The Best Itinerary
WELCOME TO THE BIG ISLAND
Volcanoes, stargazing, whale watching, and waterfalls galore will greet you on the Island of Hawai’i
The Island of Hawai’i is larger than all the other Hawaiian islands combined and then some. The Big Island has it’s die-hard fans and I am one of them. The Big Island is for coffee connoisseurs, astronomers, whale watchers, volcanologists, manta ray snorkelers, and travelers who crave a white-sand beach.
Everything you need to know about planning your trip to the Big Island is here:
- Big Island Facts
- Get to Know the Geography
- What’s the Best Time of Year to Visit?
- Getting to the Big Island
- Renting a Car and Getting Around the Big Island
- Where to Stay on the Big Island
- How Many Days Should You Stay on the Big Island?
- The Best Beaches and Snorkeling Spots
- Things to Do on the Big Island
- The Best Tours and Activities
- Popular Big Island Videos
- The Best Big Island Itinerary
Big Island Facts
Impress your seatmate on the plane or win trivia night with these facts about the Island of Hawai’i:
🍍 The Island of Hawai’i has 4 out of the 5 major climate zones in the world and 8 out of 13 sub-zones, following the Köppen climate classification scheme. That means the Big Island has deserts to polar tundra to rainforests and in-between.
🍍 Two of the five shield volcanoes that formed the island are still active. Kilauea and Mauna Loa are active but may not be erupting. Kilauea is the most active, see if it is erupting here for your trip. Hawaii’s Volcanoes National Park is worth a visit.
🍍 The next Hawaiian island is forming fifteen miles off the island’s southeast coast. Loʻihi, is erupting 3,000 feet below the surface of the ocean. While it will still be several thousand years before this volcano breaks the sea’s surface, it has already risen more than 10,000 feet from the seafloor and has a crater that measures three miles across.
🍍 Captain James Cook, who is widely considered to be the first European to set foot on the Hawaiian Islands, was killed at Kona’s Kealakekua Bay in 1779.
🍍 Measured from its seafloor base to its highest peak, Mauna Kea is the world’s tallest mountain, taller than Mount Everest, since the base of Mount Everest is above sea level.
🍍 The island is often referred to as the Island of Hawaiʻi, the Big Island, or Hawaiʻi Island to distinguish it from the state.
Big Island Geography
The Big Island is aptly named: it has 63% of Hawaii’s combined land mass. That means it’s larger than all of the other islands, combined. And, with new volcanic eruptions, the island is getting bigger.
There are five major volcanoes on the Big Island and six main regions: Kona, Kohala, Hamakua Coast, Hilo, Puna, and Kau.
Like all of the Hawaiian islands, there are two sides: a leeward side and a windward side. The leeward side of the island is drier and the windward side is wetter.
Welcome to sunny Kona. The Kona district stretches for most of the leeward side of the island and includes beaches, snorkeling spots, coffee farms, and cultural sights. Here you’ll also find one of the two airports, Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport (KOA). It’s one of the most popular areas on the island to stay thanks to airport proximity, activities, and weather.
Shielded from the winds, you’ll find warm weather, mostly clear skies, and calm, swimmable beaches (here are our 5 Best Kona Beaches). Into the cooler hillside you can explore the coffee farms that are so prevalent in the area. And enjoy an incredible historic site, Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park.
Plus, you will find the best snorkeling spot on the island here (in our opinion).
Just north of Kona on the leeward side of the island is the Kohala Coast, also sometimes referred to as the Gold Coast thanks to the number of five star resorts in this area. It’s also home to some of the best beaches on the island, like Hapuna Beach, with it’s white sand and beautiful blue water. Just note that in the winter, some of these beaches get hit with large currents and waves, making them dangerous for swimming.
Venture further inland and you’ll leave the resorts behind and find another side to the Kohala district, with the cowboy (paniolo) town of Waimea, the charming town of Hawi, and the sacred Pololu Valley.
Here, you’re off the leeward side of the island and you’re now on the lush, tropical windward side. The Hamakua Coast is famous for its jagged coastline, waterfalls, and stunning scenery. Waipio Valley is also located here, which is known for being the boyhood home of King Kamehameha I.
The largest town of the windward side, here you’ll find another airport, Hilo International Airport (ITO), serving inter-island airports and some west coast airports. This small city has a great downtown and is also a launching point for many of the spectacular sights in the area, including Volcanoes National Park. Explore our 1-Day Hilo Itinerary for Things to Do.
