The Big Island of Hawaii is the largest of all Hawaiian islands and often overlooked. What many may not know is just how blissful it is. With two active volcanoes and eight of thirteen ecosystems, it is one of the most diverse destinations to visit. The white-sand beaches, the towering volcanoes, and lava beds come together for a memorizing and intricate landscape.
For me, the Big Island is all that I could hope for in a “tropical” getaway. The slower-paced and often less-crowded island gives you an undeniable at peace feeling. It was our second time visiting and this time we came with an entirely different plan. In fact, no plan at all. We had our shaved ice spot we wanted to stop at and a few remote beaches we planned to return to, but other than that, it was free going.
Often we over-plan our trips. I’m guilty of researching all that there is to maximize time and feel like we can say we’ve done it all. This last year spent mostly at home has undeniably shifted the way we travel. We’re visiting for longer in one place and not making near as many plans. We took it day by day on the Big Island with loose plans with eight nights and no intention to island-hop.
When you arrive on the Big Island, I think you’ll feel the energy that attracted us to return. It’s a different pace and perhaps the best way I can put it is a more mindful pace. Local farmer’s markets, out of sight beaches, and a desire to protect the island’s natural beauty invites travelers to travel differently. (I heard recently that Hawaii doesn’t need more visitors, it needs more mindful visitors.)
So as I share this guide to visiting the Big Island and all of the wonderful things to do, I hope you’ll be inspired to travel differently. To soak it all in, to travel slowly, and most importantly, be a mindful visitor to this wonderfully beautiful Hawaiian island.
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A Slow Travel Guide to The Big Island of Hawaii
What to Know Before Visiting
Flights: Getting to the Big Island is quite easy. There are direct flights available from certain major airports, like Southwest’s direct route via Oakland or Hawaiian Airlines to Kona Airport. Otherwise, you’ll have a quick stop on either Maui or Oahu to get there. There are testing requirements to arrive on the island which change frequently. At the time of writing this, a test was required within 72 hours of the flight and they were randomly testing on arrival. My suggestion is to visit the Safe Travels Site for up-to-date information.
Cars: You will need a rental car for the Big Island. It’s actually a large island and you can plan to spend a deal of time driving depending on what you want to do. I’ll also note you will want to be mindful of filling up with gas before heading out on long drives.
Time of Year: Spring to fall is wonderful and if you go before June or after August, you will have fewer crowds.
Amount of Time: This is such a personal decision, we did eight nights and loved it. I think a week is a good amount to get a feel of the island (remember it is massive — can take several hours to cross from Kona to Hilo).
The Geography of the Big Island
To get an understanding of how to plan your trip, it’s important to understand how the island is situated. Most of the population lives in the two areas of Kona and Hilo. Hilo is known as more “jungle” and the lush side of the island, whereas Kona is more rugged and has lava fields.
The best beaches are on the Kona side, hence why all of the main hotels are located there and up the Kohala Coast. As you visit further south of Kona, you’ll find smaller towns and then eventually access to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. To cross the island, you have a few options, but most go via the 19 near Mauna Kea or south via the 11 near Mauna Lea. It’s a journey, so if you plan to visit Hilo, it may be worth staying a night or two.
For our trip, we chose to stay in Captain’s Cook and then the Kohala Coast as we had previously visited Hilo the last trip.
Where to Stay on The Big Island
A big draw for us to return to the island was not only that we love it but also because of this hotel. As I started to do the research, the Four Seasons on the Big Island was repeatedly one of the top hotels on all of the islands in addition to the Four Seasons Lana’i. As this was our babymoon and 10 year wedding anniversary, we knew we wanted part of our time to be at a luxe resort to unwind. So after doing our research, this hotel really sealed the deal for the trip.
The Four Seasons Hualalai is truly incredible. When I say you’ll cry when you leave the resort, I mean it. It’s one of the most well-done, laidback, yet refined resorts I’ve been to. This last year, the rooms also were upgraded and lots of improvements were done to the property.
The food was amazing, we loved the several pool options, and being able to fall asleep each night to the sound of the ocean was blissful. I couldn’t recommend it more and we hope we can return one day soon.
Other Accommodations On the Big Island
For our first four nights, we booked this lovely Airbnb near Captain Cook. It was wonderful, I’d recommend it to anyone for those looking to be south of Kona. You’re close to the southern parts of the island and can do some great day trips from here.
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Where to Eat on The Big Island
Travel note: I’m going to put asterisks on the spots I’d go out of my way for or prioritize while in the area. It’s good to note that because the island is so large, oftentimes you just go with whatever restaurant you are close to.
*The Coffee Shack
We came here four mornings in a row for breakfast, it is that good. The lines can be long so we often showed up before 8 to snag a table with a view. You can expect lines all day but the views + food is worth it.
*Ulu Ocean Grill at the Four Seasons
This is arguably the best restaurant on the island for both its location and food. They do omakase for sushi and serve a wonderful Japanese-inspired menu. This was our favorite meal from the trip.
*Anuenue Ice Cream & Shave Ice
No trip to the Big Island is complete without shaved ice. This is our favorite on the island, there is something just different about the way they shave the ice. We drove an hour north two days in a row to get shaved ice here. Seriously incredible and don’t forget the condensed milk on top.
