The best things to do on the Big Island of Hawaii depend, in part, on where you stay and how much driving you’re willing to do. Yes, you can lie on the beach or by the pool all day and do absolutely nothing. Or you can do some low-key sightseeing or high-intensity outdoor activities. Whatever your interests, you’ll find something to do. Or to not do.
What You Need to Know About the Big Island
As the largest of the Hawaiian islands, the Big Island (technically “Hawaii”) has a greater geographic diversity than do the other islands. From rainforests to lava rock fields to coffee plantations, the island covers it all. I prefer the “sunny” and drier side of the island that includes Kailua-Kona and the Kohala Coast. But Hilo, with its rainforests and waterfalls on the “rainy” side, has its own charms. Between those two coasts, you have Volcanoes National Park with its active Kilauea volcano and, further north, dormant Mauna Kea where you can find sub-zero temperatures a mere hour-and-a-half drive from a hot, sunny beach. If you’re used to the density of people in Honolulu, you’ll think you’ve landed in the boondocks. That’s exactly what I love about the island.
You can see the entire island during a single visit if you don’t mind driving. On a rare rainy day several years ago, we drove from the Kohala Coast to a coffee plantation in the south to Volcano National Park to Hilo and back to our hotel in time for a late dinner. Most people, though, will want to take it easy or at least easier.
Seeing the Natural Wonders of the Big Island
Right smack in the middle of the island, you’ll find Mauna Kea, the dormant volcano that towers over everything. Fun fact: Mauna Kea is the highest mountain in the world, higher than Everest, if you measure from its underwater base.
You can drive an ordinary car to the Visitors Center, but you’ll need a four-wheel drive if you want to go to the summit where the observatories are located. (The road is unpaved, and most rental car companies prohibit their cars from going up.) From the Visitors Center level, which is still high enough to feel the altitude, you can cross the road and follow a path to watch the sunset over the ocean. Even without making it to the summit, the views are breathtaking. Make sure you pack warm clothes — it can snow up there.
If you want to reach the observatories to see the sunset and the stars, you can book a tour to the summit. The guides even supply Arctic-style parkas.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
As the only Hawaiian island with active volcanoes, one of the best, and most famous, things to do on the Big Island is to see one for yourself. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park encompasses the caldera of Kilauea, the most active of the Big Island’s volcanoes. Although Kilauea stopped erupting after a long stretch between 1983 and 2018, it can restart at any time. For this reason, heed all warnings and road closures provided by the National Park Service. Stay on paths regardless of what others do since the crust can be unexpectedly thin. You don’t want to die by lava.
Even though Kilauea is no longer providing a lava show, you can still see the area where the summit collapsed as well as steam vents. Drive along the Chain of Craters Road.
The park is much closer to Hilo than it is Kona.
The Waipio Valley, on the north side of the island, offers stunning views of the double Hi’ilawe Falls, taro fields, streams, and even the meeting of rugged coast with ocean. Because the road is extremely steep and you need to traverse streams, only true 4-wheel drive vehicles are allowed. As with Mauna Kea’s summit, rental car companies prohibit driving their cars into the valley. If you are extremely fit, you can hike. We opted to book a Jeep tour with driver. As the last tour of the day, we had the driver all to ourselves. A one-time resident, he had lots to share about the people living there, the edible fruits and flowers, and the history.
Pololu Valley Lookout
This scenic stop on the western coast, at the end of Rt. 270, is majestic. Proceed down the road with caution because there’s no turnaround and people park along both sides of the road. If you get there early, you can turn your car around before the lookout gets mobbed. Park facing the way you came for an easy exit. Alterately, you can park before the last driveway (we turned around using it) and walk.
You can hike down a steep path to the beach far below. Make sure you wear proper shoes. We saw people wearing flipflops attempting this, and it wasn’t good.
