Hawaii: Flowing with the Lava on the Big Island

A dreamy night near the gas station

A Rough Start
It all started at a gas station. Not the ideal place to start a two week vacation in Hawaii, but this is how it went. We left Vancouver a few hours prior to our arrival in the dreamy gas station, exhausted, drained and just plain tired. Flying with bicycles is always a hassle, and after we checked-in the two huge boxes, we felt so much lighter. We had to think about all the advantages of traveling by bicycle, because at that point it just seemed like a pain in the ass, but as usual it was well worth it.

Riding in Kona

Riding in Kona

The flight was half empty which gave us the opportunity to take over a row each, and we might have had a good sleep if wasn’t so cold on the plane, but it just made us appreciate the Hawaiian warmth so much more. The Kona airport was tiny, and we soon realized that our plan to spend the night at the airport would not fly, as they close the airport at midnight, and they basically kicked us out. So we caught a cab to the nearest gas station that was open 24/7, which also turned out to be the favourite hangout for Kona’s drunk youth. After a few hours spent trying to sleep on hard concrete benches, we moved to a field near the station, where we got a much better sleep. Not exactly the best introduction to Hawaii, but from there things could only pick up, and they sure did.

Free mangos on the side of the road!

Free mangoes on the side of the road!

But before setting off, we still had one more obstacle – the bike boxes. We desperately needed them for the way back, since we were told that cardboard bike boxes are hard to find on the Big Island. Eventually a worker at the gas station did us a favour and stored them, despite his boss’ objection, and promised us that he’ll be there for sure in two weeks time, as he was the only one with a key… We had to go with that and hope for the best.

Exotic Fruit Paradise
We had only ridden a few kilometers, and we already had to make our first stop. We came across a small market, where papayas were sold, 7 for $2, as well as rambutan, a fruit that is red and spiky from the outside, and a gooey and delicious white on the inside, which was one of the cheapest fruits as well. We stocked up and started feeling much better, maybe going to Hawaii wasn’t that big of a mistake after all? It took us a few more hours to realize that actually we wouldn’t need to buy that much fruit at all. All we had to do was to keep our eyes peeled, and we’d find more than enough fruit growing on trees on the side of the road, for free.

Fresh papays from an overflowing tree

Fresh papayas from an overflowing tree

We didn’t even buy mangoes once, since there were plenty on the side of the road. At one stage there were so many mangoes that we had to make ourselves a cruel rule – no more stopping for mangoes, every other fruit was OK, but we just wouldn’t get anywhere if we were to stop at every single mango tree. Our road side fruit hunting also included guavas, papayas, passion fruit, macadamia nuts and one of the best discoveries – lychee! We must have just landed in the peak of lychee season, because they were everywhere, sometimes even in the place where you least expected to find them… A person we met told us that every fruit, plant, bird, or other animal that was introduced to Hawaii loved it and stayed. And seriously, what’s not to like?


Campgrounds, Wild Camping and Warm Shower

Private campground on Keei Beach

Private campground on Keei Beach

Interestingly our vacation to Hawaii was one of the cheapest we have ever had, as we only paid for accommodation twice which came to the grand total of $20, for two nights in a campground near Volcano National Park. Most nights we either wild camped on the beach, or stayed in a county campground. The rumor said that one needs a permit in order to camp in those campgrounds, and you must arrange it in advance, which of course does not go hand-in-hand with our spontaneous way of cycle touring.

Free camping in Whittington Beach County Park

Free camping in Whittington Beach County Park

However, after conversing with a few locals we soon realized that those permits are only needed in theory. All the locals we spoke to told us that they never bother getting a permit, there was nowhere to get it at the campgrounds, and regardless, no one ever came to check. Most of the campgrounds were well maintained and in picturesque locations. It seems that a few people have turned those camping spots into their homes, by building a small shack for themselves or just sleeping in one of the shelters.

