When you plan a whirlwind trip, you sometimes end up with a plan far from the expected. Actually, I set off for Hawaii not with the intention of making it the “perfect” trip, but simply to show how easy it is to book using Turkish Miles & Smiles (well, it was…recent reports are troubling).

That I’d have two days in Kona was a side effect. The original itinerary was to spend a day in Honolulu, likely hiking the Diamond Head. But that option disappeared out from under my nose. Note to self: book your flight at first opportunity rather than going to bed and waiting for the next day.

With a full 48 hours on the Big Island, I planned to split the time between working and exploring. I’d end up at resort hotels (Sheraton Kona and Hilton Waikoloa), but I’m not exactly keen on resorts, even less so traveling solo. Some of what I did end up doing was entirely unexpected.

Arriving on the Big Island

I landed in Kona just before 11:00 AM on a Monday. My flight was in United 737-900 economy, booked as part of a Turkish Airlines award for just 7,500  Miles & Smiles. Such an excellent award deal. The cash value of the ticket was over $400, so this was an absolute steal. I sure hope Turkish allows Star Alliance award booking again soon.

Kona welcomed me as well. I’m glad they have the English translation, as I would have had no idea what the Hawaiian says.

Picking up my car, a Mazda Miata, I headed south into Kona for lunch, enjoying the Hawaiian breeze from an outdoor table overlooking the bay. I’d heard how perfect the weather in Hawaii is. Now I understood.

The Sheraton Kona is just a bit further south, which was my destination for the day. I did stop at a scenic vista point overlooking Keauhou Bay and the resort complexes below. You can’t tell, but the whole area is dominated by lava flow. There are actually caves within the lava tubes, some of which have been explored.

The Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay is a bit old and tired, but it was a perfectly fine stay for the night.

Keauhou Bay

Rather than just chill in the pool for hours, I explored the resort property and nearby Keauhou Bay with the time I had. If there’s one spot I can recommend, it is the chairs looking out over the bay. Morning here is especially nice, with the glow of the sun just starting to peek over the hills to the east.

It surprised me that the Sheraton grounds contain some historic sites, including this depression that they believe functioned as boat storage for the Polynesians. You can actually find disturbed lava rock in multiple areas that show former foundations and other activity in the area a couple hundred years ago.

If Keauhou Bay is the place to be in the morning, the cliffs overlooking the Pacific is where you want to be at sunset.

Because it’s just that spectacular. I knew Hawaiian sunsets were exquisite. This was gorgeous.

My first day in Hawaii was definitely the most relaxing and uninteresting. With various ideas of what to do the following day, I finally settled on heading up to the Mauna Loa observatory, just because. I’ve always been far more keen on mountains that beaches, and I couldn’t escape the fact that the Big Island has two impressive peaks rising 14,000 feet from sea level.

Driving Saddle Road Toward Mauna Loa

Heading up to either Mauna Kea or Mauna Loa requires a bit of forethought and preparation. I’m prone to making snap decisions, but given that I’d be driving up to well over 10,000 feet from sea level, two things were in order: water and acclimation. Water I picked up at the hotel before I departed. I’d acclimate near the summit of saddle road, between the two Maunas.

When looking up the route to Mauna Loa, I had noticed that Google Maps showed a decent amount of traffic around the intersection along the Saddle Road. This seemed odd, but I gave it no further thought. Maybe the Maunas were simply that popular? That seemed unlikely. But I should have given things a bit more investigation.

The drive up saddle road from Kona is lovely. You snake slowly around Hualalai volcano, eventually coming to a point where you have lovely views of the Kohala Coast and the interior of the island. From there you turn onto the highway that cuts through the middle of the island toward Hilo, steadily climbing upward.

Eventually I stopped just short of the summit at the Mauna Kea Recreation Center rest stop. With bathroom facilities and a playground, it’s a great place to stop for a while to let your lungs get used to the air at higher elevation. Acclimating to the altitude is extremely important. When you can head from sea level to over 10,000 feet in a matter of just a few hours, you run a serious risk of altitude sickness.

Continuing onward up Saddle Road, I eventually came to the turnoff to both Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. And it was a whole lot different then I expected.

Turns out that there is an organized, ongoing protest at Mauna Kea Access Road. I was totally unaware of the this. Yet another time where planning as I go has failed me. The protest is in response to the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), a new astronomical observatory that is planned for Mauna Kea. With some of the most ideal conditions for astronomical viewing on earth, I’m not surprised that Mauna Kea was selected as the candidate site for the extremely large telescope (ELT).

Except that Mauna Kea is sacred to many native Hawaiians. Thus, the protests. The timeline of the project is very much delayed. With an environmental impact statement that came out in 2010, the project has been blocked since then to prevent its construction. When the governor announced that the TMT would indeed move forward, it was met by the protests we see at Mauna Kea Access Road.

