Traveling to the Big Island of Hawaii is an unforgettable experience that will leave you and your group with memories that will last a lifetime. From our own travels, we know quite a bit goes into trip planning, and there are definitely different approaches to preparation. Do you plan every moment in advance or leave some room for spontaneity? We understand the dilemma! Whether you have visited the Big Island once or are planning your annual family vacation to our island home, we hope this post can be a guide you can reference as you plan your trip!
Best Places to Stay on the Big Island:
- Waikoloa Resort Area
- Royal Kona
- Courtyard by Marriott
- Four Seasons
- Grand Naniloa Hotel
- Volcano House
- Mahana House Country Inn
Best Activities & Places to Visit on the Big Island:
- Lapakahi Historical Park
- Hawi town
- Pololu Valley
- Rainbow Falls
- Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve Garden
- Akaka Falls
- Malasadas in Honoka’a
- Waipio Valley Lookout
- Historic Star of the Sea Church
- Kaimu Black Sand Beach
- Volcano National Park
- Big Island ATV or Polynesian Wood Carving Tour with Aloha Adventure Farms
- Kayak & Snorkel in Kealakekua Bay
- Manta Ray Night Dive
- Kona Coffee Farm Visit
Best Places to Stay on the Big Island
The vast majority of visitors stay on the Kona side. This is largely due to the fact that in Hilo it’s pretty much guaranteed that it will rain every day. Kona is the drier side of the island and has the sandy beaches. It’s a big island, so while it is possible to stay on one side and drive back and forth to the other, you could consider staying in two different places.
On the Kona side, many people choose to stay in the Waikoloa Resort area. This is the closest to Hapuna Beach, our main large sandy beach. It also boasts resorts with water parks and restaurants on-site. There you will find the Hilton and Marriott resorts which are both great options for couples and families alike.
Also in Kona, the newly renovated Royal Kona and the Courtyard by Marriott are great options! If you are looking for something a bit more high end be sure to check out the Four Seasons, located outside of Kona.
There are also so many houses for rent via VRBO or other similar options. When booking a house to rent be sure to read the reviews. Getting helpful feedback from previous guests is a great way to hopefully meet your expectations.
In Hilo, your best bet (other than a house) is the Grand Naniloa Hotel. If the Volcano is something you’re really looking forward to, then take a look at staying a night or two at the Volcano House. It’s located inside the Volcano National Park. We also love the Mahana House Country Inn. Known for its beautiful ocean-view suites and relaxing rainforest sounds, you’ll be blown away by the breathtaking country setting of the Mahana House Country Inn.
Best Activities on the Big Island
As we mentioned in our earlier post detailing all of the Best Activities on the Big Island, there is no shortage of things to do during a vacation on the Big Island of Hawaii.
When traveling to the Big Island it’s really important to note that the reason it is called the Big Island is because it’s just that, BIG. While other Hawaiian islands you may be able to drive back and forth to different sides or even around the whole island comfortably in one day, we really don’t recommend it on the Big Island. It’s a good idea to rent a car and break our island up into sections and explore it that way. Also currently (May 2021) rental cars are in high demand and there is a current shortage across the islands. Make your car reservation early. Ubers and the like can be difficult to come by on the big island once you venture out of Kona and Hilo.
First section is the top tip of the Island, referred to as the Kohala coast. Travel north on the 270 right along the coastline. Stop at Lapakahi Historical Park, enjoy beautiful ocean views, and if it’s whale season (December to mid-March) you’re sure to get a show! Stop and check out Hawi, a quaint town with shops, galleries, and restaurants.
Continue driving towards Pololu Valley where you can park and take a 15 min hike down to the valley where a stream meets the ocean and a black sand beach.
It’s a much easier hike than Waipio Valley. For different scenery on the way back take 250 down and either head into Waimea for dinner or cut over on the 19 East if you’re heading back to Waikoloa or Kona.
The next day, set off to explore the Hamakua Coast, the northeast (windward) side of the island.
Rainbow Falls is easy to access. Just park and walk the short distance to the viewing area. Please note – swimming in this waterfall is not permitted. Parking is free, there are restrooms here as well.
From Rainbow Falls, start the drive along the Hilo bayfront heading towards Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve Garden. This is a stunning and worthwhile place to visit!
Continue heading north to Akaka Falls. Cost is $5 to park and enter. It’s a beautiful ½ mile walk on a paved path. The earlier in the day the less chance of rain or mist blocking your view.
