Three Day Itinerary: Road Trip Around the Big Island, Hawaii

3 day itinerary for the Big Island - Hilo to Kona. Three days on the big island

It has been a crazy past few months of travel. At this point, I’m pretty sure the dog thinks the sitter is his new owner! Our latest travel took us to the Big Island in Hawaii where we put together a jam-packed long weekend while visiting our friend Royelen for her birthday. Like many of our overworked friends, getting the time off as the holidays approach was pretty challenging (oh, and after taking 2 weeks off for Africa!).

Even the airport looks pretty in Hawaii!

This three day itinerary will take you from one end of the Big Island to the other. It has plenty of stops along the way even with time to relax (or possibly nap?). I have to admit, the 4 AM meet-up to see lava was tough. But trust us, it’s worth the pain! And hey, you’re in Hawaii — at least they have strong coffee!

In Hawaii, you’re never too far from the ocean!

DAY 1 – Road Trip, Hilo To Kona

  • 7 AM, Wake up, and breathe in the fresh Hawaiian air! We stayed in Hilo — the laid back side of the Big Island. Bring your umbrella or prepare to be very wet. This side is much rainier than Kona on the opposite side of the island (and where they actually had a drought!).
  • 7:30 AM, Grab breakfast at the Hilo Farmer’s Market (open at 6 or 7 AM, depending on the day and wraps at 4 PM)
    • More than 200 vendors are located at the corner of Mamo Street and Kamehameha Avenue in historic downtown Hilo.
    • You’ll love all the fruit stands — especially the variety of bananas (who knew there was such a thing as an apple banana!?). Since Hilo is very rainy, the entire market is under cover. It was a complete downpour while we were there.

When it rains, it pours! Checking out the market in Hilo.

The morning farmer’s market in Hilo. Love that it’s covered with all that rain.

  • Next, take a short 5 minute walk from the market to the Surf Break Café, a cozy spot with couches and grilled burritos. You won’t be disappointed!

Surf Break Café, a nice spot to relax and grab coffee near the market.

One of the best burrito’s I’ve ever had — the Puerto Escondido with cilantro chicken, avocado, rice, and lots of other fillings.

  • 9 AM, Drive to Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation (1.5 hours from Hilo, located in Kona)
  • 11 AM, Join the plantation factory tour. Tours leave every hour (starting at 10 AM with the last tour at 4 PM)
    • Most of Hawaii runs on “Hawaiian time” (i.e. late!), but this tour started promptly on the hour. We were late, but it’s easy to jump in and catch up.
    • The tour takes you through the entire process – from bean to packaging.
    • Be sure to stop by the gift shop for all the free coffee samples your heart desires. The coffee will jolt you awake — especially the Peaberry coffee. It’s the highest quality in Hawaii and has the most caffeine.

The coffee plantation in Kona, Hawaii. Yes, the hot spot for good coffee!

Watch out for the roosters! They have no fear of moving vehicles.

  • 12 PM, Drive the car to Ali’I Road in Kona, the main drag with restaurants and shops.
  • 12:30-12:50 PM, We recommend first checking out Hulihe’e Palace, the former vacation home of Hawaiian royalty. (open: 9 AM to 4 PM, closed Sunday; Tour $10 per person)
    • The palace has been converted into a tiny museum. But Kevin and I both agreed on one thing — moving into the place seemed like a curse. Pretty much, every person who moved in died shortly after!

Kevin looking cool with his shades in front of the royal summer home.

  • 1-1:30 PM, Walk into town and browse the shops. We especially enjoyed the Kona Farmers Market (open 7AM to 4PM, closed Mondays and Tuesdays).

Shopping time! Exploring all the stores in downtown Kilo. Definitely worth checking out.

Chowing down on pineapple and showing off the painting we bought at the Kona Farmer’s Market.

  • 1:30 PM, Drive from downtown Kona to Kanaloa Octopus Farm (18 minute drive)
  • 2-3 PM, Visit Kanaloa Octopus Farm, Kona (offers tours at 10 AM and 2 PM; $26 per person)
    • What a place! One of the top highlights during our vacation here. The Octopus farm is one of the only places that is trying to breed local octopus in captivity as a sustainable practice.
    • Near the end of the tour, you’ll get to feed them. But watch those tentacles. More than one person got a octopus latched to their arms. It was pretty freaky!

I was convinced that I’d fling the octopus across the room if it got that far up my arm!

Kevin bravely approaches (and keeps his distance!)

  • 3 PM – on, We recommend heading back into Kona and hanging out at a café (like Kona Coffee and Tea) or shopping more if you didn’t get your fix. You could easily hit up the telescopes at Maua Kea State Recreation on the way back to Hilo to see plenty of stars with zero light pollution. We heard they even get snow there, so bring some warm clothes with you!
    • It’s about a 2 hour drive back to Hilo – we headed back early (before dark) to spend time with our friend.

What a view! The Kona Cande Club, is right along the waterfront and steps from the shopping district in Kona. 

