Big Island, Hawaii
Information about the Big Island of Hawaii, including things you should know about the airport, suggestions for things to do and recommendations for places to stay.
The Kona Airport
The Kona airport is easily one of the most low key, no frills airports I have ever encountered. And it’s old school—an open air airport with planes that board and deplane right on the tarmac—which is fun and exciting at the same time. There’s only one “restaurant” past security, and I use the term “restaurant” loosely because it’s more like a cafeteria. They do serve a variety of items to eat and have a bar, so don’t worry: you can still grab a bite to eat and have a cocktail while you’re waiting to leave. They have a newsstand store where you can purchase books and magazines and a small gift shop where you can grab last minute souvenirs, Kona coffee, Hawaiian salts and macadamia nuts (to the tune of $22, LOL).
Exiting the airport is a quick and painless process since it’s so small. I have no idea what they do when it’s raining, but according to the staff there it doesn’t rain on that side of the island all that often. When it does, it’s brief.
Oh and be careful—if for some reason you are not ready to leave the airport, don’t go outside to grab your bags because once you exit through the metal detector to head to the baggage claim, you can’t re-enter. The airport is so small that you almost don’t realize you’ve left the airport until it’s too late.
There are only two baggage carousels for the whole airport. Delta and Alaska share one carousel while Hawaiian and Southwest share the other. Regarding the baggage situation, I’ve had two completely different experiences. On my first trip, both baggage carousels were completely empty when I got outside the airport. I rarely check bags but on this trip I brought my golf clubs, so I needed to wait for the checked bags to come out. On that trip, the bags came out really quickly, so it was only about 15 minutes before I had my bags and was to the rental car shuttle. Score.
On the second trip, however, I also made the mistake of checking a bag (though I was cursing myself later) and it—quite literally—took 45 minutes to get my one checked bag. Apparently two Alaska flights and a Delta flight had just landed right around the same time, so there were probably 300 people waiting at the same carousel and it took forever for all the bags to come out. Once I got my bag 45 minutes later, it was again a very quick shuttle ride over to Hertz, but that experience—compared to the first one—was an hour instead of just 15 minutes. So I suppose it’s hit or miss. Both were the same time of year, so I can’t say it was because of high season or low season.
Speaking of rental cars, I always use Hertz and I would recommend doing so in Hawaii as well. As a gold member, I book my car on the app, keep my credit card (an Amex, always, since they offer rental car coverage if something happens) and then just walk up to my car once they send me an email saying which number it is. Keys are in the car, you load up your stuff, and simply show your ID at the exit gate. We made the mistake of renting through another company (I can’t recall which one) on a trip to Maui and we waited in line for almost an hour to get our car. Don’t make that mistake—book through Hertz and skip the lines.
Things to Do:
Rent a car and drive the island. I say this a lot when I give recommendations for places. I truly think it’s one of the best ways to see a place—especially in the tropics. The Big Island is—well—BIG (thus the name) and the terrain is so incredibly diverse on the different sides. The west end is covered in lava and looks a little bit like you’re on another planet and then the eastern side is lush and tropical. Taking a cab to the other side is not an option (a friend of mine flew into the wrong airport, the one in Hilo, and was quoted $700 for an Uber) and so you really need a car if you want to explore. My favorite thing to do is to just drive around, put some reggae on, and stop at various beaches. The Big Island has some great beaches, including Hapuna Beach, which Travel + Leisure rated one of the best in Hawaii.
Take a helicopter ride. One of the coolest things I’ve done in Hawaii is take a helicopter ride. Seeing it from the air is just stunning and—as I said above—because the island is so big, the best way to see most of it is to see it from above in a helicopter.
Snorkel with Manta Rays. There are two spots to do this on the island: one near Kona and the other up at the Mauna Kea. There are snorkeling excursions that will take you over to the Mauna Kea even if you’re not staying at the resort, but if you’re staying at the resort it’s obviously very convenient. They shine lights out toward the water, which attract plankton, which then bring in the giant manta rays. They will swim up right next to you and it’s actually one of the coolest things I’ve done. Oddly enough, I did the manta ray snorkel tour when I stayed at the Fairmont, and they took us in a boat over to Mauna Kea. When I stayed at Mauna Kea, I went down and watched them from the rocks, but as you might imagine, it’s just not the same as when you’re in the water with them.
