Hawaii vacations: a great Big Island itinerary

Nature’s playground and the prized jewel of the Hawaiian archipelago must be the Big Island. As the name suggests, the Big Island is Hawaii’s largest landmass and within it, visitors are spoilt for choice. Boasting incredible biodiversity and verdant landscapes to rival Costa Rica, the Big Island is a top choice for cosmopolitan beach breaks studded with rainforest adventures. Discover our great Big Island itinerary which starts in Kona, passing through Hilo and the Hamakua Coast, with plenty of red-hot volcanic action along the way.

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Photo: F. McDaniel

Welcome to the Big Island

Hawaii’s geothermal activity serves to constantly alter the Big Island’s landscape, making it one of the world’s most unique ecological zones; endlessly diverse, steamy and unpredictable. With as many as 8 (out of 13) of the world’s climate zones, the Big Island offers a dizzying array of landscapes, from emerald cliffs to encrusted lava deserts. The island’s imposing volcanic mountains come snow-capped in winter with rolling grasslands and steamy valleys in between.

Kilauea, on the eastern side of the Big Island, is the tallest, largest and only active volcanic mountain on the archipelago. One of the most active volcanos in the world, Kilauea has spewed molten rock continuously since 1983, creating the land beneath it and shaping the island at large. Descending below the earth, Kilauea flares into the 33,000-foot mountain known as Mauna Kea. The world’s tallest mountain, Mauna Kea has both spiritual and scientific importance, considered a sacred site by Hawaiians.

Despite being young in the geological sense, Hawaii’s islands hold the secrets of the first Polynesians. Early civilisation landed on the Big Island’s southern tip of Ka Lae, a place still undeveloped today. Kohala and Kailua-Kona are both places linked to Kamehameha the Great, the unifier of the Hawaiian Islands, and remain deeply-rooted in early traditions such as hula and oli chanting. Other key sites include Miloli’I on the Kona Coast which is said to be the last Hawaiian fishing village.

Kalapana | Photo: Buzz Andersen

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Hawaii’s geothermal activity serves to constantly alter the Big Island’s landscape, making it one of the world’s most unique ecological zones; endlessly diverse, steamy and unpredictable

Along with the development of the sugarcane industry, Hawaii’s islands saw increased immigration from China, Japan, the Philippines, Portugal and more, making for the modern multicultural society we see today reflected in Hawaii’s languages, food and festivals. Listen out for the local tongue of Pidgin English which evolved as a method of communication between immigrant workers.

Spread wide across the North Pacific Ocean, Hawaii is a rugged land of epic proportions, varying madly from east to west. Many big Island tours centre on the Gold Coast – stretching from Kailua-Kona up to South Kohala – as this region best caters to tourists. The rural island towns meanwhile, remain authentic and undeveloped surrounded by untouched forests and volcanic formations. Hilo, the Big Island’s capital seat, is a delightful mix of everything, where the local kama’aina people balance a slow pace with plantation-era diversity in proximity to spectacular reserves and Mauna Kea.

Photo: Anqi Lu

Photo: Jakob Owens

Day 1: Kona and the beach

Arriving happily at Kona Airport, you’ll want to brush off that jetlag and make your way into town. Kona (aka Kailua-Kona) is the sunny west coast city home to Hulihee Palace and King Kamehameha I’s residence. Drop off your bags and head straight for the coastline, as Kona is best appreciated from the beach. Kamakahonu Beach is famed for its colourful coral offerings below the surf, or drive north along the west coast for a heady choice of beautiful beach spots, including Kua Bay and Hapuna. Boredom is never an option as there are many things to do in Kona Hawaii, such as whale watching cruises during the day or Manta Ray night diving or snorkelling tours to fill the night. A slower evening can also be had with sunset cocktails along Ali’i drive.

In the morning, put your Loco Moco on hold and first venture back to the bay for a morning swim with possible pods of wild dolphins, one of the most memorable experiences to have in Kona.

