AUTHOR’S NOTE: We travelled The Big Island of Hawaii before the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic and the world went on lockdown. We returned home to Canada five days before the announcement and have been in self-isolation ever since. So rest assured we’re blogging post-travels and are not still out there roaming the world. That would be irresponsible! Quarantine safe, everyone, and we’ll all get through this. — Heather & Pier
Our first day in Hawaii was a crash course in using the Hele-On Bus transit system! We also saw our first black-and-white sand beach, found some petroglyphs, and discovered how unrelentingly steep Hilo’s streets are en route to our AirBnB.
We arrived in Kona late on Feb. 25, 2020 with plans to go to Hilo the very next day. As I explained in this post (How to Tour the Big Island Without a Car), we were touring Hawaii entirely by bike and bus; however, Hawaii’s infrequent transit didn’t make it easy! Luckily, I made multiple plans.
Plan 1 – Hang out in Kona for the day, then at 4pm catch the only direct bus from Kona to Hilo, arriving at 7pm. (Note: a bus leaves at 6:30am, but we didn’t want to rush to catch transit in an unfamiliar city at the crack of dawn.)
The obvious problem with this plan? If we didn’t catch this bus to Hilo, we’d be stranded in Kona! So I researched other routes and found one more way to get to Hilo…
Plan 2 – Catch the 10am bus from Kona to the South Kohala resorts (the Pahala/South Kohala bus route). Then hang out in the resort area for a few hours until we could catch a bus from the resorts to Hilo (Hilo/South Kohala Resorts bus route).
This was the safer plan because the buses on these routes are more frequent (a few in the morning and a few in the afternoon), and we’d have more than one opportunity to get to Hilo. Plus, we’d arrive in Hilo earlier, before it got dark.
But what if we missed the bus at 10am? Then there was…
Plan 3 – It’s a two hour bike ride from Kona to the South Kohala resorts; three hours if we stopped to sightsee. Bonus, we’d be cycling part of the Ironman route! Then, from the resorts, we’d catch a bus to Hilo.
Before leaving for Hawaii, I was keen on doing Plan 3 and seeing some sights! But after 11 hours of flying, 20 hours of travel in total, and the ensuing jet lag, we decided on Plan 2. We’d later learn that this was a very good decision!
KONA: Catching the Hele-On Bus on Ali’i Drive
Jet lag had us up early, so we had ample time to find the bus stop before 10am. Internet sleuthing told me the Hele-On bus stopped at the intersection of Ali’i Drive and Palani Road, so we headed there to suss out the situation.
We saw cluster of people who were clearly waiting for something, but when we asked, they said they were waiting for a tour bus. Then we asked the security guards at the Kona Pier, but they were not familiar with the bus schedule or stops. So we crossed the street and asked a store owner who pointed us to Mike, a man selling homemade sweet potato chips!
Mike turned out to be a wealth of information! He takes the bus from Hilo to Kona three days a week to come sell his chips. When we asked where to catch the bus, he pointed to the Pizza sign and said to stand there, though he told us we may have to flag it down because if the driver doesn’t think anyone is waiting, he won’t stop.
Mike also told us that the 4pm bus from Kona to Hilo is often cancelled, so it’s a good thing we weren’t waiting for that one! Likewise, the 9am Monday bus from Hilo to Kona is usually cancelled too, which is the one we’d planned to take back to Kona the next week. He told us to check the Hele-On website to see if it was running or not. Otherwise, he reassured us that the next bus at 1:30 always ran.
Finally, Mike gave us the lowdown on the different kinds of Hele-On buses. Some are coach buses with storage compartments underneath where we’d put our bikes. Others are transit buses where one carries all bags onto the bus. And still others are more like big vans. During our trip, we’d be on all of these different types of buses, and were grateful to Mike for giving us the inside scoop on what to do with our bicycles in each scenario.
Note: For people traveling with non-folding bikes, some of the Hele-On buses have bike racks on the front, but not all. Luckily, we had folding bikes so we didn’t have to worry whether the coming bus could accommodate our wheels!
