Lovingly dubbed the Big Island, the Island of Hawaii offers endless opportunities for fun and adventure. From exquisite sandy beaches to awe-inspiring volcanic landscapes, there’s no shortage of amazing places to explore on your travels. To enjoy your visit to the fullest, it’s important to know what to expect and how to best spend your time. Thankfully, we’re here to help. Simply use this guide to learn all you know about making the most of your vacation in paradise. Then, get ready to travel with confidence that the trip of your dreams awaits.
All About the Big Island
As the largest of all the Hawaiian Islands, the Big Island has a stunning 4,028 miles to explore. All that space makes it nearly six times larger than Maui, the second biggest island in the chain. Despite that, both islands have almost the same population. The reason for that is five major volcanoes take up much of the biggest island’s space. The largest is Mauna Loa at the near center, followed by Mauna Kea, Kilauea, Hualalai, and Kohala.
Every year, more than 1.7 million people travel to the Big Island to lounge on the beaches, explore the trails, and simply soak in the beauty of paradise. Although the summer months are a popular time to visit, travel peaks from December through March. The increase in tourists coincides with the arrival of the Humpback Whales, which migrate along with the Hawaiian Islands in the winter. Plus, the pleasant weather all winter long provides a much-needed break from colder temps on the mainland.
As with all the islands, the surf conditions become a whole lot rougher in the winter months. So, it’s best to time your visit from May through September if you want to snorkel, scuba dive, and otherwise enjoy the water. There’s never a bad time to come hike the trails, visit local farms and gardens, or see spectacular hula performances, however. So, reflect on what you want from your island experience, and then time your trip accordingly.
Volcanoes, ultra-tall waterfalls, and lush green landscapes serve as the most popular landmarks on the Big Island. You’ll need to plan your itinerary carefully to avoid missing out on seeing the top sights.
As you sketch out your schedule, make sure to include:
- Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
- Mauna Kea Mountain
- Puukohola National Historic Park
- Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens
- Akaka Falls State Park
- Rainbow Falls
- Umauma Falls
- Waipio Valley
- Puuhonua O Honaunau National Historic Park
- Puako Petroglyph Archaeological Preserve
- Kaumana Caves Start Park
The many scenic drives all over the island serve as a great way to see many sights in one trip. You can cruise along the Kapoho Kalapana Road, Mauna Loa Road, Chain of Craters Road, or any of the other scenic byways.
Across its enormous coastline, the Big Island has over 260 miles of beaches offering fun in the sun for all ages. The sand varies in color and texture at every beach, ranging from fine jet-black grains to coarse brilliant white sand. You can even find sand in vivid green and red tones.
To get the full beachgoing experience on your trip, make sure to visit:
- Punaluu County Beach Park
- Papakolea, or Green Sand Beach
- Kaimu Beach Park
- Richardson Ocean Park
- Samuel M. Spencer Beach Park
- Kaunaoa Beach
- Kua Bay Beach
- Kahaluu Beach Park
- Kealakekua Bay Park
Not all beaches are made equal, of course. Some are great for snorkeling and scuba diving, while others offer tons of swimming fun. Others may only work as a place to have a picnic while enjoying the gorgeous views.
The beaches along the western side of the island get the most visitors. But there are some popular ones along the rest of the coastline. Volcanic eruptions cover the beaches in lava from time to time, so don’t be surprised to find previously popular beaches shut down.
Popular Things to Do
The key landmarks and beaches definitely keep island adventurers busy on their trips. But there’s still so much more to see and do, such as:
- Visit the original King Kamehameha statue
- Hike through the rainforest on the Puna Trail
- Shop your heart out in the chill town of Pahoa
- Go on a Kona coffee farm tour along the coast
- Take a helicopter tour to see all the sights from above
- Ride the ziplines over the parklands and past waterfalls
- Watch hula performances at venues like Huggo’s On the Rocks
- Enjoy an informal brewery tour at the Kona Brewing Company
- Sign up for a sunset dinner cruise on Kealakekua Bay
- Gaze at the stars with a trip to the Mauna Kea Observatory
- Check out the world of island cattle ranching at Parker Ranch
As you go on all these island adventures and more, you’re sure to work up a big appetite. So, plan to stop in at the many local eateries serving all the best Hawaiian favorites, like Loco Moco, Fresh-Catch Fish, and Kalua Pork plates. When it comes time to grab snacks for the road, you cannot go wrong with a stop by farmers’ markets and farm stands for ultra-fresh produce.
