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Hawaii (the Big Island)

Photo by Kim Grant

Hawaii (the Big Island) Itineraries

Big Island Exploring: Hilo and Around

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park: Fire up a Visit

Hawaii's youngest island -- with wild beaches, fiery volcanoes, rain forests, coffee farms and ancient Hawaiian lands

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Hawaii’s Big Island (usually simply called the Big Island for clarity by everyone except locals who correctly call it Hawai‘i) is a place of primal power, elemental spirit. Diversity is its middle name and almost unbelievable superlatives are its calling card.

Let’s start with the Big Island’s -est claims to fame. It boasts the clearest skies on the planet; the two tallest mountain peaks in the world as measured from the sea bottom; Hawaii’s best collection of world-class resorts; the most active volcano; the southernmost point in the U.S.; the most powerful telescopes in the world; the calmest waters in the state; and the most feared Hawaiian goddess of them all (Pele), who lives in Kilauea.

Variety and dichotomy are the spice of Big Island life. She is stark with black lava and white coral, black sand beaches and snowcapped mountaintops. Moonscapes and desert landscapes blanket her dry side. Rain forests and jungles cut a swath across her wet side. She has five volcanoes, one green sand beach and 11 climatic zones. In the same day you may need pants and shorts, sunscreen and an umbrella. She is spectacularly fiery, tempting you down a hiking path to her glory. And she is lazy-making, lulling you into submission. Like a mischievous genie, Hawaii’s Big Island plays hide-and-seek with travelers, enticing you without easily giving away all the secrets of her soul.

Photo by geofiz.


Exploring clockwise from Kona (on the west/leeward side)

To experience Hawaii’s Big Island’s bounty, you must probe with patience and explore farther afield from her major tourist centers. The latter are located on the sunnier, drier western coast. They include the Kohala Coast, with postcard-perfect swimming beaches at Hapuna and Mauna Kea, as well as petroglyphs, fishponds and superb golf near the fancy resorts; the summit of Mauna Kea; and the Kona Coast, including touristy Kailua-Kona, coffee plantations in Holualoa, snorkeling and sailing at Kealakekua Bay, and Pu‘uhonua O Honaunau National Historic Park.

Both these vacation playlands divert most visitors from the natural and cultural richness of other regions. Explore beyond them and you’ll learn precious secrets about the enduring spirit of old Hawai‘i.


===> See the RELATED links below to explore itineraries.


The Big Island’s western coast and the North Kohala peninsula are rich in Hawaiian history and sites. Polynesians settled Hawaii’s Big Island first, and for the next 1,400 years, until the 19th century, it was politically and culturally the most important of the islands. It was also the home of King Kamehameha the Great, who first united all of Hawai‘i under his rule. Mosey up to the cowboy town of Waimea. Pop into little shops and eateries in tiny Hawi. Peer into the Pololu Valley. Drive the Kohala Mountain Road. Visit the sacred heiau at Pu‘ukohola.

Agriculture reigns along the (northside) Hamakua Coast. Tour the sacred Waipi‘o Valley near low-key Honoka‘a, detour along Hamakua Heritage Corridor scenic drive, visit botanical gardens and hike to Akaka Falls. Also on the rainy eastern side of the Big Island, Hilo is a delightfully welcoming but humid town. It’s bursting with rainbows, waterfalls, a strollable downtown with local shops and hole-in-the-wall eateries.

Forty-five minutes south of Hilo lies the mystical rain forest of Volcano Village, itself a few miles from Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. Whether or not the lava is flowing in the park, don’t miss it. Explorers with extra time will want to poke around the off-the-beaten path Puna District and the South Point Area, which tempts with its remote green and black sand beaches.

In trying to be as flexible as possible, I’ve offered two kinds of itineraries for Hawaii’s Big Island. The circle-wide itinerary for first-timers can be done in two to seven days (or a one-day, amped-up, drive-by … if you are Out. Of. Your. Mind).

The other set of itineraries covers one section of Hawaii’s Big Island at a time: the Kailua-Kona area, the Kohala Coast (just north of it), North Kohala to Waimea and onto the Hamakua Coast, Hilo and Around, and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park with Volcano Village and a nod to South Point. You may combine these in a mix-and-match fashion, depending on your interests, how much time you have, and whether you are flying into Hilo or Kona.


When To Go

You can visit Hawaii year round, but you won’t be able to do absolutely everything or go everywhere in every season. The best time to go depends on which activities you want to do, what kind of weather you prefer, and how much money you have to spend. Most visitors come to the Big Island for a week or two, or sometimes as few as four or five nights.

The busiest time to travel to Hawaii is during winter and early spring, approximately between mid-December and mid-April. Visitors from the U.S. mainland arrive by the planeload then, seeking sunshine and a tropical escape from cold weather back home. Hotel rates are generally higher during peak season, and the Christmas to New Year’s holiday period and spring break weeks are even more expensive. Even in high season there are deals to be had during slower times, such as in early January after New Year’s.

Winter is the rainiest time in Hawaii, though this varies depending on exactly where on the Big Island you are. You can expect frequent showers on the rainy windward side of the island, called East Hawai‘i, while the sunny leeward side (West Hawai‘i) stays drier at the lowest coastal elevations. High surf in winter means prime time for surfing, while summer brings calmer ocean waters for snorkeling, swimming, and sea kayaking. Hiking can be a muddy proposition during the winter rainy season, as can other land-based outdoor activities.

Summer is the other high season for travel to Hawaii, when U.S. mainland families take their vacations during the school holidays. The summer travel season extends from the Memorial Day holiday weekend in late May through the Labor Day holiday weekend in early September. Travel dips slightly during early June, then picks up again for the rest of the summer until mid-August, when kids head back to school.

