Last week, my daughter Betty and I took a trip to the Big Island of Hawaii to celebrate her 12th birthday. A trip with one child and one parent is our 12th birthday tradition. It wasn’t a long trip — we were there for 4 days. But we sure had a fabulous time. Would you like to see a report about our stay?
Day One — Sunday
The flight was easy because we’re on the west coast, and there are lots of non-stop options. I subscribe to the newsletters of the airlines that fly out of Oakland airport, and when Alaska ran a flash sale for $150 tix to Hawaii ($300 round trip), I grabbed two.
We flew to Kona airport, which is the airport on the west coast of the Big Island. It’s a small, quaint, indoor/outdoor airport. The west coast has most of the big resorts and hotels, and most options are within about 20-30 minutes of the airport.
We picked up a fresh flower lei for Betty at an airport stand as soon as we landed. Gosh, they smell so good. I hadn’t been to Hawaii since I was Betty’s age, but the scent of the lei brought back a rush of memories.
We were told Uber was pretty new to the Big Island, so we took a taxi to our hotel. When we were booking the hotel, we looked for an option that had direct beach access and room service — those were the top 2 things on Betty’s hotel wishlist. : ) We found a good rate at the Marriott Waikoloa.
When we checked in, they put a flower in Betty’s hair, put a shell lei on her shoulders, and gave her a box of chocolate-covered macadamia nuts. At that point, Betty could tell this was going to be her favorite vacation ever.
Our flight was a morning flight, and with the time change, we arrived at the hotel around 10:30 in the morning. We thought they might need to hold our bags until afternoon check-in, but luckily they had a room ready, so we got settled in right away.
We unpacked and put on swim suits. Then we stopped at the concierge desk and booked two spots to dive with manta rays that night. We attempted to rent a car (there was an Enterprise desk in the hotel lobby), but they were out of cars for the day. So we booked one to pick up the next day instead.
Then we started exploring the hotel grounds. First stop: the hotel beach.
It’s gorgeous and sandy with warm, clear water. There were a couple of beach shacks where we could rent snorkel gear or grab a snack.
After the beach, we tried the swimming pools — there were three! And one had a water slide. We were also super hungry at this point, so we ordered poolside food and fancy drinks.
After the pool, we visited the shops across the street from the hotel — we were hoping to find some shave ice. Turns out the shave ice truck doesn’t come by there till Wednesday, but that wasn’t a problem. We checked out the shops anyway. One was a small grocery store, and we bought yogurt for breakfast to keep in our hotel room mini fridge.
Next it was time to head to the manta ray dive. I decided to try Uber, and it was no problem at all.
The boat heads out near sunset, and the ride is gorgeous.
Here’s how it works. You can book tickets with 15 or so different companies. Each evening they all head out to two main manta feeding grounds. When your boat arrives, you’ll see 8-10 other boats too, and they all work together to anchor each other.
Each boat will put sort of raft in the water (or two rafts if they have a big crowd). The raft is basically a surf board with a pvc-pipe rack around it. There are three big holes cut in to the surfboard, and big lights are inserted into each hole, that shine straight down.
Everyone who booked a ticket, puts on a mask and goggles and a wetsuit top, and then gets in the water and hold on to the raft. Once the sun goes down, the raft lights turn on, and you have to float superman-style, holding on the raft, with your mask in the water.
The lights bring up the plankton, who react to the brightness like it’s sunshine, and the giant manta rays come and eat the plankton.
But on the night we went. No mantas came at all! It was a bust!
Apparently, it’s pretty rare. They told us that in 2017, there were only 12 nights that manta rays didn’t show up. Earlier that evening, when we first got in the water, the manta ray dive guide had helped Betty swim near two dolphins, so she felt like it was an awesome experience even without seeing the manta rays. But I was pretty bummed, because everyone we had talked to said the manta rays were the highlight of their trip. There were no refunds, but the company offered another chance to go at no charge any night we were available.
After the dive, we got an uber home, and ordered room service for a late night dinner. We were exhausted!
Day Two — Monday
We slept in the next morning and decided to hang around at the hotel until our car rental was ready at noon.
We explored more of the grounds, and practiced snorkeling at the beach.
The manta ray dive was Betty’s first ever snorkeling experience, so she was excited to try it again and see if there were any fish in the water near our hotel.
There weren’t much (and we found awesome snorkeling later), but she had a ton of fun searching for sea shells, and she got much more confident with her snorkel gear.
