Hi everyone! We’re back in the swing of travel here at The Woks of Life, and we’re excited to share more travel posts in the coming weeks and months. For today, get ready for an armchair vacation through paradise, because we’re talking about things to do on the Big Island of Hawaii.
So…We LOVE Hawaii
We’re a family that really enjoys travel, and we’re always looking for new places to go. But Hawaii is a destination we find ourselves going back to again and again. (See our first Hawaii post, when we took a family vacation there nearly 10 years ago(!), and subsequent visits to Maui and Oahu.)
I was looking through old photos from our first Hawaii vacation in August 2013, and found this—we stopped into a Blockbuster on Maui. That’s how long ago it was! Since then, I’ve been looking for excuses to go back.
Where else can you find a combination of beautiful island paradise, pristine beaches, delicious food (with rice, always), fascinating cultural stories and history, and the comforts of being at home, all rolled into one?
As a Chinese person, it’s also always refreshing to be in a place in America that’s so interwoven with Asian culture.
I mean, Hawaii is the only state where you’ll walk into a supermarket to find a hot bar offering a bento box lunch of meatloaf served on a bed of rice. Gotta love it.
ANOTHER REASON To Love Hawaii!
I wanted to buy a copy out in the wild, so I checked the newsstands at the airports in Newark and Denver (where we had a layover) and came up empty. But lo and behold, they had it at the tiny stand at Kona International Airport, 2000 miles (3200 km) from the mainland. Thanks Hawaii!
Getting to Know Each Island
When I first visited Hawaii with Kaitlin and my parents, we did the island hopping thing, visiting Oahu, Maui, the Big Island, and Kauai—each for a few days. That’s certainly a fun way to do a Hawaii trip, and it dazzled me enough to want to go back several times over.
Since then, I’ve been fortunate enough get to know a few of Hawaii’s islands individually, spending a week to 10 days on each one over the course of several visits—one with my sister and cousins in Maui, a trip with Justin to Oahu, and this latest one—a vacation with Justin’s family on the Big Island.
These trips have opened my view of each individual island.
While my memories of the Big Island were mostly of sharp ‘a’ā lava (a Hawaiian term for hardened lava flows with a rough, spiky surface), black sand beaches, and Volcanoes National Park, we got to see much more of this beautiful place on this trip, learned more about Hawaii’s history and local life, and witnessed some of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen.
In this post, I’ll share some of the resources we used on the trip, including a custom Google Map and a full itinerary (with links!). I’ll also share photos and stories from some the highlights—our favorite things to do on the big island.
Next, we’ll talk briefly about the nitty-gritty around geography and trip planning resources. If you want to skip that to get right to the photos, click here.
The BIG ISLAND’s Regions (& Map)
There’s a reason why the colloquial term for the Island of Hawaii is “the big island.” It is indeed big. It’s actually larger than the other seven major Hawaiian islands combined.
The combined areas of Maui, O’ahu, Kaua’i, Moloka’i, Lana’i, Ni’ihau, and Kaho’olawe add up to 2,390 square miles (6,190 square km). The Big Island covers 4,028 square miles (10,432 square km), and it’s continuing to grow.
While in 2018, Kilauea sadly destroyed 700 homes and displaced over 2000 people, it also gave birth to new land. With the last eruption, 875 acres were added to the island as lava flowed to the ocean, cooled, and hardened. Kind of mind-blowing.
While Kilauea is the one that made headlines a few years ago, the island of Hawaii is actually made up of FIVE volcanoes: Kohala, Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa, Kilauea, and Hualalai.
Of course, that means that there’s not only a lot to see on the Big Island, it also means you’ll find yourself in the car quite a bit. Driving from the northernmost to southernmost point on the Island (no traffic) takes a little over 2 1/2 hours.
…NEED A PODCAST FOR LONG CAR RIDES?
In our attempt to find contextually relevant entertainment for our (very long) drive to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, we were led to a podcast called Ologies (specifically, the Volcanology episode), and loved it.
