5 Days In The Big Island

July 31, 2017

5 Days in the Big Island Sample Itinerary - Onomea Bay panoramic view

Few are the places in the world where you can snorkel in pristine tropical waters and hike on a snowcapped volcano in the same day. But the Big Island of Hawaii is all about contradicting experiences. After all, 11 of the 13 microclimates that exist on our planet can be found on the island. And they don’t call it the Big Island for nothing, a diverse paradise larger than the rest of the Hawaiian Islands put together. This 5 days in the Big Island sample itinerary covers the very best the island has to offer. So get ready to do some serious mileage as we explore the Big Island.

I spent three magical months on the Big Island while doing some volunteering work on the Kona Coast. It’s important to note that, like in all Hawaiian islands, there’s a plethora of organized tours and activities offered to visitors. In this sample itinerary, we’ll stick to the basics, and cover the very best of the island with little to no organized activities.

What’s Included in this Big Island Sample Itinerary?

  • Day 1: Essential Big Island Tips, Kona Beaches & Kailua Town [This Page]
  • Day 2: Waimea, Pololu & Waipio Valleys [Skip to Page]
  • Day 3: Snorkeling, Mauna Kea, Diving with Manta Rays [Skip to Page
  • Day 4: Volcanoes National Park [Skip to Page]
  • Day 5: Akaka Falls, Hilo & Kilauea Lava Viewing [Skip to Page]

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Top Things To Do In Big Island Hawaii - thumbnail
Top 10 Things To Do On The Big Island Of Hawaii - thumbnail

Visiting other Hawaiian islands? Sample itineraries, guides to the best beaches and lots more are waiting for you in the Hawaii Travel Guide collection. Aloha!

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5 Days In The Big Island Map

This map contains all the places mentioned in this sample itinerary. Click on the image to open in Google Maps.

5 Days in the Big island of Hawaii sample itinerary - Map

Big Island Travel Tips

Here are a few essential travel tips for the Big Island of Hawaii. Don’t forget to go over the things you need to know before visiting Hawaii, where you’ll find general advice on visiting the Hawaiian Islands including how to save on costs.

Where to Stay

If your plan is to see all of the Big Island’s top sites (and I do recommend that), it’s best to split your time between the Kona Coast and the Hilo side as noted in this sample itinerary. The reason for this is to minimize driving times and maximize sightseeing times. The Hilo side is close to Volcanoes National Park, the lava fields, and Akaka Falls, while the Kona side is near the best beaches, snorkeling spots, and Pololu and Waipio Valleys.

Here’s a link to a complete list of Big Island accommodations which you can book online.

Kona vs. Hilo

It’s worth mentioning the difference between the west coast (Kona coast) and the east coast (Hilo). The West is where you’ll find the island’s top beaches, resorts, dining, and snorkeling. It is also the drier side of the island which means more sunshine! The east coast is wetter and more tropical, with many of its residents living off organic farming. It offers more of that stereotypical Hawaiian island feel but also requires navigating through rainy periods of the day.

Beach Resorts

With a few exceptions, the Big Island’s top beach resorts are located in Waikoloa, about 45 minutes north of Kailua-Kona. It is here that you’ll find an array of romantic and family-friendly beach resorts, usually fronting top-notch beaches and offering a wide range of activities ranging from golf to watersports and scenic helicopter flights.

Mauna Lani Beach - Big Island Hawaii

Have a look here to find the Big Island resort that suits your preference.  

Bed & Breakfasts

If you’re looking for a more authentic and laid back setting, I highly recommend the Lilikoi Inn on the Kona side. In fact, I spent here three memorable months and can honestly say that there are few places like this on the island at this affordable price range.

Friendly owners Shai and Trina left a successful catering business in California to fulfill their dream of living in paradise. They have created a lush tropical setting that truly feels like your home away from home. Their four-bedroom bed and breakfast is located in the hills overlooking the Kona coast near the artist village of Holualoa – just a short drive from all the action. This is Kona coffee country, and the bed and breakfast also doubles as a small coffee farm.

