What to expect when traveling to the Big Island of Hawaii for the first time

Hawaii or the Big Island is an amazing place to visit. I hadn’t been to any Hawaiian islands before except for a short stop to refuel on our way to Japan in the 80’s. Today, I’m sharing my experience while in Hawaii, what to expect when traveling there for the first time and what local attractions to check out in the three towns we visited.

When we first planned our trip, I had to do a deep dive and educate myself on what to expect when visiting Hawaii. Because of this I am sharing my findings hopefully to save you some time and possibly some frustration.

The Hawaiian islands consist of several main islands. The big island of Hawaii is the southernmost island in the chain. It is also the largest of the four major islands, which includes Oahu (the third largest), Maui (second largest) and Kauai (the smallest).

Hawaii is known for its mild tropical weather year round with no extreme cold or heat temperatures of any kind. But, who knew Hawaii has 10 of the 14 microclimates? While you may not experience all 10, you will likely experience some humidity most days of your trip so make sure to bring shorts, light airy clothing and a hat to block the sun.

The Hawaiian trip overview

Our trip started with landing at Kona airport, a 2 day stay at the Royal Kona Resort overlooking the ocean at the moderately-touristy town of Kailua-Kona, then we traveled south east to an AirBnB in Pahoa. In six days, we were able to snorkel, journey on a historic Captain Cook dinner cruise to Kealakekua Bay boat cruise, visit an amazing tropical botanical garden, taste exotic fruits on our tour of a private fruit farm, see first hand the massive lava fields (not active at the time), visit a farmers market with super fresh food with many amazing artists and of course eat at a variety of restaurants throughout our trip.

Covid and Traveling

Before discussing further, I would like to address the issue of traveling during the Covid-19 pandemic. As of September 2021, it is necessary to be vaccinated in order to avoid being required to quarantine for 10 days upon arrival in Hawaii. When we arrived at the San Diego airport (SAN), the Alaskan Airlines check-in attendant asked to see a live QR code of our vaccination status. You’ll need to be logged into your account and show a green checkbox. My status happened to be red for some reason however the attendant checked online and after a moment my checkbox was green. More info here on the latest travel requirements https://www.gohawaii.com/travel-requirements. Make sure to get your status in order a few days prior to your travel. Once you have that in place, you’ll be greenlit to travel and be issued a wristband get you through the arrival gates. Login for your QR code here: https://travel.hawaii.gov/

Okay, let’s get on with the good stuff.

Here are a few facts about Kona airport and Kailua-Kona Hawaii.
The main airport for the region is Kona International Airport and is located about 12 miles from Kona’s town center. The airport is always busy with incoming and outgoing flights. This airport is the most relaxed airport I’ve ever been too. This is a sharp contrast from the Kiev Ukrainian airport where there were armed guards everywhere with automatic rifles on the tarmac. At the Kona airport, everybody seemed super relaxed, the buildings are all open with no exterior walls, the air is warm and the only gun you’ll notice is the heat temperature gun they point at your forehead to test you for a covid fever.

One of the first things you’ll notice when in Hawaii is the sweet air. I had been told this before but didn’t realize how true it is. The sweet air feeling is fresh and clean, not like the salty seaweedy air I’m used to at the San Diego beaches. The reason for this sweet air is all the flowering trees and plants everywhere. This is just the beginning of the Hawaiian experience.

Getting Around Hawaii

To get around Hawaii, you’ll need to rent a car. Plan deep in advance at least a month or more because the rentals are expensive or even worse, not even available at all. I was extremely lucky because I had been searching for 3 days looking for a cheaper rental that wasn’t going to cost $1300 for the 6 days we were to going be in Hawaii. Most rental cars were unavailable at the airport. Only one rental company had some and they were expensive. With a stroke of luck, late at night I was searching with the filtered search sorted to the lowest price, low and behold I was presented a gem of a deal. $450 for 6 days at Hertz. Boom! I couldn’t sign up fast enough. The only issue was the car was in Kailua-Kona not at the airport.

