• Jessica Stough

The Big Island, Hawaii - Black Beaches, Hawai'i Volcanoes, Whale Watching, & More - Days 1, 2, & 3

Updated: Feb 21

"Be the aloha you wish to see in the world." – Unknown


Day One Captain Cook Monument Trail & Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park


Although I had been up for about twenty-four hours (minus just a few short plane naps) for our trip to Hawaii, I still woke up before 4 AM the first day on the island. My Garmin told me that I had three total hours of sleep, but I was still ready to go. Apparently, Missy, Logan, and Zac felt the same way because we were all up and out the door for the day before 7 or 8 AM – even though none of us had set our alarms.


I had originally planned to start the first day off with a bang by visiting the Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park, but when I double-checked my map, I realized that it was in the complete opposite direction of our whale watching cruise we had planned. We made the decision to check out some of the things I had originally planned for other days instead, to ensure that we would make it to our cruise on time.


That led us to the Ka'Awaloa - Captain Cook Monument Trail, a trail that came highly recommended both by all of my hiking research for the trip and also by our bus driver who brought us to our rental car from the airport the night before. He had shared with us that it was not for the faint of heart, and that it was a very difficult hike (which matched the description on AllTrails), but also that it was well worth it – especially if we planned to snorkel at the bottom.

Our bus driver shared that a lot of the areas people can snorkel in on the island have had their colors washed out due to sunscreen use. However, below the Captain Cook Monument, the coral reefs were all bright pinks and oranges. He stated that it would be the best place to find the coolest coral reef.

Zac and I were absolutely ready for the challenge of a trail considered “not for the faint of heart,” and we were somehow able to talk Missy and Logan into going with us. The trail was easy-peasy on the way down to the monument, but as we headed back out, the heat of the sun started blaring down on us, and we could really feel the elevation gain. It truly didn’t feel like over 2,300 feet of elevation gain when we were headed down, but it was apparent on the way back up.

We all managed through, and a sweet couple had stationed themselves at the top of the hike with some delicious ice water filled with lemon and cucumber, as well as some other healthy smoothie-like drinks available for purchase. We absolutely snagged ourselves some ice-cold water – and I truly don’t know that lemon-cucumber water has ever tasted as good as it did in that moment.


What did happen, though, was that we took too long on the hike. I knew that there was no way we would make it to our whale watching cruise on time. I called the tour company and asked them if there was any way we could move our cruise to a different day. They were extremely nice about it, gave me multiple options for alternative days, and switched the day for us with no issues.


Somehow, Logan and Missy were still our friends after we had them hike that with us and took too long to make it to our whale watching cruise (which is good, because they’re stuck with us for quite a while for this trip). We all had one thing in mind after we hiked and figured all of that out, though, and that was food. We found a cute place in Captain Cook called Da Bomb Grindz. Let me tell you, nachos are great, but they are always tastier after a long hike.

After, we went on a mission to find the Captain Cook Trading Co. It came recommended by a friend for the cheapest macadamia nuts, coffee, and cacao chips around. However, when we got there, the place was clearly closed for good. Our next attempt was to visit Kona Coffee + Tea, but we didn’t realize there were about 1,000 Kona coffee places on the island, and we never did find the actual place we were looking for. Instead, we just came across a small coffee shop that looked like a Starbucks.


That was fine with me, though, because by that time of day, I didn’t know if I trusted myself grabbing a coffee for fear of staying up way too late again. Instead, we then made our way to another stop on our list, Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park. We stopped and chatted with a park ranger, who shared with us about some of the walks through the park. He told us about this, that, and the other, and finally shared with us something that made all of our ears perk up – “when you see the green sea turtles, make sure to keep your distance of at least 20 feet.”


Zac immediately reiterated, “When you see the green sea turtles? Are you sharing that we will absolutely see them?” The park ranger said it was nearly a guarantee. With that, we were all headed back to the car to get to another entrance of the park that would bring us right to the green sea turtles.

We saw tons of them, all in the shallow water right near the beach. As we watched, they kept poking their heads out of the water to take peeks at the people staring back at them. Finally, one of the brave green sea turtles decided to come up on shore for a while. He inched his way in with the current, and pulled himself up further and further on shore with each wave of the water.


We stood there and watched him for quite a while, all of us in awe. The location was really cool as well because there was a man-made fishtrap created hundreds of years ago ('Ai'opio Fishtrap Wall), still there for us to see today. The park ranger had shared with us that it was the oldest man-made fish trap still in existence.


After we had stared at the sea turtles for what felt like forever, we made our way to another part of the park to see the petroglyphs. Those are always so cool to look at. We had a blast with “Park Ranger” Zac sharing with us all about his interpretations of the petroglyphs, as the actual information they had available for educational purposes was very slim. We then headed to another section of the park to see a 20 foot bridge, made with lava rocks, which covered the span of another large fish pond.

