23 Unmissable Things to Do on the Big Island, Hawaii

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The Big Island feels different from the other Hawaiian islands. It’s larger and younger with incredibly diverse landscapes.

From the stark black lava fields and white sand beaches on the west coast to the rolling ranch land and dramatic valleys of the north to the lush rainforest and waterfalls of the east.

Wherever you are on the island, the volcanoes dominate the view and the chance to see an active eruption is one of the highlights.

Aside from watching lava spewing and hiking into volcanic craters, there are so many amazing things to do on the Big Island.

Our absolute favourite activity was a magical night snorkel with giant manta rays—do not miss it! We also did some excellent snorkelling, relaxed on white and black sand beaches, paddled an outrigger canoe, learnt about Hawaiian history, and so much more.

In this post, we share our top picks for what to do on the Big Island, plus tips on where to stay and a map with all these recommendations.

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Best Place to Stay for These Big Island Activities

Simon and Erin at the Westin Hapuna Resort
Simon and I at the beautiful Westin Hapuna Beach Resort

As the name suggests, the Big Island (officially called Hawaii) is the largest Hawaiian island, and it’s more difficult to explore the whole island from one base.

It’s worth considering dividing your time between the west coast and either Hilo or Volcano in the east.

We split our stay between Waikoloa, a resort area on the Kohala Coast (west coast) and Volcano village in the east.

To save travel time, we flew into Kona Airport and out of Hilo Airport. You’ll definitely want to rent a car to explore all these Big Island attractions.

Kohala Coast

We spent most of our time in this two-bedroom Vrbo condo in the Fairway Villas complex. It was a little dated but well-equipped, and we enjoyed being able to cook and having more space than a hotel room (it’s more affordable too).

It was within walking distance of A-Bay beach and various shops and restaurants.

We also splurged on a night at the Westin Hapuna Beach Resort. The rooms were nothing special for the price, but the grounds are stunning, and the location right on Hapuna Beach is perfect. It has a more secluded feel than the A-Bay area.

Volcano

We adored this cosy suite in the rainforest of Volcano village, very close to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. See below for more details.

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Big Island Must Dos: Our Top 5 Picks

If you are short on time and can’t make it to all these attractions on the Big Island, here are our absolute favourite experiences:

  • Manta ray night snorkel – Magical, awe-inspiring, unmissable! Book your tour in advance here.
  • Snorkelling at Kealakekua Bay and Two Step – We saw so many tropical fish.
  • Staying in the rainforest in Volcano villageOur cabin in the forest was incredibly relaxing and so different from the rest of Hawaii.
  • Kilauea Iki Trail – Hike into a volcanic caldera in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
  • Relax on Hapuna Beach – This Kohala coast beach is one of the most beautiful on the island.

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Best Things to Do in Big Island Hawaii: Kona

These Big Island activities take place in the Kona area on the west coast of the island.

The main town is Kailua-Kona (just south of Kona airport), but the most interesting attractions are 20-30 minutes further south around Keauhou and Captain Cook.

1) Night Snorkel with Manta Rays

By far our favourite Big Island activity was snorkelling with giant manta rays. It’s one of the most incredible experiences we’ve ever had!

The tours take place at night and involve minimal effort—while you do wear a snorkel, you don’t actually move around, just hold onto a light raft and float on the surface.

The manta rays come to you to feed on the plankton that is attracted to the light.

We couldn’t believe how close the rays got (within inches of us!) or how huge they were—up to 16 feet wing span! We had to stay very still to avoid touching them (which is not allowed as it can harm them).

We saw at least six manta rays and they kept coming back to feast, so we lost track of how many sightings we had.

They swam right below us so we got an up-close look at these strange and majestic creatures, looking right in their eyes and staring into their huge gaping mouths and skeletal gills.

Once they had their fill, they’d flip, roll, and spin beneath us—a graceful ballet that left us in awe.

While we watched, our guides taught us about these fascinating animals. How they live up to 100 years (some of the ones we saw have been around since the 1970s), weigh up to 1000 pounds, and can swim 35 miles per hour.

