We had three days in Hilo, Hawaii, and after squeezing out everything we could possibly do on the east side of the island, it was the perfect amount of time. We checked out of our perfect AirBnB, loaded up the car with our things, and drove south along the coast of The Big Island.
A quick note: We had been told the north side of the island was beautiful and mostly ranch and farm land near Waimea, and we did try to plan a day up there, but between the incredibly slow speed limits on the meandering roads and time it would have taken, we opted to stay west and south for the rest of our stay.
It would usually take about three hours to get from Hilo to Kona, but we are not usual travelers. We had planned a couple of very colorful stops along the way. Our first stop was Punalu’u Beach, about 20 miles east from the southern most point, to see the black sands and sea turtles. Up to this point, we hadn’t seen any wildlife, save the hundreds of coqui frogs that serenaded us throughout the night, so seeing sea turtles hanging out on the sand, basking in the sun, was awesome.
They do have a protected barrier where people cannot go and disturb them, and it’s very strict. One family got a bit too close, and the lifeguard jumped from his perch to come and yell at them. But I also loved seeing the black sand again. It is so otherworldly to see juxtaposed to the blue water and green palm trees.
Back the car, we drove for another half an hour to see the famous green sands beach, Papakolea Beach [South Point Beach]. This beach is the most southern tip of the United States, but also, it has olive green sand. The drive was quite beautiful. There were massive windmills, pasture land, and cliff sides that offered amazing views of a never-ending ocean. In my mind, I never had imagined a rural Hawaii, but there it was, and we were driving through it. It was truly beautiful.
We parked in a small parking lot that was full to the brim with other cars. We were clearly not the only ones in search of green sand. And instead of paying $15 for a very bumpy transport ride to the beach, we opted to hike it. It was only three miles.
Yes, only three miles, but three brutal miles with uneven sand, insane head wind blowing bits of dirt in your face, and the searing heat of the sun. The hiking paths are not well marked, if at all, so it’s easy to get lost or turned around. But somehow, after an hour of baking, we made it to a rock face ridge. Now, we had to climb down it. I was really close to snapping a picture right then and calling it done, but when have we ever shied away from a challenge? Mount Fuji was just a week before.
We scaled down the rock face very carefully in our hiking boots, so grateful to not be in just bikinis and flip flops. And once at the bottom, it was completely worth it. The sand was stunning to see in person. We read that it gets its color from a mineral: olivine. I had thought it was something to do with seaweed, but it was beautiful.
A quick note: Hawaii is very strict about taking sand out of the country. Signs are posted everywhere, and there are checks at the airports to see if you’ve taken any local vegetation or sand. I so badly wanted to add green and black Hawaiian sand to my collection, but I just took many, many pictures instead.
The hike back to the cars was a bit easier with the wind at our backs, but it still took another hour to finally get to our car, and once we did, we were finally off to Captain Cook where our next AirBnB was, about 25 miles south of Kona. We didn’t have a lot of sun left in the day when we arrived, so we quickly dropped our bags and drove that slow drive up to Kona to watch the sun set over the White Sands Beach or La’aloa Beach. We had found the beaches we were looking for.
The next day was the day Jeff had been waiting for since we first landed in Hawaii: snorkeling. He was like a little kid when it came to packing up the gear, so graciously offered by our host, and planning out the beaches to see, so I let him completely take the reigns. We first hit Hookena Beach.
You know all of those pictures of Hawaii you see advertising its beauty and glory? Well, I’m betting those photos were taken at this beach. It was truly beautiful; no other words can describe it. We got there early enough that it wasn’t overly crowded and the sea just seemed endless.
We covered ourselves in sunblock, set up our chairs, and Jeff went running into the surf with his goggles. We each had our bliss: me with my beach chair and book, Jeff with his goggles and water. But my reading was cut short when Jeff came back moments later and said, “You have to come see this.”
I donned my goggles and off we went into the ocean. Instantly, we were surrounded by yellow tang fish, massive reefs of coral, sea urchins, and Jeff even saw a dolphin pod! We talk about what moments during our travels were sublime, and this was definitely one of them.
After a few hours, we were ravenous, so we got in the car, and found Da Poke Shack. I’m here to tell you that poke (pronounces pok-ay) is “da bomb.” We had sushi in Japan, and we had ceviche in Mexico, but poke in Hawaii was incredible. Various raw fish (like octopus, tuna, or shrimp) are marinated in different flavors like chili, soy sauce, and onion, and then it’s paired with a side like spicy pineapple, crab salad, or edamame, and you eat it with rice sprinkled with seaweed flakes. We loved it so much, Da Poke Shack became our haunt.
I would also highly recommend Umeke’s in Kona, but the restaurant was always way too crowded (or chef’s would “forget” to turn up for work), so we opted for the stand on Hualalai Road instead.