At noon, we picked up our car, and decided to head out on an adventure right away. We were trying to decide between driving to the southern most point of the island, or driving to Volcanoes National Park, and ultimately decided to go to the National Park.
This meant a drive straight across the island to a town called Hilo. The drive was gorgeous! We went from lava fields to thick jungle, and the road takes you between the two big mountains. I was also fascinated to see how fast the weather changed — the west coast was sunny and hot, but 20 minutes away, it was all heavy rain and much cooler temperatures.
We stopped in Hilo for food, and then went directly to the National Park. Because of the volcanic activity happening, a good portion of the park was closed, but we could still see the giant crater and the steam vents, and we learned a ton at the Welcome Center.
Usually the lava level in the crater is 90 feet down — and you can see it glow when it’s dark. But the current level was 800 feet down! All the lava had been pulled to a residential neighborhood, where fissures were opening up in the earth and lava was pouring out. There were 14 fissures when we were there, and at last count there were 21.
We were told the lava wasn’t the dangerous part, but that the fumes coming form the fissures could be poisonous.
We had a lot of questions from friends and family at home who were watching the news stories about the lava flows and were worried about us. But luckily, we were never at risk. It was actually only a small part of the island that was affected. We were told the most helpful thing to do was to avoid that neighborhood, and to keep spending our tourist dollars on the Big Island. : )
[ As I’m typing this, news just broke that Kilauea erupted! ]
We intended to do a hike while we were at the National Park, but it turned out to be too cold and rainy. No worries. We checked the time, and realized we could head back right away and go to a luau that night.
We went to the Mauna Lani shopping center where they offer free performances. But we had the time wrong and only saw the last 20 minutes of the show. We picked up snorkel gear and fruit and snack for the next day while we were there, then, we went to our hotel, which was hosting a luau on the grounds that night. We were too late for the feast, but just in time to see the full hour of performances.
It was too dark to get good photos, but it was really fun to watch.
Day Three — Tuesday
On Tuesday, we woke up early and went straight to Hapuna Beach State Park, which was about a 10 minute drive north of our hotel. Our snacks and snorkel gear were already in the car. : ) We got there at around 7:00 in the morning and it was stunning, and practically empty.
Hapuna is the sort of white sandy beach, with gentle waves and warm water, that you picture when you think of Hawaii. On either end of the beach, there are lots of rocks and reefs. We went to the North end and concentrated our snorkeling time there. There were tons of fish! And Betty swam with a sea turtle too!
We buried each other in the sand. Swam and played in the waves and snorkeled our hearts out. We probably could have stayed all day, but after a few hours, we felt like exploring more of the island.
We drove north to King Kamehameha Statue, with the intention of driving further and finding a waterfall hike. But it was raining pretty heavily and it turns out landslides had closed the road.
Instead, we headed back down the western coast and looked for 49 Black Sand Beach, which we could see on the map.
We followed the directions and it took us to a gated community. I stopped at the parking gate and said, “We must be in the wrong place, but it says there’s a black sand beach on this road?”
The gatekeeper said, “Yes, this is the way. Here’s a parking pass.”
We drove through the neighborhood, following his directions, and found a little parking lot — big enough for maybe 20 cars — and path to the beach.
It was like a public beach on a private property. It felt like a secret!
The sand was truly black, and the snorkeling was the best we’d had so far. Once you got in the water, it was all rocks and reef, and the fish were just right there in front of you.
It looks so windy in this photo, but it wasn’t bad. it turned out to be a lovely beach and would have been a fun place to spend a whole day. But if you visit, be sure to bring water shoes. They helped a ton!
After we left, we had an open afternoon in front of us, and decided to drive up to the visitor center on Mauna Kea mountain. We knew we needed four wheel drive to get to the top of the 14,000 foot peak, and had tried to book spaces on a tour there, but we were told Betty needed to be at least 16 years old. We were secretly hoping that once we got to the Visitor Center, we would be able to arrange a ride anyway — or at least see some great views from there.
The drive was stunning, but otherwise this adventure turned out to be a bit of a bummer. The clouds were super thick at the visitor center and we couldn’t see a thing. Hah!
From there, we drove to Kona. Kona is a seaside town that acts as a hub for tourists. You can find rentals and tickets and tours and souvenir shops and local cuisine and anything else you might need. We arrived with a couple hours to explore and had a wonderful time.
We walked along the harbor, stopped for food at a seaside restaurant (I had cabbage and pork, Betty had Hawaiian pizza). There were adorable geckos hanging out on our dining table!
Afterwards we stopped for our first shave ice.