Highly recommend if you want to be entertained and educated at the same time. We found ourselves listening to any episode remotely Hawaii-related—Cheloniology (sea turtles), Cnidariology (coral), etc. etc. We’re nerds.
In the map below, you can see how the island is broken down into regions: Kohala, Kona, Ka’u, Puna , Hilo, and the Hamakua Coast.
For simplicity’s sake, when thinking about how to organize a trip here, we found that it helps to mentally divide the island into four sections.
They don’t exactly line up with the district map (much of Volcanoes National Park, for instance, is located in the Southernmost district of Ka’u, while we’re including it in the “Hilo side” of our map).
But with that caveat in mind, we found it easy to group restaurants and activities into these four sections below, based on their proximity to each other.
- Kona Side: On the west side of the island, this is its economic center, with the most hotels, restaurants, and tourists. It’s also the dry side of the island.
- Hilo Side: On the eastern rainy side of the island is Hilo. This is also a populated area, but it has a more local feel than the Kona coast.
- North Side: What we’re calling the “North side” of the island also offers resorts just north of Kona on the Kohala Coast (in Waikaloa), but also quieter towns, beaches, restaurants, and hikes in North Kohala, Waimea, and on the Hāmākua Coast. This is where we stayed—in the community of Kawaihae.
- South Side: The remote Southern section of the island will bring you to the southernmost point in the USA, with a beautiful black sand beach, and one of only four green sand beaches in the world.
Trip Planning Resources
If you’re wondering what all the points on our map are, they are the sights, activities, hikes, beaches, and restaurants/bars/breweries/etc. that we found in our research. Justin and I worked on a custom Google Map of Big Island together, and used it throughout the trip.
You can use it too! Just click the map below.
But wait, there’s more! The companion for the above map is this Google Sheet (our brother-in-law Bryce’s idea), which you can copy and modify according to your needs. (You can also download it to Excel, if you prefer.)
The sheet is organized geographically by our four sections. It includes places to eat, hiking, beaches, and things to do in each area. I also added relevant links and quick notes I found in my research.
This way, if you find yourself on Kona side, and you’re looking for a place for lunch, you can quickly refer to this list, check out the Kona restaurants in the list, and find a spot quickly.
This sheet is by no means complete or exhaustive. If you have recommendations for anything that should be added, let us know in the comments at the bottom of this post!
Our Favorite Things to Do on Big Island
Ok, let’s get into some of our favorite things to do on the island, and the pictures!
Here are our favorite things to do in and around Kona, where most visitors end up staying.
Hualalai Crater Tour
This is definitely off the beaten path, but it was such a cool experience. It’s a tour of Hualalai Crater with a local guide, Kimo Duarte, whose family has served as stewards of the mountain since the 1950s.
You meet Kimo in the hills above Kona. He then takes you in a UTV up the mountain while telling stories about his family’s connection with Hualalai and the native (as well as invasive) plants and animals in the area. You hike to the rim of the crater, with amazing views down to the ocean.
It’s an opportunity to connect to this amazing place, which is off limits to other visitors (honestly, you probably couldn’t drive these “roads” if you tried!), and to marvel at how native plants are gradually recolonizing the area. At the end, you can help plant a native koa tree.
It was definitely a bit of a splurge, but proceeds support youth programs working to remove invasive plant species and propagate native plants, which is something I can absolutely get behind!
Manta Ray Night Dive
Ok, so Justin’s family might hate me for posting this awkward wetsuit photo (I hate me a little bit…), but it’s the only picture I have from this otherwise very cool experience!
Basically, you’re in the water with massive manta rays (one in particular, “Big Bertha” has a wingspan of 16 feet!) as they feed on the plankton around you.
Lights in the water attract the plankton, which then bring in the mantas. You float stationary on the surface with snorkels and watch the mantas swim below you.
Sometimes, the mantas even do somersaults right under you. That didn’t happen to us this time, but it was still incredibly cool to see these majestic creatures doing their thing from a respectful distance. There are several tour companies that go out to view the mantas, from larger groups to private tours.
Pu’uhonua O Honaunau
Not sure anyone else but hardcore nerds would include this on their favorite things to do on the Big Island of Hawaii.
