Visiting Hawaii comes with a certain cachet. As the 50th state in the U.S., no passport or currency exchange is required for American travelers, yet Hawaii still has a bit of a far-away feel for continental mainlanders, perhaps also mixed with a hint of nostalgia from its early days as a tourism hot spot. And while choosing which of the Hawaiian islands to visit (there are 8 major ones) may be the first decision travelers are faced with, there’s also the question of how to spend your time when you arrive.
What I love about the largest and westernmost island of Hawaii, sometimes also referred to as the Big Island, is that there’s so much diversity in both its geography and activities. On previous trips I’ve stayed in resorts on the Kona side, just north of one of the island’s airports and most recently, I rented a house on the Hilo side, which is more lush by nature thanks to the 130 or so inches of rainfall this coast receives each year. And with year-round average temperatures highs in the mid-80s and consistently warm ocean temperatures, Hawaii is a pleasure to visit any time. Having a car this trip also made is so that we were able to cover a lot of ground and take in more of what this beautiful island has to offer. Here are the top 10 things to put on your list when planning a trip to the Big Island of Hawaii.
1. Spend a Day at the Beach
With more than 250 miles of coastline, there’s certainly no shortage of great beaches on Hawaii. And what I love even more is how different the beaches can be depending on where you are on the island. For example, you’ll find tons of beaches along the Kona Coast, many with soft white sand among lava rocks and aqua blue water like Maniniʻowali, Makalawena and Mahaiʻula Beach, or the half-mile white sand Hapuna Beach further north on the Kohala Coast. On the Hilo side, we also enjoyed the Onekahakaha Beach for its warm water and kid-friendly wading and tidal pools along the rocky coast.
Further southeast, Punalu’u Beach with its black sand, coconut palm trees and the occasional green sea turtle is the perfect spot to spend a lazy afternoon. And for those up for an adventure, check out the remote Papakōlea Beach, which is one of only 4 green sand beaches in the world and requires a 2.5-mile hike across a barren landscape to reach it. Read more about some of my favorite beaches in a post coming soon!
2. Go Chasing Waterfalls
The lush northeastern part of Hawaii is home to numerous waterfalls, many of which are quite accessible to visitors. Rainbow Falls is a beautiful 80-foot waterfall located in Wailuku River State Park, which offers viewpoints from both below and above the waterfall. Catch the light just right and you may just see a kaleidoscope of colors among its mist. Another great place to visit is Akaka Falls State Park where you’ll pay for parking and admission before following a paved 0.4-mile path through a lush rainforest to view 4 waterfalls including its namesake Akaka Falls. This waterfall is 442-feet tall (twice the height of Niagara Falls) and is quite impressive to say the least.
3. Visit Volcanoes National Park
One of the top things on my list was a visit to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, which is home to 2 of the island’s 4 active volcanoes, Kilaula and Mauna Loa. You’ll find many sights and overlooks located along the park’s main road Crater Rim Drive, including steam vents, sulfur banks and the Thurston Lava Tube. There are also many opportunities to hike along the Crater Rim Trail above the Kilaula Crater or descend through a rainforest and then across a solidified lava lake from a 1959 eruption on the Kilaula Iki Trail. Be sure to check the park’s website for the latest volcanic activity as well as for opportunities to see eruption activity at night. You can also read more about Visiting Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park in another post coming soon.
4. Attend a Lu’au in Kona
A quintessential Hawaiian experience is to attend a lu’au and there are several of options to choose from at various resort properties along the Kona and Kohala coasts. We opted for the Voyagers of the Pacific Lu’au at the Royal Kona Resort, which featured a showcase of traditional Hawaiian food, music and performances against a gorgeous backdrop of the setting sun. Kona is also a great place to shop or dine with waterfront views along Ali’I Drive. Or for a different type of cultural experience, consider a visit to the nearby Kaloko-Honokohau National Historic Park.
