7 Days in Hawaii Exploring The Big Island and Oahu
When my brother decided to propose to his girlfriend (she said yes) he wanted to surprise her by having both families literally pop out of the bushes as he got on one knee. Of course we had to be there and decided to make a vacation out of it. Here’s how we spent 7 days in Hawaii exploring The Big Island and Oahu.
How We Got to Hawaii
Affording travel as a family sometimes requires creativity. Since we had specific dates we had to travel on landing a flight deal was less likely. To lower the costs I looked into all the frequent flier miles we had. Our Delta Skymiles accounts had the most miles but wasn’t quite enough for all 3 of us to fly round trip from Miami. However, it was enough for us to fly from LAX to Kona and then from Honolulu back to LAX for a grand total of $16.80. Most of these miles were earned from the sign-up bonus from our Delta AMEX Gold Credit Cards. When we signed-up the bonus was 60,000 miles, which really jump-started our balances and is enough for a round-trip flight. Sign up here for the 60k mile bonus and each time you refer someone you will earn up to 10,000 miles. Don’t think you can only get miles from flying, here are 12 Ways to Earn Miles Without Flying.
Now to get from Miami to LAX I checked my other accounts and I had enough miles with American Airlines to get 2 out of the 3 of us from Ft. Lauderdale to LAX, the 3rd ticket cost $116 and taxes on the two free was $11.20, totaling $127.50. For our return from LAX, United had a flight deal to Ft. Lauderdale for $56pp, yes $168 total for 3 people! Being willing to fly more than one airline made our flights to Hawaii a minimal cost of $312.30.
LAX offers a free shuttle to get you from one terminal to the next and the 2hrs we had in between flights was more than enough time (team carry-on). Had we flown Delta round-trip we would of spent $940 on top of using the 162,000 SkyMiles we would have still used for the LAX to Hawaii round-trip portion. To save $627.40 I’ll gladly transfer terminals, those savings ended up being used for our accommodations.
The Islands in Hawaii We Visited
Hawaii is made up of 8 main Islands: Niihau, Kauai, Oahu, Maui, Molokai, Lanai, Kahoolawe, and the Big Island of Hawaii. We had 7 full days (+ 2 travel days) and decided to visit both the Big Island and Oahu. The Big Island is home to Hawaii’s Volcano National Park while Oahu is home to Honolulu.
What We Did on The Big Island: Kona
Day Zero in Kona: Arriving in Kona and Where We Stayed in Kona
Arriving at Kona International Airport is a dream. You walk off the plane on the tarmac and then walk through a door and are already out of the airport. We were team carry-on but my parents who were not waited less than 5 minutes for their bags. We rented a car and the shuttle to the office is right in front of the carousel.
Renting a car is a must on the Big Island and Hertz was the cheapest during our stay. As a AAA member we even got one car seat rental for free. I typically prefer to travel with my own car seats but since I was flying solo with 2 kids and had to change terminals at LAX I thought it would be best to have the least amount of things as possible. Hertz provided the Cosco car seat and it was super lightweight and now I know why so many people recommend it. The only annoying thing about it is it kind of hurts your hand when installing it, but once installed it was fine.
We were at our Airbnb in 20 minutes and it was just as described. Hotels in Hawaii are so expensive, even the 2.5 and 3 star ones. We decided to get a 2 bedroom Airbnb and split the cost with my parents, costing us 50% less than we would have spent on a hotel room plus we had more space. Save $40 on your first Airbnb stay by signing up here.
You may be interested in reading: 8 Tips to Guarantee a Great Airbnb Experience
Based on a recommendation for our Airbnb host we had dinner at Hugo’s on the Rocks. It is a casual waterfront restaurant that has live entertainment each night. The food was good and we enjoyed the live music.
Day One in Kona: Waipi’o Valley and Atlantis Submarine
Since we didn’t know how we would feel based on the time difference we had a list of activities we wanted to do but didn’t have anything set it stone. Well we were all up by 5AM. I always travel with snacks so we had granola bars to hold us over until breakfast. We ate at Island Lava Java, which opens at 6:30AM. The food is good and service is excellent and fast.
After breakfast we made the 1.5hr scenic drive to Waipi’o Valley. Waipi’o Valley is also known as Valley of the Kings and has a stunning view that pictures just don’t do justice. It’s home to some gorgeous waterfalls and the longest black sand beach on the island. The only way to get to the floor of the valley is a grueling 6.5 mile hike. You can drive a 4×4 vehicle down but most rental car companies forbid you from doing so, be sure to check your policy. Other options include horseback riding or going on a 4×4 tour. We visited on a Sunday and no tours operate Sundays so we admired the valley from the lookout point.