The mantas have no teeth or stingers, so they can’t hurt humans.

Seriously, do not miss the night swim with manta rays. It’s such a unique, awe-inspiring experience that it’s worth visiting the Big Island just for this.

Details: Many tour operators offer manta swims. We went with Sea Quest, who were fantastic. They were very well organised and provided wetsuits, snorkel gear, flotation noodles (for your legs), and cookies and hot chocolate for afterwards (we really appreciated this!).

They leave from Keauhou Harbor, which is just a five-minute boat ride from the most reliable manta viewing spot. Avoid boat tours from further afield, as it’ll be a cold trip back to base.

Sea Quest manta tours cost $134, take place twice a night (times vary throughout the year), and last 75 minutes. We did the earlier 6.45pm tour. The minimum age is 7, and you must be able to swim and have some snorkelling experience.

If you don’t see any mantas (highly unlikely), you can join another tour for free.

Check availability for the Sea Quest manta swim here.

2) Kayak or Canoe in Kealakekua Bay

Outrigger canoe in Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island

Kealakekua Bay is a protected marine reserve with the best snorkelling on the Big Island (and our personal favourite in all of Hawaii).
 
It’s also the site of the Captain Cook Monument, which marks where the British explorer was killed in 1779.

Getting to Kealakekua Bay requires some planning. Here are your options:

  1. Hike – The only free option is a fairly challenging 4-mile hike that takes around 2.5 hours return. The heat put us off this option.
  2. Boat tour – The easiest choice but likely to be more crowded. This Kona deluxe snorkel tour starts early to avoid the crowds.
  3. Kayak – You can rent a kayak or take a guided tour. You can only land on the monument if you are on a guided tour with one of three companies (including Adventures in Paradise). To avoid landing, you can tow your kayak while you snorkel. A DIY rental means you can get an early start.
  4. Outrigger Canoe – This is a less well-known option and the one we did. It’s easier than kayaking and more eco-friendly than a boat tour.

We chose to do this guided outrigger canoe with Ehu and Kai Adventures as we liked the idea of paddling a traditional Hawaiian canoe.

There are a few advantages to the canoe tour. It starts early before the boat tours—it’s a real bonus to enjoy a peaceful snorkel.

The canoes are more stable and easier to paddle than kayaks (and your guide steers)—ideal if you don’t have kayaking experience.

They provide a ladder so it’s easier to get back in after snorkelling, and your guide looks after the canoe while you are in the water, so you don’t have to tow it around like with kayak rentals.

It took us about 20 minutes to paddle across the gloriously clear and calm water in the beautiful bay surrounded by sheer green cliffs. Sadly, we didn’t see any spinner dolphins (a common sight), but the snorkelling was superb with excellent visibility and plentiful coral.

We saw many different fish including an eel, trumpetfish, needlefish, bluefin trevally, reef triggerfish, black triggerfish, longnose butterflyfish, Moorish idol, bullethead parrotfish, spotted boxfish, and lots of yellow tangs.

We were the only people on our trip, so we could spend as long as we wanted in the water. The whole experience was very casual, and our guide was friendly—it felt more like a local showing us around than a commercial tour.

The only downside was that we expected to learn more about the Hawaiian history of the area. While he did tell us about the lava tubes in the cliffs that were used as burial sites for Hawaiian royalty, this portion was brief. The promised refreshments didn’t materialise either, so take some water.

We didn’t really mind, though, and I think it depends on which guide you get—we had the main guide’s nephew.

However you choose to get there, snorkelling at Kealakekua Bay is one of the top things to do in the Big Island.

Details: We booked this Outrigger Canoe Tour, which costs $125 and lasts from 8am – 10.30am. They can provide snorkel gear and dry bags. You can also rent double kayaks for $65.

The tour departs from the end of Kahauloa Rd. You’ll need to find street parking before you get to the end. There are no toilets, but public restrooms are a few minutes away near Kealakekua Bay Boat Ramp.

