The Big Island of Hawaii is as geographically diverse as any island on earth. Four of the five major climate zones are represented and 8 out of 13 sub-zones. Everything from dry arid desert, to continuously wet rainforest, to freezing, polar tundra, and what lies between; all the experiences are here in one funky place, so there is no end to the beautiful things to do on Hawaii Big Island.
If you are looking for beaches, the Big Island boasts a handful of stunners. If boiling hot lava is on your mind, the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park houses one of the world’s most prominent active volcanoes. If hiking in legendary valleys, or peering down the world’s tallest mountain, or breathing the world’s freshest air, or learning about an amazing culture are all on your list of things to do, the Big Island could deliver one of the most interesting vacations of your life.
Below are twenty of the best and most beautiful things we did while staying on Hawaii. We spent seven nights in Kona, and two nights outside Hilo. At the end of the article are our concluding thoughts, as well as some of our plans for the next time we visit. We hope you enjoy the article!
When visiting the Big Island of Hawaii, we think you’d be crazy to miss your chance to experience an active volcano. Mauna Loa is the largest volcano on earth. Scientists believe it has been erupting more or less continuously for 700,000 years.
There is no guarantee the volcano will be performing when you visit the Big Island. We were here in May of 2021 and there wasn’t much activity to speak of. However, even in pacific times, the National Park makes for a truly amazing place to visit.
Halema’uma’u Crater is the main crater at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. A thin ridge of land separates this massive crater from a smaller, more accessible crater known as Kilaeua Iki Crater. The Kilauea Iki Crater hike is the best hike in the park, and one of the best hikes in all the Hawaiian Islands.
Hiking through the rain forest around the rim of the crater, one cannot help but think of a time when the Kilaeua Iki Crater beheld a massive lake of molten earth. Where trees now flourish was once a wasteland of inchoate rock spewed across the mountainside.
Reaching even further into the annals, the creation of the earth would have made quite the volcanic spectacle, land exploding into existence amidst sulfuric steam. In similitude of these profound events, the hikers behind us spewed their poor @#$%&!* command of the English @#$%&!* language with the force of a global catastrophe. It was truly spectacular. May God have mercy on our souls.
We were once of this foolish belief that the Big Island of Hawaii has no beaches. Truth is, the Big Island has some of the best beaches in all the Hawaiian Islands.
A legitimate debate can be had over which Hawaiian beach is truly the best. Word from locals is Makalawena rules, but it requires a formidable hike or ridiculous drive no sane person would do. Others say Hapuna Beach is the most beautiful, and no one could call them wrong for it. For our money, all eleven cents of it, Manini’owali Beach is the best beach on the Island that is easily accessed.
Manini’owali is an out-of-the-way locals beach. It isn’t close to town or visible from the road.
It is a wild and natural landscape with piercing blue water. The sand is white and powdery, and the shore is artfully framed by a series of lava rock benches. Turquoise swells roll fast off the Pacific, a boogie-boarder’s delight, but tourists should beware. Snorkling is great on the north end of the beach — Monica befriended a sea turtle there, and the two of them frolicked and laughed without Ryan.
There are decent facilities a short walk from the beach (something Makalawena doesn’t offer). All the trappings of a premiere beach setting are here, with a fraction of the people one might expect.
If measuring from base to peak, Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain on earth (33,500′). Standing 13,803′ above sea level, far above the clouds, the top of Mauna Kea is used primarily for scientific study. The strange housing you see in the photographs are known as independent astronomical research facilities and large telescope observatories, aka, the astronomy precinct. It is a near ideal setting to observe space things because of the high altitude, low humidity, and dark skies.
The Drive up to the top is awesome — a steep dirt road that goes on for miles. A Park Ranger sat just above the Visitor Center taking info of anyone who drove beyond, and he made sure we had a 4-wheel drive. If you are interested in seeing all the beautiful things to do on Big Island Hawaii, be sure to rent a 4×4 or this one will pass you by. It cost us an extra $10/day to upgrade at the rental counter.
It probably wouldn’t take much to convince you it is frigid cold up here. See above right, Monica huddled in the Jeep with ineffective beanie (purchased from the visitor center under pretenses it would help keep her warm). It was a balmy 40 degrees when we arrived in the late afternoon, and dropped to below freezing at sunset.