We had a lot of adventure during the first day, and decided after that park to head back to Hilo for the evening. We found some dinner to make at the Airbnb, and settled in for the evening to watch movies, hang out, and make plans for the next day.

 

Day Two – Valentine’s Day – South Point, Punalu'u Black Sand Beach, & Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park


Our second full day on the island started out much like the first – we were all awake way too early and ready to head out the door plenty before necessary. Our first stop was to try out a local Hawaiian favorite – malasadas donuts – at Punalu'u Bake Shop. The bake shop came highly recommended, and was also able to boast that they were the southernmost bakery in the United States.

Our stop there did not disappoint in the slightest. The minute we got out of the car, the smells of sweet dough and cinnamon wafted to our noses. The aroma just got stronger as we made our way to the bakery and the many malasada flavor choices they had to offer – guava filled, mango flavored, macadamia nut, vanilla or chocolate filled, and, of course, original. We may have snagged ourselves some extras for the next day to make sure to get the chance to try multiple flavors.

After our donuts, we were off to our next stop – South Point, the most southern point on the entire island (and the most southern point in the United States). The “hike” AllTrails boasted was much more of a walk along the shore, but I think we were all fine with that after our donut breakfast. We cruised along the shoreline, soaking in the beautiful blues of the ocean.

We saw coral up close, washed up clams and small shelled creatures of some sort, an (unfortunately dead) crab, and a fish that had washed up and couldn’t get back to sea. Zac picked the little guy up, ran him to the water, and saved his life!

After exploring around there, we made our trek back up past the Bake Shop again to our next destination. We were off to see the Punalu'u Black Sand Beach. This beach also boasted an apparently incredible hike, but we were able to drive right to the beach as well. I don’t think any of us expected it to be an actual beach for people to lounge at and swim in, but it was. No matter, we were still able to enjoy the sand beneath our feet (or, in my case, suffer through the sand stuck uncomfortably in my flip flops).

The best part of the beach, however, was the green sea turtle we got to witness there. This beach allowed us to get no closer than 10 feet to the sea turtle (10 feet closer than the National Historical Park from the day before). The beach had a sign sharing some fun facts about the green sea turtles – or “honu” in Hawaiian, along with ideas for picture-taking. The fact that stood out to me was that Hawaii is the only place in the world where sea turtles crawl out of the water to rest on the beach. If interested, you can learn more about the protection movement for these amazing creatures and others at amazingfromafar.org.


Finally, after the beach, we headed toward Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park. There, we first got out to stretch our legs, look around, and check out the lava tubes. Our walk to the lava tubes took us right next to the crater rim and through rainforests. Then, we traversed down into a lava tube that was just lit up enough with small lights to see, nothing more. To realize the entire cave we walked through was created by lava flow years ago was amazing.

Next, we made our way along the crater rim drive tour and Chain of Craters Road. This drive took us through fields of lava created over years and years of volcanic eruptions, all the way to the oceanfront where we were able to capture a glimpse of the Sea Arches.

At the end of the road, we saw the freshest of all of the volcanic remnants. In 2018, Kīlauea erupted. The volcanic eruption lasted four months, changing the island forever, and left behind tons of visible lava in its wake (a video and more information can be found here). To think of how much destruction it caused is devastating, but to see the after-effects of what Mother Nature can do is truly amazing.

After spending all day in the National Park, we got ready for date night. Zac booked reservations at The Rim Restaurant before we even knew for sure whether we would be making the trip to Hawaii. The restaurant is right in the middle of the National Park, and has a front row seat of Kīlauea, which has an incredible red glow at night. The volcano’s glow is not visible to the naked eye in broad daylight, but at night, we could see the color from miles away.

You can see the glow of the volcano from our table.


However, we weren’t settling for just seeing the volcano from the restaurant. Zac and I decided to have a Valentine’s Day hike after our romantic dinner, and made our way closer to the volcano. We walked along a lighted path to the closest viewpoint of the volcano in the park. I couldn’t think of a better way to end our Valentine’s Day than by walking alongside my best friend out in nature, talking about everything and nothing, in the glow of a volcano under the stars.

 

Day Three – Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve and Gardens, Whale Watching, & Puʻukoholā Heiau National Historic Site


On the third day of our trip, I woke up just as early as the first two. I believe it is most likely a trend that will continue throughout the entirety of the vacation. I did some writing and reading before anyone else was awake, then woke Zac up at the first signs of daylight. He had agreed and actually asked to go for a run with me on this trip, and we had planned the night before that Tuesday would be the day to do that. Since we had another day completely filled with planned adventures, I wanted to get an early start on our run.


