Hello hello!! We’ve just come back from a glorious 9 day trip to Hawai’i and I have to tell you, I think it might just be my favorite island out there.
It’s funny, when I was researching what to do and where to go, I was surprised to find that there wasn’t much out there! The best recommendations came from word of mouth and I’m here to change that in case you want to venture out there (which you should) and need something to reference!
I think the thing I love most about the Big Island is that it’s like a million different places in one and it’s FASCINATING. One side of the island is sunny and dry and the other is like a rainforest, plus you add in the lava flows that formed the island and continue to do so – it’s just unbelievable and there’s SO much to see. It’s also far less developed than say Maui or Oahu, which makes the vibe a big more low key and perfect for a relaxing vacation.
Here are some super important things to note before you plan your trip:
- There are two airports you can fly into and out of: Kona (the more touristy side) and Hilo, though the latter offers far fewer flights and airline options
- Rent a car. There really is no other option, and you wouldn’t want there to be because the drives on the Big Island are some of the prettiest drives I’ve ever been on, not to mention that everything is quite far from one another!
- You’ll want to spend more time on the Kona side simply because there’s more to do, more beaches to visit, better snorkeling, more food options and less of a chance of rain!
- But definitely don’t go all that way and miss out on the Hilo side where you’ll find things like Volcanoes National Park and some incredible waterfalls.
I’m going to go ahead and break this guide into two sections corresponding with each side of the island! Keep scrolling for things to see, do and eat no matter where you find yourself.
Where to Stay: We spent our time up at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel which was insanely stunning, so shoutout to boyfriends who get the hookup with travel points😂 I couldn’t recommend this property more (the beach was my favorite) but the Kailua-Kona area & Waikoloa are also beautiful! There are more options on this side of the island for resorts & Airbnbs.
What to Do: You MUST go to Snorkel Bob’s and rent snorkel equipment as soon as you hit the island, this is a non-negotiable. Bob himself will give you tons of resources for where to snorkel and I can assure he’s right about every single one. For $50, we rented top notch snorkel gear for the week and were able to see incredible sea creatures for that low cost!
- Snorkel in Caption Cook – hands down our favorite moment of the entire week. We kayaked from a friend’s house over to the Captain Cook monument, got out to go snorkeling, and immediately saw a reef shark. It felt like Planet Earth and it was AWESOME.
- Visit Hapuna Beach – and snorkel there, too! It’s one of the only white sand beaches on the island (aside from Mauna Kea) and it’s beautiful.
- Hike Down the Pololu Trail – please don’t miss out on this! The view is breathtaking and the hike down/back up is super rewarding because the beach at the bottom is beautiful. You’ll be able to see a bit down the coast, too! On your way home, stop in Hawi, the artisan town nearby.
- Lay Out on Waialea Beach – which is also a great snorkeling spot! This was one of our favorite beaches because the layout of it is really cool. Lots of rocks, cool trees, and locals!
- Watch the Surfers at Magic Sands Beach – as long as the waves are big! Otherwise you can swim in the water yourself, although we were there during a huge swell, so we sat that one out.
Where to Eat: We ate breakfast at our hotel everyday because the buffet breakfast was included and it was UNREAL (again, highly recommend the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, wish this were sponsored😂), but we did manage to stop at some other delicious places for lunch and dinner!
- Basik Café – a must for delicious açai bowls!! It’s above the Snorkel Bob’s in the southern part of the island by Magic Sands Beach/Kona
- Under the Bodhi Tree – we happened to get açai bowls here too, but I can confidently say the rest of their food is incredible. We were drooling over the menu and wish we’d brought a bigger appetite! Regardless though, this was hands down the craziest smoothie bowl of all time🙌🏻
- Daylight Mind – this café in Kailua-Kona blew us away! The food was unbelievably fresh, their coffee was fantastic, and the prices were great!
