Nicknamed "The Big Island", the Island of Hawaii is the largest island and the southeasternmost state in the Hawaiian archipelago. As the name suggests, the island is so big that it can fit all of the other main Hawaiian islands inside. You can also drive to Ka Lae, (Hawaiian for "The Point,") which is as far south as you can go in the United States!
Why You Should Visit
The Island of Hawaii is geographically unique with two active volcanoes, beautiful black sand beaches, and lush rainforests. On only one island, you can find 10 out of the world's 14 major climate zones. One side of the island can be sunny and dry whereas on the other side it may be rainy and wet. They say if you don't like the weather, just drive!
Keep reading to find things to do, food to eat, and places to check out when you visit!
Explore National Volcanoes Park
Although all the Hawaiian Islands have a history of volcanoes, the Island of Hawaii has active volcanos that are still transforming the landscape today. There are 2 active volcanoes, Kilauea and Mauna Loa, within the National Volcanoes Park.
You can drive the Chain of Craters road to check out the volcano from different scenic lookouts. However, I recommend doing an E-bike tour to make the most out of your time. You can travel through forested paths and get to the main points of interest quicker. We booked ours through AirBnB here and it was one of our top activities during our Hawaii vacation.
Not only did we see a lot during our 3-hour E-bike excursion, but we also felt like we learned a lot! Our tour guide, Andre, was an excellent storyteller and gave us information about the volcano and the island.
Hit the Beaches
Papakolea Beach - Green Sand Beach
Papakolea Beach is among the few green sand beaches in the entire world. The sand is created by a common mineral in Big Island lava called olivine which gives it a golden/green color. However, the rock formation that surrounds the bay is almost as cool as the sand.
You have to make your way through dusty dunes nearly 3 miles one-way (about 1 hour from the parking lot). It's not a difficult hike, though it does seem long since it is hot and sunny with no shade. Since you walk along the coast, the breeze makes the adventure more enjoyable and you have beautiful sights the whole way there. The magnificent view of the beach and a dip into the water make the trek extremely rewarding and worth it!
Distance: 5.5 miles round-trip
Recommended Gear: Water, sunscreen, hat, and glasses are a must! It is hot and sunny, and the wind can kick up sand into your eyes.
Swimming: The rolling waves and the warm clear blue water make Green Sand Beach a fun swimming spot. Be careful though since the surf is quite strong and there is no lifeguard.
Punaluu Beach - Black Sand Beach
Punaluu Beach is one of the most popular black sand beaches on the island. It's a great place to snorkel, swim, and picnic. The beach is lined with palm trees making it a perfect place to lounge in the shade. Facilities include parking, restrooms, showers, and picnic grounds.
Introduce yourself to Hawaii's friendly fish! The best snorkeling sites can be found on the western part of the island, called the Kona Coast. We snorkeled at Kahaluʻu Bay which had clear visibility and tons of fascinating underwater life.
Swim with Manta Rays
One of the Big Island's most unique and unforgettable experiences is swimming with manta rays. The Kona Coast is the only place in the world you can experience this at night. Don't worry the manta rays are only interested in eating plankton and can't sting you!
The tour operators set up a floating board with lights and all you have to do is hold on to it and watch the graceful manta rays below with snorkel gear. We booked our Manta Ray Experience with Sea Quest here.
Downtown Hilo is a quaint town located on the northeastern side of the island along the waterfront. Check out the Hilo Farmers Market for local jewelry, crafts, and more. You may want to pick up some fresh fruit from one of the many produce stalls for a snack!
For a fresh cup of Kona coffee, head over to Hilo Coffee Mill. For some treats to bring home, check out Big Island Candies.
Rainbow Falls - Hilo
A short drive away from central Hilo, you can find this accessible waterfall, Rainbow Falls. There is a small parking lot with an overlook to view this classic waterfall. There aren't any trails, so this would be a quick 10-15 minute stop.
'Akaka State Falls Park - Hilo
'Akaka State Falls Park includes a 0.4-mile paved path loop through the jungle to view two spectacular waterfalls. First, you can spot the 100-foot waterfall, Kahuna Falls, in the distance. Next up, you can see the dramatic waterfall, 'Akaka Falls, plunging 442 feet.
Admission: There's a parking fee and an admission fee per person. There are 3 ticket kiosks and people assisting so you can purchase your tickets on-site. For more information, check out the Park's official website here.
Go on a Hike
From lush forest paths to coastal trails, the Island of Hawaii has many hiking options!
Off the 4-mile-scenic route on the Hawaii Belt Road (between mile markers 7 and 8) north of Hilo, is a quick hike to Onomeo Bay. The bay is considered one of the lushest areas of the island and has the prettiest views of the coastline. You can also make a stop at the close-by botanical garden, The Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve and Garden, and do a self-guided tour.