Getting to the Big Island
To travel to the Big Island and back home again, you’ll need to purchase round-trip tickets from United, Delta, or one of the other many major airlines. Direct flights will get you there fastest while adding one to two stops to the trip can save you money on your tickets.
The total amount of time you’ll spend on the plane depends on where you live. If you’re coming from Maine, a non-stop flight will take just over 10 hours, but adding two stops pushes your travel time to 14 hours. When traveling from the West Coast, expect your flight to take five to six hours instead.
The price of your tickets changes with the seasons, too. During peak travel times, you’ll see the highest prices. To save money, schedule your trip for the early fall. You’ll not only get the cheapest ticket prices but also have a chance to enjoy the island without the crowds.
No matter when you arrive, you’ll likely land at the Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport. Located on the western side, this airport gets the most visitors due to its convenient location. When you’re staying on the east side of the island, you might end up at the Hilo International Airport. For the most part, Hilo serves people traveling between all the Hawaiian Islands, however.
Both airports have restaurants, gift shops, and service centers plus comfy lounges to help improve your wait. Use the terminal maps to make your way to all the amenities that will serve you best. Don’t forget to check the kiosks for coupon books upon arrival, which can help you get great deals on local food, attractions, and more.
Luxury hotels, world-class resorts, and bed and breakfasts are the most popular accommodations on the big island. For a more home-like aesthetic, go with private vacation rentals, including condos, cottages, and beach houses.
Excellent lodging options include:
- Sheraton Keauhou Bay
- Wyndham Kona Resort
- Hilton Waikoloa Village
- Mauna Kea Beach Hotel
- Grand Naniloa Hotel Hilo
- Honu Kai Bed & Breakfast
- Hale ‘Ohu Bed & Breakfast
- Ka’awa Loa Plantation
To find your ideal accommodations, reflect on all the features and amenities you want. Resorts put restaurants, spas, and entertainment venues right onsite, so you never have to go far to eat, relax, and play. Luxury hotels go big on the in-room features, like ultra-plush mattresses, quality linens, and large flatscreen TVs. Bed and breakfasts have a cozier aesthetic and provide a delicious breakfast to start each day off right.
Private vacation rentals often put you right in your desired location while offering a homey feel. In a beach house, you get instant access to the water whenever you want, while cottages give you the ultimate in privacy.
Traveling Around Town
When it comes to getting to all your preferred destinations on the Big Island, you have many transportation options to consider, including:
Renting a car allows you to get to all your target destinations without delay. You can find all the most popular rental car companies, like Avis, Enterprise, and Alamo, next to the two airports. When you want something a little different than a sedan, minivan, or SUV, look to Big Island Jeep and Big Island Buggy for your ideal travel solutions.
Before settling on a car rental company, ask about their usage terms. Many companies forbid their customers from taking the rentals to certain beaches or along rough mountain roads. Only get the biggest, most capable car needed for your adventures. Otherwise, you might find it cumbersome to drive around town and park along the street.
If you prefer to skip the rental car, you can also get around town on the Hele-On-Bus operated by the Hawaii Mass Transit Agency. The buses run along fixed routes from 3:30 am to 2:30 am each day, including on weekends.
The routes mostly run between the major towns to ferry commuters to and from work. Furthermore, the route pick-up times favor the early mornings and late afternoons. You may need to complete your trip by taxi if the bus does not get you close enough to your desired destination.
To ride the bus, you must pay for your one-way ticket in cash. Before getting off the bus, ask for a transfer ticket. You can use that ticket to ride again for free if you need to take another bus within two hours.
When you need a ride on-demand, you can call a nearby taxi company or go through a ride share service by using their app. Most taxi companies on the island either serve the Kona or Hilo areas.
The most popular taxicab companies include:
- Dakine Taxi: 808-329-4446
- Jerich Taxi: 808-494-0034
- Kona Taxicab: 808-324-4444
- R Jay Taxi: 808-217-5953
- Stan’s Taxi: 808-443-8810
- R&L Taxi & Tours: 808-339-5348
You cannot simply stand on the side of the road and hope to hail a cab. Instead, you must give them a call ahead of time to request a ride. It’s usually best to schedule your rides in advance whenever possible.