Because the air is thin up there, Ryan felt like a drunk about to pass out the entire time. Not that you should worry, though: We witnessed a gaggle of college students practice dance routines in tank tops, so we’re perhaps confessing our age-induced lameness.
Sunset is spectacular up here. There is that perfect moment when the clouds turn pink and the horizon catches fire, and the crowds come out to commence the day. If you arrive an hour or so early you will have the best opportunity to park your car in line with a great view.
Afterwards, it doesn’t take long for the stars to arrive. We were fortunate to witness a new moon, which means the skies are at their darkest time of the month. We’ve never seen so many stars, but it was so unbelievably cold we cut the experience short. Bring warm clothing and blankets!
Final thought: Meth-heads will break into your car at the visitor’s center while you’re admiring God’s handiwork. We caught a scumbag casing our Jeep when Monica ran back to grab something. Be sure to lock up and hide the valuables!
Known as The Valley of the Kings, Waipio Valley is one of the most beautiful places in all the Hawaiian Islands. On the coastal side of the Kohala Mountains in the NW corner of the island are a series of stunning valleys. At the north end is Pololu Valley (mentioned later), and at the south end is Waipio Valley. Waipio is the more popular destination, although they are both magnificent and deserve individual attention.
Many Hawaiian legends were born in this valley. King Kamehameha I was raised here as a small child. We saw a painting in the Hulihe’e Palace in Kona that depicted early life in the valley, showing how the great waterfall at the back of the valley became a stream that fed the people along its path to the ocean. The valley was continuously populated for hundreds of years until a tsunami hit in the 1940’s and washed much of the community away. Folks still live here, but not like before.
One of the most memorable aspects of Waipio Valley is also one of the most horrifying. The cliffs are impossibly steep, and driving to the beach requires an insane descent down the wet, battered road in a 4×4. The only other alternative is to walk down the road (and back up), for the huffer-puffer sweat-fest of a lifetime. As hard as it was to lug ourselves back up, we did it.
Some folks mosey up to the lookout, snap a photo and move on. Good for them. However, if you are in strong physical health, or are driving a legitimate 4×4 and have the chutzpah to put it to work, the trip down into the valley will be a highlight of your vacation.
Waipio Valley is a lush and isolated paradise; a world apart where primitive waves crash on a dark, rocky shore beneath a hoary precipice. To the east, the river funnels up the valley into cloud-basted mountains, and to the south, ancient waterfalls plunge down thousand-foot cliffs.
We arrived around 08:00 and almost had the place to ourselves. By the time we left two hours later the tourists were arriving in droves.
Over the mountain in the above photograph are a series of valleys leading northward, the last of which is Pololu Valley. We understand there are trails that lead into these remote valleys, and that camping is allowed in the Waimanu Valley Campground with permit.
Final Thought: We spoke with a family of tourists who did a horseback riding tour in Waipio Valley. After listening to their story we probably should have done this.
Hapuna Beach might be the most picturesque, family-friendly beach we have ever experienced. We’re not really sure what else one could want? The sand is golden and soft. The water is postcard deluxe. The bathrooms are steps away from the sand. The parking is extensive and close. Perhaps the crowd is a little busy?
The twenty mile stretch along Highway 19 from north of the airport to Mauna Kea Resort is home to the best beaches on the island: Makalawena, Manini’owali, Hapuna, Anaeholomalu, and Mauna Kea Beach are all along this stretch. Geography designates this area as the clearest, bluest, sunniest part of the island.
After driving around this massive island for over a week, we decided that this is the best place to anchor our future vacations. Kona has cloudy skies, bad beaches, and spring break vibes. Hilo is cool, but rains a lot and has no beaches. Waimea has beautiful surroundings, but is disappointing and has no beaches. As much as we avoid resorts in general, this is the place to be on Hawaii Big Island.
If your Hawaiian vacation is focused on beach therapy and room service, Hapuna Beach and a Waikoloa Resort might be the single most beautiful thing to do on Big Island Hawaii.