Be sure to wear reef-safe sunscreen or, even better, a rashguard, as sunscreens bleach the reef. It’s important not to touch or stand on the reef.

3) Snorkel at Two Step

Two Step snorkel beach on the Big Island

Our second favourite snorkelling spot on the Big Island was Honaunau Bay (more commonly known as Two Step), 10 minutes south of Captain Cook.

It’s also popular, so arrive early to get parking and avoid the crowds. At 7.45am there were a fair number of people around and it only got busier.

Access to the water is from two steps carved into the lava rock (just watch where everyone is getting in). Water shoes could help but we managed without.

We saw a wide range of tropical fish and enjoyed the beautiful underwater landscape that felt more epic than Kealakekua with some big drop-offs.

Details: Snorkelling at Two Step is free, but you’ll need to bring your own snorkel gear. We rented ours for a week from Snorkel Bob’s, which has branches in Kona and Waikoloa.

It’s next to Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park (which we visited after snorkelling). Before entering the park, turn right onto the one-way road that leads to Two Step.

There is limited free parking (we got a spot), $5 parking across the road, or park back on the main road. There are a few portable toilets but no other facilities.

If you’d rather take a boat tour that combines Two Step and Kealakekua Bay, check out this early morning Kona deluxe snorkel tour.

4) Learn Hawaiian History at Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park

Hale o Keawe Temple at Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park on Hawaii's Big Island

Next to Two Step is Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park, one of the best places to visit on the Big Island to learn about Hawaiian history and culture.

The site includes royal grounds and Puʻuhonua, a place of refuge in ancient Hawaii for those who broke kapu (sacred laws). Violators would usually be punished by death, but if they managed to get here across rough ocean and sharp lava, they found a safe haven.

Pick up a park map and follow the 0.5-mile self-guided trail to the most important cultural sites in this beautiful coastal park.

The Royal Grounds gives a sense of traditional Hawaiian villages. It was a centre of power only open to aliʻi (royal chiefs) and those who served them.

You can see the Hale o Keawe Temple, which housed the bones of the aliʻi, a canoe house, fishponds, and even games like kōnane, which is played with small stones on a board.

Kōnane game at Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park on the Big Island

The Great Wall, a huge lava barrier, separates the Royal Grounds and Puʻuhonua sanctuary.

As this is a sacred site, no snorkelling or swimming is allowed. Head to Two Step next door for that. Food is only allowed in the dedicated picnic area.

Details: Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau is a US National Historical Park managed by the NPS. If you have an America the Beautiful annual pass, you can use it here. Otherwise, it costs $20 per vehicle.

It’s open from 8.15am until sunset every day except federal holidays.

5) Walk the 1871 Trail

1871 hiking trail in Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau is one of the best things to do on the Big Island Hawaii

The 1871 hiking trail is part of Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau and was once used by Hawaiians to get around the island.

The two-mile round-trip walk takes you from Honaunau to Ki’ilae, an abandoned fishing village.

It’s a rugged trail along coastal cliffs through fields of black lava with green mountains on one side and the ocean on the other. It was very peaceful—we only saw one other person.

You can turn around at any point—we only did part of the walk as it was too hot (there’s no shade), even at 9.30am.

Simon and Erin on the 1871 trail on the Big Island Hawaii

Details: See Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau above for entrance details. The trail is partly sand and partly lava rock. We were fine in hiking sandals, but I wouldn’t recommend flip-flops. Take water and a hat.

6) Try Kona Coffee

View from the Coffee Shack in the coffee country of the Big Island
View from the Coffee Shack in Kona coffee country

The Big Island is famous for Kona coffee, which is grown on the volcanic slopes above Kona.

The lush green coffee region is a beautiful place for a drive and can easily be visited after the activities above.

You can stop at many coffee farms to sample the beverage and learn how the coffee is grown and processed.

After our Kealakekua Bay canoe trip, we visited Greenwells Coffee Farm, which has free samples of a range of coffee and free 45-minute tours.