Both Uber and Lyft provide ride-share services all over the island, including to and from the two major airports. The cost of the ride goes up during peak service times, especially on holidays. You may also need to wait longer for a ride-share driver to pick up your request and travel to your location.
If you decide to get a rental car, make your reservations well ahead of your trip to ensure you get your vehicle of choice. Sometimes, you can even save money by getting your plane tickets, rental car, and accommodations in a package deal.
All the Spots to Shop for Essentials
When the need for essentials arises, you can easily find stores with the items you need by looking along the major highways near the coast. The stores range from mom-and-pop shops to huge national chains, like Safeway and Target. You can even get your bulk goods at Costco when you’re in the Kailua-Kona area.
When you want to shop local chains and the like, go to:
- Sack N Save
- Trini’s Market
- KTA Super Stores
- Island Naturals Market & Deli
- Matsuyama Food Mart
For the absolute freshest produce around, go to farmers’ markets instead. The dates and times for each market vary. When you’re near Kona, head on over to the Alii Garden Market Place on Tuesday through Sunday from 10 am to 5 pm. Need fresh produce on Monday, but don’t want to travel outside of Kona? Go to the South Kona Fruit Stand on Mamalahoa Highway.
On the other side of the island, the Keaau Village Farmers Market is always a sure bet. It’s open from Tuesday to Saturday between 7 am and 5 pm. Want to shop the night away? Go to the Kalapana Night Market in Pahoa from 5 pm to 9 pm on Wednesday.
For all your other essentials, try shopping at:
- Kona Coast Shopping Mall: 74-5586 Palani Road, Kailua-Kona, Hawaii 96740
- King Kamehameha Mall: 75-5626 Kuakini Highway, Kailua-Kona, Hawaii 96740
- Keauhou Shopping Center: 78-6831 Ali‘i Drive #232, Kailua-Kona, Hawaii 96740
- Queens’ Marketplace: 69-201 Waikōloa Beach Drive, Waikoloa Village, Hawaii 96738
- Prince Kuhio Plaza: 111 East Puainako Street, Hilo, Hawaii 96720
- Waiakea Center: 315 Makaala Street, Hilo, Hawaii 96720
- Keaau Shopping Center: 16-540 Keaau-Pahoa Road #6, Keaau, Hawaii 96749
- Parker Ranch Center: 67-1175 Hawaiʻi Belt Road, Waimea, Hawaii 96743
Many of the resorts, like the Waikoloa Beach Resort, have their own shopping centers as well.
As you travel around the island, keep your eyes open for shopping opportunities galore. Also remember to pad your schedule with extra time for impromptu stops, so you never have to skip any stores you want to visit.
Where to Get Medical Care
As you enjoy all your adventures on the Big Island, injuries or illnesses could arise. If that happens, you can seek care at one of the many top-notch urgent care centers. They offer walk-in medical care on demand for all minor health issues, including lacerations, fevers, and concussions.
While along the western coast, head on over to Keauhou Urgent Care Center or Urgent Care of Kona. On the north side, go to Waimea Urgent Care. In Hilo, you might want to try Hilo Urgent Care or the Kauka Express Urgent Care Clinic. While along the southern shores, the Kau Hospital & Rural Clinic is your best bet.
For acute medical problems, you should go to a nearby emergency department instead. Call 911 if you think you’re experiencing a medical emergency and EMTs will come to check you out. They may then want to transport you to the nearest hospital for additional care.
If you’re stable enough to travel to the hospital on your own, you’ll want to go to one of the following care centers.
- Kona Community Hospital: 79-1019 Haukapila Street, Kealakekua, Hawaii 96750
- Hilo Medical Center: 1190 Waianuenue Avenue, Hilo, Hawaii 96720
- Kohala Hospital: 54-383 Hospital Road, Kapaau, Hawaii 96755
- Queen’s North Hawaii Community Hospital: 67-1125 Hawaiʻi Belt Road, Waimea, Hawaii 96743
All the emergency departments stay open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They triage all their patients upon arrival and then provide care to the most seriously injured or ill people first. So, don’t be surprised if you have quite a wait ahead on busy days.