We took off on a route I had pre-planned the night before that would bring us straight from our Airbnb to Liliuokalani Gardens, a park that was described as the “perfect blend of Japanese and Hawaiian cultures.” It was an absolutely gorgeous park right along the oceanside. We were even able to run out over a bridge to a tiny side island. It must be a popular spot to go because we saw tons of other runners and walkers while there – and we were even lucky enough for a local runner to flash us the shaka, a hand signal cooler than a normal wave that means ““Hang loose,” “Right on,” “Thank you,” “Things are great,” “Take it easy”” and more (Source, and to learn more: Hawaiian Airlines).

After we made our way back to the Airbnb, we were off for another amazing sight, the Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve & Garden. Google Maps may have taken us to a very creepy part of town first, but we eventually found the correct address for the gardens – and I am so glad we did! The gardens were beautiful, and organized in a wonderful walk complete with wooden pathways, waterfalls, and sights of the ocean. We even caught some glimpses of wildlife in the gardens. I spotted a small lizard lounging on a flower and narrowly missed his picture, and we also saw some squirrels.

After the gardens, we hit the road for our main venture of the day – our whale watching cruise. We nearly missed our time due to a misunderstanding of the directions (again, I may be starting a trend here by misunderstanding directions – hopefully, that is not the case). However, our tour guide actually called us and waited on us. We realized as we got there that they were able to be so accommodating because we were four of the six members who had booked the tour.


First of all, I absolutely loved the small size of the tour. Secondly, our tour guides, Brooke and Gail, were amazing. Any time we would see a blowhole from afar, they would race in that direction (ensuring we kept a safe distance from the whales, of course, because they are protected animals). We expected to see whales, but I don’t believe I was prepared to see the sheer number we were able to witness.


In addition, when our boat flew closer and closer to the coast because of a possible sighting from one of the guides, I was absolutely not expecting to float right into a giant pod of spinner dolphins (yes, I googled what a group of dolphins is called). There had to have been hundreds of them, bobbing and weaving around one another right in front of and alongside our boat. It was absolutely incredible. We watched more and more come by, popping their heads out of the water to wave hello.


Eventually, the dolphins made their way further from our boat, so we were ready to high-tail it back to the blowholes we were seeing again. As we watched in awe at the creatures briefly popping out of the water, we all turned when we heard something right near our boat. We were all able to witness a whale fully breach the water. He must have been camera shy because he waited until every single one of us on the tour had our cameras down so we couldn’t capture it, but it was absolutely incredible.


Once we made our way back to land, we checked out a nearby site that we could actually see from our boat, the Puʻukoholā Heiau National Historic Site. From there, we took a short walk down to Hale o Kapuni (an underwater shark temple). Missy read a small sign sharing that shark sightings could happen there, and as we looked out at the water, we saw a black fin shark. He was also camera shy, only sharing the top of his fin as he searched the waters, but we saw him plain as day.


When Zac and I walked back to the Visitor’s Center, the park rangers shared with us that there is no food or reason for those sharks to be there in that bay, but that there are spottings there on the daily. I simply shared with him that it must be because of the shark temple, and the park ranger agreed. Basically, I could easily be a park ranger because I know my stuff – that ranger even confirmed it.


Next, we were headed down toward Kona, with a short stop at Kiholo Bay for the Queens Bath hike. This hike was not well marked at all, and I was getting grouchy because I thought for sure we were in the wrong spot. However, Zac came to the rescue as he typically does in situations when I am a grouch, researched the hike while we were on the hike, and brought us right to two small parts of the Queens Bath. We scoped the nearby beach for sea turtles before heading back to the car.

Our final destination for the evening was dinner at Kona Brewing Co., Logan’s favorite brewery. They had an awesome set-up where we could grab beers while waiting for our table, which made the 20 minute wait feel much shorter than that. We snagged a table, some appetizers and pizzas, and basked in the wonderful breeze while we ate outside. Our waitress dropped one tortilla chip on her way to our table, and Missy and I watched two birds eat it Lady-and-the-Tramp style before one bird finally flew off with it on his own.

When we were finishing up our food, our waitress mentioned something along the lines of, “You must be visiting from somewhere.” Apparently, we look like tourists. We shared with her that yes, we were from Iowa, and visiting for the rest of the week. She actually came back to the table with a list of things that she recommends on the island. This is a special shout-out to her because she definitely went above and beyond!


Finally, we made the long drive back to the Airbnb and settled in for the night. I am still having a difficult time adjusting to the time difference, so I was more than ready to go to sleep by about 8 PM. In fact, I did fall asleep in the car on the way back to the Airbnb for a while.

 

Now, I’m again the only one awake (of course). We have a full agenda of adventure again for today – and I am ready to get started! I love that we have a planned agenda but that we can also change our plans at the drop of a hat, if needed. Scoping out new places to go, and making split decisions to stop at those places, is one of the best parts of vacation. So far, it hasn’t failed us yet.


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