Exploring Hilo, Hawaii: Volcanoes, Rock Beaches, and Night Festivals

The Big Island, Kauai, or Maui? This was a fierce debate for many nights as we planned our eight days in Hawaii. Jeff would say, “But Kauai is so beautiful! The flowers, the green, the beaches.” I would then reply, “I’m sure, but you’ve been there before.” See, I wanted Jeff to explore a new island. Don’t get me wrong, seeing Kauai would not be a wasted trip by any means, but we were both exploring all new territory, why stop here?

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The rocky beaches of The Big Island.

For many, many nights as we had dinner, we had this same discussion weighing pros and cons of each island. What finally tipped the scales for The Big Island was the sheer diversity. On one side of the island, you have an active volcano, and on the other, Kona with its famous coffee and snorkeling beaches.

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Our tickets were booked for The Big Island, and we decided to split our time between Hilo/Pahoa and then later, Captain Cook/Kona. I highly recommend doing this if you’re exploring The Big Island because the island is a lot bigger than it looks, and between the meandering, one-way highways and the 25 mph speed limits, you optimize your time by not spending half of the trip in the car.

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Flying over Maui from Oahu.

Honolulu Airport could not be more different than Hilo Airport. We boarded our flight from Oahu and landed in Hilo just about an hour later crossing over Moloka’i and Maui. Hilo is on the far east side of The Big Island, and as soon as we stepped off the plane we were outside. The whole airport is outdoors! Never had I seen such a thing where you can get a tan while you wait for your plane. Aloha, indeed.

We rented a car from Dollar where the workers had a very “hang loose” attitude and off we went to Pahoa where we booked one of the best and most idyllic AirBnBs we have every stayed in. This small cabin was nestled in the depths of a rain forest and we were completely secluded. If we hadn’t been given explicit directions, I know we would have missed it.

When we entered the house, we were immediately outside again. All of the windows were screens, so it was like camping without the threat of mosquitoes. At night, we were serenaded by geckos (much like those in Siem Reap) and the gentle rain fall. The only downside was the next morning, our passports were completely warped with the humidity and our clothes never dried, but we didn’t let such trivialities worry us.

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Showering in nature!

The other thing that made me fall in love with this little cabin in the Hawaiian woods was the outdoor shower. There was a bath inside, but what’s the fun in that when you can shower outside in complete unabashed awareness? One morning, it even rained a bit, so we were literally showering with collected and immediate rain water. It was an experience I will not soon forget.

From the Isaac Hale Beach Park.
From the Isaac Hale Beach Park.

The main attraction of Hilo and Pahoa are the rock beaches and lava fields, both of which we took full advantage of. I do wish we had known ahead of time the beaches were all rocks rather than the picturesque sand we had anticipated. We were all set to snorkel and beach comb, but instead we had scraped knees and bruised feet. That, however, did not take away from the sheer beauty.

We first explored the Ahalanui County Beach Park where there are a couple of warm pools where you can soak among other locals. This hidden cove is not easy to find unless you accidentally stumble on it. There was a gentleman hocking coconuts at the entrance and parents yelling at their children to leave things alone, but we dipped ourselves in the warm water, and all was right with the world. I would highly recommend this little hideaway at dusk when the sky subtly changes color and the world silences.

But like I said before, we didn’t find any sandy beaches on the east side of the island. The closest we came to “sand” was the Richardson Beach Park where black and grey sand cover a small patch of waterfront. Since this is one of the very few places to comfortably put down a towel to relax, it was flooded with locals, travelers, and children building grey sand castles.

We did not make it to the Onekahakaha Beach, which is quite close to Richardson Beach, but according to some older travel books, this small beach does have some patches of white sand where you can recline under some palm trees and the blazing sun.

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The Honoli’i Beach Park where surfers frequent.

One piece of advice we got was to avoid the rocks on the water’s edge if they are wet. If they are wet, it means the waves are crashing there and it’s dangerous to walk around. If they are dry, you’re safe to explore. When we went to watch surfers play in the rough surf at the Honoli’i Beach Park, we stayed far away from the wet rocks just in case. But the surfers were clearly skilled in navigating the dangerous terrain. If you want to watch some casual sport, this is a lovely quiet and out-of-the-way spot for a picnic and show.

