Tropical flowers, pristine beaches, and a laid-back vibe…does it get much better than Hawaii? I have been lucky enough to get to travel to Maui and Kauai in the past, but this was my first visit to the Big Island of Hawaii. I kept hearing about its beauty, volcanoes, and of course how “big” it was. It was time to check it out and see what everyone had been talking about!
A few weeks ago I traveled back home to California to visit our family and friends. I try to go back at least once a year and usually during my down season before wedding season picks up. Since I have a flexible schedule right now, I decided to surprise my mom with a trip to Hawaii! She was so excited and I even kept the secret all the way to the airport. I think I may have to do surprise trips more often! 🙂
We stayed for one week and I was truly mesmerized by all there is to do and see there. The island really is huge in comparison to the other islands and I couldn’t get over the various terrain of the island. You literally can go from tropics to desert volcano to countryside within an hour’s drive – it’s unreal.
So I deep-dived into research before the trip and made a list of must-see things that I wanted to do. I do feel like one week was a good amount of time to be able to drive around the island and see things – though I think ideally 10 days would be best so that you also get more beach days!
- Rent a car in advance. This island is all about exploring and to really experience and see what there is, you will need a good car to get you around. Ideally a 4WD if you are looking to do some deep hiking/exploring. We had a small SUV and did well, but I wasn’t super comfortable going down some of the bumpy dirt roads – I heard that some of the best local beaches are down those roads too! 🙂
- Book your flights during the off-season and avoid spring break. We were lucky enough to avoid spring break by one week and If I’m honest, I didn’t once feel like I was around swarms of people. It was chill and mellow and Kona is where you will find the most tourists during your visit.
- If you’re looking for a warm trip – be sure to stay on the leeward/Kon side of the island. The Hilo side is very wet and rains often! What I did was check the weather daily to plan our trip to the Hilo side. When I saw it was a dry day there, that’s when we traveled over.
- Bring sunscreen a big hat and clothes to explore in! The average weather during our stay was 80 degrees. It gets a bit warmer in summer but overall the island stays around 78-83 in the springtime.
- Buy produce from local farmers’ markets. Some of the most beautiful fruit and veggies I’ve ever seen are on the islands of Hawaii. Support local and eat FRESH!
- Pack snacks! You will be doing a lot of driving on the island and there will be a lot of time when there is nothing but the land around you and no store in sight. My mom and I would pack lunches for our long drive days so that we didn’t have to stress. 10/10 recommend!
Things to do:
1)Walk downtown Kona
- Chances are you will be visiting the delightful town of Kona! This is a beautiful area filled with shops, dining, and history. We stayed just a short walk away from downtown and walked over almost daily. I really enjoyed watching the sunset here and it was easily accessible so my mom was able to walk up and down the streets no problem. Be sure to get an Acai Bowl from Kona Wave Cafe! They were my favorite. 🙂
2) Head to the beach!
When in Hawaii, you must go to the beach! I did a lot of research on beaches in this area and what I found was that for a lot of the really amazing beaches, you will need a 4WD. Since we only had a small SUV, I opted for the safer spots and was very happy with where we landed! Here are a few favorite beaches that we went to a few times:
Beautiful white sand and a large beach to swim and play in. There are restrooms and parking nearby. You do have to pay for parking so be sure to bring a card!
Kaunaʻoa (Mauna Kea) Beach
This beach is STUNNING. There is limited parking here but If you get lucky and go on a weekday you might score one of the 40 free parking passes to enjoy this incredible beach. Amazing enough we did have this happen and it was our favorite beach of the trip. It is situated next to the beautiful Mauna Kea Resort and you will find restrooms and outdoor showers. This beach has white sand, perfect waves for body surfing, and stunning views. When my mom and I were swimming we even saw a Sea Turtle swim right by our legs – so cool!
Spencer Beach Park
This beach is just a bit up the road from Mauna Kea and though we didn’t have time to go – we heard good things! It’s family-friendly and supposedly has calm waves for swimming.
Two Step Beach – Snorkeling
If you are looking to snorkel, Two Step beach is ideal. We saw lots of families snorkeling and you are guaranteed to see fish! It is located right next to Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park and even from the park, we saw hundreds of fish in the clear blue water (tons of yellow ones like Dory! : ) )
Magic Sands Beach Park
Magic Sands is very close to downtown Kona and is a very easily accessible beach. It did seem pretty busy, but if you need a quick spot to jump in – It’s a good one to visit.
Also right in town, you will find Honl’s Beach. It is small but beautiful and a great spot to watch the sunset. We did this twice here! There is more lava rock here so I would bring water shoes.
Papakolea Green Sand Beach
Visit a green sand beach! There are only two in the world and you can visit one of them right here in Hawaii. Be sure to bring your hiking shoes – there is a few mile hike in to get to the beach,
Pine Trees Surfing Beach
Located about 5 minutes from the airport is Pine Trees Surfing Beach. This was my favorite place to walk as well as sit peacefully at the beach. You are able to park your car on the sand here in designated spots which is amazing. You will find lots of locals and as you guessed from the name, surfers. I personally would park at Point Gabriela and walk towards Pines or O’Oma Beach for some exercise. If you go past Pines you will find a lovely trail that goes towards Wawahiwaa Point.
