Summer Break

Big Island, HI

Day 1

We kicked off our Hawaiian adventure with a direct flight from Chicago, followed by a smooth but frosty reception at the car rental counter courtesy of Thrifty, which I booked through Discount Hawaii car rentals.  After a quick stop at Target for sunscreen and snacks, we made our way to a rental condo at Waikoloa Beach Resort. After dropping off the kids and unloading our luggage, we headed to Island Gourmet Market at Queen’s Marketplace for a more substantial grocery expedition. Following that, we stopped at the Lava Lava beach club, where we practically had to put our names down for dinner before we even left Chicago, with that 1 hour and 45-minute wait at 5:30 pm. The anticipation was real. We returned to the condo to get ready and grab the kids.
Despite its popularity, Lava Lava fell short of our expectations. The beachfront allure, the tropical vibes with flickering torches and live tunes—it was all there. But the masses of tourists and the lackluster food left us feeling underwhelmed.

Day 2 

New Years Eve and first day of exploration! We started off with a leisurely stroll through Kings’ Shops, eyeing the goodies for a return visit we never quite managed to make. Next up, a walk around Petroglyphs Field—quick, easy, and historically fascinating. We then drove to Waialea bay beach.  Small beach in a beautiful setting, quiet and protected.  You have to pay for parking, and walk on a short pathway, stepping over a few tree branches to get to the sandy part. Bring food and drink if you plan to stay for a while.  We didn’t, and ended up leaving sooner than expected once everyone got hungry.  Our children were in a mood for a burger. Google map took us to Surf Burger, located in Kohala Burger & Taco  across the port in Kawaihae. Two tables, burgers that rocked our world, and fish tacos worth writing home about. And what's a meal without shaved ice, conveniently located next door? There is a small market next door to grab a beer, or fresh poke. Fuelled by good food and local advice, we ventured onward to Pololu Valley Trail. With sneakers in the trunk and a few spare hours until the NYE dinner reservation, we continued on a scenic drive for about 20 more minutes, passing by quaint village of Hawi and a big monument to King Kamehameha, the first ruler of the kingdom of Hawaii. Once you get to the top and hopefully find nearby parking, the hike is not too difficult - about 10 minutes down to the valley, and about twice as long back to the top. Be sure to bring water, but keep in mind there are no restrooms, so plan accordingly. Once you come down, you'll be greeted with beautiful views - sea on one side, mountains on the other—made it all worth it.

As the sun dipped low, we found ourselves at Pueo’s Osteria in Waikoloa village—a cozy Italian spot nestled in a shopping center. Outdoor terrace, picturesque sunset, and plates brimming with deliciousness— we ended the year on a high note!

Pololu Valley

Day 3

It was New Year's Day and a lot of places were closed or opening late, but we didn't mind. We strolled into Kona for an early lunch at On the Rocks restaurant and snagged a great table after a short wait. The menu was similar to Lava Lava Beach Club, with big salads, nachos, tacos, and burgers - perfect for a casual beachside meal. After filling up, we headed up the coast to Kahalu'u beach, a spot that has something for everyone - great snorkeling, surfing, and shallow pools for the kids. Just don't forget your water shoes because the water entrance is a bit rocky. We spent a few hours there before the main event of the night - a manta ray snorkeling tour with Anelakai Adventures Company. I chose them because they only take 6 people and use a Hawaiian Double Hull Canoe, which we paddled to the snorkel spot. We stayed in the water for about 30 minutes, holding onto the bar and watching 3 or 4 mantas come and go. It's definitely a unique experience and a must-do on the Big Island. Back in Kona, we rounded off our day with dinner at Papa Kona - a dockside joint boasting a menu akin to On The Rocks and Lava Lava. What did I order? Who knows! But nestled in downtown Kona, the ambiance was unbeatable. Overall, it was a day full of good food, fun in the sun, and a once-in-a-lifetime experience with the mantas.

Day 4

We kicked things off with a morning visit to the Seahorse farm (reservations are advised), because who wouldn't want to hang out with those quirky little creatures? After an hour-long tour, we emerged enlightened and even got to hold one. Talk about a memorable start to the day!

Next stop: Shaka Tacos food truck in Kona. Those tacos were A-M-A-Z-I-N-G! As we waited for our order, we meandered through an artisanal market, a good place to pick up some local crafts and souvenirs.

Then, it was time to rendezvous with friends for a snorkeling extravaganza at Captain Cook Bay. The weather may have started off a bit cloudy, but by the time we hit the water, the sun was out. The snorkeling was fantastic.  We even saw some dolphins and a double rainbow on the way back to shore.

We wrapped things up with dinner at Umeke Fishmarket Bar & Grill. The food was worth the wait - their poke and seafood were absolutely delicious.