Resting in

Resting in Laupahoehoe Beach County Park

There was one incident though, in Laupahoehoe Beach County Park, when Gili was sure we were going to get mugged. A weirdo stopped with a big van after it got dark, admired our gear and asked some alarming questions like “are you alone?, are there other people around? are you planning to camp here?” and claimed that he was going free diving, although the ocean was really rough and it was pitch black outside and raining. Eventually he left and made us wonder what his real intentions were or whether he was just high on drugs.

Camping in the middle of a lava field

Camping in the middle of a lava field

When there were no free campgrounds nearby we just made the nearest beach our home for the night. Our first day took us to the beautiful Keei Beach, which after sunset became our own private beach, and after it got dark the full moon became our guardian angel. We also spent one night at “Black Sand Beach”. During the day the beach was chock a block full of tourists. The main attraction there besides the black sand are the sea turtles, which sometimes come to rest on the shore. There was one turtle there, and people got very close to it and it was quite disturbing. Just as it was getting dark and we were the only people left on the beach, another turtle appeared from the water to rest on the beach.

Taking a break after a long climb in the mountain road

Taking a break after a long climb on the mountain road

In Waimea, a cowboy town in the hills, we stayed with Couch Surfing hosts Joe and Kelly, a young couple from Indiana, who have lived on the Big Island for a few years. It was nice to take a real shower for once, especially after a long day of climbing. The next day we climbed some more up “the mountain road” and then had a long and fun downhill.

Warm Shower hosts

Warm Shower hosts

In Kapa’au we stayed with Warm Shower hosts Yvonne and Jack, two of the nicest people we’ve met. Over the years they’ve hosted many cyclists, both in Minnesota where they are originally from and now in Hawaii, where they retired to last year. We spent many hours talking over bowls of lychee, courtesy of the next door neighbour who had an overflowing lychee tree. Jack cooked a tasty dinner one evening and we had breakfast on the porch overlooking the ocean. The next evening Gili made a few yummy pizzas and we celebrated with Ben & Jerry’s Half Baked ice cream, always a good choice.

Lava, Lava, Lava



The Big Island of Hawaii is less than one million years old and was created from eruptions of volcanoes below the ocean. Now two impressive volcanoes of over 4,000 meters add more attractions to this small Big Island. A long climb from sea level to 1227 meters brought us to the area of Volcano. We took a short walk from the campground, at night, to view the dark orange steaming lava coming out from the crater of the active Kilauea Volcano. After a day of exploring Volcano National Park, we had to descend right back to sea level, losing all the elevation we had gained. It was a very wet ride as it was pouring rain all the way. However halfway we found the nicest farmers’ market so far at Kea’au, and five big papayas for a dollar lifted our spirits.

Lava at the "end of the road"

Lava at the “end of the road”

We eventually found ourselves at “the end of the road” surrounded by “end of the world” scenery. This is where the lava took over the road and you cannot continue any farther in that direction. This all happened quite recently and until a few months ago you could actually see the lava flowing into the ocean. Now, it’s a sea of hardened, black lava, and a few people have already decided to rebuild their homes, and as a guard that we met in the area put it, “they are just really stupid”. Now, the lava is flowing nearby in the trees and could go either way. If it ends up flowing towards Hilo, the biggest town on the Big Island, they would have to evacuate everyone, but at least they should have plenty of time. We spent two nights camping on the hardened lava, after we managed to find a small patch of black sand for our tent. It was a surreal experience waking up in the morning, surrounded by a black sea of rock.

Big Island Cycling

Big Island Cycling

Swimming with Sea Turtles

Sea Turtle, at Puako

Sea Turtle, at Puako

One of the highlights of the trip was snorkeling and swimming with sea turtles. While in some places in the world you need to pay for a snorkeling trip to take you to a place where you can maybe find sea turtles, here we just stepped into the water and almost every time discovered at least one sea turtle to swim around with. They are such gentle creatures, and when you see them in the water it looks like they are flying. When we watched the two turtles on shore at Black Sand Beach we concluded that being a cycle tourer is pretty much like being a turtle, you move very slowly and carry your whole house with you….

A Mistake? Definitely Not!