For our evening adventure, we considered driving back up to the Mauna Kea Visitor Center, because on Tuesday nights, they pull out telescopes from 7:00 to 10:00, and bring out experts on the stars. Lots of people rave about it. But we checked the forecast when we were up there earlier, and it looked like they were going to have to cancel.
So instead, we decided to attempt the manta ray dive again.
HOLY COW IT WAS AMAZING.
It was exactly the experience I described before, but this time, when the lights went on, massive Manta rays appeared. The would come right up to the raft and do slow, graceful back flips, like an inch from your face. When I say massive, I mean it. They were 11 feet across, maybe bigger.
I could hear Betty scream with delight under the water.
We were SO GLAD we gave it a second try. It was an unforgettable experience.
Oh. I forgot to mention: Earlier that evening, as our boat left the harbor, we were suddenly surrounded by a pod of 50+ dolphins. I’ve never seen anything like it. What an experience!
We drove home, and thought we would go straight to bed. But we were kind of wired from the diving. So we ordered room service again — we called it late night breakfast in bed since Betty’s birthday was the next day.
Day Four — Wednesday
Our flight home was Wednesday afternoon at 3:00. And we wanted to have a few more adventures before we left Paradise. We woke up around 8:00 in the morning and drove straight to Two Steps, which was about an hour and half south of our hotel.
We highly recommend snorkeling there. It was our favorite snorkeling spot by far — you could see the fish even before you got in the water.
It’s called Two Step because the volcanic rocks form two steps going down into the water. It’s not a sandy spot — you go straight from rocks into the water, and then back out onto the rocks when you’re done. And you should only go there if you’re a strong swimmer, because there’s nowhere to touch down and rest once you’re in the water.
But boy oh boy you can see a ton of amazing sea life, and you’ll likely get to swim with some sea turtles too.
When we were tired of snorkeling, we got out on the rocks and watched the creatures who were hanging out in the tide pools — crabs and turtles and sea urchins and all sorts of things.
It gets busy at Two Step. By the time we left, it was fairly packed. Arriving in the 7:00 or 8:00 range is a good idea.
Next to Two Step is a historical park. We checked it out for a bit, and found a flower for Betty’s hair:
But we were too hungry to stay long, so decided to venture back toward the hotel.
On the way, we stopped at famous diner called Coffee Shack. It hangs over a cliff and has amazing views from the dining tables.
We ate a big breakfast, and order extra eggs on the side. We took some of their legendary banana bread with us for the drive.
We knew there was a lava tube off the highway on the road back, so we pulled over to see it — even though we only had a few minutes. There are a few different lava tubes around the island. There’s a massive one at the National Park (it was closed when we were there), and I hear there are some near Hilo too. I’m still a little fuzzy on how they’re made. From what I understand, a column of lava shoots underground and creates a tunnel or tube. They’re really cool! If we ever get to go back, I hope we’ll get to hike in one.
Our car was due back at the rental desk at Noon. We got back just in time to return it, and then check out of the hotel. We left our bags with the bellhop, but we still had a couple of hours till we needed to go to the airport. So we walked across the street to do a little shopping and buy souvenirs for the rest of the family.
Happily, the shave ice truck was at the shopping center. I ordered Hula Moon. Betty ordered Rainbow Cream. We both chose vanilla ice cream at the bottom.
Then, we hit the hotel pool one more time, changed our clothes in the hotel bathroom, and grabbed an uber to the airport.
Gosh it was a terrific trip. The minute we got on the airplane, we were plotting how we could go back with the whole family. That’s really the only tricky part of these one-parent-one-kid trips — when you see cool things, you want to share them with the whole family!
One other thought: the Big Island is a really adventurous place. Sure someone could sit poolside at the hotel at have a perfectly lovely time, but if you’re in the mood, there’s so much to see and do. And a lot of it is quite high-adventure — like manta ray dives, and snow-capped 14,000 ft mountains, and hiking in lava tubes, and snorkeling all over the place, and cliff diving, and zip-lining and active lava flows. So when you’re packing, bring your bikini and flip flops, but also bring hiking shoes and a parka. It goes from really hot to really cold very quickly. We were grateful for our sweatshirts! And you may want to rent a 4-wheel drive vehicle if one’s available.
How about you? Would you like an adventurous Hawaii trip? Or when you think of Hawaii, do you picture mostly reading on the beach?
P.S. — If I was packing again, I would also do a little research on snorkel gear and bring our own. I can’t believe how much we used it!