It’s a beautiful jungle twisty and windy drive from Akaka Falls to Laupahoehoe. It is also the place where a tsunami claimed the lives of twenty-one children and three adults on April 1st, 1946. The tsunami that day swept everything out to sea. A monument stands to honor those who perished. There is also a park here with a pavilion. The surf pounds this rocky coastline with great fury which is impressive to watch, but it is not recommended to swim here.
After enjoying this historic site, keep traveling north to Honoka’a. One of our favorite places on the whole island is here! You’ll find malasadas across the Hawaiian Islands and we have tried our fair share of them. However, you’ll find the very best ones HERE at Tex Drive in! You can order a plain sugared one or opt for one with a delicious filling like haupia (coconut), mango, or bavarian cream! We recommend eating them warm and fresh. You could also take them with you for a snack over at our next recommended stop, Waipio Valley Lookout.
Waipio Valley Lookout is located along the Hamakua Coast on the northeastern portion of the Big Island of Hawai’i. It is a beautiful and massive valley filled with neatly formed taro patches interspersed with the homes of its few residents. At the mouth of the valley, the ocean licks the incredible mile-long black sand beach. The beach is sliced in half by the river that is partially fed by the 1,200 ft. free-falling Hi’ilawe Falls that resides deep in the valley. Please note the waterfall is on private property and trespassers will be prosecuted.
While it is fine to walk in and hike to the beach, residents ask that you do not explore the interior of the valley without a tour guide. This being said we do not recommend that you hike down unless you are in tip top condition and your favorite activity on earth is hiking! The hike is strenuous, very steep, and very hot. It is a hard location for emergency personnel to reach as well. Please exercise good judgment. With all of this back and forth information, we ultimately recommend that you go to the lookout, take some pictures, and eat your malasadas while they are hot. The valley is stunning from the viewpoint and the beach is similar to the one you can hike much more easily to at Pololu Valley.
Once again you can travel back by way of Waimea. There are plenty of good places to stop and eat there. If you’re feeling fancy check out Merrimans for some amazing farm-to-table food and handcrafted drinks. For something easy the whole family will love, go to James Angelo’s Underground Pizza, it’s delish! Another delicious pizza and Italian place is Dom De Luca. Everything on their menu is top-notch!
Another day’s journey we recommend exploring the southeastern portion of the island.
It can be a little tricky to figure out exactly what to do and where to go when you explore this area of the island. We are here to help! The terrain has changed a lot down here from the 2018 lava flow. It’s important to double-check that what you are visiting is in fact still there or open.
One place that is for sure open and worth checking out is the historic painted church. The official name of this church is The Star of the Sea (directions). But it is also referred to as the painted church. The Star of the Sea Painted Church was built in 1927 under the direction of the Belgian Catholic missionary priest Father Evarist Gielen, who painted the upper section of the church interior. In 1990, the church was moved to its present location just ahead of an advancing lava flow.
Next up Kaimu black sand beach in Kalapana. Kaimū beach is a very young black sand beach south of Pahoa in the Puna district on the Big Island. Few beaches on the Big Island have such a rich history as Kaimu beach. Once one of the most beautiful beaches on the Big Island, it now is a young black sand beach forming 50 ft above the old beach. This is not a beach for swimming or snorkeling but we still think it is worth a visit! It’s an easy walk down a cinder path to the beach.
You will see a bunch of coconut trees popping up through the lava. These coconuts were brought down by locals as an offering to Pele after the eruption. The black sand you will find here is not from erosion but from the explosion when the hot lava hits the cool ocean water.
Next you’re in the perfect spot to head on over to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Grab a map from a park ranger and set out to explore the vast history the park has to offer. If you have the time and can stay until sunset you can head to the main caldera and see the glow of the current lava from the last eruption. At this point in time you can’t see actual lava. But here is a photo we took in January of 2021. While there is no visible lava it’s still a really unique and interesting thing to see.
Next up is one of our favorite spots, the southwestern part of the island. Here we will cover Kona all the way to South point. Really this should be two days of adventuring!
Just outside of Kona is the Holualoa Village. Here you will find Aloha Adventure Farms and our Polynesian culture adventures! One of the best parts of traveling is learning about the culture of where you are visiting. We firmly believe that this helps facilitate understanding and unity in a world so divided!
When joining an adventure at Aloha Adventure Farms you can choose from an ATV or UTV Polynesian adventure or a Tiki Carving adventure. Anyone 16 years and up can drive their own ATV. For those who are age 5 – 15 or simply don’t want to ride the ATV, they will be chauffeured in our comfortable UTV by one of the guides. You get to travel into the jungle and make four stops at villages representing Hawaii, Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa. At each stop you play games, try new things, and laugh – a ton! The guides are the funniest and the best out there!
