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Big Island Trip Report: Hooked on Hilo; Kohala Coast is Costly!


Mar 4th, 2014, 05:41 PM
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Big Island Trip Report: Hooked on Hilo; Kohala Coast is Costly!



Recommended: 5/5 stars:
Shipman House Bed & Breakfast Inn
on “Reed's Island” in Hilo, Big Island
Aunt Clara's shell room w/ Queen bed
(This was our 2nd visit. On our previous visit, we stayed in both Auntie Carrie's room & the cottage which faces the main house.)
Highly Recommended!
(Update: As of January 2014, it was necessary to take a 1.7 mile “detour route” between downtown Hilo and Shipman House, because the county is working on the old bridge. When the bridge is finished, you can walk between Shipman House and Hilo in 10 or 15 minutes, easily.)

Recommended: 4/5 stars
Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows
Kohala Coast, Big Island
Deluxe Ocean Front Room w/ King bed on 6th floor w/ sunset view
Special Rate: 4th Night free & daily buffet breakfast for 2 (See Mauna Lani website)
(Update: As of January 2014, there continues to be construction in the pool area.)


The Big Island of Hawaii is
sun-kissed toes in flip-flops,
fresh sushi,
tropical fruit at Shipman House B&B so colorful that it's edible art,
calderas glowing red against the inky night sky in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park,
snorkeling in paradise on the west coast,
dining like a local in lush green Hilo,
standing breathless & awestruck at nearly 14,000 feet high on Mauna Kea,
and meditating on the mysterious Place of Refuge at Pu'uhonua o Honaunau.

We celebrated our anniversary with 8 nights on the awesome Big Island of Hawaii in January 2014. This was our 2nd trip to the Big Island. We spent 4 nights at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows on the dry Kohala coast, followed by 4 nights at Shipman House Bed & Breakfast Inn on “Reed's Island” in Hilo on the lush, green east side of the island. We rented a car for day-trips.

I see a lot of “warnings” on some forums about Hilo being too wet and rainy. We feel this is an advantage! A rainforest needs rain. Do you want to see a rainforest and a lush, green tropical paradise? We do! We enjoy the green, lush east side of the island, and we welcome the warm, tropical rain. During our 2 visits, the rain in Hilo was pleasant and warm, and didn't last very long, and then the sun popped out. We never had to curtail any activities because of rain. Also, the weather varies on the east coast, so if it's raining in Hilo, you can take a day-trip nearby and find different weather. Our home in Southern California is dry, and we enjoy tropical climates.

While we were delighted with our romantic Deluxe Ocean Front room at the Mauna Lani, and we enjoy snorkeling at the Mauna Lani's calm beaches, the Kohala coast feels too touristy and pricey to us. The Kohala coast feels hot and dry unless you are at the beach swimming. It's surrounded by stark, desolate lava fields. We have stayed twice on the Kohala coast because the snorkeling is still possible even in January, but we always rent a car to explore the more interesting areas south of the Kohala coast. But we end up choosing to sleep on the Kohala coast because it is relatively free from vog, so the air is cleaner. Vog does bother us both when the air is poor.

We LOVE using Hilo as a base to explore the east side of the Big Island. Hilo is a local town with lots of good and reasonably priced dining, and exciting day-trips just a 1 or 1.5 hour drive away include Mauna Kea, the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Puna, Waipi'o Valley, and lovely waterfalls. Hilo feels like the “real Hawaii” to us, and it's a lush, green area.

I wouldn't want to sleep in Volcano because the air can be poor due to vog when you get closer to the Volcano. During our visit, signs were posted about the poor quality of the air in the Hawaii Volcanoes National park due to vog. The Hawaii Volcanoes National park is magnificent, and we loved doing it as a day-trip from Hilo on both of our trips to the Big Island. The air in Hilo is better than the air near Volcano, in our experience, and Hilo has a greater variety of good dining choices.


I highly recommend the following places to eat on the Big Island, which were our favorites on this trip! These are the best of the best for us, on the entire island!

