Taking a trip to the Big Island and not sure what to do exactly? Well, you’ve come to the right place. Kailua Kona is outdoor-paradise; the weather is sunny and perfect on most days, and the unique terrain makes this a favorite destination for tourists and locals alike. Hilo on the other hand, is rainier, thereby giving rise to an amazingly lush landscape on the east side. This post will illustrate the major highlights of The Big Island and give you ideas on things to do and eat, broken out by the Kona side and the Hilo side.
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How Long To Stay On The Big Island
If you can swing it, about 5-6 days will do, but no less than 4—otherwise you really won’t be able to see all that the Big Island has to offer. The strategy is to stay a few days on the Kona side and a few days on the Hilo side. If you’ve visited the other Hawaiian Islands, you probably have an idea of what to expect from Hawaii’s terrain. But one huge thing to note, don’t underestimate the size of the Big Island. It’s big…and sometimes barren, unlike any other Hawaiian island. More about that later.
Things To Do On The Big Island (Kona)
Explore Kona Town
One of the more leisurely things to do on the Big Island is to explore Kona town.
It’s a long street that runs along the water’s edge with plenty of cafes, shops, and restaurants to check out. It’s also a historical town, as it once was the retreat for Hawaiian royalty. If you’re into Hawaiian culture, check out the Hulihee Palace and the Mokuaikaua Church. If you’re looking to get out onto the water, Kona is also a great place for stand-up paddle boarding.
Hawaii is famous for its warm tropical waters and extremely diverse marine life. You WILL see tons of species of tropical fish. A few great places to snorkel are: Kahalu’u Beach Park or Captain Cook (requires a hike) or Two Step/Honaunau Bay. Note: Get ready to experience frequent sea turtle sightings when snorkeling, but make sure to keep your distance to prevent getting heavily fined.
There are a bunch of coffee tours speckled throughout the Big Island, and you should definitely take some time to visit a coffee farm to fully appreciate what Kona is famous for. If you’re staying in the Kona area, the best free coffee tours I recommend are Heavenly Hawaiian’s Farm Tour (free tour and tasting), Hula Daddy ($10 tour, free tastings), and Mountain Thunder Coffee (free tour and tasting). Tours typically start on the top of the hour.
Visit a farmer’s market
No matter where I go, farmers markets are a must for me. They’re great for picking up breakfast/lunch, buying local fruits and vegetables, buying gourmet food items (honey, oils, bread, cheeses, etc.) and even souvenir shopping. Luckily, there are a bunch of farmers markets all over the Big Island of Hawaii. On the Kona side, do check out The Kona Farmers Market located in the heart of Kona, as well as Ali’i Garden Marketplace not too far from the farmers market.
The Big Island hosts some great hikes through barren lava fields, lush rainforests or to secluded beaches. My top recommendations on the Kona side–still about an hour drive from Kailua-Kona though–include Waipi’o Valley (3.0 miles round trip, ends at a black sand beach) and the hike to Papakolea Beach, the rare and beautiful green sand beach (5.5 miles round trip).
Go on an ATV Tour
ATV tours are a fun way to explore the beautiful difficult to access places such as the wild forests and cliffs on the Kohala coast. These tours typically take you on a 10+ mile drive through private lands with stops on the way at scenic points, historic sites, and waterfalls.
Night swim with manta rays
The famous manta ray night dive in Kona is widely regarded as one of the most memorable experiences around the world. On average, the manta rays you can see around Kona will be about 12 ft. This is one of the Big Island activities that you shouldn’t miss!
Hit the beach
Beaches on the Big Island are great for surfing and snorkeling. Though I don’t believe that the Big Island is the Hawaiian island for a beach vacation (there are better beaches for swimming on Oahu, Maui, and Kauai), there are still good options. My beach recommendations include: Hapuna Beach and Kua Bay. Both have amazing turquoise waters, but relatively large waves when I went in April. Turtle sighting are frequent!
Pro tip: One thing to note, since these beaches are known to be the best on the Kona side, many other vacationers will be going there. So be warned, if you’re looking for isolation, these are not the places to go!
Go see a lava tube
Exploring lava tubes is a great way to understand more about the volcanic processes that are continually shaping the Big Island. Due to their easy access and educational value, they are a perfect family outing. If you’re looking for something more adrenaline-rushing, multi-hour spelunking guided tours are also available.
Visit the summit of Mauna Kea
At 14,000 feet, Mauna Kea is one of the most impressive sights in Hawaii. The sunset here is truly not to be missed. You’ll need 4WD to reach the summit yourself, but your other option is to book a tour that includes sunset at the summit followed by star gazing. I can’t think of a better way to spend a night in Hawaii.