That leaves very few months for off-season travel to Hawaii, a destination that stays busy year-round. You may find the best travel deals during the hot, dry, and windless months of September and October. The other, briefer shoulder seasons for travel to Hawaii are between November and mid-December and from mid-April until late May, when the weather is milder and cooler, though slightly wetter. Keep in mind that Hilo becomes very busy, expensive and booked out around the time of the annual Merrie Monarch Festival, held in late March and/or early April starting on Easter Sunday and lasting for a week.

–Mahalo to Sara Benson, author of the overarching Hawai‘i region.

How Much Time To Spend

Where should you stay and how should you divide up your time?

An ideal Hawaiian vacation, if you have time for only one island, is spent splitting your days on the Big Island between a Kohala Coast resort and a couple of smaller, less expensive places around the island that reflect her native spirit. (Day-tripping around the island from a Kohala Coast resort is possible, but, frankly, too much time is eaten up en route to wherever you’re headed.)

The Kohala Coast, where the Big Island’s only long, wide, sandy beaches are located, is lined with expensive top-tier resorts. Resort development on this shore, Hawai‘i’s premier upscale destination, has been the most sensitive and impressive in the state. If you can afford one of these resorts, by all means do it. Do beware, though, of being lulled into missing the rest of the Big Island.

From your Kohala Coast resort, take day trips into North Kohala and Kailua-Kona. Then spend a night in Waimea, a well-to-do ranch town of cowboys and fine dining, or somewhere along the folksy Hamakua Coast, where family farms and Waipi‘o Valley beguile. Then spend a couple of nights in Hilo, a delightfully welcoming small town, or Volcano Village, which is rife with bed-and-breakfasts in the rain forest at the edge of Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park.

–Mahalo to Sara Benson, author of the overarching Hawai‘i region.

High and Low Season

The busiest time to travel to the Big Island is during winter and early spring, approximately between mid-December and mid-April. Visitors from the U.S. mainland arrive by the planeload then, seeking sunshine and a tropical escape from cold weather back home. Hotel rates are generally higher during peak season, and the Christmas to New Year’s holiday period and spring break weeks are even more expensive. But even in high season there are deals to be had during slower times, such as early January after New Year’s.

Summer is the other high season for travel to the Big Island, when U.S. mainland families take vacations during the school holidays. The summer travel season extends from the Memorial Day holiday weekend in late May through the Labor Day holiday weekend in early September. Travel dips slightly during early June, then picks up again for the rest of the summer until mid-August, when kids head back to school.

That leaves very few months for off-season travel to Hawai‘i, a destination that stays reasonably busy year-round. You may find the best travel deals during the hot, dry, and windless months of September and October. The other, briefer shoulder seasons for travel are between November and mid-December and from mid-April through May, when the weather is milder and cooler, though slightly wetter. But keep in mind that Hilo becomes very busy, expensive and booked out around the time of the Merrie Monarch Festival, held in late March and/or early April. For more about Hawai‘i’s biggest annual festivals and events, click here.

Of course, there are exceptions to the general trends described above. Some hotels and resorts, as well as many vacation rentals, condominium complexes, bed-and-breakfasts, and campgrounds, now charge the same rates year-round. Airfares go up and down throughout the year, and at almost any time you may find good deals, depending on airlines’ fare sales, new routes and carriers, etc. The only time when airfares and accommodation and car-rental rates all rise simultaneously is during holiday periods like Christmas to New Year’s and around Easter in March or April. Things get so busy then that many hotels charge triple and book up a year in advance, flights are expensive and overbooked, and rental cars sell out completely.

–Mahalo to Sara Benson, author of the overarching Hawai‘i region.

Weather and Climate

The island of Hawai‘i has a tropical climate year round. It experiences only two seasons: the cooler, wetter winter months and the drier, hotter summer months. Even so, daytime high temperatures by the coast rarely exceed 89°F (32°C), while overnight lows at the beach rarely dip below 65°F (18°C). Hurricanes or severe tropical storms could possibly interrupt, delay, or even cancel your trip, but the chances of this are happening are relatively small. Hurricanes are more likely to happen in fall, though officially the state’s hurricane season lasts from June through November.

As you travel around the Big Island, you’ll notice regional micro-climates that range from arid desert-like lava fields to snow-covered volcanic summits. As a general rule, expect more frequent showers on the rainy windward side of the island, called East Hawai‘i, while the sunny leeward side (West Hawai‘i) usually stays drier by the coast, though not upland. Temperatures drop as you go up in elevation, with the most extreme lows experienced atop Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa volcanoes, where winter snow occasionally falls.

Hawai‘i gets most of its precipitation during the winter months between November and March. Coastal ocean waters are only slightly cooler in winter (77°F) than they are in summer (82°F). High surf in winter means prime time for surfing, while summer brings calmer ocean waters for snorkeling, swimming, and sea kayaking. Hiking can be a muddy proposition during winter, and a very hot one indeed during summer and fall.

Tip: On the Big Island, vog (volcanic smog and fog) is a type of air pollution that can make it more difficult for anyone with a respiratory condition to breathe. Changeable weather, winds, and volcanic activity make it impossible to predict how bad the vog will be on the Big Island on any given day, but it’s something to be aware of. Vog tends to drift over from Kilauea Volcano in East Hawai‘i to the Kona coast in the early afternoon, when you may want to limit your exposure by staying indoors or at least not exerting yourself outside. To check the current air quality on the Big Island, click here.

–Mahalo to Sara Benson, author of the overarching Hawai‘i region.

