The Big Island creates some big memories.
On our first night on Hawaii's Big Island, the waves directly below our hotel room crashed against the rocks with such force, I was certain the huge, foamy spray was going to soak our balcony. So THIS is what they meant by "ocean front"! It was my first introduction to travel splurging, Hawaiian style, and just one of the many memories that make Hawaii a favourite travel destination.
That gorgeous room cost a bit more than our average lodgings, and that's not a bad thing. When people ask me what I write about, I always say "where to save and when to splurge". I know I cover the savings side of things - A LOT. (Case in point: Check out this piece on how I make Hawaii a truly affordable destination). But I really believe a well timed splurge is just as important. After all, what's the fun in being frugal all the time if you can't let loose every now and then? And Hawaii's Big Island is the perfect place to splurge! Here's what you should not miss.
More about that ocean front room
The Sheraton Kona Resort and Spa at Keauhou Bay is one of our favourite hotels. Our first visit was in 2012 and we always love going back. Just a few feet away from the crashing waves? I'll go for that any day!
While the views are lovely during the day, they're truly spectacular at night when the waves smash against the volcanic rock, sending plumes of spray several dozen feet into the air. And on good nights, the hotel spotlights pick up the friendly faces of the manta rays who love to surf in the evening swell. Just remember to close your balcony doors - you are so close to the waves you might not be able to sleep over their noise.
Staying at the Sheraton Kona Resort and Spa at Keauhou Bay has spoiled us for all future ocean front rooms because no other property can really compete. But don't be dismayed if you have a garden or mountain view room - we've stayed in those as well and were happy. The property has beautiful grounds and great surrounding scenery.
Great views aside, there are several little details at this hotel that won me over. I love that they have an eco-friendly program whereby you can forgo housekeeping in exchange for bonus SPG points. There's an onsite coin washer and dryer for guest use (the night our room was next door to the laundry was AWESOME - tons of TV watching and we only had to pop next door to check on things).
I also love that they're one of the very few Sheraton hotels that is exempt from using Starbucks coffee products so they can showcase local Kona coffee. Their onsite Keauhou Coffee Company cafe features 100% Kona coffee, grown just a few miles away.
Our favourite breakfast pick from all the hotel's restaurant was the Akule Supply Company, which is a 2 minute walk off site and next to the ocean. It has traditional Hawaiian fare like island style fish and egg breakfast plates and loco moco, both of which made for a delicious start to our day. Even if you're not staying at the hotel, this small spot is well worth swinging by. (We also stopped by for dinner one night and our experience at Akule was less than stellar - they were understaffed, overly full, and things were just disorganized and disappointing. But the breakfast experience was a completely different scene. So take our advice with a grain of salt!)
A helicopter tour
I am far from an expert on helicopter tours. I've taken exactly one, with Paradise Helicopters on the Big Island, but it was enough to convince me that this is the most important travel splurge you could make in Hawaii AND that there's probably no better place in the world to make that splurge. Trust me, I'm not exaggerating this in the least!
I can't think of location with more varied topography; where the landscape must be appreciated by air than the Big Island. Just the coastline around Kona itself is stunning and I was in awe well before we reached "the good stuff" (not my words, but what others have said!). Personally, I think hidden waterfalls are pretty darn good stuff - and a great way to start the tour!
We also loved sites like this green sand beach. The color is absolutely amazing but most visitors aren't interested in shades of green. They're after orange - fiery, lava orange - and not much else. To be fair, there's a reason why most people associate Big Island helicopter tours with lava viewing. The helicopter companies themselves put extensive focus on lava sightings and not much else in their brochures. I'm sorry to tell you that you won't be seeing massive amounts of gushing lava on most helicopter tours. And you know what? That's okay.
The lava flow and the flying conditions vary widely each day and it's impossible to guarantee a sighting. Don't get me wrong - lava is pretty amazing stuff. (Can you see the crack of orange opening up in the oozing lava above? It's near the center of the pic, in the lower half). But it is only one tiny component of all that you can see and enjoy. My advice is to focus on enjoying the entirety of the experience, not crossing a certain photo op off your bucket list.
The enormity of the landmass covered by lava rock is really astonishing and, from the air, you can plainly see the swaths of destruction is has unleashed on many small communities. Flying around volcanoes is not for the faint of heart and I was extremely appreciative that our pilot stuck the perfect balance of being calm and professional while still maintaining a friendly, jovial conversation.
What everyone has asked me about the experience was just how it was for my notorious stomach. Seems just about everyone has heard about my motion sickness drama on past trips! The short answer is: it was so-so. Whether or not you'll experience motion sickness on a helicopter ride if difficult to predict.
I think a lot depends on each individual and how windy the conditions are. I was doing fine for the first half of the trip (though it didn't do me any favors when our pilot very considerately would turn the helicopter around so all passengers could see all attractions. The gesture was appreciated but the swooping was a bit much!)
