How to: See Hawaii's Big Island on a Budget

by  Charu Suri | Apr 30, 2015
Matthew Minucci
Matthew Minucci

The Big Island could easily have been named the “The Endless Island,” with its eight climate zones and 4,000-plus square miles of mostly raw landscapes to explore. You’ll land in a terrain that looks flat and moon-like -- only to step on the gas and, to the east, find yourself in a mountain rainforest zone of lush emerald-colored canopy and moss-draped trees. And while Hawaii is known to be spendy, penny savers can still rejoice: This does not have to be a terribly expensive island...if you know where to look (and once you plunk down the fare to get there, of course). Here are some ideas to get you into that aloha spirit.

1. DIY your own tour.
Some of the best things in life won’t set you back more than a tank of gas and a thirsty palate. Home to some of the world's most famous coffee producers, the Big Island is the perfect place to drive for cups of joe. From South Kona, follow Highway 11 south to the town of Captain Cook and take the scenic 12-mile loop drive on the slopes of Hualalai volcano. You'll encounter dozens of coffee farms that will allow you to step in for tours and tastings, many of which are free (these include Greenwell Farms, Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation, Hula Daddy, and Kona Joe).

Alternatively, try going nutty. From the famed Hamakua Macademia Nut Company -- which has liberal stashes of samples in its airy gift shop -- to the hundreds of other smaller farms sprinkled throughout The Big Island, Hawaii is a good place to get macademia nutty. The addicting snack was actually introduced to the island by a sugar plantation manager. You can also pick up a Great Hawaiian Mac Nut Trail guide at the visitor’s center for a DIY tour, exploring the island’s various farms in search of the best and the most flavorful nut.

2. Then indulge in a smart splurge on a daylong tour.
KapohoKine Adventures has launched a new Farm, Fork & Fire tour of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park that includes no less than a chance to see the steam bluffs, a private cooking demonstration at Volcano House, and sunset tour to view the red glow of the Halemaumau crater. The experience is $114 or $197 depending on whether you start from Hilo or Kona, but the togs are with it considering that you're getting a 12-hour guided immersion into the cuisine and culture of the island -- plus tastings and two meals. Considering the massive size of the park, big enough to explore for two or three days, the tour would be a good way to get your bearings and pick up insider tip, too. Plus, who doesn’t love to top off the day with a bit of fire? (Note: At time of publishing, the tours can only be booked online via third-party sites like Expedia. To get in touch with the operator directly, try their online contact form.)

3. Soak in the outdoors. From Instagram-worthy coastal drives to beaches that come in technicolor, the island is well-suited for those who crave the sunshine. It wouldn't cost more than a bit of gas and perhaps a picnic basket to hit up the northwest Kohala Coast -- or visit Punalu'u, the island's most famous black sand beach -- for a low-cost, low-key day. We also love the beautiful road less-traveled of the Cane Haul Road. It lies in the Big Island's quietest region, Ka’U, which will give you a roaring soundtrack of the Pacific while you meander through forgotten sugarcane plantations. And if the Big Island is just one stop in a big Hawaii trip? Consider the $25 tri-park pass that includes entry to Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, Haleakala National Park, and Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Park.

Where to Stay: If you plan on exploring the volcanoes for a few days, we suggest staying in the Caldera region to save on travel time. The intimate Kilauea Lodge is just a mile away, with airy, well-lit rooms accommodating two to four guests, that start from $195 per night. The rate includes a daily full breakfast with generous pots of coffee, and there's also a tropical garden area with a covered hot tub. For a more classic resort experience, the almost Disney-Like Hilton Waikoloa Village has its own monorail connecting the resort's 62 acres. Rates here start from $229 through mid-August, then drop to $179-$189 through mid-December. There's a $25 nightly resort charge, covering internet and unlimited movies in-room as well as activities like hula, lei making, and ukulele.

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