When we returned to Kona we decided to book the Atlantis Submarine tour. I thought it would be perfect for Kennedy since she wouldn’t be able to participate in our snorkel tour later on in our trip. She was too short by 1 inch as you must be 36 inches to go. My mom and I took Jordyn anyway and my dad hung out with Kennedy by the pier (she was able to see dolphins and sea turtles so she had a good time too).
The submarine tour allows you to see the ocean floor with the coral reef, shipwreck and beautiful fish without having to know how to swim or get wet. I didn’t know you could get seasick while under the water but there was a lady on our tour who did. Be sure to take any needed medication prior to but they do have bags you can use.
We had dinner at Kamana Indian Cuisine. I was so hungry I forgot to take pictures but the food was very good and if you sit outside you have an ocean view!
Day Two in Kona: Papalokea Beach & Manta Ray Night Snorkel
We had a wild dolphin snorkel tour booked for the morning but it ended up getting canceled due to the weather. Prior to our trip we were contemplating visiting Papalokea Beach, better know as the Green Sand Beach but decided against visiting due to time constraints so the cancellation allowed us time to visit. The beaches parking lot is a 1.5hr drive from Kona but once you arrive you have a 2.8 mile round trip hike. If you don’t want to hike and have a 4×4 vehicle you can drive to the beach. If not you can pay $20 per adult for round trip “shuttle service” from one of the locals. I say shuttle loosely as it’s not anything you’d imagine.
Once you arrive to the beach you climb down the cliff to the sand. I did this with Kennedy in the carrier so it’s very doable and there were people of all ages enjoying the beach.
The sand on the beach still has a green tint but unfortunately due to increased visitors, we clearly did not help with this, the beach has lost some of it’s color. If you hike or drive along the coast to get to the beach there are smaller “beach” areas where the green sand is much more lively in color, as seen below. Please do not remove the sand so that others may experience its beauty in it’s natural location.
Once we returned to Kona we quickly learned that pretty much every restaurant closes from 2 or 2:30-5PM so if you want a late lunch you may be out of luck. Thankfully Island Lava Java was open but they were only serving a limited snack menu, not their full lunch menu. They had tacos, pizza, and wings so it was fine but not as many choices if you’re picky.
Next was the activity I was most excited for, the Manta Ray night snorkel. We ended up booking this tour with Hang Loose Boat Tours. It’s cheaper to book via Viator than on their own website and then you can call them directly to add children under 4 as they are free (Viator won’t let you add them for some reason). We did the 5:30PM tour and had the best sunset view ever.
Once the sun goes down it is time to get in the water. Please note if you get sea sick you will want to take something before boarding the boat, it was extremely rocky while waiting for the sun to go down before getting in the water. The experience was indescribable, you hold onto a board with LED lights under it which attracts the manta rays and they just swim so close to you. Here’s my GoPro footage so you can see for yourself.
Jordyn participated in snorkeling, they actually put her on top of the board so she could just dip her head in the water to see the manta rays instead of having to hold on to the handle. They provide water, soda and snacks during the ride.
What We Did on The Big Island: Hilo
Day Three: Kona to Hilo, Punalu’u Black Sand Beach and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
We checked out of our Airbnb and made the mistake of eating at Humpy’s, they claim to have the best breakfast in Kona but we all wish we had eaten at Island Lava Java for the 4th time.
We started the drive to Punalu’u Black Sand Beach, it took about 1.5hrs, which seems to be a theme on the island. There are green sea turtles who lay on the sand and the kids were very excited to watch the one we saw. These sea turtles are endangered so please keep a distance and do not touch them or try to harm them.
After spending some time on the beach we continued our drive to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The entrance fee is $25 per car but valid for 7 days with unlimited re-entry.
We were hungry so we decided to eat at the hotel’s restaurant. We honestly weren’t expecting much as it was a national park but we were blown away by the food at Volcano House. It’s pricy for lunch but as there weren’t any other options and nothing nearby you’re stuck.