Trina and Shai Lilikoi Inn - Big Island Hawaii

Sunset - Lilikoi Inn Big Island Hawaii

Passion Fruit Lilikoi Flower - Big Island Hawaii

Rooms are tastefully decorated, the grounds are blooming with tropical fruits, exotic flowers, avocado, and organic vegetables, and sunsets from the wooden lanai are ‘to die for’. Oh and the breakfasts… These are an absolute highlight as Shai – a former chef – uses his magical touch to create delicious ways for guests to wake up. Locally grown ingredients are blended together in a rotating menu while Kona coffee grown on the property is poured like water! Guests are treated like family and you rarely leave for the day empty-handed as Shai will often stock you with fresh fruit and homemade guacamole.  

Exotic lizard - Lilikoi Inn - Big Island Hawaii

Bed and Breakfast - Lilikoi Inn - Big Island Hawaii

Shai giving instructions - Lilikoi Inn - Big Island Hawaii

The Lilikoi Inn often sells out so it’s best to book your spot at the first chance you get.

What to Pack

Lonely Planet HawaiiTogether with this 5 days in the Big Island itinerary, I recommend grabbing a Lonely Planet guide to Hawaii to have useful information at your fingertips and to better understand Hawaii’s culture and interesting history.

As far as packing goes, the Big Island requires you to have the right gear for the island’s myriad of activities and climates. For example, be ready for the beach with reef shoes and snorkeling gear, for the hikes with proper shoes and quick-drying clothing, for the tropical areas with rain gear, and for the high peaks with proper winter clothing (that’s right!). Have a look at this page for more information and recommendations.

Getting Around

They don’t call it the Big Island for nothing! Travel times from point A to point B can sometimes take well over an hour so it is essential to rent a car on the Big Island if proper sightseeing is what you’re here for.

By car: my advice is to 100% rent a car upon arrival at the airport for the entire duration of your visit and to simply drop it off before your return flight. Nearly all car rental companies are located at the airport and competition means decent prices, especially out of season. Renting a 4WD will come in handy (if the price is right) as it will allow you to drive to the very summit of Mauna Kea, Green Sand Beach and down to the floor of the Waipio Valley. If you cannot afford one or if none are available, it’s not the end of the world.

Keep in mind that aside from the long driving times on the Big Island, road conditions may not allow you to drive at the speeds you’re used to from back home. You often find yourself having to either drive at 60-80kph or agonizingly getting stuck behind a slow-moving vehicle on a one-lane road. Moreover, the roads near Hilo and Kailua can get congested with traffic during rush hour and weekends (but never gridlocked).

Getting around Big Island Hawaii - Saddle Road

By bus: there is a bus service on the Big Island which offers an inexpensive way of getting around. However, it is more suitable for locals traveling between Kona and Hilo and less for tourists. Perhaps backpackers will find it useful.

Cycling: quite common on the Big Island but due to the vast distances and changes in elevation, this is more a sport rather than a means of getting around. Cyclists will find miles of cycling lanes with lots of respect given by drivers.

Hitchhiking: not that common by locals but quite common among backpackers and young tourists. You should have no problem flagging a ride within a few minutes but, as always with hitchhiking, it’s best to avoid if traveling solo and always listen to your gut feeling.

The Weather

The Big Island’s landscape is diverse and so is its weather. As mentioned in the intro, you can experience 11 out of the world’s 13 climate zones on the Big Island. So, as expected, the weather can greatly vary and be hard to forecast. In general, the Kona side (west coast) is sunny and dry while the Hilo side (east coast) is tropical and wet. The middle (Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa) can experience both snow or extreme sunlight and are very cold once the sun sets.

Your best bet is to check the National Weather Center’s website, where you can drill down by region or zone. However, a word of advice: unless it’s a completely cloud-free day (or completely stormy), take the weather forecast with a big grain of salt. It can change quickly and be highly unreliable. However, do understand which climate zones you’ll be visiting on a particular day and pack accordingly. Another thing to note is the vog (volcanic fog). The volcanic activity from the Kilauea Volcano releases gasses into the air which are typically carried towards the Kona side, resulting in hazy conditions and respiratory challenges for those susceptible to such conditions.

