We've reserved a house in Waikoloa for 8 days over Christmas (2014) but need to find other lodging for the last 2 nights of our trip. We plan on visiting Hawaii Volcanoes National Park some time during our stay and thought maybe we should just book something near the park and spend a few days on that side of the island.
Should we stay near the park or in Hilo?
Volcano is the town right by the park and it is very lovely and offers nice vacation rentals and b&b's. However, if you are interested in doing anything past 8:00 p.m. I would suggest staying in Hilo and driving up. Volcano has only a couple of places to eat and everything shuts down at around 8:00, and the drive down the hill is at least 30 minutes.
Mark, I strongly recommend staying in Volcano to give you ample time to explore Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. It will save a lot of time (for fun), which is precious on vacation. You can see and do a lot in two days in HVNP, but you need two FULL days.
As you may know, the Big Island's vast geographical area means it takes a long time to drive between visitor hot spots. From Waikoloa, it will take at least 3 hours to get to HVNP. You don't want to spend another 3 hours driving back, especially driving at night (it can be foggy or rainy). Also, it's 45-60 minutes from most lodging in Hilo to HVNP. It also takes time to drive to various places in this large park, which eats up time.
The village of Volcano has many good lodging and dining options which make staying there convenient and worthwhile. That way, you can get out early to HVNP attractions (before tour busses arrive around 10-11 am) or start longer hikes early before it gets hot. And, after dark (or if weather turns unpleasant), you're very close to home for food and rest.
It's easy to research lodging and dining in Volcano online, but I recommend http://volcanovillage.net/ I have stayed in two of these properties with family members, and just with my girlfriend, and really thought it was a great stay and a good value. It may be tough to get a reservation at Christmas, which is a high season. Good luck!
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