Day 5

We grabbed some mouthwatering açaí bowls at Queen’s shops and headed to the beach near us, ‘Anaeho’omalu beach.  We rented paddle boards and the kids had a blast entertaining themselves. The beach was beautiful, with calm waters, white sand, and water sports to try out. We spent the day just chilling out and having fun.
In the evening, Instead of the usual luau, we decided to mix things up and went for a Paniolo Sunset BBQ dinner in cowboy country near Waimea. I booked it months in advance and it was packed! The dinner was held at a stunning cattle ranch with amazing sunset views and the most picturesque drive there. The food was delicious and served buffet-style. There was live country music, cowboy stories, dancing, s'mores, and games outside. It was a unique and fantastic experience that I'd totally recommend if you're looking for something a little different.

Day 6

Today was all about exploring the North side, so we headed to Waimea. It's not really a place for strolling down a central street, but we hit up some recommended shops at Parker Square, tasted açaí bowl at Hina Rae’s cafe, bought a Tshirt at Oshima Surf and Skate shop and finally grabbed lunch at the Fish and the Hog. The wait was about 30 minutes, but it was worth it for the smoked meat sandwiches and killer margaritas. Afterwards, we stopped at Hapuna beach on the way home. The white sand and perfect waves were just what we needed to unwind and catch a beautiful sunset. For our last night in Wailea, we splurged on couples’ dinner at Canoe House at Mauna Lani Resort. It was hands down the best meal we've had on the island. The atmosphere and food were superb. 

Sunset at Hapuna Beach

Day 7

Our journey to Hilo began with a small detour through Hawi, making sure to stop and check out some cool shops we missed on our first day.  We fueled up with a quick bite at Kohala Coffee Mill Cafe and couldn't resist a pit stop at Tex Drive In for their famous jelly-filled malasadas. The drive to Hilo was like a journey through different worlds, with the ever-changing landscape as we zipped in and out of different climate zones. 
Upon arrival, we took a short detour to checkout the Rainbow Waterfall and Boiling Pots, both of which have a fascinating legend attached to them.
We strolled through the town center, and picked up some souvenirs at Coconut Ave boutique. Sure, it wasn't Wailea or Kona, but there was a certain allure to its quirky storefronts and vibrant culture. After spending a few days there, we grew to love its laid-back Polynesian vibe and the abundance of activities.

For dinner,  live music and food trucks were setting up in the center, but we decided to keep our dinner reservations at Jackie Rey’s Hilo. It turned out to be a wrong choice. The food was nothing to write home about. But our stay at the peaceful Inn near Kulaniapia Falls was pure magic. Two nights of bliss with the sounds of birds, frogs, and the waterfall. Can't beat that!

Rainbow Waterfall in Hilo

Day 8

We woke up to a heavy rain, but that didn't stop us from heading to Volcano National Park. We suited up in our rain ponchos, obtained at the Visitor’s Center, and hit the trails, hiking Kilauea Iki Trail and Thurston Lava Tube. The path goes along the rim, descending and traversing a frozen lava field crater.  The views are breathtaking. Then it was time for lunch at the Rim Restaurant, with a spread of pizza, tuna tower, burger, and Caesar salad. 
Afterward, we tried some local wines at the Volcano vinery, but they didn't quite hit the spot, and with the rain still coming down, we weren’t feeling it. So, we hit the road, and as soon as we traversed the Volcano National Park landmark sign, if by magic, the rain disappeared and the sun came out. We made a quick stop at the Ka’u Coffee Mill for a taste of locally grown coffee and then headed to the famous Punalu’u black sand beach, where we saw the sea turtles.
As the day wound down, we made our way back to Hilo for our last night on the island.  For dinner, we went to Pineapple Island Fresh Cuisine restaurant.  It had all the island vibes - fresh seafood, tropical drinks served in a cut fresh pineapple for an extra $4, live music, and an awesome outdoor setting. The food was ok, but the atmosphere totally made up for it!

Day 9

Before our midday flight out of Hilo, we had a few hours to spare, so we decided to visit the Krishna Cow Sanctuary. It's an adorable place located near Akaka Falls, although we didn't have time to see the falls. You can spend as much time as you want cuddling with calfs and cows. It may be a bit pricey, but it's for a good cause, and it was a huge hit with the kids. Plus, it didn't require a lot of time commitment, which was perfect for us. If you happen to be driving by, I highly recommend making a stop at Ed's bakery. They have the most delicious homemade treats, all packaged in saran wrap and ziplock bags. I was tempted to buy some homemade jams, chocolate, and cookies, but unfortunately, we didn't have any more space in our luggage. Otherwise, I would have brought back half a suitcase full of goodies!
With only an hour left for lunch and each of us wanting something different, we headed to the Farmer Market food stand. They offered a wide variety of options, from açaí bowls and shaved ice cream to burgers, fries, and poke. I must say, I had some of the best poke of this entire trip! It was a fantastic way to end our time on the Big Island, at least for now.