Hawaii’s pretty cool – but some parts are cooler than others. Here’s my biased opinion – five things to do, and four things to avoid.
Do This #1: Stay at the Hilo Honu Inn
This little B&B is up on the hill behind Hilo, an easy walk from the waterfront shops. The hosts are friendly, knowledgeable about the area (they were the ones who gave me the tip to avoid the Saddle Road – see below), and they serve a great breakfast – huge piles of local fruit, banana pancakes if you’re lucky, and fresh coffee from a little coffee mill up on the volcano road.
They even have free wifi.
Don’t Do This #1: Go to the Kona Coast
I’m serious. Skip the entire leeward (west) side of the island. The eastern side is verdant, a pleasure to drive, and has interesting little towns like Volcano, Waipio, and Waimea. The western side is a mess of dry scrubland and lava rubble, punctuated at ten-mile intervals by plastic resort communities.
Read on for more.
Do This #2: Listen to KAPA-FM – 99.1 in Kona, 100.3 in Hilo
KAPA bills itself as “the music of the islands”, and they play all Hawaiian music, which seems to be about a 70-30 split between reggae and island folk music. It’s a nice accompaniment when you’re driving ’round the island: more variety than the pop-music stations that litter the dial over here, and less boring than NPR.
Don’t Do This #2: Drive the Saddle Road
There are three ways to get from one side of the island to the other. The north road (through Waimea) is a nice, easy drive through rolling hills. The south way goes right past Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The middle way – the Saddle Road – is a bastard.
Most of the roads on Hawaii are straight-line highways that are like driving on rails (even the drive up Kilauea, which surprised me). The Saddle Road is an exception – I was told it’s an evil, switchback-filled, Proper Mountain Road, that occasionally has moss growing on the road to make it even more treacherous. The only reason to go up there is if you’re an astronomy nerd who absolutely must see the Mauna Kea observatories up close. If that’s you, you’ll want two things: a four-wheel-drive, and excellent travel insurance.
Do This #3: Rent a car
This is really the only way to see the interesting bits of Hawaii. There’s not a lot of public transport, so you can’t get to spots like Waipio Valley without your own car; there are tours up to the volcano, but what’s the point of going up there if you can’t linger and look at everything at your own pace?
Don’t Do This #3: Rent a Pontiac G6
As I’ve explained already. You can get Mustangs, but they’re a bit on the pricey side.
Do This #4: Bring a polarising filter for your camera.
You’ll be taking lots of shots of the ocean, trying to capture that particular shade of blue that the Hawaiian coasts are so good at. It won’t be nearly as impressive if the entire photo is washed out by haze or glare.
If you have a point-and-shoot, here’s a little cheat: just hold your sunglasses over the camera lens, and rotate them until the glare disappears. Presto.
Don’t Do This #4: Miss the turnoff at Waimea
When you’re driving from Hilo to Kona via Waimea, you’ll be following highway 19 for the first part of the trip. At Waimea, highway 19 turns off to the right and runs along the coast; if you miss this turnoff, you’ll be driving to Kona on highway 190, which runs inland through the monotonous fields of dry grass and lava rubble that typify the western side of the island.
Also, there’s a little cluster of shops called Parker Square just after you turn off onto the 19; there’s a great little cafe there which serves proper espresso, and if it’s a clear day, you can stand in the carpark and see the observatories up on top of Mauna Kea.
Do This #5: Visit the Hilo Farmers’ Market
If you’re in Hilo on a Wednesday or Saturday afternoon, make your way down to the waterfront and wander along until you find the farmers’ market. It’s like the Queen Vic Market with more interesting food… taro! Papayas! Malasadas (basically doughnuts without the hole)! And there’s some great little craft stalls as well.