By the second half of the tour - just as we were getting to the spectacular waterfalls along the northern part of the island, the motion sickness feelings intensified. I think they just slowly grew with each turn. Paradise Helicopters does prepare you in advance and hands out ginger chew candies but if I were to redo my experience again, I'd prepare by taking some ginger tablets in advance and by opening up my candies to have at the ready.
I'm very, VERY glad I was in a forward facing seat - that definitely helped with motion sickness control. If this is critical for you, speak to the staff well in advance to see what can be arranged for you.
I really can't emphasize enough what a breathtaking experience this was - so much so that I'd recommend that other travelers make it a priority in their schedule. I think an ideal time for a flight would be in the middle of your trip, after you've had a few days to appreciate the island's layout and landmarks. I wouldn't leave the trip until the last day because, if your flight is grounded due to poor weather conditions, you won't have any time left for a back up flight.
Tour and shop at the Hawaiian Vanilla Co.
At first glance, the Hawaiian Vanilla Bean Company doesn't look like much of a travel splurge. Tours and tasting experiences start at a reasonable $30- not too pricey for the world of travel experiences. That said, once you step inside their awesome gift shop, you're definitely going to find yourself in real splurge territory. But I digress...
I had been wanting to visit the farm for years, ever since I first read about it on my first trip to Hawaii. This is the only place in the United States where vanilla is grown commercially and it was fascinating to hear Jim, the company owner, describe the journey and investment he's made over the past decade to bring the farm up to the size it is today. Visiting a vanilla farm is really unlike any other farm visit experience and it's so neat to see how the plants are grown from tiny babies into full plants, ready for harvesting.
Sampling treats like their vanilla lemonade and vanilla coffee made for a wonderful end to our tour and I couldn't wait to check out more of their vanilla products. It goes without saying that I stocked up on vanilla beans and vanilla extract, but there was SO much more to check out! There were so many sweet and savory condiments, from jams to chutneys, but what I really loved was the vanilla salt. Yep, salt, not sugar. Trust me, this is scrumptious stuff! Happily, they were able to arrange shipping to send all our treats directly back to Canada.
Drive up Mauna Kea summit.
Guess what - Everest isn't the highest mountain in the world. Technically, Mauna Kea is. That is, if you measure from the ocean floor on up! Bragging rights to the world's highest mountain are definitely worth the splurge and happily this is one splurge that's pretty accessible, all things considered.
There are a lot of companies that do day trips to Mauna Kea, many timing them to reach the summit at sunset. But I'd recommend directing your splurge dollars to do an independent trip by renting a more substantial vehicle for the day, such as a jeep or SUV, and taking the trip for yourself. It's more affordable, your time will be more flexible, and you can of course use the rest of your day to explore other parts of the island.
The views from the summit are absolutely incredible and it's well worth arriving to enjoy the sunset - the tour companies got it right! When you're planning your trip, take into account the slow driving time on the rural, winding roads and don't forget to reserve time for a stop at the visitor's center about half way up the mountain. You'll want to be there for an hour or more to get acclimatized to the change in altitude.
Speaking of the altitude, WOW! It really hit us hard. Seriously, when we reached the summit we could barely move. If I were to do it all over again, I'd spend more time at the visitor's center (heck, I'd even bring a book and sit in the parking lot and read for an extra hour). But at least we dressed appropriately for the occasion.
I'm really, really glad we dressed as warmly as we did. It's weird to be around snow in Hawaii and - guess what - it's just like Canadian snow. Cold and miserable stuff. Not that everyone feels the same way!
It was downright peculiar to see people sledding, skiing, and snowboarding in Hawaii - some in Hawaiian shirts! And it was even stranger to see people load up the back of their pick up trucks with snow to bring down the mountain and dump in their backyards for their kids to play in. We actually stopped one truck to ask them exactly what they were doing because we couldn't understand why anyone would love snow THAT MUCH! We even offered to have them come visit us in Ottawa and they could shovel all the snow they wanted to - sadly, there were no takers.
And do NOT forget the coffee!
I'm not even going to say how much the coffee you see here cost us. It's too shameful to put down in print! Let's just say it's A LOT. An insane amount. And we keep going back for more -for good reason. Hawaii's Big Island produces the best coffee in the world. That's not just me saying it - it's generally recognized to be the world's finest coffee producing region. This is THE item to buy, buy, and buy again, for yourself, as gifts, you name it. We still order from the farmers met on our trips. They're good people and they make a marvelous product. Money happily spent, every penny of it.
There's no memory like a Hawaiian memory
Hawaii is just one of those destinations that feels more special for us each and every time we go. We truly believe it is a remarkably affordable destination but, if you like to include a few splurges in your travel plans, this is the place to do it. The experiences will be spectacular and your memories will last a life time.
What's the best travel splurge you've ever indulged in?
Heading to Hawaii soon? These articles will help:
Is Hawaii Affordable?
Visiting Lava Tree State Monument
The Big Island's Kilauea Lodge
Some activities mentioned here were sponsored in part or in whole and we thank local businesses for their support. As always, all research, writing, and opinions are our own.