The Big Island's Big Budget Road Trip

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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

The highway then twists and turns through old black lava flows (the road had to be rebuilt a few times because of them) and through rural pastures and macadamia nut tree orchards. An hour farther on Highway 11 is the turn-off for South Point. The southernmost point in the United States, this grassy and windswept tip of the island is where the Polynesians first set foot in Hawaii around the third century A.D., having miraculously navigated almost 2,000 miles of open ocean. An old heiau is where Hawaiians believe their souls fly off the island after death.

Back on Highway 11, you'll next pass through the lovely village of Na'alehu, overgrown with thick foliage. Mark Twain planted a monkey-pod tree here in 1866, and the gentle town hasn't changed much since. To soak up the undisturbed peace and quiet for your second night, check into the Shirakawa Motel (808/929-7462), just off the main highway. Simple but clean rooms underneath a canopy of luxuriant trees go for the rock-bottom rate of $35.

An alternative accommodation for your second night is about a half hour farther along the highway. The road past Na'alehu opens up to immense expanses of lava flow dotted with red-blossomed ohia trees. Take the turnoff for the tucked-away Wood Valley, home to the tiny Wood Valley Temple and Retreat Center (808/928-8539), a Buddhist sanctuary once visited by the Dalai Lama. Beds in the adjoining dormitory cost $35, while private rooms go for $70 per couple.

The home of Pele: Volcanoes National Park

On your third day of driving, the road past Wood Valley once again climbs, this time to 3,000 feet, near the entrance of the mystifying Volcanoes National Park (entrance fee: $10 per car). Thousands of visitors a year peer into the depths of the steaming craters and crevices. This area is home to Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess, and offerings of flowers and gin bottles are still thrown into the craters by believers. At times, lava flows spill into the ocean, creating a glowing spectacle, but the best views are only via helicopter. Otherworldly hiking trails over hardened lava cauldrons make you feel like you are visiting another planet.

The nearby village of Volcano is cool and misty and full of mysterious fern trees. Your third-night accommodations should be at the Hale Ohia Cottages (808/967-7986), starting at $95 for a double and worth every penny. Built in 1931, these wood-shingled cottages appear like fairy castles in the forest. For women only, the Butterfly Inn in nearby Kurtistown (800/546-2442) has B&B-style rooms for only $55 single, $65 double, which includes breakfast and access to a steam room, hot tub, and beautiful gardens.

Lush and wet Hilo

Another option for your third night is to take Highway 11 an hour north and overnight in Hilo instead. The road to Hilo passes wild orchids blooming on the verdant roadside, and numerous gardens and nurseries beckon you to smell their tropical flowers. Hilo itself is the rainiest city in the United States. Its weathered storefronts hark back to its wealthy past as a booming sugar town. Well-watered Hilo is alive with banyan trees, plumeria, birds of paradise, and other exotic tropical plants, and it's home to the photogenic Rainbow Falls, just behind the downtown area. My Hilo lodging recommendation is the two-story, island-style Wild Ginger Inn (100 Pu'ueo Street, 800/882-1887), with banana bunches hanging in the bamboo lobby. Doubles cost only $65. A favorite for eats is Bears Coffee (106 Keawe Street, 808/935-0708), where local characters sit on sidewalk chairs and munch on overstuffed deli sandwiches for $4.25, and on fresh island breakfasts of eggs, bagels and lox, or waffles ranging from $3 to $4.

North of Hilo, Highway 11 becomes Highway 19 as it coasts past abandoned fields of waving sugar cane and deep gorges filled with tall trees and overflowing creeks. Take a detour on Route 240 to its end, nine miles later, at the majestic Waipio Valley, once a major Hawaiian settlement and home to kings. Horse-drawn wagon tours with knowledgeable Hawaiian guides are just $40 with Waipio Valley Wagon Tours (808/775-9518).

Hawaii's wild west

Highway 19 curves westward up to the cowboy town of Waimea, headquarters of the enormous Parker Ranch. Cacti, cows, and horseback riders dot the panoramic landscape, which looks like something shipped in from Montana. For your fourth night, stay at the 30-room, motel-style Kamuela Inn (Highway 19, 800/555-8968), at $59 per room, or choose the cozy Waimea Country Lodge (65-1210 Lindsey Road, 808/885-4100), a motel with a red barn-like motif for $93 a room, some with views of the mountains. Afterwards, detour north on Highway 250 along the Kohala Mountains to the amiable town of Hawi, filled with art galleries. A must-eat venue is the historic Bamboo Restaurant on Highway 270 (808/889-5555), in a former hotel lobby offering the best chicken potstickers in the world for $7.95 a plate, and enormous burgers with cole slaw and french fries for $7.50.

The road south from Hawi to Kailua-Kona is lined with pricey megaresorts, but be sure to stop by the best beach on the island, snow-white Hapuna Beach, about halfway to your starting point of Kailua-Kona. All told, this exotic tropical trip can be a breeze on the wallet -- now that you have a former resident's scoop.

Budget Travel Associate Editor Matthew Link is the author of the 250-page guidebook Rainbow Handbook Hawaii.

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