It’s the largest of the Hawaiian Islands, but to me the Big Island is the most off-the-beaten-path. They say its size is twice that of the other islands combined, lending to a variety of landscapes and climate zones that await visitors looking for more than just a pretty beach. I recently visited the Big Island for a second time, exploring everywhere from the rainforests of the Volcanoes National Park to the underwater world of Kona’s sparkling coastline. If natural beauty, mellow energy and authentic charm is what you’re after, look no further than the Big Island. Below is my complete guide to a weeklong trip, and I’ve included all my favorite beaches, day trips, snorkel spots, resorts, restaurants and more.
HOW MANY DAYS ON THE BIG ISLAND?
One week is the perfect amount of time to enjoy all the highlights of the Big Island. With six or seven full days to explore, you can take day trips to Hilo and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and still have plenty of time to enjoy the snorkel spots and food around Kona, as well as the beaches of the Kohala Coast and lush hiking trails up north.
THINGS TO DO ON THE BIG ISLAND
One of only a handful of waterfalls on the Big Island, Akaka Falls is located 11 miles from Hilo off the Hawaii Belt Road. The 422-ft. drop is an oasis of green ferns and lush foliage – major Jurassic Park vibes. It’s not a waterfall visitors can swim in, but a stunning viewpoint is reachable via a half-mile loop from a trailhead that begins at the state park’s small parking lot. (HOURS 8:30 AM-6 PM daily)
ALI’I SALTWATER SWIMMING POOL
This large saltwater pool is a local favorite, tucked away between apartment buildings on Kona’s rocky coast. Admittedly, it isn’t the most scenic of pools but the energy is good, and the concept is pretty cool. There is little to no parking along the stretch of Ali’i Road where the pool is located – so if you’re arriving by car, best to nab one of the pool’s four parking spots. The tiny parking lot is a bit tricky to find, it’s located at the start of the pathway that leads out to the pool, inside the driveway to a private apartment complex.
The largest white sand beach on the Big Island, Hapuna Beach sits on the Kohala Coast and is a popular spot for families, picnics and weekend hangs.
HAWAII VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park can be visited as a long day trip, or an overnight adventure. Highlights that should be included in any itinerary include exploring the Thurston Lava Tube, as well as hiking the Kīlauea Iki Trail, one of my favorite treks on the island. The trail is a 3.3-mile loop around the rainforest rim of a crater, and then down into the crater itself and across the lava rocks.
HONAUNAU BAY (TWO-STEP)
When the water is calm, Honaunau Bay is one of the best snorkel spots on the island. Fondly known as Two-Step, the coral-rich waters teem with marine life including thousands of colorful fish, sea cucumbers, eels, turtles and more.
This cave sits on the side of the road in Hilo, making it an easy stop for day trippers visiting Akaka Falls and Rainbow Falls. The lush lava tube is a Ferngully setting where jungle vines hang over the mouth of the cave that is completely engulfed in overgrown ferns, tropical plants and trees.
KEALAKEKUA BAY (CAPTAIN COOK)
Arguably the best snorkel spot on the island, Kealakekua Bay can be reached by kayak, by boat or on foot. There are a handful of places to park along Napoopoo Road near the trailhead, overlooking the coast. From there, it’s an easy hike down to the bay – a little under four miles roundtrip. Snorkeling visibility is best in the morning when the water is calm. The coral in Kealakekua Bay is healthy, and home a variety of underwater life including loads of fish, eels, rays, turtles and more. Snorkel equipment can be rented from Kona Boys, located four miles up the road from the bay.
When the sun is out, Kua Bay is one of the most stunning beaches on the Big Island. Black lava rocks surround the bay’s powder white sand, and its incredibly intense, turquoise water.
One of my favorite places on the island. The north end of Mahai’ula Beach is home to a gorgeous little grove of palm trees that serve up the perfect island backdrop to a small white sand beach and calm, clear water. Be weary of turtles, it’s a popular spot for resting and nesting.
MAHANA GREEN SAND BEACH
It’s one of the only places in the world where green sand exists, a volcanic phenomenon found in the island’s green olivine crystalline particles. Mahana is located near South Point between mile markers 69 and 70, reachable via a five-mile roundtrip hike.
Makalawena is one of the most stunning beaches on the Big Island, and surprisingly one of the least crowded. Three beautiful turquoise bays sit along the dreamy stretch of powder white sand, but only a handful of visitors are welcomed daily. It’s a bit of work to reach the Makalawena’s remote location (a bumpy ride out to the coast + an exposed walk through the lava fields), and the extra effort serves as a deterrent for crowds.
MANTA RAY NIGHT DIVE
At dusk, boats filled with scuba divers and snorkelers set out off the coast of Kona where giant manta rays feed on plankton. Divers set up lights on the ocean floor, and then patiently wait for the 12-15 ft. manta rays to appear. I used Big Island Divers, loads of positive reviews on TripAdvisor.