Sunrises and Sunsets
If you are on the eastern side of the island, you can watch the sun rise over the ocean. If you are on the western side, you can see it set over the ocean. The best place to see a uniquely Big Island sunset, though, is on top of Mauna Kea, provided that the weather cooperates. Stay a little past the actual sunset to witness the colors. (The access road closes 1/2 hour after sunset, so make sure you leave in time.)
While staying at the Fairmont Orchid, we booked a double-hull canoe activity to watch the sun rise over Mauna Kea. We paddled out to sea with our guide and waited for the glorious start to our day.
Stargazing and Waterfall Hunting
I’m always surprised by how sparsely populated the Big Island is, particularly compared to Oahu and Maui. With fewer people comes less light pollution, and that’s great to view the night sky. You don’t have to go all the way up to Mauna Kea, though, to see a spectacular sky, even if it’s the best place to do so. Our hotel organized a free once-a-week astronomy talk near the beach. You get to look through their telescope at galaxies, nebulae, and constellations. I’m sure they aren’t the only hotel to do this.
The rainforest on the Hilo side of the island has abundant waterfalls, including the famous Rainbow Falls and Akaka Falls. Rainbow Falls is easily accessible from a parking lot. Akaka Falls requires a rougly 1/2 mile walk.
As noted above, a good vantage point for waterfalls includes the Waipio Valley on the northern side.
Humpback whale migration season in Hawaii begins at the end of October and lasts until April when the last of the giant sea mammals heads back to Alaska. The best months tend to be January-March, with whale watching tours on the Big Island beginning mid-December. In January, we’ve seen humpback whales breaching about 1/2 mile off the Kohala Coast.
If you arrive during this time, I recommend booking a whale watching tour so that you can see the whales closer than otherwise. Plus, boat captains tend to communicate with one another to ensure a higher chance of all crafts seeing them.
The Atlantis Submarine
A friend recommended Atlantis Adventures, and I’m glad I listened. Kids and adults alike will love the submarine dive to 100 feet below the surface to see marine life and shipwrecks. You don’t have to be a diver to see the waters deep off the shore of Kona.
Although you won’t see the natural colors of the reef and marine life because of the lack of light, the view is compelling even in blue.
Chances are, your hotel will have a beach or a pool or both. For me, that’s enough. But if you want to venture farther afield for a swim, Hapuna Beach State Park, located on the Kohala Coast, is supposed to have one of the safest and family-friendly beaches on the island. Nearby Wailalea Beach is also an option. Near Hilo, try Carlsmith Beach Park.
Black sand beaches at Pololu Valley and Waipio Valley are difficult to access and can have dangerous riptides. Their beauty and their relative isolation defines their allure.
Snorklers gravitate toward Kahalu’u Beach Park and Kealakekua Bay Park. If you are only a casual snorkeler or a novice, you might be able to snorkle close to shore at your hotel.
Regardless of where or how you go into the water, exercise caution. Hawaii does have sharks, and the riptides can be strong.
History and Culture
Most people visiting Hawaii experience the island’s culture no deeper than the aloha and mahalo uttered in stores and perhaps a tourist-centric luau. But the history is there for you to discover. Walk the path, about a mile each way, at the Puako Petroglyph Archaeological Preserve all the way to the end to see the field of lava rocks carved with petroglyphs. Other petroglyph sites include the Puuloa Petroglyphs in Hawaii Volcanoes National park at the end of Chains of Craters Road and the Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park.
Another awe-inspiring cultural site is the Lapakahi State Historical Park. The vast area contains the ruins of an ancient fishing village. The gates close precisely at 3:30 pm, so allot enough time to explore the ruins and get out in time. It’s also a great spot in winter to see whales that cavort about 1/2 mile from the shore.
If you go to either of the above, bring a bottle of water. The conditions are hotter and drier than you might expect.
On the way to the Pololu Valley Lookout, look on your right as you drive through Kapa’au to see the original King Kamehameha statue. This, the first casting, went down with a shipwreck near the Falkland Islands on its way from Italy to the Hawaiian Islands. When it was recovered, it ended up here in Kapa’au, near where the king was born. You can find a later castings of the sculpture in Honolulu, Hilo, and Washington, DC.