51 Kalakaua Street, Hilo

Hilo Bay Cafe
(fresh sushi, nigiri & sashimi and excellent salads for reasonable prices!)
123 Lihiwai St., Hilo

Puka Puka Kitchen
270 Kamehameha Ave., Hilo

Hilo Homemade Ice Cream
1477 Kalanianaole Ave., Hilo

Hilo Sharks Coffee
41 Waianuenue Ave., Hilo
(tiny cafe with coffee & ice cream)

Shipman House Bed & Breakfast Inn
Delicious breakfast, for guests only!

Cafe Ono in Volcano (vegetarian)
19-3834 Old Volcano Rd., Volcano

Annie's Island Fresh Burgers
79-7460 Mamalahoa Highway, Ste 105, Kealakekua

Holualoa Kona Coffee Company
77-6261 Mamalahoa Highway, Holualoa
(organic Kona coffee...free self-guided tour, sample cup of Kona, best organic Kona for sale!)

Cafe Pesto
61-3665 Highway 270, Kawaihae

Sushi Rock
(55-3435 Akoni Pule Highway, Hawi)

Kohala Coffee Mill
Akoni Puli Highway, Hawi
(Ice cream, coffee & sandwiches)

I won't bother to type a list of the restaurants which were just ok or which weren't a good value for the money and were disappointing.

SNORKELING on Kohala Coast near Mauna Lani:

A jalapeno and cheese omelette at the Mauna Lani's “Bay Terrace” restaurant spiced up my morning. Then we caught the free guest shuttle to the protected beach at the beach house, which is a 15-minute walk south of the Mauna Lani (or a free shuttle ride!). We pulled on our prescription masks and walked into the inviting water.

My fearless husband quickly disappeared. I approached the underwater wonderland more cautiously. Floating leisurely on my noodle, I peered into the world of coral and colorful fishes. I was rewarded by the sight of beautiful tropical fish of all sizes and colors, and a bright orange sea urchin which looked like an orange octopus.

Spectacular rays of sunlight streamed into my underwater cathedral suddenly, and the beauty took my breath away. Beneath me was a world of sunlight and shadows, and I felt as humble as a prayer cast upon the sea. I was a visitor, privileged to peer into the home of a myriad of sea creatures.

This was our 2nd visit to the Kohala coast. We enjoy the Mauna Lani in January because it has 2 small beaches which are often calm enough for snorkeling even in winter. On our previous trip, we swam with turtles at the other beach, which is right in front of the Mauna Lani! Both beaches have free lounge chairs reserved for the use of the Mauna Lani's guests, and both beaches are walkable from the Mauna Lani.

Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows, Kohala Coast:

The Mauna Lani is located on the sunny Kohala coast on the west side of the Big Island, and the air is usually clear, as Vog doesn't usually reach this area. This a dryer, sunnier region of the island. Winter isn't the best time to snorkel on the Big Island. However, the Mauna Lani has 2 small beaches which are often protected enough for winter snorkeling. I love the fact that you can walk straight into the water from the beach.

We splurged on the “Deluxe Ocean Front” room category to celebrate our anniversary. These rooms are located on the 5th and 6th floors, and have a King bed. Book directly with the hotel to get the type of room you want. (I found out the hard way, on our first trip, that if you book a package deal, such as through AAA, you often don't get the room that you want.) Our room type was guaranteed by booking directly with the Mauna Lani. We booked on the web-site with the special offer, 4th night free and free daily buffet breakfast for 2 people.

The “Deluxe Ocean Front” rooms are very romantic...perfect for an anniversary or honeymoon. Ours was newly renovated, and we could hear and see the ocean from our room and from our private lanai. Our room on the 6th floor was very private, even with the lanai doors open. I loved hearing the ocean all night! We didn't use the A/C hardly at all, as the ocean breeze was enough to cool the room in winter. At night, we preferred to use the wooden doors which have slats to allow the breeze to come in, while blocking the morning light from waking us up. This was perfect! I'd rate this room a perfect 5/5.

BUT this is a very pricey room category, even with the discounts! Is it worth it? This is an individual decision.