Events and Holidays

10 of the Big Island’s Top Annual Events

March: Kona Brewers Festival, Kailua-Kona
March/April: Merrie Monarch Festival, Hilo
June: Annual Cultural Festival at Pu‘uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park, South Kona
July: Parker Ranch Horse Races & Rodeo, Waimea
July/August: Hawaii International Billfish Tournament, Kailua-Kona
August: Volcano Rain Forest Runs, Volcano Village, and Annual Cultural Festival & BioBlitz, Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park
October: Ironman World Championship, Kailua-Kona and the west coast
October: Hawaii Food & Wine Festival, with events held on the Big Island
November: Kona Coffee Cultural Festival, with events held around South Kona and Kailua-Kona
November: Hawaii International Film Festival, with screenings on the Big Island

National & State Holidays

January 1: New Year’s Day
January (third Monday): Martin Luther King Jr. Day
February (third Monday): Presidents Day
March 26: Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole Day
March/April: Good Friday (two days before Easter Sunday)
May (last Monday): Memorial Day
June 11: King Kamehameha I Day
July 4: Independence Day
August 21: Statehood Day
September (first Monday): Labor Day
November (first Tuesday, in even-numbered years): Election Day
November 11: Veterans Day
November (fourth Thursday): Thanksgiving Day
December 25: Christmas

–Mahalo to Sara Benson, author of the overarching Hawai‘i region.

Time Zone

Hawaii is located in the Pacific time zone (GMT-9). To check the local time in Hawaii, click here.

Note that Hawaii does not observe Daylight Savings Time (DST), unlike most of the rest of the U.S.A.

What To Pack and Wear

What to Pack

Practically anything that you forget to pack, you can buy on the Big Island. In fact, you may want to intentionally forget a few items, just so you can buy them in the islands. Flip-flops (called “rubbah slippah” in Hawaiian pidgin), surfing board shorts, a colorfully printed aloha shirt, or a soft, warm hoodie sweatshirt emblazoned with a surf company’s logo are all perfect souvenirs of a Hawai‘i vacation.

Chances are you’re going to experience different kinds of weather while you’re here, sometimes all in the same day. Be prepared for sunshine and rain, as well as cooler evenings and mornings, especially along the coast and at higher elevations in the mountains. If you’re going to be visiting Hawai‘i’s volcanic peaks – most popularly, the summit of Mauna Kea – pack a down jacket, warm hat, and gloves. That way, when every other tourist is shivering in the dark while stargazing on top of the mountain, you’ll stay toasty warm. A lightweight waterproof jacket can come in handy on the islands’ rainier windward side, especially as you explore Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. A swimsuit is essential not just for ocean and waterfall swims, but also hotel pools and spas.

Surfboards, boogie boards, and snorkel sets can be readily rented in the islands. It’s also reasonably cheap to buy your own snorkel set or boogie board after you arrive, if your vacation rental or condo doesn’t come stocked with free beach gear to borrow. If you’re going to be do any serious hiking, bring a good pair of hiking shoes or boots. Hawaii’s trails are often muddy, slippery, and full of loose soil, tree roots, and roly-poly rocks, so you’ll want shoes with good traction and ankle support. That said, you’ll see locals hiking in sneakers or even rubbah slippah. A hiking pole is helpful for long backcountry hikes, for example, inside Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park or the Waipi‘o Valley.

Remember to bring chargers for all of your electronics, including car chargers for road trips. A GPS receiver is probably not necessary if you’ve got a navigation app on your smartphone, although more remote and rural areas of the islands won’t have cell (mobile) phone coverage, either data or voice. If you’re traveling with children, bringing your own car seat will save you money; otherwise, book ahead to rent one from your car rental agency.

Don’t forget to pack all of the prescription medications you might need in clearly labeled containers, along with copies of all of your prescriptions (using the generic names of drugs). Tip: Take back-up photographs of your prescriptions, including for medications, eyeglasses, and contact lenses, as well as any letters from your doctor(s), then store the images on your smartphone or in the cloud, in case you accidentally lose the originals.

A passport and often a valid U.S. tourism visa is required for foreign citizens who arrive in the state from abroad, including Canada. U.S. citizens are also required to carry and show a valid U.S. passport, state driver’s license or state-issued photo ID to board a flight at any airport in the U.S., including in Hawai‘i.

What to Wear

On the Big Island, locals keep it casual as much of the time as possible. You’ll only need to dress up for dinner at some four-star restaurants and evenings out at high-end resorts or performing arts shows. Otherwise, island style means wearing board shorts, a T-shirt, and rubbah slippah by day, then throwing on a hoodie sweatshirt when it cools off at night.

For men, dressing up means wearing slacks or pressed golf shorts and a short-sleeved aloha shirt. If you don’t have an aloha shirt, pick one up from a vintage clothing store or at a name-brand boutique shop like Tori Richards, which has a branch at the Waikoloa resort on the North Kohala coast, or Sig Zane Designs in downtown Hilo.

–Mahalo to Sara Benson, author of the overarching Hawaii region.

What it Costs

Hawai‘i can be an expensive place to visit, but how expensive depends on your travel style and where you go. In general, beach hotels in the fashionable resort areas on the North Kohala coast will cost you the most money, while condominiums south of Kailua-Kona have the best rates if you’re staying up to a week or longer. You may save money by skipping tourist hotels entirely and staying instead at privately owned vacation rentals and condos away from the Kona Coast or at alternative lodgings, such as bed-and-breakfast inns, hostels and campgrounds.

When you travel may also make a big difference in how much you’ll spend. For example, accommodation rates during September and October may be half the high season rates charged during winter and summer. Year-round, it’s often cheaper to book accommodations for a minimum of five to seven nights. Doing so not only nets you better rates, but makes the mandatory cleaning fee, which is charged at check-out by many condominiums and private vacation rentals, less of a huge hit to your vacation budget.

