In September and October of 2022, I completed back-to-back cruises that took me across the Pacific. Departing Vancouver for Hawaii, and then Hawaii to Australia, I had the opportunity to enjoy port stops in the Hawaiian Islands. With stops in Hilo, Kailua-Kona, Maui and Honolulu, I spent time researching things to do and see.
Fascinated by the volcanoes of the big island of Hawaii, I was delighted that our ship would be docking at the two ports. Kailua-Kona is situated on the west side of the big island while Hilo is directly opposite on the east side of the island. Since our first stop was Hilo, I will begin there but first I want to provide a little bit of background on the island.
Divided into six districts named Kona, Hilo, Puna, Kau, Hamakua Coast and Kohala, this, the biggest of the Hawaiian Islands, boasts four volcanoes, Kilauea, Hualalai, Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. The last two of which are very active and famous world-wide.
The islands were settled in stages with the Polynesians from the Marquesas Islands arriving first approximately 1,600 years ago followed by the peoples of the Society Islands 800 years later. Historians are at odds as to whether Captain James Cook or the Spanish explorer Juan Gaetano, were the first European explorers to set foot on the islands but certainly Cook was the one to officially chart them as he spent a year there. Since Cook was killed on the big island at Kealakekua Bay, his presence in the Hawaiian islands is confirmed and there are various markers/monuments noting his presence there.
The ship was able to dock at Hilo which means that this is a walk-off port stop. Once off the ship, you will find yourself a short distance from some of the attractions such as nearby beaches and shopping. If you want to visit the main area of Hilo, you are a little over three kilometers from the city center (two miles), and you can walk, take a city or shuttle bus, or a taxi into the largest city on the island of Hawaii (and second in size only to Honolulu in all the islands). I will provide information about my market and shopping experience but first I want to talk about my main shore excursion event; that being a helicopter ride encircling the skies over the island.
When researching Hilo, I found myself repeatedly looking at a helicopter ride as a shore excursion option. The ability to see the entire island from the air, with particular focus on the volcanoes, was like a magnet. Unfortunately, such a ride came with a hefty price tag, particularly when compared to a helicopter ride I was going to do in New Zealand. I vacillated between booking the helicopter ride and opting for the much cheaper option of a combination city center walk and beach stop. In the end, I convinced myself that being a travel writer meant I should engage in all sorts of activities and not only focus on, or write about, the cheapest shore excursions on offer. It was time to examine options that would suit assorted travellers and not just those on a shoestring budget. The helicopter ride was booked.
Getting to the airport from the port was easy as there were sufficient taxis to meet the needs of the people streaming off the ship. I had prebooked the helicopter ride and I was happy I did so as the time was booked and I had read all the information in advance. I paid $100 extra to ride in the front which afforded the best views. The taxi to the airport cost $12.
Once at the airport, I checked in for my flight and watched an obligatory safety briefing video. There was a mandatory weigh in as well since there is a weight limit for those riding in the front of the helicopter (must be under 240 pounds). It did not matter that I was clearly under the required weight, everyone gets weighed. I was then issued with a headset and a life vest since at times, we would be flying over water.
The ride was all I hoped it would be and more. The pilot was knowledgeable about the island’s history and specifically about the volcanic activity. We learned how the magma will heat underground aquifers and how geysers release hot water and steam. He explained the action of hydrothermal vents. As we flew past the settled areas and towards the barren, rocky volcanic landscape, we were able to see the roadways that had been damaged by geothermal activity, the subdivision that had been buried by a lava flow etc. It was an amazing overview that I would not have gotten had I simply taken a tour bus out to the lava fields. Seeing everything by air, gave me a better idea of the entire island layout and the effects of volcanic activity. I also got to see molten lava which was very impressive. If we had been on the island at night, I would have taken a shore excursion to the lava fields to see the lava light up the night.
As we flew over the various areas, I photographed the black volcanic sand beaches, amazing scenery and outstanding landscapes. The time in the air seemed to go quickly but I believe I got my money’s worth for this tour and the time spent in the air was exactly as advertised. There are different helicopter tour options and times and more than one company offering helicopter rides so do your research and choose the tour that best suits your interest and budget.
Following the ride, there is the option of buying the video of your specific adventure so one has a personal memento of the trip. There were also t-shirts and other assorted items on sale.
I had obtained the business card of the taxi that dropped me off at the airport, so I called the driver when the helicopter tour was finished and within ten minutes, she picked me up. It was off to the market in Hilo for me. The cost was around $8 with tip.
The market was a combination of open-air and tented sales areas which offered up a combination of fruits and vegetables, other food items and assorted tourist offerings. As such, there were locals and visitors shopping at the different stalls. As this was the first stop in the Hawaiian islands, I was unsure of the prices of things and wondered whether I would find the same items on sale in Maui or Oahu for less money. I put off making the purchase of a wood carving and a few days later, found an identical looking item for less money at one of the larger markets on another island. The standard t-shirts were all the same prices but hand carved items and some artistic pieces and jewelry were less expensive on the other islands.
When it came time to return to the ship, I waited for the shuttle bus which was missing in action, so I finally caught a taxi back to the port. Later when talking to fellow cruisers, they indicated that they had taken the local bus to and from the city/port and paid about $2USD for a round trip.
That evening, while discussing shore excursions with fellow travellers, I heard that those who opted for a beach day enjoyed their experiences at either Onekahakaha beach or Reeds Bay beach. Both are close to the port and have toilets onsite. Reeds Bay was reported to have had calmer water. Both had places nearby that offered refreshments for sale.
Fellow cruisers who chose tours to the Volcanoes National Park and the Rainbow Falls (at an approximate cost of $200 Canadian), felt the tour was a good option and they were pleased with their choices. Only one couple had chosen a snorkel tour and described it as a mediocre experience due to the choppy water. With such limited input, I can’t in fairness speak to this type of excursion.
Next up I will talk about the other side of the island and the port of Kailua-Kona.