5. Head to the Farmers Market in Hilo
The biggest farmers market on the Big Island is in Hilo where you’ll find a plethora of fresh fruit, vegetables, flowers and other local products with as many as 200 vendors just off Kamehameha Avenue. The Hilo Farmers Market is open daily from 7am to 3pm with the largest days on Wednesday and Saturday. While in Hilo, a nice place to relax is the Liliʻuokalani Park and Gardens. The nearly 30-acre site was gifted by Hawaii’s last reigning monarch, Queen Liliʻuokalani and boasts the authentic ornamental Japanese garden outside of Japan.
6. Take a Drive Up the Coast
After visiting the waterfalls north of Hilo, continue up the northeast coast along the Hamakua Heritage Corridor. This 40-mile drive offers lush green landscapes and dramatic views en route to the Waipi’o Valley, a sacred area that was the boyhood home of the first ruler of Hawaii, King Kamehameha I. You’ll also find a handful of small historic towns along the way such as Honokaa, which makes for a nice stop for a coffee or shopping break.
7. Or Go Way Down South
For another drive head to South Point, a National Historic Landmark at the southernmost tip of Hawaii, which also happens to be the southernmost point of the United States. There’s not much to see in this remote area other than wind-swept cliffs and an endless view out onto the Pacific Ocean. But bragging rights aside, it’s also believed to be the landing place and site of one of the earliest settlements in the Hawaiian islands dating back to 750 AD. Also nearby is the equally remote green sand Papakolea Beach mentioned above.
8. Get Your Adventure on in the Water or on Land
If you’re looking for a more adventurous activity, Hawaii also has you covered when it comes to both water sports and land activities. You’ll find a plethora of activities from boat tours to jeep tours and everything in between. Since we stayed closer to Hilo we looked into offerings like snorkeling with Hilo Ocean Adventures and ziplining with Botanical World Adventures (notice the common theme of “adventure”?). You can also rent gear like kayaks and stand-up paddle boards from many companies around the island. It’s important to note that some tours have age restrictions so read full details before booking.
9. Visit a Rainforest Zoo
A bit of a hidden gem, the Pana’ewa Rainforest Zoo and Gardens is a great place to spend a couple of hours. Located near Hilo, this small 12-acre zoo is free to enter and is home to more than 80 species. You’ll see everything from a white tiger to lemurs, a chatty cockatoo to flirty peacocks, lizards, frogs, sloths and more in a beautiful rainforest setting. The flora is equally as beautiful as the fauna and there’s also a covered playground for kids.
10. Tour and Taste on a Farm
The island of Hawaii is known for locally-produced specialties like Kona coffee, and many farms operate tours for visitors to get an up-close look at how these products are made. We booked a tour of Hilo Shark’s working chocolate, coffee and vanilla farm, which I could not recommend more highly. It was a lovely, small-group experience where we were warmly welcomed by Tom Sharkey and his wife Ana, who treated us to delicious refreshments (coffee, tea, chocolate covered shortbread and more) as we sat on the patio of their 100-year-old farmhouse and learned about how these crops are grown, harvested and processed to make tasty treats. From bean to bar, literally we tasted just-picked cacao fruit and were able to make our own chocolate in the kitchen to take home. Tom and Ana also offer an Airbnb rental if you’re looking for a cute place to stay outside of Hilo.
We had amazing time & week in Hawaii while recently there. It was my bucketlist destination and I did it plus two other ventures on my list while there. I was very pleased! Beautiful place! People there are very hospitable & friendly. I love their language, culture, and values. Much to be appreciated.
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That’s so great to hear, I felt the same way! What were some of your favorite experiences? Visiting Hawaii Volcanoes National Park had been on my bucket list for some time and I am so grateful to have visited that incredible place.
Four main things we did while there were: Ziplining, Lu’Au, Helicopter tour down Kona coast, and swam with the dolphins. While “All” were exciting, I honestly can’t say which ones were better because they all had perks, some could have been better due to larger grouping, however, still very fun & enjoyable. A lifetime of memories! ❤️
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I agree, all sound exciting and very different! I would have loved to have gone ziplining but others in my party weren’t keen about it so definitely something on my list for a future visit. Thank you for sharing these memories!!!