|by Naomi Lindt||Islands, Hawaii, Rental Cars||6|
Next time you visit the Big Island, why not skip the fancy resort and hop in a VW camper van? Sharon and Gary Berg, owners of Hilo-based G.B. Adventures, rent out a fleet of pop-top camper vans that are ideal for touring the island's stunning beaches, parks, and volcanoes. With names like Whitey and Tolula Blue, the mint-condition Vanagons sleep four and are equipped with sinks, stoves, and mini-fridges--even beach towels and island maps. "All you need is your swimsuit and flip-flops," says Sharon, who's lived on the island for over 20 years.
A week-long itinerary that circles the Big Island might go something like this...
After meeting the Bergs at Hilo International Airport and picking up the van, stock up on food at the farmer's market (hilofarmersmarket.com). Head 40 miles south to the Volcanoes National Park and spend the night at Namakani Paio campsite, a free facility located off on Highway 11 (hawaii.volcanoes.national-park.com).
Next, drive down to Punalu'u Beach Park--it's about 40 minutes away--and wake up on a black sand beach where sea turtles nest (hawaii-county.com/parks/punaluu.htm; $5 per person).
Cruise around South Point and stay the night at Ho'okena, which is 50 miles from Punalu'u. You'll find a lovely white sand beach (hawaii-county.com/parks/hookena.htm; $5 per person). "Make sure to turn left off the parking lot to the dirt side of the park," Sharon advises. "You'll be literally backing up right onto the beach for the night."
Continue 60 miles north along the island's west coast to North Kona and set up camp at Spencer Beach Park (hawaii-county.com/parks/spencer.htm; $5 per person), which has a scenic trail that accesses small, secluded swimming spots. The hike is especially impressive during whale season.
Before returning to Hilo, pop the van's top at Laupahoehoe (hawaii-county.com/parks/laupahoehoe.htm; $5 per person), about an hour's drive from Spencer's. There's no swimming at this rocky beach, but the huge green lawn is a great place to hang out for the evening. From here, it's a half hour back to Hilo.
To ensure availability, book the vans at least two weeks before arrival or six months if you'll be traveling during the peak holiday season. The Bergs can advise on the best itineraries, campsites, secluded beaches, and little-known hikes.
Most Big Island campgrounds require pre-purchased permits, so while it might be tempting to hit the road and just explore, some advance planning is a good idea (info at ehawaiigov.org.) Vans are rented for a minimum of four nights; from $95 per day. More info at gb-adventures.com; 877/864-8361.