Simon thought the coffee was good but not really worth the high price.

In the area, we also had breakfast at the Coffee Shack high up in the hills. The views down to the ocean are gorgeous, but we found the food just ok.

Another place I’d hoped to visit was the Kona Coffee Living History Farm. Here you can do a self-guided tour of a 1920s coffee farm and learn about the life of the Japanese immigrants who farmed most of the coffee plantations in the early 20th century.

Details: Greenwells has coffee tours every half hour from 9am – 3pm daily. The Living History Farm is only open Tuesdays and Fridays from 10am – 2pm and costs $20.

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Best Things to Do on the Big Island: Kohala Coast

This section covers the northern part of the west coast. Sunny South Kohala (including the resort area of Waikoloa) is where you’ll find barren lava fields next to improbable golf courses and the best beaches on the Big Island.

Untouristy North Kohala is very different and includes dramatic valleys, rolling green hills, and cattle ranches.

7) Stand Up Paddleboard at Night

Sunset stand up paddle boarding with LightSUP Hawaii is one of the most fun things to do in Big Island Hawaii

One of the most unique things to do on the Big Island is a sunset paddleboard tour with LightSUP Hawaii.

They’ve made custom boards with lights and a clear panel so you can see the reef below, even at night. It’s a fun mix of stand up paddleboarding and snorkelling.

We met our guide Mark just before sunset at tranquil Puako Beach then paddled into the bay towards a sky lit up in vibrant oranges and reds.

Once we reached a healthy section of reef, we got onto our knees and peered through the panel at the sea life below. We saw an eel, parrotfish, large pufferfish, butterflyfish, needlefish, and reef triggerfish.

Once it turned dark, we paddled on. At night you can sometimes see manta or eagle rays, but we only saw needlefish and little minnows. We still loved paddling into the darkness as the stars emerged. It felt so peaceful.

Details: The sunset tour with LightSUP Hawaii costs $138 and lasts 1.5 hours (starting at 5.30pm in October). It includes photos your guide will take. I recommend emailing owner Kelly at the beginning of your stay and she will advise which day has the calmest conditions.

While beginners are welcome, if it’s your first time on a SUP, I recommend trying it at one of the beaches first (A-Bay has rentals).

8) Watch the Sunset at A-Bay

Anaeho’omalu Bay sunset in Big Island Hawaii

Anaeho’omalu Bay is usually referred to as A-Bay and was our local beach on the Big Island.

This pretty bay is lined with palm trees and features salt and pepper sand and clear, calm water.

It’s one of the easiest beaches to visit on the Kohala Coast as parking is plentiful and free, and the beach is never overly crowded.

A Bay Beach on the Big Island

There’s a beach gear rental stand and this would be a good spot for paddleboarding or kayaking.

While the visibility for snorkelling wasn’t great, I was surprised by how many fish I saw just off the beach.

Sunset is an especially lovely time for a stroll on A-Bay (or bring a picnic dinner) as it’s backed by ancient fishponds. Head behind the ponds for a perfect view of the palm trees silhouetted against the colourful sky.

Lava Lava Beach Club is the ideal spot for a sundowner with live music every night.

Details: A-Bay is in the Waikoloa resort area. The main parking lot is at the end of Ku’uali’i Place near Lava Lava. There are restrooms and showers at this end of the beach.

9) Eat Shave Ice

Shave Ice at Original Big Island Shave Ice Co

Enjoying a shave ice is an essential part of every Hawaii vacation, and the best we’ve had is at family-run Original Big Island Shave Ice Co.

They’ve perfected every element—very fine, creamy ice, delicious natural fruit flavours, good syrup coverage, and a tasty ice cream base.

The small shave ice is massive—we had ours for lunch. There are an overwhelming amount of options, but I loved my choice—lilikoi (passionfruit), pineapple, and li hing mui (sour plum) with macadamia nut ice cream. So good!

Details: OBISIC is in the Kings’ Shops outdoor mall in Waikoloa (near A-Bay). It’s open Tuesdays to Sundays (closed Mondays) from 11.30am – 6.30pm. Lines can be long on weekends.