South of Hilo you have the Puna district, an area known for its fertile soil. You’ll find plenty of farms here growing flowers, macadamia nuts, and papayas. You can also visit the lava viewing area of Kalapana, once a historic town before it was partially destroyed by lava.
This southern region is quiet, but is home to two major attractions: Punalu’u Black Sand Beach and the majority of Volcanoes National Park (including Kilauea Volcano). You’ll also find coffee farms, mac nut farms, and hiking trails. What you won’t find are large hotels, golf courses, or a bustling town.
What’s the Best Time of Year to Visit the Big Island?
While you may be visiting from a place that has four seasons each year, in Hawaii there are just two: summer (kau) and winter (hooilo). Summer runs from May to October and winter lasts from November to April.
Luckily, the weather on the Big Island is warm and pleasant year-round, so there’s truly no bad time to visit. But our favorite months to visit are May and October, because there are fewer visitors, the weather is great, and it’s a little less expensive to travel in this off-peak season period.
While the winter months get a little more rain and might be a little cooler, the weather in Kona stays pretty sunny and warm year-round. It’s a perfect spot to plan a winter vacation. On the Kohala Coast you’ll find even drier conditions but be prepared for some rough surf in the winter.
That said, if you plan to visit the windward side in the winter, you are in for cooler temperatures and more rainfall. But that’s what makes that side of the island so lush and beautiful.
Getting to the Big Island
There are two (two!) airport options for you to choose from on the Big Island. The main airport that serves the most visitors is Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport (KOA). The airport is located seven miles northwest of Kailua-Kona and serves inter-island, domestic, and international locations.
Located on the other side of the island is Hilo International Airport (ITO), which is located two miles east of Hilo. This airport serves inter-island locations as well as some domestic airports on the west coast.
Renting a Car and Getting Around the Big Island
If you’re hoping to see all that the Big Island has to offer, having a car is going to be pretty important. Our favorite recommendation is Discount Hawaii Rental Car. We use them any time we island hop and we’ve saved thousands of dollars by using them over the years.
While the island is big, you can drive around the island in one day, either using the northern route, the southern route, or by taking the saddle road through the middle of the island. When driving from Kona to Hilo, the northern route will take approximately 2 hours. You can shorten your journey to 1.5 hours by taking the saddle road, however you’ll miss some of the sights on the Hamakua Heritage corridor.
For the most part, the roads on the Big Island are well paved and easy to navigate with any type of car — no 4 wheel drive required! There are a few spots where having a 4WD car is preferred or required (for example, when driving into Waipio Valley), but you can visit most sights just cruising around with regular wheels.
If you don’t want to rent a car but you still want to get out and see the sights, a guided tour is a great option. Two of our favorite tours that will pick you up from your hotel and take you around are the Big Island Circle Tour and the Waipio Valley Tour.
Where to Stay on the Big Island
Ready to book your stay on the Big Island? There are so many different options: a quaint vacation rental in coffee country, a tiny home on a bed of lava, a five star resort, or a small boutique hotel. Whatever you’re looking for, the Big Island has something for you.
Should you stay in a hotel or vacation rental?
There’s something for everyone on the island. The Big Island has plenty of five star resorts, quaint hotels, and unique vacation rentals. But what’s the right spot for you?
The first choice you’ll need to make is whether you’re looking for a hotel or a vacation rental. There’s no bad choice. Go for a hotel if you’re looking for the traditional resort experience with big pools, nearby beaches, and restaurants within walking distance. Opt for a vacation rental if you want access to a kitchen, are looking for space, or are looking to save money.
If you’re still not sure what you want to do, we break down the difference between choosing a hotel and a vacation rental in Hawaii.
Should you stay in Hilo, Kona, Kohala, or…?
Because you read our geography section (above) you know that the island has a leeward side and a windward side. The leeward side is the drier side and includes Kailua-Kona and the Kohala Coast. These are the most popular places for visitors to stay, but are they the right spots for you?
Check out our where to stay guide, which walks you through the accommodation options for different areas of the island: from the luxury resorts on the Kohala Coast to the unique options on the windward side.
How Many Days Should You Stay on the Big Island
When you’re planning a trip to the Big Island, your list of things to see will be long. And the more you read about this beautiful island, the more you’ll add to your list of things to do and see. That’s why we recommend spending at least a week on the Big Island. This will give you time to check off some of your top experiences while also enjoying some downtime to relax.