We also have a Polynesian wood carving tour. It’s the only one in all the Hawaiian islands. You get to sit at the carving hut enjoying beautiful views of the Kona Coastline in the shade of a giant mango tree with the Master carver! There he will help guide you through carving your very own tiki from locally sourced wood from the farm. Depending on what he has on hand it could be mango, monkeypod, or even koa wood. Everyone walks away with not just a gorgeous souvenir but something to be passed on for generations to come. Be sure to book your tours in advance as these fill up pretty fast.
After a morning tour, we recommend taking a drive down to south point. The southernmost point of the United States is a beautiful spot where you will often see people cliff jumping.
Near here is also the green sand beach and the Punalu’u Bakery, another great stop for a malasada.
If your Polynesian cultural tour is in the afternoon we highly recommend starting your morning out with a kayak and snorkeling at Kealakekua Bay. Bayside Adventures has kayaks right on the edge of the water you can rent without a time limit. They also have snorkel gear and dry bags available. Make sure you reserve a kayak in advance though. They are really popular! The snorkeling at Kealakekua Bay is right in front of the Captain Cook Monument and is unparalleled to any other spot on the island. The water is crystal clear and boasts a huge variety of wildlife to see. There is a pod of dolphins that frequents the bay as well. Just make sure to respect their space and don’t chase them!
A trip to the Big Island would not be complete without a nighttime manta ray experience! It might seem a little strange getting into the ocean when it’s dark, but trust us, it’s magical! There are lots of great companies to go with. Manta Ray Dives Hawaii is a great option. Their team is sure to provide you with a fabulous experience.
They shine lights in the water which attracts the plankton. The Mantas are attracted to the plankton and they glide in summersaults beneath you catching the plankton with their wide-open mouths. It’s an amazing experience.
The best part of the Manta tours is that they happen in the evening so they are pretty easy to fit into your schedule. Just be sure to book in advance as they fill up quickly!
Another thing that is easy to squeeze in is a Kona Coffee farm visit. There are so many to choose from, and none will disappoint. A great organic farm is Holualoa Kona Coffee Company. They have award-winning coffee for tastings and available for purchase. This brand is particularly sought after and makes a great gift to take home.
Now that you have seen all that there is to see, the last thing left to do is kick back and relax and the beach! Hapuna Beach is your iconic white sandy beach on the big island. Some other great ones to check out though are Kua Bay, and the beaches at Kekaha Kai State Park. If you’re looking for a surf spot check out Pine Trees surfing beach (also known as Kohanaiki Beach).
For a few different ideas about what to do with kids check out our previous post, Big Island with Kids.
Now that you have a plan for your road trip here are some great spots to eat!
Best Places to Eat on the Big Island:
- Kruas Thai Food
- Lava Java, especially for Breakfast
- Quins by the sea
- You Make the Roll (sushi)
- Basik acai
- Fosters Kitchen
- The Coffee Shack (does get crowded!)
- Super J’s authentic lau lau
- Shaka Tacos
- Black Rock Pizza
Naalehu (South Point Area)
- Taco Tita
- Punalu’u Bake shop (sandwiches and salads to go)
- Hana Hou Restaurant
- The Bamboo Restaurant
- Mi Ranchito
- Hawaii Grown Market
- Dom De Luca – Italian Food
- The Fish and The hog
- James Angelos Underground Pizza
- Cafe Pesto
- Jackie Rey’s
- Pineapples Fresh Island cuisine
- Ken’s House of Pancakes
- Lava Lava Beach Club
- Roys Waikoloa
- Tommy Bahama Restaurant
- A Bay’s Island Grill
- Fosters Kitchen
Other Important Trip Planning Notes
The Big Island is very casual! And we do mean VERY CASUAL. While it may be fun to dress up for a night on the town that just really isn’t a thing around here. Resort casual is about as fancy as it gets. So pack light and save room for lots of souvenirs to take home with you. Don’t forget the sunscreen and bug spray and a lightweight raincoat.
It’s worth mentioning again: don’t forget to get a car reservation. We’ve said it plenty of times, but for the Big Island you will enjoy your stay so much more if you have a rental car. Don’t wait to land, book it in advance!
Our recent What to Expect When You are Traveling to the Big Island post details information you need to know concerning COVID and travel. It also includes links to Hawaii State travel websites.