Big island, big adventures
Nicknamed "The Big Island," Hawaii Island is a microcosm of Hawaii the state. From long white-sand beaches and crystal-clear bays to rain forests, waterfalls, valleys, exotic flowers, and birds, all things quintessentially Hawaii are well represented here.
An assortment of happy surprises also distinguishes the Big Island from the rest of Hawaii—an active volcano (Kilauea) oozing red lava and creating new earth every day, the clearest place in the world to view stars in the night sky (Mauna Kea), and some seriously good coffee from the famous Kona district.
The aptly named Big Island is fantastically diverse, with miles of highways and - better yet - byways to explore.
Located just outside of Hilo Town; we recommend taking the scenic drive along the coast from Hilo to reach Akaka Falls State Park. Giant bamboo trees, lush green foliage, bright fauna and a 442 ft waterfall that cascades into a stream eroded gorge awaits you in this natural paradise. Choose from a short or long trail that is clearly marked and hike through the towering trees, vines and giant philodendrons.
The marked paths are perfect for children but we suggest leaving your strollers in the car as there are stairs. Rails line each path for further safety measures. Akaka Falls is most impressive during rainy season when the water crashes violently over the cliffs.
A paved, 10-minute loop trail (approximately ½ mile) takes you to the best spots to see the spectacular cascades of Akaka. The majestic upper Akaka Falls drops more than 442 feet, tumbling far below into a pool drained by Kolekole Stream amid a profusion of fragrant white, yellow, and red torch ginger and other tropical foliage.
Another 400-foot falls is on the lower end of the trail. Restroom facilities are available but no drinking water. A series of steps along parts of the trail may prove challenging for some visitors.
How many places in America can you walk in the footsteps of a king? Where else has a stranded sailor risen up to become a great chief over an entire island? Where else can you experience the culminating event of a people, foretold from centuries past? Where else can you stand on a beach and watch as sharks pass over a submerged temple?
Experience all this and much more – only at Pu'ukoholā Heiau!
From the moment you arrive at Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historic Site, you quickly realize the significance of this unique place. The great temple of Kamehameha the Great, Pu'ukohola Heiau, rises majestically above the turquoise waters of the Pacific, a silent testament to the most renowned king of Hawai'i.
Mailekini Heiau, the temple-turned-fort that once thundered with the sound of cannons, continues to stand guard. The sharks return most days to Hale o Kapuni Heiau, the submerged ruins of a temple that was once dedicated to them.
This is where the history-makers of Hawai'i lived and where their history comes to life.
You can also attend the annual celebration entitled "Ho'oku'i Kahi I Pu'ukoholā Heiau." Each year the festival's theme is "Ke Kulana No'eau o Ka Wā Kahiko" (The Culture of Ancient Hawai`i).
Established as a National Historic Site on August 17, 1972, Pu'ukoholā Heiau continues to be a place where living history is perpetuated, and where efforts to bring the people of Hawai'i together in pursuit of completing Kamehameha the Great's unfinished good deeds is a primary objective.
The stone heiau at Kawaihae is one of the last major sacred structures built in Hawai'i before outside influences altered ancient Hawaiian life permanently. The founding of the Hawaiian Kingdom can be directly associated with this one sacred structure. Open daily 7:45 a.m. to 5 p.m., excluding federal holidays.
This incredibly beautiful valley on the northeastern coast of Big Island, about 50 miles north of Hilo, has often been described as a sort of "Shangri La", almost cut off from the outside world. The valley, about 1 mile wide, dissects the Kohala Mountains and is difficult to reach because of the steep cliffs on the three landward sides. Strong waves make it equally unapproachable from the sea.
Bananas, papayas, mangoes, avocados and grapefruit grow on the fertile valley floor and colorful ginger trees, orchids and hibiscus decorate the landscape. Where the valley meets the ocean is a long black sand beach. As many of the local people will tell you, it was in this area that the movie "Waterworld" was filmed.
There is a steep and twisting road into the valley which allows access by car or by foot. Most car rental companies do not allow their vehicles to be driven down into the valley so some people choose to walk down the road.
Waipio is fed by the Hiilawe Falls, which drops over 1200 ft. This double waterfall is one of the highest in the world but in the dry season has very little water nowadays because it is used to irrigate the land above the valley.
