The Big Island of Hawaii is a land of fire, ice, and wonder, of natural beauty, adventure, and spectacular contrasts.
There’s so much to see and do on Hawaii’s largest island that you could not begin to fit it all into a weeklong vacation–maybe even in a lifetime. But if you had to choose a few, here are the ultimate experiences you absolutely should not miss.
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Watch Lava Flow at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Witness the primal birth of living land from two eruption sites flowing from Kilauea Volcano, currently the world’s most active volcano. Erupting continuously since 1983, Kilauea has been called the “drive-up” volcano for its ease of visitor access. The summit caldera, also known as the lava lake by locals, is located conveniently inside the park and has been erupting since 2008. In the East Rift Zone, the lava flows from Pu’u O’o Vent both inside and outside the park. We recommend seeing the lava from the Kalapana side, accessible via Highway 130. Visitors may rent bikes from outfitters who have set up shop there. It’s just a quick ride to the flows for the sight of your life!
INSIDER TIPAs lava supply and flows change without notice, be sure to consult the park’s website or USGS. Sometimes it will be easily accessible by foot and sometimes it may be miles away.
Sky Dive the Big Island
Jump out of a plane for a true bird’s eye view of the incredible northern landscapes of the Big Island—even beginners can do it. Before the skydive, the pilot will fly you on a short tour over the breathtaking North Kohala valleys and coastline. For the actual dive, you will be “connected” to your instructor, who handles all the details of suiting up, diving and gentle landings. Not to worry about parachutes either. They use high tech devices with computerized backup systems. You feel more like you are floating rather than freefalling. B.I.G. Skydiving is located in Hawi and takes off from Upolu Airport.
Enjoy a Sunday Stroll During “Kokua Kailua”
Ditch the car and enjoy the quaint and historic town of Kailua-Kona on foot. On the third Sunday of every month, (1 p.m. to 6 p.m.) the main part of town closes off to traffic so that visitors may enjoy perusing the locally grown and created craft and food offerings in numerous booths that line the streets of this lovely town. You can also explore Hulihe’e Palace, built in 1838, which served as a summer retreat for Hawaiian royalty; the graceful Mokuaikaua Church, Hawaii’s first Christian church built in 1820; or the spectacular Ahuena Heiau, Kamehameha the Great’s religious and political seat of power. It all wraps up with a free Hawaiian concert on the grounds of the palace, beginning at 4 p.m., where authentic practitioners of traditional hula accompany the music on the gracious lanai with impromptu dancing.
Be a Cowboy for a Day
Saddle up and get ready to ride the ranges, cliffs, and trails of the Big Island on horseback. Start the day on a coastal trail ride or get lessons in round-ups and lassoing. Then, top it off with an evening under the stars at a real cowboy hoedown complete with country western music and even some campfire stories, told by bona fide paniolo (Hawaiian cowboys). Paniolo Adventures, Na’alapa Stables, and Kahua Ranch are some of our favorites outfitters. Riding horseback is one of the best ways to take in the beautiful scenery of the Big Island.
Go Bowling on a Volcano
Discover a whole world hiding in plain sight inside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Called Kilauea Military Camp (KMC), this 50-acre compound was established in 1916 as a place to house military troops. Later, it grew into a charming retreat for military families and their guests. Fortunately, the public is also welcome to visit, use the bowling alley, eat at the buffet, café, and grilles, pump from the affordably-priced gas station, or patronize the general store.
Bonus: Look for the nene goose family who are often seen patrolling the front lawns. These highly endangered, endemic birds are beautiful and curious (but please keep a respectful distance and do not feed them).
INSIDER TIPIf you have a military ID, you qualify to book one of their vintage cabins, each with a custom stained glass window and stone fireplace.
Explore Lava Tubes
While the well-lit and well-traveled Thurston Lava Tube in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park offers a convenient way to see the lava tubes, there are many other lava tube systems on the Big Island to discover with the help of professional cavers. At Kula Kai Caverns, near the southern end of the island, take a tour through these thousand-year-old tube systems while learning about their importance to culture and biology. At Kilauea Caverns of Fire, directly under Kilauea Volcano, journey through the Kazamura Lava Tube system, guided by experts who are passionate about educating visitors while preserving these delicate cave systems. All gear is provided and tours are tailored to skill level and ability.
Swim at Ali’I Drive’s “Secret” Salt Water Pool
A bit off the standard tourist track, this hidden oceanfront pool is well known to locals. Built before strict oceanfront regulations were in place, this cement pool fills up with ocean water, which drains back out with the surf. It’s a fun and safe place to take a dip, located directly in front of the Kona by the Sea condo complex. Park in the condo lot and then follow the cement walkway in. Sometimes even reef fish such as tangs and convicts wash in, so bring your snorkel. It’s a great sunset spot too!
INSIDER TIPUse common sense. If water looks too rough, don’t go in.
Tour a Royal Palace
Take a docent-led tour of the gorgeous Hulihe’e Palace, one of only three royal palace residences in the United States. This gorgeous oceanfront home was built by Governor John Kuakini, and served as a summer palace for Hawaii’s royal family. It’s replete with antiques, artwork, koa furnishings, tapa cloth, vintage quilts, bowls, feather artifacts, and much more. Built in 1838, the splendid, two-story building features six rooms and rests on gorgeous, tropically manicured oceanfront grounds. Today, it’s under the stewardship of the Daughters of Hawaii, which rescued it from destruction in 1925. Every third Sunday, Hulihe’e Palace welcomes visitors to a free performance featuring Hawaiian music and dance.
