When planning a vacation on a budget, we know it is uncommon for Hawaii to make it onto anyone’s list of affordable travel destinations. While it is possible to drop a considerable sum on a trip here, it is equally possible (and even pretty easy) to plan a low cost trip that will still give you the freedom to experience the best of what the islands have to offer. To start, the Big Island is by far the most affordable to visit and is also home to some of the most incredible natural beauty in all the islands. Here are a few inside tips from the Holualoa Inn on how to make the most of your stay here without breaking the bank.
(Note: A car rental is one expense that cannot be avoided as it is essential here for accessing almost anything outside of Kona. Book early for the best rates or check out the 5% discount link for Thifty Car Rental when booking through our Big Island bed and breakfast.)
Save! (Do as many of these as possible)
The best way to make the most of your trip is to drive around the island and pack in as many free and low-cost activities as possible. Each part of the island is unique, and it really is worth it to try to see them all if you have the time.
Hike for Some Epic Scenery
Check out our Top 5 Hikes on the Big Island blog for more detail, but here is a quick recap. The Pololu Hike on the Big Island’s north coast will take you from the end of the highway down into a lush and mysterious valley, one which was formerly home to thousands of ancient Hawaiian residents. The black sand beach at the valley’s mouth is an excellent spot for photos, as is the shady grove of swaying Ironwood trees directly behind the beach. Stop here to play on the mooring-rope-and-driftwood swings hanging from the trees, but be sure to check their integrity before going for a wild ride. Hike up the far side of Pololu and over the ridge to the epic lookout at the next valley, Honokane Nui.
Waipio is another spectacular valley at the opposite end of the chain, and is accessed from the south. Getting to the valley floor involves either driving (if you are lucky enough to have rented a 4×4, and know how to use it) or hiking down one of the steepest roads in the country. The reward is an even more spectacular black sand beach and the incredible backdrop of the valley itself, stretching seven miles back from the ocean toward Waimea.
Finally, try Mauna Kea for a much more challenging, but extremely rewarding hike. Even if you do not hike the full summit route, the scenery and solitude just a short way off the road are out of this world.
While the Big Island is not as well known for its beaches as Maui and Oahu, we still have a few gems that can rival the best on the other islands. In 2014, TripAdvisor ranked Kua Bay (officially known as Manini O’wali) among the Top 10 beaches in the country. Its soft white sand and its crystal blue water make it the perfect place to relax and play in the waves. Likewise, Hapuna Beach sports shallow, sandy breaks, a long stretch of perfectly sandy beach, and even some decent snorkeling along the north end. Be sure to get to Hapuna early to avoid the onshore winds that kick up strong currents and blow sand across the beach. If you don’t mind the early start, you can also have the place nearly to yourself.
Food can be expensive in Hawaii, but it doesn’t have to be. Many of these hole-in-the-wall places serve the best food on the island, so avoid the tourist traps and check out:
- Super J’s in Honaunau for a local-style plate lunch with the best lau-lau (pulled pork wrapped in taro leaves, it is amazing!) in all of Hawaii.
- Umeke’s (the one on Hualalai Rd in Kona) possibly the best poke on the island, without the lines.
- Lucy’s Taqueria in Hilo for West Coast-style Mexican food rivaling the best places on the mainland.
- Sweet Potato Kitchen in Hawi for amazing, creative vegetarian and vegan options that will sway even the most die-hard meat eater.
The food truck scene has not yet truly taken off on the Big Island, but there are still a few worth seeking out. Check out Cool Runnings truck in Kona for delicious Jamaican food and the light blue Malasada truck for the best fresh-fried Malasadas on the island (this one could be anywhere, so keep an eye out on the side of the highway!).
Stop in at one of the island’s great farmers markets for local produce, seasonal tropical fruit (some of the best you will ever eat!) and more great local food options. Check out the Saturday Markets at the Keauhou Shopping Plaza or up in Waimea town (there are three competing markets there on Saturday at last count), the Sunday Green Market across from the Manago Hotel in Captain Cook, or the single Wednesday Market at Pukalani Stables in Waimea town.
Snorkel the Bays
As long as you are comfortable snorkeling without a guide, there are limitless options for snorkeling around Kona. To really save, bring your own gear. Otherwise, cheap rentals are available from local shops (we provide gear for free as part of your stay). Most of the best spots are right off the road, no hiking required. Honaunau Bay, south of Captain Cook, is full of life and has something for everyone; stay close to shore and watch the Yellow Tangs dart about in the coral, of venture into the deep end and float around in the blue.
Kealakekua Bay is just north of Honaunau and is also home to a rich marine environment. The bay can be accessed from Manini Beach or from the boulder beach at Kealakekua Park. By far the best snorkeling in bay is just below the Captain Cook monument, at the north end of the bay. This spot is best accessed via the Captain Cook Monument Hike.