Tips for visiting Waipio Valley:
From technicolour glistening fish to spinner dolphins to green sea turtles; this is a paradise for marine life. To get her there are only two options. The first is a challenging strenuous hike down to the Bay. If you are in good shape and bring plenty of water this is an amazing hike that will lead you past an ancient temple and right to the Captain Cook Monument.
Here you will find incredible snorkelling. If hard hiking is not your thing there are plenty of boat tours you can join. Another option is to rent a kayak from a licensed outfitter and paddle your way through the Bay. We suggest going early in the day or late afternoon to avoid the crowds.
Beautiful, historic Kealakekua Bay is the big draw on the south coast. Local organizations and businesses are working hard to keep it that way, as more people communing with the wildlife increases pressure on this marine-life conservation district famous for its rich variety of sea life, including spinner dolphins. To this end, new kayak regulations have been issued.
To reach the park, take Napoʻopoʻo Rd, off Mamalahoa Hwy, for 4.5 miles. At the bottom of the road you'll turn right for Hikiʻau Heiau, a broad stone platform temple dedicated to war god Ku that was Kealakekua religious center, or left for the wharf. There are bathrooms and showers near the heiau.
Tips for visiting Kealakekua Bay:
The world famous Kona Manta Ray Night Dive is any diver’s dream come true. Hop aboard one of many tours and cruise out into the ocean after dark for some serious diving. If you aren’t scuba certified don’t worry; there are plenty of companies that offer the Manta Ray Night Dive for snorkelers as well.
Hang onto a surfboard, pool noodle or small boat and watch as the manta rays come right up and summersault in front of you. For the scuba divers you will dive down to the bottom and stand on the sandy bottom while manta rays playfully summersault above and around you.
There are many excursions to choose from including options such as dolphin swimming by day, twilight scuba diving or dinner on the boat. We highly suggest taking this once in a lifetime opportunity to see these incredible marine creatures up close and personal.
What makes the Manta ray dive/snorkel in Kona so special, you ask?
Well, Hawai’i is not the only place where you can swim with manta rays. Other popular places to dive with these gentle giants are for example the Maldives, the Great Barrier Reef, and the Galapagos islands. Most manta ray dives at these locations are made at so-called “cleaning stations”, where the manta rays get their skin cleaned by smaller creatures.
What makes Hawaii so special is the time when you are in the water with the manta rays: dinner time!
The 3 locations where you can see the manta rays at the Big Island are so-called “feeding stations”. The manta rays first started coming to these places to eat the plankton that was attracted by bright lights that shone on the water either from hotels or from divers.
Nowadays the plankton also gets attracted by lights brought by tour operators. Divers carry a light and shine it up towards the surface, and snorkelers hold on to a float with a light that shines down. The manta rays feed on the plankton attracted by these lights and filter it out of the ocean by swooping through the water with their mouths open. While feeding the manta rays swim, turn, and somersault gracefully in the light beams giving you an unforgettable night!
The big island consists in total of five separate volcanoes: the Kohala, Mauna Kea, Hualālai, Mauna Loa and Kilauea volcano. Mauna Kea measures 13,796 feet and is the tallest mountain in the state and the tallest sea mountain in the world. Mauna Loa is the largest volcano on Earth in terms of volume and area covered.
Despite these impressive figures, Kīlauea is the most famous of the Hawaiian volcanoes, and rightly so! It is the youngest and most active of the five volcanoes and has been erupting continuously since 1983.
It is possible to spend multiple days in the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park without getting bored. The park offers 100+ miles of hiking trails that take you through old lava tubes and lush rainforest, and over old and new, still fuming, lava flows. Besides that, the park organizes daily ranger-led hikes and weekly activities such as “After Dark in the Park“.
Overnight camping is possible in the park on two separate campgrounds.
The park is also very accessible by car. The crater rim drive (now partially closed because of the Halema'uma'u activity) takes you around the Kilauea Crater. The chain of craters road winds down past many scenic points and volcanic craters all the way down to the ocean, where the road finally disappears under a fresh sheet of lava.
Conditions for lava viewing (e.g., lava flowing into the ocean, accessibility of the lava flow) are ever changing.
Children up to 12 years old can become junior rangers and receive a junior ranger badge. To become a junior ranger the kids have to complete a couple of activities while in the park. This is a free, fun and educational activity and we highly recommend it for all kids. There are programs for kids aged 7-12, and 6 and below.
Park attractions include our following favorites, but here is far more in the park to keep you entertained. Your first stop in the park should always be the visitor center for an up-to-date report on the park events, closed-of areas and ranger-led hikes.