PUNALU’U BLACK SAND BEACH
This palm-fringed beach is located on the island’s south coast enroute to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park – a great spot to break up the long drive from Kona. The beach is large, the water is rough and Punalu’u is completely covered in volcanic black sand. It isn’t uncommon to see turtles come ashore to rest, so be weary and keep your distance.
Not quite as spectacular as Akaka Falls, but an easy stop while on the Hilo side of the Big Island. The waterfall viewpoint is located just a few steps from the parking lot.
PLACES TO STAY ON THE BIG ISLAND
Similar to many upscale resorts on the Big Island, the Fairmont Orchid sits on the sunny Kohala Coast. The seaside location is completely serene perched over the calm turquoise waters of Pauoa Bay. The property feels like a tropical retreat – lots of waterfalls, koi ponds, swaying palms and one of the island’s prettiest spas where private outdoor hales are engulfed in lush foliage.
FOUR SEASONS HUALALAI
For the most luxurious stay on the island, look no further than the Four Seasons Hualalai. The lavish resort sits just north of Kona on an absolutely stunning stretch of Hawaiian coastline. It isn’t often that I stay at a property so idyllic that I don’t want to leave, but the Four Seasons was absolutely perfect – spacious renovated suites, variety of pools, delicious restaurants and warm, attentive service.
WESTIN HAPUNA BEACH RESORT
Another beautiful seaside property on the Kohala Coast, but this one overlooks one of the most popular beaches on the island. The Westin Hapuna underwent a multi-million dollar renovation a few years ago, and the 249 guest rooms and 17 suites are sleek, modern and spacious.
WHERE TO EAT ON THE BIG ISLAND
Basik Acai serves up a tasty selection of bowls and smoothies made from mouth-watering ingredients including acai, goji berries, papaya, local bananas, house made cashew milk, hemp milk, organic hemp seeds, bee pollen, coco shavings, almond butter and more. (ADDRESS: 75-5831 Kahakai Rd., Kailua-Kona)
BROKE DA MOUTH GRINDZ
Popular mixed plate spot in Kona for Hawaiian style meats including short ribs, garlic furikake chicken, garlic shrimp, teriyaki chicken and more, plus all the classic island fixin’s. (ADDRESS: 74-5565 Luhia St., Kailua-Kona)
DA POKE SHACK
One of the best places for fresh poke on the Big Island, but be prepared to wait in line. Popular choices in their variety of options include the award-winning Wet Hawaiian, a savory poke made with roasted kukui nut; Shoyu Poke made with classic Hawaiian soy sauce; Pele’s Kiss in spicy Hawaiian chili pepper aoili and the Shack Special with seet miso, honey and roasted seaweed. (ADDRESS: 76-6246 Ali’i Drive, Kaila-Kona)
HAWAIIAN STYLE CAFE
A solid spot for both breakfast and lunch when in Hilo. Highlights on the expansive menu include the haupia coconut creme pancakes, loco mocos, mixed plates and poke bowls. Portions are large, order accordingly. (ADDRESS: 681 Manono St., Hilo)
SCANDANAVIAN SHAVED ICE
There are 65 flavor options at this popular shaved ice spot that sits on Kona’s main tourist drag. Creations here start with a base scoop of ice cream or frozen yogurt, topped with three flavors of shaved ice, plus a drizzle of sweet condensed milk or coconut cream and finished with a topping. (ADDRESS: 75-5699 Alii Dr, Kailua-Kona)
This might be my favorite ramen shop in all of Hawaii. The menu is very customizable with perfectly chewy noodles and the most flavorful broth. (ADDRESS: 697 Manono St., Hilo)
ULU OCEAN GRILL
The best upscale dining option on the Big Island is the Ulu Ocean Grill at the Four Seasons Hualalai. Tables overlook stunning views of the ocean, and the menu is loaded with a variety of Asian influenced dishes. Highlights for me were the fresh seafood, sushi options and cocktails. (ADDRESS: 72-100 Kaupulehu Drive Ka’upulehu, Kailua-Kona)
GETTING TO THE BIG ISLAND
All passengers arriving on the Big Island land at the Kona International Airport, located just north of Kona. The open-air airport is small and easy to manage with most gates, airline counters and baggage claim areas located outdoors. From the airport, there are free shuttle buses that sweep passengers to the nearby car rental counters.
GETTING AROUND THE BIG ISLAND
A rental car or SUV is a must on the Big Island because everything is so spread out. You’ll want your own set of wheels for day trips, and just to get to nearby restaurants, beaches and hiking trails. Roads on the Big Island are well-kept and easy to drive, aside from the occasional traffic jam in Kona.