Driving Around Hawaii

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After leaving the permaculture property of Popai where we lived for four months, we were eager to see all that the Big Island of Hawaii has to offer, since we hadn’t had the chance to venture much more than 15miles from where we were living. The first thing we did was head for Hilo to rent a car since the bus system, although free, isn’t particularly conducive to getting around easily. We spent the next week driving around Hawaii.

Nora Dunn, The Professional Hobo, Driving around Hawaii in a blue convertible

This post was originally published in 2008. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content. 


Upon picking up the car we reserved (which was the cheapest most compact car we could find), we immediately asked if they have any free upgrades available. Kelly didn’t really believe me when I said all you have to do is ask, so when the lady behind the counter tossed us the keys to a brand new blue Solara convertible with free gas, I garnered a new kind of respect! (The next form of respect came when, after stewing on our exorbitant insurance fees overnight, I realized that by charging the rental to my Visa card we had free insurance – hence a trip back to the rental counter to save an additional $30/day)!

See also: How to Travel on a Budget: 14 Creative Tips that Nobody Talks About

Once our rental details were sorted out, we had the island to ourselves to enjoy thoroughly.

In the spirit of adventure and frugality (seeing that my oh-so-lucrative writing career doesn’t exactly pave the way to the Hilton just yet – well maybe it does, as you’ll learn later), we decided that it might be kicky to sleep in the car every other night. To us, it justified the cost of renting a car for the week, as well as the environmental impact of driving after two months of none such extravagances. Don’t ask – it made sense to us at the time.

(In our defence, and much to my surprise, we discovered that many hostel/frugal travelers employ the same strategy).

Driving Around Hawaii, First Stop: Hilo

Although we had already seen a bit of Hilo, venturing beyond the downtown area was new to us. After taking care of some business and errands on our first day, we found ourselves looking for a place (I mean – parking spot) to turn in for some rest.

“Ooh! Let’s sleep in the Rainbow Falls parking lot (near Hilo), so we can wake up to see the falls at sunrise! I hear the morning rainbows are legendary,” I said enthusiastically. Seemed like a good idea. Really, it did.

But after two hours of trying to sleep and being disturbed by truckload after truckload of local “kids” pulling in to drink, smoke, and do donuts, we realized we had chosen a pretty poor snoozing spot. Off to the next parking spot.

An uneventful six hours later, we were bleary-eyed and bushy-tailed (and a little smelly), but no worse for wear and ready to kick it into high gear for the day.

Check out my Travel Lifestyle Guides for more ways to earn money remotely, spend it wisely, and balance the two so you can travel as long as you wish, in a financially sustainable way. 


Nora Dunn surrounded by tall old rainforest in Hawaii

“You have to take the 4-mile scenic drive on your way out of the city,” a guy at the local hostel told us. He gave us a few further tips on small hiking trails to take from this road for awesome views, as well as the low-down on 12-ton bridge.

“Just past the Botanical Gardens – don’t bother (our kind of guy) – you’ll see a white-washed bridge with a 12-ton sign: that’s 12-ton bridge”.

No. Couldn’t be. “Okay, what next?” I asked, wondering what the punch line was.

“Next? Jump off it!”

Hmmm. This could get interesting.

We arrived at 12-ton bridge, already awed by the spectacular scenery and impressed with our advice received so far. But when we took a look over the rails of the bridge ready to jump, we paused.

“How many feet do you think that is?” I asked Kelly, trying to mask the slight tremor in my voice.

“Ummm,” he said, trying to do the same, “Maybe…25 feet?”


“Is that a rock I see just below the surface of the water?” was my next question.



Needless to say, instead of jumping off (we decided that’s how dumb tourists die), we scrambled down the wet slippery rocks to play in the waterfall down below. In retrospect, our choice of rocks to scramble down was even more treacherous than the jump would have been, but our spiffy rock-climbing skills saved the day. The other side was practically wheelchair accessible, of course.

The waterfall ran through an old lava tube, and although the water was chilly, it was a fun frolic and a great way to cool off. Before we left, some local Hawaiians came by to play, and they indeed jumped off. Seeing where exactly they jumped from and how they landed in the water, we figured we had no excuse not to jump in ourselves.

So we left.


