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6 Mistakes I made on Big Island, Hawaii

I seem to have developed this habit of showing up at a new destination and just winging it. Sometimes it’s fine…but only if I’m staying long-term and not having to make the most of a limited schedule. I thought three weeks in Hawaii would be enough to satisfy me – in fact, I initially only booked two weeks, and then changed it. But nope nope nope. No more short-term trips for me, ever, unless it’s a real vacation.

I ended my journey on Big Island, where active volcanoes and a sparse population was a welcome change up after being in Waikiki for eight days. But alas, I made some mistakes that apparently many other tourists also make.

1. Not giving myself enough time

On my second day at Arnott’s Lodge in Hilo, I went on a tour with a Hawaiian guide. His first question was, “How long do you have here? Three days?” I told him five, and he said, “Good! Most people only give this place three days. It’s a mistake.”

But five days wasn’t enough either. And I mean, I CRAMMED a lot into those five days. I saw Green Sand Beach, Volcanoes National Park, the summit at Mauna Kea, and the Kona side of the island. And everything in between. But I felt constantly stressed out about not doing enough.

Beautiful big Island

On Oahu and Maui, much of my days consisted of sitting around on beaches drinking beer and watching the sunset. I LOVED IT. But Big Island has about 2039203920 things to do, and relaxation wasn’t my priority. I wanted volcanoes, lots of drama, and real island living. If you’re in the same boat, you need more time. I suggest a week, at least.

2. Underestimating how big Big Island is

Dur. It’s called “Big Island” for a reason.

Big Island is double the size of Maui, and although I wouldn’t necessarily consider this a BIG island (in comparison to say, Newfoundland), some foresight in planning will make your trip much, much, much easier.

For example, I set myself up in Hilo for five days, thinking I could easily get back and forth between there and Kona. Nope. There are two sides to Big Island: the Kona side, and the Hilo side. Kona is the big touristy resort destination, while Hilo is more like a hippie mom-and-pop shop locale with a kickass Farmer’s Market and lots of used shops. Guess which one I preferred? I’ll give you $5.

Downtown Hilo

Downtown Hilo.
After four days in Hilo, I decided the only way I was going to see Kona is if I stayed there for a night. So I did. The three-hour drive via the Saddle Road is boring as shit, but it’s the quickest route. The coast is better, but longer.

3. Thinking public transportation is a thing

It’s not. Not really, at least.

I don’t drive. I have my license, but I don’t drive. Don’t ask me why. I’m tired of explaining it.

I go to places and assume I can get around via foot or public transit, although I don’t like public transit either. Don’t ask me why. I’m tired of explaining it.

I know at some point I’ll have to learn how to drive better because I don’t like cities and I’d rather be rural, so it’s bit of a catch 22.

I loved my stay at Arnott’s Lodge, but it was kind of in the middle of nowhere and getting around sucked. The bus would stop running at 5 PM. Hilo town was 6 miles away. And really, getting a rental car was the only option that made sense. So instead I opted to climb aboard cars with strangers or take overpriced tours.

Then there was the morning I was supposed to return to Hilo from Kona. I had a 6PM flight to catch that evening to connect with my flight back to Canada. The ONLY BUS I could take from Kona would leave at 6 AM. I got up at 5 AM, strapped on my gear, and started walking 15 minutes to the bus stop…on the shoulder of the road, in pitch dark, flickering a flashlight to warn off approaching vehicles. I sat there in that bus shelter, exhausted, and at 6:10 AM watched my bus tear past me without slowing down. At that point, a dozen different things had gone wrong and I found myself having a mental breakdown right there on that bench. My options were to either hitchhike back to Hilo, or pay a $500 taxi. Yeah.

Fortunately, I walked back to my hostel and found someone driving to Hilo that afternoon. The bottom line is this: DON’T RELY ON PUBLIC TRANSIT. And if you’re at a bus stop, stand up and wave those damned buses down.

4. Thinking it’s easy to find lava flows

A quick Google search or a look at any tourist site, and you might think that you can walk up to any ‘ol lava flow in Big Island quite easily. I was pumped about it. I’m going to do a full article about this later, but the reality is this: lava flows aren’t easy to come across, and many local guides who take you on lava treks are actually illegal.

