A holiday on the Big Island of Hawaii can certainly fill a few action-packed days. The largest of the Hawaiian Islands is abundant with fine beaches, rewarding hikes, scenic drives, tourist attractions and countless other culinary, cultural and adventurous highlights. I spent three months on the island, volunteering on the sunny Kona coast and thoroughly exploring its myriad of microclimates. Here are the absolute best, the top 10 things to do on the Big Island.
Visiting other Hawaiian islands? Sample itineraries, guides to the best beaches and the must-see highlights are all waiting for you in the Hawaii Travel Guide collection. Aloha!
10. Magical Kona Sunsets
Blessed with fine weather and exceptional beaches, the sunny and dry Kona coast also just happens to face the sunset. And boy, sunsets out here are perfect! So ‘man your sunset positions’ on one of the Kona coast’s best beaches or head to downtown Kailua-Kona to savor it with something cold and refreshing in your hand. My personal favorite spots are Magic Sands Beach, the old Kona airport beach, Hale Halawai Park in downtown Kailua-Kona, and Kaloko-Honokohau (a.k.a ‘sea turtle beach’).
9. Hanging out with sea turtles
Without a doubt, the Big Island’s VIP residents are its green sea turtles – a protected species awarded with a 20ft restraining order from humans by law. There’s a very good chance of spotting them cruising up and down the Big Island’s coastline pretty much wherever calm waters are present. However, for guaranteed sea turtle sighting, head to Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park just outside downtown Kailua-Kona or slightly north to the magnificent black sand beach at Kiholo Bay.
8. Admiring Akaka Falls
Splashing down from a height of 135m into a perfect looking hidden pool, a quick visit to Akaka Falls is simply a must. Not too far away from the Big Island’s capital city – Hilo – and super close to the awesome Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens, Akaka Falls is all part of a memorable road trip along the Big Island’s tropical east coast. Getting to the falls is super easy, with a paved path snaking its way from the parking lot to the viewing area via a series of small streams. It’s a very popular spot for others as well and I recommend getting here by no later than 1 pm if you want to snap good photos.
7. Beach Bumming in Kekaha Kai State Park
Home to three of the Big Island’s best beaches, Kekaha Kai State Park is super close to Kailua-Kona and not too far away from the resort scene of Waikoloa. At its southern entrance, dreamy Mahai’ula Beach (the best beach on the Big Island in my opinion) and the remote Makolea black sand beach are both reached via a rough unpaved road (accessible with 2WD). Over at the northern entrance, Kua Bay is easily accessed and is a top choice for locals, visitors, and bodysurfers. You can easily spend half a day at any of these beaches or combine them with sightseeing on the Kona Coast.
6. Snorkeling next to the Captain Cook Monument
In 1779, the great Captain James Cook landed on the shores of the Big Island at Kealakekua Bay and forever altered the island chain’s history. This picturesque bay is also where Cook was killed by locals in what was likely a huge misunderstanding. The bay and the obelisk commemorating the great explorer are the site of the best snorkeling on the Big Island. You can join a snorkeling cruise from Kailua or kayak from nearby, but the more scenic (and rewarding) option is by hiking the Ka’awa Loa Trail. The beautiful overland views of the hike are topped by those witnessed underwater as you snorkel in the pristine coral garden just off the Captain Cook Monument.
5. The Green Sand Beach
Black and white sand is kind of the norm in Hawaii, but green? Yeap! Thanks to soil erosion from nearby volcanic rocks, Papakolea Beach (a.k.a Green Sand Beach) is one of the prettiest you’ll ever see. Located in the remote South Point peninsula, reaching the beach requires either a 4WD, hitching a paid ride with locals or simply hiking along the beautiful coastline until views of this gem beg you to stop and admire before heading down. Swimming can be rough, but when I visited the waters were oh so perfect!
4. Sunset & Stargazing on Mauna Kea
If the official height of mountains was measured from their base on the ocean floor, Mauna Kea would be the tallest mountain in the world, reaching a height of well over 10,000m. Often snowcapped, it is the highest peak in Hawaii (4,207m), a sacred place for native Hawaiians, and an awesome spot to hike, watch the stars and gaze at the sunset. Though getting here is a bit of a pain, it’s totally worth the effort, at the very least in time for sunset. It all starts with a short hike to ‘sunset hill’ about an hour before the spectacle concludes. The desert-like views are incredible as the ball of fire slowly dips beneath the cloud line. You then proceed to the friendly visitors center to warm up, learn about your surroundings and prepare for a memorable session of guided stargazing into the heavens (as of Jan 2019, the stargazing experience has been suspended due to visitor center renovation. Stay up to date via this link).
Note that you can also embark on a challenging-yet-rewarding hike to the summit of Mauna Kea or simply drive up with a proper 4WD. More info in this 5 days on the Big Island sample itinerary.
3. Exploring the Kilauea Volcano
The Big Island is… really big. In fact, it is still growing as you’re reading these lines. Spending at least a full day inside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is kind of a must. Start your visit with the Kilauea Iki hike and touchdown on its ash-covered floor, surrounded by thick crater walls and active steam vents. On your way back to the car, step inside the Thurston Lava Tube, before completing the scenic Chain of Craters Road which comes to a dead end at the Holei Sea Arch. To wrap up this perfect day, grab a spot and a pair of binoculars outside the Jaggar Museum and marvel at the lava pouring out of the Halema’uma’u Crater – the mythical residence of the fire goddess Pele – as the post-sunset night sky is painted red.
2. Getting Close to Nature at Waipio Valley
Of the seven majestic valleys that carve the lush Kohala and Hamakua coasts, none are as jaw-dropping as Waipio Valley, or as I like to call it, ‘the mother of all valleys’. You can admire it from the well-positioned overlook but to truly experience one of the prettiest spots in all of Hawaii, you must head down to the valley’s floor via an incredibly steep 4WD-only road or by hiking down (and then back up). Once on flat ground once again, you can explore the black sand beach, head up the ridge for even finer views on the Muliwai Trail, or hike to the spectacular Hi’ilawe Falls.
1. Staring at a river of fresh lava
Proudly erupting without signs of fatigue since 1983, to truly witness the awesome force of the Kilauea Volcano, you must venture to one of the most remote corners of the Big Island. At present time, a river of lava slowly descends from the hills atop Kalapana, eventually splashing down into the Pacific Ocean in a never ending ‘battle of the elements’. Unless you’re willing to dish out hundreds of dollars on helicopter rides or boat trips, the best way to experience the lava flow is by hiking or cycling to the Kalapana Viewing Area. Start the journey about an hour before sunset and experience what it must feel like to march into the gates of hell. Once you reach the current lava flow, you’ll feel as if your shoes are starting to melt as lava oozes in hypnotizing fashion just meters away. To cap off this memorable experience, head west and view the ‘lava-fall’ cascading into the waters of the Pacific!
UPDATE: due to the recent lava flow, the lava viewing area is closed until further notice. Helicopter and boat tours are the best (official) alternatives at this time.
There you have it, the top things to do on the Big Island! There are, of course, plenty of other highlights on this diverse slice of paradise. Visiting other Hawaiian islands? Sample itineraries, guides to the best beaches and the must-see highlights are all waiting for you in the Hawaii Travel Guide collection. Aloha!
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