Stargaze on Mauna Kea
You can’t drive most rental cars to the summit of Mauna Kea, but you can take any car to 9,200 feet, where the visitor information center is located. On the first Sunday of the month, the center hosts a program called “The Universe Tonight,” a presentation featuring the latest discoveries and research. On the second Saturday of the month during the school year, the Astrophysics Club from U.H. Hilo offers the nightly stargazing program. These astronomy students will assist you in locating objects in the night’s sky using the center’s telescopes. On Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday evenings, the center hosts a free public stargazing event on a first-come, first served basis.
INSIDER TIPParking is available for only 115 vehicles only. All others will be turned away.
Visit Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park
Take the trail “backward” in this underrated national park near the airport. Enter from the back of the park near the harbor shops (with plenty of free parking) and walk the trail past the beach, the ancient fishponds, and the heiau (temple). It’s about a mile or so to the visitor center, where docents well versed in culture, geology, flora, and fauna will be glad to walk you back, stopping at various points of interest.
Visit a 5-Star Beach
While the Big Island is known for a variety of beaches of varying sand colors, many beautiful white sand beaches flank the Kohala Coast, and not all are dominated by hotels. Grab lunch, snacks, or drinks at Puako General Store, a quaint little mainstay near the highway turnoff at Puako for a picnic on one of the island’s most beautiful beaches. Head out to Puako Beach, near the store, Beach 69, just to the north of Puako, Spencer Beach Park, or Hapuna Beach Park (often named one of the top ten beaches in the nation). Anaeho’omalu Bay, located at the Waikoloa turnoff (veer off to the left of the hotels to reach the beach) is a glorious stretch of white tropical wonder, fringed by coco palms and brackish ponds.
Watch the Volcano Glow at Sunset
Go for a hike at Kilauea Iki crater (last erupted in 1959) or the Devastation Trail. Then stop at the historic Volcano House, order a hot buttered rum at the bar, sit in front of the picture window in a rocking chair, and watch the sunset while the lava glows. When it’s completely dark, journey over to the crater lookout to see the action of the summit caldera up close. You can talk to the rangers at the Jagger Museum for the latest updates on the lava lake activity. If you are feeling brave, stop at the steam vent walkway on the way out and hike about a half mile up the misty, sometimes spooky, trail to the sulphur vents.
Walk Down to Waipio Valley
This lush, waterfall-laden valley is surrounded by sheer, fluted cliffs and split by a river running to the sea. Taro is still cultivated in this valley, where thousands of Hawaiians once lived, sustained only by nature’s abundance. On some days it’s calm enough to swim; on other days, setting so much as a toe in the water could be a life or death situation. The beauty is breathtaking, so don’t miss it. The walk down is not bad, but the walk up is not for the faint of heart—bring water and a hiking stick. After the hike up, you deserve to enjoy a special craft beer on draft with some ono grinds at the Big Island Brewhaus in nearby Waimea.
INSIDER TIPYou may even recognize this beach from Kevin Costner’s epic “Waterworld” which was filmed here.
Check out Sleeping Turtles at a Black Sand Beach
At Punalu’u Black Sand beach, located about 15 minutes south of South Point, you are nearly guaranteed to see a row or group of endangered Hawaiian green sea turtles (honu) taking a break to bask on the hot sand in the sun. It’s just a quick turn off of the main highway, and a great stop on your way to Volcano for a quick rest stop or maybe even a picnic lunch. Be sure not to get too close—they are protected by federal law.
Tour a Kona Coffee Plantation
Local farmers love to share their passion for farming genuine Kona coffee with the public and offer free tours. Most of the farms are located in the Kona coffee belt in the Honaunau Valley area of South Kona, or in the upcountry town of Holualoa. Enjoy a sample cup and then purchase this year’s roast farmer direct. Most farmers also farm other crops such as macadamia nuts, vanilla, or cinnamon. If you’re looking for quality, it’s best to choose an “estate-grown” coffee farm (all grown and processed in one location). Our favorite is Lion’s Gate Farm at mile marker 101 in Honaunau.
Watch the Majestic Humpback Whales
From November through May, migrating humpbacks leave Alaskan waters and arrive in waters off the Hawaiian Islands. Staying close to shore, they mate, give birth, and then nurture their young before the long journey back to Alaska where they feed and prepare for the long trip back to Hawaii the next season. You can take a commercial boat tour (some guarantee you will see whales or the cruise is free) or simply watch them from most Big Island beaches during the peak season. If you are lucky, you will be able to hear as well as see them. Look for areas of disturbance in placid waters, then watch for spouting, spyhops, jumping, and dorsal fin and tail slapping. Sometimes you may even witness a barrel roll!
Swim at Night With Manta Rays
Experience these gracious, sweeping creatures in their native environment. Measuring 16 feet across and weighing as much as 1,000 pounds, these gentle giants feed on plankton attracted by lights set up by the dive operators. Observe these marvels of nature from the nearby safety and comfort of a tour boat excursion. We like SeaQuest, which departs from Keauhou Bay and includes all floatation equipment. Snorkeling and swimming experience is required.
Hike to the Green Sand Beach
The Big Island is famous for the variety of sand colors and types (soft white, black, salt and pepper, and brown). But wait, there’s more. If you want to see a true green sand beach, it’s a bit of a journey but quite worth the effort. Drive to the end of South Point Road and hike about three miles to a stunning green sand beach. (It’s actually olivine, which is a by-product of relatively recent volcanic emissions.) Take lots of water; there are no services out here. (However, enterprising locals with pick-up trucks are also almost always available to shuttle hikers back and forth for a small fee.)