Your best bet is to take a helicopter tour. And a good camera. But they’re EXPENSIVE. The tours, I mean.

The only legit tour company I could find was Ahiu Hawaii (no longer in biz), and they’ll take you on a hike that’s apparently the most brutal thing that’s ever happened to anyone. One TripAdvisor review said that he and his wife just finished a five-day trek through the Andes, and that was NOTHING compared to this lava hike. But the company never returned my dozens of calls, despite their website saying they’re available 24/7…as things go in Hawaii.

The other option, of course, is to see the Kilauea Crater at Volcanoes National Park at sunset. It glows bright red and it’s BLOODY BEAUTIFUL.

Kailua Crater

Kilauea Crater

5. Thinking I could see through the telescopes at the top of Mauna Kea

You’d be surprised how many people think you can look through the multi-million dollar telescopes atop Mauna Kea, Hawaii’s highest peak. But their findings are actually delivered via computer, and not through an eyepiece. This makes sense when you think about it.

They’re pretty spectacular to see, just the same.

6. Thinking beaches are always there

My friend Jen and I had a hilarious experience in Kona when we were trying to find some sandy white beaches to spend my final day on in Hawaii. We first searched for Magic Sands, and then White Sands, but both were insanely disappointing.

The photo of Magic Sands in our brochure touted the kind of sandy white beach I’ve grown to obsess over. When we got there, THERE WAS NO BEACH.

“What a sham,” we said in disgust as we got back in the car.

We had been hearing some about a storm surge that hit the Pahoa area just a few days earlier, but it didn’t affect us much in Hilo. But then that night, at the Kona Brewing Company, I expressed my distress about tourism lies to a local sitting at the bar. “Sometimes storm surges come in and take all the beaches with it,” he said. The sand would make its return in a few months, maybe in June.

new friends in Big Island

Clearly we weren’t THAT devastated over it.

True story.

I realized while rereading this that this blog post makes me come across as an ungrateful, cynical traveller. Au contraire! I loved Big Island. I loved it for its laidback attitude, its unreal beauty, its drama, and its slow pace. Even if my camera did get stolen (long story). On that note, you absolutely need travel insurance.

But if I ever go back, it’ll be for a long time. Months, maybe. Renting an apartment is crazy cheap there, surprisingly, although finding a used car isn’t. And I’ll learn to drive in places outside rural Newfoundland, dammit. Eventually. Maybe.

  • February 26 2015
    Natasha Gordon

    Love your posts, Candice. I’ve only visited Oahu (1x) and Maui (2x) but when I go back, I’ll make a point of staying on the Hilo side of the Big Island too. I prefer the quite, relaxing atmosphere also – Waikiki was a headache (especially driving). Those damned street names need a few more consonants! Every street name looks the same!!!

    • March 03 2015

      Doooo it!

      Hahaha and you’re right about the street signs. SO CONFUSING.

  • February 26 2015
    Heidi Kerr-Schlaefer

    OMG Candice. I need to start reading your posts again. You are the best. I wish more travel writers were like you – telling it like it is. I think it’s the red head thing.

    You go girl. You rock.

  • February 27 2015
    Jeremy K

    Loved the year I lived in Hilo. In agreement with most of this, especially since I made most of these mistakes myself.

  • March 03 2015

    All the more reason to go back! Overall, though, it looks like you got a lot done regardless of your time constraint.

  • March 17 2015

    Considering you only had five days you still squeezed a lot in so don’t punish yourself too much! xx

  • April 03 2015
    Heather S.

    I just stumbled upon your blog this morning before work! This post is great because I’ll be going to Hawaii (Oahu/Big Island) in October! Good tips since I’ll be spending less days on the Big Island than you had… Eek!

    • April 03 2015

      Oh I’m so glad you found it useful! I recommend sticking to the Hilo side of the island if you only have a few days on Big Island!

  • September 22 2017

    Aloha Candice! I’m heading to Big Island from Oahu in a few days, and it was good to read your take on things, as I try and figure out my itinerary. Thanks.
    Hope you’re still rocking your wanderlust and loving life! =)

    • October 25 2017

      Thanks Martin, you’re going to LOVE it! Super jealous!

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