I know historic sites aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I thoroughly enjoyed walking around Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historic Park.
It’s a Hawaiian spiritual sanctuary and literal refuge. If you were in danger, whether you were a defeated warrior or broke a rule in the ancient Hawaiian kapu system, you could come to this place, and no one could touch you.
As it says on the NPS website, “no physical harm could come to those who reached the boundaries of the Pu’uhonua.”
I thought it was fascinating to walk among the old fish ponds, buildings, and coastline, imagining what it was like once upon a time.
Snorkeling at Captain Cook/Kealakekua Bay:
Some say Kealakekua Bay is the best snorkeling spot on the Big Island. It’s also where you’ll find the Captain Cook Monument, where James Cook was killed (in a misguided attempt to kidnap the ruling chief of the island).
It’s reachable either by a 4-mile (6.4 km) roundtrip hike or by boat. You can also rent a kayak to get to this spot.
If hiking, bring plenty of water, a hat, and reef-safe sunscreen or sleeves. There’s very little shade on the hike!
Eating at Kaaloa Super Js
This was a bit of a pilgrimage for me. Kaaloa Super Js is known for their pork lau lau—a Polynesian dish of fatty pork, butterfish, and sea salt wrapped in taro leaves and steamed.
It’s a family-run, no-frills joint, and I love it. I came here with my family in 2013, and I’ve been dreaming about their lau lau ever since.
Last time, we arrived around 1:00, and they had just sold out! Disappointed, we ordered their kalua pork and cabbage and chicken lau lau instead.
Just as we were digging in, though, the women running the place brought out a stealth plate of pork lau lau. (“We found you an extra one!”) They clearly saw how disappointed we were, and gave us one out of their personal stash. How nice is that?
This time around, we got there just after noon, and got SUPER lucky, snagging the last three lau lau right as they were posting that dreaded “sold out” sign on the door.
It was as delicious as I remembered.
This side of the island has a completely different feel. Whereas Kona is hot and dry, with lots of old lava and very little green growth, Hilo side is lush, green, and tropical. It’s a refreshing change!
This is a beautiful walk along a paved path through tropical planting to get to the 442-foot (134 m) tall Akaka Falls. We enjoyed the plants as much as the waterfall!
Bring bug repellant though. You’re on Hilo side now.
(As a magnet and full-service buffet line for every mosquito I’ve ever encountered, I prefer using bug repelling wipes, which don’t shoot stuff into the air all over the place like the pressurized cans do! Plus, they’re easy to pack for a flight.)
Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve & Garden (Scenic Drive, Onomea Bay)
Sticking with the plant theme, this was one of our seriously FAVORITE stops on the entire trip. If driving to it from Akaka Falls, you will drive along a 4-mile (6.4 km) stretch known as Pepe’ekeo Scenic Drive. But to me, that was just a bonus.
The Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve and Garden is filled with the most lush, colorful tropical planting you can imagine. All against the backdrop of the beautiful Hawaiian coastline.
Walking through areas with delightful names like “Bromeliad Hill,” “Anthurium Corner,” and “Heliconia Island,” you can just bask in the insane biodiversity and natural beauty around you.
There were a lot of childlike “WOWs!” coming out of me in the couple hours we spent here. I mean, just look at the size of this leaf. I could’ve worn it as a cape!
And this orchid, doing its thing and actually growing on the side of a tree. (Orchids in the wild are actually epiphytes—a fact one forgets when one normally sees them in a plastic pot in the living room).
Justin and I nerded out over every flower, fern, and tree. One of his favorites was this torch ginger flower, below on the right.
Also look at this tiny pineapple! And the flowers coming out of this cannonball tree!
Plus these moss-covered palms, and the incredible size of this monkey pod tree (AKA my new favorite tree).
I’ll spare you the 123 additional photos I have of the plants in this place. Suffice it to say, it is wonderful.
There’s also a great view of Onomea Bay. You can hike to it from outside the garden if the mood strikes.