*ROMANTIC ocean front room at Mauna Lani to celebrate anniversary

*SNORKELING at the Mauna Lani's 2 beaches. (often calm enough even for winter snorkeling)

*DAY TRIPS south along the west coast to:
--Place of Refuge
--2 Step, snorkeling (my husband loved it...I didn't go in.)
--Kona coffee: I love to visit my favorite organic coffee plantation: Holualoa Kona Coffee Company - Kona Le'a Plantation, which is an organic family farm: no pesticides nor herbicides. The coffee is certified organic, hand picked and sun dried, 100% Kona Coffee. 77-6261 Mamalahoa Highway, Holualoa, Hawaii. When I'm home and I miss the Big Island, I mail-order Kona coffee from this plantation. It's my favorite!

DISAPPOINTMENTS on the west coast:

--A day-trip north of the Kohala coast along the coastal areas was disappointing for us. When using the Kohala coast as a base, we prefer taking day-trips to Waimea, or south along the west coast.

--MERRIMAN'S, Opelo Rd., Kamuela: Our anniversary dinner at Merriman's was very disappointing, and it was clear to us that the “real chef” wasn't in the house during our visit. Due to the open kitchen, we could see the cooks, and they looked too young to have much experience. Our dinner was the most expensive meal we had on the Big Island, and the most disappointing meal we've had in our 2 trips to the Big Island! My lamb entree for $41 included 2 small lamb chops which were mainly fat, with very little meat, and literally a tablespoon of braised lamb shoulder. What, did they run out of braised lamb shoulder?! My dinner also came with an inedible veggie similar to Kale, and it was bitter and tough. My entree also included another veggie which tasted like tart tomatoes. Everything that we ordered was disapponting. The famous Phyllo crispy molten chocolate lava was burnt black, and I'm not sure why the server even delivered it to us that way, but it tasted like ash. I had to send it back. The server did remove the $12 charge for the burnt dessert from the bill, but that didn't end the evening on a romantic note, that's for sure. Based upon our experience, we wouldn't recommend Merriman's to anyone, and we won't be returning to any of their restaurants. Yes I see that Merriman's does have some good reviews, so I'm guessing that if you are lucky enough to dine when the “real chef” is in the house, you could have a good experience. But we feel consistency is vital. In over 30 years of anniversary dinners, this is the most disappointing one we've ever had! I should mention that we did have a reservation, and they knew that it was our anniversary.

--Bay Terrace Restaurant, Mauna Lani: Our room at the Mauna Lani included the free daily breakfast buffet at their Bay Terrace Restaurant. This restaurant is literally for the birds!!! The birds were out of control every single morning. Birds flew into the buffet area, sat on the serving tongs, pecked at the food in the buffet, and boldly & fearlessly pestered guests during breakfast, landing on tables, chairs, and plates. Birds were all over the lawn, and they sat on top of the umbrellas on the patio, waiting to steal food. We were so busy shooing birds off of our food by waving cloth napkins vigorously that I couldn't enjoy the nice ocean view during breakfast. Because of the birds entering the buffet area, I mainly served myself from the covered food, and tried to avoid the uncovered food. I avoided using the serving tongs, and opened a clean pair of chopsticks to serve my food, as the birds would sit on the serving tongs. Yes, the restaurant staff is clearly aware of the problem. Yes, I reported the situation to the restaurant staff and the front desk staff, but all they did was act shocked and tell me to report the situation to the restaurant staff! Is this a seasonal problem, or are the birds always a nuisance? I don't know, but they were a problem every single morning during our 4-night stay. I dine outside year round in San Diego, and I've never seen any restaurant with a bird problem like this one.

HILO and the East side of the Big Island:

Lush, green Hilo is our favorite “base” on the Big Island. Hilo is a local's town with lots of excellent and affordable dining. I highly recommend Hilo as a base. We have stayed twice in Hilo during the rainy season, and have never had our vacation ruined by rain. Yes it rains often, but usually it's a warm, pleasant tropical rain, which comes and goes quickly, and the sun pops out. Hilo has a great location, as these awesome day-trips are less than a 1.5 hour drive from Hilo:

--Hawaii Volcanoes National park (exciting!)