To keep hazardous incidents to the bare minimum on your travels, keep all these safety tips in mind.
Swimming, snorkeling, and other fun waterside activities are a must while visiting the beaches on the island. For the best chance at staying safe, only enter the water at beaches with lifeguards on duty, like:
- Kahaluu Beach Park
- Richardson Ocean Park
- Carlsmith Beach Park
- Leleiwi Beach Park
- Onekahakaha Beach Park
- Hawaii Island West Shore
- Spencer Beach Park
Even with a lifeguard overseeing all the fun, remember your limits and exit the water if you’re ever feeling overwhelmed. Swim with a buddy, if at all possible, too, so you can watch out for each other.
Don’t forget to check the weather and surf conditions before you hit the waves. The Hawaiian Beach Safety website gives daily updates on the nearshore and offshore conditions at many major beaches. For immediate reports on changing conditions, use a NOAA weather radio to tune into Stations WWG27 and WWG75.
Spend time watching the surf before entering the water as well. To spot dangerous currents beneath the surface, look for swirling water and other rapid movements. Big waves breaking offshore is another big red flag.
Above all else, if in doubt, don’t go out. Also, never turn your back to the ocean. A rogue wave can knock you right off your feet and cause serious injuries.
Miles of gorgeous trails across the Big Island take you on a wonderful trip through lush rainforests, along volcanic craters, and through many other wonderful landscapes. All along the way, you might encounter flat paths well-suited for beginners all the way up to steep, treacherous trails.
So, it’s wise to plan out your path carefully while keeping your physical fitness level in mind. If you’re not sure where to go, consider joining a hiking group to get the inside scoop on all the trails.
Other ways to stay safe on the trail include:
- Check the weather before you go to avoid hiking on rainy, windy days
- Lace up a pair of good fitting, closed toe hiking shoes with excellent grip
- Wear many layers of moisture-wicking cotton plus bring a poncho
- Put a lot of extra water and calorie-dense food, like trail mix, in your pack
- Use hiking poles for a little extra support in maintaining good footing
- Always stay on the marked paths and stay back from the slippery edges
- Skip the dangerous selfie poses in favor of a chill peace sign from a safe spot
- Spray your clothing with a locally made bug spray to keep insects at bay
In addition, bring a wind-up radio, so you can hear any emergency broadcast alerts that come through the waves. When hiking near Hilo, set it to 94.7 AM KWXX near Hilo. Hiking around Kona instead? Tune into 106.1 FM KLEO for up-to-the-minute alerts.
Have plans to hike anywhere near active lava flows? Switch out your hiking shoes for a sturdy pair of leather hiking boots that cover your ankles. Also, wear heavy denim jeans and a well-fitting top. Stay far back from the active lava flows to avoid serious injury or death. When walking over cold lava, step carefully and watch out for crumbling areas.
As with all the Hawaiian Islands, the Big Island has a relatively low crime rate. Despite that, you still need to practice your due diligence to keep yourself safe and your belongings secure. For starters, always pay close attention to the surrounding area and activities while driving and walking around town. If your gut feeling tells you anything seems off, heed the warning and alter your course.
When parking, always look for a well-lit area with lots of foot traffic. Also, remember that it’s never wise to leave valuables in your car – not even in the trunk. Keep them in your hotel room safe, if possible, or carry them on your person. Lock up your vehicle whenever you’ll be away even if it’s just for a moment.
Vehicle break-ins happen can happen anywhere and at any time of the day, including broad daylight. Relatively secluded beach parking lots prove the most problematic, although busy shopping centers get their fair share of break-ins, too.
Whether you’re on the beach, trails, or in town, always wear reef-safe SPF 50+ sunblock. Set a timer for two hours when you put the sunscreen on, so you can reapply as it wears off. Consider wearing sunglasses with UVA and UBA protection as well to keep your eyes well protected from the sun, especially while near the water.
Respectful Behavior Tips
As a tourist on the Hawaiian Islands, do all you can to serve as a trusted steward of the land. Plus, aim to show your respect for the island culture and its people. With that approach, you’ll serve as an asset to the island community, ensuring that you’ll always be welcomed back with open arms.