Budget If you’re staying in hostels or camping, eating cheap take-out meals and limiting how many attractions you visit and how much you go out at night, you can get by on about $75 a day. Budget a little over $100 a day if you’re going to rent a car, which is usually necessary on the Big Island.

Moderate If you’re traveling with someone else and sharing cheaper condominium, hotel or bed-and-breakfast rooms, renting your own car to get around, splurging on a few guided tours and outdoor activities, and going out for drinks and at least some meals, plan on spending at least $200 per person per day.

Luxury If you’re a luxury traveler, $500 a day per person will only just begin to cover staying in four-star beach resorts; eating out for breakfast, lunch and dinner; enjoying daily guided tours, outdoor activities and after-dark entertainment; and renting a more expensive car, such as a convertible or an SUV (most popularly, a 4WD Jeep Wrangler).

–Mahalo to Sara Benson, author of the overarching Hawai‘i region.

Abstract Pricing at a Glance

Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.

Price ranges are quoted in US dollars ($).

See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
Free
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $10 to $25 per person
$$$ => Tickets over $25 per person

Sleep
$ => Rooms less than $150 for a double room
$$ => Rooms $150 to $300 for a double room
$$$ => Rooms over $300 for a double room

Eat
$ => Up to $15 for average main at dinner (or lunch/breakfast if no dinner is served)
$$ => $15 to $30 for average main at dinner (or lunch/breakfast if no dinner is served)
$$$ => Over $30 for average main at dinner (or lunch/breakfast if no dinner is served)

Shop
N/A => Not applicable

Tours
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $10 to $50 per person
$$$ => Tickets over $50 per person

Airfare and Car Rental Prices

Airfares

Airfares are a fickle thing. When you need them to be low, they’re high. And when prices dip, what happens? You have no free time to travel. Sigh.

But you can get notifications from online booking websites like Kayak, which will email you when airfares drop. Type in your destination and the dates you are watching, and boom! When there’s a deal, you’ll hear about it immediately via your email inbox.

Sites like Momondo also display prices for multiple airlines, so you can compare rates without visiting individual airline sites.

That said, it’s advantageous to also visit an airline’s own website before booking. Why? Because some of their really great deals don’t show up on the aggregator sites. Most airlines share time-limited, super-discounted specials via their social media pages or in email blasts. So it pays to be their ‘friend’ or subscribe to their e-mail lists.

Tip: Even during peak season, you can often find last-minute deals on airfares, particularly if you’re traveling to Kailua-Kona (KOA). Generally speaking, flying into Kona International Airport at Keahole (KOA) in West Hawai‘i instead of Hilo International Airport (ITO) in East Hawai‘i will net you savings on airfare, and possibly also car rental costs. However, do not book any of your flights until you check on rates and availability of island accommodations and car rentals. Cheap seats on flights may be available even when almost every hotel is booked and car rentals are sold out.

Car, Motorcycle, Scooter & Moped Rentals

Like airlines, car rental rates are all over the map. Online booking websites like Hotwire and Kayak offer comparison price shopping. So does the Costco Travel website (for members only). There are also name-your-own-price sites, such as Priceline, where you tell them what you want to pay and maybe they hook you up with a car rental company who fits the bill. These sites may have some great deals, as long as you are not picky about the make and model of your rental or which agency you rent from. More often than not, the cheaper car rentals are for agencies that are located further away from the airport.

Tip: If all the major international car-rental chains are sold out or prohibitively expensive, search online for local car-rental agencies, which may charge less for older vehicles with more miles on the odometer. Many of these agencies offer free airport pick-ups and drop-offs, but you’ll almost always have to arrange this in advance.

For experienced motorcycle drivers with a valid U.S. or international driver’s license that is specially endorsed, motorcycle rentals are available. They’re quite expensive however, and usually located only in the biggest cities and tourist areas of West Hawai‘i. You must be 21 years old to rent a motorcycle. Expect a hefty security deposit to be required.

Moped and scooter rentals are more widely available, usually in Kailua-Kona and at popular beach resorts. Mopeds and scooters are much cheaper to rent than motorcycles, but are still more expensive than an economy car. The minimum age for renting a moped is usually 21, but it’s only 18 to rent a scooter. The former requires a special motorcycle license, while the latter requires only a valid U.S. or international driver’s license.

Insurance

Hopefully, your trip to Hawai‘i goes without a glitch. But what if an unexpected situation arises? Will you lose the money you invested in the trip? Will you need quick cash to cover sudden costs?

Travel insurance policies are meant to cover these unexpected costs and assist you when problems arise. The fee is typically based on the cost of the trip and the age of the traveler.

Most travel insurance providers offer comprehensive coverage that usually includes protection for the following common events:

Trip Cancellation About 40 percent of all claims fall in this category.

Medical Health services in the U.S. are expensive for the uninsured. This is a major reason to consider purchasing insurance. Whether you break a leg or need a blood transfusion, you will likely incur costs far higher than you might pay in other countries. And what if you have an accident that requires transport to a major medical center? Air ambulances alone could set you back $15,000 to $30,000. U.S. travelers should check if their medical insurance at home will cover them while in Hawaii.

Trip Interruption For example, if you become ill during your trip or if someone at home gets sick, and you have to cut your trip short, the insurer will often pay up to 150% of the cost of your trip to get you home.

Travel Delay Insurance usually covers incidentals like meals and overnight lodging while you wait to travel home.

Baggage Insurance will typically cover lost and mishandled baggage (up to a certain amount only).

Some insurance companies allow you to purchase a policy that allows you to cancel for any reason. This may cost more (often 10% or more), but it is worthwhile for certain travelers.

Do I need travel insurance?

