I’ve been playing golf for over 35 years now. I’ve followed the PGA Tour for almost the same amount of time. Besides the majors and the Players, the only other professional golf tournaments that I try to watch every year are the season-opening events in Hawaii. The golf always takes a backseat to the scenery in Hawaii, and here I am watching the Champions Tour event from the Big Island, which has provided me with the spark to finally write a travel guide for … the Big Island.
Back during the first year of the pandemic, when I naively thought it would be the only year of the pandemic, Lisa and I decided to plan a family vacation to the Big Island with close friends for my 50th birthday. We had never been to Hawaii, but our friends are veterans and they put together the perfect itenirary for our 10 day vacation that we took last August. It was just too good not to share.
Our trip consisted of three main destinations: Waikoloa Village > Waimea > Hilo with several day trips in between.
The first four nights of our trip was spent at the Hilton Waikoloa Village located about 20-30 minutes from Kona International Airport. Waikoloa Village was the perfect place to start our Hawaiian adventure. Located on the sunny side of the Big Island, it’s the quintessential Hawaiian resort. Whether you are seeking some R&R or outdoor activity, you can’t go wrong staying here for a portion of your vacation.
When we weren’t poolside, we explored nearby Kona and enjoyed two amazing snorkling outings in Kealakeua Bay.
Fair Wind Kealakekua Snorkling Tour
This was our first full day in Hawaii. We took the morning tour. The views above and below the water were amazing. On most vactions, this would have been the best day of the trip. Don’t get me wrong — it’s well worth it. I’d go on this snorkeling trip again in a heartbeat, but compared to the rest of the trip, it barely cracked my top 5.
Manta Ray Night Snorkel
Words can’t describe this experience. Out of all our activities, this was the best one. It only lasts an hour, but the memories will last well, you know.
The whole idea is pretty wild. After a short boat ride, you jump in the Pacific with just a noodle. It’s pitch black outside and under water. Everyone is hanging on to a PVC pipe that is attached to a board with lights shining down below. The manta rays show up pretty soon after as the guides provide the bait … plankton. It all happens so fast that you don’t have any time to think about what else could be lurking in the deep.
The middle leg of our trip was spent in Waimea, but on the way is Hapuna Beach, a stunning white-sand beach. After a day boogie boarding, we stopped at Big Island Brewhaus for some much-needed grub and local beer.
The highlight of our middle leg was Waipi’o Valley. Waipi’o Valley road is one of the steepest roads in the US.
We didn’t drive it though. At fifty and terribly out of shape, hiking down and then up Waipi’o Valley road was no easy task, but it was well worth it. At the bottom, you can check out the waterfalls and black sand beaches amongst the wild horses. Unless you only plan to check out the lookout, I’d budget a full day here especially if you hike it.
Our last leg was spent on the rainy side of the Big Island in Hilo. Fortunately, most of the rain occurred at night. While our weather during the day was similar to the sunny side, the vibe was the total opposite. Up until this point, most of the places we visited were filled with tourists like us. Not in Hilo though, starting with Wai’uli Beach Park — a black-sand beach right near our Airbnb. Most of our time was spent there swimming and snorkleing with the sea turtles. We also enjoyed a proper Hawaiian breakfast from the Hawaiian Style Cafe and Bao Buns with Pineapple Hard Cider at Ola Brewing.
That doesn’t mean we didn’t tourist it up while in Hilo. Within a short walking distance from our Airbnb was Richardson Ocean Park, which is one of the most popular beach spots in Hilo. A short drive from Hilo is the Umamuma Experience where my son ziplined over waterfalls while the rest of the family toured nearby O.K. Farms.
We closed out the trip touring the volcanoes. The Kīlauea Iki and Crater Rim Trail at Volcanoes National Park winds through a rainforest down to the crater floor. Nearby is Nāhuku, which is a quick hike through a lava tube.
The last night was spent at the Maunakea Visitor Information Station where we watched the sunset at 9,200ft. You can visit the summit, which is 14,400ft, but it does take some preparation to accilimiate to the altitude and childern under the age of 13 are not allowed. While I’m sure the summit provides magical views, the scenery from the information station was not too shabby itself.
Ten days felt like the right amount of time to spend on the Big Island. I definitely would not recommend less than that, especially if you want a taste of everything. If I did it all over again, I probably would have spent 2-3 more nights at the end of the trip back on the sunny side in another resort. After all the outdoor activites, it would have been nice to be poolside with a Mai Tai or three.
P.S. - These were just the highlights. Between the numerous waterfalls and delicious coffee, I also recommend wine tasting at America’s souternmost winery, lunch on the beach at Lava Lava, and a round of golf by the Pacific where the golf took a backseat, of course.
Mahalo, Hawaii. We’ll be back.