Kona Vig from Kilauea - Big Island Hawaii

Staying Safe

The Big Island is a very safe travel destination but, as always, some caution is required:

  • When sightseeing, do not leave anything visible inside your car or even in the trunk. Car break-ins are unfortunately common in some parts of some of the islands in Hawaii.
  • Driving long distances at night on country roads can be a tiring affair, and the light from oncoming traffic can feel a bit blinding in the absence of street-lighting. Keep this in mind and stop for a stretch here and there.
  • Having access to mobile data and phone calls is highly recommended. This will help with directions, understanding driving times and making calls when needed. T Mobile has good phone and data plans for visitors to the Big Island but in any case, download an offline Google Map of the Big Island to your phone.
  • If hiking off the beaten track (especially Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa), be sure to have proper equipment, to check weather reports, and to inform park rangers or your hosts about your estimated arrival time. UPDATE: as of July 2019, Mauna Loa is showing signs of serious geological activity. It’s best to check conditions in advance before visiting the area. 
  • Big Island beaches can be dangerous at times with high surf and strong currents. State parks will have proper warning signs but unofficial beaches will not. It’s best to not venture into the water during high surf periods and to avoid swimming in beaches without lifeguards during periods of rough ocean.
  • Take note that in official state and county beach parks, entrance is restricted to specific times. If you don’t want to get locked out, be sure to read the signs before crossing the gate. Don’t worry too much about this though as gates usually close after sunset.
  • If you’re driving from Kona to Hilo (or vice versa) via Saddle Road, be sure to fill up the tank and avoid overheating your brakes by shifting into lower gear in downhill sections.
  • If you’re suffering from asthma or other respiratory condition, stay up to date with the Big Island weather forecast as vog and haze on the Kona coast can make breathing difficult for some people and cause severe headaches.  
  • Always pack accordingly and take extra layers/water/food.

Day 1: Kona Coast Beaches & Kailua Town

Big Island beach - Hawaii

Spend the first of your 5 days on the Big Island on the sunny Kona coast. We’ll do a bit of beach-hopping and check out the charming historic town of Kailua-Kona.  

Start your day with a bit of relaxation, bodyboarding or swimming in one of the Kona Coast’s fine beaches. I’ll briefly list a few top choices but have a look at a complete menu of the Big Island’s best beaches for more info on these and other sandy spots. Choose the one (or two, or three) that you fancy the most.

Cool Lava Tube

If driving north from Kailua to the beaches or coming south from the Waikoloa resorts, pull over around mile marker 90 (you’ll likely see a few cars already parked) and check out a massive lava tube. The noise of the busy highway quickly fades away as you venture inside. It is here that you get your first taste of the maze of volcanic pipeline that criss-crosses the island. It is said that this particular lava tube runs deep inland but you can just have a quick look and carry on with your day. The kids will love it!

Lava Tube - Kona - Big Island Hawaii

Kua Bay

Manini’owali Beach – better known as Kua Bay – is part of Kekaha Kai State Park, a dreamy section of the Kona Coast that hides four spectacular beaches amid a vast and barren lava field. Kua Bay is the only beach within the park that is accessible via a paved road, which means that parking can be challenging on weekends and holidays.

The beach itself is a beautiful blend of azure waters, rocky outcrops and soft white sand. When the surf is up, swimming is hazardous but bodyboarding is at its best. Need another reason? Where else can you swim in a tropical beach with palm trees around you while in the distance, a snow-capped volcano is looming?

Kua Bay Beach - Big Island Hawaii

Mahai’ula Beach

Mahai’ula Beach is my favorite beach on the Big Island and maybe even all of Hawaii. It is also part of Kekaha Kai State Park but reached via the southern entrance to the park. Once you pull over from the main road, you’ll need to drive for a good 20 minutes or so on a rough unmaintained road, however a 4WD is not needed (just take it slow). Just before the main parking lot, you’ll see a metal chain restricting access to a dirt road that leads to the beach. Grab your stuff, hop over the chain and head to paradise!