But we weren’t done being tourists and decided to go chasing waterfalls. In Hilo, the most well-known waterfall is in Rainbow Falls Outlook. It was truly gorgeous even though the clouds were rolling in. Humidity stuck to us like honey, but the 80 foot drop didn’t stop being gorgeous. We climbed the flight of stairs to get above the drop for a view that cut right through a small forest and seemed to go on forever.

The trees and forest surrounding the falls.
The trees and forest surrounding the falls.

It is highly dangerous to go into the water and swim around, but it didn’t stop many people from testing their mortality. One guy we watched jumped from rock to rock in flip flops. With each leap, my heart raced a bit more, but thankfully the only thing he lost was his shoe by the end of his trek.

Before we continued roaming around the rock beaches around Hilo Bay, we stopped for a quick bite to eat at Hilo Bay Cafe. I cannot recommend this place highly enough for lunch, but be prepared to pay the premium Hawaiian prices. Something I did take away from the cafe was the toasted coconut dusted popcorn they served as an appetizer. It was so simple and pure bliss when paired with coconut water. We could not get more native than that.

A quick note: Groceries in Hawaii are extremely expensive. All produce, more or less, is imported, so a sweet potato was north of $5 and broccoli was more than $4. It was astounding to look at the milk prices topping $5.50 a gallon, but it made us much more conscious when shopping and aware of the health issues that plague the state.

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Our last day in Hilo was spent with the bubbling and boiling volcano! From Pahoa, it was about a 30 minute drive, and we made a point to get there right when they opened. The entrance fee was $20 per car, but you have the pass for a week. Unfortunately, we only had a day to spend there, but having a week pass certainly makes the money well worth it.

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Celebrating 100 Years, we visited two days after the centennial.

The park is massive! To get to the ocean from the entrance is about 45 minutes, so that was our first stop. We wanted to drive as far in as we could and then stop along the way toward the entrance, but when we first caught a glimpse of the steaming crater, we couldn’t help ourselves but to pull over.

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The steaming crater of the erupting volcano.

The steam grates in the pathways were as active as the crater itself, and it was completely mesmerizing to see the earth actively changing before us. This was mother nature at its more pure and beautiful. We took the pathway toward the sulfur fields and saw the fluorescent yellow and green rocks steaming and radiating with heat. There were many signs around warning us about feeling woozy or light-headed, which we did experience. But it was never enough for us to worry about.

After a quick mile walk around the crater and smelly rock faces, we hopped back in the car to drive down to the Holei Sea Arch, a wave-formed arch attached to the island.

It was amazing to see as we leaned over the cliff’s edge for a better view. Today, the arch is 90 feet tall, but it is in danger of crumbling into the ocean. Off in the distance, all we could see was the endless horizon, so for a few brief moment, we felt on the edge of the world.

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The Holei Sea Arch with waves crashing on it.

Not far from the arch was a small parking lot and the furthest point you could go with a car. This is where many people donned hats and carried water bottles to hike the 4 miles into the park to see the active lava flow direct from the crater to the ocean. Since it would have taken a few hours out of our day, and we had other plans to see the growing island, we decided against the hike and made our way instead to see the ancient petroglyphs.

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Near the sea arch was the parking lot leading to the “lava viewing.”

We parked the car, and a small sign pointed the way into the barren, rocky desert. We hopped over rocks and twisted ankles over unsteady hardened lava for about a mile until we saw the first stick figure finger-painted into the rock. I was awed. It felt so sci-fi to see these ancient communications in the soft lava rock preserved over the centuries by the baking sun.

Some National Park Service signs told us what the various characters meant, but it was clear that what mattered most to the Polynesian natives was family. I bet they had no idea that far into the future, travelers would be able to see how many people were in their clan as evidence by stick figured they left behind. I fell a little more in love with Hawaii at that moment.

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A massive crater formed in the 1970s or 1980s.

