72 Hours on Hawaii Island: The Ultimate Itinerary

Volcanoes National Park on Hawaii Island

G. Brad Lewis / Getty Images 

Hawaii Island is much bigger than most visitors realize (that’s why it’s called the Big Island), and while three days may not be enough to see the entire island up close and personal, it provides plenty of time to see the highlights. The best way to experience Hawaii Island is by breaking up your time into a series of day trips, and since it makes up more than half the landmass of the entire state, driving from one side of the island to the other can take hours. Make the most out of 72 hours with this guide to all the unmissable spots on the Big Island.

01 of 09

Day 1: Morning

Kailua-Kona town on the Big Island, Hawaii

 Peter French / Getty Images

10 a.m.: We suggest flying into Kona International Airport on the west side of the island and staying in Kailua-Kona. The airport here tends to be more organized and lively, while the Kona area provides many more options for accommodation, restaurants, beaches, historical sites, and easy access to the rest of the island compared to Hilo or Volcano on the east side. You will want to rent a car to pick up at the airport; it is the best way to get around on Hawaii Island. Try to book your vehicle in advance since there are only so many cars available. 

11 a.m.: Try for early check-in at your hotel or rental, and if not, no worries. See if you can leave your bags and get started with your day right away. Grab breakfast by the Kailua Pier at Splasher’s Grill for stuffed french toast or something lighter. You can explore the area around your hotel or the pier to settle after the long flight, or view the Kamakahonu National Historic Landmark, a 1970s reconstruction of the home of King Kamehameha at the King Kamehameha Hotel nearby. If you’ve forgotten anything back home like sunscreen, toothpaste, or shampoo, grab it at the ABC Store across from the pier.

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02 of 09

Day 1: Afternoon

Pu'uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park on Hawaii Island

 Mains Ray / Getty Images

1 p.m.: Time to do what you came here for: Get in the water! There’s nothing more refreshing on your first day in Hawaii than jumping into the clear ocean water. Grab a poke bowl for lunch at Da Poke Shack and bring it to the beach. Try the Pele’s Kiss poke made with spicy chili pepper and ahi tuna fresh off the morning boat or the Wet Hawaiian mixed with traditional limu, Hawaiian salt, and roasted kukui nut. If you don’t eat fish, get the house-made Kalua pork, a slow-roasted pork shoulder cooked Hawaiian style.

2 p.m.: Head to Kua Bay about ten miles north or do some snorkeling at Kealakekua Bay 17 miles south. If you have more time, drive about 22 miles south to Pu'uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park to learn about Hawaiian history before getting in at Two Step right next door, one of the best snorkeling spots on the island. Too tired to drive that far? Stay close to home and check out the Seahorse Farm (open on weekdays) or Octopus Farm (open on weekends) in Kailua-Kona.

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03 of 09

Day 1: Evening

Sunset over the water on Hawaii Island

 Ingo Tews / Getty Images

7 p.m.: Have dinner right on the water and catch the sunset at Huggo’s or Fish Hopper Seafood and Steak to experience what Hawaii Island has to offer. Call as soon as possible to get a reservation and ask for a seat close to the water; it truly makes for an exceptional evening. Off the menu, try the fresh local fish or the Teriyaki Steak at Huggo’s and the clam chowder at Fish Hopper. After dinner, grab a nightcap next door at On The Rocks, an outdoor lounge on the water that's open late on weekends—which by Big Island standards means 11 p.m.

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04 of 09

Day 2: Morning

Waipio Valley on the Big Island, Hawaii

 Damien VERRIER / Getty Images

8 a.m.: Wake up early this morning and stop at Island Lava Java for some coffee and breakfast. The open-air restaurant features a selection of omelets, pancakes, and breakfast sandwiches to fuel you up for a big day of driving along the lush and scenic northern part of the island. 

9 a.m.: Head north past the Kohala Coast towards Waipio Valley. This historic, remote valley was once the boyhood home of King Kamehameha, and the vastly tropical setting is sure to take your breath away. About halfway to Waipio, stop at the Pu'ukohala Heiau National Historic Site and see the last preserved ruins of an ancient Hawaiian temple.

11 a.m.: Once you reach Waipio Valley, 60 miles from Kailua-Kona, park at the Waipio Valley Lookout to get the best views overlooking the valley. You can hike into the valley to a black sand beach if there’s time; the 1.5-mile hike is moderately strenuous and will take 30-45 minutes down and an hour to an hour and a half back up (don’t forget hiking shoes and water!). You will most likely want to spend some time taking in the magnificent views from the lookout before moving on.