On the North Shore of the Big Island of Hawaii: Jurassic Park territory

Much of the northern shore of Hawaii has very little to offer in terms of stops, beaches, towns, and accommodations. The first half (north-eastern Hawaii – we were driving counter-clockwise from Hilo) is known as waterfall alley, replete with postcard-perfect lush mountain waterfalls and deep valleys. It all meets the ocean quite abruptly and although it makes for many stunning scenic points, there are very few other reasons to stop.

Except for Tex’s Drive-In.

Tex's Drive In, an iconic stop while driving around Hawaii's Big Island

No, it’s not a movie, nor a fast food joint. Okay, it is a fast-food joint, but that’s not what they’re famous for. People make the long drive here to stop for their hot Malasadas. A malasada is a square-shaped Portuguese donut, with layers of soft sweet dough covered in sugar. For extra decadence, you ask them to inject Bavarian crème into it.

After inhaling one each, we looked at each other, silently played rock-paper-scissors, and (despite the result) walked back in for two more.

The second half of the drive on the north shore (the north-western section of the island), is all owned by the Parker empire. John Parker, one of the original “settlers” in Hawaii, after making great strides to put Hawaii on the economical map with trade and farming, was given this section of the island by King Kamehameha as a token of his thanks.

farmland in the north part of Hawaii's big island

To this day, the Parker “empire” (I’m not sure if it’s still a family or just a conglomerate) still owns the land, and what is not run by them, is leased by them. And all of it is ranch-land.

This is an amazing part of Hawaii to see….rolling green meadows and pastures, coffee fields, cows grazing, snow-capped volcanoes in the distance, and ocean 3,000 feet below on the other side. But…all in all, it’s not much more than a day trip.


After some excellent body-surfing at one of the most beautiful beaches in the world (by reputation – not just my opinion), we searched for our next parking-lot-hotel.

Once the darkness set in, it became difficult to determine exactly where we were, and we were getting pretty tired. We turned into what we later discovered was the employee parking lot for the ritziest group of hotels on the island. We were behind an upper-crust plaza full of expensive brand name stores, so we figured the riff-raff wouldn’t be bothering us tonight. At worst, security might ask us to move.

It was when we arose the next morning that we realized just how ritzy the area was, and a certain feeling of proud rebellion set in. We slept at the Hilton…for free!

Well, sort of.


A golden beach on the Kona side of the Big Island of Hawaii

The drive south along the west coast of Hawaii sees beautiful ocean and beaches on the right-hand side (with distant views of Maui’s mountains on a clear day), and Hawaii’s coffee-country, ranch land, and beautiful mountains on the left.

Almost every day, rain stalls over the mountains and coffee-country (located about 1,000ft above sea level), and leaves beach-lovers beautiful sunshine for the day.

During our stay in Kona, we enjoyed more beaches, beautiful drives, and a taste of Kona’s traffic. The small highway on either side of the highly populated tourist destination is jam-packed both ways, pretty much regardless of the time of day. We silently thanked our lucky stars that once we settled in Kona we wouldn’t have a car to contend with this traffic.

An interesting diversion from the traffic of Kona, however, is the roadside graffiti. Instead of spraypaint, the rebellious defacers of property don’t even deface property – they use white stones! Their designs (usually initials or proclamations of love) stand out against the dark lava background, and although it is a little controversial among the locals, I like it. Heck – it’s better than spray paint.

I managed to attend a Rotary meeting in Kona, and we enjoyed some relaxation time and acquainted ourselves with the hostel we would be work-trading at, where we would be hanging our hats after we finished our trip around the island.

We also enjoyed beds, showers, free internet, and the other perks of sleeping somewhere that isn’t on wheels.


Snorkelling spots south of Kona in Hawaii

Our stay in Kona lasted a touch longer into the following day than we had anticipated after an afternoon of epic snorkelling, so in order to maximize our time at our next big destination (Volcano), we drove along the south coast during the late afternoon and into the dark evening so as to reach Volcano by bedtime.

We imagine the drive was spectacular, but alas we don’t know. All we do know is that the guidebooks didn’t say much about the drive or towns along the way, but the one-lane road was wonderfully twisty and turny and a motorcycle’s paradise. Surprisingly there aren’t many bikes on the island, but if there were, they’d be here.


