After recent visits to Maui and Kauai, I’ve now been to all four of the main “travel” islands of Hawaii, and I think the Big Island might just be my favorite. If the Kīlauea volcano is currently active when you’re thinking of going to Hawaii, then I would totally recommend choosing Big Island over the others. But even if it’s not, there’s still plenty to do, as you’ll see from my six-day itinerary.
Day 1: Snorkeling and Coffee Farms
We spent the first three nights on the west/Kona side of the island, since that’s where the best snorkeling is. I’ve heard Two Step is a fantastic snorkel spot but also a little difficult, so we started at Kahalu’u Beach Park instead. The waters here are calm, shallow, and there’s a lot of coral the farther out you swim. There are also volunteers at the beach who are very vocal about using reef-safe sunscreen and not standing on the coral, both important messages that I think visitors need to be mindful of.
When we were in Maui, we made the mistake of trying to squeeze in two snorkel spots per day, which was not easy to pull off. This time, we filled the afternoon by visiting a local coffee farm. There are several coffee farms near Kona that offer tours. We went with Greenwell Farms, because you don’t need to reserve a tour slot ahead of time (and it’s free!).
Day 2: Snorkeling, Kayaking, and Historical Parks
Another popular snorkel spot is Kealakekua Bay, though access is a bit tricky. Your options are a 3-4 mile hike, a boat tour, or a kayak. We rented kayaks from Ehu & Kai, who were great to work with. Kayaking across the bay was fun but tiring. The tiny, white monument in this picture shows how far you have to paddle:
But the snorkeling was great. I saw a bigger variety of fish here than at Kahalu’u, though Kahalu’u was better overall. It helps that there are facilities at Kahalu’u. In the Kealakekua Bay, the only bathroom is the ocean itself!
For the afternoon, we visited the Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park. I enjoyed this place a lot more than I thought I would. The surrounding coastline is really pretty, and the history and Hawaiian legends born from here were fun to learn about.
Day 3: Volcanoes and Botanical Gardens
This was the day we switched sides to stay on the east coast near Hilo. The original plan was to drive the southern route and see the green and black sand beaches along the way. However, an accident closed Highway 11 for several hours, forcing us to change plans and drive the “Saddle Road” across the middle of the island.
On the way, we stopped at the Mauna Kea visitor center. Unless your vehicle has 4WD, you cannot go all the way up to the summit of Mauna Kea. So the visitor center is the end of the road, and it’s not a very informative stop. Still, there are some cool views to take in from the surrounding area:
Farther down Saddle Road towards Hilo, there’s a short Kaulana Manu Nature Trail that was fun to walk through. It’s interesting to see what has grown on top of these older lava flows.
We ended the day by visiting the Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve & Garden not too far north of Hilo. This is probably the best botanical garden I’ve ever been to. The grounds are very pretty with so many different kinds of trees and plants:
And because it’s so close to the ocean, you also get some great bonus lookouts at the coast from here. My wife said this was her favorite day for this garden alone. It’s definitely worth the trip.
Day 4: Volcanoes National Park
The main thing we wanted to see on the Big Island was the national park, and it did not disappoint. Make sure you check the status of the Kīlauea volcano, though. Seeing it actively erupt was really cool. As of May 2022, lava is only visible in the caldera. You can see lava from the main Kīlauea overlook, but the actual eruptions are only visible from the Keanakāko’i overlook. Even then, you will need binoculars to truly appreciate it. The caldera is much farther away than you might think:
We also enjoyed walking through the Thurston Lava Tube and taking the trail down into the Kīlauea Iki pit crater. The highlight for me, though, was driving down Chain of Craters Road towards the Hōlei Sea Arch. No, the sea arch isn’t that spectacular. It’s the drive itself that I enjoyed, to see the different stages of lava as it has flowed towards the ocean:
Day 5: Green and Black Sand Beaches
Finally, we headed to the southern side of the island to see the famous green and black sand beaches. The Papakōlea Green Sand Beach is not for the weak, though. It is a 5-6 mile roundtrip hike. While the walk itself isn’t difficult, it can get very hot and windy out there. Yes, there are truck drivers offering to shuttle people back and forth, but the legality of this service is questionable. Many locals are upset that the trucks are tearing up the land. If you choose to walk, you’ll see the destruction for yourself. That final view, though:
Next, we stopped by the Punalu’u Black Sand Beach. This is a beach you can drive right up to, making it a popular place for people to hang out. It’s also a popular place for turtles to hang out. If you’re lucky, you’ll see turtles sunbathing right there on the beach. For us, we only caught a few glimpses of turtles swimming out in the water.
Day 6: Waterfalls and Overlooks
Our flight home didn’t depart from Kona until 11:00 at night, so we had plenty of time to make our way back to the other side of the island. I chose the northern road this time to give us a chance to stop at several waterfalls and valley overlooks along the way.
There are many waterfalls on Big Island, but we only saw three: Rainbow Falls, Akaka Falls, and Umauma Falls. Akaka Falls is a state park that has a vehicle and per-person fee. Umauma Falls is on private property and requires signing a waiver and paying a per-group fee. Of these falls, I liked Akaka the most (pictured below), but the rest of my family preferred Umauma Falls.
The valley overlooks were a little more out of the way, and I wouldn’t recommend stopping at them unless you have other reasons to be in those areas. Of the two we visited, Waipi’o Valley was the more convenient and prettier overlook:
Going out to Pololū Valley added at least another two hours to our drive and wasn’t as impressive. I did enjoy driving through all of the lush farmland on Highway 250, though. It felt like being in a different country. It really is amazing how parts of this island are fully established while others are still changing from active lava flows.