Just in case you weren’t aware, Hawaii isn’t just the name of the United States’ 50th state; it’s also the name of the biggest island in the Hawaiian archipelago. Nicknamed the “Big Island”, Hawaii is home to two active volcanos, lush rainforests, charming little towns and diverse scenery. It was also the first stop on our recent return trip to Hawaii.
After visiting Maui, Kauai and Oahu last year we came back with a new-found obsession for Hawaii and particularly for Kauai (and in my case for turtles!). But it only really made sense to visit Hawaii again so soon if we tried out a different island. So we decided to spend a week on the Big Island before heading back to Kauai. And I am so glad that we did! The Big Island is very different from the rest of Hawaii. For starters, it really is quite large when compared to the other seven islands and trying to explore it in just one day would be absolutely pointless.
With a week on the big island, we decided to spend four days in Kailua-Kona on the west side (also known as the sunny side) followed by three days on the east side near the Volcano National Park. This saved us a lot of driving and we’d recommend doing this if you visit the Big Island.
Click here to find your accomodation in Kailua-Kona, or click here to find accomodation near Volcano National Park. Any booking you make helps support this site, but won’t cost you any extra.
We visited so many beautiful places there and here are the ones you just shouldn’t miss out on:
1 – Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
It’s not every day that you can watch red hot lava flowing into the ocean or walk across fields of solidified lava created during your birth year. That’s what makes the Volcanoes National Park an absolute must to visit while on the island. The scenery is just spectacular and completely different from the rest of Hawaii, and in fact from the rest of the world! It’s like being on another planet; you really have to experience it rather than just read about it.
There are so many things to do around the volcano that it needs its own blog post. There are plenty of hikes to do, lava tubes to walk through, steam vents to marvel at, and awesome scenic drives such as the Chain of craters road. You will need more than a day to take it all in. Entrance to the park costs $10 per person or $20 per car and is valid for seven days, so be sure to make the most of it. Don’t forget to visit the park at night for the best view of the lava glowing red hot inside the crater. It’s an experience to remember.
2 – Kealakekua Bay
Kealakekua Bay (known to tourists as Captain Cook Bay) is the best snorkelling spot on the Big Island and one of the best in the whole of Hawaii. In amongst the coral canyons, you’ll find schools of Yellow Tangs, Whitebar Surgeonfish, Butterflyfish, Triggerfish, Parrotfish, Cornetfish and many other colourful species of fish. If you are lucky you might even see dolphins, turtles or rays!
The catch is that with no direct access roads the bay is very hard to get to. There is a very steep, four-mile return hike there if you fancy carrying your snorkelling gear, water and lunch with you! Alternatively you can hire kayaks and paddle there under your own steam. Or like us take the easy way out and book an organised snorkelling trip with one of the many providers. We would highly recommend Fair Wind tours. Their Captain Cook tour is really well organised with a friendly crew and plenty of time in the bay. They head straight there so you have a whole two and a half hours to snorkel. We even had a pod of bottlenose dolphins greet our boat as we arrived into the bay!
3 – Waipi’o Valley lookout
The Waipi’o Valley is found on the North side of the island and is worth the drive up. From the lookout point at the top, you have a spectacular view over the lush valley below with its many tarot fields and its stunning black sand beach. If you feel energetic and have some time to spend you can hike down to the valley to check out the fields, beach and waterfalls. It’s only a mile down but with its 25% average grade, the way up doesn’t look much fun! If you have a 4WD and are an experienced driver you can also drive down to the beach. We had a 4WD but it looked way out of our league.
4 – Kahaluʻu Beach Park
If you want to see the famous Honus, otherwise known as the Hawaiian Green sea turtles, head to Kahaluʻu Beach Park. This was our first stop after we landed while we waited to check into our condo. It couldn’t have been a better start to our trip! We saw two turtles swimming close to shore as we were putting on our snorkels. We didn’t event need to get wet to see them! As we entered the water we found another three turtles happily swimming around, munching on sea grass and totally oblivious to the tourists around them.