Go on a picnic
Pick up some snacks from Foodland or plate lunches from the restaurant recs below, head to any ‘Beach Park’ you see on your maps, and soak the view by the ocean under some palm trees. As it gets hot in the afternoons in Kona, definitely think about packing a cooler with cold drinks and fruits.
Drive north to visit other small towns
Waimea is known as Hawaiian cowboy country and is home to rolling, green pastures, cattle, and ranches. There are a lot of food options here and is definitely an area worth checking out on your way to the coast or to Hilo. Take the scenic drive north to the charming town of Hawi and visit the Pololu Valley Lookout for amazing and lush coastal viewpoints.
Ocean Rider Seahorse Farm
If you’ve ever dreamed of playing with seahorses and having them wrap around your little finger, this is the place to do it. You won’t want to miss this hour-long tour–available Monday through Friday at 10am, 12pm, and 2pm during high season (less frequently during the low season). The tour gives you the opportunity to see baby seahorses, pregnant males, and sea dragons. They also have an aquarium where more than half the world’s seahorses are on display, as well as an interactive tide pool and a fish feeding station for the children.
Big Island Circle Tour
If you aren’t too keen on driving and walking everywhere, check out this full-day tour jam-packed with Big Island landmarks. The Big Island circle tour hits all the highlights of the stunning Big Island of Hawaii–making it possible to see many a good chunk of the island in one day, without worrying about logistics. While riding in a comfortable minibus, watch out the window as the landscape changes with every bend in the road, from tropical, misty valleys full of ferns to a barren, black lava coast.
Things To Do On The Big Island (Hilo)
The ziplines on the Big Island usually connect several scenic points including lush rainforest and one or more waterfalls. Perfect for those looking for an aerial view of nature as well as a bit of adrenaline! There are plenty of ziplining tour options on the Big Island, many near Waimea, Kohala, or Hilo.
Visit a botanical garden
The Hilo and Hamakua coasts are filled with rainforest, waterfalls, and tropical flowers and these natural treasures can be most easily seen in one of the botanical gardens on the Big Island. The botanical gardens here are agreed to be the most beautiful in all of Hawaii. If you make this one of your stops, don’t miss the orchids!
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
By far the most popular tourist destination on the Big Island is the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. You can easily spend an entire day or two here, and rightfully so. It’s one of the major landmarks on the Hilo side, and given the long trek from the Kona side, make sure to allocate plenty of time for hiking, checking out the lookouts, and exploring the visitors center. If you aren’t too keen on walking through this expansive park, check out this tour.
The most popular helicopter tours on the Big Island depart from Hilo and include a trip over of the volcano. This provides a once in a lifetime experience of seeing the active lava flow from above. You’ll be in awe the whole time, trust me. And it doesn’t end there–before circling back towards Hilo, the tour continues by taking you over the rich rainforest to see the waterfalls.
Hiking to the Lava Flow
If you’re active and looking for some action and adventure, nothing beats seeing the lava flow up close and personal. If this appeals you, I’d recommend going on a guided lava hike with an expert that knows the terrain to ensure your safety from the active lava flow.
Akaka Falls and Rainbow Falls
Visit two of the prettiest and most easy to access waterfalls near Hilo. Akaka Falls, Hawaii’s most famous waterfall is about 11 miles north of Hilo. It’s over 400 feet tall and accessible via an easy half-mile hike through a lush jungle. Rainbow Falls is located right in Hilo town and is best seen in the early morning (you’ll have the best chance of seeing a rainbow at this time!).
Hilo Farmers Market
If you’re in Hilo on a Wednesday or Saturday, you’ve got to carve out some time to check out this spectacular outdoor market with over 200 local farmers and vendors.
Downtown Hilo is charming and full of lovely shops, restaurants, and galleries. There are also several museums such as the Pacific Tsunami Museum.
Papakolea: Green Sand Beach
There are not many places in the world where you can feast your eyes on a green sand beach, but good news, The Big Island is one of them! While it’s possible to hike to the beach (uncovered under the sun, 5.5 miles roundtrip), you can also rent a 4WD vehicle to drive in, or try hitching a ride from a local from the parking lot.
Punalu’u Black Sand Beach: Black Sand Beach
Black sand beach, frequently with turtles sunning themselves on the black sand. Enough said. Make this a stop on your visit to the Big Island, even if you have to go out of your way a little bit. There isn’t any other place like it, probably in the entire world (other than on Maui maybe). Worth the miles driven.
Mehana Brewing Company
Stop by the tasting room at Mehana Brewing Co to try a flight from Hawaii’s largest independent craft brewer.
Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Farm & Factory
Everyone’s heard of Mauna Loa. Just a few miles south of Hilo brings you to the Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Farm and Factory. Take a self-guided tour, sample some nuts, and stock up on your favorites from the source!