Rainbow Falls/Boiling Pots At Wailuku River State Park:
Wailuku River State Park is a short drive from the center of Hilo. Right from the parking lot, you’ll come upon Rainbow Falls:
If it’s open, you can also walk up the hill above the falls to view the “boiling pots,” which are several pools connected by underground cascades. The area was closed off when we were there, though!
If you had any doubts about how rainy it gets on Hilo side, check out this video of what Rainbow Falls looked like amidst Hurricane Lane in 2018:
Seems like 2018 was a rough year for the Big Island, to say the least.
Volcanoes National Park
Having visited the park in 2013, it was incredible to see how different it was after the 2018 eruption and subsequent activity over the next few years.
Make your way along Crater Rim Drive to see the steam vents and sulphur banks. Walk through Nahuku Lava Tube, and then drive the Chain of Craters Road down to the ocean. Along the way, there are several hikes and views of old craters and lava fields.
Ramen at Tetsumen
One of my favorite meals on the Big Island was at Tetsumen in Hilo.
Get the Tonkotsu Shoyu Ramen, no ma-yu (black garlic oil; I prefer my ramen without it so I can taste the pure flavor of the broth). This place also lets you choose how chewy you want your noodles. I went with firm, which was perfect-o.
This area was our home base. While there are still resorts and lots of tourists in Waikaloa, just north of Kona, a little farther north you’ll find quieter beaches, hikes, and cool towns like Hawi and Waimea.
Pololu Valley is beautiful place. You can take a short hike down to the black sand beach at the mouth of this peaceful green valley. The hike is short but steep, 0.5 mile (0.8 km) down and back up.
I felt the place had a spiritual quality about it. Like many beautiful places in Hawaii, it is indeed sacred. If you visit, please be respectful, leave no trace, and follow any signs to keep out of certain areas.
The road into the bigger and more famous Waipi’o Valley nearby has been closed to non-residents. This is one of the few hikes in the area still available to visitors.
This isn’t really a destination per se, but Justin and I had an instance of travel nirvana here.
We’d just done the Pololu Valley hike, and on our way to Waimea to meet the rest of the family for dinner, we drove along Kohala Mountain Road, on the slopes of Kohala.
At higher elevation, it was cooler and wetter up there. Justin described it as “the Hawaii version of the Scottish highlands.” It was incredibly beautiful, and we stopped at a turnout in the road to watch the sunset.
The golden hour light on the grass—with cows grazing happily around us and the birds flying across the sky—made me happy to be in that exact spot, at that exact time.
Pu’ukohola Heiau is another historic site that preserves the ruins of Hawaii’s last great temple.
It was built by King Kamehameha I to gain the favor of Kūka’ilimoku, the Hawaiian god of war (and politics, fishing, and farming) before he united (er…conquered?) the Hawaiian Islands.
The Visitor Center has a couple of interesting videos and other information providing context on the site and Kamehameha’s life.
For more history, check out the nearby Puako Petroglyph Park. It’s next to Mauna Lani Resort, and requires a 0.7 mile (1.1 km) hike in to see the petroglyphs (rock etchings). It’s a cool stop if you’re interested in history and archaeology.
Check Out a Restaurant in Waimea
Mentioning this because these restaurants were close to where we were staying, but are a bit off the beaten path for most tourists.
Merriman’s also has a compelling-sounding prix fixe menu. We couldn’t land a reservation, so make sure to book far in advance!
There were several beaches we enjoyed in this area of the island, including:
- Kiholo Bay: A quiet black sand beach accessible via hike from the highway or via a well-maintained dirt road. There are also campsites on the beach!
- Beach 69: A relatively small beach enjoyed mostly by locals with shade from kiawe trees (watch out for thorns!). Non-residents pay $10/car and $5pp.
- Hapuna Beach: The largest white sand beach on the island, with beautifully calm bathtub-like water. The only downside is that there’s lots of sun and no shade, and it can get windy! We gave up on our beach umbrella. Non-residents pay $10/car and $5pp.
Papakolea Green Sand Beach
Okay, so the hike to this beach, even for a person who likes hiking, isn’t the best. It can be very windy down here around South Point. The hike is also basically across a desert dune, which means…dust. Lots of it.
