Hawaii — Maui and the Big Island

In 2013, we took a two-week vacation in Hawaii and a number of people asked us about various aspects of the trip.  While this doesn’t have a lot to do with The Boat Galley — other than cooking in a rented condo being remarkably similar to being on charter — I’m posting this just as an easy way to make the info available.  Resources and tips we found useful are below the video — watching the video will make some of the info a little clearer.

General info:  We went in January 2013 and we were particularly looking for some good snorkeling and hiking.  We’re not golfers and we didn’t want to do a lot of group tours, luaus, etc.  We were on a semi-tight budget.  When we do a “paid activity,” we prefer smaller groups and will pay more for a better experience and just do fewer and save money elsewhere, such as not eating out.  Your preferences may be different!

Islands:  We did some research ahead of time as to which island we wanted to visit, and decided that Maui was likely the best fit for us.  Except that we wanted to see the active volcano on the Big Island.  We finally decided that we would splurge and visit both — 12 days on Maui and two on the Big Island. This added a little over $700 to the cost of the trip with the extra flight, a rental car for just a couple of days, meals out and the lava hike.  We thought it was totally worth it — read more below in the separate section on the Big Island.

You can Google on “Hawaii which island” and find hundreds of articles to help you choose.  I read several and did a couple of quizzes (such as this one) since we didn’t have a clue.


Lodging:  We wanted a small, inexpensive condo on Maui.  We didn’t plan to be there a lot, but research said that we could save a lot of money by cooking our own meals (very true!).  It’s tough to find anything under $100 a night and taxes are almost 14%.  We used HomeAway and found a studio condo in Kihei (note that rates may have changed, so I don’t know if this unit is still the best deal) — Kihei is fairly centrally located on Maui and generally the cheapest area.  It worked really well for us with free parking, just a short block from the water (with a water view from the lanai), a hot tub and laundromat on site.  The unit we chose had free wifi, beach towels and chairs and several coolers.

Food:  Food is expensive on Maui (prices were somewhat less on the Big Island) — generally 50% to 75% more than what I’m used to paying in central Illinois, although some items were fairly similar or even less.  But if you think prices are high at the supermarket, wait until you look at a menu in a restaurant!  We knew this ahead of time and had budgeted for it.

There’s a Costco near the airport (we’re not members, so didn’t go) and the general consensus is that Safeway is the best place in Kihei.  If you shop at Safeway, be sure to get one of their discount cards from the customer service desk when you first walk in.  It only takes a minute to fill out the form and it will save money!  They had some great fresh seafood.  Stock can be low right before a ship arrives — if shelves seem empty, ask when new stock is coming and come back then for more.

We only ate out one meal — breakfast the first morning at Caffe Kihei (very good) — so can’t recommend restaurants.  Beach Bums bar at the Ma’alaea harbor had good beer prices during Happy Hour and a pretty view of the harbor.

Guide Books:  We wanted to hike and snorkel, so I purchased Maui Trailblazer as our guidebook.  Frankly, we didn’t like it.  Luckily, there was a copy of Maui Revealed in the condo — we liked it MUCH better as a general resource and had info on all the hikes we wanted to do.  I also bought a great road map of Maui (although my phone has a GPS and we could have gotten around without a map, I like having one).  The fish book I got was “okay” — I saw some fish that weren’t in it, but overall it had what I needed.

I also bought a PDF guide to snorkeling on Maui from Tropical Snorkeling.  It’s hard for me to review it as we had very unusual weather conditions while we were there (a low to the north literally stopped the trade winds for much of the time) and a couple of their top picks had very poor visability due to surge and winds coming from weird directions.  I can say that their directions to beaches and even where to go to get to the reef were spot on.  My feeling is that the guide would be good in normal weather.  We snorkeled from shore three different days, with two days being quite good.

Rental Car:  Basically, smaller cars are better on Maui.  Many roads are narrow (some really narrow) and parking spaces can be small.  If you’re not on a budget, a convertible — Mustang or Jeep seem to be popular — would be fun.  We went the opposite direction thanks to a tip from Kim Carver at Jack Tar Magazine and rented an 8-year-old Dodge Neon with 80,000 miles (and a cracked dash that you can see in the video) from Aloha Rentals/Maui Vans and saved several hundred dollars.  A compact car was just fine and we went all over the island, including up Haleakala and it had plenty of horsepower in just a 4-cylinder.  An added bonus with Aloha is that they really don’t put many restrictions on where you can or can’t go . . . or at least they don’t with the older cars!  And they don’t try to get you to rent a bigger car or buy more insurance once you’re there (that alone makes me love them).

One of our best purchases was a gallon of windshield wiper fluid — the salt air does a number on the windshield and we found ourselves squirting fluid several times a day!  In 12 days, we used 3/4 of the gallon and the reservoir had been full when we got the car.

