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The Ultimate Big Island of Hawaii Travel Guide

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Empty tropical beach on 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.





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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


Guide to helpful Hawaiian terms to know


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 ho