So we packed our bikes for the bus and waited while eating a big bag of Mike’s Furikake Purple Sweet Potato Chips!
A bus rounded the corner ten minutes later than scheduled (Mike had warned us about that too). We flagged it down, and since it was a coach bus, put our Bromptons in the storage compartment, and got on. There were only four other people on the bus, three of whom got off at the next stop, so we had front row seats!
As we were heading out of Kona on Hwy 19 (Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway), we noticed some cycling infrastructure at the intersections. Past these junctions there’s no official bike lane, just a wide shoulder running alongside the highway.
It’s adequate space if you want to cycle this route, but it isn’t a very interesting ride since the scenery doesn’t change much. Plus it’s WINDY! The flat lava fields do nothing to block the wind rushing over the volcano mountains down to the coast. We saw some hardcore road cyclists on the highway shoulder pushing hard against that wind, and were happy we decided to take the bus.
The bus only took an hour to get to the Waikoloa resort area in South Kohala. It dropped us off at the stop by the Hilton, a little ways from the resort entrance, which is a clear indication that the bus is used by locals, not tourists. Although at least here there’s a tiny green sign that reads: “Bus Stop”
It was only 11am and the next bus for Hilo didn’t leave until 2:30. We had three and a half hours to kill! Time to explore the swanky Waikoloa resort area!
WAIKOLOA: Touring the Resort Area on Two Wheels
I didn’t plan this route in Komoot; I just hit record on the app and started pedalling!
We headed for the white-and-black sand beach of ‘Anaeho’omalu Bay first…
From A Bay beach, we followed a paved path that weaved in and out of some fish ponds. The sign said no pets, bicycles or skateboards allowed on the path, so we walked our Bromptons.
Then we checked out the Kings Highway Foot Trail, which, unless you have a full suspension mountain bike, is too bumpy to cycle. But we hear it’s a nice hike!
The Kings Trail leads to the Waikoloa Petroglyph Reserve. We thought of walking it, but took the nice smooth path beside it instead where we saw some petroglyphs.
Then we continued to the “Major Field” which is where the Kings Trail leads.
After that, we still had over an hour until we had to catch the bus, so we went back to A Bay Beach to hang out and eat our snacks. Though, if I’d known the big Puako Petroglyph Park on the north end of the Waikoloa resort area was just a 20 minute ride away, we could have gone there. Next time!
The Bus Ride to HILO
We returned to the Hilton bus stop half an hour before the bus was scheduled to arrive because Mike had warned us that, unlike other routes on the Big Island, this bus was often full and we wanted to make sure we got on it! Good thing too. The first local there instructed us to put our bags “in line” – which just meant he put his bag down where the bus stops, then we put our bags behind his, and then as more people arrived, they put their bags behind ours. Then they all stood in the shade. It’s a good, polite system!
The people waiting for the bus were workers at the resort who seemed to know each other. They all chatted and joked until the bus arrived. It was a transit bus, much like our TTC buses in Toronto. So we carried our bikes inside and sat in the front “priority seating” seats, the only space big enough for out Bromptons in their B-bags. The bus driver greeted people by name, and once everyone was on the bus, he pulled away and they all promptly fell asleep. Except us. We took a selfie.
With everyone else sleeping, the bus driver kindly pointed out sights to us along the way. We had a front row seat to the changing landscape of The Big Island as he drove the Hawaii Belt Road from Waikoloa to Hilo.
We arrived in Hilo shortly before 5pm, unfolded our bikes, and went straight to Ocean Sushi to fuel up before riding 30 minutes uphill to our AirBnB.
We didn’t know how steep it was; all we knew is that Google and Komoot told us it would take 30 minutes to bike UP, but only 15 minutes to bike DOWN. That sounded steep!
Turns out the average grade is 4% – so not terribly steep, just a bit gruelling for 30 minutes straight. Luckily, we made it in 22 minutes. And finally it was time to settle into our lovely AirBnB and get our jet-lagged butts to bed.