10) Relax on Hapuna Beach

Hapuna Beach on the Big Island Hawaii

Hapuna Beach is often called the best beach on the Big Island and I wouldn’t disagree.

There’s plenty of space on the wide, half-mile stretch of powdery white sand. In summer, the bay is ideal for swimming and snorkelling (the best spot is on the far right by the hotel), and in winter, you can bodysurf.

There’s one hotel—the Westin Hapuna Resort. We loved our stay there—having free sunbeds and umbrellas on the quiet end of the beach was a bonus, so we never even made it to the beautiful pools.

Non-guests can also have a cocktail or meal at Naupaka Beach Grill, the casual bar by the pool.

Details: Hapuna Beach State Recreation Area has full facilities—restrooms, showers, lifeguards, and picnic tables. Parking costs $10 and entrance is $5 per person (credit card only). It’s open from 7am – 6.45pm.

11) Walk the Coast to Mauna Kea Beach

Coastal hike from Hapuna to Mauna Kea beach on the Big Island Hawaii

Another contender for the prettiest beach on the Big Island is Kauna’oa Beach, commonly referred to as Mauna Kea Beach.

It’s similar to nearby Hapuna with powdery white sand and turquoise ocean, although it’s smaller and the snorkelling was terrible for me (maybe I was unlucky).

It’s home to the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, which would be a great spot to stay. Non-guests can access the Hau Tree beachside restaurant.

The major downside is that parking is seriously restricted for non hotel guests and costs $21. You need to arrive by 8am to get one of the few public beach access passes from the hotel’s front gate.

An alternative is to walk here from Hapuna Beach, which is what we did. It’s about one mile each way along the Ala Kahakai Trail and took us about 20 minutes.

The coastal trail is fairly easy with stunning ocean views, but decent shoes would be helpful for some rocky, slippery sections (hiking sandals were ideal). We only saw a few other people on the trail.

Having a swim at Mauna Kea Beach is a wonderful way to cool off after the walk.

Mauna Kea beach on the Big Island Hawaii

Details: You can find the trail to Mauna Kea Beach at the far end of Hapuna Beach by the Westin Resort (head up on the lawn above the beach).

12) Hike to a Black Sand Beach in Pololū Valley

Pololū Valley black sand beach from the hiking trail on the Big Island Hawaii

An hour’s drive north of Waikoloa is a very different part of the Big Island where it’s greener, cooler, and more rural.

The Pololū Valley is one of the dramatic, lush green valleys in the north of the island that were formed when the Kohala volcano erupted 300,000 years ago.

At the Pololū Lookout you can see down into the valley and get a glimpse of the beach below, but it’s really worth hiking down for the best view.

The steep trail can be muddy and slippy, so decent shoes are a good idea. Although you’ll see locals hiking barefoot carrying a surfboard!

The one-mile return hike took us about 40 minutes plus time on the beach.

On the way down through the forest, you’ll get glimpses below of the stunning black sand beach beneath steep green cliffs.

The large beach is part powdery grey sand, part volcanic rocks in black and grey and red. Although it’s a popular place to visit, it feels secluded and there’s plenty of space for everyone.

Polulu Valley black sand beach on the Big Island

It’s not usually safe to swim, but the waves were small on our visit, and I wished I’d brought my swim gear. Only go in the water if you are a confident swimmer, and don’t go out too far. There are no lifeguards or other facilities.

If you want a longer hike, you can continue on the less maintained Honokane Nui trail to the next valley (4.6 miles return from the same trailhead).

Details: There’s limited parking at Pololū Valley Lookout at the end of Akoni Pule Highway but no restrooms. We started the trail at 4.15pm when the trail and most of the beach were in shade. Visit in the morning for better light. The cute town of Hawi is 15 minutes away if you want a meal afterwards.

