Doing the Hawaii Big Island the right way with kids! Part 2! Hilo, Puna, and back to Kona for departure

Hi there – I hope you enjoyed Part 1 of my Hawaii “Big Island” post featuring the Kona side of the island! The Kona side was mostly my favorite… however there are a few really distinct things about the Hilo side I am excited to talk about and MADE the trip for me. So, here we go, on to the other side of Hawai’i!

One important thing to know about the Hawaii Big Island is that the center is mostly volcano (no-man’s) land, and you can really only cut across it on HWY 200, or follow the whole coast line around on HWY 19 (north) or HWY 11 (south). So, we planned our trip from the Kona side to the Hilo side strategically, with our last stop at Anaehoomalu Bay before hopping on HWY 200 to make it to the other side.

Anaehoomalu Bay Kids 4
Baby beach tent still going strong at A-Bay! We seriously used this thing every day.

When we left A-Bay, we planned it so that we would hit sunset on top of Manua Kea, one of Hawaii’s towering dormant volcanoes. I honestly was not prepared for how bizarre the experience was traveling over Manua Kea – it was actually relatively intense! We left the beach and started our ascent up the mountain, and dropped about 30 degrees between the base and summit. I experienced slight altitude sickness (my stomach is weak) and our itty-bitty baby was also not prepared for this ascent with the dramatic altitude change and started screaming her head off as we made it to the top. We pulled up to the park at summit to calm her just in time to watch the sun set, and as soon as it was down the clouds and darkness rolled in at apocalyptic speeds – it was insane! Not only did the sky go almost black but the temps dropped even further, so we jumped back in the car and powered through the remainder of our drive to Hilo. Tons and tons of lava rock the whole way – crazy! Not trying to scare you away from checking out Manu Kea, but I do want to prepare you for the experience if you like me get altitude sickness easily, or if you have a tiny baby with sensitive ears too. Also, make sure you bring lots of layers and warm clothes – you will FREEZE if you attempt Manua Kea in beach attire.

It took us about two hours, but we made it to Hilo. The Hilo side of the island is super different… it is even more local feeling that the already low-key vibe in Kona. Personally if you are a beach kind of person I suggest you stick with Kona, but if you are more of a hiking family, you will absolutely love Hilo! There are lots of great waterfalls, hikes, and parks… Akaka Falls State Park, Wailuku River State Park, Lava Tree State Park, and of course, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to name a few.

The tragic thing about our trip was we hit the Hilo side of the island amid a government shutdown – massive National Park closures! However we decided to not let that halt our experience and ventured to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to see what we could discover. A blessing in disguise – not many trails at this park are baby friendly! The reason for this is that there are high levels of sulfur emitted from many of the steam vents on trails, and it can be extremely dangerous for people with compromised or delicate respiratory systems (AKA newborn babies!); it is however okay for kids but still be cautious with any asthma sufferers. When we arrived there were two heaven-sent parks department employees that were there on a totally volunteer basis (no getting paid during the shut down!), and they advised us on what trails were newborn safe. As we embarked I easily saw why areas could potentially not be safe – those steam vents are hot! Unfortunately – I guess maybe it’s fortunate that Hawaii isn’t getting covered in molten lava – but there was no active lava for us to see when we where there. However, the hike was fun and the views incredible! The park has lava tubes, steam vents, craters, and even just some really great, lush wilderness to see and appreciate.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park 6

Seeing the steam vents right off the hiking trails was crazy! Even at a distance they were hot enough to steam up our sunglasses.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Crater 1
Massive crater! If the volcano was active this would have been a great viewpoint… still very cool to see even when inactive.

If you do want to dine out in Hilo, there are a minimum of two experiences you need to have… this is the side of the island to get your super authentic/local cuisine. The #1 absolute must is getting a Hawaiian shaved ice from Wilson’s By the Bay in Hilo. This was a recommendation to us  by a friend who was born and raised in Hilo – he said they were declared Hawaii’s best shaved ice and after chowing mine, I couldn’t disagree! The other cuisine experiences to seek here would be a Hawaiian  local hot spot like Pineapple’s. It is an open dining setup and they often have live music. These places are so local/authentic that they don’t even have websites for me to link for you, so you are just going to have to trust me and put their location into your Google Maps when you get there, haha!

Another place to dine out that came highly recommended to us was Hula Hula’s at the Grand Naniloa Hotel – be sure to call and make a reservation because LOTS of hotel guests dine there and they get quite busy! If you are looking for a fantastic view, I would suggest dining at the Hilo Bay Cafe. Honestly we did not dine out a whole lot on this side of the island since we were doing so many beach/hike days and our rental had a fantastic full-size dining room and kitchen. My favorite grocery store in this area was Island Naturals Market & Deli… it was basically a Hawaiian Trader Joes! It is centrally located in Hilo and had good quality organic food selection.

