by Donald B. MacGowan
Getting To and Around the Big Island of Hawai’i
The Big Island of Hawaii’s beauty is legendary and it has the most diverse landscape on earth—but it can be as challenging to explore as it is charming. From the icy heights of snow-covered volcanoes, to steamy jungles and tropical beaches, to flowing fields of lava, flower choked canyons and wide-open tropical grassland, its scenery is unsurpassed. By and large the quality of your trip to the Big Island will depend on how much of it you choose to see and how you set about discovering your own Big Island adventures. Below are some ideas on the options for getting to Hawaii and for getting around Hawaii, once you are here.
Another key to the quality of your time on the Big Island has to do with the spirit of aloha. The people you meet in Hawaii, by and large, tend to be more open and friendly—quick to help or befriend—than elsewhere. This is the tradition of “Aloha”. When you meet local residents, whether to ask for directions and advice or to hire services or just in casual conversation, treat them with respect, humor and openness—return their spirit of aloha and you will find your journey, and yourself, deeply enriched for it.
In Hawaii, your smile is your passport.
Getting To Hawaii
The standing joke among residents of Hawaii when dealing with the time, inconvenience and hassle of traveling to the mainland is: ”This used to be so much easier before the bridge blew down”! Of course, there never was a bridge spanning the roughly 2500 miles between the Big Island and mainland USA, but the humor tends to underline the commitment, planning and time it takes to travel to and from Hawaii.
Flying to Hawaii: Certainly the most common, quickest and least expensive (note I didn’t say “inexpensive”) way to get to Hawaii is to fly. Many major US and international carriers fly to Honolulu on Oahu and and a host of local and international carriers offer flights from there to all the other Hawaiian Islands, including the Big Island. Kona’s airport is the only one on the Big Island that has direct flight connections to the US Mainland, Canada, Japan and Australia. Despite styling itself as “Hilo International Airport”, flights to and from Hilo ONLY connect to other Hawaiian islands.
Although both airports have similar facilities and services, including on-site rental car agencies and access to public transportation, shuttles and taxis, it makes a big difference to the traveler where they land. By far the vast majority of visitors to the Big Island stay in either Kona or the Kohala Resorts which are all on the west side of the island and are between 20 to 45 minutes from the Kona airport. If you are staying in Hilo, it’s fine to fly in there; however, Hilo doesn’t have the resort facilities, fine beaches and great weather of the Kona side and few tourists opt to stay there anymore. Many people booked into resorts on the west side mistakenly take flights into Hilo, due to the misleading airport name, unaware (or even misinformed by ignorant but well-meaning travel agents) that they now, at the end of an exhausting day of travel and in the fading twilight of the early tropical sunset, face a drive of almost 3 hours, across high mountains and on narrow, winding, unfamiliar roads to get to their resort. They just better hope it doesn’t start raining, too.
So—know where you are staying, fly into the appropriate airport.
Whether you are flying directly into Kona or flying to Honolulu and getting a connecting flight into Kona or Hilo, you want to be sure to reserve a seat so that you see as much of the incredible scenery as you can. Since 90% of the flight is over open ocean (which just isn’t as riveting as one might expect) you want to wring the most enjoyment out of those portions of your flight which do feature scenery. If you are first stopping in Honolulu, sitting on the starboard (right) side of the aircraft for this leg of your trip affords the best views as the plane screams in past Koko Head and over the top of Diamond Head and Waikiki Beach, turns around directly over Pearl Harbor and settles in to land at Honolulu International Airport. Sitting on the port side is not as spectacular, however, it offers views of Moloka’i and Maui islands, as well as views of Pearl Harbor, the Wai’anae, the Ko’olau Mountains of O’ahu and downtown Honolulu just before landing.
