Officially known as The Island of Hawaii, the Big Island is undoubtedly one of Hawaii’s best islands. It’s the largest island in Hawaii, and it’s also the most volcanically active, leading to some rather unique geological formations.
Famous for its beautiful beaches, delicious Hawaiian cuisine, and fun outdoor activities, the Big Island has much to do for every kind of traveler. It’s also a favorite with outdoor lovers thanks to its fantastic landscapes, especially the rugged Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park.
Whether you’re looking to hit the island’s hiking trails, relax on one of the black sand beaches, or marvel at Hawaii’s underwater life, this incredible destination has something for everyone.
To ensure you have the best time, this Big Island travel guide details everything you need to know. This includes the best things to do, where to stay, the top restaurants, and what you should pack!
The Best Things to Do on the Big Island
Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park
No Big Island travel guide would be complete without including the Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park! This incredible national park is home to two of the most active volcanoes in the world: Kīlauea and Mauna Loa.
It covers an impressive 523 square miles. While here, you’ll want to head out on one of the many day hikes like the Crater Rim Trail, or if you don’t feel like hiking, go on a Crater Rim drive tour.
There is a short self-guided lava tube tour that takes around 10 minutes which you can do as well. You can also drive to the sea arch all the way near the end of the park.
There are plenty of things to do, and some people spend a couple of days exploring everything the park offers.
Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park
While on the Big Island, make time to visit Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park. This is a fantastic place to immerse yourself in the local culture.
The park covers an area of 180 acres and was once a refuge for those who had broken Hawaiian law. Breaking these sacred laws was punishable by death.
However, if someone managed to make it here before they were caught, they would be given an absolution ceremony, and then they were allowed back into society.
Snorkel With Manta Rays
Snorkeling with manta rays will leave you with memories to last a lifetime, and there is no better place to do it than Hawaii.
You can find many snorkeling tours that take you out at night for anywhere from 1.5 to 2.5 hours. After witnessing an epic sunset, you head into the water so you can get a glimpse of these incredible creatures up close.
Not only can you enjoy snacks and light refreshments on board for a snorkel tour, but if you don’t spot any manta rays, most tour companies will let you go again another night for free!
Akaka Falls State Park
Akaka Falls State Park offers a scenic 0.4-mile loop trail that takes you to two waterfalls: Kahuna Falls and Akaka Falls.
While Kahuna Falls is a sight of its own, Akaka Falls is one of the island’s most popular waterfalls. The whole trail takes less than 20 minutes, and you’ll be walking through lush rainforest along the way with rails on the side.
The Akaka Falls Loop Trail starts just off the parking lot and is a paved route. It’s pretty easy, and it’s not uncommon to see families with young kids on it.
Go on A Dinner Cruise
You won’t want to miss out on a dinner cruise when you come to Hawaii.
You can go on a historical dinner cruise like this one that lasts for 3 hours and takes you to Kealakekua Bay. As well as having a delicious dinner included, there is a local historian on board who can tell you more about the island.
On this cruise, you can learn all about Hawaii’s history, enjoy live entertainment, and drink a complimentary cocktail. There is no shortage of options and most takeoff from Kona.
With towering volcanoes to lush rainforests, there is no better way to appreciate the scenery than by heading on an exhilarating zip line.
There are several tour companies on the island, and this one on GYG lasts for 3 hours and offers you the chance to go on seven different ziplines. There’s also a full-day tour. These ziplines all differ in length and height.
The great thing about this tour is that you can zipline directly over a 250-foot waterfall on one of the longest zip lines in Hawaii.
Best Beaches on the Big Island
Carlsmith Beach Park
Carlsmith Beach Park is under a 10-minute drive from Hilo. Although it doesn’t feature a sandy beach, it’s the perfect place to relax, so don’t leave it off your Hawaii itinerary!
First of all, there’s a well-kept lawn where you can sunbathe and have a picnic. Carlsmith Beach Park is also a fantastic spot for snorkeling and swimming since the waters are extremely clear.
You can often spot sea turtles here. Amenities include restrooms, showers, picnic tables, and a lifeguard.
Richardson Ocean Park
Richardson Ocean Park is located further along from Carlsmith Beach Park if you’re coming from Hilo. As such, it’s a good idea to combine a visit to both.
Richardson Ocean Park is known for its black sand and its fantastic marine life. Like with many of Hawaii’s beach areas, you can often spot turtles here, but make sure you keep your distance.
Thanks to the amenities at Richardson Ocean Park, which include restrooms, showers, and BBQs, it’s quite a family-friendly beach.
Just a 15-minute drive from Kona, you can find Makalawena Beach. It’s one of the less visited beaches on the Big Island, so the crowds aren’t as intense here as in other places.
The scenery of Makalawena Beach is also stunning, as the area boasts white sands, turquoise waters, and lush vegetation. There are crystal-clear waters that are perfect for snorkeling!
To reach Makalawena, you will need to park at Kekaha Kai State Park and then hike for around 20 minutes.
Hāpuna Beach State Recreation Area
Hāpuna Beach State Recreation Area is home to one of the island’s largest stretches of white sand. Located just a 20-minute drive from Waimea, this beach quickly becomes crowded on busier times, but there’s plenty of space to find yourself a spot.
For those who enjoy water-based activities, Hāpuna Beach is the perfect place. Here, you can head out for a swim, try out bodyboarding, or explore the island’s underwater life by snorkeling.
If you visit early in the year, it’s also a good spot for whale watching.
Punalu’u is a scenic black sand beach on the southern end of the island. With a backdrop of swaying palms against the vivid black shores, the scenery here will take your breath away.
Located between Pāhala and Nāʻālehu, the beach is undeniably beautiful, and it’s also home to many Hawaiian green sea turtles who can often be seen lounging on its sandy shores.
