The Big Island is the newest and largest island in the southern Hawaiian island chain. The island has two distinct population centers: Kona and Hilo.
Kona, the main tourist center and the dry side of the island, offers snorkeling, swimming, some sandy beaches, hotels and resorts and shopping. Most tourists fly into Kona, though you can also fly into Hilo.
Hilo, the lush, green, wet side of the Big Island, is the home of Volcanoes National Park. Kilauea Volcano at Volcanoes National Park has been actively erupting since 1983. If you are lucky, you will see lava flowing and pouring into the ocean during your visit – it is the creation of new land happening before your eyes, the way all of the islands were formed. The park itself offers a glimpse into life (and the lack of it) after volcanic activity, like an eerie moonscape.
The drive between Hilo and Kona is 3-4 hours, most of it on a two-lane road.
Because of the volcanic activity and newness of the island, white-sugar sandy beaches are a rarity on the Big Island. The Hilo side of the island has almost no sandy beaches. The beaches tend to have coarse black or black-and-gray sand. However, this also means that snorkeling and scuba diving are phenomenal on this island.
Highlights of things to do on the Big Island:
- Volcanoes National Park. The quaint town of Volcano boasts very nice bed-and-breakfasts and small inns. Kilauea volcano has been in continuous eruption (flow) for a number of years and it is amazing to witness geographical activity happening before your eyes. Spend at least one day driving and/or hiking around the park and witnessing the different impact the volcano has had on the landscape.
- Akaka Falls. Take a short, paved stroll through a misty botanical landscape, ending with a view of majestic waterfall. After visiting Akaka Falls, be sure to stop by Ed’s Bakery in Honomu, a charming mom-and-pop operation with scrumptious baked goods. Mr. Ed and his wife also make a wide assortment of the most delicious tropical jams and jellies I’ve ever tasted (and having grown up on the islands, that’s saying something). Starfruit, white guava, Surinam cherry, and jaboticaba (a Brazilian plum) are some of the more exotic flavors.
- Warm springs: natural lava rock pools with geothermally heated spring water mixed with ocean water.
- Waipio Valley. At the northern end of the island, Waipio Valley is excellent for hiking. You can do a short hike down to the black-sand beach from the lookout point or longer hikes into the valley.
- Snorkeling. While the beaches aren’t soft and sandy, the snorkeling is probably the best on the main Hawaiian islands. The best snorkeling happens on calm days and in the early morning. On windy days, it can be difficult for beginners to navigate in the current, and waters can be murky. Please don’t walk on the coral or feed the fish!
- Circle-island drive. It takes a solid day to drive from Kona to Hilo, but it’s a lovely drive and gives you a great sense of the scale and majesty of the Big Island. If you drive north, you pass through Waipio Valley as well.
- The Mauna Lani Hotel. For our honeymoon, my spouse and I spent three heavenly nights at the fabulous Mauna Lani on the Kohala Coast before heading to Volcano National Park. A few things make this luxury hotel extra-special and distinguish it from resorts that have no Hawaiian feeling or respect for the history and natural beauty of Hawai’i. The open-air architecture of the hotel means you can enjoy the wonderful tradewinds all day. The extensive and beautiful grounds of the hotel include a shark pond, turtle pond, and protected ancient Hawaiian fishing ponds and petroglyphs. A short walk past the fishing ponds takes you to a tiny beach with rare white sand, sparkling water and decent snorkeling (we saw sea turtles and (harmless) reef sharks there). And, the breakfast brunch is first-class. Even if you don’t stay at the Mauna Lani, if you are in Kona and feel like doing something low-key, consider having brunch or taking a walk through the grounds of this exquisite and uniquely Hawaiian hotel.