Here are four of our favorite stops in the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park:
A grand celebration of food, entertainment and Polynesian culture, sunset is the perfect time for a traditional Hawaiian luau on Hawaii Island.
A luau is a traditional Hawaiian feast and no first trip to Hawaii is complete without attending one. Most luau in Hawaii are catered towards visitors, so expect a grand celebration of food, entertainment and learning about Hawaiian and Polynesian culture.
Bring your appetite since you’ll be feasting on a magnificent Hawaiian spread of kalua pig (pork cooked in a traditional pit oven), lau lau (beef, pork, chicken, or fish wrapped in taro leaves) and poi (Polynesian staple starch made of taro).
Listen to traditional and contemporary Hawaiian music and chants. Watch hula dancers tell beautiful stories of Hawaiiana with their elegant and graceful movements. Many luau also highlight greater Polynesia by featuring Samoan fire dancers and mesmerizing Tahitian dancers. If you’ve got the courage, you may even get the chance to dance the hula in front of your entire luau.
Kilauea is the youngest and most active Hawaiian shield volcano, located on the southern part of the Island of Hawai'i, known as Big Island. Hawai'i is the southernmost and largest of the island chain, which owes its existence to the very active Hawaiian hot spot.
Kilauea volcano is near-constantly erupting from vents either on its summit (caldera) or on the rift zones. At present, Kilauea volcano is still having one of the most long-lived eruptions known on earth, which started in 1983 on the eastern rift zone and has mainly been concentrated at the Pu'u 'O'o vent.
Witness the dramatic steam plumes caused when Big Island's Kilauea lava flows into the ocean! On the southeast side of the island, lava boat tours cruise along the volcanic coast to find where lava and sea meet. Volcano boat tours are specialty trips and are only available when lava is flowing into the ocean.
The best way to see Hawaii's Big Island is to drive around it. You'll soon be immersed in a varied landscape unlike any other in the United States. You'll encounter lava desert, jungle, farmland, active lava flows, warm beaches, cool highlands, and views of soaring mountains and plunging valleys.
And everywhere, you'll feel the aura of the mysterious Polynesians who landed here more than a thousand years ago and named the island Hawaii.
This island is larger than all the other Hawaiian Islands combined; it's the only one still volcanically active; and it has rich evidence of native culture. The Big Island, where Kamehameha the Great established his kingdom, was the first Hawaii. To many, it's still the real Hawaii.
Here are some points of interest for your Hawaiian road trip:
The only place to see the triple-tier Umauma Falls, this kid-friendly 200-acre park has 14 waterfalls and a classy visitor center. Like the World Botanical Gardens, next door, there's a river walk, zip line, and botanical gardens.
Options include a zip and dip (a refreshing swim in a private waterfall pool after a nine-line zip), various à la carte adventures, a walk through the tropical grounds, a flume trail hike, kayaking, and a giant swing.
Once you leave the parking lot for Uma Uma, the road is paved and terminates near another parking lot for the World Botanical Garden. Across the road from the parking lot is an asphalt walkway with curves through flowering torch ginger and bird of paradise. (Make sure to dab a little bug spray on, mosquitoes can frequent this area).
Once you are done, return to the ticket booth and explore some more walkways and a corn maze for the little ones. You can visit the garden's website and print coupons for free tropical fruit and juices as well as flowers with paid admission www.worldbotanicalgardens.com.
They are open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m daily. Go 16 miles north of Hilo on the Hawaii Belt Road (Hwy 19). At Mile Marker 16, take the road inland. Turn right and look for signs to the falls.
The best time to visit Hawaii's Big Island is between September and November. That's when the island's generally reasonable room rates take the most significant plunge. Temperatures remain constant throughout the year — generally in the high 70s or low 80s — so you might want to avoid the priciest season, from December to March, unless you like to surf.
Americans from cold climates don't like roughing it through winter, as evidenced by the spiking hotel prices. But the Big Island's rates are lower than some of the other popular Hawaiian islands, so you might find a room for less than $90 a night.
Keep in mind that this can be a rainier season on the island. And although surfing isn't as popular here as on Kauai or Maui, you will still find the best waves in this peak season.
While you might find a good deal in winter, you'll almost definitely find a reasonable room rate in this tiny pocket of time. Just be sure to avoid a Memorial Day trip — some people like to plan extended time off around built-in holidays in their work calendar, so there could be more crowds.