Although Punalu’u Beach isn’t the best swimming location, there’s a picnic area and restrooms here.
Waialea Beach is just a 5-minute drive from Hāpuna Beach State Recreation Area. It can get pretty busy during the summer, so you’ll want to arrive early in the day.
There are plenty of secluded spots with shade where you can relax. Waialea Beach is good for snorkeling too, as the water is very clear.
There’s no lifeguard stationed here, so you should be an adequate swimmer to get into the waters.
Where To Stay On The Big Island
The two best areas to stay on the Big Island are Hilo and Kona. They’re located on the opposite side of each other, with an extensive road/highway that connects them. The drive from each lasts around 1.5 hours. This is what each of these two areas is known for.
Often referred to as Kailua-Kona, this charming town is located on the West side of the Big Island. A highlight of staying here has to be the clear and calm waters, which are perfect for snorkeling as they’re full of marine life. You will also probably fly into the Kona Airport if you’re coming from mainland USA or from another country.
This is where you can find the famous ‘Kona coffee’, as well as plenty of other attractions. It’s also the most touristy area, with many of the island’s big and luxurious resorts residing here.
The Royal Kona Resort is a luxury resort that offers oceanfront views and all you could want for a relaxing stay with its magnificent spa and seafood restaurants. It also offers its very own luau.
The Kona Village Resort is another amazing place to stay, with rooms that offer mountain, garden, and ocean views. There are onsite restaurants and beach bars, offering an as close as you can get an all-inclusive stay. Consider one of these two if you’re looking for an all-inclusive resort on the Big Island.
Hilo is a vibrant town that’s located on the Northeastern side of the Big Island. It’s renowned for its jaw-dropping natural beauty and fantastic waterfalls, including Wai’ale Falls, which you can swim in. Since it’s farther away from the international airport and boat docks, it’s less popular than Kona.
There are still plenty of awesome hotels to choose from in Hilo, and you’ll be just a 40-minute drive from the Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park.
The SCP Hilo Hotel is a gorgeous property just a short drive from Hilo International Airport. It offers an outdoor swimming pool, restaurant, and fitness center.
The Inn at Kulaniapia Falls is just a 15-minute drive outside Hilo and is set in the most beautiful location, right next to the scenic Kulaniapia Falls.
How To Get Around The Big Island?
To get the most out of your trip, you really do need a car to get around, especially if you want to visit both Hilo and Kona, which are on opposite ends. Luckily, you can find plenty of rental options on the Big Island, so you won’t be short of options.
Many people (including us) choose to hire a rental right from Kona International Airport (KOA), as there are several major car rental companies here. This includes Alamo, Budget, Enterprise, and Hertz.
The majority of attractions on the Big Island can be accessed by a standard vehicle, although some people prefer to opt for a 4X4 so they can do a bit of off-roading! Just keep in mind that they will likely be a much more expensive option. Here’s a comprehensive guide to driving in Hawaii to read before you go.
For those who don’t drive, there are a few bus services on the island, but these typically only operate during the week. However, they are very affordable!
Taxis are another option, although these can be pricey too. Uber operates on the Big Island, so you may find prices on that platform to be cheaper, but either way, you’re likely to be paying a good amount.
Where To Eat on the Big Island
With all the delicious Hawaiian food, you need to make sure you try the local cuisine. Whether you’re after fresh seafood or tasty BBQ dishes, there’s something for everyone on the island of Hawaii. Try any of these restaurants:
- Harbor House – This is an open-air restaurant in Kona close to the airport. The prices are reasonable and include options for all diets. Recommend their grilled chicken sandwich and Teriyaki Chicken.
- Big Island Grill – This place is known for its Hawaiian staples, including Loco Moco, Kalua pork, and saimin. There are also some tasty desserts you can try.
- Da Poke Shack – It’s an awesome place on the Big Island to grab a Poke plate, a local specialty that consists of raw fish, along with other sides, such as rice.
- On the Rocks – Arguably one of the most popular eateries on the island, this place is famous for its sea views, cocktails, and of course, the delicious food.
- Umekes Fish Market Bar & Grill – Undoubtedly one of the best places to eat on the Big Island for fresh fish, with a variety of poke and other seafood dishes on offer.
What to Pack for Your Trip
This Big Island travel guide wouldn’t be complete without giving you an idea of what to pack. Below, you can find a quick breakdown of the essentials:
- Summer clothing – This includes shorts, t-shirts, summer shirts, sun dresses, skirts, and swimwear, among other lightweight clothing.
- Sun hat and sunglasses – The sunlight can be intense so choose a hat or cover that will cover your face.
- Good walking/hiking shoes and sandals – The Big Island is full of fantastic hiking trails, so make sure you’re well-equipped. Sandals are perfect for the beach.
- Waterproof phone case – If you don’t have a GoPro, this is the next best option for capturing Hawaii’s incredible marine life when snorkeling.
- Lots of sunscreen – For the best protection, opt for SPF 50+. You also want a reef-friendly sunscreen to protect the local environment.
- Swimming goggles/snorkeling gear – it’s possible to rent snorkeling gear on the Big Island, but you can save money in the long term by bringing your own if you want to go snorkeling more than once. Otherwise, it’s around $25 a day to rent full snorkeling gear from the stores.
Thank you for joining us on this journey through the Best of the Big Island. We hope this comprehensive travel guide has provided you with valuable insights and inspiration for your upcoming adventure.
Remember to make the most of the stunning beaches, explore the unique landscapes, indulge in delicious Hawaiian cuisine, and immerse yourself in the rich local culture.
Have an amazing time exploring this incredible destination and creating memories to last a lifetime. Safe travels!
Keep exploring more things to do on the Big Island.