There are SO many more beaches not listed here and I hope that you have fun exploring the beautiful beaches of the Big Island!
3) Visit Downtown Hilo and Waterfalls
Ready to see the lush forested side of the island? Take a day trip from Kona and drive to Hilo for some exploring. There is a beautiful downtown with shopping, a great farmers market and dining. You will also find a gorgeous Japanese garden nearby called Liliuokalani Park that is well worth a visit!
Be sure to visit the nearby waterfall, Rainbow Falls. As well as ‘Akaka Falls State Park which is about a 25-minute drive outside of Hilo. ‘Akaka does require some good sturdy shoes as there are stairs and a short hike.
Be prepared for some rain as this is the wet side of the island – a poncho should do the trick!
4) Visit a Botanical Garden
While in Hilo, I highly suggest visiting the Hawaii Tropical Bioreserver and Gardens! With over 2000 species of plants and some truly incredible views – this was one of our very favorite things we did on the Big Island.
. There is a steep drop initially and walking – good shoes are recommended!
“Throughout this garden valley, nature trails meander through a true tropical rain forest, crossing bubbling streams, passing several beautiful waterfalls, and curving around the exciting ocean vistas along the rugged Pacific coast.”htbg.com
5) Waipi’o Valley Lookout and/or Pololū Valley Lookout
Drive to the north part of the island from the Hilo side and view the majestic Waipi’o Valley Lookout. It truly is breathtaking! You will see a beautiful black sand beach and lush greenery.
If you are on the Kona side of the island head to the very top of the island called Hawi. While here visit the other lookout, Pololū Valley Lookout. While you’re in Hawi be sure to visit the King Kamehameha Statue- the first ruler of Hawaii! We didn’t get to visit Hawi on this trip and I definitely want to go back and see this part of the island!
6) Visit Waimea Countryside
Located on the northern part of the Big Island you will find Waimea. We discovered this area as we were heading back to Kona from Waipi’o Valley. It’s absolutely stunning with lush countryside, farms with horses and cows, green rolling hills, and miles of solitude. We ate at a really good brewery that served Mexican food – it was called Big Island Brewhaus (LOVED the black bean falafel!).
A few other things to do here that I heard from fantastic are an Evening sunset dinner at Kahua Ranch, Horseback riding at Dahana Ranch , Parker Ranch– working cattle ranch and history museum.
7) Visit Mauna Kea and the Observatories
Located on the top of Mauna Kea summit is the world’s largest astronomical observatory with 13 working telescopes.
The observatories are not open to the general public but you can view them from the outside. Also please note that you will need a 4WD to be permitted to drive to the top. If you don’t have a 4WD another great option is a tour! I was looking at this one star gazing one, here.
We didn’t have a chance to get up the mountain due to our car – hopefully next time! Have you ever been??
8) Go on a Coffee Tour
For all of my coffee lovers out there – Kona is the place for you! 🙂 Have you ever seen how coffee grows? Learn all about coffee on the island at the Kona Coffee Living History Farm! There are several other coffee tours on the island as well – lots to explore and get your java on.
9)Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park
Visit the sacred Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Park and learn the history behind this beautiful refuge. The Hawaiian culture is so beautiful and respected.
This is a great place to slow down and feel the calm vibes of this stunning park. Be sure to look in the water while here – we saw so many tropical fish right along the shore!
Imagine you had just broken the sacred laws, the kapu, and the only punishment was death. Your only chance of survival is to elude your pursuers and reach the Puʻuhonua, a place of refuge.nps.com
10) Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park
What’s a trip to the Big Island without visiting Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park! While here you will have the chance to be face to face with a real volcano that oftentimes is very active. There are some beautiful hikes around the park as well as a hike through real lava tubes. I also saw people hiking in the crater which looked epic! If you are a National Park pass member be sure to bring your card so that you can get into the park for free!
- Go to a traditional Luau! If you’ve never done one, this is a must-do!
- Visit one of the local museums like the
- HIKE! You guys there is so much hiking here with all of the diverse terrains!
- Go to a local farmers market – Hilo has a big one!
- Kona Brewery is located in the heart of downtown and has the best vibe and brews! They also have pub food for munching.
Where to stay
My mom and I stayed at a cute-as-can be Airbnb on this trip and it was just right for two! The owners were lovely and very helpful with ideas on things to do. The shower pressure was great as well which is always a plus for me. 🙂 Send me an email if you would like the link!
For a resort, I suggest Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, Four Seasons Resort Hualalai, Mauna Lani – Auberge Resorts, Westin Hapuna Beach, or Fairmont – Orchid.
Where to dine
Admittedly since my mom and I had a kitchen in our Airbnb, we ate most meals at home! A few meals that stood out were Island Laca Java, Fosters Kitchen, Kona Brewery, and Ultimate Burger in Kona. My go-to is always yelp for restaurant help!
The Big Island was truly mesmerizing and I appreciated its slower pace and beautiful terrain. Like the other Hawaiian islands, it will leave an impact on you and your heart – they truly are sacred and such a special place to visit. Cheers to your trip and Hawaiian sunsets ahead!
*This blog post is not sponsored. All opinions are my own.