “my” itinerary, we hadn’t visited enough high calibre snorkelling sites. While there are a number of secret locations that are only advisable for strong swimmers who don’t mind going to secluded areas I needed to find low risk sites for the kids that still offered a decent experience. We decided a beach called Honaunau Bay also known as “Two Step” would be the best bet. Two Step gets its name from a spot on the rocks that allows you to get past the rocks and surf with two easy steps that are naturally made in the rocks. It is virtually the only spot to get into the water so there is always a few people in that area (easy to find). It is used to be a locals only beach and a well kept secret but over the last few years the secret has gotten out. Today there is a mix of locals and tourists there. You can feel a bit of tension but no issues.

TIP: You are almost guaranteed to see turtles around the boat ramp area. Please be aware however that it is a boat ramp and boats will be coming in and out of that area all day. A lot of locals were getting frustrated with tourists who had their heads in the water and were snorkelling right in front of their boats. When snorkelling be aware there are hazards such as rocks that the surf can throw you against and boats that may not see you.

When snorkelling in the Two Step area most people stay within 50 feet of the entry point. There are a few fish there. Try going south (to your left if facing the water) where the water breaks against the rocks. There are three small reefs there with loads of fish. It is so much better than near the entry point and almost no one goes there.

After a day at the beach we were hungry and decided to try our kitchen in the room to save a bit of money. We went to the KTM Supermarket and bought some Korean BBQ chicken, coffee, coconut shrimp and a Kona Brewing Co. sampler pack from KTM Supermarket. Be prepared to pay double for almost everything. Ideally, stock up at Costco as it appears to be the cheapest.

Day 4: Kilauea Iki Trail

Since the kids were still trying to get the sand out of their ears we decided to take a break from the beach and go to the Volcano National Park to hike the Kilauea Iki Trail. Again I needed something the kids could do. It was a two hour drive (we decided to take the south route both there and back from Kona as it seemed more coastal and was more scenic. Amazing views. TIP: Pull over at the rest stops. Especially the ones where you begin going north and can see the ocean. I have seen a lot of ocean views and this was breath taking.

The actual hike took us three hours as we went at a leisurely pace. If I go again I will take a frying pan and some eggs to cook over the steam vents. Those are really cool and located at the bottom of the crater. TIP: Take sun tan lotion, a hat, rain gear and lots of water as we experienced super hot and dry areas one moment followed by super windy and then pouring ran the next. Take a pack with all your essentials. First aid supplies is a good idea too.

TIP: Its a long drive so stop at the Coffee Shack. The service is great, coconut cream pie is to die for and they grow their own coffee. Oh and they also have a spectacular view as the “shack” is built on the side of the mountain.

We decided to do the ridge line of the crater first which is a super easy trail. You basically do half the crater with a great view then you descend down a steep but easy path to the crater floor. This is where it gets very interesting. Felt like a different planet. Huge slabs of volcanic rock had been crushed and pushed around. Really amazing to see. Follow the piles of rocks and trail markers to keep on the trail or simply walk straight across. Watch for the steam vents as this was the highlight of the hike for me. In the not so far distance you can see huge plumes of smoke from a more active area. For washrooms and water go to the Information Centre which is just a few Kilometers away. TIP: Ensure you take a non plastic container as they will not fill your plastic container with water. They collect rain water for visitors to take on their hike.

I highly recommend this for everyone as the drive there is amazing and the hike is easy yet so unusual.

Day 5Kealakekua Bay – Captain Cook Monument

Day 5 was back to my itinerary of hitting some of the best snorkelling beaches. Kealakekua Bay is hands down the place to go for snorkelling in Kona. Tourist companies take people there by boat in droves and advertise that the only way to get to this fish spotting paradise is by boat. Of course, I knew better…

After doing some research I discovered that there was indeed a unadvertised trail. So instead of paying the $125 per person fee for a boat charter which only lasts three hours I was determined to take the family on an adventure. You can see the trail marked on my Google map (above) but here is a picture of it as well:

Kealakekua Bay Trail

Going down was great as no one else in the family except me knew the extent of the trail and the ocean looks surprisingly close. Beware however, the trail is relatively steep and a great work out on the way up. It is also covered in loose volcanic rock which literally destroyed the beach shoes worn by the kids. It is also fully exposed to the sun so ensure you cover up. Great view and evidence of some wild pigs. We also saw a dead cow which really stunk. For a large group this 50 minute trek is worth it. If its just the two of you and you don’t want to break a sweat, hire a boat.

Once at Kealakekua Bay you get to see the spot where Captain Cook was killed. There is a monument there that you can see. The small chained off area is British soil which is also sort of interesting. The area doesn’t have an easy beach access area so be careful. Watch others to learn the best places to get out. I was helping one of my boys in an area when the surge came up and I had to grab him to avoid him from getting thrown into the rocks. I lost my wedding ring in the process. Instead of telling my wife I spent the next while looking for it. Amazingly I found it right away lodged up against a sea urchin. So lucky!

TIP: The area is heavily infested with wild ferrets. These are not the cute little animals your neighbour girl has on her shoulder. These are nasty little beasts with razor sharp teeth and the ability to move without being noticed. While they won’t go after you they will bite through anything that contains or even smells like food. Hang your gear from the trees. I saw a family of four ferrets making the rounds.

Day 6: Alii Drive and Poke

Day 6 my family went on strike and revolted against any more hikes… They had some bumps and bruises and wanted to just relax and be tourists. We took the family to Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. It was fun and the kids get to keep the glasses which light up. Good view. Kids menu much cheaper.

I grabbed my third coffee at Island Lava Java which has great views and seating outside. Good service. Super busy in the morning till mid day. Nice spot on the strip for people watching and relaxing. Coffee is just normal. Nothing special. Food looked ok. Cool place to rest.

Went to Da Poke Shack for the second time. Best poke in Kona. First time I went there around lunch time and there was full selection and small line up. Takes time as everyone wants to taste before selecting a type. The first time I had a bowl and second time as a plate. TIP: Get the plate from Da Poke Shack as this not only gives you more Poke but also separates the cold Poke from the warm rice. I personally prefer that. I don’t like warm sushi.  Poke is basically the Hawaii version of ceviche. If you like ceviche or sashimi for that matter, you should try Poke.

We flew home that night. Flying with kids can be tough. We thought flying at night would be easier as they would sleep. Even though we were able to get the entire row and the kids basically had three seats each to spread out on, sleeping was difficult due to turbulence and cabin activity. Plus, they don’t serve any food during night flights… 🙁

Recommendations:

  • Stay for more than a week. Two should be minimum. There is a lot to do.
  • Ensure you have a rental car right after booking the flight.
  • Go to Costco right away to stock up on essentials and beach gear.
  • Stay in Hilo for at least one night. While I never did this, I regret not spending time there. Lots of great fruit and a great farmers market.
  • Go to the volcanos.
  • Go diving. While I only snorkelled as I had the kids, I can’t wait to take them diving. The beach stirs up some sand and reduces visibility. I think the night dive with the manta rays would be fun.
  • Get a suite with a kitchen and save money.
  • Ensure you go to the Kona Brewing Co.
  • They have a coffee festival in November. Great opportunity to experience some of the best coffee in the world.
  • If you can afford it, take a helicopter ride. While I never did this, I would if we had more time.
  • Check out the submarine tours. They sell discount coupons at Costco for this. If you are not a swimmer this is a good alternative.
  • Check on Craigslist for advertisements from locals. They are still experiencing economic hard times and there are a lot of people there offering cars and other services. If I was there for a month or two I would have done more of this.

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