I followed the template that worked for Europe; pins and routes and offline maps. I was somewhat familiar with the Kona side but had to do research for the rest. The key thing was splitting up east-west trip and Volcanos National Park visit by getting a rental on the Hilo side.
The plan worked well; checkout times aligned with nap time, so Danielle slept through the major driving legs.
We started with a couple of nights near a snorkel spot in Keauhou.
The manta dive was challenging both from a diving and photography perspective:
The current was strong enough to occasionally lift an overweighted diver with nothing in his bc kneeling on the bottom.
Likewise, there was (relatively) low vis with tons of particulates to reflect flash.
TTL didn't work and I couldn't dial the flash manual setting down enough. So I wore the batteries down as quickly as possible.
Even with a dive light attached, there frequently wasn't enough light/contrast to focus.
Though it seemed like a business largely propped up by volcano tourists, Volcano Winery is just across the highway from the park so we stopped in for a tasting. Yeah, not the best wines, though the fruity ones are okay in small quantities.
The stop was entirely worthwhile though. Dani got to eat some Ritz and chase birds, Jes and I sipped and looked at the awesome lava/water photography.
On the plus side, the Kehena rental had an amazing panoramic view of the Pacific. On the minus side, it simply was not going to work with a toddler.
Since we'd later be at the Hilton mega-resort, I was hoping that the Kehena portion would be remote and relaxing. I know that backwater Hawaii can be somewhat hit-or-miss, so I leaned heavily on price point and reviews. They failed me.
Aside: the surrounding neighborhood was interesting to walk around. The house next door was an unexpected specimen of brutalist concrete. The exterior somehow looked simultaneously new and dilapidated - probably due to being rain-streaked. The updated windows and nice landscaping led me to believe it is actually quite nice.
As it turns out, the concrete house is in the gmaps inset for "Kehena, HI".
Other houses in the area run the gamut in architectural style and state of repair. One of the houses looked straight out of a stuccoed Southern California tract home development and was falling apart everywhere. Others were set back from polished gates.
Anyway, as great as the locale and view were, it simply wasn't going to work with a toddler that could bump over a shakily-affixed 60" television. There's a big difference between having a child at arm's reach (closely-supervised) and having one at literal arm's reach.
Even more spectacular than the lanai view was the nearby black sand beach.
After keeping the little Meatball at non-figurative arm's reach for a night, we headed into Hilo to stay at the waterfront Double Tree. Well, kind of. We needed to find something to do until 4pm check-in, which I assume is a product of covid-era deep cleaning. I also assume 4pm check-in is going to become the new normal even when the deep cleaning goes away.
So while vacation rentals weren't looking so good at this point, it was nice that the Keauhou place had let us check in as soon as the cleaning crew departed.
Where was I? Oh yes, we had some time to kill. It turns out Hilo's Panaewa Zoo is between Kehena and Hilo. The zoo shows up on a lot of travel guides but Jes and I weren't sure if it was worth a stop. From the marketing material, it seemed like the whole thing is showcase for their white tiger, Namaste.
Other info seemed to cast the welfare of Namaste into doubt, and so we wondered if something had happened to their star attraction. That is, we'd be kind of tilted if Panaewa had no Namaste and was just a bunch of zoological also-rans.
In the same way that Horizon Zero Dawn is enormous and really good but The Last of Us is small but also really good, the Panaewa Zoo is a great experience for even zoo-smug San Diegans. The zoo won't eat up your whole day, leaving you with blisters and sore quads. It's a short and sweet walk through the park. And the animal enclosures are also close enough to the visitors that there are signs everwhere reminding your to keep your fingers out of the cages.
But what of Namaste?
We found the tiger enclosure.
It even had a bonus kitty.
We found Namaste, right? We couldn't access the tiger enclosure placard because the main viewing area was cordoned off for some VIP who needed to ruin a bunch of schoolkids' days.
We weren't going to be deterred. On the walk out we looked it up. Namaste had indeed passed on. We were looking at Tzatziki and Sriracha.
Akaka and Kahuna Falls
Since we had a napping kid and hours til check-in, we drove north of Hilo to Akaka Falls. I'm not a big waterfall guy, so I was happy that the short walking loop went through an impressive patch of rainforest.
Rainbow Falls and Boiling Pots
The following day we made the short drive to Rainbow Falls, Pee'pee Falls, and Boiling Pots. Like Akaka (but much nearer to Hilo), you basically drive up, park, and look at the waterfall. It's easy enough that it's not too bad even for those who aren't really into waterfalls.
Once again, the waterfall-adjacent rainforest was easily as cool as the column of descending water. But neither this spot nor the nearby Boiling Pots had a sanctioned trail through the trees or down to the water. The Eagle Scout demographic has lost out to the selfie demographic. Alas.
Hilo's downtown is small and worth a visit. There's plenty of non-touristy things like memeing hookah lounges and board game lofts. We got some touristy smoothies and touristy-but-local shirts from a farmer's market.
The Japanese-style Liliuokalani Gardens and banyan (tree) walk near the waterfront were pleasant for strolling.
After two nights in Hilo, we drove the rainy saddle road back over to the Kona side.
The Mauna Kea summit is a short drive up from the saddle and a great way to break up the journey. Disappointingly, however, everything past the (currently closed) visitor center is only accessible to 4wd. Pretty sure we had 2wd last time. I would guess it's either dumb tourists or abs/tcs messing up their gravel road.
And so it came to pass that after all the snickering I did at the "rugged" tourists who rent Wranglers with bald street tires, they got the last laugh. We did the short hike at the visitor center parking lot.