The beach is absolutely worthy of a postcard, with soft sloping salt and pepper sand, clear waters and palm trees galore. But the best part? Because Mahai’ula is harder to reach, it’s a prime destination for escaping the crowds. From this remote spot, you can also further hike to Makalawena Beach. 

Makalawena Beach Big Island Hawaii

Waikoloa Beaches

The Waikoloa resort area is home to a number of fine beaches that are mostly backed by one or more large resorts. An exception to this is Hapuna Beach State Park, a beautiful half-mile stretch of fine golden sand. If you’re not a resident of Hawaii, you’ll need to pay a $5 parking fee and do be cautious of rough swimming conditions during periods of high surf, though lifeguards are on duty. I visited Hapuna on a very windy day when it was just brutal to stay anywhere close to the beach. However, if the seas are calm, the lack of rocks in the water make Hapuna a perfect swimming spot and snorkeling is even possible in the rocky cove on one of its ends.

Hapuna Beach - Big Island Hawaii

Hang Out with Sea Turtles

After catching some color and before checking out Kailua town, go for a stroll along Honokohau Beach and get acquainted with the Big Island’s cutest residents – the Green Sea Turtles. The beach is part of Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historic Park and is free to enter. Just park your car at the small harbor’s lot and walk past the signposted gate onto the trail.

The Green Sea Turtles are VIP residents on the Big Island – a protected species awarded with a 20ft (6m) restraining order from humans. Their favorite activity is to laze on the beach and bake in the warm rays of the sun. Visiting this beach (along with Kiholo Bay) is a sure guarantee of seeing sea turtles from up close so I recommend adding this stop to your list, especially if you are traveling with children. The beach itself is beautiful, less for swimming but more for finding your own space and pondering life’s big questions. It’s also a good spot for watching the sunset.

green sea turtle beach - Kaloko-Honokohau -Big Island Hawaii

Kailua Town

The Big Island’s tourist hub, Kailua-Kona is a laid back upscale beach town definitely worthy of a visit. I loved coming down here from my mountain home in Holualoa to watch the sunset, grab a bite and a drink, and just do some people watching. Nowadays, the town is pretty much 100% focused on tourism but it does have a deep historical significance. Kailua was the seat of King Kamehameha the Great’s government prior to his unification of the Hawaiian islands.

Kailua Kona Big Island Hawaii

Kailua’s outskirts are where you’ll find your Walmart, Target and all those other wonderful American wonders, but its charm centers around Ali’i Drive – the seaside thoroughfare where you want to spend most of your time. I recommend parking your vehicle somewhere around the Marriott (near the pier) and begin strolling along Ali’i Drive.

This seaside walk offers a glimpse at local life on the wealthy Kona coast while seeing the town’s main attractions and taking advantage of its dining options. Be sure to check out Mokuaikaua Church – the oldest church on the island, Hulihe‘e Palace (if it’s open) and its adjacent giant banyan tree, and Hale Halawai Park – a great spot for watching the sunset. You’ll also pass a plethora of souvenir shops and tour operator stands.

Kona Hawaii - sunset

If you haven’t already done so, it’s time to taste Hawaii’s signature dessert – shave ice! It just so happens that Kailua is home to the island’s best place for shave ice – Scandinavian Shave Ice. We’re basically talking about a large slab of ice that’s mechanically shaved to perfection and topped by your flavored syrup of choice. It doesn’t sound like much but on a warm day, you really can’t beat it!  