Punalu’u Bake Shop (come for malasadas)
Located at the island’s southernmost tip, we made the long drive one morning to get in line for their famous malasadas. Yes, they were incredible and I was shocked by how many people were there for opening to snag some of the more “rare” flavors. Malasadas are a Portuguese pastry that is like a fluffy donut and either sugared or stuffed with a jam.
Great spot for tacos and burritos down in Captain Cook. If you’re headed down this side, definitely pop in for a bite.
Great spot for Hawaii meets Mexico-inspired food. We got burritos here a few times.
Da Poke Shack
All of your poke, fresh seafood can be found here.
Broke Da Mouth Grindz
Come here for authentic Hawaiian and Filipino food. Their furikake chicken is amazing.
Come here for great sushi with local fish. It’s prepared by a Japanese chef as well.
If you make it to Hilo, definitely pop into this joint for ramen. This is one of our favorite spots in Tokyo and they have an outpost here in Hawaii.
One of our favorites for acai bowls.
Kuleana Rum Shack
Great spot for happy hour and a good bite.
Things to Do on the Big Island
Beaches to Visit
Beach 69: I love this beach because it has a lot of shade to offer with the way it is situated. It’s very intimate and not large, so you don’t have a ton of people who are flooding in for this one.
Hapuna Beach: One of the largest public beaches with restrooms, there is plenty of space to spread out. This is great for a long beach day, just remember to bring an umbrella.
Manini’owali Beach (Kua Bay): What a dream of a beach with blue waters and a small bay. It does get crowded here but it’s an easy-to-access beach that is stunning.
Experiences to Bookmark
Go Snorkeling: There are many spots to snorkel across the island, one of the most famous is at Two Step. We went a few times ourselves and saw all kinds of fish and even an octopus. Other good spots include Kahalu’u Beach Park, Ho’okena Beach Park, and Kealakekua Bay near Captain Cook. *Recommendation: bring your own snorkel gear and water shoes. We packed ours before and so glad we didn’t deal with rentals for the week.
See a Waterfall: There are only a few waterfalls on the Big Island and the top-visited is always Akaka Falls on the Hilo side of the island. There is about a half-mile loop to get there but worth it to see the 420+ ft waterfall that tumbles into a lush forest.
Visit Punalu’u Black Sand Beach: If you make your way down to the south of the island, as we did for malasadas, you can pop into the black sand beach which is breathtaking. You’ll spot sea turtles here and it’s worth it to see the stunning colors.
Visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park: How you experience the national park is completely up to you, whether you drive in for the day or bookmark a few nights to explore it in-depth. One of the most popular things to see/do is the Thurston Lave Tube area as well as the famous Kīlauea Iki Trail that borders and loops around the rim of a crater.
Sunset From Mauna Kea Volcano: If you come to this side of the island, it’s well worth sticking around for sunset above the clouds. Drive up to the Mauna Kea Observatory to watch the sunset, or even consider a late-night stargazing tour.
Hike into Pololū Valley: One unique experience is the opportunity to hike down into this valley which features a black sand beach. It’s at the most northern tip of the island near the town of Hawi and has a scenic overlook.
Tours to Consider Booking
While you’re on the island, sometimes the best way to experience the island’s magic is through a guided tour. There are a few standout ones I want to highlight like the nighttime dive with rays and stargazing. See below for more details:
Essentials to Pack
There are a few key items I would suggest bringing with you before arriving on the island, these were our must’s:
Snorkel set – for the price of a one-day rental, we bought our own for the entire trip. We loved this set and worked great for our trip. Plus, we will have it for a long time and can use it again.
Water shoes — you are going to want these if you plan to snorkel at any of the lava beaches. They will protect your feet and you’ll be so glad you have them. We were so thankful to have them.
Reef-Safe Sunscreen — please, please wear reef-safe sunscreen. Chemicals from sunscreens are incredibly bad for the ocean and reefs and it’s an easy switch. A few of my favorites are All Good, Raw Elements, and Babo Botanicals.
Quick-dry towel — I brought one to bring to the beaches and glad we had it a few times.
Refillable Water Bottle — to cut down on plastic, we have been bringing our own refillable water bottles on trips. There are plenty to choose from, however, this Larq one that self-cleans is amazing.
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PS — Are You Booking a Trip Soon? Use My Booking Checklist!
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1. Book Your Flights
Use Skyscanner to find the best flights. It searches 100s of airlines and websites across the globe to ensure you’re not missing out on any route options or deals.
2. Book Your Accommodations
Use Booking.com for hotels and guest houses. They have the biggest inventory and consistently offer the best rates.
3. Book Your Tours & Experiences
4. Book Your Car
Use Discover Cars to find the best car rental deals. I recommend comparing rental agency reviews on Google to ensure you are booking with the best company in that destination, as the reviews are often more accurate than the car rental search engines.
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I never leave the country without travel insurance. It provides comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong (ie. illness, injury, theft, and cancelations, etc.). I use it frequently for my travels to stay protected.
My favorite companies that offer the best coverage and rates are: