The Big Island (officially named Hawaii) is the largest island in the United States’ Hawaiian archipelago. Sitting in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the landmass of the Island of Hawaii is still growing regularly thanks to Kilauea Volcano on the eastern coast of the island. Composed of five major volcanoes, the island is the youngest in the Hawaiian chain with origins dating back some 800,000 years to the present day.
Not only is it called the Big Island, but it is ‘big’ in what it has to offer travellers. Its diverse terrain spans coloured-sand beaches at Papakolea (green) and Punalu’u (black) to lush rainforest. Within Volcanoes National Park, there are 2 active volcanoes, Kilauea and Mauna Loa. Hapuna Beach and Kahalu’u Beach Park in the west are popular snorkelling sites. The diversity is simply stunning.
On the Island of Hawaii, you can expect the unexpected. Even the beaches don’t follow the rules here as it is often easier to find a black sand beach than a white one, and you might even find a green sand beach.
With a diverse offering of accommodation and activities, the Island of Hawaii has something to offer every type of traveller. Adventure seekers will find an abundance of outdoor and adventure activities from surfing, diving and snorkelling to hiking, helicopter rides and quad-biking. Couples will love the five-star offerings, intimate restaurants and the ability to escape the crowd. For those solo travellers, they will find the locals friendly and eager to share their favourite spots. Families will also enjoy the vast array of family-friendly hotels and resorts packed with activities to keep all the kids entertained.
How to get to the Island of Hawaii
To get to the Big Island of Hawaii Travel, you will fly into Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport (KOA) in Kona to the west, or Hilo International Airport (ITO) in Hilo to the east. Most visitors arrive in Kona. From Australia, you will have to fly via Honolulu International Airport (HNL) on Oahu first and then take a short, 35-40 minute flight to the island of Hawaii. Flights from Australia depart from Sydney and Melbourne Airports and arrive at Daniel K. Inouye Airport on the island of O‘ahu. The direct flight time is approximately 9.45 hours.
Because the island is so big, consider arriving on one side of the island and departing from the other. For example, you might fly into Kona, explore that side of the island a while, then drive to the Hilo side (roughly 2 hrs, 30 min) and explore for a while longer before flying out from the Hilo Airport, or vice-versa. (Be sure to ask car rental companies about drop-off charges).
Where to stay on the Island of Hawaii
Knowing where to stay on the Island of Hawaii is essential as the island is large (twice the size of all the other islands combined) and diverse. Many visitors find it challenging to decide so we suggest you narrow it down by choosing a location on the island that you will enjoy. Consider a location that affords you enough time to visit all or most popular attractions. A week might cut it on smaller islands like Kauai, Maui, or Oahu, but the size of the Big Island requires more time to see all the worthwhile attractions. We suggest one week as a minimum, but two or three weeks are ideal. Plan to divide your time between the two primary halves of the island: the West Side and the East Side. Our pick of the bunch is Outrigger Kona Resort (read the hotel review here).
Top things to discover on the Island of Hawaii
Narrowing it down to the top ten things to do on the Island of Hawaii is hard as there is so much to do. Here are the top 10 things to do for all types of travellers.
Snorkelling with Manta Rays
Regarded by the Travel Channel as one of the most thrilling experiences on earth, watching magnificent manta rays glide through the ocean in search of dinner is a must-do experience on the Big Island of Hawaii. The manta ray night snorkel experience with Eka Canoe Adventures is an activity that can only be had in a few locations on earth; one of them is here on the Big Island of Hawaii. The tour starts with a short Hawaiian canoe ride out to the manta ray snorkel site located near the mouth of Keauhou Bay. After a safety brief, instructions on how to use snorkel gear and popping on wet suit tops to keep you warm in the water, guests are guided into the water by crew members and positioned along the perimeter of our Light Board. Then you simply hang on to the handles and effortlessly float, face down, with the help of floatation devices. The powerful lights attract photosynthetic plankton towards the group, and the manta rays come in search of the plankton. It is a truly incredible experience that is both exciting and humbling.
Kealakekua Snorkel Tour
Take to the water and explore with Fair Wind on their snorkel tour. Starting at Keauhou Bay, where Hawaii’s longest-reigning monarch King Kamehameha III was born, learn about the last battle stand at the Kuamo’o Battlefield and view the Royal Holua Slide, the best and largest of its kind in the state. Cruise on to Kealakekua Bay, where the Captain Cook Monument stands tall as a way to commemorate the site in which the celebrated circumnavigator, Captain James Cook, perished in 1779. Here you have the chance to jump in the water and snorkel around the crystal clear waters. On the way back, keep your eyes peeled for dolphins that frequent the area.
Paradise Helicopter Malama tour
If there is one thing you splurge on when visiting the big island, make it a helicopter tour with Paradise Helicopters. Feel the thrill and excitement of taking off in a helicopter and cruising along the coastline, over lava flows and to parts of the island that are only accessible by air. The landscape of towering cliffs blanketed to the edge with lush rainforest that meets unforgiving crashing waves is made even more spectacular by the deep misty valleys and towering waterfalls that cascade down. With the add-on of the Kohala Ho’iho’i – Native Tree Planting experience, you will help nurture the native flora on the Island of Hawaii. Touch down at one of the remote and secluded landing sites and plant a native tree and learn about our unique ecosystem as you gaze at the beautiful views.
Feast and Fire Luau at Outrigger Kona Resort
Outrigger Kona Resort’s signature experience, the Feast and Fire Luau, is an incredible display of music, chants and hula that honours the kūpuna (ancestors). This iconic Feast and Fire luau is performed by the famed Lim Family of Kohala, and with their lineage being traceable back to Alapa‘i Nui, guests are in the presence of royal descendants of the one-time ruler of Hawaii who have been iconic musicians for generations. You will get to savour soulful local favourites like slow-cooked Kalua pork and taro rolls with lilikoi butter while sipping Mai Tais and cocktails—with desserts like to-die-for lilikoi cheesecake, Kona-coffee chocolate cake and traditional Hawaiian coconut pudding (haupia).
Kailua-Kona town, Kealakekua
This warm and sunny leeward area has become the resort hotspot of the island. In total, the Kona Coast stretches some 40 miles along the rugged west coast of the Big Island. You’ll find a vast array of ocean-side restaurants, grocery stores, shops, and activity huts promoting various water activities in the nearby Kailua Bay. Many historical sites, beautiful beaches (some well-hidden), pristine bays, and lava fields (with prominent petroglyphs) criss-cross and line the coast of this area. North Kona has some of the most gorgeous white sand beaches on the island, like Makalawena Beach and Mahai’ula Beach located at Kekaha Kai / Kona Coast State Park.
Immerse yourself in Kohala
On the far northwest tip of the Big Island is Kohala, one of the most diverse areas on the island. This part of the Big Island started forming around 460,000 years ago and today includes the Kohala Mountains and the Kohala Ridge Road which straddles the mountain as it makes its way northwestward. Here you’ll also discover the towns of Waimea (Kamuela) and Hawi.
Grab a bite to eat at Papa Kona Restaurant & Bar
Located right on the waterfront on the first floor and top lanai of the Waterfront Row right in the heart of downtown Kona, Papa Kona Restaurant & Bar serves up tasty food with panoramic views of the iconic Oneo Bay and Kona sunsets. This open-air venue provides a stunning backdrop for a locally inspired menu, handcrafted cocktails, locally brewed beers as well as a vast selection of interesting wines. The atmosphere here just adds to the views and delicious food.
Explore the North Hamakua Region
On the North Coast of the Big Island lies the Hamakua coast, one of the most beautiful stretches on the entire island. The North (Hamakua) Coast begins at the entrance to Waipio Valley, at the end of the Kohala region, a once flourishing indigenous Hawaiian community, and ends at the outskirts of the Hilo region on the east side of the island.
Head to Hilo Town
The most notable location on the northeast side of the Big Island of Hawai’i is undoubtedly Hilo town. Due to large amounts of rainfall, Hilo is an especially lush city with several gorgeous orchid gardens, interesting parks (the most prominent being Liliu’okalani Garden), museums, and other various attractions. Hilo borders a beautiful bay and is often cooled by sea breezes and tradewind showers. Rainbow Falls State Park and Wailuku River State Park, featuring the Boiling Pots area and Pe’epe’e Falls, are some of the larger natural attractions in town. Both parks are located on the same river just a few miles separate from one another.
See spectacular volcanoes
Originally founded in 1916, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is a living, breathing testament to the awesome power of Mother Nature. The National Park is located southwest of Hilo and southeast of Kona. It is home to Kilauea Volcano, the most continuously active volcano in the world, and the park offers the unique experience of walking on land that is younger than you are. In recognition of its outstanding natural values, Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park has been honoured as an International Biosphere Reserve and a World Heritage Site. The park encompasses 333,000 acres of natural wonders and is situated at 4,000 feet above sea level. With its wealth of trails, drives, and activities you will likely need at least two days to fully experience all the park has to offer.
The best time to visit the Island of Hawaii
Weather across The Hawaiian Islands is very consistent, with only minor changes in temperature throughout the year. There are only two seasons: the summer months (May to October) and the winter months (November to April). The average daytime temperature in summer is 29°C, while the average daytime temperature in winter is 25°C. The average temperatures for the month of March are Minimum: 20°C , Average: 26°C and Maximum: 27°C.
Travel Tips for Hawaii’s ‘Big’ Island
Here are just a few handy tips we found useful when travelling to and around the Island of Hawaii.
- Rent a car – you will appreciate the freedom to stop and enjoy the scenery, even when just travelling from A to B
- If you are going to splurge on anything, make it a helicopter flight! It is well worth it
- Try the local food – it is fresh, locally sourced and amazing
- Use reef safe sunscreen! A big must!
- Practice Travel Pono – which means to explore with care, offering your help to preserve Hawaii’s natural resources, cultures and communities
To discover more about the Island of Hawaii visit gohawaii.com/au
Disclosure: The writer Kate Webster travelled as a guest of Hawaii Tourism Oceania. All images are credited to Kate Webster unless otherwise specified.