Located on the Hamakua Coast, the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden might literally be the most beautiful thing to do on Hawaii Big Island.
Dan & Pauline Lutkenhouse bought these 17-acres in 1977 (map). So overgrown was the property that a machete was needed to walk only a few feet through it. Dan immediately fell in love with the ocean and envisioned his dream of planting a unique and welcoming garden of serenity in this beautiful valley. For the next eight years Dan cleared, designed, collected and planted, built a lake, discovered hidden waterfalls, and carved out the esthetic trails in his garden. He then donated the land and it became a charitable organization.
Today, Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens is loved and enjoyed by millions of visitors from throughout the world. In past years, Dan & Pauline traveled the world, collecting rare plants, visiting botanical gardens and making friends for the garden. The garden has never accepted government funding of any kind.
The two hours we spent walking through these gardens was Ryan’s favorite two hours of the vacation. There are so many different plants and flowers that we have never seen, each colorful and isolated against a green, tropical backdrop. The monkey pod trees near the ocean were simply overwhelming, an equatorial canopy looming atop dinosaur frames from another time.
We strongly recommend not missing the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens. It’s worth the drive from wherever you are.
The backside of the Kohala Mountains are home to a series of impressive valleys. The northernmost one, Pololu Valley, is arguably the most beautiful, and one of the most beautiful things to do on Hawaii Big Island. If your intention is to visit a black sand beach on the island, Pololu and Waipio both fit the category.
Trailhead parking is limited, so arrive early in the AM (always a good idea wherever you go). The view from the “Pololu Lookout” is decent, but the photo above was taken from about halfway down the trail. Trail conditions vary depending on the rain. It can get pretty slick — we learned — when it rains while you’re there.
We were fortunate to witness a sweet wedding ceremony on the beach. They had made a pink circle of flowers on the black sand which was visible from the lookout above. Pololu Valley is a popular place to tie the knot it seems, as the internet is flooded with gorgeous photos taken from the beach or the cliffs above.
Just off the beach are some interesting looking woods. Behind the trees are lovely green hills with adorning signs that suggest tourists stay the hell off the sacred burial mounds. We witnessed a group of sightseers marching around on them and they looked like illiterate jackasses. Pololu Valley has enough to see and experience without violating the wishes of the the locals.
Monica found a rope swing near the base of the trail and took the opportunity to free her soul. I can see in our photographs that we aren’t young anymore, but it doesn’t feel that way. We are still big kids.
The cliffs pictured below are the valleys moving southward toward Waipio Valley and the Hamakua Coast. The last one has a couple of huge waterfalls cascading into the sea.
A local jewelry maker suggested to us that while less popular, Pololu Valley was superior to Waipio Valley. We aren’t sure either way, honestly. The valleys are similar, yet different. Pololu might be more beautiful and interesting once you are down in the valley, but the experience of walking the ridiculous road into Waipio pushed it ahead for us.
Lili’uokalani Gardens are the largest authentic Japanese Ornamental Garden outside Japan. Named after Hawaii’s last reigning monarch, Queen Liliuokalani, this 4.67-acre Japanese garden was dedicated in 1917 as a tribute to Hawaii’s first Japanese immigrants who worked in Hawaii’s sugar cane fields. Admission is free and it is located on Hilo’s Banyan Drive along the water.
We found this place on accident while driving along the coast. It’s a real eye-catcher from the road and inspired us to promptly park and spend two hours strolling the gardens and nearby Coconut Island.
This beautifully landscaped park features arching bridges over fishponds, rock gardens, pagodas, Japanese stone lanterns and a teahouse. Views of Hilo Bay and Coconut Island enhance the peaceful setting. With so much to see, this is a popular park for families to explore while they’re visiting the Hilo area. This is the perfect place to work off that loco moco dinner from Cafe 100.
Coconut Island is where we wish we could have taken our children on Saturday afternoons when they were younger. Alas, we lived far from the Hawaiian Islands. Look for the bridge arcing across the water just off Lihiwai Street on Kelipio Place.
Anaeholomalu Beach is another one of those perfect Waikoloa resort coast beaches. It is uncrowded, easy to find, and has plenty of parking. The sand is nice, the surf is gentle, and there is a little bit of shade beneath the coconut trees on the south end.