Once you make your way down the paved path to the bay, take a right down a little trail that leads out to the lava rock. Here you can find a perfect picture spot where the waves crash in. Continue your hike and go past the botanical garden where you will find another ocean view. The Donkey Trail (0.2 miles) will lead you back up to the road.
Distance: 0.5 miles one way (Onomeo Trail to ocean lookout)
Go on a Scenic Drive
Waipio Valley Overlook
Located on the Hamakua Coast, the northeastern part of the Big Island of Hawai'i, Waipi'o Valley is the largest of the Kohala Mountains. Unfortunately, the valley roads are currently closed to visitors, and visits to the valley aren't possible anymore. You can still view the stunning valley from the Waipio Valley Overlook at the end of the Hamakua Heritage Corridor drive.
Waimea is the biggest town on the North side of the Big Island and is primarily known for its cowboy history. The town is scenic with its rolling hills and lush pastures. Go on a hike or ride through the wide open spaces on horseback!
Visit a Coffee Mill
Kau Coffee Mill
Kau Coffee Mill has free guided coffee tours through their farm twice daily at 11 am and 1 pm. There's also a gift shop and cafe serving freshly roasted coffee. This is a great place to take a break and enjoy some free coffee samples and purchase some souvenirs like a bag of coffee, macadamia nut goodies, and more.
Try the Local Cuisine
Shave ice is a dessert similar to a mainland "snow cone", except it is made with shaved ice versus crushed ice giving it a light and smoother texture. It is flavored with syrup and sweet ingredients.
Pictured below is our shave ice from Kula Shave Ice in Hilo: "The Kula Rainbow" with blueberry, strawberry, and mango over vanilla ice cream and "The Local" with soursop and lilikoi topped with haupia cream.
In basically every restaurant on the island, you will find pizza on the menu. You can order the classic pepperoni or cheese pizza, but why not try one of the more unique toppings like kalua pork with grilled pineapple or Thai chili shrimp?
Saimin, a local comfort food, is the Hawaiian version of ramen and is influenced by Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino cuisine. It is a noodle dish served with fresh noodles in a clear broth with green onions, fish cakes (the pink swirly accents), and sometimes ham or pork. Some additions include eggs, chicken, and shrimp.
Malasadas are fried dough doughnuts rolled with sugar. One of the most famous stops for malasadas on the island is Tex Drive In located in Honoka'a where you can watch the sugary treats being handmade through a viewing window. The menu includes malasadas filled with apple, strawberry, mango, and bavarian cream.
Tropical Fruit Smoothies
You won't find a shortage of tropical fruit smoothies on the island. We pulled over at a tropical smoothie shack on the Kona Coast and I got this delicious smoothie made up of pineapple, passion fruit, coconut milk, and apple juice. So refreshing!
Where to Stay
Since the Big Island is so large, you will most likely be driving for a while no matter where you stay. If possible I would recommend staying on the western side where the beaches, resorts, and excursions are for half the time. For the rest of the time, I would suggest staying on the eastern side where it's wetter and cooler so you can experience the volcanoes.
We stayed at Hale Hubner, an AirBnB located in the Volcano Village, close to Volcano National Park. The full kitchen and two bedrooms were perfect for our bunch of 4. If you want to be close to the park then I recommend this stay.
The "Fern Cottage" was literally hidden among the ferns and tucked into the lush rainforest. How often do you get to stay in an exotic jungle? Another bonus is that the owner has an excellent guidebook full of things to do, see, and eat on the island.
What to Pack
Of course, it seems downright impossible to bring everything you are going to need on your vacation, but here are some things I recommend packing to make the most of your Hawaii adventures!
Binoculars / Headlamp - for optimal volcano viewing, bring a pair of binoculars for a closer look at the eruption. When viewing at night, a headlamp is recommended to see the paths to the different volcano overlooks.
Rain Jacket - Since the Island has many different microclimates, make sure you bring a light jacket. A rain jacket is preferred since it can rain unexpectedly, especially in the jungle environment.
Waterproof Sneakers - If you are looking to do some hiking, I highly recommend bringing some sort of waterproof sneaker that you can wash. You will get wet and muddy for sure!
Hat/Glasses - Keep the sun out of your face and bring along a hat and/or glasses.
SPF shirt - Easily protect yourself from the sun with sun protection clothing. You can get a long-sleeve shirt that feels light and saves you from sunburns!
Snorkel Gear - If you are planning to snorkel, I suggest bringing a snorkel gear set that includes goggles, a snorkel, and fins. There are so many snorkeling spots on the islands that you are going to be grateful you brought them!
Thanks for reading!
- The Maine Chick