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 main areas on the Big Island, and they are on opposite coasts. You can fly to either town on Hawaiian Airlines. 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.
If budget allows, my two favorite resorts are on the Kona Coast; the Mauna Lani and the Four Season Hualalai. The Mauna Lani has beautifully appointed rooms with ocean views, and sleek pools. The ocean front in this area is gorgeous and there are walking paths from resort to resort. The Four Seasons is perhaps the premier resort on the Big Island. The resort has a huge ocean front, isolated from other resorts and private; running parallel to the water. All of the rooms, suites, and pools are ocean view or close by. There are multiple pools (7, 8, 9?!), including adults-only options. The service is impeccable and they have great kama’aina rates for Hawaii residents (as does the Mauna Lani).
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, SNACK AND DRINK:
*I’ve listed places starting in Kona and running clockwise around the island.
Kalikala Cuisine – Kona. Great spot for brunch right on the waterfront in the center of Kona
Kona Brewing – Kona. 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!)
Huggo’s – Kona. This spot in the heart of Kona boasts beautiful waterfront views and their food and drinks were excellent. Nice little relaxing spot.
Journey Cafe – Kona. Casual, plant based cafe in the center of Kona. Save room for dessert at Sweet Journey, where they serve up coconut based soft serve with all sorts of yummy toppings
Herbivores – Kona. Permanent food truck serving plant based, healthful options. I like to stop here for fresh juice and smoothies
CanoeHouse – Puako. Upscale, oceanfront dinner spot in the Mauna Lani resort. Come for sunset and request a seat on the lanai
Big Island Brewhaus – Waimea. Artisan, craft beer and local food
Kamuela Liquor Store – Waimea. Not really a place to eat, but a liquor store with a large selection of unique wines and they have lots of fancy cheeses and accompaniments if you want to take food to-go and have a little wine and cheese night at the beach or on your lanai
Paul’s Place – Hilo. If you find yourself on the windward side, this spot 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.
Volcano Winery – Volcano. Visit their tasting room to sample their local wines
Honuas Coffee – Naalehu. You’ll pass this spot on your way to Punalu’u black sand beach, and it’s worth a stop for great coffee, matcha, and little snacks
Shaka Tacoz – Captain Cook. Casual eatery with amazing tacos and a little ocean view seating area. Easy stop for quick grindz.
The Coffee Shack – Captain Cook. 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!
Rebel Kitchen – Kealakekua. Flavorful food and they’re known for all their homemade sauces including Kona Ketchup, Mauka Mustard, and Hawaiian Fire Sauce
Annie’s Burgers – Kealakekua. Amazing burgers made from local, Big Island beef
Kaya’s Coffee – Kealakekua. Nice little stop with casual, cafe food, good coffee and matcha, and ono cakes and dessert options
WHAT TO DO:
• Visit Volcanoes National Park
• Night snorkel with manta rays. Not gonna lie, the thought of snorkeling at night was initially 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. Visit the highest point in Hawai’i for incredible, sweeping views. It’s nearly 14K feet so prepare for cold temps and snow
• Take in the dramatic Akaka Falls and the surrounding botanical gardens. This s spot near Hilo is a short and easy hike on paved trails to a gorgeous and dramatic 442’ falls. Enjoy waterfalls? I haven’t seen every one on this list, but there are many gorgeous waterfalls around the island. If you don’t mind a hike, I recommend downloading the AllTrails app, and from there you can filter hikes featuring waterfalls
• Check out the Polulu Lookout and hike down to the black sand beach below. Limited parking. Be sure to respect this cultural site
• Visit the Waipio Valley Lookout. If you’re in the area, the views from the lookout are gorgeous. Visitors used to be able to drive or hike down to the valley below, but that road was closed in Feb 2022 for safety reasons. This is an important cultural site to the Hawaiian people and the boyhood home of King Kamehameha I
• Take a day trip to Hilo. Even if you’re staying in Kona, if you have time, 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)
• Kua Bay – My favorite beach! I’ve visited countless amazing beaches on all of the Hawaiian Islands, but the color of the water here is truly spectacular. It’s a popular spot and can be crowded, but there’s usually enough space to spread out, especially if you don’t mind a short walk to either end. Like all the Kona coast beaches; beautiful at sunset
• 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 – This 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
• Punalu’u (Black Sand Beach) – Punalu’u is a great stop on the way to Volcanoes National Park (when driving from Kona). 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
• 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/pp. 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 def 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!
I hope this Big Island travel guide is helpful as your plan your own trip! Enjoy!
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