In general, drivers are very polite, waving each other ahead and waiting at the one lane bridges.  Pedestrians are everywhere and you must stop at crosswalks . . . drivers usually stop for pedestrians even without a marked crosswalk.

Stuff to take with you:  Be sure to take some warm clothes — like a winter jacket — even in the middle of summer.  The top of Haleakala is over 10,000 feet high and it’s windy.  It’s cold, particularly at sunrise and sunset . . . wind chills around 30 degrees F. are common.  We used our hats and gloves as well as winter jackets, fleeces and socks (we also used these on the Big Island at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park at night).  Jeans, while warm, were good on the lava hike to protect our legs if we stumbled (the lava is sharp).

Hiking shoes:  We wore our Keen hiking sandals for everything, including the lava hike.  Lesser sandals wouldn’t have made it, but the toe covers on the Keens made them work.  Sneakers would also be good, but flip flops are not going to be good in many places — particularly where there is sharp lava.

Snorkel/dive gear:  You can rent gear just about everywhere.  But if you have good gear and are used to it, you might not be very happy with the rental gear.  We took our own and thought it was worth paying for a bag each way — it was probably a wash versus the cost of renting but ours is much better than what we saw most people using.  I’m not a fan of short fins that don’t really fit and masks that leak.

We also took shorty wet suits as the water was on the cool side when we were there.  Even with our 1/4″ wet suits, we were chilly when we got out after an hour.  We both like to free dive while snorkeling and in hindsight, we should have rented weights as it was virtually impossible to dive down in the wet suits without them.

Activities on Maui

We did two “paid” activities and thought both well worth the cost:

Paragon Sailing/Snorkeling/Whale Watching trip to Molokini: Paragon actually sails (when the wind cooperates, which is most of the time), whereas other boats don’t.  There are only 36 people on board, making it less of a cattle car than others, and there is plenty of good but basic food and drinks (including beer on the way back). You can even take the helm for a bit if you want.

They are very friendly and helpful — many of the people on our boat had never snorkeled before and they even got in the water to help a couple of people.  If you’re experienced, you can just take off on your own; many other boats limit where you can go or insist on you wearing a floatation vest (Paragon has them if you want, but you’re not required to wear one).

Molokini is known for incredible visibility — well over 100 feet — and it was probably the best I’ve ever encountered, even in the Sea of Cortez in late summer.  No turtles, but a wide variety of fish.  The only down side is the other snorkelers from other boats — sometimes you’ll encounter a big gaggle (I don’t know what to call it).  Our strategy was just to quickly swim around these “obstructions” as there was plenty of open space.

We also saw humpback whales both on the way out and back (and heard bits of singing while we were in the water).  Many times, we’d see a pair of blows — a big one from mom and a little one from her calf.  We also got to watch as one calf learned to breech (the camera was already stashed away but it was fun to see first mom then baby show off).

Paragon isn’t the cheapest trip to Molokini at $100 per person, less 15% for booking online (we saw some advertised for $50), but we felt it was worth it for a smaller group, no silly restrictions and getting to sail.  We’ve also seen reviews of some of the cheaper companies that they don’t include much food and that it can feel very regimented.  Paragon offers a variety of trips and from what we saw, we highly recommend them.  As our captain said, “The owner of the company sets up the trips the way he’d want to be treated.”

Stand Up Paddleboarding:  Abbreviated SUP, Stand Up Paddleboarding is both a baby step towards learning to surf and a way to tour an area from the water.  We watched others doing it for several days, then decided to take a lesson ourselves.  It was a blast!!  Unfortunately, no photos of us doing it . . .  I actually managed to catch a wave in while kneeling.  I’m hooked now!

We went with Maui Sports Unlimited, which offers small classes — in our case, just the two of us for $65 each plus tax.  We saw other companies with much larger classes and assume they charge less.  We had specifically wanted a personalized experience, going at our pace, rather than one that was too fast or too slow.  We’d recommend Maui Sports Unlimited and if we ever go back or anywhere else with SUP lessons, we’ll do it again.