The dramatic rocky coastline

The dramatic rocky coastline

Before we left for Hawaii a friend in Vancouver told us that we were making a “big mistake” by only going to the Big Island and not doing some island hopping and visiting another island such as Maui. We tried to explain to him that we only have two weeks and since we were traveling by bicycles it would give us enough time to enjoy the Big Island without feeling rushed. He said that we’ll be sorry, because the Big Island has only two sand beaches and the rest is rock.

Cycling through a tunnel of trees

Cycling through a tunnel of trees

Well, first of all we were definitely not sorry for devoting all of our time to the Big Island. It is so diverse and was never boring to ride – we cycled through rain forest, by sandy beaches, along the dramatic, rocky shoreline, by lava fields, on the edge of the volcanoes. We kept picking fruit, and ate fresh fish such as Poke Bowl, raw sashimi ahi tuna on rice, which was heavenly.

Dramatic decent to the beach, just after a storm

Dramatic descent to the beach, just after a storm

The weather also kept us on our toes – while it was mostly warm and pleasant to ride, a hard rain sometimes started with no advance warning, but usually only lasted for a short while. Luckily most of the rain fell at night, and while we were cozy in our small tent we could hear the rain hitting the roof.

One of the many bridges we crossed, high above the ocean

One of the many bridges we crossed, high above the ocean

While it’s true that most of the Big Island shore line is rocky it also gives it a dramatic feel. The ocean is rough and powerful in that area. We crossed many bridges, where far below us we could see small figures of surfers waiting to catch the next big wave. We saw where the rivers meet the ocean and form beautiful waterfalls.

Superb coastal cycling

Superb coastal cycling

Since the Big Island is so sparsely populated we hardly ever encountered heavy traffic. There was definitely more traffic near Kona, Hilo and Waimea, but most of the time it was just us. Whenever possible we took detours and smaller roads where we discovered beautiful beaches and small communities.

Beach 69, one of our favorites

Beach 69, one of our favourites

The last two days took us to the sandy beaches of the Big Island, and they definitely exist. We spent a few hours on Beach 69, a beautiful long sandy beach with turquoise water, colourful fish and sea turtles to swim around with. We also started seeing tourists. There is no doubt that the rocky side attracts less people, and most of the resorts are concentrated near Kona and the airport. Before that we mostly met locals and many retired hippies who live there year round. Traveling by bike, yet again, allowed us to get off the beaten track, to know the place and people really well, the changes in climate and temperatures, culture and atmosphere.

We made in back to the gas station! Completing a 655km loop

We made it back to the gas station! Completing a 655km loop

On Friday afternoon we returned to the infamous gas station where it all started. Our boxes were indeed waiting for us and while packing a happy hippie was talking non-stop, lecturing us on how people should be more friendly on the Big Island, because if not, what would happen to the “Big Aloha”?

Cycling home - sunny, sunny, sunny Vancouver

Cycling home – sunny, sunny, sunny Vancouver

At the airport they didn’t charge us for our bikes, which we didn’t mind at all, and we soon left the Big Island. Although we were already sleeping by the time the plane took off, we said our “Big Aloha” to the Big Island in our hearts and Mahalo (Thank you) as well. Mahalo for another great trip and a wonderful place to explore on bikes.

After a short six hours of sleep we landed in “Sunny, sunny, sunny Vancouver” (as the flight attendant put it) and rode our bikes home, straight from the airport. It only took a day or two for us to start wondering if this trip actually happened, or perhaps it was just a big dream…

One last sunny beach, in Kakaha Kai State Park

One last sandy beach, Kekaha Kai State Park

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2 Responses to Hawaii: Flowing with the Lava on the Big Island

  1. Peta Kaplan says:

    Looks like a great trip. Love the turtles. How lucky you got to swim with them! We have seen them nesting in Nicaragua on a specific beach they come to every year.

    Very interesting the lava rock…..

    We always think of you when we eat a great mango. Lychees are in season here too – in N. Thailand. YUM!

    • Maya says:

      Thanks Peta! It was a great trip indeed. You know how much we love fruit and this trip had it all…Saw pictures of Lychees in Thailand on your blog – looked amazing.

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