But I still wanted to make the most of it. I’d planned to hike the trail near the turnoff, primarily to acclimate to the altitude (the rest stop was unplanned). At this point you’re already more than 6,000 feet above sea level. Given that I’d just been at sea level barely 90 minutes earlier, taking enough time to adjust was critical.

Yet even the nature trail was blocked. Guess I can’t do anything? To get there I had to awkwardly pass through the protesters’ camp. Timidly, I asked if the nature trail was open. The response was in the affirmative: it would be open at 10:00 AM. Strange, but okay.

mauna kea tmt protest

Protest camp at Mauna Kea Access Road

If You Can’t Beat Them, Join Them

Around 10:00 AM a group began to gather for a nature hike at Pu’u Huluhulu. I’d figured that the trail would just be opened, but it looked like the only way to hike would be to do it with the group.

I debated the merits of staying. On one hand, I could continue my drive. On the other hand, tagging along with the protest seemed like the perfect out-of-the-ordinary experience for the day. I settled on the latter.

What proceeded to unfold was one of the more unique travel experiences I’ve had. I felt like a total outsider. I was one of two non-Native Hawaiian people in the group of about two dozen. I could feel the stares. But I was more than willing to roll with it. There were folks from four different islands represented: Hawaii, Maui, Oahu, and Kauai.

Our guide proceeded to talk about many things, from the ecosystem to their roots as native Hawaiians. Obviously, much of it centered around the protests and why they were so critically important. Even in the discussion about the plants and hill, the guides always drew parallels back to traditional Hawaiian culture and thought.

The ecology was far more interesting to me (not to make light of the protests). It was interesting to see how the Koa trees capture moisture passing through the air that sustains other vegetation. They are the anchor of the ecosystem, and this photo illustrates the area underneath them in stark contrast to the other vegetation on the pu’u

There was much talk about kupuna, kanaka, mana, and other Hawaiian terms, the bulk of which I did not know. I picked up on kanaka, which means something along the lines of “native person”. The conversation was probably an 80/20 mix of Hawaiian and English, which made it hard to follow at times.

Eventually we came to the top of the pu’u (hill). It provides both views of Mauna Kea and the inverted Hawaiian flag, a symbol of the protests.

The whole experience was more than interesting. I thanked one of the guides and excused myself after we’d made it to the top, as it had taken far longer than the promised hour, and I was eager to move on. 

I thought about continuing my drive to Mauna Loa, but with a small protests tent in the distance along the road, I thought better of it. It was a bummer, but I would find enough to do back down the mountain.

Down The Mountain to the Ocean

It was nearly noon by the time I headed back down Saddle Road to the coast. I’d be arriving at the Hilton early, but they ended up hhaving a room ready. The coast at Waikoloa is absolutely lovely.

Most of my thoughts on the resort are contained in my review of the Hilton Waikoloa. Of all the spots, I enjoyed the “beach” the most. There’s not much to it, but the contrast of the black and white pumice makes it picturesque in a unique way.

The sunset that evening was the real treat. This might be perfection in a photo right here.

Pu’u Ku’ili Morning Hike

Work consumed much of my final morning, as expected. Intermittent calls through 9:00 AM kept me busy, with a brief respite around breakfast. With just a couple hours left to enjoy the island, I had an idea of exactly what I wanted to do. 

The big island has relatively few beaches, at least compared to the total amount of coastline. The lava flows often end directly into the sea. Nice patches of sand are few and far between. 

But before hitting the beach at Kua Bay, I decided to climb up Pu’u Ku’ili. It’s right along the way, and I figured it would provide some amazing views of the ocean, the resort communities, and even the airport. 

It’s not a long or difficult hike. You can head up from the road to the summit in less than 10 minutes.

And you’ll be rewarded. The views certainly are lovely of the ocean and the Kohala Coast.

It’s also not a bad place to plane-spot. As I walked uphill, I caught a JAL flight on final approach. Until I landed in Kona just two days prior, I had no idea they flew the route. Flights into Kona aren’t all that regular, but if you can find a few in sequence, it might make for a nice morning. 

Heading down the hill, I drove the last stretch to the beach at Kua Bay. If there is one place to which I’ll return on the Big Island, this is certainly it. With a lovely stretch of white sand and perfect surf, it’s a popular spot. Wading in the sea was the perfect way to end the trip.

Aloha, Hawaii!

The trip was short and sweet, but it was an enjoyable one, and also unique. Tagging along with protesters was never on my list of things to do, but it turned out just fine. I’m sure I’ll do far more whenever we make it back to the Big Island, we’ll have a far more typical experience.