One of the volunteers on the beach told us that twenty-five juvenile turtles live around this area and they are so accustomed to people that they are not shy at all. This beach was five minutes from our condo and became the place we headed to for our daily turtle fix. We saw them every time we visited. Swimming alongside these beautiful and gentle creatures is always an incredible experience. Turtles are the reason I fell in love with Hawaii in the first place so this beach park sure kept me happy!
5 – Honaunau Bay or Two-Steps
Another fabulous snorkelling spot is Honaunau Bay, also known as Two-Steps. Two-Steps has incredible fish life, lots of coral and is a fair bit deeper than Captain Cook. Dolphins are also known to make appearances there if you’re lucky. We weren’t although we did see a turtle and a couple of Moray Eels. It is much easier to get to than Captain Cook. However as is the case in many parts of Hawaii, the parking is fairly limited. So it’s best to get there super early to get a spot and to also avoid the crowds. If the carpark is full you can park next door at the Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park for $5.
6 – Punalu’u Black sand beach
On our drive from Kailua-Kona to Volcano, we stopped at the Punalu’u beach park. Punalu’u is not only the nicest black sand beach on Hawaii but it is also a nesting ground for sea turtles. They are often seen basking on the beach. Sadly none came out to greet us but we saw many playing in the surf and the beach itself was worth the detour! Check out the lovely pond behind the trees with its many lily pads, it’s a great photo opportunity!
7 – Akaka Falls
The Akaka Falls are 135 meters tall and the most famous of the Hawaii Island waterfalls. As you walk down the hill you are greeted with some delightfully lush scenery, a smaller baby waterfall, flowing rivers, giant trees and finally those majestic falls. Even in the pouring rain, we loved it! The whole area is so green and vibrant. It was worth getting soaked for!
8 – The Pololu Valley
The Pololu Valley is a long drive for anyone not staying north of the island but it offers a great hike with some beautiful views over the valley and its spectacular cliffs. Unlike the Waipi’o Valley, the hike isn’t hard and can be done by anyone of moderate fitness. It took us a lot longer going down than back up due to the many photos stops! Once you get to the bottom you are rewarded with an amazing view of the river, the valley and the black sand beach. Be aware that the sea is too rough to swim in; it’s best to stay out of the water.
9 – The Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park
The Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park or “City of Refuge” is located right next to Honaunau Bay so you can visit it before or after your snorkelling session. It is a beautifully preserved ancient place of refuge that Hawaiian natives would flee to in order to escape a death penalty. It is a beautiful and calm place with lots of palm trees everywhere. The contrast of the black lava rock against the turquoise water of the bay is breathtaking. The tour there is self-guided so pick up a brochure as you enter to learn about each part of the refuge. It would have been a great place to spend sunset but we arrived first thing in the morning to beat the crowds. It was really quiet at that time and we pretty much had the place to ourself; so peaceful!
10 – The Hawaiian Botanical Garden
If you are a nature lover you just have to visit this garden. It offers a huge collection of Hawaiian native flowers, exotic plants and trees. The garden is set on a steep hill leading down to the ocean and is impeccably kept. Plus there’s more than just the plants; there’s waterfalls, streams, breathtaking views of the ocean, a koi pond and even some gorgeous exotic birds! Entry costs $18 but it is money well spent!
11 – Night snorkelling with Manta Rays
I can’t really count this one as a highlight as sadly our trip was cancelled due to bad ocean conditions. Needless to say, we were extremely disappointed, especially since it happened on our last night in Kona which meant we couldn’t reschedule. We were both so looking forward to snorkelling with those awesome creatures. Everyone who does it raves about it so you should definitely add it to your list! And a big tip; don’t book it for your last night!
So that’s our favourites things to do on Hawaii. Have you visited the Big Island? If so what were your favourites bits?
Accommodation on the Big Island
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Other Big Island Activities
To find out where to find sea turtles on the Big Island click here.
Heading to Kauai? Find out about our Top 12 Things to do on Kauai.