Flying into Hilo from O’ahu, one also wants to sit on the starboard side of the aircraft. The flight path crosses over the islands of Moloka’i and Maui, skims along the eastern margin of Hawaii Island presenting a rich, fascinating panoply of soaring sea cliffs, jungle canyons and volcanic mountains, jaw-dropping waterfalls and crashing surf along the coast. Flying into Kona either directly or from Honolulu is no less wonderfully scenic than flying into Hilo, but one wants to be on the port side. This offers the traveler great views of the islands of Maui, Molokini, Lana’i and Kaho’olawe, as well as incredible views of the Big Island, Kohala Mountain, Mauna Kea, Hualalai and, on clear days, Mauna Loa as the jet cruises in over the Kohala Coast, making land right over Makalwena Beach and on to Kona International Airport at Keahole.
Cruise Ships and Cargo Ships: There are several cruise ship lines which ply the waters of the Hawaiian Archipelago, however of the ones that service the Big Island, most require passengers to book for an entire cruise, meaning that although you may make one or two stops on Hawaii, you will only remain in port for a day, overnight at most, before sailing on. Generally, you cannot arrive on one ship, disembark for a stay, and catch another ship out.
Of increasing popularity, however, is cruising to Hawaii on cargo ships—cheaper than a cruise line and with a completely open and adjustable itinerary, this is a great alternative to flying. It is both more expensive and more time consuming (average sailing is 3 days from Los Angeles to Honolulu, and times are variable for getting from there to the Big Island) than flying, but it is restful, peaceful and unique. Cargo ships offer spacious passenger cabins and, while not the floating feed-lots that cruise ships tend to resemble, the food on cargo ships is wonderful and plentiful. Perhaps the biggest drawback of riding cargo ships to the Big Island is that on the east side they dock in, let us say, the less desirable part of Hilo; on the west they dock at Kawaihae, halfway between Kailua Kona and the resorts of the Kohala coast—in other words, out in the middle of nowhere. Both land many miles from resorts and car rental agencies. However, both docking facilities are serviced by taxis and public transportation; if you plan ahead, it should present no problem.
Getting Around Hawaii
Shuttles/Taxis/Limos/Tours: Taxis, of course, service both Big Island airports, the metropolitan regions and all the resorts. The taxis, while not cheap, are not as usurious as one might fear and the drivers generally are knowledgeable, friendly, HONEST and genuinely nice—it’s that whole aloha thing. Taxi drivers are happy to answer your questions, even the silly ones you are kind of shy to ask; they will freely give advice about what to do and see and where to eat and generally try to be as helpful as possible. However, many speak in pidgin English that can be nearly impenetrable to the newcomers’ ear. Don’t be shy about respectfully asking him to repeat himself, and again if necessary—he hears that on nearly every fare he carries. Ask him to write down place names, restaurant names and such—many Hawaiian words do not look at all like they way he’s saying them and you’ll want to be able to read the words on maps and signs, or be able to ask another person, later.
Both Kona and Hilo airports are serviced by point-to-point shuttles and limos, whose prices are actually quite reasonable and certainly less expensive than the taxis. The drawback here is that there will be many people aboard going to many diverse destinations—so it takes a bit longer than a taxi.
Many of the larger resorts offer a free limo service to and from the airport and some will even arrange to have your rental car waiting for you on-property when you arrive from the airport…check when you make reservations. If available, this is the least personable, but quickest, easiest and least expensive way to get to your lodgings.
Some boutique tours offered by Hostels and the smaller tour companies will also pick you up at the airport at the beginning of their tours, if your arrival time is convenient to the tour schedule; thus, the cost of getting to your resort is absorbed into the cost of the tour. This option is worth looking into if you are not planning to rent a car during your stay.
Tipping tour, taxi, limo and shuttle drivers is not only encouraged, it’s their main source of revenue. Aloha is like karma; remember to return the aloha they showed you.
Rental Cars and Driving Tips: Although some people opt to not rent cars during their stay, relying on tours and public transportation to get around, you should bear in mind that there is a reason they call it “The Big Island”. Distances between attractions can be long, public transportation schedules are not always convenient and, face it, it’s just a lot freer, easier and more independent to have your own wheels. Be sure to thoroughly research the online booking agencies before you arrive—ofttimes great deals bundling airfare, room and car rental can be found, especially in the slack seasons.