This beach has an active view. While we were there a small group of wind surfers put on a show in the bay. We also saw a couple of large catamarans drop anchor.
There is a pathway that winds along the backside of the lake, a scenic stroll with enviable glances at the nearby resort rooms. For a closer look, climb up onto the lawn and peek in their windows. Probably want to make the the last thing you do before flying home.
Anaeholomalu Beach is the perfect place to catch a sunset.
Dedicated as a National Historic Park, Pu’uhonua O Honaunau is rife with historical significance and intrigue. Imagine you lived in ancient Hawaiian times, a time when kānāwai was the law and Kapu (forbidden) infractions were punishable by death. Now think back to a time in grade school when you played tag with friends on recess. Remember how you were untouchable when you got to “base”? Now put the two ideas together and you have Pu’uhonua O Honaunau, the place of refuge.
If an ancient Hawaiian broke the Kapu law — walked on the wrong path, let their shadow fall on royalty, anything that disrupted the stability of society — their only chance of survival was to evade their captors (and a hairy death) by running, jumping, and juking their way to home base. Once there they could be forgiven through the rites of a priest and resume their life as if nothing happened. Also, if war was declared, families could be protected by taking refuge in the Pu’uhonua.
This is not the only place of refuge on the island, but it is the best preserved and most dramatic given the extent of its historical structures.
Traditional accounts indicate that a ruling chief of a kingdom could declare certain lands or heiau (sacred structures) as puʻuhonua, and as long as they retained undisputed power these designations would remain in force. Unfortunately, no absolute chronology exists for dating the original establishment of Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau.
Yawn, another perfect beach. This one is at a fancy resort, the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, which we would love to stay at someday.
At Hofftoseetheworld.com we are all about VRBO condos and RV Parks. Condos make the best overall experience — they are affordable, have full kitchens, and provide more space. Overpriced resorts are seldom, if ever, on our radar.
However, location seems to be key on this island. Kona is pretty far south and lackluster. Hilo is rainy without beaches. Waimea doesn’t have much. Waikoloa has the best weather, the best beaches, and the best access to the beautiful things to do on Hawaii Big Island. For that we are willing to pay the resort cost… next time.
But back to the beach for a moment. Mauna Kea Beach is public land — all Hawaiian beaches are — but you’ll have to enter the resort to get there. Just follow the signs or your navigation device and you’ll eventually pass through a gate and park in a small lot. From there, walk down the long path to happiness.
The beach is split in thirds. The north third is resort loungers and umbrellas. Very exclusive and we want to be those people someday. The middle third is where the public sprawls their dirty towels. The southern third is separated by rocks and a tree — an amazing little locus tucked around the corner.
The sand and surf are incredible here. If you’re looking for a clean place to spend the afternoon lounging in the sun and splashing with the kids in the tranquil surf, then Mauna Kea Beach is every bit as good as Hapuna Beach.
Truth be told, there were no manta rays that night. We froze our butts off for nothing. However, the idea of luring manta rays to our tiny collective and watching them dance and flip in our faces is incredibly fascinating, and we would want anyone to have that experience even if we didn’t.
So here’s how it works: A boat hauls a group of tourists to a bay about thirty minutes before sunset. Everyone puts on a wet-suit top, dons snorkels, and jumps in the Pacific Ocean. A pvc/surfboard contraption with black lights bored into its underside is tossed in the water and everyone holds on in a circle around it (see photo below).
The black lights draw plankton, which attracts manta rays. Ordinarily (when you don’t get skunked), the manta rays perform directly beneath the group, sometimes doing backflips or synchronized maneuvers. They are known to come right up to you and “kiss” your face. Some say it is a magical experience, one you will never forget.. and then they collect your money and tell you where to stand. If you get skunked like we did, you are invited to try again for free or at a reduced cost.
Remember the time you were swimming in the Pacific Ocean and that wild dolphin came right up to you and looked you in the eyes? We do!
The above photo demonstrates what a crap-show this looks like above the surface.
The boat captain knew approximately where the dolphins would be, but they are wild animals and its hard to convince them to hang with you. While the lot of us were flailing in the water hoping to meet some cetaceans, the captain was shouting and pointing, “Go that way! No, not that way! Go that way!”
