Day 3 of our Big Island road trip took us from Hilo to Kona, with scenic stops along and off Highway 11. Here were our highlights of the day:
- Food in Hilo
- Scenic Drive from Hilo to Kona
- Kaimū Black Sand Beach
- Kapoho Kalapana Road to Isaac Hale Beach Park
- Punalu’u Black Sand Beach
- Manta Ray Night Snorkel with Kona Snorkel Trips
Food in Hilo
We started our day in Hilo where we had a very hearty Hawaiian breakfast at Hawaiian Style Cafe and picked up mochi at Two Ladies Kitchen. The mochi from Two Ladies Kitchen was one of our favorite eats on the Big Island. If you happen to be in Hilo between Wednesday and Saturday, I 100% recommend making a stop. Tip, if you call ahead to place an order, you can skip the long line.
Scenic Drive from Hilo to Kona
We originally planned on driving the Chain of Craters Road from the entrance of Volcanoes National Park to the Hōlei Sea Arch. However, we ended up coming across this post that described the beautiful drive from Hilo through Pāhoa so we decided to do that instead. Altogether, we spent 5-6 hours driving from Hilo to Kona, with stops at Kaimū Beach, Isaac Hale Beach Park, and Punalu’u Black Sand Beach.
Kaimū Black Sand Beach
Kaimū is a newly formed Black Sand Beach created by volcanic activity in 2018. There’s parking available near Uncle Robert’s Awa Bar and Farmers Market. From the farmers market, you’ll see a black and red sand trail that will eventually take you to the coastline, where you’ll find breathtaking views of the Pacific surrounded by lava rocks and black sand. Read here to find out why Kaimū is one of our favorite Big Island beaches!
TIME SPENT: <30 minutes
Kapoho Kalapana Road to Isaac Hale Beach Park
You can get from Kaimū to Isaac Hale Beach Park via Kalapana – Kapoho road (Route 137). This drive is truly all about the journey and not the destination. While Isaac Hale isn’t notable, the drive on the Kapoho Kalapana Road is gorgeous. Had I known, I would have stopped off at any of the various scenic points on Route 137 instead of beelining to Isaac Hale. As you drive, you’re constantly reminded of the fact that Hawaii is tropical as you pass black sand beaches, tree tunnels, and jungle vines – all while following the southeast coastline.
TIME SPENT: <30 minutes (one-way)
Punalu’u Black Sand Beach
After driving almost 2 hours from Isaac Hale, we arrived at Punalu’u Black Sand Beach. Punalu’u is the island’s most well-known black sand beach and is often dotted with both Green and Hawksbill Sea Turtles. They rest and sunbathe on the warm sand, which allows you to get as close to 10-15 feet from them (which is the recommended safe distance).
TIME SPENT: <30 minutes
On our way to Kona, we made a slight detour and attempted to pick up malasadas from Punalu’u Bake Shop, which is about a 15-minute drive from the beach. Unfortunately, they didn’t have any malasadas left because we got there just before closing.
We made sure to get to Kona by sunset so we could check in and rest before we ended our day with a manta ray night snorkel tour.
Manta Ray Night Snorkel with Kona Snorkel Trips
We booked our tour with Kona Snorkel Trips (purchased at Costco) and cannot recommend them enough. Not only are the staff friendly, well-trained, and informative, you can tell they have deep respect for the animals. We ended up seeing more than 10 rays on the tour, all of which had unique names. It was truly a bucket list experience to see these gentle giants inches from my face.
Manta Ray Night Snorkel Tips
- Bring sea bands. If you are prone to seasickness, I’d strongly recommend bringing sea bands. They sound gimmicky but I swear by their ability to prevent nausea. I now have 4 pairs of these bands because I forgot to bring mine and ended up buying them from Kona Snorkel Trips at cost.
- Book the last tour of the day. If you can, I’d book the last tour (typically 8-10 PM) for a number of reasons. First, the group size is smaller so you’re better able to space yourself out on the surfboards that you’ll hang onto. These surfboards have light underneath which attracts the plankton that the manta rays eat. Second, it ensures that it’s completely dark, which increases the likelihood of plankton being attracted to the light attached to the surfboards, which thereby increases the chances of seeing manta rays. Third, you’re likely to be one of the last groups in the water, meaning you’re likely to have the rays to yourself.
- Book your tour at the beginning or middle of your trip. Book your tour at the start of your stay in Kona. We did this on our very first night in Kona so that we’d have a chance to do another tour on the off chance we didn’t see any rays.
Manta Ray Night Snorkel FAQs
- Is it safe to snorkel with manta rays? Yes, manta rays are completely harmless to humans. They are called gentle giants because their sole defense mechanism is their ability to swim fast.
- How big are manta rays in Hawaii? The manta rays on the Big Island are part of the Mobula Alfredi species. Though smaller than Giant Manta Rays, these reef rays often have a wingspan of 10 to 12 feet with some reaching even 18 feet.
- When is the best time to see manta rays in Hawaii? The best time of day to see manta rays is at night. The summer and fall months are the best time of year to spot manta rays but it’s not necessarily for the reason you might think. See, unlike whales, manta rays don’t migrate. This means that your chance to see manta rays is independent of animal behavior and entirely the result of weather conditions. The weather is milder in summer and fall, which reduces the likelihood of your tour getting canceled due to stormy or rough swells.
- Where is the best manta ray snorkeling location? The Big Island is one of the best places in the world for snorkeling with manta rays. On the Big Island, there are 3 main spots where manta rays consistently feed (and where you’ll have the highest chances of seeing manta rays): Manta Point (Kohala), Manta Heaven (North Kona), and Manta Village (South Kona).
- What are the best Big Island manta ray night snorkeling tours? Honestly, there are so many tour companies that do a great job. Pick a tour company that fits within your schedule and budget. Just make sure they go to one of the locations mentioned above and offer a “manta guarantee” in the event you don’t see a ray on your trip.
- On average, how much does a manta ray night snorkeling tour cost? From our research, we found most tours averaged between $130-200 per person. In 2022, our manta ray night snorkel tour with Kona Snorkel Trips cost $120 per person (with the Costco discount). Kona Snorkel Trips also offers a guarantee that allows you to book a tour on another night at no cost (assuming availability).
- What do I need to bring? Besides a bathing suit, you’ll want to bring a light jacket for the boat ride as well as a towel to dry off after you get back. If you get seasick, I’d also bring sea bands. I also used my prescription snorkel mask instead of the tours for better visibility.