The Big Island's Big Budget Road Trip
An affordable multi-day jaunt around Hawaii's fascinating, many-faceted, legendary, and yes, big island
The Big Island of Hawaii -- why go there? As a former resident of the island, I can tell you it's the closest thing to the Hawaii of old and the Hawaii of your dreams. It's the very opposite of urban, with small rural towns occupied by relaxed, kindly, slow-paced people who savor the tradition of "aloha," and with far fewer high-rise hotels or swarms of tourists than its neighbor islands. More importantly, it is home to the longest volcanic eruption in recorded history (since 1983) at the Pu'u O'o Vent. The burgeoning landmass contains a dozen or so distinct microclimates, and is topped by two 13,000-foot-plus volcanoes, which are often snowcapped in the winter.
You'll find no other island in the chain as wild or extreme. How best to enjoy it? On a road trip. The Big Island is nearly the size of Connecticut and is ringed by a long loop highway, lending itself to old-fashioned exploration by car. Since the complete route is well over 300 miles long, you'll want to break up the trip into at least four overnights in different regions, using the hotels listed here as bases for exploring.
Start in sunny Kona
I suggest beginning your drive on the western coast in desert-like Kona, and heading counter-clockwise around the entire island. Kailua-Kona, 15 minutes south of the airport, is a peaceful, arid town flanked by hardened lava flows. Spend your first night here. Along Kailua-Kona's main street, Ali'i Drive, is the first Christian church built in Hawaii (out of lava rock, no less), as well as the Hulihe'e Palace (admission $5), featuring koa wood furniture, historical photographs, and items belonging to the Hawaiian royalty who resided there.
The rest of the town is home to quaint shops and overpriced eateries. To avoid the latter, nip into the very local Ocean View Inn (75-5683 Ali'i Drive, 808/329-9998), with an enormous menu of Hawaiian, Chinese, and American dishes -- reflecting the diverse make-up of the island. The atmosphere is old-fashioned coffee shop, and huge breakfasts hover around $5, while lunches and dinners are only $6 to $11. A great outdoor cafe is Huggo's on the Rocks (75-5828 Kahakai Road, 808/329-1493), where you munch on meal-size pupus (appetizers) like Thai curry pizza for $9.95, or large Caesar salads for $8.95 while taking in the magnificent Kona sunset and listening to the free live Hawaiian music.
Kona coffee, grown in the uniquely rich volcanic soil, is known the world over. Be sure to drive up Highway 180 in the green hills above Kailua-Kona to the historic town of Holualoa, where you can view coffee being grown and roasted at the private farm of Kona Pride Coffee (808/327-1488). Its price of $18 a pound is well under the $25 charged by other, more commercial farms.
Lodging for your first night? In Kailua-Kona, the best budget option is just south of town at the Kona Tiki Hotel (75-5968 Ali'i Drive, 808/329-1425), with prices of about $59 for a double. Although over 50 years old, it's well kept; all 15 rooms front the ocean, have balconies, and there's a swimming pool above the pounding surf. Another reasonable option is the Royal Kona Resort (75-5852 Ali'i Drive, 808/329-3111), with three sloping towers right on the ocean, all rooms with balconies, and a great authentic luau right on the ocean to boot. Doubles run approximately $89.
Heading south to history
Wake up the next morning and head south on Highway 11 from Kailua-Kona, where the road snakes up to 1,000 feet in elevation, and bougainvillea bushes, jacaranda trees, and coffee plantations float by your car as you pass through quaint towns. Turn right on Napo'opo'o Road as it winds down the hill to historic Kealakekua Bay. It was here that the first European to visit the island, Captain Cook, was killed in battle. A nearby stone heiau (Hawaiian temple) sits mystically on the shore.
Continue south on the coast on Road 160 from the bay, and you'll discover the fascinating Pu'uhonua O Honaunau, or Place of Refuge National Historical Park (entrance fee $5), filled with Polynesian stone temples. Any breakers of a kapu (taboo) could have their transgressions absolved here by a kahuna (priest). The adjoining rocky cove is free to the public and makes a perfect snorkeling spot in the blue water, where dolphins often frolic around the swimmers.
Heading from the park towards Highway 11, you'll pass the funky Wakefield Gardens (808/328-9930), a hidden-away patio restaurant set among lush foliage and flowers. Its fresh mahimahi sandwiches are served with tropical fruit and island cole slaw for $9, and "papaya boats" overflow with tuna salad for $8.
Winding through Lavaland