The Ultimate Big Island of Hawaii Travel Guide

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Empty tropical beach on the Big Island

EXPLORE OUR IN-DEPTH TRAVEL GUIDE TO THE BIG ISLAND OF HAWAII. WE RECOMMEND USING THIS COMPREHENSIVE GUIDE TO HELP YOU PLAN THE PERFECT ADVENTURE TRIP TO THE BIG ISLAND.

 



While it might be one of the less popular islands in Hawaii to visit and explore, we believe that the Big Island is not to be missed. For starters, the island is incredibly diverse. From lush rainforests and waterfalls on the east side to volcanic lava flows on the west side to rugged green coastal valleys in the north to barren grassy fields in the south, there are so many different biomes that you could spend months on just the Big Island and still not see everything.


And that isn't even considering all of the amazing adventures to be had once you leave land behind and head out into the ocean to snorkel, dive and fish.


If you are looking to base yourself in one place and still be able to do so many different things - hiking, snorkeling, surfing, and boating - while still getting an authentic Hawaiian cultural experience then the Big Island might be the perfect place to head to.


Our in-depth Big Island Travel Guide below covers pretty much everything you need to know to have a memorable adventure; including where to stay, what to do and even some helpful Hawaiian terms to help you feel more like a local.







 

BIG ISLAND OF HAWAII | THE NITTY-GRITTY

 






NAME

The Island of Hawaiʻi or Hawaiʻi Island. It is also referred to as simply "the Big Island" so as not to be confusing. Most people tend to call it the Big Island.



LOCATION

The Big Island is the southeasternmost of the Hawaiian Islands - which are a chain of 8 volcanic islands found in the North Pacific Ocean. The Hawaiian Islands are often touted as one of the most remote locations in the world.


❔ GOOD TO KNOW: the Hawaiian Islands are in the GMT-10 time zone. This means they are 3 hours behind Los Angeles and Seattle, 6 hours behind New York City and 19 hours behind Tokyo.



POPULATION

200,629 people live on the whole Big Island, and many of those people live in the two main towns of Kona and Hilo. This number accounts for only 13% of the entire state of Hawaii's population, even though the island encompasses 63% of its total amount of land.



WEATHER

Sunny and hot at lower elevations (near the coast), and then colder and cloudier at higher elevations. Also, the east side (near Hilo) is much wetter than the west side (where Kona is located). In fact, the western side of the island is one of the driest places in the whole island chain.



LANGUAGE

English, but the traditional Hawaiian language is becoming more commonly used (you will see many signs in both languages).



CURRENCY AND COST

The United States Dollar (USD) is used throughout the island (major credit cards are almost always taken). The Big Island is pretty expensive - especially when it comes to food and lodging. If you can, try to purchase local foods (including produce) to cut down on your overall costs and to be a more sustainable traveler.



SAFETY

The island is very safe. Really the only major concerns are from the two active volcanoes (Mauna Loa and Kilauea) and the ocean itself (like riptides and marine life). Though as always, remember to be a smart tourist: don't leave things sitting out, lock your vehicles, etc.









\\ Basic History and Culture of the Big Island


The name "Hawaii" is thought to have two possible origin stories. The first believes the island was named after Hawaiʻiloa, the legendary Polynesian navigator who first discovered the archipelago. The second origin story attributes the name to the legendary realm of Hawaiki, which is a place where some Polynesian people are said to have originated, a place where they transition to the afterlife or even a realm of the gods and goddesses.


Captain James Cook, an English explorer and navigator who was the captain of the first European expedition that came upon the Hawaiian Islands, called the islands O-Why-hee as well as the "Sandwich Islands" after his patron, the 4th Earl of Sandwich.


While Cook is often touted as the discoverer of the Hawaiian Islands, in fact, the Polynesians are believed to have landed on the island's coasts around 1219 and 1266 A.D. The Hawaiian population grew steadily until Cook's landing in 1778, where, with his landing, disease quickly decimated the population. Within a year, Cook would be murdered on the Big Island (where the large Captain Cook Monument stands today) after a disagreement about a boat being stolen.