It was hard work chasing those dolphins down, but we saw quite a few. They huddle in large pods at the bottom of the ocean, just kind of sitting there. One of the guides was very talented and he swam down about 20 feet and took some go-pro footage of them.
Another boat captain lectured Monica and I, telling us to stay in our section and let the dolphins come to us. Of course he would say that, because the dolphins were in his section, not ours. It felt very “get off my lawn”. Not all Hawaiians bring the aloha. Some bring the a-hol-a.
Captain James Cook is credited with being the first European to visit the Hawaiian Islands. What followed is a somewhat long and sad story that involved the Hawaiians worshiping the British men, then eventually mobbing and killing them. When Captain Cook was murdered, his body was prepared ritualistically in the same manner the Hawaiians would prepare the funeral for a chief. Captain Cook’s bones and some flesh were delivered to his crew as a sign of respect, which rightfully grossed them out.
The monument that commemorates Captain Cook’s contribution to the Hawaiian Islands is found on a tranquil bay beneath sheer cliffs. It is a popular place for kayaking and snorkeling. Kayaks can be rented from an outfit that sets up shop just south of the bay, called Ehu and Kai. The snorkeling is probably the best we have ever experienced. The fish are abundant and colorful. We even saw a shark cruising along beside us.
Keep in mind a few things: 1. The kayak trip is pretty long. It is best in the morning when the ocean is calm. We went at 1 pm and it was laborious. 2. If you kayak to the monument you cannot go ashore. The only way to beach yourself is to walk across the reef which is not allowed. To snorkel from a kayak you have to keep one hand on the kayak at all times. It isn’t ideal, but it works. 3. You can drive to the trailhead and hike to the monument like the above people did.
This is the best shave ice we’ve ever had. It is located in Kona, a few blocks from the beach. Ryan had Brazilian grape, lime, and strawberry whip. Monica had bubblegum and cotton candy because she’s three years old.
Five years ago on Oahu, we had shave ice at a place called Matsumoto’s in Haleiwa. You can read about that amazing experience here!
One Aloha on Big Island Hawaii is even better than Matsumoto’s. Be sure to check it out.
With a population of 45K people, Hilo is Hawaii Big Island’s largest city. We much preferred Hilo to Kailua-Kona (which is not recommended to anyone with taste). Hilo is on the rainy side of the island, which means it is green and lush and the waterfalls reside in these parts. It is also close to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (45 minutes away), and the Hamakua Coast (gorgeous).
Hilo is old, funky, and meth-disturbed, all in a moderately likable way. It can be a bit scary for the kids to see drug-impaired homeless folks sleeping on the storefronts, but Monica and I didn’t mind (we’re from Seattle). If you’re looking for a good restaurant, we enjoyed a wonderful meal at Cafe Pesto. We almost ate at Hilo Burger Joint because they have a reputation for good burgers, but then we realized it was a self-righteous dump. Seriously, who puts out a sniveling, virtue-signaling sign that reads, “No racists or homophobes allowed”? Fix your sign and fix your music, Hilo Burger Joint.
Hilo has access to many wonderful places and things. The Hilo Waterfalls (Rainbow Falls, Boiling Pots, Pe’e Pe’e Falls, and Wailuku Falls), are only a mile from town. Lili’uokalani Park & Gardens are easy to find on the bay — the banyan trees are spectacular! The farmers market (pictured above) has pretty much every kind of fruit you could ever want. Except apples. And probably some other fruits.
A mile or two up Waianuenue Avenue from downtown Hilo leads to a series of waterfalls along the Wailuku River. The first and most famous is Rainbow Falls (pictured above), in Wailuku River State Park. The best time to view the falls is in the morning when the sun is behind you — that’s when you can catch a rainbow, which we never did.
A little further up the road is Pe’epe’e Falls (sign says peepee falls, hilarious). You can see it in the distance two photos down. In the same photo you can see the beginning of the Boiling Pots in the lower right corner. There was once a path that lead down to the river, but that has been closed off. This is an especially beautiful setting that would make for an ideal picnic lunch.