We headed to Thurston Lava Tube next to walk through a cava formed by an old lava path. It can be wet inside so be sure to bring a rain jacket to cover your head. Afterwards we headed to Jagger Museum. Here you can learn about Pele, the Goddess of Volcanoes as well as the history of the volcanoes on the Big Island. Jagger Museum is also the best place to take a look at the active volcano. While we were able to see lava spewing from the crater with our naked eye, bring binoculars for the best view. We arrived to the park two days before the big eruption so I’m not sure if you could always see the lava so well with your naked eye. There are plenty of rangers around who can give you a great history lesson of the area and volcano.
On our way out we stopped at the steam vents where you can actually see and feel the steam coming from the lava underneath the ground. It was pretty cool and the warmth was welcomed since it was rainy and chilly out.
We booked this Airbnb in Pahoa, about a 45-minute drive from the park. Pahoa is super small and they have a small strip of restaurants in “town”. We ate at Ning’s Thai Cuisine and it was so good, I got the pineapple curry!
Day Four: Hilo Helicopter Ride, Akaka & Rainbow Falls, and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
We booked a helicopter tour for 8:30AM as we read the morning times were best. When we arrived for check-in we were told we were on a weather watch and we would know 15mins before flight time if we could take off. The pilots cleared us and we got ready to go. Unfortunately 10mins into our ride the pilot ahead of our chopper called to say she lost all visibility. There were extremely heavy clouds over the volcano as and we had to turn around due to safety. It was a bummer but they offered us a full-refund or a chance to re-book. Since we had plans the rest of the day and were leaving in the morning we chose to get a refund. It was my first helicopter ride and I was quite nervous but I now know it was just fine and I’m ready for another one, hopefully over the grand canyon.
Five minutes from the airport, which is where the helicopter tours leave from, was a café with great reviews on yelp. We weren’t disappointed with Hawaiian Style Cafe but be careful, the pancakes are huge.
After breakfast we headed to Akaka State Park to see Akaka Falls. The entrance fee is $5 per car, they take cash or credit cards. It was raining and did not let up so luckily we had our rain jackets. It’s a 1 mile loop to the waterfall, there is a smaller one which isn’t nearly as beautiful.
We drove back towards Hilo to see another waterfall, Rainbow Waterfall. Unfortunately there was no rainbow that day but it was dry and hot. There is no parking or entrance fee to view this waterfall and you can access it right from the parking lot, no need for a long walk or hike.
It was time to head back to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. We wanted to do the Crater Rim Drive but due to the recent volcano activity the road was closed. Instead we drove part of the Chain of Craters Road. The drive was crazy because it seemed like every five minutes we were experiencing different weather patterns from rain to sun to extreme fog with minimal visibility back to sun. We got out at some of the stop and view points along the way to see the lava flow from different years.
We made reservations for dinner for 5:15PM back at Volcano House as the sunsets around 6:30PM and we wanted to see the volcano after dark and be close. Dinner was even better than lunch, be sure to make a reservation because the dining hall was packed and we saw many people turned away.
After dinner we headed to the Jagger Museum to see the lava glow. The line was long to find a parking spot since the lot is small but people come and go quickly so it didn’t take too long. This video doesn’t do the glow justice at all but here is what I captured.
Lessons Learned in Hilo
While our Airbnb was nice in hindsight I wish we would of booked something directly in Hilo. On the map it’s just 13 miles away so I thought it was close but due to one lane roads and traffic the drive is also 45mins-1hr. Hilo itself is also 45 minutes from the park so the same distance but we would of avoided the 45-minute drive from Pahoa to Hilo when we departed the island.
What we Did in Honolulu, Oahu
Day Five: Hilo to Honolulu
We had a 10AM flight to Honolulu and when we arrived to the airport there was not a single person in the security line, it was an absolute breeze. We regret not eating breakfast before arriving to the airport because there aren’t any restaurants inside. There are some shops with granola bars and packaged muffins but nothing freshly made.
Just like on the Big Island, based on our itinerary renting a car was necessary. We rented from Avis this time and got a Jeep Wrangler. They too provided car seats for the girls and were the Cosco ones.
We arrived to our Airbnb and were so happy with our choice. This was one of the best Airbnb’s we’ve stayed in, they literally thought of everything. The location was also perfect, we could walk to so many restaurants and were a 5 minute drive to Diamond Head and Waikiki Beach.
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This day was dedicated to the reason we were in Hawaii, my brothers proposal! My family and his soon to be fiancés family were all in town and she had no idea we were there or what was about to happen. Just know she said yes and it was beautiful, so was our celebration dinner afterwards!