Fast forward to 1795 and the famous ruler Kamehameha the Great (original name: Pai'ea Kamehameha) has officially united all of the Hawaiian Islands under his rule. This is when the island chain would "officially" become known as the Hawaiian Islands after the name of his home island (you can actually visit his birth site, which is located on the far northern part of the Big Island).


In 1822 the missionary William Ellis arrived on the island and eventually did a full tour - which included visiting some notable places as the crater of Kilauea and the Waipi'o Valley. He used this trip around the island to scout for possible missionary sites (which would indeed eventually be built).


More recent history on the Big Island includes the building of the Mauna Kea astronomical observatories on the summit of the tallest mountain on the island, which began in 1967 and is still ongoing.



➳ Learn more about the history of the Big Island here.






HELPFUL HAWAIIAN TERMS TO KNOW

Guide to helpful Hawaiian terms to know






7 INTERESTING FACTS ABOUT THE BIG ISLAND


1 | The island of Hawaiʻi is the third largest island in Polynesia, behind the two main islands of New Zealand. Likewise, the Big Island is the largest island in the whole USA. It also encompasses more land than all of the other Hawaiian islands combined.


2 | Mauna Loa is the largest active volcano on Earth. The summit of the mountain stands 33,500 feet above the ocean floor (and 13,675 feet above sea level) - which also makes it one of the tallest mountains on the planet (just behind its neighbor Mauna Kea).


3 | Lake Wai’au on the side of Mauna Kea (the tallest mountain on the island at 13,796 feet) is the third-highest lake in the whole USA. It sits at 13,020 feet above sea level.


4 | You can see 90% of all visible stars from the summit of Mauna Kea. This is why there are 13 world-class telescopes - including the Keck Observatory (the second largest observatory in the world) - sitting on the top.


5 | Kilauea - located in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park - is considered one of the world’s most active volcanoes.


6 | Along the Big Islands' 266 miles of coastline, you can find 100+ beaches; including black sand and green sand beaches.


7 | The island of Hawaiʻi is built from 5 separate shield volcanoes - though only two are still active. These are Mauna Loa and Kilauea. The other three are located on the far northern side of the island. They are Kohala, Mauna Kea, and Hualalai.




Sunset over the Pacific in Hawaii





\\ The Best Time to Visit The Big Island


While there isn't a bad time to visit the Big Island - the weather is pretty consistent year-round - if you are looking for smaller crowds and quieter beaches (and cheaper airfare and lodging) then consider visiting between the months of April and May (before the large summer crowds arrive and after the winter holidays) or between August and October (after the summer crowds leave and before the winter holidays arrive). In fact, the busiest months for tourists on the Big Island are the months of July and December.


During these shoulder periods you can still expect beautiful weather - mid-70s to 80s with lots of sunshine - and far fewer crowds; especially in the towns, on the beaches and at the best snorkeling spots. Plus, you will find slightly cheaper airfare and lodging outside of the busy season.


💬 INSIDER TIP: when planning to visit the Big Island during the fall, make sure to check when the annual Ironman World Championships are taking place in Kona. During that time - usually around the first week of October - flights and lodging can get really expensive. If you don't have to visit that exact weekend/part of the month, then we suggest either visiting slightly earlier or later.






\\ How to Get To & Around The Big Island


Even though the greater Hawaiian Islands are considered to be one of the most remote places in the world, they are still not super difficult to reach. Thanks to modern transportation methods you can now easily fly to the Big Island from many major cities; including, Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles in the USA and Tokyo in Japan.


Below is some helpful information on how to reach the Big Island and then how to get around once you finally make it to paradise.



GETTING TO THE BIG ISLAND


There are two international airports on the Big Island: one in Kona (Kona International Airport) and one in Hilo (Hilo International Airport). From both airports there are regular flights to the USA mainland - especially from cities on the West Coast. Likewise, there are commonly non-stop flights to Hawaii from two airports in Tokyo.


Flights to both Kona and Hilo are quite long: from the USA mainland, flights on average are around 6 hours long; while from Tokyo the flights are closer to 7.5 hours long.