If your trip costs $4,000 to $6,000 (or more), it’s probably a good idea. Your age and health are important factors. So is your destination. If you’re traveling to a storm-prone area during winter, for example, you’ll probably want some coverage “just in case.”

Your English language skills are also an important factor. Insurance policies often include free concierge services with 24-hour hotlines that can connect you quickly with someone who speaks your language.

How do I choose an insurance provider?

Do your homework — check around.

The largest insurers in the U.S. include Travel Guard, Allianz, and CSA Travel Protection. Smaller reputable companies include Berkely, Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, Travel Insured International, and Travelex. You may also find deals through aggregator sites like InsureMyTrip.com and Squaremouth.

Many airlines and travel companies also offer travel insurance when you book your flight; it’s often contracted with the above major players.

If you have pre-existing health conditions
Many policies have exclusion policies if you have a pre-existing medical condition. But they also offer waivers that overwrite the exclusion if you purchase the policy within a certain timeframe after paying for your trip (e.g., within 24 hours of buying your package). Again, it’s best to check the fine print.

Credit card insurance If you buy your airfare or make other travel bookings with a credit card, you may be partially covered by the credit card’s issuing bank. Check directly with the company to find out exactly what’s covered, as many have “stripped down” coverage and restrictions.

The travel insurance business is expanding and evolving rapidly. As “shared space” lodging options like VRBO, Airbnb, and HomeAway become more popular in the travel and leisure market, so does the need for insurance for both property owners and travelers.

For more information, contact the US Travel Insurance Association.

Exchange Rates and Currency

Exchange Rates

The U.S. dollar fluctuates against other world currencies, but its value has steadily risen since early 2015. For current exchange rates, click here.

Currency

U.S. dollars come in $1, $5, $10, $20, $50, and $100 bills. They are all the same size and color, so non-Americans may have a tricky time telling them apart. The $2 bill is in circulation but rarely seen.

Coins in wide circulation include the penny (one cent), nickel (five cents), dime (10 cents), and quarter (25 cents). The 50-cent and one-dollar coins are seen occasionally.

Smaller businesses may not accept $50 or $100 bills, so have twenties or smaller bills in hand. ATMs usually dispense $20 bills.

Money, ATMs, Credit Cards

ATMs

If you get money from an ATM machine, you may incur charges (often $2 or $3 per transaction). Check with your bank before you leave home to find out which, if any, U.S. banks will allow you to get cash without an extra charge. Many grocery stores, gas stations and major retail outlets let you get a limited amount of “cash back” when paying for your goods — this is an easy way to get cash while on the go.

Credit Cards

Credit and debit cards are accepted widely throughout the U.S.

Don’t forget to call your debit and/or credit card company before you travel to inform them of your planned itinerary. This goes for U.S. residents traveling out of state. If you don’t do this in advance, you risk having your card denied/declined when you try to use it in a destination far from home. You should also call your company immediately to report loss or theft. The numbers to call are usually on the back of the card — which doesn’t make sense if it is lost or stolen. So make a note of them and store them where you’ll have easy access.

Recently, companies have been issuing cards with embedded chips that prevent counterfeit fraud. Banks and merchants that don’t offer the chip-and-PIN technology are beginning to be held liable for fraud. Check with your bank and credit card company for details on your specific cards.

Tipping and Costs That Add Up

TIPPING

Tipping is a cost you must build into the budget for any trip to Hawai‘i. Tipping is most relevant to dining out and hotel stays, but a few other special situations also apply.

Restaurants
For excellent service, plan to tip 18% to 20% of the total bill, before taxes. For less-than-stellar service, 10% to 15% is customary, as an imperfect experience is often not solely the responsibility of the server. In most places, servers work for below minimum wage and live mostly on tips, so consider the ramifications of your tipping decisions, especially in a place like Hawai‘i, where the local economy relies heavily on tourism businesses.

Oh, and one more complication: Sometimes a tip is automatically included, usually for groups of six or more people. But at least it will be itemized on the bill – if you look closely for it, that is.

Hotels
•  Bellhops normally receive $1 to $2 per bag that they assist with, but if someone carts all of your bags up to your room, tip them $5 to $10.
•  Tips for housekeeping are also good form. The rule of thumb is $2 to $3 per day, left under the card on in the envelope provided. Tip $5 per day at high-end resort properties, more if you’re messy.
•  At hotels with concierge services, consider tipping concierge staff (around $10 to $20 per day) who help you plan activities, make restaurant reservations, or acquire tickets. Concierges do not expect tips for giving out simple information, such as directions.
•  Spa employees (massage therapists, aestheticians, etc.) deserve a 20% tip for their services when performed well, whether at the spa or in your hotel room.

Other Services
•  At bars, tip bartenders and cocktail servers at least $1 or $2 per drink, up to 15% to 20% per round.
•  Airport porters are normally tipped $2 or $3 per bag.
•  Taxi drivers are tipped 15% to 20% of the total fare, rounded up to the next whole dollar amount.
•  Tip parking valet staff at least a couple of bucks when they hand back the keys to your car.

SALES & LODGING TAXES AND RESORT, CLEANING & PARKING FEES

In Hawaii, there is no state sales tax, but a general excise tax (GET) of between 4% and 5% is charged for all retail goods and services. Taxes are not usually included in display prices, unless otherwise stated.

An additional transient accommodations tax of 9.25% applies whether you are staying at a private vacation rental, a bed-and-breakfast, or a full-fledged resort hotel. Taxes are not usually stated up front in the advertised room rate. Neither are the mandatory nightly “resort fees” of $20 to $35 per night being charged by many hotels or the mandatory one-time “cleaning fee” charged (usually $100 or more) at many condos and vacation rentals. Beware that third-party booking agents, especially online, often don’t include these fees in their reservation charges, so you may be unhappily surprised by the final bill when you check out.