DAY 2 – Volcanoes and a Road Trip along the East of the Big Island

  • 3:30 AM, Wake up (eek!) and meet John, the guide for Epic Lava Tours at 4 AM in Hilo.
    • Yes, it’s CRAZY early, but the morning will go by quickly. After a 20 minute drive, you’ll arrive at Volcano National Park. The hike is about 1 hour each direction, and you’ll have plenty of time to see the lava up close.
    • The sunrise lava hike is $165 per person (and well worth it!)

Epic lava indeed! The sun rising with hot molten lava.

Another highlight of the tour — getting to pick up lava with a hammer. That is, if you can handle the heat. My shoes were melted by the end (no joke). Don’t wear shoes you don’t mind tossing by the end.

Kevin shows off the molten lava he just picked up

The hike feels like you’re on Mars. And the solidified lava is sharp as broken glass (so don’t touch it!)

  • 9 AM, Wrap up the lava tour and head back towards Hilo for food at Maku’u Farmer’s Market
    • Out of all the markets on the Big Island, this was by far our favorite. It is mostly a food market and offers a massive amount of Thai food stalls.

Can’t visit Hawaii without eating some Macadamia nuts.

Penang curry with chicken from one of the stalls at the market.

We loved these coasters and bought a set to take home. Souvenirs are much cheaper at the market than at the stores in town.

  • 12- 6 PM, Road trip up the Hamakua Coast
    • This stretch of road runs north of Hilo on Highway 19
    • Along the way, you’ll pass along old cane fields,  jungle-canopied farm homes, waterfalls and beaches.
    • Head straight up to Honka’a Town, a former sugar town with shops and galleries. We recommend doing this on any day but Sundays (when nearly everything is closed). You shouldn’t miss tasting a local doughnut called malassada’s from Tex Drive Inn.

Kevin chows down on the vanilla cream-filled malassada (doughnut)

  • Next, we hit up the Waipi’o Valley overlook at the end of Highway 240. This quick stop will give you a stunning view of the “Valley of Kings”

Waipi’o Valley overlook

  • We headed back south to Akaka Falls State Park that offers either a 5 minute or 20 minute hiking trail through a lush rainforest with giant ferns,  ginger and bamboo groves. At the end, you’ll find one of Hawaii’s most famous (and photogenic) waterfalls

Akaka Falls State Park, easily accessible from the parking lot

  • We wrapped up our road trip at this point to hang out with our friend and celebrate her birthday. But if you have more time, we recommend these other stops along this gorgeous stretch of road.
    • Pepe’ekeo Scenic Drive – just minutes north of Hilo. This “old Road through old Hawai’i” is a four mile (half hour) scenic exploration. The road parallels Highway 19 but is worlds away from the traffic and hustle along the main road.
    • Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens – On the Pepe’ekeo Scenic Drive. It offers short hikes through lush fern forests to stunning waterfalls that ends at the multi-tiered Umauma fall. Our friends did this and raved about it.
    • Pacific Tsunami Museum (10AM – 4PM), because who isn’t intrigued by massive waves? $8 per person.
  • Evening: Relax in Hilo, grab some dinner and call it an early night. Trust us, you’ll be beat after that 4 AM wakeup time. One unique place to check out is Conscious Culture Cafe, and order a flight of locally-brewed Kombucha.

Flights of Kombucha, a healthy treat!

DAY 3 – Explore Hilo, Head Home

  • On your last day, take advantage of a variety of cool experiences we outline below. Sadly, we had to say goodbye and grabbed a quick snack before saying goodbye to our friend. Though, something tells me we’ll be back again soon. There is a surprising amount of things to do on such a compact island.
  • Other ideas for your last day:
    • Panaewa Rainforest Zoo and Gardens – near Hilo
    • Thomas A. Jaggar Museum in the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park – view of the volcano rim and a small museum. Best to see at night.
    • Visit Volcanoes National Park (no reservations),and Lava Tree Park
    • Top museums, check out this great travel blog
    • Snorkeling with Dolphins in Kona with Dolphin Discovery, 12:15PM excursion
      • $100; Need 4 passengers to confirm
    • Head to Kona – Kona Coffee Living History Farm (only open Monday-Friday)
    • Kona Seahorse Farm Tour Ticket ($40 per ticket)
    • Night dive and snorkel with Manta rays
    • Paradise Meadows Orchard and Farm – free!
    • Waikoloa Petroglyphs – near Kona
    • Atlantis Submarines Kona
      • Tours: 10:00 am, 11:30 am, 1:00 pm ($20 off) and 2:30 pm (Check-in 30 minutes beforehand); 45 minute tour
      • $105 per person

Bye Hawaii – we’ll be back soon!

Three Day Itinerary: Road Trip Around the Big Island, Hawaii
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Three Day Itinerary: Road Trip Around the Big Island, Hawaii
Check out this fantastic three day (two nights) itinerary for the Big Island of Hawaii. Hitting up the best foodie spots and hidden gems from Hilo to Kona.

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