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(Author’s note: With the “Big Island” being so big, I decided to break this installment into two episodes, because the Hilo and Kona sides of the island are vastly different. This episode is about travel to Hilo.)

Hawaii, The Big Island

First, some quick geography: often when people hear about Hawaii’s “Big Island”, they will respond with “Oh, Honolulu?”  I like to explain that Honolulu, on the Island of Oahu, represents the majority of the Hawaiian islands’ population, while the Big Island of Hawaii contains most of the land mass. With an island and county which share the same name as the state, I can understand why it could be confusing. Hawaii, the island and county, measures 4,028 square miles, is 93 miles across and comprises 62% of the Hawaiian Islands’ land area. All the other Hawaiian islands could easily fit inside “Big Island” almost twice.

Mountain Height (Feet) Height (Meters)
Mauna Kea 13,796 4205
Mauna Loa 13,679 4169
Hualalai 8,271 2521
Kohala 5,480 1670
Kaumu o Kaleihoohie 5,252 1601
Kilauea 4,091 1247


Hilo, the county seat with a population of about 45,000, is on the east and leeward, or wet, side of the island. This entire side of the Big Island stays very lush and green all the time. On most trips to Hilo, you can’t see the top of the mountains due to continuous clouds and often rainy conditions. I was lucky to catch a glimpse of Mauna Kea and its observatories through the clouds while driving.

April 28, 2020: A rare sighting of Mauna Kea and its observatories above the clouds.


In many ways, Hilo is what I feel Hawaii was like many moons ago. It moves at a different pace, not necessarily on “Island time,” but at its own pace. Everyone I meet in Hilo is always pleasant and accommodating.

During COVID, I did not make as many trips to Hilo as I did to other areas of Hawaii. My first trip was on April 28, 2020. There were eight people on my flight over from Honolulu, and I remember wondering what it would be like around town. As with the other islands, you had to clear a screening when you got off the plane, to prove you were allowed to be there. After quickly handling this, I filled my water bottle, and walked across the street to the rental car counter, where I presented proof of my work exemption and got my car.

April 28, 2020: Arrival at Hilo Airport with not a soul in sight.

First, a word about getting work travel clearance from Hawaii County.  Early on in the pandemic shutdown, things were a complete mess. The time it would take to get your approval varied greatly; one time I received it in three hours, another time it took eight days. This inconsistency made it impossible to book your trip without getting approval confirmation first. Many trips to the Big Island were booked at the last minute after getting approval. About halfway through COVID, the county changed the rules so that a work exemption was good for 30 days. This was a game changer for those of us traveling in for work, and a relief from not knowing how long approval would take. I wish the other counties had adopted this rule.

After getting my rental, I headed out for my inspections. Hilo was deserted. There is usually steady traffic around town, but not this time. The roads were empty, and it was obvious most businesses were closed. Like Kauai, Hilo has limited healthcare available for the local population. It was clear how seriously they took COVID. I completed one commercial and two residential inspections and headed back to the airport.

I pulled over in a parking lot to eat my lunch and make a few phone calls, learning from my Kauai trip not to stop in a park. With three hours before my flight and less than a mile to go, I got a quick nap in as well.  After my nap, I still had more than two hours to kill, and really wanted some coffee.  I drove around town for thirty minutes and could not find anywhere to buy a cup of coffee, so I ended up heading back to the airport.

After returning the rental and quickly clearing the empty TSA security line, I ended up in the lounge area at Hilo Airport.  This is one of my favorite places, with a huge open space and large comfortable loungers and sofas.  After refilling my water bottle, I popped down in one of the chairs for another quick nap. My return flight had twelve passengers, and was uneventful. 

April 28, 2020: Thirty minutes before my return flight, the departure lounge is nearly empty.

Recovering from COVID

The repeating theme of travel in the Islands is just how much COVID shut down Hawaii, coupled with empty airplanes and empty cities.  Next week, I’ll talk about traveling to Kona, my favorite visit of all due to the unique circumstances of one trip, in the final episode of this series.  Mahalo!

May 12, 2022:  The lounge area at Hilo Airport is thriving now with regular travel returning post-COVID.

Justin Whedbee

Justin joined his father’s independent adjusting firm while in college, and took over operations in 2001. Since then, his company grew to be the highest producing division of a national franchise with over 120 owners. In 2021, he formed MAS Solutions with John Walker, offering services across the U.S., Mexico and Latin America.