With just seven days, you’ll want to make every day on your Big Island itinerary count! While Maui feels fancy with its resorts and Kaui feels wild and undeveloped, Big Island Hawaii offers a little of everything with black lava beaches and one of the most astounding national parks in the USA.
- Big Island Adventures
- Day 1: Snorkel South Kona
- Day 2: Night Swim with Manta Rays
- Day 3: Dreamy Black Lava Beaches
- Day 4: Hike Volcanos National Park
- Day 5: Tour Lava Tubes and Steam Vents
- Day 6: Waterfalls and Sea Turtles
- Day 7: Drive the Hamakua Coast
Big Island Adventures
With so much to see, I recommend spending three days on the Kona side of Hawaii’s Big Island (where you’ll arrive on your international flight), two days at Volcanos National Park in the middle of the island, and the last two days on the lush (but rainier) eastern side of the island based in Hilo.
If you’re here primarily for beaches and snorkeling, add more days in Kona, Hawaii. (Snorkeling Kona is a bucket list experience.) If it’s lush rain forest and dramatic waterfalls you’re after, spend more time in Hilo. Volcanos National Park is also worthy of a week all on its own for serious hikers.
Flying into Kona can be a bit disorienting at first when you land on what looks like a lava moonscape if you were anticipating a lush beach scene. But don’t worry!
Unlike, say, Maui and Kauai, the Kona coast is mostly comprised of hardened lava. That’s because the Big Island is younger than other Hawaiian islands, with active volcanoes. That also means the island is home to some incredible black and green sand beaches.
Day 1: Snorkel South Kona
There are so many great things to do on Big Island, Hawaii!
On your first day, a great way to get the lay of the land (and sea!) is to book a full-day boat tour for snorkeling prime spots. It’s one of my favorite Big Island day trips.
As you nose your way in and out of sea caves on the boat, keep a lookout for Hawaiin green sea turtles, manta rays and spinner dolphins here. You’ll also likely pass Pele, Goddess of Fire, hidden in the rock formations on the cliffs of Kona along the way.
On your tour, you’ll no doubt head to Kealakekua Bay, a beautiful little protected bay and the premiere snorkeling destination across all of the islands that make up the state of Hawaii. The variety of neon-colored fish we saw here remains unmatched among any other snorkeling destination we’ve so far enjoyed in Hawaii.
The bay is home to the Captain Cook Monument, which marks a decisive battle between the natives and the first European to reach the Hawaiian islands in 1779. The challenge is, of course, overcrowding due to its popularity.
When we visited, there were strict and convoluted rules about how people could access the bay independently of a tour, which is a good thing. Respect the rules and visit by boat. You can check prices on a snorkel tour here.
Where to stay in Kona, Hawaii
2. Royal Kona Resort. Conveniently located in Kona, the Royal Kona Resort offers a view of beautiful Kailua Bay with a private beach, saltwater lagoon, onsite Asian Fusion restaurant, and outdoor swimming pool. Plus, no resort fees! Rooms come with lanais, too. We can personally vouch for the sunset Mai Tais at the Royal Kona’s open-air tiki lounge. Check prices and availability at the Royal Kona Resort here.
3. Oceanview condo. This one-bedroom beachfront condo is within a 12-minute walk from Honl’s Beach and comes with a fully equipped kitchen and ocean view patio plus grill. Travelers love the easy parking and the fact that it comes with boogie boards and beach chairs. Check prices here.
Other Amazing Big Island Excursions
Some excellent Big Island tours and day trips from Kona here:
Day 2: Night Swim with Manta Rays
Begin your day at Place of Refuge, otherwise known as Pu’uhonua o Honaunau. It’s a historical Hawaiian treasure you need to visit, both on land and by sea.
If the water is calm, you can snorkel here too, powered by warm turquoise waves. Watch out south of this point though…the waves are strong!
Why is it called “Place of Refuge?” Until the 19th century, if a Hawaiian broke a “kapu” (i.e., ancient law), he was protected from certain death if he could elude his captors and make it here. A few powerful chiefs lived just outside its boundaries. And yet, defeated warriors were still safe here.
Place of Refuge offered a peaceful secluded bay for snorkeling on the day we were there. I even cavorted with a small sea turtle for a few minutes. It was incredible to view the totems from the water.
Night Swim with manta rays? Yes, really! Unfortunately, we missed this bucket list experience because we didn’t book ahead. Don’t be like us. More organized travelers eagerly shared their enthusiastic endorsements and photos with us.