Another half mile up the road is Wailuku River Falls, seen above right. This photo was taken from the road. Between the two waterfalls is an island –a short trail leads to the water’s edge and a thirty foot swim will get you to the island — where you can lounge in the plunge pool of Wailuku River Falls. There is another trail (somewhere in the area) that leads to the top of the falls, but we couldn’t locate it.
Located on Ali’i Drive in the center of Kailua-Kona, Hulihe’e Palace takes you back to a time when Hawaiian Royalty ruled the islands. This was the summer home of King Kamehameha and his kin. Here you can learn about the Hawaiian Kings and Queens, their children, and the sagas of their lives.
From Kamehameha I down until King David Kalakaua, and the sad and unforgivable events that followed, all are documented around the interior of this historic, beautifully decorated mansion. The furniture is especially impressive (no photography allowed to prevent copying of the designs) and along with the historical plaques it is worth the $10 admission. There is a small gift shop inside.
A short walk down the road leads to the Ahu’ena Heiau. This temple was constructed by King Kamehameha I in 1812 to honor Lono, the god of fertility. Kamehameha lived here for the last years of his life, performing rituals and receiving messages from the gods concerning the higher nature of humanity.
Akaka Falls is 442 feet high. It cost about $25 bucks for us to park our car and visit the waterfall. There is another waterfall along the circular path, Kahuna Falls, but it is far off in the distance and somewhat obscured by vegetation. The walk around the State Park is pleasant — it takes about 15 minutes. If you want to see a big waterfall, here you go.
We didn’t see a lot of surf activity on the Big Island. This was the one location where the waves were consistent enough to put boards in the water on a daily basis.
It’s a black sand beach with ample parking that draws a worthy crowd of beach goers. It wouldn’t be our first choice, but if you’re looking for somewhere to lay out on in Kona this spot is good as any.
On the north side of the small bay is the historic Little Blue Church and Ku’emanu Heiau, which is the altar of gnarly surfing conditions.
We have now visited three of the Hawaiian Islands: Oahu, Maui, and Hawaii. The Big Island of Hawaii is different from the other two — it is much larger and less idyllic. We made it a point to find all the beautiful things to do on Big Island Hawaii, and we don’t feel like we left much behind.
Kona was a massive disappointment for us. We were told the weather is always sunny — it’s not. It rained most every day and it was perpetually gray skies. It is also pretty far from other points of interest. While there are some cool things to do in Kona, the extra 30 minutes of drive time to get to the resort district of Waikoloa isn’t worth doing every time you want to sit on a gorgeous beach. The vibe in Kona is Cozumel on meth, which makes Kona a far cry from all other Hawaiian hubs we’ve called home.
We spent 9 nights on Hawaii. Our pace was fast and we took a day in the middle to argue and rest. With another three nights we could have done the island to completion (far as we’re concerned).
Don’t Miss: Volcanoes National Park, Mauna Kea Summit, Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, Waipio/Pololu Valley.
Overrated: Captain Cook Memorial, Kona, Akaka Falls State Park
To Do Next Time: Easternmost Point, Makalawena Beach, Green Sand Beach
On the drive to Pololu Valley in the far NW corner of the island, the ocean is an incredible shade of blue. There isn’t much here, the landscape is rugged and sparse, but the beauty is undeniable.
Flowering Jacaranda Trees
While these beautiful trees can bloom anytime, most of the blooming occurs in late spring/early summer. We found a small, yet dense field of them on the Mamalahoa Highway south of Waimea.
Small Town Shopping
The Big Island of Hawaii has endless small towns to explore (and by “explore” we mean buying stuff we don’t need). The above Mary Guava Designs is located in Honoka’a near Waipio Valley. Some other small towns to visit are: Keaau, Pahoa, Hawi, Kealakekua, and if you’re fancy, Waikoloa.
Tropical Dreams Ice Cream
It might be the best ice cream on earth (along with Blue Bell). We absolutely love the macadamia nut flavor! Served all over the island, it isn’t hard to find Tropical Dreams. Kohala Coffee Mill near Pololu Valley in Hawi is a great place to enjoy it.
We will always recommend visiting the LDS temple because we are LDS and we love you!
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