Properly fueled and ready for more sun, we headed for a piece of beach called Two Step. We arrived about three in the afternoon, and I was ready to sink my teeth into my book under the shade of a palm tree. But when Jeff came prancing back from the water’s edge just a few minutes after I cracked open the spine, I wasn’t going to get any reading done.
“How would you rate the last beach we were at?” “Oh, I don’t know, maybe a seven?” “Well, multiply that by about 16 and you have Two Step.”
How could a girl refuse such an intriguing statement? Water shoes on, mask donned, we walked over the rocks to the entry point, and I learned why this beach is called Two Step.
From the top of the rocks, there are two naturally formed steps down into the water where you are instantly surrounded by yellow tang fish, urchins, and a coral reef that would rival Hookena Beach any day. I was floored. I was in a live-action Finding Nemo fish tank. We saw angel fish, needle fish, and I swear I saw a puffer fish. Sea turtles swam around us, and starfish crawled on the sand below. It was a no-brainer to return the next morning to continue exploring.
The next day was a Saturday, so the beach was naturally more crowded in mid-morning, but it didn’t take away from the peace and beauty of the rising sun or crystal blue waters. Once again, we perched our chairs, and I poised my book on my lap. The only difference was I got to say, “Happy Birthday” to Jeff before he bounded into the ocean to swim with more fish.
After a few hours, we headed back into town and tried a burger place for lunch called Rebel Kitchen, where we had just just missed the lunch rush. I had a fantastic superfood salad and Jeff had his traditional birthday burger. And right across the street, there was a gelato place called Gypsea Gelato that had wonderful flavors from lemongrass and ginger to chunky coconut to a spicy chocolate concoction called Pele’s Kiss. But when we first got there, they were sold out of the deadly kiss, so we came every afternoon until we finally got a taste on our last day in Kona. The chili definitely punches you in the face, but the chocolate and cream were a perfect pairing agent.
On the counter of the gelato shop was a jar full of sea glass. We hadn’t found decent sea glass since our first excursion in Croatia, so Jeff asked where the glass could be found. She directed us to Manini Kapahukapu Beach. On a mission, off we went in search of colored glass and found the small cove hidden between side driveways and suburban roads. Jeff combed the beach for hours as I finally settled into my book for the afternoon.
Day four in Kona/Captain Cook was our last, and we had still yet to find a coffee farm and explore the city of Kona. Plans now sorted, we packed up the car and said goodbye to our little getaway in the depths of a Captain Cook-based farm, and headed to Mountain Thunder, the highest coffee farm on the island. As we continued to drive up and up, the climate changed to a much more humid and cool temperature. Tours begin every hour, so we waited for just a few moments trying various coffees and “cherry teas.” The cherry tea is made from the discarded red berries that come from the coffee trees.
The tour is brief, but it was fun to go from room to room seeing the various stages of coffee growing, drying, roasting, and brewing. First, the beans are hand-picked, and this harvest can go on for about six months. The interior, slimy green bean is then dried for almost a week on parchment. Then it’s sorted in various machines before roasting in their on-site machines.
Mountain Thunder is a working farm with chickens, chicks, dogs, and cats roaming around the grounds. And while everything was extraordinarily expensive, as all Kona coffee is, it was good to get a free tour of a famous coffee plantation.
Back in 2012, I completed an Ironman Triathlon in Arizona. When training for such a crazy event, it’s impossible to not know about the World Championship event in Kona, Hawaii every October, so I was determined to find the finish line along the coast line in the city. I will never find myself in the midst of the race, but I at least can say that I crossed the finish line on Ali’i Drive.
For you book lovers out there, if you find yourself killing time in Kona, you must check out Kona Bay Books. This massive warehouse is full to the brim of used books, and you will find it impossible to leave without a gem or two. I was very pleased with my local tale finds to add to my collection.
As we said goodbye to Kona with the sun setting over the water, we thought back to our travels to date. We were so fortunate to be able to take this time and explore several corners of the world, and some corners I never thought I would see. And now, I’m sitting at my desk, drinking my Kona coffee, being able to write about our blissful days on The Big Island.
But we weren’t ready to go home just yet! Stay tuned to our final destination and the last frontier: Alaska.
While we did spend most of our time in the beaches of the western part of the island, there were some really adorable stores and shops in Captain Cook I have to recommend.
- Deja Vu Vintage clothing where you can find anything from old LPs to tiki glasses to workout tapes from the 1980s.
- South Kona Green Market where several vendors set up stalls in a parking lot to sell Kona coffee, kombucha, trinkets and produce.
- Annie’s Island Fresh Burgers where gluten-free buns are available for any number of burger combinations and a fun atmosphere.
- KC Laundrette where, if you’re in need of an easy-peasy laundry day, this has a top-notch set up where doing laundry in 90 minutes is a breeze.