Most visitors seem to agree with our advice to stay for at least a week: the average number of days a traveler spends on the island is eight.
Beaches and Snorkeling Spots on the Big Island
Who doesn’t love a good beach when they’re on vacation? If you’re headed to the Big Island, you’re in luck. There are plenty of beautiful beaches for you to discover. Our favorite beaches include:
1. Hapuna Beach: If you’re looking for white sand beaches, this is the spot. One of the best beaches on the island (if not the best), Hapuna Beach offers plenty of soft sand, good swimming conditions in the summer, and plenty of parking. It is what beach vacation dreams are made of.
2. Kikaua Point Park: This is the best spot for kids (though truthfully we love it as adults as well). This park has a protected cove that makes swimming here easy pretty much year round. And it’s also surprisingly good for snorkeling. But the limited parking makes it a tough beach to get to.
3. Punalu’u Black Sand Beach: A must-see beach on your trip to the Big Island, it’s the best black sand beach in the state (in our opinion). But swimming here isn’t so easy, so plan to spend your time on the shore marveling at your beautiful surroundings.
Check out this list of our favorite Big Island beaches, complete with directions, parking information, and must know tips.
If you’re coming to snorkel, we’ve got you covered. These are our favorite snorkeling spots on the island. The top one, Kealakekua Bay isn’t easily accessible from land so we recommend a boat tour or a kayak trip out to enjoy it. It’s one of our most memorable experiences in Hawai’i to date.
Things To Do on the Big Island
The Big Island is full of amazing adventures, stunning natural beauty, and important heritage sites. There’s more to do and see than you can fit into one trip, so prioritizing what you want to experience is important.
Ready to craft your list of things you can’t miss? Here are a few of our favorite experiences, but you can read the full list of things you can do activities on the Big Island.
- For an up close experience with the ocean’s gentle giants, head out night snorkeling or diving with Manta Rays
- Hike in Volcanoes National Park, drive the crater rim, walk through a lava tube, and look into Halema’uma’u Crater
- Dip your toes in the water at a stunning black sand beach
- Explore underwater at Kealakekua Bay — you may get lucky and be greeted by a pod of spinner dolphins
- Visit a coffee farm and sample fresh coffee in Kona’s famed coffee country
And if you’re traveling with kids, don’t miss our 12 things to do in Kona with kids. It has some great ideas that your kids will love.
Want help seeing how to fit in all of the best sights into your vacation? Our Big Island itinerary was created just for that. The step-by-step itinerary takes you to all the best beaches, snorkeling spots, restaurants, and sights. With the download, you’ll get six carefully planned excursion days to help you see the can’t miss stops no matter how limited your time is.
“We bought the Wayfinder Itinerary from The Hawaii Vacation Guide. Highly recommend — super organized daily plans for every part of the island. Even includes google map directions to the best parking spots and what to pack for each day of fun!” – Laura M. (Instagram review)
Get all the details on our itinerary and download it for a memorable and easily planned trip to the Big Island.
Best Tours and Activities on the Big Island
While we embrace DIY travel, there’s something to be said for a great tour on the big island. Not only are you supporting a local business, but you’re getting time with a guide who truly knows the island. Whether they’re teaching you the history of the islands during a canoe tour or they’re educating you on the marine life during a snorkeling trip, a good tour experience can stick with you for years.
We’ve done the hard work for you by finding the best of the best tours on the island. Here’s a sampling of our favorites to get started, but don’t forget to check out our full list.
Manta Ray Night Snorkeling or Dive
Kealakekua Bay Snorkeling Tour
Waipio Valley Guided Tour
Or, explore our full library of videos on Hawaii.
The Best Big Island Itinerary
If you’re planning a trip to Hawaii, we’ve got you covered. Our island itineraries help you navigate the planning process and make your trip smooth once you’re on-island. Thousands of customers have loved them, whether they were planning for a trip that was a year away or a trip that was a day away.
“We found your YouTube channel back in October then ended up purchasing your Big Island Itinerary. We wanted to share a big ol’ mahalo very much!! Your content is super informational, valuable, reliable, and enjoyable. I printed off your itinerary, put it in a binder to take along the journey, and mapped out our days based on your suggestions. It didn’t go totally according to plan, thanks to 5 teenagers, but it made our trip exceptional.” – Kate F.
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