Parking is another fee that is not included in accommodation rates at many hotels and resorts and and at some condominium complexes. Overnight hotel parking costs an average of $25, rising to $40 or more at luxury beach resorts. Condo complexes generally charge a bit less for guest parking, and sometimes it’s even free.

Transportation

The most popular way to get to Hawai‘i is to fly, though some people do take ocean cruises to get here. Although first-time visitors may be surprised to learn this, there are no inter-island ferry services between the Hawaiian Islands, except from Maui to Moloka‘i or Lana‘iNorwegian Cruise Line (NCL) runs 7-day cruises within Hawaii that leave from Honolulu and visit the four biggest main islands, as well as 11-day cruises to and around Hawaii that depart from San Francisco, California.

Hawaiian Airlines is the biggest inter-island air carrier. With genuine aloha spirit, this airline also serves many U.S. mainland, South Pacific, Australia, New Zealand and Asia routes. Other international carriers also fly to Hawaii from destinations around the world, with the majority of flights landing at Honolulu International Airport (HNL) on the island of O‘ahu. Reaching one of the Neighbor Islands (i.e., any of the main islands other than O‘ahu) may require changing planes first in Honolulu. Direct U.S. mainland and international flights to the Big Island (Hawai‘i) are more limited and often more expensive as well.

Smaller inter-island commuter airlines that fly to the Big Island include ‘Ohana by Hawaiian and Mokulele Airlines. These airlines use turboprop planes for short island-hopping flights. Mokulele Airlines’ small Cessnas carry the fewest passengers, so flights feel almost like a personal tour and most seats enjoy a fantastic view out the windows. Either airline may be currently offering the cheapest fares and most direct flights, so shop around and compare. Book as far ahead as possible, too. If seats are even still available, last-minute tickets can cost double or even triple the lowest advance-purchase prices, which start over $100 for a one-way inter-island flight.

From the biggest island airport, Kona International Airport at Keahole (KOA), limited public buses, private taxis and shared-ride shuttle vans are your options for getting into Kailua-Kona town and to nearby beach resort areas. That said, most visitors rent a car, since public transportation is not really feasible for touring the Big Island. If you’re landing at Hilo International Airport (ITO), you only options for ground transportation are a private taxi or a rental car.

Tip: At either of the Big Island’s main airports, make sure that you book your rental car in advance, not only to lock in the best rates but also because all available cars may sell out, especially around holidays and special events.

Hawaii Department of Agriculture: Import & Export Regulations

During your inbound flight to the state of Hawaii, flight attendants will hand out a Hawaii Department of Agriculture form that you must hand in before arrival. Each family traveling together only needs to fill out one such form. Note that you may not bring any fruits or vegetables into the state, so you’ll need to eat those on the plane. Animal quarantine regulations prohibit bringing pets with you, with limited exceptions made for service animals (not therapy or emotional support animals) that assist people with certified physical disabilities. For important details about bringing service animals to Hawaii, click here.

When you return to the airport and are ready to leave Hawaii, your checked baggage must be screened by the Department of Agriculture in the terminal lobby near the airline desks. You must do this before you check in your baggage. After going through the TSA security checkpoint and proceeding toward your flight’s departure gate, your carry-on baggage will also be subject to screening by the Department of Agriculture. This is to prevent the export of fresh fruits and flowers as well as live plants from Hawaii, except for those agricultural products that have been specially packaged and pre-approved for export to the U.S. mainland.

–Mahalo to Sara Benson, author of the overarching Hawai‘i region.

Getting There

FLYING TO THE BIG ISLAND 

Flights from the U.S. Mainland & Abroad

The Big Island has two airports: Kailua-Kona (on the leeward or western side of the island) and Hilo (on the windward or eastern side). Most visitors fly into what is officially known as Kona International Airport at Keahole (KOA), about 8 miles northwest of Kailua-Kona. The drive from the airport by taxi or rental car into Kailua-Kona town usually takes 15 to 30 minutes.

Generally speaking, flying into Kona International Airport at Keahole (KOA) in West Hawai‘i instead of Hilo International Airport (ITO) in East Hawai‘i will net you savings on airfare, and possibly also car rental costs. American Airlines, United Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Virgin America, Air Canada and WestJet offer the most direct flights from the western U.S. and Canada into Kona. But the majority of flights still go through Honolulu, including all flights to Hilo (ITO).

When you book your flight from the U.S. mainland or abroad through a major air carrier, they will hook you up with a through flight from Honolulu to the Big Island. Layovers at Honolulu International Airport (HNL) are usually brief and changing planes there is relatively painless, since the airport really isn’t all that big. Take time to change into your beach clothes and island footwear, grab an island-made Kona Brewing Company beer from an airport bar, or buy a flower lei and do some souvenir shopping.

At first glance the Big Island almost geographically discourages you from landing. If you fly into Hilo, the largest town in East Hawai‘i, it’s likely to be raining. As the plane descends to land on the North Kona coast, you’ll see acres of desolate black lava fields that make the moon seem welcoming. At first glance it resembles parking lots of torn-up asphalt. However, as with any great desert, what originally seems monotonous and bleak turns out to be intriguingly diverse upon closer inspection. Don’t expect to be captivated upon arrival, but the lava wilderness of the Kona and Kohala Coasts may well grow on you.

Inter-island Air Travel

Let’s dispense with the biggest misconception that many first-time visitors to the Hawaiian Islands have. Island hopping is not easy, quick or cheap. Inter-island travel is almost always by plane and airfares can be expensive. Although flights are fast and frequent between the biggest islands, the time it takes to transfer end-to-end means losing at least a half day of your vacation simply in transit. Flying between the Neighbor Islands (i.e., any main island except O‘ahu) usually involves changing planes in Honolulu as well.