While acting as a steward of the land, you should:
- Stay at least 10 feet back from all sea turtles, monk seals, and other wildlife
- Only use the highest quality reef-safe sunscreen, preferably in a non-aerosol bottle
- Avoid standing on or otherwise touching the coral reefs in the water
- Never take any shells, rocks, or other artifacts out of their original areas
- Do not touch any artifacts while exploring archeological significant sites
- Always stay on the trail and avoid stepping on plants while hiking
Keep a trash bag in your pack during your adventures, too, so you can pack out any trash you find. Also, pack out all the items you bring with you on your travels, down to the smallest gum wrapper.
To show your respect for the locals and their culture put the aloha spirit at the center of all you do. Always aim to be kind and friendly to those you meet, offering them a warm “Aloha” as a friendly greeting and again as a farewell when you leave. When you need to say thank you, send a genuine “Mahalo” their way to show your deep appreciation.
On all the Hawaiian Islands, elders are sacred, so be sure to go above and beyond in showing them respect. Always offer your seat on the bus, bench, or other public areas if you see a senior in need of somewhere to sit down. Also, aim to hold open doors for elderly individuals whenever you get the honor of doing so.
If you get a chance to see cultural performances, like hula dances, watch their talents with all the respect in the world. Only join in when invited, and then take it seriously while still allowing yourself to have a lot of fun.
Any time you get quality service while on the island, leave a generous tip. Many restaurants and other locations add a service fee to the bill, but that’s not a tip. The servers work hard to make every visit to the island special, so make sure to reward them accordingly.
How to Best Handle Conflicts
Despite your best efforts to show respect wherever you go on the island, you could still find yourself in a dispute with the locals. When any disputes arise, it’s best to do all you can to deescalate the situation.
Start by listening intently to their complaints. Perhaps you missed seeing a private property sign? Or maybe you accidentally belittled their culture, damaged a historical site, or committed another travel blunder? Whatever the case, this is a chance to learn from your mistake and start anew.
Once they’re done airing their grievances, offer a genuine thank you for educating you on that matter. Let them also know that you will do your best in the future to avoid making the same mistake. Then, try to shake it off and focus on having a great time. You only have so much time on the island, after all, and everyone makes mistakes, especially while traveling to new areas.
If you still want more info on how to avoid similar issues in the future, consider stopping by the Kilauea Visitor Center or Island of Hawaii Visitor Bureau. Barring that, ask a tour guide or trusted local for their insights.
Any time your attempts to deescalate tense situations do not work, just try to make the distance between you and the aggressor. If that does not work, you can call law enforcement to come help.
Ways to Save Money on Your Island Adventures
While you can definitely splurge while visiting the Big Island, you don’t have to break the bank to have a great time. To visit the island while sticking to a strict budget, start by planning your trip for the off-season.
Then, focus on working as many beach trips and other free activities as possible into your schedule. Try to figure out what paid attractions you want to see most well before hopping on the plane to the island.
When you land, grab a coupon book off the brochure racks in the airport for discounts galore. After that, go on over to Costco to get discounts on your preferred attractions.
While you’re there, get picnic supplies and lots of snacks, so you can save your restaurant dollars for truly special meals. You can often find BBQ grills at local parks and beaches, including Old Kona Airport Beach State Park, Holoholokai Beach Park, and Keokea Beach Park.
If you’re dying to enjoy local cuisine, set your sights on the many food trucks all over the island, like:
- Island Style Grindz
- Tuk-Tuk Thai Food Truck
- Aloha Mix Food Truck Café
- Hot Malasadas Truck
- The Rendezvous Truck
- Da Fish House Lunch Wagon
The food trucks often offer restaurant-quality fare without the high price tag. For even more savings, check in with local restaurants to see when they’re running their daily happy hour specials. The discounts on drinks and appetizers take a big chunk off the bill, so you can dine in style without blowing your budget.
Ready to Make the Most of Your Visit to the Big Island?
Now that you know what to expect, you can start planning your trip to the Big Island. As you book your reservations, plan your itinerary, and mark all the top spots on your map, feel free to refer back to this guide as needed. With that move, you’ll be able to make sure that you won’t miss out on a thing while exploring all the island has to offer.