Your Trip to Hawaii Island: The Complete Guide

••• David Shvartsman / Getty Images

Massive, mysterious, and constantly changing due to active volcanoes, Hawaii Island is known for having a multitude of climate zones and sweeping, expansive terrain. It is the birthplace of Kamehameha the Great, and at more than 4,000 square feet in size, it is larger than all of the other Hawaiian islands combined. The Big Island is great for those who really want to get away, as a majority of the island has remained undeveloped and wild. Take a drive up the Kohala Coast and watch whales breach along the shoreline, visit a peaceful botanical garden, snorkel in the sparkling waters, or just lounge by the pool at a Kona resort.

Planning Your Trip

Best Time to Visit: From April to June, the weather is pleasant, and the large summer crowds haven’t even started packing yet. The airlines and hotels often offer better deals during this time of the year to offset the lack of tourists. From September to October, the weather has just begun to cool down, and the holiday crowds have yet to arrive.

Language: English, Hawaiian, and Hawaiian Pidgin English.

Currency: USD

Getting Around: Renting a car is by far the best way to get around since ride-sharing services and taxis are scarce outside of the highly-populated areas. The island’s public bus service, called Hele-On Bus, will take you to the major spots around the outskirts of the island, though it will likely take quite a while. Some of the larger resorts offer shuttle services to popular beaches and tourist areas, so be sure to ask the front desk about getting around when you arrive.

Travel Tip: If you’re only planning on staying in one place on Hawaii Island, opt for the Kona side. There are more accommodations and services available here, and it is simple to plan day trips to other parts of the island, such as the waterfalls in the Hilo area and Volcanoes National Park.

Things to Do

Hawaii Island’s large size provides plenty of attractions for visitors, whether they are looking for excitement or relaxation. Known especially for its outdoor activities, the Big Island is a haven for snorkeling, fishing, surfing, ziplining, scuba diving, and more. For history buffs, schedule some time to visit Pu'uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park and walk through the ancient Palace Grounds and the Place of Refuge.

  • Hawaii Volcanoes National Park: Hawaii’s most unique national park is located about 30 miles south of Hilo and about 96 miles east of Kailua-Kona. The park’s resident volcanoes, Kīlauea and Mauna Loa, are two of the world's most active.
  • Black Sand at Punalu’u Beach: You’ll find this black sand beach off of Highway 11 between Volcano Village and the town of Naalehu. Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles love to bask in the sun at Punalu’u, so keep a lookout.
  • Stargaze at Mauna Kea: This dormant volcano is not only one of the most historically significant places in Hawaiian culture, it is also the highest point in the state. Catching a good sunset or sunrise here is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and the stargazing is some of the best in the world.

Explore even more Big Island attractions with our full articles on the 15 Best Things to Do on the Big Island of Hawaii and Family-Friendly Activities on Hawaii’s Big Island

What to Eat and Drink

What sets this island apart in the culinary world is its ability to produce a wide range of produce and livestock, thanks to its massive size and abundance of farmland. While the resorts found along the Kohala Coast contain some of the island's best, don’t be afraid to venture out to the local, mom-and-pop spots in other areas. Hawaii Island was once thought of as a non-foodie destination, especially when compared to bustling Oahu and trendy Maui. However, chefs and restaurateurs attracted to the slower pace of life and the quality of ingredients found on the Big Island have begun sprouting up in places outside of the resorts.

Hawaii Island’s version of fine-dining is still more casual than you’d find on the mainland, but if you’re looking for something on the nicer side, head to ULU Ocean Grill at the Four Seasons or Brown’s Beach House at the Fairmont Orchid. To enjoy local ingredients at mid-range prices, check out Lava Lava Beach Club in Waikoloa for beachside eats, as well as Huggo’s in Kailua-Kona for an upscale tiki ambiance. For casual fare, Hawaiian Style Cafe and Island Lava Java are both local favorites that won’t break the bank.

Of course, this island is known for more than just food. Kona Brewing Company, one of the most well-known independent breweries to come out of Hawaii, was started here. Other notable local breweries on the island include Ola Brew Company in Kona and Big Island Brewhaus in Waimea. Lovers of coffee won’t want to miss out on tasting some deliciously famous Kona coffee straight from the source; the most popular tours can be found at Greenwell Farms, Heavenly Hawaiian Coffee Farms, Mountain Thunder Kona Coffee, and Hula Daddy Kona Coffee.

Where to Stay

Most visitors to the Big Island stay on either the Kona side in the west or the Hilo side on the east, with a select few choosing to stay near Volcanoes National Park. Kailua-Kona, on the west side, offers a higher number of accommodations, restaurants, and shops, and just north of Kona on the Kohala Coast is where you’ll find most of the luxury resorts and white-sand beaches. The other parts of the island on the north, south, and central areas will have fewer options, so a private rental is typically the easiest choice for accommodations. Kona is known for being drier, attracting beach-goers and resort vacationers who want to avoid the chances of cloud cover or rain. Hilo, on the other hand, has a much wetter climate, which adds to its rainforest conditions full of waterfalls and dense vegetation.

Getting There

There are two airports on Hawaii Island, Hilo International Airport and Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport. Which airport you choose to fly into will depend on which side of the island you’re staying on. Again, renting a car for a Big Island vacation is often the best choice for all types of travelers, since things are very far apart and public transportation isn’t the best.

Money Saving Tips

  • Going out to eat in Hawaii is expensive, so booking a place to stay with a kitchen is a great way to save money. Stock up on groceries at the Kona Costco or a nearby grocery store before getting to your condo or rental home.
  • Try to book your rental car at least a few months before arriving on the island. There are only so many rental cars available, and the companies won’t hesitate to hike up the prices for last-minute bookings. 
  • Remember that there is no such thing as a private beach in Hawaii, and catching the sunset is one of the simplest, most memorable free activities around.
  • Passes to Volcanoes National Park are good for seven days, so make sure to take full advantage if you’re staying nearby.
  • For budget-friendly food and souvenirs, go to the Hilo Farmers Market. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, the market holds over 100 local farmers and vendors selling locally-grown and locally-made merchandise and produce.

Find more money-saving tips for your Big Island vacation by exploring 14 Free Things to Do on Hawaii Island.

Was this page helpful?