Kahalu’u is the best spot for beginners to get their feet wet. Shallow water, tons of fish, and a wave break that keeps the water calm even during swells all make for a thoroughly enjoyable snorkeling experience.
Check Out a Local Brewery
The Big Island is home to more breweries than one might expect for a rural, sparsely populated island. The Kona Brewing Company is by far the most popular. They offer unique beers on tap that aren’t available in stores, great bar food, and a well-done brewery tour that is just long enough and ends with a generous beer tasting. Tours can and should be booked in advance on their website.
Ola Brew is an up-and-coming brewery in the same industrial area as Kona Brewing Company. They also offer tours through their website and have such a distinct selection of unique brews that you could certainly visit both of these breweries without getting bored.
Big Island Brewhaus is another great spot up in Waimea town. While they don’t offer tours, they do make great food and great beer, and they have a much more local, low-key vibe than either of the other breweries.
Splurge! (Pick one of these)
Since you saved big on all of your other activities, you might want to spend on just one extra to put your trip over the top. Here are just a few ideas that are a bit pricier, but totally worth the money.
Skydive the North Shore
There are probably places you can skydive cheaper on the mainland, but few of them will be able to rival Big Island Gravity Skydiving for scenery. B.I.G. Skydiving offers tandem jumps, meaning your jump here can be your first ever skydiving experience. The flight to 12,000 feet includes a sightseeing tour that takes in the epic valleys along the north coast of the island. When you reach your jump point, you will be nearly level with the summit of Mauna Kea to the south, and you will be higher than the summit of Haleakala on Maui. Below you stretches a chain of volcanic peaks in either direction and the endless blue of the Pacific and then…weightlessness during a full minute of freefall, followed by a chance to catch your breath and take in the scenery during a five-minute descent below the canopy of your parachute, expertly piloted by the guide to whom you are harnessed. The tour also includes a video of your jump, but we bet the memories will be better than any video could ever capture.
Zipline Over a Waterfall
There are several ziplining courses on the Big Island, but Skyline Eco Tours in Honomu might have some of the best scenery. Their course takes you though several shorter lines before crossing several large gulches. The final line on the course is nearly 1/3 of a mile long and takes you over a river before the bottom drops out from under you and you find yourself hundreds of feet above a raging waterfall. Those final few moments alone make this zipline worthwhile, but again there are several other options to choose from. Kohala Zipline in Hawi includes more interactive sections, including bridge traverses and rappels. Umamau Falls Zipline has a combination of both waterfall scenery and interactive sections, although separately neither can rival the other two.
Learn to SCUBA/Manta Night Dive/Boat Snorkel Tour
Kona is home to some incredible ocean environments and diverse marine life. The calm coastal waters and the huge selection of ocean activities and dive operators make Kona a playground for anyone who enjoys being in the ocean. If you have ever been interested in getting a SCUBA diving certification this might just be the place to do it. Since there are so many dive operators in town, you will be able to shop around and pick the one that works best for you. Your certification here will take place in the ocean instead of in a pool, and you will be able to get it done in just a few short days. If you complete your certification while you are here, or if you are already certified, you can add on a once-in-a-lifetime Manta Ray Dive. Being in the ocean at night is an experience on ts own, but sitting on the sandy bottom watching 14-foot Manta Rays dance above you in the flashlight beams is otherworldly. If SCUBA diving is not on your agenda, you don’t have to miss out. You can also take part in a Manta Ray snorkeling tour, which is less expensive, but no less magical.
For those of you who are already SCUBA certified, or if you just want to get to some cool snorkeling sites you can splurge on a half day boat trip with one of the many tour operators in and around Kona. They can take you directly to the Captain Cook Monument, which is home to some of the most incredible coral reef on the island, and to places less known but equally amazing. We are partnered with Into the Blue charters, who run a small 6-passenger snorkeling tour on their Power Catamaran.
Farm to Table Dining
*For an unforgettable fine-dining experience, look no further than our neighbor Holuakoa Gardens Restaurant. This is definitely a place to splurge, as every item on their menu is worth the high price tag. Holuakoa is a “slow-food” establishment. Be prepared to spend over an hour at the restaurant for brunch and up to two hours for dinner. While this might seem excessive, the atmosphere and ambiance in their outdoor dining area makes any trip to Holuakoa a thoroughly relaxing and enjoyable time. The wait is always worth it, because all of their food is meticulously prepared and comes out perfect every time, but chances are you won’t even notice the time pass as you sip your Kona coffee or a signature cocktail under the canopy of a Moneypod tree and listen to the birds singing overhead.
So whether you are here for a few days or weeks, there is plenty to do to keep you occupied and your wallet happy. And while you’re planning your budget travel to the Big Island be sure to check out the rest of our blog for more tips!
* Unfortunately, as of Summer 2020, our neighbor Holuakoa Gardens Restaurant & Cafe are no longer in business.