Disclosure: We get a commission for some links on this website. You don’t have to use our links, but we’re very grateful when you do. Opinions expressed here are the author's alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or endorsed by our partners. Here’s our Advertiser Disclosure.
This will be the first in our three-part guide series to the Big Island of Hawaii. If you plan to visit the Big Island, this series will provide you with a list of great activities, points of interest, and places to stay during your visit. We spent four days here, and we got to see everything we wanted without feeling rushed. This post will cover the first day of our visit, including the north coast drive, the lava flow at Kalapana, and a very unique AirBNB option.
The Big Island is the youngest and (as the name suggests) largest in the state of Hawaii. Its most famous feature is Volcanoes National Park, one of the few places on Earth where you can view actively flowing lava.
How to Get to the Big Island with Points
The best option to use points for a visit to the Big Island is via the Chase Ultimate Rewards (UR) > Korean Air > Delta strategy. This strategy allows you to fly round trip from the continental US to Hawaii for only 25,000 points! I won’t go into great detail here, because we covered the whole process in this post. If you are considering a trip to Hawaii, this is absolutely the best way to do it!
We used another option for our flight to the Big Island, because we booked it as part of a larger trip around the world. We used United Airlines miles to book MCI-KOA-HNL/ATH-MCI. United’s system sees this as a round trip itinerary, which makes the KOA-HNL flight totally free via the Excursionist Perk. If you want to visit Hawaii as part of a larger trip, you should take some time to learn about the Excursionist Perk.
Both Korean Air and United are transfer partners of Chase UR. You can earn these points with the following credit cards:
- Chase Sapphire Reserve (50,000/$4,000 spend/$450 fee)
- Chase Sapphire Preferred (50,000 + 5,000 for adding an authorized user/$4,000 spend/$95 fee)
- Chase Ink Preferred (80,000/$5,000 spend/$95 fee)
- Chase Freedom (15,000/$500/$0 fee)
- Chase Freedom Unlimited
Once you reach the island, you will need a rental car to get around. We used 13,216 Chase UR points to book a 4-day rental via the Chase UR Portal. Unless you have status with a specific rental car company, I suggest booking whatever is cheapest. Be sure to swipe your Chase Sapphire Reserve or Preferred at the rental counter (for the deposit) to get the primary rental insurance.
Gypsy Tours App
The Gypsy Tours app is absolutely fantastic! It uses GPS location on your smart phone to provide a guided tour of the entire island, including specific points within Volcanoes National Park. Simply turn on the app and start driving. The narrator will provide commentary as you approach points of interest, just like a real tour guide. During the space between stops, he also offers interesting lessons on the history and culture of Hawaii. If you haven’t downloaded this app, go do it now! It is 100% worth the few bucks that it costs.
Which Direction from the Airport?
The KOA airport sits on the west coast. The Queen Ka’ahumanu and the Mamalahoa Highways form a complete loop around the Big Island. You can go either direction and see the whole island. The Gypsy Tours app is designed to provide commentary in either direction.
After quite a bit of research, we decided to head north and drive clockwise around the island. This plan allowed us to end up at our resort in Kona and relax for the last couple days. The places we cover in this guide will proceed in that order.
Hapuna Beach Park & Three Frogs
After a long flight from the mainland, you will probably arrive hungry. Resist the urge to grab a bland sandwich at the airport. Start driving, and in no time, you will approach the beautiful white sand at Hapuna Beach Park. This is a popular spot for locals and tourists, because of the easy access and wide, powdery-white beach.
Perched just off the edge of the parking lot is Three Frogs Café. Grab a double order of the fish tacos with mango salsa! They also offer kalua pork tacos, burgers, and fries. We enjoyed our tacos at a picnic area near the waves… welcome to Hawaii!
