Travel Guide to the Big Island of Hawaii

Hawaii is one of my favorite places in the US and a place I have probably visited back most times in all my travels! So far I have been to Hawaii 7 times and have now visited all the 4 main islands of Maui, Oahu, Kauai and the Big Island. All the islands are so easy to get to from the US mainland and are well connected with many airlines. Being in California, its especially easy – just a 5 hour direct flight and we are already in paradise! Each island is so unique and beautiful in its own way, you really can’t go wrong with any of them. If you are looking for travel guides for the other islands check out my ones for Oahu and Kauai in the linked posts. This was our first time to the Big Island of Hawaii and we absolutely fell in love with this beautiful diverse island. There is SO much to do on the island that we felt our 5 days there wasn’t enough! But it is a decent amount of time to see the main highlights of the island which I will explain below. Also don’t forget to check out my video at the bottom of this post recapping our highlights :)!

Where to stay on the Big Island ?

The island is so vast, if you have the time I suggest splitting your time across different locations that way you get different experiences. We split our time across 2 locations – one in the mountains and one on the coast. The first one was a quaint and romantic inn called Holualoa Inn that was tucked away in the mountains and within a gorgeous coffee plantation , just 5 miles from Kailua Kona. Read more in my blog post here.

Holualoa inn

The second place we stayed at was a big five star resort – the Fairmont Orchid which was right on the stunning Kohala Coast, also on the west coast of the island. Read more in my blog post here.

Fairmont orchid

 

Getting around on the Big Island :

Unless you plan to just stay and relax in your resort, then having a car is a must on the Big Island. Keep in mind many locations are quite far off from each other, so be prepped to drive a ton if you are anything like us and want to explore the island as much as you can :). If you plan to go off roading or to some difficult terrain locations (like driving down Waipi’o Valley yourself) you will need a 4 wheel drive, something to keep in mind when you are booking a car.

Some other tips I can suggest from our trip – always carry extra water + snacks in the car to account for delays due to change in weather conditions. Many restaurants also close super early (9pm or even earlier). So this tip was super handy for us on one of the days where our drive was very long and we were not near any big town until 9:45-10pm after our drive.

 

Things to do on the Big Island :

Since we were there for 5 days, these things to do that I have listed out below should roughly cover a 4-5 day itinerary. The island is so diverse – did you know it had 10 of the world’s 13 climate zones?! So you are bound to see the most diverse landscapes from beaches to volcanoes to rainforests to temperate grasslands and even snow capped mountains! Depending on what your itinerary looks like you might also want to pack hiking gear (if you plan on hiking) and light layers as some parts of the island do get a lot colder than the rest. Here are some of the things we did during our time on the Big Island :

1 ) Drive to Hilo on the east coast + waterfalls in Hilo :

Along saddle road

The drive from Kona to Hilo is a popular one – the road that connects the west coast to the east coast is called the Saddle Road and this 1.5 hour drive is nothing but stunning! You will drive through various landscapes from sunny grasslands to driving in clouds to rainy patches all within the one drive! The drive is such an incredible experience by itself.

Rainbow falls

Once near Hilo, you can go chasing waterfalls in and near the town. There are numerous ones to visit, some of my faves :

 

2 ) Scenic drive to Onomea Bay :

On Onomea Trail

Once in Hilo, it is worth it to drive up to Onomea Bay via the scenic trail. If you put “Onomea Bay trail” on your GPS from Hilo, it should route you through the scenic road, but just in case it doesn’t lookout for this – halfway between mile markers 8 and 7 on the Hawaii Belt road, you will see a large sign that says “Scenic Drive.” This drive is very picturesque with rustic one lane bridges, dense jungle foliage, waterfalls and more.

Onomea Bay

Once you get to the trail head, it is a short 15 min hike to the Onomea Bay. The jungle trail itself is so beautiful with sweeping views of the bay on one side and a million species of flora on the other. The Bay isn’t swimmable but the moody ocean makes for a dreamy photo-op.

If you are interested the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden is here too.

 

3 ) Volcanoes National Park – Chain of Craters Road :

Along Chain of Craters road

The Big island of Hawaii is the newest of the Hawaiian islands and is the only Hawaiian island with an active volcano! We didn’t have the time and the weather wasn’t permitting to actually go see the lava but if you are visiting and are keen on seeing lava you can either do it in one of the following ways :

  • helicopter tour – the best way to view the lava and Kilauea crater from top!
  • Lava boat tour 
  • hiking in the park – guided or self lava viewing tours. The visitor center in the national park has all the info you would need to plan your trip here.

The only thing we did in the park was drive the Chain of Craters Road which was seriously EPIC! It totally felt like I was exploring the moon or another planet altogether. The 18 mile windy long drive is on the east rift of the park and has tons of old volcano craters, lava flows from the past years and outer-worldly landscapes.

 

4 ) Best Beaches on the Big Island

Some of my fave beaches on the Big Island to visit :

Hapuna , Mauna Kea and Kua are super gorgeous and also the most popular white sandy and blue water beaches on the Big Island. They are state beaches that have facilities and are easily accessible.

Along hike to Makalawena Beach

 

Makalawena Beach

But if you know me – I am always looking for an “offbeat” / hard to get to beach that is secluded and just as gorgeous. Touted as one of the BEST beaches on the Big Island by locals, Makalawena Beach is hard to get to and has no facilities, so chances are if you make the effort you might actually be the only one or one of the few ones on the beach. It was my personal favorite of all the beaches on the island (and perhaps in all of Hawaii that I have visited!). The trek to get to this off beat slice of paradise takes some extra effort, hiking on uneven lava rock in the hot sun with no wind but once you get to this string of idyllic coves at Makalawena beach you would know why the treacherous walk up to it was SO worth it . “Mak beach” is an almost deserted, postcard perfect white sandy beach with the most gorgeous turquoise waters. The water was crystal clear and very refreshing to take a dip in!