13) Drive Kohala Mountain Road

Green hills on the Kohala Mountain Rd on the Big Island Hawaii

To visit Pololū from Waikoloa we drove up the 270 coast road with fantastic ocean views. On the way back we took the slightly longer inland route.

Kohala Mountain Road (Route 250) is a winding 22-mile road high up in the hills (over 3000 feet) that connects Hawi and Waimea.

Again, we were impressed by how diverse the Big Island landscapes are—this felt totally different again and far away from the beach resorts (there were only a few other cars on the road).

We drove past rolling emerald hills and farmland with views of the ocean and Mauna Kea volcano. It was especially gorgeous at golden hour.

Sun setting over the ocean from the Kohala Mountain Rd, Big Island

Details: Allow around 40 minutes to drive Highway 250 from Hawi to Waimea.

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Top Things to Do in Big Island: Hilo and Volcano

Hilo is a town on the east coast of the Big Island. While it’s the capital of the island, it’s less visited than Kailua-Kona and has a rainier climate and greener landscape.

This section includes attractions around Hilo and the whole eastern side of the island including Volcanoes National Park (40 minutes from Hilo).

14) Admire Akaka Falls

Akaka Falls is one of the best places to visit on Big Island Hawaii

Akaka Falls is one of the prettiest waterfalls on the Big Island.

It’s easily accessible on a 15-minute paved trail (we did the loop via the less impressive Kahuna Falls) through lush tropical vegetation.

While the 0.4-mile path is easy for most, it involves some stairs.

From the viewpoint, you can see the waterfall plunge 442 feet into a gorge below.

Details: Akaka Falls State Park is 25 minutes north of Hilo. We visited on our way to Volcano from the west coast. It’s open from 8am – 5pm. We were there at midday and it was quite busy. Early morning would have better light and fewer people.

Entrance is $5 and parking is $10 (or park just outside for free) payable by credit card only by app or machine. Restrooms are available at the entrance.

15) Enjoy Pepeekeo Scenic Drive

From Akaka Falls we continued south to Hilo via the beautiful Pepeekeo Scenic Drive on the Old Mamalahoa Highway.

This four-mile detour is well worth it. The winding road through the rainforest is lined with draping trees. With its one-way bridges, it reminded us of Maui’s Road to Hana, but it was much quieter.

There are a few stops you can make including the Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve Botanical Garden ($25) and the Onomea Bay Trail, but we didn’t have the energy. Staying in Hilo would make exploring this area easier.

We did have lunch at What’s Shakin at the start of the drive (see below).

16) Eat from a Food Truck

Our two favourite meals on the Big Island were from casual food trucks and stands on this side of the island. They are far cheaper than the resorts.

What’s Shakin is a farm food stand on the Pepeekeo Scenic Drive with outdoor seating.

They have good veggie options, and we enjoyed the avocado wrap and veggie burger. The food is reasonably priced and comes with a side of slaw and fruit. The smoothies looked amazing too.

They sell a few homegrown products—we bought a huge, perfectly creamy avocado and some homemade hummus.

What’s Shakin is open 10am to 3pm Tuesdays to Saturdays (closed Sundays and Mondays).

At the Tuk-Tuk Thai food truck in Volcano village we had our favourite meal on the island. We’ve spent a lot of time in Thailand and the food here is authentic and absolutely delicious.

You can get almost everything vegan with tofu, and you can choose your spice level (level 3 was good for us, level 4 was pretty spicy). The basil stir fry was tasty, but it was the massaman curry that brought us back two nights in a row.

Tuk-Tuk Thai is open from 11am to 6pm Wednesdays to Sundays (closed Mondays and Tuesdays). It’s takeout only with no tables.

17) Wander Hilo

Hilo is the biggest city on the Big Island but has a tropical, laid-back vibe.

We only passed through briefly on our way to Volcano, but this is a good place for shopping.

We went to the Hilo Farmer’s Market, which is open every day from 7am to 3pm, but you’ll find the most stalls on Wednesdays and Saturdays. There’s a mix of fresh produce, clothes, and crafts.