There are two types of car rental agencies on the Big Island. The major, international car rental agencies are available on property at both airports, giving the visitor a wide selection of corporate deals and specials—particularly flight-room-car combo deals–as well as a diverse palate of available cars. The other option, frequently much less expensive particularly for long term rentals, are the off-property rental agencies. These folks won’t generally pick you up at the airport so you must make your way to their in-town offices, but the selection of vehicles, and rates, are generally wider ranged.
If you are under 21, the rental companies won’t rent to you. If you are between 21 and 24, they may add a surcharge to the rental that can be as much as twenty-five dollars a day on top of the regular daily fee.
The first question the traveler must answer for themselves is what kind of vehicle they will want while on the Big Island. Some rental agencies specialize in luxury and exotic cars–Mercedes, Lamborghini, Rolls Royce and such. Others offer Volkswagen Campers and RVs. Many people arrive and decide they want to flash around the island in a Mustang or Camaro convertible—which are great and fun, but they offer no security for your personal items and they severely limit the kinds of roads you can drive on, in addition to almost guaranteeing sun and wind burn. If you are coming to explore the island, you should consider going to the extra expense of renting a four-wheel drive vehicle—either a jeep or an enclosed SUV. Much of the mountain country and many of the more interesting beaches and canyons require four wheel drive. I suggest an enclosed SUV so you do not have to shout to be heard, as you do in a jeep, and have some more protection from the elements and from thieves.
Briefly mentioned above, RVs and Volkswagen Campers are excellent ways to see the island and obviate the need for an expensive hotel. However, RVs are not common on Hawaii and there are no RV parks as such; outside of the towns of Hilo and Kona there is nowhere to drain the waste tanks, so you have to be sure to use public facilities as much as possible. But you can park and camp free virtually anywhere, although most campgrounds will charge a camping fee for an RV, even if you are camping in the parking lot.
Motorcycles and scooters can be rented in both Kona and Hilo and are a fun way to see the island, until it rains. Which happens. It is also difficult to travel with any amount of luggage on a motorcycle. You will notice a burgeoning fraction of the local population zipping about town on scooters (locally, and incorrectly, referred to as “mopeds”). For bikes with engine sizes smaller than 50cc, no motorcycle license and no insurance are necessary. The “moped” class vehicle has the same license and road regulations as a bicycle, so it is not surprising to see them zip along the the roadside, passing cars stuck in traffic, or pop up and run down the sidewalk. If you rent a moped in Hawaii, please don’t drive them the way the locals do; it just isn’t safe. I use a moped almost exclusively to get around Kailua Town where I live—do not ride your scooter the way you see me ride mine.
The cost of gas in Hawaii is even worse than you’ve been led to believe, so when selecting a rental car, bear this in mind. Costco in Kona has the absolute cheapest gas on the island (and it’s handy, near the airport); the gas station off the Akoni Pule Highway in Kohala near mile marker 76 has the cheapest gas in Kohala and the Chevron Station at the Airport turn-off in Hilo has the cheapest gas in East Hawaii. Remember that the Big Island is largely rural—gas stations, particularly in the far north and on the south side of the Island, may not keep regular hours or even stick with their posted schedule—especially if the surf is up or the fishing is good. In general, outside of the urban areas of Kona and Hilo, gas is hard to find after about 6 in the evening. I personally don’t ever let my gas tank get more than half empty, ever, just for this very reason. Certainly, you should never let it get more than half empty when on the south side of the Island; you should make a point to fill up before late afternoon when you have the chance, definitely before you go into Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (you’ll stay longer and use more gas than you planned because, trust me, it’s the coolest place, ever) and before crossing the Saddle Road.