So how did this opportunity come to be? The story goes like this: Back in the late seventies, the Sheraton Kona Resort decided to illuminate the waves for guests’ nighttime viewing pleasure. That attracted loads of plankton, which in turn, attracted the giant manta rays that learned that the lights meant a ready source of food.
Today, you can head out at night with a tour company for an awe-inspiring intimate encounter with these gentle giants either in a group dive, if you are SCUBA certified, or while floating on a giant Styrofoam noodle if you are a snorkeler. You can check out tour prices here.
Or, if you missed this opportunity as we did, you can catch glimpses of the manta rays for free by hanging out at the Sheraton Kona bar after 8 pm for best viewing. We caught glimpses of several in the hour we watched under a misting rain.
The Top 3 Things You Need to Pack for Big Island
•Go Pro—The #1 thing I wished I’d brought on my first trip to Hawaii.
• Turkish beach towel—Welcome to your new favorite towel.
Day 3: Dreamy Black Lava Beaches
If you’re wondering what to do on the Big Island, look no further than the beaches! Despite the rocky coast, there are so many stunning sandy beaches tucked into the volcanic rock for snorkeling or diving, and they lie mostly on the Kailua Kona coast. One of our favorites was Manini’owali/Kua Bay, which is a little over a half-hour drive from Kona.
It’s worth devoting a day to exploring beaches on the Kona side if you’re headed across the island soon. While it’s lush and jungly over there, there are far fewer sandy beaches to enoy. (See below, however, for snorkeling options.)
If you’re interested in exploring the coast north of Kona on the west side of the island, check out Maua Kea Beach and Hapuna Beach as well. Kua Bay (also known as Manini’owali Beach) also gets top raves from travelers. Or drive to the summit of Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano.
We capped our lovely beach day with a sunset Mai Tai at the gorgeous tiki bar at Royal Kona Resort. (The annual Mai Tai Festival they hold there in August sure looks like fun!)
Day 4: Hike Volcanos National Park
It’s just a 90-minute drive around the southern tip of the island to the incredible Hawaii Volcanoes National Park so it makes a great stop on the way to Hilo on the east side of the island. You could also stop at the Green Sand Beach en route if you want to devote half a day to making this drive. (Four-wheel drive required to access the beach.)
On your way from Hilo, stop at The Coffee Shack for an island-style breakfast or a cup of Kona coffee. While the food is just adequate, it offers a stunning ocean view as your climb in altitude away from the Kona coast.
Staying a night near the park here is a nice way to explore more and minimize driving. (Sidenote: If you’re looking for a drive that’s worth every mile, don’t miss Maui’s Road to Hana.)
The truth is most people allow far too little time at Volcanos. With ancient petroglyphs and lava tubes you can walk through, you may find this to be the highlight of your Big Island trip. I regretted trying to see it en route to Hilo. Spend one night at least!
Since you’ve already driven 90 minutes to the park, take the rest of the day here to get out and explore it. There are dozens of incredible hikes for every age, ability, and interest here.
We packed a picnic lunch and hiked the moderately challenging Kilauea Iki trail, a four-mile loop that took us about 2.5 hours, including time for a picnic and so many stops for gawking.
We descended through a lush rain forest to the floor of the solid—but still steaming—Kilauea Crater lava lake and then back up through the rain forest.
Will I see Lava at Volcanos National Park?
As of March 2020 when this post was last updated, the answer is unfortunately no. Up until two years ago, Kilauea, here at the park, was the world’s most active volcano. The lava flowed for more than thirty years until the 2018 eruption of Kilauea, which devastated 700 homes in nearby Puna.
We were fortunate to have seen it for ourselves during our 2017 visit, watching the lava rush into the ocean after riding rickety bicycles after dark to get there. But, even if there is no active lava flow today, I promise you won’t be disappointed by your time in this unique and wonderful park!
Where to stay near Volcanos National Park
1. Ohana House. If you’ve got a group, stay in this lovely, sunny, three-bedroom house with rain forest views. It’s just an eight-minute drive to Volcanos National Park and free Wi-Fi is provided. It’s clean, cozy, and comes with Netflix! You can check prices here.
2. Stay in the park itself. You can read more about options here.
Day 5: Tour Lava Tubes and Steam Vents
If you start at the Kilauea Visitor Center, you can enjoy a magnificent day driving the Crater Rim Trail in the center of the park. You’ll explore steam vents, sulphur banks, lava tubes, and so many scenic overlooks like nothing you’ve seen before.
