Big Island (Hawaii) Travel Guide

Hawaii’s Big Island is very appropriately named – it really is very big indeed. So large in fact that it will take you more than two hours to drive from the eastern city of Hilo, to the westerly beach resort of Kailua-Kona. The island of Hawaii comprises over half of the area of the state of Hawaii in the United States of America. It is almost universally called the Big Island partly to avoid confusion. Being so expansive means that the landscape of the Big Island is extremely diverse, with sandy beaches and deserts, steaming volcanoes and huge craters, tropical rain forests, and even some towering mountain peaks capped in snow. It is home to the most active volcano in the world, located in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, as well as the largest mountain in the world in volume (Mauna Loa) and the tallest mountain in the world as measured from its base on the sea floor to its peak (Mauna Kea).
There are 11 different climate zones on the Big Island, making it the perfect place to discover Hawaii’s famed natural beauty.

There are a lot of places to visit in Hawaii on your trip, but the main attractions are:

Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park is a fascinating world of active volcanism, biological diversity, and Hawaiian culture, past and present. The Park is home to both the world’s largest volcano, Mauna Loa (13,677 feet high), and the world’s most active, Kilauea (continuously erupting since 1983). Hawai?i Volcanoes National Park is easily visited by car in just a few hours or may be explored in more depth over several days. Hikers will also find an abundance of trails to satisfy their curiosity. $10.00 per vehicle, $5.00 per pedestrian or bicycle, both prices for a 7 day permit. National Park Service passes accepted.

Mauna Kea. Mauna Kea (13,796 feet), the largest mountain in the world (measured from its base) is a dormant volcano which has become an international center for astronomy. Several astronomical observatories are located on its summit. The austere Mars-like landscape dotted with technological marvels is worth a look; if it is clear you might also get a look out to Maui. The elevation is high, and there are few tourist support facilities so hiking and exploring are discouraged. Also keep an eye out for the nene, also known as the Hawaiian goose. The nene is the state bird and an endangered species.
Four wheel drive vehicles are strongly recommended above the OCIA. Several tour companies offer tours to the summit and observatories of Mauna Kea for a fee. Observatory facilities are normally closed to the public. Most rental car companies prohibit travel on Hawaii 20 (Saddle Road). No admission charge.

Black sand beaches formed by volcanic sand. The sight of a black sand beach will really amaze you, especially if you’re used to the typical sugary white sand found on most beaches. There are currently two well-known and many less known black sand beaches. The former are Kehena Beach and Punalu’u Beach. The easiest to get to is Punalu’u Beach. Punalu’u is on the east side of the southern tip of the Big Island. Although swimming isn’t ideal, there is a picnic area and restroom facilities so you can have lunch while you experience the unique feeling of black sand between your toes.

Punalu'u Beach, Big Island, Hawaii

Punalu’u Black Sand Beach, Big Island, Hawaii. Photo by Steve Cadman

Green sand beach at South Point. There is a parking lot and a shack which has been designated as a “visitor’s center”. If you park in this lot, there is a chance that someone will emerge with a clipboard and ask you to pay for parking. Several guide books make the point that this is public land and that you are allowed to park without paying any fee. While this may be true, this traveller’s experience (March 2005) was that after refusing to pay the parking fee, the person asking for the fee became enraged and threatened physical violence unless our party departed immediately. A more promising alternative is to park at the boat launch, adding half a mile to your hike.

Lava flows. NEVER WALK OUT ON THE BEACH WHERE LAVA IS FLOWING INTO THE SEA. Read and obey all warnings given by the park. That said, the park rangers are very helpful in telling you where the lava is currently flowing (it changes all the time). Usually they’ll let you walk right up to it as long as it’s considered safe (no threat of methane explosions or lava bench collapse). The fact that the lava is 2000 degrees F naturally keeps people from getting too close!

Puuhonua O Honaunau National Historic Park. What is now a peaceful sanctuary for vegetation and wildlife, Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park was once the home of Hawaii’s royal chiefs and a safe haven for women, children and noncombatants during times of war. The main temple is surrounded by carved wooden figures; they are haunting idols that tell the story of the temple’s past. Puuhonua o Honaunau is a great place to visit if you’re interested in learning about Hawaiian heritage. Breakers of kapu (taboos) who could make it to this place and performed a series of rituals were granted sanctuary. Tours, traditional craft demos, simulations of the Hukilau (fishing with ti leaf ropes) and other activities can be seen here (schedules vary). Honu (turtles) can frequently be observed swimming in the royal fishpond. May be crowded with other tourists. $5.00 per vehicle or motorcycle with 2 people, $3.00 per pedestrian or bicycle, for 7 days.

Waipi`o Valley, a large, verdant valley in the North of the islands. This valley was inhabited for a millennium, until a tsunami washed away all dwellings. Left for good by the native population, it then became the green paradise of counterculture types.

