There are many places in the world you can travel without needing a rental car to get you around. In some of these places, you can easily hop into a nearby rickshaw, tuk-tuk, jeepney, tram, or light-rail to bring you to your destination. However, the Big Island is not one of these places. Public transportation is not widespread, and taxis and Uber are expensive compared to the price of renting a car.
If you are planning to see the sites of the island, a rental car is a must! The Big Island is really a BIG island, and takes around 5 hours to drive around the island, and different attraction sites can be at a far distance from one another.
So, what kind of rental car is the best? Should you rent a 4×4?
The short answer is no. You can get by just fine with a regular economy car. A 4×4 would allow you to drive down to Green Sand Beach, Wai’pio valley, and the top of Mauna Kea, however, most rental car companies do not allow their cars to be taken on these roads, and if you get caught, can get fined heavily. You can park at the head of the trail to Green Sand Beach and hike in to the beach (around 2 miles). You can book a sunset or sunrise tour to visit the top of Mauna Kea (15k feet!). You can also hike down into Wai’pio Valley. However, 4×4’s are convenient for driving down to beaches and into little dirt road pullouts along the shore.
One thing to consider, for the more adventurous, is the possibility of renting a van and then camping out of it instead of staying in a hotel room. There are plenty of spots to car camp on the Big Island and you can shower and use the facilities at beach park restrooms. CarinHawaii.com and Rainbowcarrentals.com can rent out camping gear along with a van rental.
When people visit the Big Island, they typically spend most of their time in Kona, where all the swanky resorts and powdery-white sand beaches are. There’s certainly nothing wrong with getting fancy and kicking back in luxury if that’s your style, but, if you’re the type of person who wants to experience some of the “real” Hawaii on your Big Island vacation, you must check out Puna! I can understand why Puna (which is a large district located in the south-eastern side of the island) is hastily overlooked by many tourists who don’t know any better: There are no white sand beaches or hotels, no major touristy attractions. So, what is there to do or see? Why should you go there? Well, let me tell you my 7 favorite activities in Puna!
1. The drive down Red Road. This 15 mile road is one of the most scenic roads on the island. The road follows along the shoreline, at times snaking through thick jungle where you can find giant mango, coconut, native hala, and noni trees. You will have many opportunities to enjoy scenic overlooks and places to explore (like Mackenzie beach park, which has lava tubes and steam vents), and it is also the route to lots of other key attractions. It was when I was driving on this road for my very first time, watching the sun reflecting off of the rolling waves, when I spontaneously decided I would be moving to the Big Island. This drive does that to people!
The Red Road begins where highway 132 meets highway 137 (AKA the four corners). Coming from Pahoa, take highway 132 until you reach the Four Corners intersection, then take a right. You are now on the official “Red Road” drive.
- 2. Kehena Black Sand Beach! Striking black sand, steep jungle cliffs draped with ancient-looking vines, possibilities of swimming with friendly dolphins, and oh yeah– all the naked hippies, combine to make Kehena a beach like none other. Every Sunday, Kehena beach transforms into a party and drum circle. If you’re into it, I suggest getting butt naked and dancing in the center of the drum circle. It’s really fun. Not really into the “hippie scene?” That’s okay, you can just observe the action, or, come on a weekday when there are less people. Swimming at Kehena can be a bit sketchy, so please be a strong swimmer if you decide to go in. There have been deaths almost every year of people who swim out too far and then get pulled away by the current and drown. Friendly dolphins are known to come close to the shore, so it is possible to swim with them.
- 3. Ahalanui Hot Pond. Ahh, the hot pond. My favorite. Puna has the only natural hot springs in all of Hawaii, and while there are several smaller hot springs to soak in nearby, this one is the best. It’s right on the shore, so you can enjoy the ocean vibes while swimming in the warm water of the hot pond. Often, curious little fish will come nibble at you (it doesn’t hurt, just tickles). Want to know a secret? The best time to come to the hot pond is at night, preferably when it’s a full moon. It’s technically closed at night…but, well, that doesn’t deter locals from enjoying it then. At night its less crowded and it’s just awesome in general to be swimming in a warm, relaxing pool with the moonlight bouncing off the waves and palm trees. Don’t tell anyone I told you ;).