Where to Stay
If you’re up for the splurge, Four Seasons Hualalai is—without question—the nicest property on the island. They have a wide range of rooms, from beautiful ocean view rooms that are incredibly well-appointed (what you would expect of a Four Seasons) as well as stunning villas for families and parties traveling together. The property is known for it’s golf course, which hosts a PGA event each year. We ate at their Italian restaurant called Beach Tree and the food was excellent. But of course all this comes at a price: when I checked the rates for the dates I was most recently in Hawaii (June 12-17, 2022), the base room was $2200 and their villas were as much as $8,000 a night (with some saying you had to inquire for the price). The average that I've seen is around $1,500, so I am thinking that rate might have been an anomaly. I’m not sure what the rooms go for during the low season, but be warned that you’re probably going to get a little sticker shock looking at the room rates.
Another high end option is Mauna Lani Auberge. This is in the same area as the Fairmont (a 4 minute drive and about a 20 minute walk and one thing that’s really nice about it is that it’s close to the shopping center that has the market, a Tommy Bahama restaurant and a few other restaurants so if you get sick of the resort food, you have other options. We ate at HāLani for lunch and the food was spectacular. Friends of mine who where staying there said their fine dining restaurant CanoeHouse was amazing, so if the lunch spot was as good as it was, I can only imagine how great it is. This über boujie property has a Goop store (is there anything boujier than Goop?), a world class spa, and truly stunning rooms. My only complaint was that the pool really didn’t look that great and was quite small. The pools at the Fairmont and the Four Seasons are much nicer.
Next door to the Auberge is the Fairmont Orchid. The property is ever so slightly dated but I honestly really love it. The rooms are nice enough, the bathrooms are beautiful white marble, and the bed was really comfortable. I had an ocean view room with a balcony that overlooked the property and it was lovely. There are two pools: a main pool next to the pool bar and an adult pool. There are loungers both at the pool and on the grass, in addition to the beach.
Although it’s not as large as the Mauna Kea, the man-made cove that is solely for guests of the Fairmont is really quite nice. There’s a shallow area that’s great for kids to play and then it’s just a short swim out toward the rocks where you can snorkel. The snorkel gear is complimentary for guests and we saw tons of fish and even several turtles. Another great feature is there’s a small bar down by the beach as well, not far from the pool bar. You never have to go that far to grab a drink. The main pool bar has TVs on both sides, which came in handy while we were there because we got to watch the Warriors win the finals while sipping mai tais at the beach. When you can’t be at the game, is there anything better than that?
Attached to the pool bar is a sandy area with tables and thatch umbrellas where you can eat right there in the sand. There’s also a bar up top that our group frequented to in the evenings, which has a pool table and great seating areas.
As for the rate, I sort of feel like it’s cheating to share what I paid. Since I was there for a conference, our group rate was an absolute steal of $350 for standard rooms and $399 for the ocean view rooms. I think the regular rate was close to $1000 a night. The nearby Marriott was almost a thousand that week as well and in my opinion, not nearly as nice.
My first impressions of this hotel were not good. The exterior is painfully outdated, and even at times looks like a cheap Vegas motel, with metal banisters and 70s rock walls. Thankfully they recently renovated the rooms, so while the exterior is still pretty dated, at least the rooms are modern and well appointed. While y’all know I am a Marriott whore (and this is a Bonvoy property, which was why I stayed there), I unfortunately am not sure I would ever go back. It's not a terrible property, but I just don't think it's worth the exorbitant prices for such a dated property. The restaurants were decent but nothing to write home about. Their beach is amazing—and arguably one of the best on the island—but it’s a TREK to get down there from most parts of the property and the pool is terrible. So while the beach is amazing, if you aren’t feeling up for a hike then the pool is just kind of sad and not really a great option.
The one GREAT thing about the Mauna Kea is that the cove out front is one of two on the island where the giant manta rays come out at night (See above).
While I’m sure there are a lot of other more affordable properties in the area, these are the ones I am most familiar with.
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