Other things we did:  There’s tons to do on Maui and we also took some time just to “do nothing.”  Any guide book and many online resources can tell you about many of the things we did, so I won’t go into details on most:

  • Haleakala — Sunrise is the “traditional” time to visit; we decided to go for sunset for better driving conditions and because we’re not fans of getting up at 2AM.  There are a number of great hikes at the top and into the crater.  Unfortunately, the weather is unpredictable and turned bad once we were there.  We waited nearly two hours for it to clear and as it was just getting worse, we left.  Even in the middle of the afternoon, it’s cold — dress warmly.
  • NW Corner — hiking to the Dragon’s Teeth and the Nakalele Blowhole and surrounding “acid war zone” are wonderful and easily reached by car.  Maui Revealed suggested that continuing to drive around the northwest side of the island wasn’t as big a deal as many rental companies said and it was all old info.  I beg to differ!  There are several fairly long stretches of one lane road with a sheer cliff on one side . . . and if a car is coming the other way, one of you has to back up.  We did it and lived through it, but I wouldn’t recommend it.  Views were nice but nothing particularly spectacular and the driver can’t watch anything but the road . . . and there are very few pull outs.  Kim had told us not to do it and she was right!
  • Road to Hana — a nice drive and going all the way around is certainly feasible in almost any vehicle (you don’t need high clearance or a big engine).  Pick one or two things to do along the road — there isn’t time for everything.  We left Kihei at 7AM and got back at 6PM (literally sunrise to sunset).  Gas up before you go; you can get food but we took a cooler with drinks, sandwiches and snacks so we could eat when and where we wanted to (and for less).  We loved our stop at the lower section of Haleakala National Park and doing the 4-mile round trip hike to Waimoku Falls.
  • Surf’s Up — if the surf or wind are up, watching the surfers, windsurfers and kiteboarders along the North Shore are great.  Ask a surfer where the best spots are for the current conditions.
  • Beach Snorkeling — there are tons of places to snorkel right off the shore in Maui.  The trick is finding one with good visibility for the weather, tide and surf conditions at a particular time.  We did three days of beach snorkeling; two days were very good, one was basically a bust.

We also did lots of shorter walks, beach explorations, visited the Whale Sanctuary Museum, the Sugar Museum and more.  Probably the best piece of advice we got was NOT to plan out a schedule in advance — the weather will vary and it’s best to plan just one day in advance.

The Big Island

Our whole purpose in going to the Big Island was to visit Hawaiian Volcanoes National Park and the active volcanoes there.  And although I thought I researched it thoroughly before we went, there was a lot that I didn’t know.

Airport:  The first point is that the airport at Hilo is much closer to the volcano than the airport at Kona . . . but it’s a beautiful drive from Kona and we found a great restaurant near the Kona airport (more on this below).  Hawaiian Airlines flies direct from Maui to both — you’ll save a lot of time by getting a direct flight instead of one that goes through Honolulu.

Car rental:  We couldn’t find a discount car rental, so ended up with a 3-day rental from Budget.  We had reserved a compact and got the big upsell when we went to pick it up about how we really needed high ground clearance and maybe even 4WD to go to the volcano.  We said no and stuck with the Chevy Sonic.  Frankly, that clerk (or whoever insisted he do the upsell) should be ashamed of themselves for saying it was a bad choice.  It was just fine for everything we did.

Lodging:  We stayed at At the End of the Road Bed & Breakfast in the little town of Volcano just outside the National Park and would recommend it.  Actually, there aren’t a lot of choices there in Volcano and I believe all are B&Bs!  At the time we were there, the lodge in the park was closed indefinitely for renovations.

Hilo is the biggest city on the island, and 30 miles from the park entrance.  For that reason, we didn’t stay there as we knew we wanted to watch the lava at night and it would be a longer drive “home.”  What we didn’t realize was that the best lava viewing is not in the park and Hilo is a little closer to it.

Food in Volcano:  There are only three restaurants and one, the Lava Rock Cafe, closes before dinner on Sunday and Monday.  We got a burger there on Saturday night and it was good; it gets mediocre reviews for many of its more expensive full entrees.  We didn’t eat at the other restaurants.  There are no food options in the park.

Lava Viewing:  As we were planning our trip, I looked at the web page for Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and realized that the lava views were so-so from the park and the county viewing area.  We figured we’d see whatever we could.  Somehow, I didn’t quite realize that the county viewing area talked about on the NPS page wasn’t really close to the park entrance . . . or that other, private options existed.

In the National Park, you can see the smoke plume from the main caldera during the day, and it glows red at night.  You can hike through another (inactive) caldera and drive past many on the Chain of Craters road.  It’s not bad, but it’s not WOW!

The “county viewing area” is at Kalapana and gets you closer to the WOW! but it’s still not there (I had thought it was).  Admittedly, some people do hike to the lava flows from the county viewing area, but it’s not advisable due to the fact that you’re trespassing on private land (owned by the families that were there before the lava and which now conduct the guided tours), there is no trail, some places are unsafe to walk on, and 4 or 5 people/groups a week have to be rescued by helicopter (expensive, and you will be charged for it).  I found hiking over a lava field in the dark with a guide to be challenging enough!