Fancy a cocktail over shaved ice? Not a problem! Head to Chill’n On The Bay and enjoy the sweet pace of life with a maitai in your hand. They do serve food as well but I recommend waiting just a bit more. Another good spot for sunset drinks is at Huggo’s On The Rocks – a classic beach bar with a sandy bottom and a generous drinks menu. If you come here after dinner, there’s a good chance to catch some local live music. For a real Polynesian experience, head to Kanaka Kava and experience what it was like to get a ‘buzz’ before alcohol arrived on the islands. Kava is a popular drink in Polynesian and Melanesian islands, a muddy-looking concoction made from the roots of a plant. When drank in the right dosage, it can lead to a wonderfully relaxing sensation (and may lead to a feeling of numbness in your tongue).

Kanaka Kava - Big Island Hawaii

Dinner & Drinks or Luau

It’s been a long day and it’s now time for dinner. For a taste of great Hawaiian food, make reservations at Umeke’s Fish Market Bar & Grill. It’s well worth the five-minute drive from the center of Kailua, especially if you haven’t already gobbled up a poke bowl – my absolute favorite Hawaiian dish. Raw chunks of fresh red tuna are marinated in a variety of yummy flavors (soy, oyster sauce, wasabi, spicy mayonnaise and more) and served on a bed of white rice that’s sprinkled with spices. If beachfront dining is what you’re after, make reservations at either Island Lava Java (facing the beach across Ali’i Drive) or at Huggo’s On The Rocks.

Poke Bowl - Umeke’s Fish Market Bar & Grill - Kona Big Island Hawaii

Another good dinner option is to take part in a luau and treat yourself to a spectacular Polynesian fire and dance show to go along with dinner. The best luau on the Big Island is currently the Island Breeze Luau at the Marriott. The price admission is a bit steep, like all good luaus, and there’s no way of skipping dinner and just attending the show.

Don’t want to go to sleep quite yet? Head to Sam’s Hideaway and hang out with real locals. There’s nothing fancy about this typical small-town bar, just cheap drinks, chit-chatting with locals and, oh yeah, karaoke!



  1. Love this post! Includes a lot of great spots and tips!
    However, the Makalawena Beach post is actually Mahai’ula Beach. Maks is a hike through Mahai’ulas or a 4wheel drive down inbetween the entrance to Kau Bay and Mahai’ula that is unmarked.

  2. Your Big Island blog is fantastic! The tips throughout have been the best I’ve seen after planning our trip for weeks. Thanks and truly appreciate you doing this.

    1. Aloha Barry

      Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. I am super happy to have been of help.


  3. Wow, this is an amazing guide! Thank you for the level of detail and insider tips you provided. This makes me even more excited for our trip in a couple weeks.

  4. We stayed on The Big Island for a little better than a year back in the early 90s. We are now planning our 2nd. visit since moving away. Thank you for this article as you have opened our eyes to adventures we haven’t yet experienced.

    1. Aloha Randy

      Mahalo for the comment and happy to have helped. It would be super interesting to hear your perspective on the changes the island went through between your two visits.

      Happy travels

  5. We are planning our vacation at big island and your post help me a lot.
    So many useful tips!
    I appreciated! 😀

    1. Aloha Jennifer. Thanks for the lovely feedback. Glad to help. Enjoy Hawaii and hope you get to (safely) see some lava!!

  6. Great help in planning our trip! Wondering with 7 full days how to split time between Kona, Volcano National Park, and Hilo. We fly into Kona and out of Hilo arriving by noon on the first.

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Heather. Happy to have helped. Perhaps 3 nights in Kona, 1 night in Volcanoes and 2 in Hilo OR 3 nights in Kona, 1 night around Waimea, 2 nights in Hilo (or 1 in Volcano and 1 in Hilo). It all depends on how much driving you are willing to do in a day that also includes a lot of sightseeing. Hope this helps!

  7. Wow, this series of trip guides is so helpful and makes me so excited for our trip… only problem is there’s never enough time to do it all! Thanks for putting so much work into this and for including links for updated info on the volcano eruption.

  8. Thank You, this was the most comprehensive guide I have seen while exploring the idea of traveling to Hawaii. My husband and I are considering going to the Big Island the first week of March(2019)for 3-4 days. Your guide will definitely be an asset.