Driving times between attractions on the Big Island are longer than you might expect, given the actual mileage between points of interest. This is in part because much of the “highway” system is composed of winding, narrow, two-lane blacktop with a speed limit of 35 miles an hour. Another reason drives take longer than expected is because you are going to want to pull over and look, stop and explore, take your time and enjoy. As the bumper sticker says: “Slow down, Brah—dis ain’t da mainland!” On this note, many local residents will pass on hills and blind corners, even into oncoming traffic; they know the road, you don’t—don’t follow their lead. Trying to drive like the locals drive is like jumping into the ocean and trying to surf like they surf—it just isn’t a really bright idea. Local custom is to eschew use of turn signals and horn; this is another custom you shouldn’t emulate.
The police on the Big Island are well-trained, serious professionals. However, most cruise around in their personal cars (with a blue light on top) and can be very hard to spot (a Ford Mustang or Toyota Rav4 with a light bar? It happens…). They are particularly serious about drunk drivers, speed limits and child restraints/seal belts. Aloha, respect and honesty go a long way toward making any interactions with the Hawaii County Police more pleasant. This isn’t Louisiana or some Third World banana republic—do not even think of offering a bribe if you are stopped by a Hawaii County Police Officer. On the topic of police, it is local custom to flash your brights at on-coming traffic if there is a cop behind you. Participate in this at your own discretion, but this is the reason all those people are flashing at you.
There are feral goats and sheep (feral donkeys along the highway in Kohala!), wild pigs, feral cats and dogs that present driving hazards, especially at night. Fruit such as mango, avocado and guava frequently fall, en masse, into the road and produce a slimy hazard, particularly to motorcycles. In town, watch for cyclists, pedestrians and skateboarders (check out those guys skateboarding to the beach with their surfboards under their arms!). Kailua Kona is the proud home to the Iron Man World Championship Triathlon and many runners and cyclists fully utilize, and rigorously defend, their rights of way; smile, wave and yield, OK? You came to have fun: relax. The Big Island is also Big Sky country…driving east into the sunrise or west into the sunset is painful and hazardous; try to plan your day to avoid this.
Do not leave valuables in your car, not even the trunk. Ever. The locals are friendly, but but some are frisky and high value items will evaporate from your car with alarming alacrity. Consider any spot frequented by visitors to be at risk for theft, even if you only are going a hundred feet from your car.
Many roads, intersections and attractions are poorly marked and what signs exist are in Hawaiian, which is hard to read, harder to remember exactly the name of the place you are searching for. When you ask directions, have the person write down the name of the place. Many residents are in the habit of giving directions in terms of landmarks that mean nothing to you (“Remember where Uncle Kealea had the fruit stand 20 years ago? You want to go just across Aunty Tutu’s pig farm from there to where the coconut grove used to be…”) so have them show you on a map. Be sure they start by pointing out where you are, right now. Respect, humor and aloha will help get you where you are going.
Along these lines, many tourists bring their GPS from home to help navigate—be sure to download the maps for Hawaii before you come; some brands of GPS do not offer Hawaii coverage. A few of the rental car agencies have GPS units for rent at reasonable prices. The best solution, however, are the folks at Tour Guide Hawaii (808.557.0051; http://www.tourguidehawaii.com) who offer a hand-held computer with an onboard GPS at very reasonable rental rates (a video about the Tour Guide product is available here). They have stuffed into this device over six hundred points of interest (did you hear that? 600!) of recreational, cultural and historical importance. They are now offering a pared-down version (50 of the top sites, interactive maps and driving instructions—AND the restrooms!) that is downloadable to iPhone and iPod Touch. Both systems have a short audio/video presentation for each site, telling you all about it, the history and culture, what to bring, what to do while there; they even have the public restrooms listed! These presentations play as you approach the points of interest, or can be searched for at any time or location. Thus, the device can be used to preview all the sites around the island in the comfort of your hotel room, pre-plan trips or to get information and turn by turn navigation on the road. Combining cutting-edge technology and old-fashioned story-telling, the unbelievably easy to use, fabulously informative and terrifically fun Tour Guide Self-Guided GPS Tours are an amazing bargain and a great way to see Hawaii.