Besides flying, you also have the opportunity to land on the Big Island via one of the major Hawaiian cruise routes. The most common cruises take passengers from one Hawaiian island to another, with usually a day or two on each island in between. Though if you choose to go this route, you will more than likely have an itinerary planned for you for each island ahead of time.




GETTING AROUND THE BIG ISLAND


The biggest cities on the island are Kona on the west side and Hilo on the east side. Besides those two metropolitan areas, there are many smaller settlements that often have a few services and things worth seeing. These towns include Waimea, Hawi, Captain Cook, Pahoa, and Volcano. Most of the major lodging options will be found in either Kona or Hilo. Luckily, it only takes an hour and a half to cross the island (and 5 hours to drive around the island completely).


The best way therefore to explore the Big Island is to rent a car. We recommend getting one with a bit higher clearance and even a 4x4 - especially if you are looking to adventure along some of the backroads of the island (or head up to the top of Mauna Kea).


You can pick up and drop off a car from either airport, which makes it super easy to land, grab your vehicle and start adventuring right away.


➳ We recommend checking out Discover Cars to find the best car rental rates for your Hawaiian adventure. You can explore their entire car catalog here.



💬 INSIDER TIP: if you instead want to focus on renting a car that will definitely make it up to the top of Mauna Kea (4x4 is absolutely required) then consider checking out Big Island Jeep Rental. This locally owned, family-run shop provides Jeeps specifically for driving up Mauna Kea. Definitely check them out if you want a more off-road focused Big Island adventure.




Goats on the volcanic landscape of the Big Island of Hawaii
The Big Islands rocky, volcanic western coast.





\\ Where to Stay on the Big Island


There are many options when it comes to finding a place to stay on the Big Island. From luxurious all-inclusive resorts, to smaller hotels near the beach, to Airbnb's with all of the comforts of home, you can really book every type of place to call your adventure basecamp. Below are a few recommended places in both the towns of Kona and Hilo.



WHERE TO STAY IN KONA


Four Seasons Resort Hualalai: this all-inclusive resort is located 15 miles north of downtown Kona. The resort, which is situated right on the water and within a short distance of numerous snorkeling spots, includes a top-notch golf course, 7 pools, and some amazing ocean views. Plus, the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai is the only Forbes Five Star and AAA Five Diamond Rated Resort in Hawaii. | BOOK YOUR STAY


Shell Vacations Club Kona Coast Resort: located a bit closer to town is this tropical resort situated on 21 acres of lush coastline. The resort includes 250+ individual villas (each with their own kitchen), numerous pools and hot tubs and easy access to local swimming and snorkeling spots. | BOOK YOUR STAY


Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites Kailua-Kona: for a much cheaper lodging option with still a high level of amenities, consider booking a night in this centrally located hotel that is right in downtown Kona and within easy walking distance to the Kona Farmers Market, Kailua Bay, and the historic Hulihe‘e Palace. | BOOK YOUR STAY


Newly Renovated Condo in Downtown Kona: this modern Airbnb is located only 2 blocks from downtown Kona and the ocean. It includes a common area pool and BBQs, a fully stocked kitchen, parking and Wi-Fi. | BOOK YOUR STAY


Kona Beach Hostel: for a more down-to-earth Hawaiian vibe, consider booking a night at this quaint hostel located in downtown Kona. The hostel is for adults only and offers easy access to various restaurants, bars, the local farmer's market and numerous ocean destinations. | BOOK YOUR STAY




WHERE TO STAY IN IN HILO


SCP Hotel: this upscale hotel offers guests the opportunity to connect with the local Hawaiian culture through authentic and genuine experiences that also focus heavily on sustainability. This lodging spot is located on the outskirts of town near the coast - but still within easy walking distance of all the downtown amenities. | BOOK YOUR STAY


Hilo Honu Inn: this cute, recently renovated bed and breakfast is located just blocks from downtown Hilo - making it easy to base yourself here and explore all the amazing things the east side of the island has to offer (including waterfalls and tropical gardens). The BnB also offers fast internet, free breakfast and parking.| BOOK YOUR STAY