    1. Aloha Debbie! Thanks so much for the feedback and glad to have helped. Enjoy the Big Island and happy new year

  9. Just a heads up — nighttime stargazing at the visitors center has been suspended! The visitors center now closes at 5pm.

  10. So happy I found this guide! Its been great for planning our 1st visit on the Big island particularly as we like getting off the beaten path too. Also getting married on Mahaiula good sign that its your favourite, I heard its a great spot. Just need people to stop mentioning it on TripAdvisor so it stays uncrowded….

  11. Thank you so much for your posts! They’re great! As you probably know, some of this itinerary is no longer possible due to the last eruption. Any advice on how to replace some of the highlights on your itinerary? For example, Kīlauea Iki Trail? Thank you!!

    1. Hi Doreen. Thanks so much for the feedback. The recent lava flow has affected many places around the national park. With regards to Kilauea Iki (hike) and the Jaggar Museum (post-sunset lava viewing), I recommend checking upon entry to the park with the rangers at the visitors center for current alternatives. With regards to walking to the lava flow (Kalapana lava viewing area), I doubt it will reopen anytime soon. The best alternatives seem to lava boat and helicopter tours. If that’s not your thing, consider starting the day at the Kalopa State Park with an easy forest hike followed by all the points mentioned in Day 5’s itinerary. I’ve also updated the guide with all this information.

  12. Thank you so much for your “5 days on the big island” posts. It has been extremely helpful in planning our itinerary in April. I compared your recommended places to see in the Volcano National Park with the most up to date closures on the park’s website and there are a fair amount that are not open. I am wondering with all of these closures can the park be seen in a 1/2 day? Is it still worth a visit?
    If you or any of your readers have any input or advice I would appreciate it.
    If we did visit the Volcano, I was thinking to spend 1/2 day at park and then hit the green beach, black beach and Ka’u in the south all on the same day.
    Thank you.

    1. Hi Drea. Happy to have helped. I think 1/2 sounds reasonable if you’re doing the places mentioned in the guide. Looking at the park’s website, the hikes/drives that are still open are not “eye-opening” and many of them are fairly short. So I think if you arrive early morning to the park you could spend the late afternoon somewhere else, taking into account the drive.

  13. Love your pages! Really great itineraries for French Polynesia and the Hawaiian islands.

    Gotta say, I got a bit excited when I read, “Fancy a cocktail over shaved ice?”, and I was thinking someone came up with the idea to put amaretto sours or an old fashion on shave ice! Probably better anyways to keep shave ice non-alcoholic… they go down too quickly .

    Thanks for all the great guides, keep up the good work!

    1. Thanks Diana for the lovely comment and the interesting insight! I am still mind boggled that shaved ice didn’t make it to my home country. Maybe I should start a new business 🙂

  14. Awesome itinerary. The google maps of the itinerary is really nice. Helps to get an idea which spot where in the map.thansk for your effort.

  15. Hello, after a long time, I have read such an amazing Blog. Glad that I came across this article thanks for making to learn so many things about this topic. Thank you for such an amazing article.

  16. Hi Avichai! This is an amazing guide! Thank you for the level of detail and insider tips you provided. This makes me even more excited for our trip in the future! By the way, what is safer to use, a water bag or a water bottle?

  17. Great blogs on Hawaii, thanks!

    Just to let everyone know there isn’t any lava flowing on Big Island anymore. Not since the eruption in 2018.

  18. Great blog! For the Hike to Hi’ilawe Falls, you mention asking locals for permission. How did you go about doing this? What do you recommend?

    1. Hi CJ. Thanks for the feedback. I used to post specific instructions including a map for hiking from the road to the waterfall. However, locals threatened to sue so I had to remove that. I would say chances are slim they’ll let you hike there but ask around in the area of where the river meets the road. Keep in mind that there’s another hiking option in the valley (the official hike mentioned din the travel guide). That trail can be picked up from the far end of the beach. Hope this helps and please update if conditioned have changed.

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