Visiting the Big Island Hawaii? Don’t Miss This Comprehensive Travel Guide
The Big Island Hawaii is a perfect example of what Paul Theroux meant when he said, “Hawaii is not a state of mind but a state of grace.”
Known officially as the island of Hawai’i, this all-popular destination simmers with the Aloha spirit. It’s the biggest island in the Hawaiian archipelago – larger than the other islands combined and with a wealth of unforgettable attractions to match.
There are stars and volcanoes to gaze and gawp at, manta rays to swim alongside, black sand beaches to sunbathe on, and so much more that it’s hard to know where to start! If you’re planning a trip to the Big Island and want some help deciding what to do, then you’ve come to the right place.
Read on for a comprehensive travel guide to Hawaii’s Big Island.
How Do You Get to the Big Island Hawaii?
You get to the Big Island by plane, mostly. There are 2 airports here, the main one being Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport (KOA). Located 7 miles northwest of Kailua-Kona, this is the most popular entranceway into the island. However, you can also get here via Hilo International Airport (HNL) on its eastern side.
Multi-island Hawaiian cruises stop here as well leaving from Oahu’s Honolulu.
When’s the Best Time of Year to Visit the Big Island?
The best time to visit the Big Island Hawaii depends on your preferences. However, someone looking for an enviable blend of superb weather, manageable crowds, and reasonable prices should consider either May or October-time. The Hawaiian summer (Kau) runs between these 2 months, meaning you avoid the main summer rush of tourists without sacrificing too much from a weather perspective.
What’s the Best Way to Explore the Big Island Hawaii?
The best way to explore the Big Island is by renting a vehicle. Remember, it’s called “big” for a reason! With a much larger landmass than the other Hawaiian Islands, having a set of wheels gives you greater freedom and helps you maximize your time there.
If you’re not going to rent a car for what ever reason, the next best thing is to pay for a guided tour that collects you from your accommodation and takes you to each sight/place.
How Long Should You Stay on the Big Island Hawaii?
Try to spend anywhere from 7 to 10 days on the Big Island. You could easily spend longer there, if you’re able to work remotely and extend your time in paradise. However, a week should provide sufficient time to see the sights in each region without rushing from one place to the next. You’ll be able to tick everything off your Big Island bucket list and still find time to relax.
Big Island Hawaii’s 6 Different Districts
The Big Island has 6 primary regions for you to explore, each boasting a unique appeal. In no particular order, let’s run through them.
Located on the sunny western side of the island, come to Kona for its history, beaches, clear waters, fine weather, coffee farms, and cultural significance. Kona’s also home to the infamous Kealakekua Bay, where Captain Cook first set foot on the island over 240 years ago (and was eventually killed).
Head to the easternmost part of the Big Island for Puna and the former mill town of Pahoa. A free-spirited place, it’s known for its farms, black sand beaches, and impressive lava features. On that note, don’t forget to check out Kalapana* at the end of Highway 130 – a place destroyed by a lava flow back in 1986.
The Kalapana Lava Viewing Area was closed to the public at the time of writing due to volcanic activity.
Want to get away from big hotels, resorts and crowds? Head to Kau. All you’ll find in this peaceful, rural region in the south are hiking trails and farms. Having said that, Kau also boasts Punalu’u Black Sand Beach and a huge chunk of the Volcanoes National Park, including one of the world’s most active volcanoes: Kilauea.
On the north-western side of the Big Island and just 20 minutes north of Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport, you’ll find the Kohala Coast – often referred to as the “Gold Coast” for its predominance of 5 star resorts, timeshare communities and golf courses.
You don’t have to be a millionaire to enjoy it here, though. As one of the sunniest places in Hawaii, with an abundance of beautiful beaches (don’t miss Hapuna Beach!) and diverse towns to explore, there’s something in Kohala for everyone.
Located north of Puna on the eastern (also called the windward) side of the Big Island is the charming town of Hilo. You’ll find the smaller of the island’s 2 airports here, but that’s far from the only reason to visit!
Hilo boasts a vibrant atmosphere and slew of amenities – not to mention the usual Hawaiian natural beauty. Aside from the vast waterfalls and fertile rainforests in the surrounding area, expect museums, shops, eateries, and the remarkable ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center.
Welcome to one of the most scenic regions in the Big Island Hawaii. Located just north of Hilo, the Hamakua Coast is a breathtaking place full of waterfalls, valleys, and tropical rainforests.
For an epic drive, travel from Hilo to the Waipi’o Valley Lookout along the Hamakua Heritage Corridor. You’ll pass all sorts of memorable sights, but none more impressive than the 442-foot-tall Akaka Falls.
11 Incredible Things to Do on the Big Island Hawaii
With over 4000 square miles of rugged natural beauty and an epic history to its name, it should come as no surprise that the Big Island offers such a magnificent array of things to do. Narrowing them down to a manageable list is no mean feat, but we’ve done our best in the coming section.