Where To Eat On The Big Island
Pine Tree Cafe
The best place to stop for breakfast or lunch after flying into the Kona airport or before heading there! Pine Tree Cafe has really good and simple food any time of the day. So much so, that we went their twice on our short Kona trip. For breakfast, opt for the french toast, which comes highly recommended. For lunch/dinner, your possibilities are so endless. Plate lunch combo options include spicy garlic fried chicken, short ribs, chicken katsu, loco moco, beef stew, poke, etc. They are conveniently open 6am for the early flights.
Address: 73-4040 Hulikoa Dr. Ste 2 Kailua-Kona, HI 96740
Kona Grill House
A super low key seafood restaurant with just about the best fresh fish and lobster cake you will ever have. Even though this place looks like a complete hole in the wall, it was one of the more memorable meals we had in the Kona area. Trust me, the lobster cake is a must. Its creamy, slightly crispy, and there’s definitely no shortage in flavor there. Other specials include the lobster mac n cheese and their catch of the day in just about any form they cook it in.
Address: 81-951 Halekii St. Kealakekua, HI 96750
Super fresh poke at reasonable prices in a typical hole in the wall location. What more can you ask for? There’s a great flavor selection and chill outdoor seating that is definitely worth the visit if you are in the area. The kalua pork comes highly recommended as well. As this is a family-owned restaurant, food quantity is limited. Even though the restaurant closes at 5pm, poke and rice usually run out at around 4:30pm, so get there before it’s just slim pickings!
Address: 75-143 Hualalai Rd. Ste 105 Kailua-Kona, HI 96740
Ululani’s Shave Ice
Unsuspectingly nestled inside of the Courtyard Marriott, this could be considered a “hidden” gem. The syrups here made out of natural ingredients such as real fruit and sugar cane, which made their flavors authentic-tasting and extremely flavorful. They poke holes into the shave ice so that the syrup really penetrates all the way through the ice. They carry the usual toppings including super fresh hunks of mochi as well as a haupia cream that is rich and heavenly. Get the haupia cream!
Address: 75-5660 Palani Rd Kailua-Kona, HI 96740
Two Ladies Kitchen
I have two words for you– unforgettable mochi. Crowds swarm for this mochi, and rightfully so because it’s that good. Two Ladies produces almost two dozen types of mochi, with flavors including lilikoi (passionfruit), sweet potato and butter. One of the bestsellers includes the strawberry mochi, filled with an entire strawberry inside (consider pre-ordering it or lining up early, as this guy tends to sell out quick).
Address: 274 Kilauea Ave Hilo, HI 96720
Hawaiian Style Cafe Hilo
You must stop here if you’re looking for a breakfast place! The portions are crazy big and you can tell it’s all homemade. Some notable menu items: The haupia cream pancakes and the loco moco. This place is worth returning to… try more things on their menu.
Address: 681 Manono St. Ste 101 Hilo, HI 96720
Suisan Fish Market
Come hungry for gigantic portions of fish fresh off the boat, which are accompanied by your choice of rice and veggies. The spicy ahi tuna is a popular and classic pick, but there’s a large selection to choose from (feel free to try some other flavors out before picking). I highly recommend this place if you like poke or even want to try poke for the first time. However, I am not responsible if after you try this place and cannot find another poke place like this…
Address: 93 Lihiwai St, Hilo, HI 96720
This is the only Zippy’s on the island! For those of you new to Hawaii, this is the best fast food a person could ask for in life. Seriously, why don’t we have this on the mainland? It’s phenomenal fast food and I’d take this over hamburgers any day. If you’re on the Hilo side, make sure to stop at Zippy’s for the Korean Chicken and the Chili Rice (Pro Tip: Get hotdog in your chili rice, it’s a local favorite)
Address: Prince Kuhio Plaza, 111 E Puainako St, Hilo, HI 96720
Where To Stay On The Big Island
Stay in or near Kailua-Kona to be near the main attractions and things to do. This part of town is fairly lively with lots of touristy shops, restaurants and nightlife options (a few laid-back bars offering live music, a brewery, kava bar, etc). If nightlife is important to you, Kailua-Kona is your best bet. Other areas you could stay: Kohala Coast, Waikoloa Village, or Waimea.
The Big Island is structured in a way where accommodation options are few and far between as it’s mostly undeveloped. Since it’s so big, driving can take up a lot of time. If you plan on visiting the Hilo side as well, I would recommend staying a few nights on the Kona side and then staying a few nights on the Hilo side, especially if you plan on visiting the volcanoes. Day trips are possible, but it can take over 2 hours to drive from one end to the other. With all that driving, it doesn’t allow sufficient time to fully appreciate the lush and green Hilo side!
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