Why You Shouldn’t Overlook Hawaii’s Big Island

Jul 1, 2019

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The Points & Miles Backpacker is a weekly column appearing every Monday. TPG Contributor Brian Biros, who has backpacked the globe for the past 15 years, discusses how to fund this adventurous, budgeted and increasingly popular form of travel with points and miles. He’ll also explore all things backpacking-related. Read his story here and his high-level approach here.

The lava has stopped flowing for now on the Big Island of Hawaii, but this island has much more to offer than molten rock. The Big Island, which could fit all the other Hawaiian islands inside of it, matches its neighbors with waterfalls, stunning jungle hikes, cliffs and beautiful beaches. The only category in which it doesn’t seem to match the others is popularity.

So while most tourists flock to resorts on Maui, crowd the beaches of Waikiki on Oahu or tussle over parking at the Kalalau trailhead in Kauai, the Big Island remains curiously quiet. Consider this your inspirational guide for making the Big Island your next Hawaiian destination. The Big Island's Waipio ValleyThe Big Island’s Waipio Valley

What to Do on the Big Island

Waipio Valley

Unless you have an all-wheel-drive vehicle, you’ll have to work for this one. The stunning valley on Hawaii’s northeast coast starts with a steep, 800-foot descent in just three-fourths of a mile. From the bottom, a quarter mile to your left will get you the best view of Hiilawe Falls — the island’s tallest — but beyond that is private property. Head in the opposite direction to the black sand beach and its backdrop of striking sea cliffs.

If you continue across the stream to the opposite end of the beach, a set of switchbacks will lead you up and over the mountain to the Waimanu Valley and some of the best overnight camping on the island.

But if you head right at the beach, you can climb over rocks for half a mile and eventually come to Kaluahine Falls, which looks like it’s been ripped straight from the pages of a fairytale. Proceed with caution, however, as the cliffs are rocky and unstable, and high surf could get dangerous. But travelers who scramble over the rocks will be handsomely rewarded with what could be the most beautiful, refreshing shower you’ve ever taken

The tough climb to Kila Falls likely means you'll have it all to yourself
The difficult trek to Kaluahine Falls likely means you’ll have it all to yourself.

Remember that hiking down into this valley also means you need to hike back out of it. On the steep ascent, use the stunning views as an excuse to take a break whenever you need.

Papakolea Beach

While it’s not the secret it once was, the Big Island’s Papakolea Beach is one of only four green sand beaches in the world. Known commonly as “Green Sand Beach,” the beach is just a few miles from the southern tip of the United States and requires a two and a half-mile hike, a vehicle with all-wheel drive or an expensive, unlicensed shuttle to reach it. Even without the green sand, Papakolea Beach would be worth the visit

Pohoiki Beach

Last year’s eruption of Kilauea was the most destructive the island has seen in recent memory, taking out nearly 700 homes. The eruption sadly paved over the famous Kapoho Bay tide pools, but such is life on an island with the most active volcano in the world.

However, destruction also brings creation, and the 2018 eruption gave Hawaii roughly a mile of new coastline. Perhaps the most impressive new addition to the island is the black sand Pohoiki Beach. The massive lava flow that created it looms to the beach’s north, and the former boat launch is now an enclosed pool. Lifeguards watch on as kids play in the high surf and beach dwellers spread out over the expansive beach. It’s hard to imagine that a year ago, none of this was here.

The 2018 eruption paved over 14 square miles of the Big Island, but also created some new black sand beaches like the one in the bottom of this picture.
The 2018 eruption paved over 14 square miles of the Big Island, but also created some new black sand beaches like the one in the bottom of this picture.

Makalawena Beach

Hapuna Beach gets all the attention on the Big Island and therefore the crowds — or, at least, the closest thing this island has to a crowd.

But 20 miles south, travelers can enjoy a much less crowded beach. A 15 minute hike across lava fields helps keeps tourists at bay, and while the beach and ocean are a worthy prize, a special treat awaits just beyond the sand dunes. There, you’ll find a tiny, spring-fed pool, perfect for cooling down and rinsing off salt water.

Also, Kona Airport (KOA) is just inland from the beach. So, if your perfect afternoon involves laying on a pristine beach, wading in a turquoise ocean, cooling off in a freshwater pool and plane spotting, this is the beach for you.

The long hike across these lava fields is well worth it.
You’ll be rewarded for the long hike across these lava fields.

What to Eat on the Big Island

On top of the raw natural beauty, the vast range of climates on the Big Island allows for a mouth-watering selection of tropical fruits to grow here. Head to a farmer’s market and grab whatever is in season. The mango and passion fruit (liliko’i) are as good as any you’ll find, and after tasting a tiny apple banana you’ll have a tough time going back to their mainland counterparts. However, a lychee straight from the trees of Hula Brothers’ farm is the only fruit to ever make my knees buckle.

Lychee harvest at Hula Brothers' farm
Lychee harvest at Hula Brothers’ farm

Fish is, of course, another local favorite, and poke is the way to have it. On the west side, Da Poke Shack in Kona offers the best selection of poke on the island. While the website says they’re open until 5pm, they normally run out well before that. On the east side, head to the Suisan Fish Market in Hilo — and say yes to seaweed on rice.

Where to Sleep on the Big Island

While still not comparable to Maui or Oahu, the Big Island does have a solid selection of resorts. However, the backpacker in me still prefers the hostel life. Luckily, a new hostel in Kona has bucked that trend. My Hawaii Hostel is a simple, remarkably clean, roomy and comfortable hostel — easily the best I’ve seen in Hawaii and among the best small hostels in the US. Across the street, the killer sunset from the volcanic rocks overlooking the ocean certainly helps, as does the poke at Da Poke Shack.

Just make sure your hostel stay goes on a credit card that will help you rack up points for general travel expenses, like the Chase Sapphire Reserve for 3x points.

What to Drive on the Big Island

Both times I visited the island, the cost of a convertible was only about 25% more than the cost of a compact car, and yes you will need a rental car to experience the island properly. Compare that to other islands or sunny destinations where a convertible usually costs double or triple compared to budget cars. These prices obviously depend on availability and other factors, but if it’s an option, go for it, because the views when cruising the Big Island deserve no obstructions.

Convertible prices can sometimes be surprisingly reasonable on the Big Island.
Convertible prices can sometimes be surprisingly reasonable on the Big Island.

If you’re looking to back that pack up and get some guidance, send your questions to backpacker@thepointsguy.com!

All images courtesy of the author.

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