Since we’re getting ready to get on an airplane and go on our next big trip soon, I thought it was past time to finally recap our favorite parts of our trip to the Big Island of Hawaii. The trip was smack dab in the middle of my first ever attempt at at No Spend Month, so I was determined to find as many awesome free and cheap things to do as I could.
My list of possibilities was longer than we possibly could have seen in the week we were there, so I decided to focus on the free or almost free activities to keep the trip as low cost as possible. And to be honest, the trip couldn’t have been any better had we spent more money, which is exactly what I had hoped for.
Top Ten Free Things To Do On Hawaii
We started our trip on the Kona side of the island, which is the warmer, drier side, where most of the resorts are clustered, but our interests quickly took us outside downtown Kona:
1. Visit a coffee farm and go on a tour
One of the very first things we did on our first full day on the Big Island of Hawaii was to go on a coffee tour of Greenwell Farms, which is located about ten miles south of Kona. They have free tours every day, along with lots of free samples of the many varieties of coffee that they roast on site. We got to walk around the farm, learn about the coffee making process from fruit to the final roasted beans, and it was where we saw our first banana and avocado trees, which our son thought was the absolute coolest thing.
They also had a variety of fresh fruit for sale that had been grown on the property, and we picked up a couple of giant avocados for $1 each that eventually made it into avocado toast later in the week. The coffee beans themselves weren’t exactly cheap, but it’s hard to beat Kona coffee (only coffee grown in one small area of Hawaii gets to be labeled “Kona coffee”). Since we were renting Airbnbs with full kitchens, we picked up some coffee for our breakfasts in before heading out to adventure for the rest of the day (click this link for $40 off your first Airbnb stay). There are a number of other coffee farms that have tours both in Kona and in other parts of the island, but Greenwell Farms was the only one we visited, and they were worth the stop.
2. Explore The Farmers Markets
The Big Island, just like all of the Hawaiian Islands, has numerous farmers markets throughout the week. Before you go, pay attention to what dates the different markets fall on so you don’t try and visit on the wrong day. The Hilo Farmers Market is technically open seven days a week, Wednesdays and Saturdays are their big market days with over 200 different vendors to explore. We went on a Wednesday and were not disappointed by the variety of different fruits and vegetables for sale along with spices, sauces, and other artisan goods that you’d expect from a local market.
We also went to the South Kona Green Market in Captain Cook, near Greenwell Farms. While we were there, they had a free show with local music and dancing, along with some of the best street tacos from one of their vendors and the best shave ice we had on the trip. This is a very traditional farmers market compared to what we’re used to in the Pacific Northwest, just with a Hawaiian flare in terms of the different fruits and vegetables available for purchase. The only downside was the lack of shaded areas to sit and eat lunch, but we found a spot in the corner under some trees that worked well enough. Go here for a full list of the markets on the Big Island, because there are many more to choose from.
3. Watch The Sunset Over The Ocean
While this might be a really stereotypical thing to do while in Hawaii, it’s a popular one for a reason. The sunsets were absolutely stunning over the expanse of the Pacific and we stopped whatever we were doing to watch the sun sink into the ocean. Of course, this can only be done on the western side of the island near Kona and north to the Kohala coast, but it’s worth your while to do at least one day on your trip. And it’s absolutely free to watch the sunset 🙂
4. Go To The Beach
Again, if you’re going to Hawaii, odds are you’re planning to go to the beach at least a few times during the trip. There are snorkeling beaches, green sand beaches, black sand beaches, and hang out and relax beaches, but make sure to explore some of the less popular ones as well.
We ended up heading to a small local beach on the north end of the island, following a simple “public beach sign,” and we were rewarded with one of the highlights of our whole trip – watching a newborn Hawaiian Monk Seal on the beach with its mother. These animals are extremely endangered, and the only other people on the beach at the time were volunteers watching over the pair to make sure they were left alone. If you are ever lucky enough to see one, please give them a wide berth and watch them from afar. As a former park ranger and someone who has been on sea turtle patrols, I had a fun chat with the volunteer on duty and hope to some day visit the Ke Kai Ola Marine Mammal Center that is integral in the survival of the species.
5. Spend An Afternoon At The Hilo Zoo
Amazingly, the Big Island has a free zoo in Hilo, and it is the only tropical rainforest zoo in the United States. While it may not be as large as some of the zoos we’ve visited in other areas of the country, I’ve never been to a free zoo before. They have tigers, alligators, large snakes, Hawaiian Nenes (geese), and many other animals you’d expect to see at a zoo. We were lucky enough to be there at feeding time, and we got to watch the anteaters get their midday meal.
