I just returned from a week-long stay in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii with family and only had one thing planned and everything else I decided to leave to chance and the people around me.
The quick list of what I did: snorkeled, watched a sunsets from the top of Mauna Kea, swam with dolphins, visited the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, black sand beach, Akaka Falls, body-boarded and explored an outdoor market in Hilo. I ate at Chubby’s, Java on the Rocks and too-expensive places in Kona that I don’t remember the names of. I drank Kava and felt an overwhelming calm.
We stayed on the big island, in touristy Kona. It was dry and warm, reminding me of sunny Southern California and not at all like the tropical paradise I’d imagined. Part of our group loved the area and I’m sure many other vacationers do—there are great areas for snorkeling (even for the kiddos), it’s easy to navigate and it’s all but impossible not to slow to the pace of life there.
Before our trip, we reserved snorkeling gear with Boss Frog’s. They had prescription-strength masks for those that wear glasses and the option of regular boogie boards or those with a window, which was great for the kiddos that weren’t quite ready for snorkeling, but still wanted to be on the water and see the fish. At a better price than elsewhere and the option to reserve gear (enough for our 13-person group) ahead of time we’re definite pluses, but their customer service was lacking and they tried to charge us a late fee, even though we turned in our gear earlier than the paperwork said it was due.
I’m big into supporting local economies and was a. Bit saddened to see that all the Hawaiian themed goods (shirts, jewelry, wine holders) were actually made elsewhere, even at the outdoor markets in Kona.
Hilo, on the wet side of the island, was by far my favorite part of the trip. We stumbled across a huge outdoor market and got to see people actually making the jewelry and goods that they were selling. For those of you that like spicy things, I highly recommend looking at Big Island Peppers (bigislandpeppers.com) for their wide array of sauces, from mild to ridiculously hot, as well as their cheese puffs. The owners were extremely friendly and let us sample everything. When we realized that the size of the bottles exceeded the limit for our carry-on, they said they’d mail them the following day and we paid a small flat-rate box fee; the box arrived the day after we got home and the sauces are just as delicious as we remembered!
We braved the downpour and walked to Akaka Falls, which worth being soaked to the bone. Other people had umbrellas and ponchos, which would probably have been a good addition.
The most amazing experience I had was swimming with dolphins. We booked an early morning trip with Sunlight On Water. Everyone on our boat got to see dolphins, both in and out of the water, and at one point I was close enough to touch them. It was such a surreal experience and as with snorkeling, I felt such a lightness of spirit on the trip. If that wasn’t enough, the crew was both funny and knowledgable; they ensured everyone on our boat from age seven to sixty was having a good time, had snacks, and was safe. Part of our group was so impressed that they booked a nighttime manta ray swim with Sunlight On Water and had a great experience as well. Not only did the crew take care of our group, but they also lent out their lights (which they’d said were close to $50k when we asked) to another boat that wasn’t having as much luck with seeing the manta rays. This was by far one of the best all-around experiences I had with customer service on the trip and admire the generosity of this group.
Sunset from the top of Maunakea was the nighttime highlight of the trip. We booked an all-day trip with Hawaii Forest & Trail, traveling with a small group. We had a picnic dinner that far exceeded my expectations, and our guide Maka was personable and knowledgable—by far the best guide I’d ever had. Partway up the volcano we stopped to see a rare Silversword plant in bloom. There’s something surreal about standing above the clouds and watching the sunset dip so quickly below the horizon. Afterward we did some star gazing and had brownies and hot chocolate, which took of the chill of the high elevation—I never would have guessed it snows in Hawaii!
Usually a solo traveler, this was a very different experience for me; I’m used to waking up and grabbing a quick breakfast then am out the door to explore the area. I usually rely on locals to tell me good places to eat and hidden gems to explore rather than rely on tourist handbooks or websites. I loved the dolphin and volcano experiences, but exploring the town of Hilo (with random sightings of giant turtles, eating fruit I’ve never seen before and talking with the locals) was also a highlight.
There were a few things I wished I’d done, like toured the coffee farms and mastered boogie boarding, but overall it was a good time and what struck me most was how relaxed and happy everyone looked- tourist and locals alike.