Hawaiian Airlines is the biggest inter-island air carrier. Smaller inter-island commuter airlines that fly to the Big Island include ‘Ohana by Hawaiian and Mokulele Airlines. These smaller airlines use turboprop planes for short island-hopping flights. Mokulele Airlines’ tiny Cessnas carry the fewest passengers, so flights feel almost like a personal tour and most seats enjoy a fantastic view out the windows. Any airline may be currently offering the cheapest fares and most direct flights, so shop around and compare. Book as far ahead as possible, too. If seats are even still available, last-minute tickets can cost double or even triple the lowest advance-purchase prices, which start over $100 for a one-way inter-island flight.

CRUISING TO THE BIG ISLAND

The most popular way to get to Hawai‘i is to fly, though some people do take ocean cruises to get here. Although first-time visitors may be surprised to learn this, there are no inter-island ferry services to or from the Big Island. Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) runs 7-day cruises within Hawaii that leave from Honolulu and visit the four biggest main islands, including the Big Island, as well as 11-day cruises to and around the Hawaiian Islands that depart from San Francisco, California.

–Mahalo to Sara Benson, author of the overarching Hawai‘i region.

Getting Around

GETTING AROUND THE BIG ISLAND ON YOUR OWN

Islanders talk about how big the Big Island is, but chances are, if you’re a mainlander, it will seem quite manageable. The belt road around the Big Island is approximately 220 miles and would take about five to six hours to drive nonstop—a foolish thing to do, but knowing that fact should give you a little perspective. Driving from Kailua-Kona to Hilo along the northern route takes about 2 to 2-1⁄2 hours, while driving the southern route from Kona to Hilo takes about 3 to 3-1⁄2 hours. If you cut across the middle of the island on Saddle Road (Hwy. 200), give yourself around two hours to make the 80-mile drive from Kona to Hilo.

Although you can take a taxi from the Kona airport to Kailua-Kona town (where it’s conceivable to stay without a car) or from the Hilo airport to downtown Hilo, most visitor prefer to rent a car. You’ll only be able to give the island the attention it deserves and really explore by touring in a car. Public Hele-On Bus services are very limited and scheduled for the convenience of local commuters, not visitors. Major international car rental companies are represented at both airports.

For experienced motorcycle drivers with a valid U.S. or international driver’s license that is specially endorsed, motorcycle rentals are available. They’re quite expensive however, and usually located only in the biggest cities and tourist areas of West Hawai‘i. You must be 21 years old to rent a motorcycle. Expect a hefty security deposit to be required.

Moped and scooter rentals are more widely available, usually in Kailua-Kona and at popular beach resorts. Mopeds and scooters are much cheaper to rent than motorcycles, but are still more expensive than an economy car. The minimum age for renting a moped is usually 21, but it’s only 18 to rent a scooter. The former requires a special motorcycle license, while the latter requires only a valid U.S. or international driver’s license.

Sample Driving Distances

Kailua-Kona to Waimea: 40 miles, about 50 minutes
Waimea to Hilo: 55 miles, about 75 minutes
Hilo to Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park: 30 miles, about 45 minutes
Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park to Kailua-Kona: 85 miles, about two hours

Big Island Highway Numbers & Nicknames

Hwy. 19 = aka Queen Ka‘ahumanu Highway (between Kailua-Kona and Kawaihae)
Hwy. 190 = aka Mamalahoa Highway (between Kailua-Kona and Waimea)
Hwy. 270 = aka Akoni Pule Highway (between Kawaihae and Hawi)
Hwy. 250 = aka Kohala Mountain Road (between Hawi and Waimea)
Hwy. 200 = aka Saddle Road (between Waikoloa and Hilo across Mauna Kea)
Hwy. 11 = aka the Hawai‘i Belt Road (the road around the southern part of the island)

ISLANDWIDE TOURS

Hawai‘i Forest & Trail
With experienced naturalists by your side, every corner of the Big Island is open to exploration. Based on your interests and abilities, Rob and Cindy Pacheco’s expert team creates adventure trips (for groups of 10 and under) to the Big Island’s spectacular natural wonders. You can ride by van to Mauna Kea’s summit, take an evening tour of the night sky, and return to earth to explore the volcano at Hualalai. There are also coffee farm tours, bird-watching trips and zip-line adventures for the whole family.

–Mahalo to Sara Benson, author of the overarching Hawai‘i region.

Background

You may think you already know what Hawai‘i is like from Hollywood movies and TV shows, but think again. The biggest island in the most multiculturally diverse U.S. state can’t be summed up in any trite clichés about a tropical paradise. True, this is a place of bronzed surfers and beautiful hula dancers, but it’s also home to Native Hawaiian activists, organic farmers, alternative artists, celebrated chefs, progressive environmentalists and so much more.

If you’re wondering why the state sometimes feels like another country, that’s because it was until the Hawaiian monarchy fell in 1893 and the U.S. later annexed the territory. Until the arrival of the first European explorers, followed by Christian missionaries and the Pacific whaling fleet in the 19th century, Hawaiians had lived in utter isolation for perhaps half a millennium or longer. Those ancient Hawaiians evolved a culture that was unique, yet grafted onto the Polynesian roots of the first ocean-going canoe voyagers who arrived here from Tahiti and elsewhere as early as the 6th century CE.

For local etiquette tips on everything from wearing lei to keeping marine wildlife safe, click here. For websites and maps to help you get ready for your trip to the Aloha State, click here. For a list of recommended books to bring with you on the plane or to the beach, click here.

–Mahalo to Sara Benson, author of the overarching Hawai‘i region.

