BIG ISLAND TRAVEL GUIDE
One of the best parts of living on Oahu, is the proximity to all the other beautiful Hawaiian Islands! Maui, Kauai, or the Big Island are literally less than an hour flight away and island hopping is easy at these small airports! I think the Big Island is the most diverse and it’s soooo different than all the other islands, and it truly is so very big. I’ve visited several times and I still feel as though I’ve only scratched the surface.
But! First things first! When visiting the Big Island, or any of the islands, please remember to respect the land, the locals, and the sea life. Hawaii is an incredibly special place, and deserves to be treated as such. A few basics:
• Practice aloha! This word is so much more than a greeting. It’s also love, peace, and compassion
• Be kind to the people you meet and remember that Hawaii is the Hawaiian people’s home! We are all blessed to be here!
• Leave no trace. Be sure to clean up after yourself and leave things as you found them, if not better. (i.e. pick up that piece of trash on the beach, even if it’s not yours.) Don’t trespass past signs, barricades or on private property
• Try to avoid geotagging specific locations on Instagram. Places that were once sacred and private are becoming overrun due to social media. If you find a special spot, tag it more discreetly using simply “The Big Island,” the name of the closest town, or something more vague
• Use reef safe sunscreen
• Never touch, approach, chase, or feed wildlife, such as sea turtles, Hawaiian monk seals, dolphins or whales
• Shop small and support local when you can
WHERE TO STAY:
Kona and Hilo are the two largest towns on the Big Island, and they are on opposite coasts. You can fly to either town. Generally, Kona is drier on the leeward (west) side, while Hilo is very lush and experiences more rain on the windward coast, especially in the winter. Unlike other Hawaiian Islands where it’s easier to get from town to town, Kona and Hilo are approximately 1.5 hours apart. The Big Island is so big that it’s easy to wind up spending a lot of time driving, unless you focus your travels on specific areas. I usually stay in the Kona area, but there are AirBnBs all over the island.
Unless you’re staying at a resort and don’t plan on exploring, a rental car is a must! I would upgrade to a Jeep or four wheel drive if your budget allows – it will be necessary for some activities, see below.
WHERE TO EAT:
Huggo’s – This spot in the heart of Kona boasts beautiful waterfront views and their food and drinks were excellent. Nice little relaxing spot.
The Coffee Shack – Ooooh! This is my favorite place we tried! There was a wait and it was well worth it! The views are incredible and so is the food! The Coffee Shack is south of Kona, so it’s a good stop if you’re headed south. Be sure to save room for dessert, even if it’s breakfast or brunch!
Kona Brewing – If you like beer, Kona makes some of the best on Hawaii! Kona Brewing is based on the Big Island, and this spot has a nice outdoor space, good food and great beer! (PS – my favorite beer is Big Wave!)
Paul’s Place – If you find yourself in Hilo, this spot (currently temporarily closed due to Covid) is wonderful! It’s rated the #1 restaurant in Hilo on Trip Advisor for good reason. It’s a small spot, so snag a reservation if you can.
WHAT TO DO:
Night snorkel with manta rays – Not gonna lie, the thought of snorkeling at night was slightly intimidating, but I enjoyed this activity a ton and the tour operator we used, Sea Paradise, was awesome! We saw several huge rays and it was magical.
Drive up Mauna Kea – The road to Mauna Kea was closed when we were there due to protests, but I’ve heard this drive is incredible and how cool would it be to see sunset, for example, from the highest point in all of Hawaii?!
Visit Waipio Valley – The lookout to Waipio Valley is gorgeous, but definitely take the time to drive or walk down. I’m not sure if a four wheel drive is required, but the incline is EXTREMELY steep, so I think a four wheel drive is highly recommended and be careful not to burn your brakes on the way down. We picked up poke at Foodland and some drinks before heading here (everyone in Hawaii knows the best poke is found in the deli section of the local supermarkets!), and drove down to the beach for a picnic.
Visit Hilo – Even if you’re staying in Kona, I think it’s worth the 1.5 hour drive (across island, past the base of Mauna Kea) to spend a day exploring Hilo and the surrounding area. Hilo is a cute town with lots of boutiques and a wonderful farmer’s market (open everyday except Sunday).
Akaka Falls – This spot near Hilo is a short and easy hike on paved trails through botanical gardens to a gorgeous and dramatic 442’ falls.
Kua Bay – My favorite beach! I’ve visited countless amazing beaches on all of the Hawaiian Islands, but the color of the water here midday was truly stunning. It seemed to be a very popular spot, it was crowded, but still enough space to spread out. Since this beach is on the west side, just north of Kona, I imagine sunset would be beautiful here.
Kekaha Kai State Park – This huge state park has lots of coastline and endless areas to explore. We entered the park on the southernmost road (closest to Kona) and had the beach almost to ourselves. I love the tidepools for exploring.
Mahai’ula Bay – The large bay is part of Kekaha Kai, such a beautiful spot!
Hapuna Bay – This west side beach is north is a ways north of Kona, nearer to the major resorts. We stopped for sunset on our drive back from Mauna Kea to Kona. Beautiful at sunset.
Green Sand Beach – I know I said Kua Bay is my favorite beach, and it is my favorite swimming beach, but Green Sand Beach, the southernmost tip of the Big Island, is an ADVENTURE to get to and getting here was definitely, far and away, my favorite adventure on Big Island! Green Sand is only accessible by off roading 2.6 miles from the nearest paved road, or hiking in. If you opt to off road, locals post up in the parking lot and will drive you in, the beds of their trucks, standing packed like sardines for $20. Keep in mind, it’s extreme off roading and I imagine you’d be bouncing around in the truck. According to online reviews, the truck ride takes about 20 minutes.
If you have a four wheel drive vehicle and are a skilled driver, you can also drive yourself (though it’s questionable if this is legal and/or violates a rental agreement, but people do do it). We opted to go this route and I think it took us about triple the time because we didn’t know where we are going (there are multiple tracks running parallel to each other but we never knew which was the best option), and we literally had to keep getting out of the car to check the ruts in the road and analyze whether the jeep could handle it. I swear we were on 2 wheels at times. I was white knuckling it the entire drive, but we made it eventually! We also did lots of stops to admire the coastal views and take pics of this otherworldly landscape.
If you hike in, the hike would be flat and relatively easy, but there is literally no shade, so bring lots of water.
However you get there, once you arrive at Green Sands, you’ll be blown away. It’s an incredible bay with greenish/gold sand. It was so fun to explore!
Punalu’u (Black Sand Beach) – Punalu’u is relatively close to Green Sand, by Big Island standards, about a 45 minute drive further away from Kona, on the way to Volcanoes National Park. I’ve been to black sand beaches on other islands, but this one is the cooooooolest! The sand is so black, but also so fine. Such a unique and beautiful place, worth a stop for sure.
In the future, I’m dying to check out Pohoiki Beach (another black sand beach!), Makalawena, and Honaunau.
I hope this travel guide is helpful if you’re planning your own trip to the Big Island! Strangely, I took very few photos on this trip – just a few rolls of film on my real camera and a smattering of photos on my iphone, but I wanted to share a mix of my favs. Enjoy!!
Did you like this Big Island Travel Guide? Check out my other travel guides here!