Waimea – A “Paniolo” Town
Leaving the beach and following the highway, you will begin to notice the elevation change as you drive toward the old “Paniolo” town of Waimea. According to our tour guide, cattle were introduced to the Big Island by explorers as a gift. After a while, the small herd multiplied and became difficult to manage. The Hawaiians recruited experienced cattlemen to come to the islands and help control the situation.
In addition to training the Hawaiians on cattle management, the newcomers also brought some of their culture and fashion – think boots, flannel, and cowboy hats. The result was a mash-up of Hawaiian traditions and cowboy culture. The name given to these new Hawaiian cowboys is “Paniolo.” You can stop in at a ranch in Waimea or just grab a quick picture with the colorful cowboy boot.
When you reach the north coast, you will find a turn off toward the Waipio Lookout. At this lookout point, you can see a 300-foot rock cliff that drops straight down to the ocean. On a clear day, you may be able to see the neighboring island of Maui. There is the potential to trek down into the Waipio Valley, but you would need to allow quite a bit of additional time to either take a tour or hike down.
Akaka Falls State Park is home to a scenic 442-foot waterfall. A quick 10-minute walk will bring you down to the viewing area for the falls. If you want to spend more time, a longer loop trail will take you to a second waterfall. Unfortunately, a fallen tree caused the longer trail to be closed during our visit.
Depending on the time of day you arrived, you may want to explore the town of Hilo. The Gypsy App features a couple different loop tour options. It was getting late in the afternoon when we passed through Hilo, so we didn’t spend any time here.
Kalapana Lava Flow
On the southeast coast of the island, you can find one of the few active lava flows on Earth. Molten lava pours down from the volcano and reaches the ocean in a beautiful display of light and smoke. If you want an opportunity to see this spectacle, you will have to work for it! You have two options – hike from the end of Chain of Craters Road (west) or bike/hike from Kalapana (east).
After researching the pros and cons, we chose to bike in from the Kalapana side. This is the much easier option to reach a viewing area, but it still requires quite a bit of work. Follow Hwy 130 until it ends in Kalapana. At the end of the highway, you will enter the lava field. The area is very easy to find, and you will see numerous bike rentals and food vendors.
From the edge of the lava field, you have a 4-mile distance to cover (one-way), down a gravel road. You can hike it, but I recommend renting a bike. Bike rental options range in price from $10 to $30, and the price does not necessarily suggest quality. TEST THE BIKE THOROUGHLY BEFORE YOU AGREE TO RENT IT!! I did not fully evaluate my bike until it was too late. The road is flat for nearly a mile before the first hill. At that point, I discovered the gears on my bike did not work… 8 miles, one gear, bad time!
Temperatures along the coast get quite hot during the day, so I suggest that you start your ride at sunset. This means you will be riding in the dark. Every bike will have headlights, but I also suggest bringing a headlamp. Once you reach the end of the road, you will have to walk over uneven lava rocks to reach the viewing area. Take a seat and enjoy nature’s beauty – bright orange lava pouring into the ocean under a star-filled sky.
Sleeping on the Lava Field – AirBNB
Knowing that we would be tired from a long trek to the lava flow, we searched for nearby lodging. The closest hotel with a points option is the Hilton property in Hilo, over an hour away. AirBNB to the rescue!
AirBNB offers all sorts of unique experiences. Sleeping in a solar-powered cottage on a lava field is something that I never expected to do! We found Jahred’s place and were immediately taken by the idea of being off the grid, under the stars, and on the lava. The cottage is very basic, with no air conditioning or refrigerator (understandable with solar power). The room has a queen bed, water jug, coffee maker (bring your own coffee), and a cooler (bring ice). It does have a bathroom with hot running water, so you can take a shower after the long bike ride. The real draw for this AirBNB is the convenient location and the fact that you get to sleep on lava. The view of the starry, night sky was also incredible!
I definitely recommend booking one night at the lava field cottage. If you’ve never used AirBNB before, you can sign up through our link to receive $40 off your first stay!!
Stay tuned for Part 2 of our Big Island Guide coming soon!