There's a bit of a jump in airfare and hotel rates as families begin to arrive on the Big Island. There's also a slight (but most likely, unnoticeable) rise in temperatures in summer; highs can reach the low 80s.
Once again, the room rates dive as the family summer vacation season reaches a close. There are even four-star hotels in Kona that advertise rooms for less than $160 a night. If you're thinking of traveling at this time, lean more toward September and October; November is the rainiest month on Hawaii's Big Island.
The best way to get around Hawaii's Big Island by car. This is simply too large an island to affordably and conveniently navigate without one. You can pick up a rental car at either the Kona International Airport (KOA) or the Hilo International Airport (ITO), or if you want to let go of some serious cash, you could take a taxi from the terminal to your hotel.
Once near your lodging, you might be able to get around town on the free bus system, just keep in mind that its schedule is not always convenient for tourists.
Many people who visit the Big Island have a connecting flight from Oahu’s Honolulu International Airport (HNL), from which you'll fly into Hilo airport on the eastern side. Kona airport near the west side will probably be more convenient if you're staying by the Kona or Kohala coast.
You'll find a set of wheels is practically a necessity on the Big Island. As you can see from the map on our top attractions page, the best sites are spread out along all the coasts. And the bus service, though available, does not make regular stops at tourist sites.
You can rent a car at either airport and through some of the hotels. Splurge for four-wheel drive — you'll be thankful you did on the roughest roads — and keep in mind some rental agencies will want you to avoid Saddle Road, a narrow, winding shortcut that takes you from Kona to Hilo.
Taxis are expensive on Hawaii's Big Island, even by tourist standards — $2 just to flag one down, according to some travel guides.
Coincidentally, flagging one doesn't seem to be that much of an option, anyway. The best spot to find them is around the airports; otherwise, your hotel will assist you in calling for one.
You might find the bus is a frugal option if you don't want to venture too far from your hotel. Still, some bus routes are only serviced Monday through Friday. It's free to ride, but there's a $1 fee for large bags.
Helicopter tours are a great way to see the sights; but this is obviously an extravagant splurge and not a viable means of transportation. Many people like to look out over the island's active volcanoes but valley tours through the Kohala and Hamakua coasts are also pretty scenic.
Stay in Hilo You won't be near the west side beaches that tourists love so much, but there are a terrific selection of bed and breakfasts in this area. And you can load up on affordable souvenirs, snacks and more at the weekly Hilo Farmers Market.
Take the bus You might miss some of the Big Island's splendor this way, but the public bus is free to ride.Take a spring trip Tourism slows on Hawaii's Big Island around the end of April until the end of May. It's only a small window, but you could find a great package deal on one of the four-star hotels around this time.
We like to think that most Americans regard Hawaiians as fellow citizens, but many travelers mistakenly and disrespectfully refer to citizens of Hawaii as "Hawaiians" or "Natives" rather than "Americans." Be extra sensitive when speaking and addressing local citizens, and be sure to remember that Hawaii is an American state, not a distinct country.
Make sure to take extra care of the land by removing personal trash and belongings from beaches and nature areas. Do not collect or keep shells, rocks or sea creatures. On Big Island, it's important to "Leave No Trace" of your presence.
Expect to encounter plenty of Hawaiian fusion restaurants in the hotel areas, serving shredded pork, poi (Hawaiian dessert) and other regional favorites. Those in the tourist industry expect vacationers to want what they perceive as authentic Hawaiian cuisine, and the restaurants are more than willing to provide.
Fresh seafood is also a staple in many restaurants, as is locally grown produce.
You'll find the best eateries are the establishments on the Kohala coast, near Kona, but you should be prepared to pay the special "tourist" price. For more reasonable prices, head to Hilo.
Crime is rare on the Big Island. Your primary concern should be water safety. While the water temperature is almost always agreeable, winter surf can get very rough, especially along the north shore and on the beaches in the west coast.
Strong currents have caused drownings in the past, so swim with caution and never enter the water alone or without the supervision of a lifeguard.
If you plan to hike or walk along the coastline, be sure to wear sneakers or protective footwear so that your feet aren't exposed to sharp rocks. You should also wear sunscreen, especially at higher altitudes.
You will spend almost half of the time of your vacation in Hawaii in your chosen accommodation. This means that your choice of lodging will have a large impact on your vacation. However, almost no-one gives the choice where they want to spend their nights serious thought. You should.