Photo: Derek Owens

Day 2: Ocean views and adventures

The early start will feel more than worth it once you’re on the road revelling in breath-taking ocean views on your way towards Captain Cook. Throw off any drowsiness with a fresh Kona coffee at the Coffee Shack, a hotspot on Kona coffee tours, before continuing south to Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park. Here you’ll learn about the ancient rituals and practices of native Hawaiians within a culturally significant area. Snorkelers will also want to try snorkelling Big Island at Two Step, just moments from the park entrance.

As well as coffee tasting, alternative big island adventures near sunny Kailua Kona include a visit to a farmers market, sampling of local beers at the Kona Brewing Company or hiking through the historic Waikoloa petroglyph field. Snorkelling is always an option on the west coast, with a half-day trip to the Captain Cook monument highly recommended for wonderful coral shores and sublime sunsets.

Day 3: Volcano village and the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Things start heating up on day three as we travel the two hours by car from Kailua-Kuna to Volcano Village. Stop along the way for a breather with inspiring ocean vistas at South Point or stretch your legs on Punalu’u black sand beach while watching out for hatching turtles. Book a vacation lodge close by Hawaii Volcanoes National Park so that you can base yourself in the midst of it all.

The friendly visitor centre can help you plan your day as well as introduce you to the park and its rangers who offer free hikes and trail advice. They’ll know all you need to know about active lava flows and viewing conditions for each volcano. If you’d like to go it alone, some must-see stops in the park include the Thurston Lava Tube (Nāhuku), the Chain of Craters Road (Hōlei Sea Arch) and the Jaggar Museum. Lovers of explosive drama should also make a point of viewing Kilauea Volcano, the park’s most active and popular peak. Take the Kilauea Iki trail for a light trek through dense rainforest, over the ridge and down into the crater shaped by millions of years of volcanic activity.

Rest up back in the village with a meal at a local restaurant and a re-energising dip in your hotel’s hot tub. If sleep can wait, return to the Jaggar Museum come nightfall for a glimpse of Kilauea Volcano radiant under the stars.

Photo: David Mark

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Rangers offer free hikes and trail advice, they’ll know all you need to know about active lava flows and viewing conditions for each volcano

Day 4: Red-Hot Lava

With over 100 miles of trails meandering across Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, day four gives us the chance to hike to our heart’s content, soaking up some remarkable natural scenery. Talk to a ranger about where best to see flowing lava, or drive over to Kalapana, a viewing spot once home to one of the world’s most beautiful beaches before it got flooded by molten lava in the 90s. Now you’ll see a new black sand beach forming beside the original, showing the processes of destruction and creation hand in hand.

Puna district and its coastline have more than enough attractions to spend a day, so consider taking a beach day before heading back to Kapoho with potential photo opportunities at MacKenzie National Park and Isaac Hale (nicknamed Pohoiki). Savour a dinner in the quaint town of Pahoa before returning once more to Volcano Village for a peaceful forty winks surrounded by rainforest.

Photo: Derek Owens

Photo: Marc Szeglat

Day 5: Hilo and the Wailuku River

Heading south to the coastal town of Hilo takes us one hour by car, so fill up on a Volcano Village breakfast and set out. Once in Hilo, enjoy the many commercial wonders of downtown with a stroll past the town’s best galleries and boutique stores. If it’s a Wednesday or Saturday, the farmers market’s selection of fresh fruit, bento boxes and souvenirs awaits your perusal. Take your bento box with you on your way to either Coconut Island or one of Hilo’s beatific beaches, such as the great swim spots in the Keaukaha area. Try Carlsmith beach park or Richardsons for unencumbered views of Hilo Bay over a picnic. Seize the afternoon with a jaunt up to Rainbow Falls before continuing up Kaumana Drive to marvel at the Boiling Pots.