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05 of 09

Day 2: Afternoon

Akaka Falls on the Big Island, Hawaii

Yakaoru Tanaka/ EyeEm / Getty Images 

1 p.m.: From Waipio, continue on the HI-19 towards Hilo. In about an hour, you’ll reach the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, a rainforest preserve with a beautiful series of paved pathways that meander past more than 2,000 species of tropical plants and trees. Before reaching the botanical gardens, it’s possible to take a detour to Akaka Falls by turning right onto State Highway 220. There is a quick half-mile footpath that will provide views of two beautiful waterfalls. 

2 p.m.: Grab a late lunch at Hawaiian Style Cafe or Big Island Grill in town, or eat at the Hilo Farmers Market while shopping for souvenirs. The farmers market is open daily from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., with extra vendors on Saturdays and Wednesdays. If you get to Hilo and haven’t had your fill of waterfalls quite yet, you can stop at Rainbow Falls just outside of town and see the 80-foot falls from the easily-accessible viewing platform.

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06 of 09

Day 2: Evening

Stargazing on Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii

 JTSorrell / Getty Images

2:30 p.m.: From Hilo, it will take about three hours to drive to the Mauna Kea Visitors Center. You won’t want to miss an opportunity to watch the sunset over the otherworldly landscape on top of Mauna Kea Volcano. Grab some sandwiches to-go at Sweet Cane Cafe or Millie’s Deli for dinner on the mountain. Follow Highway 200 (Saddle Road) to the Mauna Kea access road (around mile marker 28) and follow it up to the visitor center at 9,200-feet elevation. Make sure you start with a full tank of gas. On Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday nights from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., local volunteer astronomers set up telescopes for visitors as part of their free stargazing program. 

8 p.m.: The drive back to Kailua-Kona will take another three to four hours. If all that driving doesn’t appeal to you, drive back early to Kailua-Kona from Hilo and book a night dive or snorkel with Manta Ray Dives Hawaii to see the local gentle giants in their natural habitat. The company guarantees manta ray sightings, or they will let you come back another time for free.

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07 of 09

Day 3: Morning

Honu on Punaluu Black Sand Beach on Hawaii Island

 tmarvin / Getty Images

9 a.m.: Spend time on Hawaii Island’s rugged volcanic landscape on your last full day by driving south on HI-11 towards Punaluu. On the way, stop at the Punaluu Bake Shop for some breakfast pastries, cookies, and sandwiches, and walk around the four-acre tropical estate. Don’t leave without trying a cup of Ka’u coffee, made with beans grown right there on the island, and some of their famous Hawaiian sweet bread and malasadas.

11 a.m.: After the bakery, continue to Punaluu Beach, the most accessible black sand beach on the island. Here you can explore the dark sandy shore and watch as the Honu, Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles, lounge on the beach enjoying the sun. Remember that it is illegal to harass or touch these animals, so make sure to observe them from a safe distance.

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08 of 09

Day 3: Afternoon

The Thurston Lava Tube at Volcanoes National Park

 Karl Lehmann / Getty Images

1 p.m.: Less than thirty miles further down the HI-11, you’ll find the famous Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii Island’s number one attraction encompassing the summits of Kīlauea and Mauna Loa, two of the most active volcanoes on earth. A great first stop is the Kīlauea Visitor Center, where you can obtain information about the different areas of the park. Eat lunch inside the park at one of the Volcano House restaurants while you plan out the rest of your time there.

3 p.m.: Some of the highlights at Volcanoes National Park include the Chain of Craters Road, the Kīlauea Iki Trail, the Crater Rim Drive, the Jaggar Museum, and the Thurston lava tube. Depending on conditions, you may even be able to see lava from a distance at the Halema’uma’u crater viewing area.

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09 of 09

Day 3: Evening

Luau dancers

 FatCamera / Getty Images

5 p.m: You can’t leave Hawaii without attending a luau, and luckily some of the best ones can be found in Kona. The Voyagers of the Pacific Luau at the Royal Kona Resort is great for families with small children, and the Island Breeze Luau is located at Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel right next to the historic Ahu’ena Heiau. Chances are, your hotel or resort will be able to recommend a luau nearby if they don’t offer one on the property. If luaus aren’t your style, have a nice dinner at Merriman’s or Lava Lava Beach Club. Both are popular with tourists and locals alike while showcasing the best Hawaiian ingredients grown, caught, or raised right on the Big Island.