The Pana’ewa Rainforest Zoo does have a donation box at the entrance, which we did put some money in, but it has no admittance booth and is absolutely free. I love this idea because zoos are generally only accessible by those with larger incomes because most of them are not cheap. However, I did recently learn that our local library system has free zoo passes, so your local zoo may be “free” occasionally as well.
6. Hike Waipi’o Valley
Waipi’o Valley is located about an hour and a half north east of Kona or about an hour and fifteen from Hilo, but it is well worth the drive. The hike distance itself doesn’t seem like much (only three miles round trip), and the hike is on a paved road, but much of it is at a 15-25% grade or more. You hike down into the valley and then have to hike back out to go home.
You can pay for a tour down to the bottom if you aren’t able to make the hike down yourself, but I would not suggest driving down yourself as the road is very steep and twisted. Down at the bottom, you can see a few cars that didn’t quite make the turns, so do take the signs seriously that say 4 wheel drive vehicles only. For as steep as the road is, the hike isn’t that terribly long, and it is worth it to get to the bottom where you end up at one of the island’s black sand beaches. There are longer trails that take you up the other side of the valley, but you would need to block out at least a full day for that.
The Big Island has plenty of other hikes as well, so if Waipi’o is a bit too daunting, I would suggest looking in to a couple other hikes (like the Pololu Valley Lookout). Both also do have some awesome views up top, that don’t require any hiking at all.
7. Drive Up Mauna Kea
The Big Island really is by far the largest Hawaiian Island, so be prepared to do quite a bit of driving if you want to get a good sense of the island. Measured from the sea floor, Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain on Earth, and more impressively, you can drive from sea level to its summit at 14,000 feet in one day. However, we only drove up to the Mauna Kea Visitor Center, which is located at 9,200 feet, for a couple of reasons.
The first reason being that we had our soon to be 3 year old with us, and it isn’t safe for anyone under 16 years old to make that kind of elevation gain in a single day due to their developing organs. Even adults are recommended to spend a few hours at the Visitor Center first to adjust before continuing on to the top.
The second reason is the same as with Waipi’o Valley; the road grade and curves require a 4WD vehicle. If you’re determined to get all the way to the Observatory, Harper Car And Truck Rental is the only one that explicitly allows you to take their cars up those roads.
Otherwise, there are a number of different companies that will drive you in an off road van (though these options aren’t cheap). Even if you, like us, decide not to go all the way up to the Observatory, it is still well worth driving up to the Visitor Center. The views are spectacular, you can still get a sense of the thinning air up at a high elevation, and there are some reasonable hiking trails directly from the Center.
8. Soak In The Hot Springs ***No longer applicable as lava has overrun this park***
Ahalanui Park and Hot Springs is in Pahoa, about 40 minutes southeast of Hilo, and if you find time to do just one thing outside of hanging out on the beach, this should be it. We have hot springs here in the Pacific Northwest, but this was a wholly different kind of experience. The springs are warm, not hot, absolutely clear, and have no smell of sulphur that is so common to hot springs. The natural pool is right next to the ocean and the perfect spot to spend an afternoon.
The parking lot and park itself are a little run down, but that doesn’t matter in the slightest once you make it in to the water (just be prepared that there are no bathrooms to change in other than porta potties).
9. Walk Past Lava Trees ***no longer applicable as lava has overrun this park***
Before or after visiting the Ahalanui Hot Springs, take the fifteen minute drive to Lava Tree State Monument. The park is free to visit, and the loop itself is flat and less than a mile, with the first lava trees visible just past the parking lot.
“Lava trees” are actually the molds left behind from where lava swept the trees area and the molds of the tree trunks were left behind once the lava cooled and receded. *At the time of writing, this park is closed due to the recent Kilauea eruption, so as is true with all areas of Hawaii, be sure to check the status of the area before you visit.
10. Experience Uncle Robert’s Night Market
We purposefully went to both the Hot Springs and Lava Tree State Monument on Wednesday, because that is the day of Uncle Robert’s Night Market, which is also in he same general area of the Big Island. The Puna District isn’t densely populated, and a bit out of the way, but this night market draws large crowds every Wednesday night.
While it is billed as a Farmers Market, it is more of a festival, with rows and rows of food and craft vendors, live music, and drink. It is an experience, and some of the best food we ate on the island came from that market.
Overall, we had a wonderful trip to the Big Island of Hawaii, and we spent just over $400 per person for the entire week. While Hawaii can be an extraordinarily expensive vacation, it doesn’t have to be. There are so many wonderful things to see and do that cost little – or no – money. Though do splurge a little and have a dinner at the Kona Brewing company (and if it’s your anniversary, get a free dessert).