How to get from the airport to your hotel

Fortunately Speedishuttle is there for you. With a one way ticket I booked them to drop us off at our stay at The Royal Kona Resort. They met us at the shuttle area at Kona airport and within a short amount of time we were driven to our hotel with one other person. The shuttle pricing is reasonable and if you don’t want to jump through hoops of driving on an unfamiliar island on your own, this is the only way to go. Of course, some car rental companies and hotels may also have their own shuttles. Make sure to plan ahead for parking your rental car at your hotel. Street parking may be available but I didn’t want to chance it and an old post warned of the homeless roaming the streets at night. Our hotel charged us $18 a day so we just did that instead and had ample parking close to our hotel.

About Kailua-Kona

Kona is the second largest town on Hawaii island. The population is approximately 13,000. Kona is also famous for its coffee plantations and boasts the oldest coffee nursery in Hawaii. Sugar cane production once thrived in this area but has dwindled to 2% of its importance due to greater coaxial crop production on other islands. Kona is also the center of the growing tourist industry in Hawaii. The hotel and restaurant business has been booming and diversifying for some years but with covid they were somewhat busy but sometimes understaffed.

The town is surrounded by this lush green forest area and is nestled right on the beach. The main town is called Kona which includes all of the sights you’d expect to find in a vacation spot including a post office, bank, supermarket etc.

Kailua-Kona has always been a popular tourist destination with people coming from all over the world. They come here to enjoy the beaches, lush tropical scenery, Hawaiian culture and the rest of its unique qualities.

Find a hotel near the beach

If you’re going to visit Hawaii, you might as well enjoy the view of the ocean. There are several hotels near the beach in Kailua-Kona Hawaii. For example, The Royal Kona Resort is a great place to stay located on Ali’i Drive across from the beach. Make sure to request an ocean view when reserving your room. Note, if you’re a light sleeper, the waves crash on the rocks across the bay is a never ending sound. Even with the doors closed it’s noticeable. Fortunately I am a heavy sleeper and the sound allowed me to sleep just fine.

Other places to check out during your trip

Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden

Kailua-Kona is home to the largest tropical botanical garden of its kind in the world. This unique attraction features more than 7,000 species of plants. Some of which can be found nowhere else on Earth.

Chirping in the night

The coqui frog chirp at night and the Coqui has become a famous native of Hawaii. The coqui (pronounced COH-key) is a small, bright yellow, green or reddish brown frog that is indigenous to tropical parts of Central and South America. It was introduced in the Hawaiian islands in the 1920s and 1930s solely for scientific reasons. These tiny frogs love damp areas such as the rain forest and the backyard of people who live in Kailua-Kona so if your AirBnB is near a forest you’ll likely hear these frogs chirp through the night.

For you Star Trek fans, compare the frog sound with the sounds from the bridge and I think you will agree the sound effects team definitely were inspired by these frogs.

Need to worry about mosquitoes?

Consider insect repellent for mosquitoes if you are susceptible to mosquito bites. Mosquitoes are very common during the day in Hawaii around wet lush areas. The mosquitoes are annoying when they bite but their bites aren’t harmful. The only real side effect of mosquito bites is for some people it can cause a little swelling of the skin around the bite which can be annoying. You can get mosquito repellant at 7-11 or any market.

The restaurants in Kailua-Kona

Every place we ate at in Kona was good. The variety is staggering with every type of cuisine you can imagine available. We had so many wonderful meals while in Kona. The sushi was cheap, tasty and fresh. The Mexican was fresh, the Italian superb, the steakhouse great, the burger joints delicious and the seafood was up to par with any fine dinner restaurant that I’ve eaten at home or anywhere else.

Here is a list of Yelp restaurants and locations with a few reviews. Here’s a Google map with saved locations

Overall, the trip was absolutely amazing.

No doubt, the Big Island of Hawaii is a remarkable destination with something for everyone. From the stunning beaches and waters to the lush rainforest and captivating culture, you are sure to feel welcome and inspired. Whether you’re looking for adventure or a relaxing holiday, the Big Island has plenty to offer. Start planning your trip today, and discover why so many people fall in love with this incredible island!