However, it isn’t until sundown that Hilo really shines. Stargazing is Hilo’s most popular activity, particularly at Mauna Kea summit. Travel up Saddle Road at night to reach Mauna Kea’s visitor centre where professionally-led night tours begin. You can also take your own rental car to each stargazing spot (which come fitted with state-of-the-art telescopes), with a 4WD charge to reach the summit. For a slightly different angle on events, splurge on a private flight over the island with one of the big island helicopter tours starting at either Hilo or Kona.

Photo: Jakob Owens

Day 6: The Hamakua Coast

The next morning we say goodbye to Hilo and hello to the Hamakua Coast, but not before experiencing one of Hilo’s awesome sunrises over the bay. Once on the road, take the 4-mile Scenic Route along the coast, stopping at the World Botanical Gardens for a stroll through fern forests if you have time. Take Highway 19 from here, choosing to cool down at watery stop-offs such as Uma Uma Falls or Akaka Falls State Park.

Moving north will lead us to Honoka’a, a former sugarcane stronghold of historical significance. The town now offers shops, galleries and a variety of lunch spots, just a short drive from a winning viewpoint over Waipi’o Valley, aka the Valley of the Kings prized for its cultivation of local crop ‘Kalo’ and its position as the political and religious centre of ancient Hawaiian culture. Today the place is rather more sparsely populated, allowing visitors to experience solitude while trekking to the town’s remote waterfalls and glittering black sand beaches.

For more exploration of the valley, check your car brakes are working well before taking the sickeningly steep road down (some car rental companies may prohibit this, in which case Waipio Valley tours offer a shuttle service). Hikers should also make sure to have good shoes, enough water and sun protection. In the evening, Waimea has you covered for delectable food in a luxurious atmosphere or, for sunset views and the best seafood, try nearby Kawaihae Harbor.

Photo: Heather Morse

Photo: Chloe Leis

Day 7: Waimea and Pololu Black Sand Beach

Our final day starts leisurely in Waimea, an old ranchers town with easy access to top hiking spots and boss beaches. From here, consider taking Highway 250 towards the colonial town of Hawi. As well as being the best black sand beach Big Island has to offer, Pololu also boasts an awesome valley which you can hike in and out off. If time and energy allow, drive south along the coast to Waikoloa Village where fresh brewed coffee and sweeping white-sand beaches can help you recharge before heading back to your lodging to pack.

Photo: Andre Gaulin

Bonus time: Honolulu and Maui 

Hold on a moment and ask yourself: do I even want to leave yet? If the answer is a resounding no and you have your boss’s approval, then thankfully Hawaii isn’t done with you just yet. While the Big Island is hard to beat, Hawaii’s other islands shouldn’t be overlooked. Maui is a small yet dreamy island getaway, made for romantics and those seeking ultimate R&R. Bulk out your itinerary with our list of things to do in Maui.

Alternatively, venture to the south shore of Oahu island to the capital of Hawaii, Honolulu. Serving as a gateway for US travellers, Honolulu melds world-class beaches and mountainous backdrops with fusion cuisine and Japanese-US influence. Area of interest includes Kakaako, Chinatown and Waikiki. As well as being friendly to beach-loving city gals and beginner surfers, Waikiki Beach is also renowned amongst the global gay community as the centre of gay Honolulu. Find action centred on Queen’s Surf Beach with myriad gay bars and clubs splintering out into the town. To learn more, see our dedicated Honolulu travel guide. Browse the best bits of Honolulu with our definitive gay Honolulu travel guide.

Photo: Blacklinear Studios

Photo: Guille Pozzi

Let Mr Hudson help

Consider Mr Hudson’s trip design service for an easy-breezy vacation with none of the hassle of planning. Our dedicated team of trip design experts will curate an itinerary based on your individual wants and needs, giving you fresh information about where to stay on the Big Island, what activities to do and what events to see. We’re here to help you plan your ideal getaway, wherever in the world!

Photo: Mike Baker

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