It’s also very sunny and exposed, with no shade. Bring lots of sun protection. Sunglasses. Light sleeves. And a wide-brimmed hat—like Justin, who’s just constantly channeling Indiana Jones whenever the sun’s out:
As one of only four green sand beaches in the entire world, though, it’s worth it.
We actually encountered a group of scientists there studying the green sand and the mineral, olivine, that makes it that color. Apparently, olivine has potential as a carbon capture solution!
Right before South Point Road connects back with the main highway, you’ll find this little oasis of shady trees, hot coffee, cold slushies, and snacks galore. Paradise Meadows is an orchard and bee farm producing honey, Ka’u coffee, macadamia nuts, and THE MOST DELICIOUS shortbread cookies ever.
Seriously. Justin and I got home from Hawaii, and we ate a cookie each every day until we cried when they were gone.
They let you sample every single item on offer before you buy. This was a pretty good marketing strategy, because I wanted to buy all the things.
The cold, sweet slushies in various tropical flavors are also incredibly refreshing. Especially if you’ve just come from the sun-drenched dust storm that is the Green Sand Beach hike.
Punalu’u Bake Shop
This is an obligatory touristy spot when you’re this far south on the island. Stop in for a quick malasada (a Portuguese donut) or some sweet bread!
Punalu’u Black Sand Beach
This black sand beach is a favorite rest stop for sea turtles. Make sure to stay at least 20 ft. away. (Disturbing the turtles is actually a federal crime, which the beach lifeguards were sure to tell everyone!). Just enjoy their adorableness from a distance!
Other Things To Do On the Big Island OF HAWAII
Here are some of the other activities you’ll find on the Big Island!
In roughly the middle of the island is Mauna Kea. It’s a dormant volcano whose summit as almost 14,000 feet (4207 meters) above sea level. It also boasts some of the clearest skies for stargazing in the world.
Its name in Hawaiian translates to “white mountain,” and it’s a sacred place for native Hawaiians. You can drive up to the visitor center (i.e. “The Onizuka Center for International Astronomy Visitor Information Station”) via the Mauna Kea Access Road, which is at an elevation of about 9,200 feet (2804 meters).
To access the summit, you will need to book a tour or have a 4WD vehicle. The summit is off limits from a half hour after sunset.
Dress warmly, as it can be very cold up here, especially at the summit—think freezing temperatures!
The one (pretty significant) downside of Mauna Kea is that it’s a popular tourist spot. Cars are constantly in and out with their headlights/high beams blasting, making it difficult sometimes to see anything!
Go On A Coffee Farm Tour, Chocolate Tour, Brewery Tour, or all 3!
We’re willing to bet you’re a fan of either coffee, chocolate, or beer—or more likely all three! There are lots of these tours across the island!
Check Out a Farmer’s Market
Fresh produce and particularly exotic fruit, abound in Hawaii. Check out a farmer’s market to grab some delicious fresh pineapple, mangos, papaya, starfruit, gauva, passionfruit, mangosteens, soursop, bananas, mountain apples, dragonfruit, lychee, and more fruit you’ve never heard of or tried!
(Also, if you don’t think you like papaya, try a strawberry papaya. Let me know what you think after that!)
Go Horseback Riding on Kohala
Woks of Life readers may not be fully aware of this, but I love horses and horseback riding. These days, I don’t get to ride as much, so when we had the chance to schedule a horseback ride with Paniolo Adventures, we jumped at it! Sadly, they canceled all their rides for the month of August.
I felt even sadder about this when we drove through the grassy ranch lands on the slopes of Kohala at sunset, and saw how incredibly beautiful it was. If I lived on the Big Island, I’d want to live here!
Try Another Adventure Activity
There’s so much more to do, depending on your budget and interest, from zip lining, to other crater tours, helicopter tours, kayaking, outrigger canoeing, and more. Pick one and have fun!
I need to be reminded sometimes that vacation is also for relaxation. Work some of that in there too. :)
We hope this post on things to do on the Big Island of Hawaii was helpful to you in planning your own trip. Happy travels!