The Kula Shave Ice shop is next to the market and ideal for cooling off afterwards. We found it a little icier than the Original Big Island Shave Ice Co, but the all-natural fruit flavours were superb. The lilikoi butter is a delicious topping.

Other places we missed in Hilo include Queen Liliuokalani Gardens, Rainbow Falls, and Kaumana Caves.

18) Stay in the Volcano Rainforest

Lanai of our Volcano village cabin on the Big island

I knew that Hawaii Volcanoes National Park would be a Big Island highlight, but I didn’t expect to fall in love with the whole Volcano area—it was my favourite part of the Big Island.

It’s so different from the rest of the island—much cooler and rainier (although be prepared for all weather) with stark lava fields and lush rainforest.

We stayed in the tiny village of Volcano just outside the National Park. There’s just one main street with a few shops and cafes and then houses hidden amongst the forest.

We loved the Volcano Village Serenity Suite where we stayed. It’s attached to the home of welcoming hosts Jeffrey and Sally but feels private.

It has a gorgeous setting in the native forest. Snuggling under a blanket on the hammock on our lanai, listening to the birds and admiring the ferns and Ohia trees was so restorative after a busy few weeks in Hawaii.

And we were only a five-minute drive to the park for late-night volcanic eruptions and early morning hikes.

Details: Book the Volcano Village Serenity Suite on Vrbo.

19) Drive the Chain of Craters Road

Lava flow and ocean views on the Chain of Craters Rd in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Big Island

Chain of Craters is a fascinating drive that takes you from 4000 feet at Volcanoes National Park down to sea level.

Along the way, you can stop at volcanic craters and see old lava flows, mostly from eruptions in the 1970s. The views are spectacular on the way down.

At the end of the road, you can do a short walk to the Hohei Sea Arch.

Pack for all weathers—it was 60ºF at the top and 80ºF at the bottom.

Details: Entrance to Volcanoes National Park is $30 per vehicle for seven days. We used our America the Beautiful NPS annual pass. It’s open 24 hours.

Chain of Craters Rd is 19 miles long but allow around half a day to drive it. See the NPS for a list of Chain of Craters stops.

20) Watch an Eruption in Volcanoes National Park

Eruption at Kilauea volcano in Volcanoes National Park

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park encompasses two of the world’s most active volcanoes—Kilauea and Mauna Loa.

Kilauea is the most active, although Moana Loa erupted from October to December 2022 for the first time in 40 years.

As the status of the eruptions is constantly changing, check the NPS website or visit the visitor centre in the park for the latest news.

When Kilauea is spewing lava, it really is a Big Island must see.

The best time to see lava is at night when it glows red. Currently, the best viewing spot is from the overlook on Old Crater Rim Rd, a one-mile walk from the Devastation Trailhead.

Avoid visiting at sunset when it’s extremely crowded. Visit before sunrise or after 9pm.

It’s an easy walk to the viewpoint, but it’s dark, so bring a flashlight. Binoculars are useful for a closer look at the lava bubbling and spurting.

Details: See above for National Park entrance fees.

21) Hike into a Volcanic Crater

Hiking the Kilauea Iki trail in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Big Island

The best hike in the National Park is the Kilauea Iki Trail, a four-mile loop that takes you from the rainforest into the caldera.

You walk through a hardened lava lake from the 1959 eruption. There are still hot rocks far below, and it’s exciting to see cracks and steam vents.

The walk through this dramatic landscape took us just under two hours including a detour to Thurston Lava Tube. By starting at 7am we had most of the trail to ourselves.

Details: See above for National Park entrance fees. Parking and restrooms are at Kilauea Iki Trailhead, a five-minute drive from the park entrance.

22) See Turtles on Punalu’u Black Sand Beach

Punalu’u Black Sand Beach on the Big island

While we were staying in Volcano, we drove to the south coast to Punalu’u, a beautiful black sand beach lined with palm trees.

It’s very different from the white sand beaches of the Kohala coast with darker, wavier ocean and coarse grains of black sand that shimmer like tiny jewels.