Cottage Next to a Waterfall: this traditional-style cottage is situated on the outskirts of Hilo on a private riverfront nature preserve and within a short walk of an amazing waterfall and midnight blue swimming hole. This Airbnb can house up to 6 people and includes 2 bedrooms, a sizeable kitchen, laundry facilities and internet. | BOOK YOUR STAY


Hilo Bay Hostel: this centrally located, old-school hostel (it is located in a restored 1913 hotel) is within walking distance to many top sites on the east side of the island - including the farmer's market, Hilo Bay, the Lyman Museum and the bus terminal (which allows you to go almost anywhere else on the island). | BOOK YOUR STAY





Lush sunny coastline on Hawaii's Big Island





\\ Top Adventures on the Big Island


There are a ton of things to do on the Big Island - so much so that even after spending 2 weeks there we still felt like we only scratched the surface. Below are some of the top adventures on the island.



SNORKELING


There are a ton of snorkeling spots within a short drive of downtown Kona. During our 14 days on the island we probably snorkeled 12 of them - and almost every one of those day trips was to a different snorkeling spot.


In our opinion some of the best snorkeling spots on the Big Island are:



TWO STEP

This snorkeling spot is a popular place to view dolphins - especially in the mornings. To reach this beautiful coastal destination, head south of Kona on Highway 11 until you reach the turn off for Road 160/Keala O Keawe Road. Take that road down towards the coast. Finally, turn left onto Honaunau Beach Road (follow signs for Pu'uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park). Park on the side of the road and then walk about two minutes down to the beach (exact location).


This snorkeling spot gets its name from the very easy entrance into the water. On the left side of the large rock outcropping near the beach there is a small natural set of stairs that you can step off of to get into the water. Do be aware that this location is pretty popular so you likely will not have it to yourself.


BEST FOR: coral, dolphins and fish




CRESCENT BEACH/DOG BEACH

This smaller cove is more of a local's hidden gem. Because it doesn't appear on many maps - and if it does it comes up as a small beach where you can take your dog - it usually stays under the radar in terms of snorkeling. But if you are looking for great coral and a high probability of seeing larger marine wildlife (including sharks) then this could be a great snorkeling option.


To reach this snorkeling spot, drive north of Kona towards the boat marina (just before the airport). Park at the large marina parking lot and then walk about 5 minutes down towards the beach (exact location). There is a small bit of sand where you can easily hop in and start snorkeling. We recommend heading out and then turning left to follow the coast. Do be aware that boats come and go from the marina regularly, so always keep an eye out for them approaching while out in the water.


BEST FOR: fish and sharks





Person walking along an empty tropical beach in Hawaii




MILE MARKER 4

One of the closest snorkeling spots to Kona is this smaller beach located right off of Ali'i Drive (the main coastal road, exact location). This spot gets its name thanks to it being located right at mile marker 4 on the road (super handy). You can park along the road or in the small parking lot nearby.


This is a great snorkeling spot on a calm day when visibility is at its best. Come here if you want a high chance of spotting sea turtles, fish and colorful coral.


💬 INSIDER TIP: this beach is also very close to the popular swimming and surfing beach, Magic Sands. If you want to combine both into a fun ocean-focused day, then we suggest parking nearby, hanging out at Magic Sands during the heat of the day and then snorkeling closer to dusk (this is when the marine life really comes alive).


BEST FOR: fish, sea turtles




CAPTAIN COOK

One of the farthest snorkeling spots from Kona is this beautiful destination that does require a bit of a hike to reach. In fact, the hike - which is 4 miles round-trip - is a great adventure by itself (really the snorkeling is the cherry on top). To start the hike, head south towards the town of Captain Cook. When you get to the intersection of Highway 11 and Road 160 park on the side (exact location of parking here). The trail starts right along the road (there is a clear sign with useful information).


Be aware that the hike is relatively intense. You will hike down 2 miles, but lose 2,000 feet of elevation (meaning you will have to gain that back on the way up). Come prepared with plenty of water, sun protection and sturdy shoes. Also, consider doing the hike either in the morning or later in the day and NOT during the heat of the day (10 AM - 3 PM).