Take this day at your own pace. Add in ranger tours and hikes as the spirit moves you. Be sure to stop at the Kilauea Iki Overlook and walk through Nahuku (Thurston Lava Tube). The Pu’u Pua’i Overlook is impressive, too.
If you’ve got a group where some like to hike and others prefer to drive, drop the hikers out for the half-mile walk on the paved trail at Pu’u Puai’i to walk Devastation Trail. The driver can pick you up at the outlook a half-mile away.
Day 6: Waterfalls and Sea Turtles
If downtown Kona seems a bit touristy (ouch…such expensive parking) on the dry side of the island, Hilo is its polar opposite.
This is old Hawaii at its finest with ramshackle shops and rain. It’s where the rainforest on Big Island is. Folks who live in Hilo tend to roll their eyes a bit at the tourist mayhem in Kona. They prefer the lush rain forest and waterfalls only found on the east side.
If you’re heading back to the airport tomorrow, skip ahead to recommended activities for Day 7 below. Otherwise, spend a few hours exploring the Hilo area today.
Carlsmith Beach Park is everyone’s favorite area where you can snorkel and see sea turtles on this side of the island. Plus, you’ll find far fewer tourists here than near Kona!
Be sure to see the spectacular Akaka Falls in Akaka Falls State Park. Richardson Beach Park offers a black sand beach with wild ocean and lava rocks for climbing.
On our list for a next visit is Ahalanui, a naturally heated spring-fed pool and snorkeling the clear and interconnected tide pools at Kapoho.
Where to Stay in Hilo
1. Airbnb with a private waterfall. Our private Airbnb studio apartment was located in tiny, upscale Reed’s Island, a residents-only area that came with our own private rushing waterfall and a view of it from our terrace. While there is no air conditioning, you’re unlikely to need it.
Also included: beach chairs, towels, bicycles, and kayaks. Check prices and availability here.
2. Castile Hilo Hawaiian Hotel. Looking for something more upscale? Book here. Located in beautiful Hilo Bay, the hotel is just minutes from town but offers incredible views of both the ocean and Mauna Kea Peak. You can check prices here.
Day 7: Drive the Hamakua Coast
Big Island’s wild Hamakua Coast is memorable. It’s up to you how far north you want to drive today.
Whatever you do, spend an hour or two at the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden past mile marker 7 at Onomea Bay on the old coastal highway here. Not really a gardens person? Already seen lots of beautiful native flowers? It doesn’t matter. Go here anyway.
I am a gardens person and it’s the most stunning botanical garden I’ve ever seen. Photographers and nature lovers worldwide flock to this 40-acre natural greenhouse home to 2,000 species.
North of the botanical garden, you’ll find countless opportunities for short driving detours if you’re chasing waterfalls today. Stop into Honoka’a, the biggest town on the cost here for a meal or a coffee.
(I also highly recommend the What’s Shakin’ food stand north of Hilo en route to the botanical gardens for smoothies and wraps that are worth the cost.)
Honoka’a is the gateway to the Waipi’o Valley, one of the Big Island’s wildest and most scenic destinations. However, to get there, you’ll need to ride in by horseback or bicycle. Otherwise, if you’re not planning to venture into the valley, take highway 240 to enjoy a scenic lookout.
Mahalo, Big Island for a memorable tropical adventure.
1. How many days do you need for the Big Island?
At least five days. As the largest Hawaiian island, you’ll definitely want time for beaches and snorkeling on the Kona side and waterfalls and rain forest on the Hilo side with a stop at Volcanos National Park.
2. What’s the best time to visit Big Island?
Room rates drop considerably between September and November…just after kids go back to school but before winter break. September still offers warm ocean water!
3. What should you not miss on the Big Island?
- Volcanos National Park
- Waipio Valley
- Green Sand Beach
4. What’s the best way to get to the Big Island?
Since Southwest opened up routes to the Hawaiian island in 2019, Hawaii fares have seen a big decline in prices, which is great news for travelers.
If you live anywhere besides the west coast, you might compare the coast of a direct flight to the Big Island from where you live to a cheap flight to LA or San Francisco and then a separate fare on Southwest or Alaska to the island. (I’ve seen those for $200!)
If you sign up for an Alaska credit card, you can take advantage of Alaska’s companion fare for your Hawaii trip. Your second ticket costs just $99 plus taxes.
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