For most trips I’ve taken, I’ve had next to no plan except for maybe accommodation. While spontaneity works extremely well in some cases, the Big Island is not one of them.
For starters, the Big Island is, well, big. I think because it’s an island people assume they can get around easily enough. That’s definitely not the case for this island. Day trips aren’t a good option either. You’ll waste a lot of time driving just from one side of the island to the other. And some places are worth longer than a day trip!
Because Hawai’i is a popular destination, affordable accommodation can book up quickly. Especially during peak tourist season (November-January). So, if you’re going to the island, you’ll have to do plenty of planning ahead of time to make sure you can go everywhere you want to go.
Me and Josie did a two-week road trip around the island where we saw and did pretty much everything you could want to do on the Big Island. Since our itinerary worked extremely well, I thought I would share it with you guys. I’ll also add portions of the trip where less time was needed so that if you have a shorter trip you can plan accordingly. This trip would also work going in the reverse direction.
Duration: 3 nights
Kohala is in the northwestern portion of the Big Island. It’s the oldest part of the island so there’s more rugged mountains and sandy beaches. Because of the numerous sugary-white beaches, this area is mainly filled with resorts. There are no hostels or cheap guesthouses on this side of the island so if you want something more affordable, book an AirBNB.
I think two full days in Kohala is plenty but you could get by with one if you didn’t want to spend any time hanging on a beach.
Hapuna Beach State Recreation Area – This beach is beautiful and a local favorite. If you like to boogey-board then you should hit this beach up.
69 Beach on Waialea Bay – The shade and gentle water made this beach an ideal spot for kids. Also for us wanting to just lay in the water without getting tossed around by waves. The beach isn’t as visited making it less busy. 69 Beach wins the award for favorite beach in the area.
Hike part of the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail which is an ancient trail that goes around most of the island. I believe we started at Anaeho’omalu Bay which is quite gorgeous itself. We walked from this beach along the coast to the Buddha at the Marriot in the end. It was a cool trail with beautiful views and you can stop wherever you want. But the hike through the Marriot is well worth seeing.
Stop at the Hamakua Macadamia Nut Factory. Me and Josie stopped here because our guide book suggested it and man was it a blast! We sampled so many different types of nuts before buying some and continuing down the road. Even if you don’t like macadamia nuts, please do yourself a favor and stop for a minute at the factory.
Drive down to Hawi to browse through art galleries and funky shops. Make sure to stop at Sushi Rock for delectable sushi. My personal favorite was the pesto goat cheese. Try it out.
If you’re looking to do skydiving, plan your time in Kohala accordingly. The only skydiving place on the island bases itself in Hawi so make sure you book while you’re spending time on this side of the island.
Drive to the lookout at Polulu Valley and hike down to the black sand beach below. I knew this one would be good since everyone-our Airbnb host, Macadamia nut cashier, sushi waiters-said we had to go.
Hamakua Coast and Waimea:
Duration: 2 nights in Waimea
Waimea is the ranching area of Hawai’i. It’s green and plainy. But then the Hamakua Coast is luscious, tremendous waterfalls, and jutting valleys. Whatever you do, don’t miss this part of the island. It wins for most beautiful.
We basically spent one day doing the Hamakua Coast and Waimea. The night before we spent after going to the beach in Kohala. I think that worked well and was a good amount of time! Plus, Waimea has a lot of good restaurants so you’ll enjoy spending time here.
Things to do:
Visit Waipi’o Valley and walk down (or drive) to the black sanded beaches below. The Valley lookout is beautiful but it’s well worth it to go down into the valley and see the black sand beaches. If you walk further back into the valley you’ll also come across a beautiful waterfall.
I believe Waipi’o Valley is also the origin point of the famous Waimanu Valley hike. I would kill to do this hike. We opted out as we weren’t able to bring camping gear and a lot of our hiking stuff was still in Africa after the evacuation. It’s a multi-day hike that goes back through the valleys and is one of the top-rated hikes in the whole state. If you’re a hiking buff, I would look more into this adventure.
Drive down and explore Hakalau Bay where the ruins of a mill and plantation have been reclaimed by the surrounding forest. Me and Josie loved this place. There was almost no one there and the structures are all very dystopian looking-vines have tangled up and claimed most of the former structures.
Go to a star party in Mauna Kea. Make sure not to miss sunset for Mauna Kea and search their website for star-party dates. The mountain is stunning, and it’s also an important Hawai’i religious site. Just bring a jacket because it’s cold up there!
Eat (and drink) at Big Island Brewhaus which is also the highest brewery in Hawai’i. It’s the hangout spot in Waimea, with live music. Homebrews are on tap and there’s plenty of options. We sampled a flight and chowed down.
Duration: 5 nights
Hilo is the cool hipster town of Hawai’i island that hasn’t become gentrified. There’s tons of good food, luscious rainforests, and plenty of waterfalls.