Visiting a Coffee Plantation
Pure Kona coffee is one of the most expensive coffees in the world and should not be confused with less expensive Kona blends which may contain only 10% Kona coffee beans. You get what you pay for. No matter the roast – light, medium, or dark – the brew is smooth, thanks to the volcanic soil, misty mornings, and reliably sunny days.
We like Greenwell Farms for its visitor-friendly tour and shop. And we like the coffee. You can sample their proprietary blends (still 100% Kona coffee) to determine your favorite before purchasing. I also like that they sell online for the same price you can get on location, with free shipping.
If you want to buy 100% Kona coffee in a grocery store, choose Wings Of The Morning. You can get it in whole bean or ground version. Expect to pay $35 or so for 12 ounces.
Stopping By a Macadamia Farm
Mauna Loa, named after the island’s largest volcano, produces exceptional macadamia nut products. The visitor center can be found south of Hilo. If you want to see processing and production, visit during the week since the factory is closed on weekends. The visitor center itself is open every day until 5 pm. You can buy just about every macadamia nut product you can imagine.
Poking Around Kailua-Kona
Kailua-Kona (known informally as Kona) is a quintessential beach town with souvenir shops, restaurants, and art galleries. The first time I visited, I was surprised by how small it was. Still, exploring can provide an afternoon’s entertainment, especially if you’re worn out by the sun.
Where to Stay
We love the Kona/Kohala side of the island since the weather is usually better. When I visit from the Northeast in December, I want dry, hot, and sunny weather. That said, Kailua-Kona lacks the beauty of the rainforests around Hilo.
The more expensive, luxury hotels are located north of Kona, on the Kohala Coast. These resorts have carved out lush, ocean-side oases out of the vast fields of volcanic rock. We love the Fairmont Orchid for its beauty and amenities. It has a private beach, an enormous pool, snorkeling/paddleboard/kayak rentals, a spa (including outdoor massage options), tennis courts, restaurants, and activities for children and adults alike. The resort abuts a golf course and the Puako Petroglyph Archaeological Preserve. Endangered green turtles bask on a roped off area next to the ocean. You could stay inside the resort for a week and not get bored.
Less expensive accommodations can be found in and around the town of Kona. Although you may not get the extensive amenities of a luxury resort, you’ll be close to town and all that it offers.
Fun note: Look for the wild goats as you drive on Rt. 19 up the coast. The goats are the same color as the rocks, but once you see one, you’ll see more.
Where, and What, to Eat
Thanks to the climate, local produce can be amazing, even in December. Naturally, restaurants serve a lot of fresh fish. Yes, you’ll see ahi tuna and mahi mahi just about everywhere; however, some fish you can’t easily find elsewhere: kampachi, hapu’upu’u, nairagi, ono, ulua, and onaga. Ask your server to describe the menu’s fish if you don’t know what it is.
Kona lobster is a marvel. The same species as the Maine lobster, it grows to maturity in the cold seawater created by the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii. NELHA extracts the heat from thermal waters, leaving the lobsters to live in the cold water left behind.
Kalua pork (the slow-cooked pork at the center of a luau) often appears on menus. Similar to barbecue pulled pork, kalua pork should be moist and slightly smoky.
So where to eat on the Big Island? Merriman’s in Waimea, in the north-central part of the island, serves food worth the drive. Brown’s Beach House, located on the Fairmont Orchid property, offers upscale dining right on the beach. For a more casual meal, try The Fish Hopper in Kona.
We loved Ululani’s Hawaiian Shave Ice in Kona. For incredible mochi, try Two Ladies Kitchen in Hilo.
I love the Big Island of Hawaii because every visit feels like a giant sigh of relaxation. Even after several visits, we still find new things to do. We also know, however, that we’d be perfectly happy taking it
Debbie Lee Wesselmann