- Big Island BrewHaus – this was the only place we ate at twice because we were THAT obsessed with it. Their food is incredible (I miss it, honestly) and the beer is great, too. It’s up in Waimea, so potentially a hike depending on where you’re staying, but so worth the trip!
- Pueo’s Osteria – we ventured here for a slightly fancier date night, but this plate is super cute and the food is fantastic! They make pizza and pasta in house, and definitely leave room for dessert.
**One thing to note: If you’re driving from the Mauna Kea/Waikoloa area to or from Hilo like we did, you HAVE to stop at the Waipio Valley Lookout. It’s stunning and truly fascinating because people actually live way down in the valley where the history is rich. There is a hike, but don’t bother with it, we heard from locals that it’s gnarly! And definitely stop at the local fruit stand on the side of the road on your way out.
Where to Stay: There admittedly are not a lot of options hotel-wise on this side, but we stayed at the Grand Naniloa Hotel by Hilton right in town. What’s nice is that the few hotels that do exist are about a 5 minute drive into Hilo itself and another 5 to the airport! I would recommend this hotel for sure, but an Airbnb could also be great!
What to Do: While Hilo isn’t exactly the most glamorous part of the island (it’s definitely where the locals all live), there is a TON to do. We got through pretty much all of it in two days though, so don’t feel like you need much longer than that.
- Day Trip to Volcanoes National Park – this is up at the top of the list for a reason and it’s easily the most important thing you could do on the Big Island. It’ll cost you $25 to enter the park (but it’s good for a week) and there’s a TON to see. It’s all mind-blowing, trust me, and don’t forget to chat with the park rangers to find out what’s open/worth checking out. We spent about 4 hours here and it was a major highlight of our trip!
- Rainbow Falls/PeePee Falls – both of these waterfalls are absolutely gorgeous and quite close to one another! Rainbow Falls actually has a little Banyan Tree forest right next to it as well, so definitely check that out.
- Akaka Falls – there are two more waterfalls here and it’s a bit north of Hilo itself, but a must visit! Akaka Falls is actually 3x the size (depth wise) of Niagara Falls, which is insane. There’s a little hike here, but it’s nothing too crazy. Try to go before or after it’s midday and super hot.
- Relax at Punalu’u Black Sand Beach – this beach is admittedly quite far away, so if you don’t hit it, it’s not a big deal, BUT it’s known for all the sea turtles that hang there (we saw two!) and it’s a super cool locals beach. The black sand is pretty mind blowing, too!
- Hike the Onomea Trail – we almost stumbled on this trail accidentally and I’m SO glad we did. It’s right next to the Botanical Gardens (which are $25 a person, so no thank you there) but you can do a hike down to a few super remote, beautiful beaches!
Where to Eat: Again, there isn’t anything too fancy in Hilo, but that’s what I loved about it! We found some hidden gems and I was honestly really impressed with the food.
- Moon & Turtle – I LOVED this place. Their menu is pretty small and changes daily based upon what’s available. Everything is locally sourced and unique. Not fancy, but great for a special night!
- Conscious Culture – okay wait I LOVED this place, too😂 Their focus is also on local food, but with more of a hippie vibe. I had one of their nourishing bowls with sautéed veggies and rice, and added the goat cheese. Oh! Pro tip: always add the goat cheese. It’s probably made a mile from where you are on the island. This café is also home to Big Island Booch, so be sure to get a pint. It’s incredible.
Some things we didn’t get to do that maybe we would try next time:
- Eat at Da Poké Shack, which everyone seems to rave about
- Drive to the Green Sand Beach (but it’s faaaaar)
- Spend more time in Waimea, which is a super cute “cowboy” town!
- Visit a farmer’s market
- Swim with the Manta Rays at night (all the tours were booked when we wanted to go, but it’s expensive!
Well, there ya have it! That was a LONG one, so props to you if you hung in there. TLDR: Please visit the Big Island. It’s insane and I truly think it’s not spoken about enough!