Konnichi wa / Great Outdoors
Kona & the Big Island of Hawaii: Things to Do & See
Hawaii's Big Island contains a diverse range of attractions, from active volcanoes like the Kilauea volcano and Hualalai to tropical rain forests to beautiful beaches. Because the island is so large - it's Hawaii's largest island - it can be hard to know where to begin exploring. Here are a few ideas to get you started and a cool video on the islands more generally to get you thinking in island time.
Volcanoes are the Big Island's most renowned natural feature, erupting with glowing rivers of lava or belching ash from deep craters. But even during the volcanoes' quiet periods, when there's no lava to view, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is a fascinating place. Visitors to the park can explore surreal volcanic landscapes, learn about the geology that shaped the Hawaiian islands, and hike through rain forests. At Volcano House, a historic lodge with a stunning crater view, you'll find accommodations and a restaurant. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is about 30 miles from the city of Hilo and 110 miles from Kailua-Kona. It can be visited on a day trip from either of these places.
This long stretch of golden sand, a 40-minute drive north of Kailua-Kona, is widely regarded as one of the best beaches in Hawaii. Located on the sunny Kohala coast, within striking distance of many of the island's major resorts, this beach is the perfect place to while away a day, soaking up sun, swimming and body boarding. Hapuna Beach has lifeguards on duty during daytime hours, and there are also restrooms, showers, and a concession stand selling food and drinks. There is very little shade on the beach, so if you go, be sure to pack a beach umbrella or a sun hat. Also, currents can be strong at this beach, so use caution when entering the water. As the beach is part of a state park, there is a fee for parking.
The rural Hamakua coast, between Hilo and Waimea, makes a great location for a scenic drive, with endless ocean views, vertiginous ravines and plunging waterfalls. The Waipio Valley, near the small town of Honoka'a, is the jewel of the Hamakua coast. Although it's been featured on many postcards and brochures, the Waipio Valley is even more impressive to see in real life, and a lookout point with parking affords excellent views. This is a perfect place to get a selfie or family photo, or to just stop and take in the splendid vista. While there is a road leading down to the valley, its steep incline makes it difficult for all but the sturdiest four-wheel-drive vehicles to traverse it.
Also known as South Point, because it's the southernmost piece of land in Hawaii, as well as in all 50 US states, Ka Lae is located in a remote, windswept area with few tourist facilities or services. Still, with some planning, it can be visited on a day trip from Hilo or Kona. You'll need your own vehicle, as there is no public transportation to this area, and you should fill up on gas and pack plenty of food and water for the journey. If standing on the southernmost point in the United States isn't enough of a thrill, you can hike approximately 2.75 miles, one way, along rough dirt roads to Papakolea, a beach with green sand. As with the rest of South Point, there are no facilities at this beach, and there is no lifeguard on duty.
One of the largest towns on the island, and a hub for resorts, restaurants, shopping and nightlife, Kailua-Kona, more commonly known as just Kona, is the place to be if you're looking for action. In addition to plentiful diversions on land, the Kona coast boasts clear waters that are ideal for ocean adventures, with local companies offering whale watching tours, sport fishing expeditions and scuba diving lessons. Magic Sands Beach, just south of Kona, is an excellent place for swimming, snorkeling, surfing and other types of water sports.
If you venture south of the town of Kailua-Kona, you'll encounter a lush hill country with small coffee farms nestled among verdant tropical foliage. Coffee is this area's most famous export, and java enthusiasts should make time to tour a coffee farm or two. At many of these family-owned plantations, you can learn how coffee is grown and harvested, sample the finished product, and buy packaged coffee to take home. Some coffee farms also have cafes featuring dishes with locally grown ingredients.
About an hour and a half south of Hilo by car, this picturesque, palm-fringed black sand beach is popular with both visitors and locals for swimming, snorkeling, picnicking and camping. It's also a haunt for honu, Hawaiian green turtles, which you might spot resting on the sand. As these turtles are a protected species, it's against the law to touch them or bother them in any way, but you can follow their example and stretch out on the soft black sand, kicking off a lazy day at the beach. Punalu'u Beach has restrooms, a shower and picnic tables. For information about camping, visit here.