Commercial Tours: Whether or not you rent a car, commercial tours offer a great way to get oriented to the island and hear a bit about the history and about the culture of our home. Tours come in all sizes and description, from the taxi driver who makes it up on the fly as he takes you to dinner, to personalized taxi tours lasting a half to a full day, to specialized van tours and large, full day, round the island tours in full-size motor coaches. There are bus tours to the summit of Mauna Kea, tours through the coffee country of Kona, tours to see the volcano, historical tours—tours of all lengths and covering just about anything and everything you want to see. Some tours include meals—one even takes you to a real, working ranch for a barbecue! Then there are the highly specialized tours: fixed wing and helicopter tours of the island, whale and dolphin watching tours, snorkel tours, sunset cruise tours, organized bicycle tours, powered hang-glider tours, tours of Kailua Bay in a submarine and even boat tours to see the lava flowing into the ocean. Although they can be fairly spendy, most are fully worth the price. Be sure to shop around for the right tour at the right price to suit your interests.
Bicycle Rental: There are several places where you can rent bikes on the Big Island—and it’s very pleasant to spend the day pedaling through Hilo and Kailua Kona. However, problems of weather (hot sun, torrential downpour!), the long distances between points of interest and the ever-present, enormous volcanoes (think: “HILLS!”) preclude this as a major method of exploration, except for the most avid bike tourer.
Public Transportation: The Hawaii County-run Hele-on Bus travels most of the Island, and makes pretty good time—the good news here is that riding the bus is free…the bad news is that it is scheduled to get workers between the large resorts in Kona and Kohala and the small towns all across the island where they live. As such, the bus schedule may not be convenient for the visitor nor conducive to exploration. It’s very handy if you just want to go somewhere and spend the day there. Be sure you understand the bus schedule, however, as many places only are serviced twice a day by bus (one in-bound and one out-bound trip per day) and if you miss your return ride and have to find an alternate way back to your hotel, you will quickly learn why they call this “The Big Island”!
Walking and Hitch-hiking: Two words here: BIG ISLAND. It is possible to hike across the Big Island (I’ve done it both west-to-east and south-to-north; heck, in 2008 a wheel chair athlete rolled his wheel chair from sea-level in Hilo 37 miles and 13,800 feet in elevation up to the summit of Mauna Kea—did you catch the part about “wheel chair athlete”?), but the long distances, rural nature (it’s an impracticably long way between places to get food, water and to camp) and intense sun make this an epic adventure, not a restful sight-seeing vacation. Both Hilo and Kailua Town are comfortable and safe to walk around, but getting to beaches, waterfalls and other points of interest is difficult on foot.
Until very recently hitch-hiking was a common and respectable way to get around the island—if you were a local, everybody either knew you, or your aunty; if you were a visitor, your uniqueness made you interesting and so it was very safe, as well. Although probably just as safe today, with the explosion of mainlanders moving to our island (who may be reluctant to offer rides), I notice a sharp decline in the number of hitch-hikers on the roads now. Hitch-hiking is legal from the roadside, as long as you are not in the road, presenting a hazard to yourself or an impediment to traffic. If you hitch-hike use your judgment, be home before sundown and refuse to ride with drunks or folks of questionable character or cleanliness. Do not ride in the backs of pick-up trucks.
So—armed with this information, you are now better prepared to evaluate your options for exploring the unique and varied landscapes, experiences and delights of Hawaii—your adventures are limited only by your imagination. Remember that attitude in Hawaii is important to the quality of your vacation—the spirit of Aloha is pervasive. When angry, lonely, confused, frustrated, tired or bored, recall what I said: “In Hawaii, your smile is your passport”…
For more information on traveling to Hawaii in general, and exploring the Big Island in particular, please also visit www.tourguidehawaii.com and www.tourguidehawaii.blogspot.com. Information on the author is available here.
All media copyright 2009 by Donald B. MacGowan