Okay now for my favorite part, eeek! I love revisiting this memory SO MUCH because honestly it was one of my favorite from our whole Hawaii trip. My sister-in-law and I both read a lot about Carlsmith Beach Park in Hilo, their claim to fame being incredible sea turtle activity, so we decided to give it a try hoping the hype was true. Let me first start off by saying that even if we did not see a single turtle, this beach is breathtaking. There isn’t a ton of sand to walk in, but the grass is nice and well-kept, and once in the water the bottom is sandy. There are tons of little nooks where you can hide away and find privacy, and there are just as many places to swim and explore.

Carlsmith Beach Park 4

Now that we have talked about the beach itself, let me tell you that the turtle hype is real – they were EVERYWHERE! Right off the bat there were two sunning themselves on the lava rocks, and one was swimming in the shallows, what was basically the ‘kid area’ of the beach. I went down to snap some pics but in some areas you had to swim to get to where the turtles were… on top of needing to swim my toddler was in a mood and not wanting to participate, so after almost dropping my phone in the water several times I gave up on the pictures. I brought my kid and my iPhone back to the beach blanket and ditched them both (lol, with my husband of course) and went to go swim and take it all in. There was a river up to the right with about 4 who were resting on the rocks letting the water run over them. Then as I was swimming out of nowhere one just breezed right past me, almost touching me! It is very important to not touch or disturb them, but being in the water coexisting together was very cool and an experience I will never forget.

Carlsmith Beach Park Sea Turtle 2.jpg
Can you see him there just above the lava rocks! This was a picture I took standing on shore – they just swim in to all the little bays super close! They are slow so you definitely have time to stand and enjoy them and can easily keep out of their way.

Carlsmith Beach Park 10

Carlsmith Beach Park is seriously so beautiful! Lots of shallow water for kids to swim in too. I wish my kiddo was being a better sport that day because she could have had a lot of fun, I think she was just pooped out from all the travel!

After all this excitement we sadly only had one day left on the island, and our departing flight was relatively early the morning after. We had planned to stay in Hilo one more day, but the thought of getting up at 4am (if not earlier!) to leave for the airport and return the rental car was stressing me out like crazy! The drive from Hilo back to Kona is easily 1.5 to 2 hours, especially if we had some baby-meltdown-mountaintop drama again going back over Manua Kea. So at the last minute we decided to head back to Kona for a one-night hotel stay so we could wake up near the airport without any stress, and I can’t tell you how glad I am we did! If you are dividing your trip like we did, I would suggest simply flying out of the Hilo side if that is where you end – it is far too long of a trek with kiddos to make it back to Kona for a morning flight!

Instead of staying in the exact same area, we decided to explore a new one and booked a hotel room at the Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay. This hotel is about 25 minutes away from the airport and we chose it because it had fantastic amenities. There are pools to enjoy galore even with rockslides for the kids! There are several bars and restaurants to choose from, tons of space to lounge outside, cute shops, a full spa, and a full activity calendar. In addition, there is a lot to do in Keahou Bay! There are paddleboard and kayak rentals, and the one activity I especially wanted to partake in but we didn’t have time was night snorkeling! The evening sea life in that area is fantastic, especially the manta rays. There are snorkel charters that go out a night and light up the waters under their boat – some even have paddleboards with clear bottoms and lights so you can see through!

Photo Jan 12, 11 17 29 PM
Neat picture of the snorkeling boats out at night – I want to do this so bad! 

The resort itself was gorgeous and we spent the day relaxing around the pools, swimming, and just taking it all in. For dinner we decided to head to their restaurant “Ray’s on the Bay” which was a super cool experience! Because the hotels give off so much light it attracts plankton at night, which in-turn attract hungry manta rays coming to feed. These mantas are enormous and the restaurant shines lights on the water so that you can enjoy watching them dine while you do the same. It was a beautiful open-air area and the food was great – I ate so much fresh poke and sashimi! In all, it was a fun experience and a nice way to end our trip with some good R&R.

Sheraton Kona Resort Keauhou Bay 9
A view from inside the Sheraton Resort in Keauhou Bay – it was so beachy and fun! The rock slide and outdoor bar were just to the right of this.

Well, I hope you enjoyed following our story and learning more about the Hawaii Big Island! Have you been before? If so was there anything I missed that you loved? If you have never visited the big island I would love to chat and answer questions for you, it was a fantastic trip!

X.O. – Abbey Co.

Sheraton Kona Resort Keauhou Bay Pool 8

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