Day Six: Diamond Head, Dole Plantation, & Polynesian Cultural Center
Since our first day in Oahu was dedicated to family we had only two full days to explore the island, which really isn’t enough. Fair warning this day was jam-packed and if we had more time we would have ditched one of the activities.
Our day started with a morning hike of Diamond Head. It’s open from 6AM-6PM but there is no entry after 4:30PM. The fee to enter is $5 per car or $1 per pedestrian and it’s cash only, we had to turn around. Get there early, the sun gets hotter by the minute and it gets really congested on the narrow paths so the earlier you arrive the less people you have to fight to get through. Also the parking lot is extremely small so arriving early guarantees you a spot as otherwise you will have to wait for a car to leave to park.
The hike is .8 miles to the top but between the steep areas and look out points along the way it took us about 40 minutes to get to the top. Jordyn walked the entire way herself and I used my Ergobaby to carry Kennedy on my back.
Afterwards we showered and headed to Dole Plantation. There are many activities to do there and each ticket is sold a la carte. We took the Pineapple Express through the plantation; it was nice for the kids but a little underwhelming for us adults. In addition to the train ride they have a botanical garden and a maze.
For us the main attraction was their infamous Dole Whip! My mom thought it would make sense for the 5 of us to share the Pineapple Split instead of each ordering a separate cone. Once we got it I realized why is cost $27! While the price is justifiable it was way too much for us, Pineapple Split 1, The Traveling Child 0!
Completely full we headed to the Polynesian Cultural Center, which is open from 12PM-9PM. We decided on the Ambassador Luau tickets, which come with a tour guide and reserved seating for the night show. I didn’t travel with a stroller for Kennedy as based on our itinerary I’d be ok with just a carrier but the Cultural Center is a ton of walking so I rented one from them. It was a baby trend stroller and a pretty nice one costing only $20 and getting $10 back when you return it.
The Polynesian Cultural Center highlights the six Polynesian cultures of Hawaii, Somao, Tahiti, Tonga, Aotearoa, and Fiji. There are 6 different villages, which highlights the history and customs of each place. We watched the canoe pageant to get a feel of the traditional dances of each place.
The kids each got a passport from the information desk and by completing certain activities in each village they earned stamps to exchange for a toy at the end of the day. Check them out taking hula lessons in the Hawaiian Village to get a stamp.
We were able to watch a traditional marriage ceremony, take canoe rides, try some traditional foods, play some traditional games, learn how to throw spears, and more. After exploring we attended the luau which included a buffet, the food was decent. At the end of the show a junior fire dancer performed, he is 14 years old and we were all blown away by his talents.
While the center is only open 9hrs per day they said it takes an average of 14 hours to go through the entire center. They allow you to use your tickets for 3 days so you can return another day during your visit as long as you turn it in to the office to get the return ticket.
Day Seven: Wild Dolphin Snorkel & Waikiki Beach
It was our last day in Hawaii and we were going to try this wild dolphin snorkel again. Since it was a last minute decision to try again we didn’t have much time to research but I feel like we lucked out choosing Ko Olina Adventures. We had to check in at the ungodly hour of 6:15AM and since it was a 45min drive from Waikiki we got up way before the crack of dawn.
Kids 3 and under are only $30, kids are $114, adults are $139 and lunch is included. Kennedy was allowed to go but since my dad wasn’t interested in going she stayed with him and my mom, Jordyn and I went. We stopped to grab muffins but they did provide each of us with a snack bag including a granola bar and cheese crackers.
Two snorkel spots are included in the tour in addition to the snorkel when you are swimming with the dolphins. We saw some sea turtles as well, they were huge! Check out this video swimming with dolphins in their natural habitat was amazing!
After the wild dolphin snorkel we picked up Kennedy and went to the beach from some much needed relaxation. We chose Waikiki Beach because it was close to our Airbnb and I read they had a little cove perfect for the girls. Honestly I didn’t get the hype on Waikiki Beach and honestly none of the beaches on the Big Island or Oahu. Most were rocky, cold, and extremely rough. You can read more on the Instagram post I made about it and read the feedback of others who have traveled to other islands of Hawaii, there is some really good information in the comments.
After the beach we napped and then went to dinner with my brother and his fiance! The next morning we flew back home. We really enjoyed the Big Island and highly recommend it. As our time on Oahu was limited I feel like we didn’t get a really good feel for the island so I can’t give a true synopsis as a whole but I stand by my opinion that if you’re looking for a beach vacation there are better and cheaper destinations to travel to.