Here’s one tourists guide to the Big Island – take it all with a grain of salt, but if you travel there, here’s what I learned, my best shots, and a bit about how I got them. This is a big list with lots of images, bear with me! All the above-water shots are taken with my Canon Mark III. I use prime lenses mostly; a 28mm, a 50mm, an 85mm and a 100mm. For close ups we use the Canon 70-200 f2.8.
- Car Rental – get 4-wheel drive. Not all-wheel, true 4-wheel. We didn’t, because as a rule I resist the up-sell speeches from folks who are renting me a car (generally I’m tired, travel-worn, cranky and already know that I’m insured so…) BUT, in this case it would have been a good idea. Here are just some of the areas that are closed to you if you don’t have your own 4-wheel drive: The summit of Mauna Kea, the green sand beaches, and Waipi’o Valley. Definitely make sure you have the right wheels if you plan on exploring!
- Lava: There are two ways to go here. Currently lava is not pouring into the sea, so the only option is a 12 mile, gruelling hike. Lava is hard to see in the day, and you can easily wander the lava fields for hours without finding any. During the day the heat is unbearable. During the night the hike is treacherous. I can’t emphasize this enough – I don’t recommend going it alone.
We used Epic Lava Tours, the guides were professional, patient, and informed. They got us out there safely, let me shoot to my hearts content, and got us back safely.
- Lava – option 2: The back of the Jagger Museum has an overlook that aims towards Kilauea’s caldera. That caldera has a lava lake at the bottom, and in good conditions you can see lava splashing around. In bad conditions it’s cold, rainy, and has poor visibility, so we went a few times before things were right. The plus side; it’s an easy drive, a dramatic view, and great for anyone who is mobility impaired (or just hates hiking).
- Pro Tip: If you leave the Jagger Museum and drive down the chain of craters road, you can pull off in the parking lot for the Thurston Lava Tube. From there you’ll still see the crater, but from farther away. The angle is right to see the milky way right above it and the parking lot is pretty much deserted. To me, it was a far more interesting shot. To get the shot below I used a hard, .9 Lee Filter on the bottom of my lens to stop down just the caldera, so the stars could expose properly.
- Waterfalls: Rainbow falls is pretty, easy, and there is a viewing platform right in front that is close to the lot. We were kinda bored about 5 min in, to be honest, and spent more time shooting the resident geckos. The island is covered in falls, be sure to look over every bridge and down every scenic turn off for lots of surprise falls! There are way more than just Rainbow and Akaka.
- Snorkelling – Kona side is better for swimming; we dove into the water at many of the public beaches and found interesting fish and sea turtles pretty easily. The water is clear and warm and you don’t need go far to see lots of stuff. We thought about buying GoPro cameras but ended up getting cheap knockoffs from Akaso (which we’ve affectionately been calling the “Go Po’s”) and they worked just fine for about 1/4 the price.
- Weather and food/shopping: Hilo tends to be rainy, and the Kona side tends to be nice. Having said that, the Hilo side was gorgeous for about half of our trip. Kona is touristy and has lots of shopping and dining. Hilo is chill, and has somewhat less shopping and dining, but there are still lots of great options, including more boutique shops owned and operated by native Hawaiians, which was more appealing us for gifts and such. Definitely go to Ken’s 24-hour Pancake House; it’s an institution and both the breakfast and dinner menus are amazing. Expect a line up, but trust me, it’s worth it.
- Accommodations: We stayed on the Hilo side at the Hilltop Legacy for about half the trip, and the Oceanfront Legacy for the other half. The Hilltop is super conveniently located right in Hilo, with great views of the Bay and a very quiet neighbourhood. The Oceanfront is about 16m north of Hilo and is gorgeous, private, and very close to Akaka falls, the Botanical Gardens and Zipline tours. It’s a beautiful mansion with a private Lanai, perfect for knitting. The owners are great people and we’ll definitely stay here again.
- Excursions: We did two water excursions, both of which we loved. One was the Sea quest Captain Cook Memorial site; which features a giant reef, lots of cool things to see, and a 1000 foot drop off which is kinda fascinating.
We had captain Kendra and Sam, who were hilarious and super friendly. We almost saw a hammerhead shark, and were given lots of snacks and drinks on the ship. Afterwards we got an educational tour of the island on the return journey.
Excursion 2 was with Kona Snorkle and Sail for a night swim with Manta Rays. I can’t recommend this one enough, it totally blew my mind. If you’re skittish swimmer then beware; they’re up to 8 feet wide and will come right up to you. They are gentle giants, graceful and awe-inspiring. If you are ok to chill in kinda cold water (they give you a wetsuit so it’s really not bad) for about an hour then you’re in for a good show. I fell in love.
- Mauna Kea; Fun fact: Mauna Kea is actually the biggest mountain in the world, but most of it is below sea level. The visitor information centre is at 9000 ft, and because we didn’t bring the right vehicle, we couldn’t go to the top. At the top is a world class astronomical observatory – when we come back it will be our first stop! There is a hill nearby that you can climb to watch the sunset – totally worth it!
Once the sun goes down it’s a great site for start gazing. Beware though; it’s crowded and though Mauna Kea is a sacred site, expect loud, unruly folks and lots of light pollution from cars. However, if you aim up, and use a lens hood, you can still get some great stuff. The staff of the visitor centre use a laser light to walk the crowd through a star gazing exercise, an awesome experience for kids especially.
- Driving: Hawai’i’s Big Island is very easy to get around in. There are 2 main coastal highways, the 11 and the 19. They meet in Hilo, and in Kona. There is also a highway 200 that cuts through the middle providing passage from Kona to Hilo in 2 hours. Fog is a problem, driving at night can be very hazardous and fog/rain can come suddenly. Other than that we found it to be pretty relaxed. There is no gas in the interior, so if you take this road, or plan to visit Mauna Kea, fuel up.
Those are our main tips if you decide to visit this amazing place! The Big Island is gorgeous, friendly, and had lots of things that we didn’t get to see, even with almost two weeks. We bought some lovely locally made items, mostly jewellery, hand painted clothing and body products. You can also buy famous Kona coffee, Macademia Nuts and bulbs for exotic plants (approved within the US only).
We have relaxed, explored, adventured and gotten inspired. Lots of great new colourways are coming. I am full of awe and gratitude for the things nature has shared with us and can’t wait to get home!