When most people head to the Big Island from the mainland, they beeline to Kona’s white sand beaches and never look back. There’s nothing wrong with Kona (I personally love it), but there is so much more that the Big Island has to offer. When you step outside of the bustle of tourist shops and ABC Stores, away from the polished and crowded shores, you enter a mystical land. It’s a place full of mythology, generating a metaphysical pull to the earth. It’s a land of waterfalls and rainbows and lava. A place where Pele demands your respect, where tree tunnels and black cliffs steal your breath. Jump in a Jeep and get out of town — your soul will thank you. Want to experience the Big Island of Hawaii like a local? Here’s how.
Local Style — The Big Island
First off, if you plan to visit the Big Island, pick up Hawaii Revealed. My local friends tell me this is the closest you can get to having a local guide you around the island. This has dozens of awesome recommendations to suit almost any type of traveler, including hidden beaches, secret lava tubes, and other cool adventures worth checking out. Some of my recommendations overlap, but there are few that didn’t make it into my edition below.
Secondly, understand that locals tend to avoid the tourists, especially outside of Kona. For some indigenous Hawaiians, there can be a distrust or distaste for haoles (white people) due to the difficult history of white imperialism on the islands. Be sensitive and socially aware — when in doubt, follow a locals’ lead. Or better yet, visit a local and have them show you around!
Uncle Roberts Awa Bar and Night Market
Far out of town on the south side of the Big Island, near the hippie town of Puna, lies Uncle Roberts. This comes in as easily one of the most fun ways to spend an evening outside of Kona Town. Food stalls, art, and local crafts line the walkways of this open-air market. Across the parking lot, the liquor store does a bustling trade selling Kona Brewing Company’s finest beers (along with wine, liquor and other imports), which can be carried across to the market. Pick up a taste of dozens of native and non-native foods, from Thai papaya salad to gourmet grilled cheeses. Find some jewelry or cleverly-named homemade soaps to take home as a souvenir. And, if you get enough of those Big Wave Golden Ales in ya, groove to the music of the live band.
Ecstatic Dance in Puna (Kalani)
Have you heard of ecstatic dance? I hadn’t before I visited Hawaii. Then I found myself trekking out to the deep jungle early one Sunday morning. To dance. At 10 a.m. Sober.
As much as I’d like to pretend I’m smooth, I’m a gangly white girl with little-to-no rhythm. So the idea of ecstatic dance was a little terrifying to me. Until I got into the room, closed my eyes, and let my freak flag fly. Ecstatic dance is completely different from hitting the club with your girls. You’re not trying to emulate Beyonce here, you’re just given the physical, mental, and emotional space to express yourself through dance. As someone who never took dance classes as a kid, I never realized that dance could be anything more than a way to lure in the fellas. After this experience — I realize that it is so much more than that.
If you’re feeling saucy after working up a sweat, pop over to the nearby beach for a swim — swimsuit optional.
This is a local — SUPER local — park/beach at the end of the road East of Hilo. Coming here has a lot of caveats: Come at low tide, don’t drive a rental car there (or park it in the lot at your own risk), don’t wear or do anything that screams ‘tourist,’ and if you’re getting bad vibes from the locals that are there, pack it up and backtrack to Carlsmith Beach instead. But if the stars align, you’ll often find yourself in one of the most private lagoon areas on the island. And this is a locals guide, and this is where the locals go. So much so that if they catch the vibe that you’re a tourist, they probably won’t be happy you’re in their spot.
At low tide, there are sandy patches next to the water where you can actually lay out (this side of Hawaii isn’t renowned for it’s sand). It’s not a bad way to spend an afternoon.
You can’t come to the Big Island and skip Waipi’o — the dramatic cliffs and gorgeous green valley are a must-see. But if you want to do Waipi’o like the locals do, pack a cooler with beer and poke, get yourself a 4-wheel-drive, and drive down the ridiculous high grade hill to spend the day on the wide black sand beach below. On weekdays, you might get the place to yourself. But on weekends, the locals (and some tourists) like to hang out, blast music, and throw back a few brews. On Sunday afternoon, you’ll find them charging up a staggering 25% grade in their lifted pickup trucks, music still blaring from their speakers. You may not get invited into a game of beach volleyball with a group, but you’ll get a taste of the local life.
Over on the east side of Hawaii, down a long and bumpy offroad path, lies some of the coolest beach camping in the area. Getting there is a battle, though. If you have four-wheel-drive, you’ll be testing the suspension of your car just trying to get to the start of this beach. Once you get there, you’ll need to drive across the sand and rocks even further until you find a camp spot. If you’re in a rental car, there’s a good chance you’ll abandon your car somewhere on the pathway and pack your gear in. But it’s worth it!
Once you’re on the sand and set up, your front yard will be a white sandy beach. Your lullaby will be the crashing surf. Your neighbors will be the local guys who are impressed that you managed to navigate your way to Maks.
Anytime; Camping Free; Location
I was lucky — I visited the Big Island as the guest of a friend who has called it home for over five years. Because of her, I was able to see and do things most tourists never get to see. That’s how I prefer to travel — though a white sand beach isn’t too bad either.
Do you prefer getting a taste of the local life when you travel? Where have you gone where you skipped the touristy spots and opted for something more authentic? Let me know in the comments!