Hawaii's highest mountain, Mauna Kea, is easily visible from many parts of the island, crowned with futuristic-looking astronomical observatories and sometimes dusted with snow in the winter. The summit is an excellent place to take in panoramic views of the island and watch the sunset. Because of the mountain's high elevation, at more than 13,000 feet, you'll need a sturdy four-wheel-drive vehicle to reach the top, or you can join an organized tour.
On your way to the summit, make a pit stop at the Visitor Information Station, located at approximately 9,000 feet, to get acclimated and learn about current conditions on the summit. Or, check out one of the regularly scheduled stargazing presentations at this location. Children under sixteen, pregnant women, and anyone in bad health should not visit the summit. If in doubt, consult your doctor before making the trip.
A short drive north of downtown Hilo, Akaka Falls fits the definition of "beautiful tropical waterfall," with a setting in a scenic rain forest within Akaka Falls State Park. The 400-foot-high cascade, accessed by a short loop trail, provides a perfect opportunity for a romantic stroll. It's located within a state park that has restrooms and a paved parking area. There is a small parking fee for non-Hawaii residents.
Often cited as one of the best farmers markets in Hawaii, the Hilo farmers market, held every Wednesday and Saturday, offers local produce, crafts, and prepared meals and drinks. Here, you can drink from a fresh coconut that's been sliced open in front of you, gawk at giant avocados, sample exotic fruits that you won't see back home, and pick up the perfect souvenir. Many vendors arrive at daybreak, but if you're not an early riser, you can catch the action any time before 2 p.m.
Final Thoughts on Things to Do & See in Kona & the Big Island of Hawaii
Those were just a few of the many attractions on the Big Island. Here are a few others we didn't mention:
- Waikoloa Beach, a beach located on the South Kohala coast with many culturally and geographically significant features including aquaculture fishponds, anchialine ponds, and petroglyphs
- Manta Rays Night Dive in Kona is popular among SCUBA aficionados and offers a rare opportunity to see manta rays at night
- Papakolea Green Sand Beach, one of only four sand beaches in the world, it gets its color from olivine sand which eroded from the enclosing volcanic cone
- King Kamehameha's birthplace, near the Mookini Heiau ruins, the birthplace of the great king who united the Hawaiian Islands in 1810
- Thurston Lava Tube, a 400-ft long lava tube located near the summit of Kilauea Volcano off Crater Rim Drive
- Pu'uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park, an historic park where native Hawaiians could flee certain death if they broke one of the ancient laws
- Mauna Loa, one of five volcanoes on the Island of Hawaii and historically considered the largest volcano on earth
- Kealakekua Bay, a beautiful bay containing many archeological and historical sites, this is also the site where Captain James Cook was killed
- Keauhou Bay with nearby White Sands Beach, the birthplace of King Kamehameha III
- Kahalu'u Beach Park (just 6 miles south of Kailua-Kona on Ali'i Drive) where you can snorkel with sea turtles
- Hulihe’e Palace, the former vacation home of Hawaiian royalty that’s since been converted into a museum by the Daughters of Hawaii
- Holualoa, a small town on the west coast of the Island of Hawaii that’s located just south of Hulihe’e Palace
- Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park, a United States National Historical Park located near Kona, it’s the site of fishponds used by ancient Hawaiians as a food source
- Kailua Pier, a raised platform in Kona that’s a hub of local activity
While Maui, Oahu, and Kauai all have their own feel, the Big Island has a unique vibe all its own. Because there is so much to see and do, you should plan to spend at least a few days on the island after you land at Kona International Airport (KOA) to take in all that it has to offer. Use this article as a starting point for your travel guide, but be sure to check out the links we provide and other resources for additional information.
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“The mountains are calling and I must go.”
— John Muir