To get to the WOW! go on a guided lava hike with Kalapana Cultural Tours.  I believe there’s another company also offering similar hikes but have no experience with them.  When you call to make the reservations, you’ll be told the current hiking distance to the lava and the cost (it varies by distance; we paid $100 each, no discounts).  If there is no lava flowing, they will say so and not run the trip (in other words, if you go, you’ll see lava). On their web site, go to the “blog” tab and you’ll find photos from the last several days so you can see what the current conditions are although of course, things are always changing.

KCT typically run several hikes a day, all leaving in late afternoon and staying at the lava past full dark for the best views.  It’s about 5-1/2 hours total, including at least an hour at the lava.  Sometimes, as with us, the lava is entering the water and sometimes it’s making its way on the surface (we didn’t see this).  Either one is truly spectacular as it gets dark and you see the red glow and feel the heat.  If you didn’t watch the video at the top of this article, the end of it shows our hike.

While this is not a hike for those who aren’t in reasonable shape and used to hiking some, it’s also not something that’s only for elite athletes.  But it is challenging, with no trail, uneven surfaces and crevasses to watch for.  It’s typically 2 to 3 miles each way to the lava, and they generally figure on a walking pace of 1 MPH, which sounds slow.  It’s not.  On the way back, you’ll be hiking in the dark with only a flashlight (which they’ll provide).

You must wear closed-toe shoes.  We wore Keen sandals with socks and were okay.  They also recommend jeans in case you stumble — the lava is sharp.  We thought that a pair of thin jersey gloves would have been good to protect our hands, but only had heavy winter gloves that were just too hot.  They’ll tell you to take plenty of water; yes, it’s hot and you’ll want it.

Okay, the hike was tough.  But SO worthwhile.  I heartily recommend it if you’re fit.  Dave and I have done lots of hikes in lots of countries, and this ranks up there with the Inca Trail in Peru and the Dogan Escarpment in Mali (both of which are multiday hikes).  It absolutely made our experience.

If you really want to take some great photos, you’ll need a light-sensitive camera and a tripod.  It frequently rains anywhere from a mist to downpour at some point during the hike (didn’t for us, but . . . ) so you’ll want some sort of protection for the camera.  And yes, you’ll have to carry it all yourself.

When you arrive for the hike and pay, you can order a plate dinner to be ready after the hike for you (we didn’t realize this).  We could have gotten one just as we returned, but frankly I was exhausted and just wanted to head “home” to the B&B, which was about an hour away.  The Clif bars we had with us made a great dinner.

Lava-explodeBoat Trips:  If you saw my video, you probably saw some “tour boats” in some of the pictures near the lava.  So you’re saying, “Why hike?  I’ll go on the boat.”  I’m not going to tell anyone else what to do, but watching the boats from above make me say I’d never go on one. And I’m not a scaredy-cat boater at all!

The tour boats were coming very near where the lava was going into the water and where rocks were being hurled through the air.  More than once, we saw huge explosions where the boats had been just a minute earlier. The picture is blurry, but you can see the lava exploding as it hits the water — a boat had been there just moments before.

The boats also were coming into water that was shallow enough that we could see red-hot molten lava snaking across the bottom.  Imagine if the prop hit a rock . . . or an engine failed at an “inopportune” moment.

And then there’s the fact that the sea is seldom calm in that area (it was one of the rare calm days when we were there, due to the trade winds not blowing).  People have been injured standing up in the boats to take pictures and seasickness affects many (even if you’re not the one affected, it’s not pleasant if others are).

It’s up to you, but I’d rather hike.

Other stuff on the Big Island:  Our flight home left late at night, so we spent a leisurely day driving around the island.  It’s very scenic; Dave thought maybe more so than Maui, I thought they were equally spectacular but very different.

Just south of the Kona airport is Honokohau Harbor, with a marina and plenty of sportfishing boats and a few cruisers (you know we had to walk the docks).  We had dinner at Bite Me Bar & Grill there and it was wonderful — most of the fish comes straight off their sportfishing boats just a couple hours before.  Fresh ahi (tuna) was the catch of the day and delicious at just under $20 each, making it very affordable compared to many other restaurants in Hawaii.  It’s a very casual cruiser-style place (picnic tables, restrooms next door) and while we knew it was in the marina complex somewhere, we couldn’t find it without asking at the “fancy” restaurant next door.  Highly recommended!!!

I’m by no means an expert on Hawaii, this being our only trip there.  But if you have a question or better yet, more info, please leave a note!

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  • Barbara Lowell
    Posted at 14 August 2014 Reply

    Hi you are making me homesick. I lived in the Islands for 15 years and left a big piece of my heart there. You did a great job enjoying everything. Living there is a whole different experience and not as expensive as people think if you know when and where to shop and change your style to island life style. I hope one day to go back there but it sure would be a huge move from the East Coast. Glad you gave so many good tips, esp like the gallon of windshield cleaner … that would pertain to here in FL also.

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