The main attraction is the sea turtles that can often be found. We saw two on the beach and two in the sea. Make sure to keep your distance.

Some people snorkel here, but the ocean is quite rough. The beach is a lovely spot to linger with a picnic.

Details: Punalu’u is 30 minutes from Volcano and 1 hour 40 minutes from Kailua-Kona (most people seem to stop here on their way to the park). Parking is free right at the beach and there are restrooms, picnic tables, and a snack bar.

23) Stargaze on Mauna Kea

Telescopes at sunset at the Mauna Kea summit, Big island

One of the most popular things to do on the Big Island is a sunset and stargazing tour to the 13,800 feet (4207m) summit of Mauna Kea. This dormant volcano is the highest point of any South Pacific island.

Tours are popular because you can’t reach Mauna Kea summit without a 4WD vehicle, and it’s difficult to find a rental that allows you to drive up. You can access the visitor centre in any vehicle, but it is nowhere near as spectacular as the summit.

We did this Mauna Kea tour but can’t recommend it. It was disorganised and the vehicles were substandard (one of the 4WD vans broke down at the summit).

This Mauna Kea tour with Hawaii Forest & Trail looks like a more reliable option (and includes dinner), but you’ll need to book about three months in advance for this popular trip.

Regardless of the company you go with, we have mixed feelings about the experience.

The good:

  • Easy access to super high elevation—you are above the clouds!
  • Seeing the massive telescopes at the summit (but you can’t go inside).
  • Beautiful sunset from the summit.
  • The best stargazing we’ve ever done. Through a telescope we could even see Jupiter (with its moons) and Saturn (with its rings!).
  • You can see snow in winter!

The bad:

  • Long trip (7-8 hours) with most of the time on a bus.
  • Very bumpy journey on a winding gravel road from the visitor centre to the summit. I’m very glad I took Dramamine.
  • Altitude can affect some people (which is why you acclimatise at the visitor centre for 40 minutes). We felt a little lightheaded but nothing serious.
  • Extreme cold. Tours provide jackets and gloves, but even with multiple layers, we were freezing for the stargazing.
  • Mauna Kea is sacred to Hawaiians and many are opposed to development here.
  • It’s expensive.

I should say that we aren’t really fans of tours (all that waiting around for other people) and our trip was particularly chaotic.

Many people have excellent trips and call it a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Check out the reviews of the Hawaii Forest & Trail tour here.

Details: Mauna Kea tours have pickup locations in Kona, Waikoloa (the nearest) and Hilo. They usually last from around 3-10pm.

Some provide food, but we had to bring a packed dinner. Bring plenty of snacks and water, as there’s no shop at the visitor centre, and all the warm clothes you have (including extra socks).

Tours to the summit are not advised for those under 16 years old or with health conditions.

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Big Island Activities Map

This map has all the best things to do on Big Island Hawaii mentioned in this post.

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On Our Big Island Bucket List for Next Time

Even though we spent two weeks on the Big Island, we still have more we want to do on our next trip:

  • Makalawena Beach – This secluded beach north of Kona is a challenge to reach (unpaved road plus hot hike), but it looks beautiful.
  • Papakōlea Green Sand Beach – A unique green beach on the south coast. You’ll need to walk 2.5 miles each way to get there or pay for a lift in a 4WD (about $20 return).
  • Puna area – The southeast corner has a free-spirited vibe and diverse landscapes of rainforest, lava fields, rugged coastline, and black sand beaches.
  • Waipio Valley Lookout – Another stunning viewpoint similar to Pololū Valley. You can no longer walk down to the beach, though.
  • Whale Watching in Winter – From mid-December to March, take a whale watching boat trip to see majestic humpback whales.

I hope this post has given you some ideas of unique and fun things to do on the Big Island. It’s such a diverse island with something to offer everyone.

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More Hawaii Posts

We’ve visited the four main islands of Hawaii and have lots of tips to share in these posts.

General

Oahu

Maui

Kauai

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