Hilo also rains a lot. Like 200-something days of the year. So, don’t be disappointed if it starts pouring. Just bring a good rain coat and some clothes you don’t mind getting wet. The downpours don’t usually last too long.
As we found to our dismay, the whole town seems to shut down on Sunday as well. Most of the restaurants are closed then leaving little to do if it rains. Avoid Sundays. 5 nights in Hilo was also entirely way too long. I think you could do Hilo in a full day if you’re pressed on time. Two full days would be sufficient for seeing all the sights, browsing through stores, eating, and chilling at some of the beaches.
Richardson’s Beach Park is a black sand beach with great snorkeling (apparently). If you can manage to get in that is-the water is freezing. The beach is nice and shaded and there are usually turtles present basking on rocks in the sun. We spent a few afternoons here reading.
Coconut Island is a cute little picnic spot with good views of the bay.
Honoli’i Beach Park is one of the best surfing spots on the island. It’s not exactly a place for beginner’s but you should spend a morning here watching.
Things to do:
Visit Rainbow Falls and Boiling Pots. I think this waterfall is a bit over hyped but it’s an easy drive and worth checking out. There are some beautiful trees in the area!
Walk around ‘Akaka Falls State Park which has a stunning waterfall and a luscious interior valley.
Drive Onomea Scenic Drive (Four-Mile Scenic Drive). The drive is stunning with trees forming tunnels around the road. Walk around the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens-a stop along the drive.
Shop and eat delicious Poke bowls at the Hilo Farmers Market. Fresh fruits and artisans set up stands making for a fun morning in Hilo. The farmer’s market is every Wednesday and Saturday.
Pull through Just Cruisin’ Coffee, a drive-thru coffee shop with excellent dirty chais and bagels.
Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park:
Duration: 3 nights
You can’t go to the Big Island and miss Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. The lava flow is one of the coolest things I’ve seen in my life. And it’s crazy to think that the whole time you’re there you’re wandering around on top of an active volcano.
We thought 3 nights was the perfect amount of time in the Park and we did some backcountry hikes too. If you’re more pressed for time you could do everything in a day but I would at least spend one night down here.
Things to do:
Walk through Thurston Lava Tube. It’s a tunnel made of dried lava. What more do I need to say?
Drive Chain of Craters Road. This beautiful drive will take up your afternoon. There are plenty of cool stops making the scenic drive an interactive nature road.
Wander through Volcano Art Center Gallery and admire the exquisite work by some of the best artist’s in the state.
Hike the Kilauea Iki Trail. This four-mile loop takes you down into a dried lava lake. It’s easy and beyond cool.
Watch the lava flow from Thomas A. Jaggar Museum every night. If you do nothing else, do this.
Have a tasting at Volcano Winery which features some truly unique wines. You’ll want a bottle.
Finish out a big day bowling at Kilauea Military Camp. The military base is lit with kids playing and it’s relatively cheap to bowl.
Duration: 5 nights
Kona is the popping side of the island. Most of the tourist shops and restaurants are on this side of the island. There are plenty of beaches to lounge at, bars to drink at, and island activities. This part of the island is the most frequented by tourists.
We had fun our whole time here but Kona is mainly beaches. Depending on what you’re interested in doing and how long your trip is, you could spend a little or a lot of time on this side of the island.
Kikaua Point Beach Park – This beach is beautiful blue waters and uncrowded. There are bathroom and shower facilities. You must get a pass from security for the beach but turnover seemed to be pretty quick.
Manini’owali Beach (Kua Bay) – This beach was my favorite on the Big Island. It’s beautiful blue with public facilities. It gets pretty busy but it’s the perfect water temperature to go in and jump in the waves. Rocks in the water make the spot ideal for snorkeling. We snorkeled with a green turtle for about an hour before deciding to get out!
Things to do:
Go snorkeling at night with manta rays. This snorkel trip was so epic! Once the mantas come out they’re everywhere. We saw one come up and do a barrel roll which was so unbelievably awesome. Hawai’i Big Island is the only place where these manta rays stay and breed and hang out so it’s the best spot in the world for snorkeling with them. The water does get pretty cold at night though so bring a sweatshirt!
Hit up the bars on Ail’i Drive. We had a fun night out dressing up and going bar hopping on Ali’i Drive. The bartenders are all incredibly friendly!
Visit Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historic Park (Place of Refuge). This national park goes back in time to a Hawai’i split into tribes. This ancient place was a safe haven for defeated chiefs and law-breakers. If you could get to the place of refuge, a priest would absolve you of your crimes. It’s a Big Island must-do. We saw plenty of turtles swimming around there too!
Snorkel at Two Step, a reef right next to the Place of Refuge. The snorkeling there is amazing and it’s quite a popular spot. Schools of fish and eels and turtles hang around. The water is quite shallow so it’s a great place to just hop off the shore and float along the water.
All these locations are my recommendations for the Big Island. It’s truly an extraordinary place and hopefully you love it as much as I do!
Did I miss anything?? What’s your favoirte Big Island activity?