One of the best pieces of advice we can give about planning your trip to Hawaii is to decide what kind of accommodation is the best for you.
Hilo should be a part of your itinerary if you are spending more than 5 days on the Big Island. This is the lush, tropical, and rainy side of the island. Spend your time here on scenic drives, waterfalls, hot ponds, stargazing, lava viewing, a visit to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (mandatory!), or one of the many more activities in Hilo.
The Hotels on this side of the island are not as posh and luxurious as you can find on the west (Kona) coast, and you won’t find a Hilton or Marriot. We recommend you to stay in a bed & breakfast or in a vacation rental because they tend to offer more of a personal and local experience.
There are multiple hostels in Hilo. The most visited are Arnott’s Lodge & Hiking Adventures and the Hilo Bay Hostel.
There are many vacation rental possibilities in Hilo that vary widely in price/quality and luxury.
Bed & breakfasts are a wonderful way to get to know the town, with a setting that is more intimate (but offers less luxury) than those of the resorts or hotels in Hawaii.
Kona is the vacation capital of the Big Island and there are many accommodation options for every budget. You cheapest choice would be to go camping in one of the beach parks. The most expensive choice is one of the 5-star resorts on the amazing coastline north of Kona on the Kohala coast.
Staying in a resort is the most luxurious lodging option on the Big Island, and takes almost all the chores of planning your vacation out of your hands. We recommend staying in a resort if you want an ultimately relaxing vacation and don’t mind paying for it.The resorts in Kona offer on-site luxuries such as relaxing spas, world-class golf courses and private swimming pools and tennis courts.
There are only a few hostels on this side of the Big Island.
Most hotels in Kona have the advantage that they are located in central Kona, i.e. ‘where the action is’. Hotel rates are on the same level as vacation rentals, and generally between resort and bed & breakfast prices.
There are 500+ vacation rentals in Kona, and you are sure to find a good candidate that suits all your needs. If you like to stay away from the hustle and bustle of the city you can also extent you search to the stretch of coast south of Kona.
Bed and Breakfasts are a wonderful way to get to know the island, with a setting that is more intimate that that of the resorts or hotels. There are a couple of very good options south of Kona that offer you the “on the coffee farm” or “on the macadamia nut orchard” experience.
Volcano Village is one of those places that seems to be made for the use of vacation rentals. The lush rainforest hides many private cottages where you can spend the night telling stories in front of the fireplace or soaking away in the hot tub after a full day of exploring the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
There are some alternatives to staying in a vacation rental such as an upper end Hotel and a set of bed and breakfasts, but for most visitors a vacation rental will be the best (and cheaper) choice for spending the night in volcano village.
Waimea is known for its horseback riding, the clear skies for stargazing, and the good access to great hiking. It is also located very close to some amazing beaches on the Kohala coast and a short drive away from the impressive cliffs of Waipi’o valley and Pololu.
There are a few hotels or vacation rental options in town, but you can find some of the best bed and breakfasts on the Big Island in Waimea!
Perfect Bring-Home Present
With all the fun that you’ve been having on the island, make sure that you bring a taste of the Big Island for your loved ones. Why not bring home a bag of chocolate-coated macadamia nuts which the Big Island is famous for?
Better yet, bring ones that you picked yourself. Macadamia nut farms, like the Macadamia Meadows Farm on Kamaoa Road in Waiohinu, allow visitors who stay at least 3 days in their B&B inn to pick their own macadamia nuts. The hostess will have them dried and packaged in time for your trip home.
You may also purchase a bag or two of Kona coffee beans, for which the island is also known. Another top choice among tourists are bottles of Hawaiian Guava Wine. You can purchase a bottle for less than $20.
The Big Island is bigger than all the other Hawaiian Islands combined. It also has everything that you would want from any island in Hawaii: gorgeous beaches, dramatic volcanoes, friendly locals and fascinating history. After all, this is where King Kamehameha the Great built his kingdom in the early 19th century.
Lined with long white-sand beaches, picture perfect bays, verdant rain forests, waterfalls and exotic flowers and birds, the Big Island Hawaii must have caught mother nature on a good day. The island, the largest in the United States’ Hawaiian archipelago, is simply stunning and a major draw for visitors from across the globe.
But there’s more to the Big Island than natural beauty. It is also a highly functioning place full of interesting landmarks and small but vibrant local trade outlets, most of which are more than happy to open their doors to curious tourists.