1. Go Stargazing at Mauna Kea
At over 4,200m above sea level, Mauna Kea is the tallest (dormant) volcano on the Big Island and a sacred place in Hawaiian tradition. It’s also one of the best locations for stargazing in the world! Head to the Mauna Kea Visitor Center (MKVIS) at sundown to enjoy outstanding sunset views and take advantage of the telescopes.
2. Explore the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is the Big Island’s number 1 tourist attraction for a reason. This otherworldly landscape extends from sea level up to over 13,500 feet and encompasses 2 of the world’s most active volcanoes (Kilauea and Mauna Loa).
Pay it a visit to walk across ancient lava flows, witness lava lakes glowing red at the vast Halema’uma’u crater, and enjoy mile after mile of epic hiking trails.
3. Dive with Manta Rays (At Night!)
If the thought of scuba diving off the coast of the Big Island isn’t enticing enough, then perhaps doing it with manta rays swimming alongside you will be! This popular activity lets you do exactly that. Knowledgeable instructors take you on a thrilling night dive to see the 240 resident rays that call the Kona coast home.
4. Visit Pristine Kealakekua Bay
Aside from its aforementioned infamy as the site of Captain Cook’s first landing, Kealakekua Bay offers kayaking, snorkeling, and general beach-going bliss. It’s a busy part of the island, but if you don’t mind sharing this historic bay with other visitors, you’ll be able to see schools of tropical fish, dolphins, and bright coral reefs.
5. Hang Out at Hapuna Beach
For sandy shorelines and family fun, don’t miss Hapuna Beach. Located along the Kohala Coast, this pristine stretch of powdery white sand is regularly voted one of the best beaches on the island. Expect beautifully warm, clear water, exceptional snorkeling, and even the occasional migrating whale on the horizon.
6. Do a Coffee Farm Tour
Ready for another of the best things to do on the Big Island Hawaii? Book yourself onto one of the countless coffee farm tours available here. Ideal for caffeine addicts and coffee connoisseurs, you’ll explore the grounds, learn about the farming process, and sample some of the freshest coffee on the island – all the while enjoying some awesome views over the surrounding area.
7. Visit the Magical Waipio Valley
Named after the Wailoa Stream that meanders through the valley, this picturesque part of the Big Island was once home to Hawaiian kings. These days, it’s all about the views and outdoor opportunities. Stop at the lookout here or join a group tour to get down to the valley floor.
If you’re fit and up for a challenge, consider doing the grueling Muliwai Trail too. This zigzagging route takes you to the Waimanu Valley and offers spectacular views every step of the way.
8. See Akaka Falls
We mentioned the 442-foot-tall Akaka falls earlier, but it’s so impressive (and worth seeing) that we’d be remiss not to discuss it in greater detail! Most striking after a heavy downpour, this vast column of water gushes over verdant cliffs into turbulent pools below. Akaka Fall is easy to access, too – a short half-mile walk from the parking lot – making it one of the Big Island Hawaii’s must-do activities.
9. Explore Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park
Want to immerse yourself in Hawaiian culture? Visit the 180-acre Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park, located just south of Kealakekua Bay. A sacred place of refuge, you’ll encounter ancient temples and learn about Hawaii’s ancient laws – or Kapu. The nearby Royal Grounds, Keone’ele Cove, and the Keoua Stone are a few other notable points of cultural and historical interest here.
This is a place of significant importance to Hawaiians. Please treat it with the upmost respect and reverence.
10. Do a Helicopter Tour of the Kohala Coast
For a truly unforgettable sightseeing experience on the Big Island Hawaii, book yourself onto a helicopter tour of the inimitable Kohala Coast. Getting a bird’s eye view of the area’s waterfalls, valleys, tropical rainforests, and jagged coastline is for those with big budgets, but it’s a worthy splurge if you can swing it.
11. Experience a Real-Life Working Hawaii Ranch
Hawaii has ranches? Yes! North of Waikōloa, you’ll find Kahua Ranch a real working ranch since 1928. They have epic views, ATV and horseback rides, but the absolute must-do during your trip only happens on Wednesday nights.
When you think of planning a trip to Hawaii, a luau is normally the evening dinner event that comes to mind. But, add their Paniolo BBQ Sunset Dinner to your itinerary to experience Hawaiian upcountry, iconic Hawaiian food, become part of their Ohana (family) and watch the sunset post dinner at 3,2000 feet above sea level.
Make the Most of Your Time on the Big Island Hawaii
The Big Island Hawaii will blow your mind with its majestic views and memorable experiences. A dreamy destination that has something for everyone, it’s tantamount to a “Hawaiian tasting platter.” You get the dramatic volcanic landscapes, the lush tropical rainforest, the rich history, and those pristine Hawaiian beaches, all in the same beautiful place.
With any luck, the insights in this guide have made you excited for your upcoming Big Island Hawaii adventure and will help you make the most of your time there!
This article was produced by Planner at Heart.