--Mauna Kea (inspiring & freezing summit at almost 14,000 feet! )

--Waipi'o Valley (beautiful views from the overlook)


--Akaka Falls state park

SNORKELING on the EAST Coast in January:

We did find an area with large tide pools on the east coast where people were snorkeling in January at low tide. It's described in the guidebook “Hawaii The Big Island Revealed, The Ultimate Guidebook.” My hubs wanted to jump in and snorkel, but I'm nervous about snorkeling in areas with no lifeguard, and I prefer snorkeling where I can walk in from a sandy beach. So we chose not to snorkel there. Barbara at Shipman House told us that several guests had enjoyed snorkeling there. Since we didn't swim there, I'll leave you to look into it on your own.

I feel like I'm not finished. So much more to say about the Big Island, which is a favorite because it feels the most Hawaiian of the islands to me, and has such a tremendous variety of places to visit! Feel free to ask any questions. If I think of anything else, I'll add it.

Hopefully I can post a link to my photos soon! Aloha!
Melissa5 is offline  
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Mar 4th, 2014, 06:06 PM
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Sad about Merriman's; we had a lovely lunch there.

All in all, sounds wonderful.
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Mar 4th, 2014, 07:26 PM
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Nice report Melissa. I learned a new word; never heard of vog.
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Mar 4th, 2014, 07:27 PM
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Oh, and prepare yourself...AUS is very costly too. And much worse value IMO.
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Mar 5th, 2014, 07:11 AM
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A very good report Melissa, thanks for taking the time to share.
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Mar 5th, 2014, 10:17 PM
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Great trip report Melissa. Just wondering is it better to do a day trip to Manua Kea from Hilo or from Kona. Is one closer than the other? We will be there in May but only there for 5 days.
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Mar 6th, 2014, 06:13 AM
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1 hour and 40 minutes from Kona, 1 hour and 20 minutes from Hilo.
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Mar 6th, 2014, 11:12 AM
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Thanks Sylvia, I will have to so some more thinking about this, I was thinking we would do it from the Kona side.
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Mar 6th, 2014, 04:35 PM
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Melissa, thanks for the report. We are BI regulars but haven't been there in a few years, it looks like nothing has changed.

We gave Merriman's three chances (two at the main restaurant in Kamuela and one at Merriman's Cafe) before deciding to never go back. All three times the food served simply didn't justify the prices charged in our opinion, and our Cafe experience was beyond awful. I think he did much better when he had just two restaurants. He now runs five (on three different islands) and clearly he's riding on past reputation imo.

Your comments about the birds at the buffet made us laugh. No they're not limited to the Mauna Lani. When you put a grand food buffet outdoors you can count on their presence, no matter where you are on the island. Part of the problem is that, as you mentioned, each resort is surrounded by miles of barren lava flows, with virtually no available food for either people or birds.

Some guests love them and some don't, and obviously the hotels can't please everyone. Most hotels give guests an option to order from a menu in lieu of the buffet, the food is not only bird-proof (at least until it gets to your table but usually much hotter and fresher -- it's virtually impossible to keep everything at proper serving temperature at a buffet. It's an especially good idea for those of us who aren't the must-try-everything type, and always wind up with the same few things on our plate. Usually less expensive as well.

Your restaurant list is excellent imo, and would save visitors many mediocre and bad meals. I'd definitely add our long-term favorite in Kailua-Kona (Rapanui) to the list.

Great job!
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Mar 6th, 2014, 04:46 PM
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fdecarlo: Thanks for your comments. Love the Big Island, and hopefully when we plan our 3rd visit, we can try Rapanui in Kailua-Kona, your all-time favorite. I'd love to know your opinion on which area on the west side of the big Island makes the best base for a winter trip (January or February)? After 2 stays on the Kohala coast, we're ready for a change on the next trip. Although we don't like the vog, we love the Big Island. We will always love Hilo, and will always split our stay between Hilo and the west coast of Big Island.