Now experts at choosing good places to sleep in the car overnight, we selected a remote nook near a school to retire in the town of Volcano (aptly located in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park at the foot of some of the world’s most active volcanoes). We figured we may be in for a chilly night since the altitude is almost 5,000ft above sea level, but even our down layers didn’t prepare us for this night.

By the time we arose the next morning, unclenched our jaws, and turned on the car to defog (“is that frost? Oh my gosh it is – oh wait – no it’s just fog”) the windows, we discovered it was all of five degrees (Celsius).

Now, that’s okay for winter in Canada, but this is Hawaii! We expected Volcano to be cold, but not quite this cold!

And so ended our adventures in car sleeping. We resigned ourselves to sleeping under many layers of blankets for the remainder of our stay in Volcano and trip around the island.

Hey – at least we made it through three nights in the car. I’m still proud of that adventure.


Nora Dunn, The Professional Hobo, hanging out with new friends in Hawaii

I describe our magical time in Volcano here, and we most certainly plan to return to this area of the island to get closer to the big mountains/volcanoes of Hawaii.

We made a few friends, including a wonderful girl from Germany (who was born in Canada and is very well travelled), who accompanied us on our second day of hiking, and who we expect to remain in touch with for many moons to come.

Volcano itself is a small town with an interesting character. The side streets are tiny one-lane roads not much bigger than a driveway, lined with thick rainforest on either side. I’m not sure how cars moving in opposing directions navigate this, but I guess it’s a small enough town that maybe people call each other before going out.

“Okay Henry, I’m going to be travelling west on James Street, so don’t leave home until I’ve passed your place. I’ll honk when I go by,” must be how the conversation goes.

The hostel we stayed at was owned by a quiet and generous couple (he is Japanese, she is Vietnamese) with an adorable toddling daughter. The kitchen was large and well-stocked with good knives and rice cookers (a rarity in hostels), and the only oddity we detected was that they kick all the guests out from 10am-4:30pm every day. They likely do it under the guise of needing to clean the place (and the place was impeccably clean), but I also suspect it’s their way of maintaining their sanity with so many travelers coming in and out of their home.


Waking up after our second night in Volcano and with 34kms of hiking under our belts, I had the headache to end all headaches. I recognized the signs and braced myself: I had a migraine.

It had been a long time since I suffered migraines (the last one I remember putting me on my ass being in Toronto), but once you’ve felt it once, you know. And for me, the package includes vomiting, extreme light sensitivity, and basic inability to eat, drink, talk, or move.

And we had a full day ahead of us.

Drive the hour remaining back to Hilo, return the car, get a ride into downtown Hilo, catch a hot bumpy three hour bus ride to Kona, then walk to our new home. And all in the Hawaiian heat with heavy backpacks.

The morning didn’t get off to any better a start than I had predicted, with the drive back to Hilo being a rough one at best. I truly wasn’t sure I would make it on to the bus, but just in case we purchased killer over-the-counter migraine medication (the US is great for carrying such pleasantries) and zip lock bags for me to puke in.

Luckily, the vomiting stopped before we had to board the public bus (which is good because the zip lock bags ended up being way too small!), and the medication knocked me out for most of the ride.

Throughout the ordeal, both of us were thinking about how this probably won’t be the first time we have to travel while ill. We’ve heard enough horror stories of people voyaging through India with various forms of violent indigestion to know that one of these days, being sick on a public bus would be inevitable. I was just happy to have made it through the first bout of such a challenge.

I will say that this was the first time since we started traveling that I really craved having a place I could call home. A place where I could just comfortably be sick, cozy, and wallow in self-pity.


But alas, this story has a happy ending, not a sad one. We made it to Kona relatively uneventfully, and over the next few days got our bearings at KOA Wood Hale.

….until the next adventure…

Here is a video of our experiences driving around Hawaii. I think it’s one of our best yet! Enjoy…

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4 thoughts on “Driving Around Hawaii”

  1. I think you can have quite a lucrative writer-life just detailing your travels in novel form. I am enjoying my armchair traveling!

  2. I miss traveling so much, used to travel at least 3 times a year. I would say that it is a very nice place to spend vacations, but to live in it is somewhat boring because the islands are quite small and are very far from the other countries, but still, it is very nice

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