For those interested to add this on your itinerary here are rough directions – first navigate to Kekaha hai state park, park here, pass by crescent shaped Mahaiula beach until you get to the far right side. Here you will see a grouping of palm trees and a path going over lava rocks. Follow the lava lined path north towards the sand dunes in the distance. The hike will take you 20-25 minutes and is over uneven terrain – so definitely bring shoes and water cos it gets super hot! Eventually, the lava field transitions into a field of huge white sand dunes toward the back of Makalawena beach which has 3 coves – the second one is the best! There are no lifeguards or facilities here so please be cautious if you plan on entering the water. 

 

5 ) Waipi’o Valley + Black Sand Beach

Waipio Valley Lookout

The mystical Waipio Valley with its rich history and gorgeous black sand beach was hands down one of the most beautiful spots we visited in the Big Island. While most tourists just go to the lookout point, only a handful hike all the way down into the valley. And I’m so glad that we did. The valley and the black sand beach are a million times more gorgeous from below. If you plan on driving it you would need a 4 wheel drive. It is a very tricky drive as the road is the steepest road in the US and uphill traffic always gets the right of way. Make sure to check with your rental agency as some agencies don’t even allow their vehicles there. The other option is to either walk it both ways or do a shuttle one or both ways.

Deep in the Waipio Valley

We took the Waipio Valley shuttle one way and walked back the other. There are advantages to doing both cos the shuttle takes you to the far end of the Valley which is hard to get to on foot and I have also heard that many locals that live there do not like the toursits coming on their own 4wd around here to disturb the sanctity of the untouched valley. The shuttle is operated by a local who is born and raised here so in my opinion it was the best way to do the valley as he had so many interesting tidbits to offer. We saw tons of waterfalls, taro fields, rivers and even wild horses in the wilderness. The only place the shuttle doesn’t stop off is at the Black Sand Beach – so if you are interested to do it, you can opt to do the shuttle one way and have him stop over near the road to the beach so that you can do the rest of the trip on foot. (i.e walk to the beach, back from the beach and then back up to the lookout).
Black sand beach, Waipio Valley
The black sand beach was one of the best black beaches I have ever seen. It is a mile long, the sand texture is super soft and the views – unbeatable. You can even see a waterfall falling from the mountain into the ocean on the far end! We spent the entire afternoon here it was absolutely magical. We had packed a light picnic lunch + juices as there are no facilities down here.
Walking back up is no easy feat FYI! You will get to hike the “Steepest road in the US” ( and one of the top 5 steepest roads in the world ) with a 45% incline. But the views totally makes up for it! If you ever visit the big island of Hawai’i I urge you to not only visit the Waipi’o Valley lookout but also go all the way down into the Valley to see the real beauty for yourself, it’s truly heaven on earth.

6 ) Visit the town of Waimea 

Parker Ranch

The most picturesque town on the Big Island is Waimea (also called Kamuela) which was full of rolling, green pastures and home to cattle, cowboys and ranches. So hard to believe that this was on a tropical island; it totally felt like I was in Europe! If you visit, make sure to stop by Parker Ranch where you can also go horseback riding if you want to.

 

Fave eats on the Big Island :

1 ) Makani’s Magic Pineapple Shack (Hilo)

We stopped here on the way to Hilo and loved the acai bowls and sandwiches here. Also a must try here – the unicorn softserve which is 50% dragon fruit and 50% ube (sweet potato) and a 100% insta dream!!

 

2) Vibe Big Island (Hilo)

I wanted to visit this super cute cafe in Hilo, but didn’t realise that it was closed on Sundays 🙁 and we happened to be in Hilo on a Sunday. If you check out their Instagram, you will be convinced you need to add this chic healthy eatery on your list.

 

3) Under the Bodhi Tree (Kohala)

We went here multiple times cos we loved it so much! This funky vegetarian cafe serves delicious healthy eats and drinks. I loved their fruit smoothies and mango madness wrap.

4) Original Big Island Shave Ice (Waimea) 

Did you even go to Hawaii if you didn’t have some Shaved Ice?! This is the Best shave ice on the island – try their all natural fruit flavors – I loveed the coconut, mango, passionfruit flavors over vanilla mac nut ice cream – yumm!

 

5) Holuakoa Gardens and Cafe (Holualoa)

If you are staying in Holualoa Inn this is right by the inn. They have a cafe as well as a restaurant. We only tried the cafe and loved the Kona coffee + baked goods here.

6) Ultimate Burger (Kona)

The most unassuming and random burger place that we stumbled upon on one of the nights but it was certainly one of our best meals on the island! We inhaled the food before I could even take any photos haha but take my word for it it was downright delicious. I got the “fish of the day” burger and Anush got the black bean burger since neither of us eat beef.

7) Lava Lava Beach Club

I love Lava Lava Beach Club in Kauai, and knew I had to visit the one on the big island when we were here. Aside from the yummy food, I love the chill vibe, lively ambiance and toes in the sand kinda dining here.

8) Island Lava Java (Kona)

Easy chill place, great for brunch.

9) Fish and the hog (Waimea)

Great seafood restaurant in Waimea.

10) Da Poke Shack (Kona)

Da best poke in town!

11) Browns Beach House (Kohala)

If you are looking for a fine dining restaurant for a date night or an island evening out, I highly recommend Brown’s Beach House at the Fairmont Orchid.

 

Hope this guide helps you if you are ever planning a trip to the Big Island. Leaving you with a short recap video that captures my fave highlights from our trip.

Thanks for stopping by! xoxo

Jyo

 

 

 

 

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