THANK YOU everybody who read my trip report and took the time to leave a comment. Wishing you all many wonderful journeys to the Big Island or wherever in the world your heart desires!
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Mar 7th, 2014, 04:50 AM
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Really well written trip report. The Big Island is on our future travel list so I appreciate the details. Thanks for reporting back.
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Mar 7th, 2014, 08:28 AM
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We love the Big Island also and visit often. We stay in south Kona on the west side when we go--usually in the area around Kealakekua Bay. There aren't many hotels in the area--tho there is a Sheraton at Keauhou - between Kailua town and Kealakekua Bay. We usually rent a house or cottage and find that suits our needs. (In fact, we are in south Kona now-see my trip report of the first half of our vacation). We have never found that vog causes us any problems. It usually is well off shore or higher up the slopes of Mauna Loa.
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Mar 7th, 2014, 09:10 AM
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Melissa, I try and steer clear of "best" questions, since what's best largely depends on what you're looking for. Martym beat me to one of my suggestions (Captain Cook/Kealakekua Bay), but as mentioned it's a residential area with no major hotels/resorts south of Keauhou. I agree with his comments about the vog: it doesn't get to South Kona very often, I think Hilo averages more bad air quality days per year from vog than Kailua-Kona.

Two other suggestions would be Honokaa or Hawi, especially if you want to minimize travel time to Hilo. Between Onomea, Waipio, Akaka Falls etc, the Hamakua Coast is one of our favorite parts of the island, and has some of the best B&B's (e.g. Waianuhea near Honokaa).
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Mar 7th, 2014, 10:04 AM
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Melissa, just wanted to say we spent the month of Feb 2013 in Kona and never noticed the vog except, as the above posted said, sometimes higher up the slopes of Mauna Loa. We choose a condo on the water within walking distance to the little town of Kona, we enjoyed walking to the market there every other day. We rented a car and took day trips all over the island and enjoyed how very different parts of the island are from other parts!
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Mar 7th, 2014, 04:22 PM
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It's good to hear that some of you stayed in Kailua-Kona or south Kona area on the shore and didn't have problems with vog. For our next trip I think we will split our stay between Kailua-Kona or south Kona and Hilo.

THANK YOU so much for reading my report and for posting comments! Aloha!
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Mar 8th, 2014, 04:08 PM
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Heading to BI soon and will use your restaurant list as a guide for Hilo. Splitting time between Hilo and Kohala Coast (Fairmont).

Cafe Pesto is already on our list.
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Mar 10th, 2014, 11:16 PM
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Jill, also check out Ken's House of Pancakes in Hilo.
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Mar 11th, 2014, 10:48 AM
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Great report! I haven't spent much time in Hilo, and I think maybe that should be on the list for next time!

Jill, I would add Monstera at the Mauna Lani shops to your list. The sushi is amazing. We also love Annie's Island Fresh Burgers and the Keei Cafe. Village Burger in Kamuela was good, too.
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Mar 11th, 2014, 03:44 PM
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jill_h: I'm delighted that my list of our favorite restaurants on the Big Island will be useful to you! I see that someone has recommended Monstera at the Mauna Lani shops. We enjoyed sushi there too, HOWEVER it's overpriced for what you get, compared to the other sushi places we loved on my list. It didn't make our list of favorite restaurants on the big island. If you end up trying it out, let us know what you think. I think you will love splitting your trip between Hilo and and the Fairmont on the Kohala Coast! Aloha and enjoy! Also be aware that there is more than one Cafe Pesto, in different locations. Our favorite is the specific one in my trip report.

kureiff: I think you will love staying in Hilo if you add that to your next BI trip. The restaurants are a better value than the ones on the Kohala coast. If you loved the sushi at Monstera, I think you would be even happier with the sushi at Hilo Bay Cafe. It's just as tasty, bigger portions, and better prices. We did eat at Monstera too, but it didn't make our list of favorite eateries on the island because we thought it was overpriced for what you get. But it was still enjoyable. You mentioned Village Burger in Kamuela...I think we had excellent burgers there on our first trip to the BI! But I based my list of favorite restaurants on our 2nd more recent trip. I'm glad to hear Village Burger is still great! Several years ago I had an excellent veal burger there with pasture-raised veal.
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