Hi Frugalistas! The second island we visited on our Hawaii trip was the Big Island, Hawaii. Arriving in Kona and departing from Hilo we experienced some of the best Kona and Hilo things to do and day trips.
We elected to stay at the Sheraton Kona resort (now an Outrigger) on the recommendation of a friend. I was a bit worried not having a car, but we needn’t have been. A short taxi ride took us from Kona airport to the Sheraton and after that we took advantage of the local shuttle trolley that runs to the main town area of Kona. This shuttle is free for residents of the Sheraton, otherwise costs USD1.00 per person.
Not being golfers, we passed on the excellent looking golf course on the resort but we still found plenty of Kona things to do. We also passed on a manta ray tour, because the Sheraton has its own manta ray colony in front of the main restaurant.
Mauna Kea Stellar Explorer Tour
At the suggestion of a friend of mine we decided to take a night time star gazing tour. This turned out to be an excellent suggestion which everyone enjoyed. Our guide picked us up in the late afternoon and we headed up into the hills behind Kona and the west coast. Magnificent views and very different vegetation. Our guide, Ben, had initially trained as a teacher and it was obvious from his guiding style. Very engaging, and he knew exactly how to get MissG involved in what was being discussed.
Our first stop was a coffee plantation where we stopped to taste some Kona coffee and have a BBQ dinner. Unfortunately, being Australian, and used to very strong coffee, we couldn’t get much flavour out of the coffee, which was a shame. However, we did enjoy looking at the old nineteenth century coffee grinder and the local birds in the twilight.
There was plenty of time to enjoy the plantation’s gardens and the views while our BBQ dinner was prepared. Filling and tasty, we all enjoyed what was offered.
Then it was off high into the centre of the island to find some stars. Donning our included, and very needed, warm jackets we met up with the tour coming from Hilo where our two guides combined forces. The tour does not stop at an exact spot around Mauna Kea but rather finds a good, dark spot with plenty of stars visible. With two telescopes there was plenty of opportunity to look at the various stars, galaxies and planets. Our two guides told wonderful stories about what we were seeing as well as teaching us about how the ancient Polynesians, and for the Australians in the group, how Aborigines, used the stars to navigate.
In January it was very cold after a while, so we all appreciated the hot chocolate our guides offered.
Things to know about this tour:
- It is cold up in the mountains so do wear warm clothes. Even with the good quality coats we were provided, it was chilly;
- The tour stops on the side of the ride to take advantage of maximum darkness and the best viewing. It is very, very dark and the ground is quite uneven. I don’t think this tour is great for people with limited mobility;
- It is impossible to take good photos even with a very expensive camera. Our fellow travellers from Kona had a very smart DSLR camera and had done a lot of research on how to photograph the stars. He got one decent photo of the Milky Way (which was very impressive) and about twenty duds;
- This tour can be taken from either Kona or Hilo.
The other fun thing we did in Kona was visit the historic part of Kailua-Kona. We visited by the shuttle and got off at the Marriott Hotel. We particularly enjoyed the historic Hulihe’e Palace and the Mokuaikaua Church. It was well worth spending a morning looking at old time Kailua-Kona – very different to the resorts and fancy condos away from the town.
Hilo has a very different vibe to Kona. In fact, it’s somewhat of a time warp, with few new buildings in the centre of town. We particularly enjoyed the laid back country town atmosphere, and the older architecture.
We visited the Big Island especially because Mr Frugalfirstclass wanted to see volcanic activity. We did two activities: a drive to Kilauea and a helicopter trip out over the lava. There had been significant volcanic activity in the months prior to our visit, but by the time we arrived the lava flows had ceased. There were roads closed in the Kilauea park area, but we were still able to drive around and see volcanic activity and the main caldera.
It was our first time on a helicopter. MissG didn’t like it at all, and I must admit I found it a bit challenging too. But Mr Frugalfirstclass loved it. We were able to see the recent activity, including houses completely surrounded by lava flows as well as steam vents and newly formed coast line. You can book our helicopter tour here.
There are a number of chocolate makers in Hilo, but we decided to visit Big Lsand Candies. In addition to chocolate they also sell a range of shortbreads, brownies and other sweet treats. In addition to plenty of samples and charming Hawaiian hospitality it was fun to watch the goods being made in the onsite factory. And yes, we did take a number of “souvenirs” home.
We chose a hotel that overlooked the Liliuokalani Gardens so were able to enjoy them every day of our stay in Hilo. The gardens are designed in the Japanese style, along with tropical plantings. Overlooking the water it was an enjoyable way to enjoy a walk in Hilo.
Where to eat in Hilo
We found the food in Hilo excellent. In fact, I go so far as to say I enjoyed the food more in Hilo than anywhere else we ate in Hawaii, including in Honolulu. We particularly enjoyed Jackie Rey’s Grill in the main part of town and Hilo Bay Cafe down on the water just near the Liliuokalani Gardens. Both of these restaurants are popular, so it is worth booking a table for each of them.
It may seem an odd thing to say, but if you are flying to the Big Island I do suggest you depart from Hilo, if for no other reason than the small airport is an absolute gem. Locked in a timewarp from the sixties or early seventies it really did look like a TV show set.
Plan your trip to the Big Island