Etiquette

Hawaii defines casual. The uptight rules of etiquette that you might find back on the U.S. mainland rarely apply here. You can wear an aloha shirt and leather flip-flops (called “rubbah slippah”) to dinner at a celebrity chef’s restaurant and still fit right in.

Still, elements of the social contract are essential to life in a place as diverse as Hawaii, the most multicultural U.S. state. Being laid-back and living aloha are arguably the most important virtues among locals, followed by tolerance for everyone else’s lifestyle.

Aloha
Aloha is not just a word, it’s a way of life. Confusingly for first-time visitors to Hawaii, aloha can mean hello or good-bye, as well as love, peace, compassion, and more. In general, showing aloha spirit is a shared value among those who call Hawaii home, whether they actually live in the islands or have moved to the U.S. mainland or abroad. In practice, visitors can show aloha by being polite, respectful, friendly, graciously accommodating of others, and by not loudly insisting on getting their own way.

Driving
“Slow down, dis ain’t da mainland” is a popular bumper sticker among island drivers. Don’t be in a hurry, don’t honk, and always let other drivers merge or turn when it’s safe to do so. If you’re driving very slowly on a scenic road, pull over to let local drivers pass by.

Hawaiian Historical & Cultural Sites

At ancient Hawaiian temple sites, even if they’re in ruins, do not move any rocks, not even to try and rebuild walls that are tumbling down. To do so is disrespectful. So is climbing on or over any heiau walls to get inside the structure. The only way to enter a heiau is if there is already an intentional break built into the walls. Also do not leave any offerings behind at these sites, such as whiskey, food or rocks wrapped in ti leaves, etc.

Lei
Never refuse a lei when it is offered to you (seriously, why would you?). Use your own hands to lift it over your head, then evenly hang it over your shoulders so that half of the lei hangs down over your chest and the other half over your back. Do not give a closed, circular lei to a pregnant woman, as it’s bad luck; instead give her an open lei or a haku (head) lei. When you’re ready to stop wearing the lei, do not throw it out. It’s better to untie the string, then return the flowers, seeds, or nuts to the earth.

Marine Wildlife
No matter what other ignorant or insensitive people are doing, always give marine mammals such as sea turtles, monk seals, whales, or dolphins plenty of distance, whether on land or in the water. Doing so prevents them from being distressed by human contact and promotes healthy, natural behaviors that will help them survive in the wild. Do not ever pay for a captive dolphin encounter, which is so harmful to those marine mammals that the practice already has been banned in other countries. Tour boats that offer swims with wild spinner dolphins also potentially harm the animals – don’t go.

Tip: To learn more about Hawaii’s protected marine species, including those that are critically endangered, check out this NOAA website. Federal guidelines mandate staying back at least 100 yards from any whale and 50 yards from other whales and all Hawaiian monk seals and dolphins. To you see wildlife being harassed or an animal who looks stranded or in distress, never approach them; instead call the NOAA 24-hour hotline at (808) 853-1964.

Shoes
When visiting someone’s home in Hawaii, or when staying in a bed-and-breakfast or private vacation rental, expect to take your shoes off at the door. Wearing shoes indoors isn’t commonplace and it may offend your host.

Smoking
As in many areas of the U.S., smoking is banned state-wide inside all public buildings, including hotels, restaurants, bars, and shopping malls. Many hotels in Hawaii are entirely non-smoking, not just in guest rooms, but also on balconies, in pool areas, or anywhere else on the grounds. Smoking is also not permitted in the outdoor areas of restaurants, bars, or shopping malls. On the Big Island, smoking is strictly prohibited at all beaches.

Tipping
As elsewhere in the U.S. – perhaps even more so, since Hawaii’s economy relies heavily on tourism and the service industry – tipping is not optional.

–Mahalo to Sara Benson, author of the overarching Hawai‘i region.

Recommended Reading

History & Culture
Shoal of Time: A History of the Hawaiian Islands (1968) by Gavan Daws
Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen (1898) by Lili‘uokalani
To Steal a Kingdom: Probing Hawaiian History (1996) by Michael Dougherty

Memoirs & Travelogues
Volcano: A Memoir of Hawai‘i (1995) by Garrett Hongo
Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before (2002) by Tony Horowitz
Mark Twain in Hawaii: Roughing It in the Sandwich Islands (1994)
Six Months in the Sandwich Islands by Isabella Bird (1875)

Literature
Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre (1993) by Lois-Ann Yamanaka
Wild Meat and Bully Burgers (1996) by Lois-Ann Yamanaka
The Shark Dialogues (1994) by Kiana Davenport
Hawaii
(1959) by James Michener

–Mahalo to Sara Benson, author of the overarching Hawai‘i region.

Websites and Maps

Go Hawaii
A helpful trip-planning website from the Hawaii Tourism Authority, with an individual guide for the Big Island.

Surf News Network
Heading out to go surfing on the Big Island? Check here first for the latest reports and live webcams.

Division of State Parks
Find out about camping, lodging, and recreation in state parks on the Big Island

Na Ala Hele: Hawaii Trail & Access System
Public trailhead information, driving directions, brief hike descriptions, and topo maps for Big Island hikers.

West Hawaii Today
For local newspaper articles and good coverage of what’s going on in and around Kailua-Kona.

Hana Hou
Colorful, in-depth feature stories on contemporary life in the islands from Hawaiian Airlines’ in-flight magazine, viewable for free online.

Hawai‘i Creole English
Learn the basics of Hawaiian pidgin and understand why it’s so important to Native Hawaiians. Even the U.S. Census Bureau now recognizes it as an official language of the islands.

–Mahalo to Sara Benson, author of the overarching Hawai‘i region.

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