Waipio Valley, Big Island, Hawaii

Waipi`o Valley, Big Island, Hawaii. Photo by paul bica

Kula Kai Caverns. The Kula Kai Caverns are ancient lava tubes dating back hundreds of years. Created by the island’s volcanic activity, the caves were used over the millennia for shelter and as a source of water. Illuminated guided tours take you beneath the surface to learn about the history and geology of the caverns.

Coffee Farms. Visit thriving coffee orchards and learn about the meticulous harvesting process. Then explore the coffee mills and see how the beans are processed. About 40 farms are open to visitors, and their free, often ad hoc tours (with generous samples) cater to both coffee aficionados and sunburned neophytes looking for a quick respite from the beach. Some of these farms with available tours include the Kona Coffee Living History Farm, Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation, Greenwell Farms, Hilo Coffee Mill (on the Hilo side) and many more.

Dolphin and whale watching. There are a very large variety of dolphin & whale watching trips. During the winter months between December and early April, the magnificent humpback whales make their yearly migration from Alaska to Kona, Hawaii. This is your opportunity to go for a tour and get some great encounters with some of the biggest creatures in the ocean. And, unlike other locations in Hawaii, the Big Island is not only the seasonal home for the famous Humpback whales but is also home year round to a selection of Sperm whales, Pilot whales, Pygmy Killer whales, the Melon Headed whales and the rare beaked whales.

The Big Island has the usual array of sub-tropical island activities. While the Kona side has a number of white sand beaches, the coastline on the Hilo side tends to be rocky. This is due to the relative age of the coastline.
The beaches of the Big Island, especially on the Kona side, have been consistently voted amongst the best beaches in the world. Some (like Mauna Kea Beach) front hotel resorts, while others (like Makalawena) remained unencumbered by modern tourism. Hapuna Beach is reputed to be one of the best, consistent with the picture many outsiders have in their head of what a Hawaiian beach should be.
The island has one of the few green sand beaches in the world (see above), and several black sand beaches.

The Big Island has some fantastic snorkeling. The Kona side has most of the best snorkeling, but Puna also has some excellent sites. Go in the morning on the Kona side, and in the afternoon in Puna, for clear and calm conditions.

Two Step at Pu’uhonua O Honaunau (Place of Refuge). Great for beginners and experts alike. Teeming with fish and turtles.

Ho’okena Beach Park south of Honaunau is not as spectacular, but getting in and out of the water is incredibly easy: just walk. The enter at the left side of the beach for the best snorkeling. Go during the week, if you can (save the weekends for the locals).

Kapoho Tide Pools on the southern Puna coast are not to be missed. This is some of the calmest snorkeling you will ever see, and the fish will come right up to you. The pools are spring-fed, and some are volcanically heated. There are no dive shops anywhere near here, so bring your gear with you (although a local may take pity on you and loan you theirs). Again, go during the week if you can. Marine scientists frequent this spot, and are usually happy to share their knowledge to make your visit to the tide pools more fulfilling.

As we said Kona has some great diving opportunities during the daytime, but the real thing to see here is the Manta Rays. All the dive operators in town do a night dive to see the giant mantas, and this is the best and most reliable place in the world to see them. The manta rays of Kona can be up to 16 feet wide and weigh almost 2000 lbs! On any given night there are 1-20 rays feeding at the dive site, and by bringing lights in the water, plankton (their food) is attracted to feed them. Divers sit in sand on the bottom about 30 feet deep and watch these huge but harmless fishes swim inches from their faces. A must do! Though it’s at night, there is so much light in the water and it’s so shallow that this is an easy dive for novice divers, as well as a very rewarding dive for even the most seasoned divers. Snorkelers can also get a great up close view of the mantas at the same time. All you have to do is float on the water and hold a light, it’s very easy.

Kona Village, Big Island, Hawaii

Kona Village, Big Island, Hawaii. Photo by Steve Jurvetson

The Big Island is an outdoor paradise for hikers with its low population density, miles and miles of hiking trails and so many climate zones to choose from. Trails in Hawaii can take you to coastal dunes, shrub lands, rainforests, and high alpine deserts.
There are also hiking and camping tours too. Very convenient since humping camping equipment on a plane is difficult.

There are two major airports if you are flying into the Big Island, Kona International Airport and Hilo International Airport. There are some direct flights from the mainland, mostly from California, but it is more common to arrive via Honolulu or Kahului. You should try to get a flight direct from the mainland to Kona to save time waiting (and walking) around the Honolulu airport.
Although several cruise ship lines operate in Hawaii, there is currently no dedicated inter-island boat service. Hawaii Superferry, a private company supported by the Hawaii state government, proposes to implement high-capacity catamaran ferry services.
Renting a car is really the only way to see the island. Getting around by local bus, bikes, or on foot work well if you’re staying in one area. Many budget travelers are unpleasantly surprised by the lack of public transport on the Big Island. Although there are limited bus services from Hilo to destinations like Volcano or the Kona side, they require reservations, and travel on a minimal set schedule.

The Big Island has a tour company for every possible tourist endeavor: helicopter tours over the volcano, mule/horseback tours, snorkeling & scuba diving, sailing, fishing, biking, hiking/camping.
You must only search for it.


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