- 4. Uncle Robert’s Night Market. Located at the end of the Red Road on Hawaiian Homeland property, Uncle Robert’s night market is the happenin’ place to be on a Wednesday night. Arrive before it gets dark and take a stroll on the lava field trail to the black sand beach. At the market, you’ll find a tempting array of local foods, live music, a kava bar, and, naturally, a welcome center for space aliens (really). Get euphoric on some kava and talk story with the new friends you will be sure to meet. This market is a favorite activity for locals, and those lucky tourists who stumble upon it will certainly regard it as one of the highlights of their Big Island trip. Every Wednesday night starting around 5pm.
- 5. Maku’u Farmer’s Market. While the Hilo Farmer’s Market was recently ranked the #1 best farmer’s market in the U.S., locals know that Maku’u Farmer’s Market is even better. It’s less touristy than Hilo Farmer’s Market and has a wider variety of vendors. It’s a big social event for the community. You can find all sorts of interesting local-made crafts, affordable tropical produce, and delicious food options. I highly recommend trying the green papaya salad from the small stand near the stage. As a green papaya salad connoisseur, I can attest that they sell the best green papaya salad in existence. If you’re feeling adventurous, stop by the smoothie stand and treat yourself to a Durian smoothie (smelliest fruit in the world). When: Sundays from 7am-2pm. Where: Right off Highway 130, several miles north of Pahoa. You can’t miss it.
- 6. Snorkeling at Kapoho Tidepools Kapoho tidepools is one of the best snorkeling spots in all of Hawaii. You will see hundreds of tropical reef fish and impressive coral formations. Often, snorkelers can spot giant sea turtles or eels. Bring a beach chair or towel to sit on, because the shore is lava and kind of uncomfortable to sit on.
- 7. Pahoa! Pahoa is an eclectic little town full of colorful characters (such as the “chicken man”, who is always riding his bike around with his pet chickens on the handlebars) and great restaurants. In 2014, it almost won the title of “Coolest Small Town in the U.S.A.” from Budget Travels. Just recently, Pahoa made international news as a lava flow crept dangerously close, threatening to destroy the town and block access to the rest of the island. After months of stressful uncertainty, the lava decided to stop just several hundreds of feet from the town’s main shopping center (whew! Well, it did take out one house and a road). Driving down Pahoa Village Road, you will notice some of the power line poles wrapped in gravel and cement. This was an experiment done in anticipation of the impending lava in an attempt protect the town’s power grid. I recommend having dinner at either Kaleo’s or Ning’s Thai (both in downtown). Kaleo’s serves excellent island fusion-type cuisine (the Kalbi ribs and coconut shrimp are my favorite!). Ning’s is a great option if you are in the mood for some Thai food (try the pineapple curry). For breakfast/coffee, check out the Tin Shack Bakery, or Black Rock Cafe.
These are my favorite things about Puna. Did I leave anything out (I totally did! These are just my top seven! There’s a lot more to do, such as Lava Tree Park, Pohoiki, Mermaid Ponds, Shipman Beach hike, Green Lake, and the giant arch)
- Where to stay? There are no hotels in Puna, but there are many vacation rentals and some hostels. Check out airbnb.com. or flipkey.com.
- If you only have one day to spend in Puna, I would suggest going on either a Wednesday or a Sunday, so you can hit up either the Maku’u or Uncle Robert’s markets.
- Be aware that there are not gas stations in lower Puna besides the three in Pahoa. Before heading to the Red Road, make sure you have enough gas.
- Don’t lather yourself in sunscreen and then go swimming in the hot pond or tide pools. Sunscreen kills coral and is dangerous to ocean life. Plus, no one wants to swim around in smelly, oily sunscreen floating on the surface.
- If you buy salad greens from the market, make sure to wash them well and check them thoroughly for slugs. Rat-lungworm parasite is found on the slime of slugs and can be deadly.
- It rains a lot on this side of the island. Just go with it, and bring an umbrella or rain gear if you don’t want to get wet.
- Bring sturdy shoes for walking over old lava flows or rocky shorelines.
- Enjoy yourself! Go with the flow!