The drive back through the park was beautiful still. We pulled over to see a couple of craters and hardened lava fields, but there are a good dozen to choose from. The lava flows from the 1970s and 1980s were astounding. It looked like mother nature molded the asphalt into kid’s play-doh and pushed it around into crumbling, black rock, and liquid stone. I realize that’s exactly what is it, but it was still shocking to see in person what the crater is capable of.

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The Devastation Trail caused from a massive eruption in 1959.

The last place we stopped at in the park was the Devastation Trail. In 1959, an extremely violent eruption occurred after weeks and weeks of small and big earthquakes that rocked the island. Once the eruption finally boiled over, forest fires and lava destroyed acres and acres of forest. At one point, the lava mounds got as high as 500 meters, and a lava lake formed. By December 20, 1959, the eruptions had stopped but the area was completely decimated.

Today, there is a pathway of about a mile through the devastation that has yet to allow any natural vegetation to come through. It’s completely barren with shells of petrified trees and just dust rather than dirt. Throughout the park, just seeing the varying terrain from lush green to black putty was worth the trip.

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A panoramic view of the crater from the Jaggar Museum.

On the way out, we dropped by the small Jaggar Museum to see a more panoramic view of the crater in all its glory, but the museum itself was minimal. We did find the scorched clothing and the inspired artwork lovely, but the real reason to visit is to see the crater. It was highly recommended to us to see the crater at night since sparks of red and fire are more visible, but we couldn’t find the time.

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Our six-person chariot taking us to see the newborn rocks.

When we found out via CNN that lava was actively flowing into the ocean, I immediately looked up the Moku Nui Lava Tours and booked a sunset tour. It was a bit pricey, but for what we saw, we were floored. Right at 4pm, we boarded a small boat that carried only six people, and off we went into the depths of the ocean for about 40 minutes to see the lava flow hit the ocean. We got so close, we could feel the heat of the molten rock hitting the cool ocean.

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A rainbow formed as we made our way to the new lava flow.

Our guides were awesome as they let us hang out for almost 45 minutes taking photos and just drinking in this historic moment. The lava actively flows about once every three years, but it can last several months. We were just in the right place at the right time, and we felt incredibly lucky to see the earth change with our own eyes.

Out in the ocean, a rainbow formed as we silently looked on to the red, baby rock. I cannot recommend these guys enough as they were incredibly professional, helpful, and accommodating. It was worth every penny to get an intimate tour of the island.

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We could feel the heat on our faces, we were so close!

As we made landfall after a very choppy ride back to Isaac Hale Beach Park, our guide told us that we just had to go to the Uncle Robert’s Night Market. We had considered trying out this local hot spot, but after the recommendation, we knew we had to check it out.

It was about a 30 minute drive through dense forest and windy roads, but when we found it, it was dark enough to see stars and the party was on. There were countless food stalls full of Thai, BBQ, and coconut ice cream including many sweet treats and drinks. I enjoyed a cup of hibiscus kombucha from a tap and smoked coconut gelato before we tried a local favorite: kava. This drink is what Uncle Robert’s is known for, and as we asked where the kava bar, we were given strange looks as if to say, “are you sure you want that?”

We got our glass of brownish liquid and took a big gulp. I immediately wanted to vomit. It tasted like dirt! Literal dirt! But after a few moments, our mouths felt a bit numb like we had gone to the dentist, and we decided that effect had got us and we could throw the rest of the drink away. Another tick box done to embrace the local life.

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Word of caution: don’t feed or whip the nene in the national park.

It was our last night in Hilo before making the drive south on the Big Island toward Kona, so stay tuned for coffee, two-step, and Pele’s kiss!


I did want to mention one more place of interest in Hilo near the Isaac Hale Beach Park: the Lava Trees State Park. This tiny park gives you a short pathway through petrified trees that were killed but immortalized in lava. These black stumps stand like stalagmites in the forest and offer a terrifying look at what molten rock can do. But the park is quite small. It was a perfect place to kill a few minutes before our boat tour, but I can’t imagine finding enough to do there if it were a special excursion to the spot.

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