Each island in the Hawaiian islands has their own distinct flavor and reason for visiting. As for things to do on the Big Island of Hawaii, it’s the place for big adventures and wow moments.
Many people mistakenly call their vacation to Waikiki or Oahu a Hawaiian vacation without realizing that in fact, Waikiki is on the island of Oahu and Hawaii is the name of the largest island in the archipelago.
Being the largest of the Hawaiian Islands there is a lot of ground to cover and a lot of exciting and adventurous activities to do.
Many visit Hawaii Island on a day trip from Oahu. We recommend spending at least five days on the Big Island, even longer if you can!
I don’t feel the Big Island of Hawaii is the place for a beach vacation. I think Maui and Oahu have more stunning beaches that are better for swimming and relaxing.
For Oahu tips, see our post 20 things to do in Oahu Hawaii.
The Big Island for me is about volcanoes and incredible adventures.
We had five nights, six days on the Big Island of Hawaii. We decided to create an itinerary to help you get the most out of your time there.
This Big Island Hawaii itinerary is not exactly how we experienced it, as there are a couple of things we would have done a little differently.
We like to give you the best information to help you have the best travel experience in Hawaii, so this is what we think will work.
If you can spend extra days, we recommend it and will add in suggestions to cater to that for you.
THINGS TO DO ON THE BIG ISLAND OF HAWAII
- Day 1: Hilo
- Day 2: Volcanoes National Park
- Day 3: Kona (swim with manta rays)
- Day 4: Kona (snorkel at Kealakekua Bay)
- Day 5: Waikoloa
DAY 1: HILO, BIG ISLAND
Fly into Hilo airport in the morning from Oahu. Download the Skyscanner App so you can find the best prices for flights. When you arrive in Hilo, pick up your rental car.
Plunging 442 feet into a stream-eroded gorge, Akaka Falls is Hawaii Island’s most famous waterfall and one of the most popular things to do on the Big Island of Hawaii and is situated within the Akaka Falls State Park.
You can also see the 100-foot Kahuna Falls on a looped walk. The loop walk was closed for us, I believe due to storm damage so we missed the falls.
Craig returned the next day early in the morning so the sun was shining on the falls and saw a much prettier and vibrant waterfall.
Entry to the state park will cost $5 per car or $1 per pedestrian. You can park up the road just outside the car park to nab the cheaper price!
Near the center of Hilo town is Rainbow Falls, a smaller, yet pretty waterfall. A short trail from the parking lot offers views from the waterfall’s summit. If you time it right you may see the reason for the fall’s name.
From the lookout area, take a few slippery steps up and through the exquisite forest (ah those trees!) to the river and waterfall views from above.
Lunch at Conscious Culture Cafe
When we asked our online community for advice on things to do on the Big Island of Hawaii, we loved all the tips on places to eat and drink!
The Conscious Culture Cafe in Hilo, Big Island of Hawaii was everything I loved in a square building on the side of the road: ginger and turmeric kombucha, healthy smoothie with bee pollen and organic, vegetarian meals.
They even have buckwheat pancakes which are hard to find!
And music. From the 60’s Vietnam era from White Shades of Grey to If you’re going to San Francisco.
This place was one of our favorite finds in Hawaii. It had our vibe and was a tip from a couple of locals. Make sure you always ask them for the hidden secrets! (Our journey is called America Unplugged after all!)
Okay, so if you want an unhealthy milkshake or breakfast on the go, head to Just Cruising Coffee. Again, locals recommended to us that this was the best place in town for coffee as it was a local business.
I won’t say it was the best coffee I had – I am a little coffee fussy – but it was better than Starbucks. And our kids loved their milkshakes.
Dinner – Hilo Bay Cafe
The food at Hilo Bay Cafe is innovative and fresh following contemporary American, French and Asian styles.
The ambiance was peaceful with views overlooking beautiful Hilo Bay, old Hilo Town, and the slopes of Mauna Kea.
We shared a few delicious starters:
- Mushroom poke – a chilled pan-roasted mushroom twist is a Hawaiian favorite dish.
- Grilled cauliflower.
- Mushroom lettuce cups – sautéed mushrooms, house-made garlic shoyu, basil, cilantro, shaved heart of plan and roasted macadamia nuts.
I also loved the ginger and turmeric kombucha made by the local Big Island Booch.
Where to stay in Hilo, Big Island
You can either stay the evening in Hilo – we stayed at the Grand Naniloa Hotel, a DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel – the rooms were pretty small, but the views that overlook beautiful Hilo Bay, old Hilo Town, and the slopes of Mauna Keau to the ocean were great as was the location.
Or, you can head to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park for the evening. It depends on your time frame.
DAY 2: HAWAII VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK, BIG ISLAND
Spend the whole day (and evening) exploring the Volcanoes National Park – one of our favorite things to do on the Big Island of Hawaii.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
What an amazing experience to be immersed in the art of creation.
Visiting Volcano National Park has been my favorite homeschooling lesson so far. I didn’t have to do anything, I let Mother Nature take over to teach the girls about fire, land growth and rainforests.
Where else in the world can you get so close to an active volcano? Put this on your list of educational things to do on the Big Island of Hawaii.
Our only disappointment was that we could not walk close to the lava flow or see where the lava flows into the ocean.
You can get closer with an 8-mile return hike, or on a boat tour, but apparently, visibility at the time wasn’t good.
We didn’t have time for either, but we were also warned that it’s not a good idea with young children. The high sulfur content can damage their developing lungs. Not worth the risk. It goes on our bucket list of things to do on the Big Island of Hawaii for when we return!
And next time I’d love to spend longer in the park exploring the many walking and biking trails you can do.
We drove along the crater chain link road, spending time pulling off the road to view the craters, see giant fields of lava rock and marveling at their texture and shape imagining the red hot lava seeping down and cooling down to the preserve its last movement into rock.
The girls were fascinated. Especially Savannah who grabbed a pen and piece of paper to write a story of all she learned about volcanos and lava.
We sat down together by a sprouting baby fern and talked about rainforests and how volcanoes help create them.
We also visited the Jaggar Museum & Overlook to learn more about earthquakes and volcanoes and to see the bubbling lava in the crater.
Pele, the Hawaiian Fire Goddess, and creator of the Hawaiian Islands lives inside the Halema’um’a Crater at the summit of Kilauea and continues to send forth lava and growing the island chain. She destroys everything in her path, yet creates.
We could see the tips of Pele’s spurting up during the day, but later we returned after dinner to see a fiery glow in the sky above and the volcano really on fire.
It was amazing to see it moving around. There is a lava lake in the crater and when it fills up it bubbles over. We arrived on the lucky bubbling-over day.
You might even be able to find strands of Pele’s hair within the National Park. These glistening golden threads are actually fragile volcanic fiberglass and are formed when lava is ejected into the air and small droplets are caught by the wind, which then cools and stretches them into very thin strands.
Watch our video from Volcanoes National Park:
Beware of the Kapu
It is kapu (taboo) to take the rocks from the lava fields. Every year, dozens of packages are sent to post offices on the Big Island returning rocks or black sand that brought the thief bad luck!
Hawaiian tradition is strong and guarded by Pele, the Goddess of Hawai’i’s volcanoes.
If you didn’t stay here the day before, definitely do so tonight. I’d recommend staying again so you can have a full day getting to Kona tomorrow as there is a fair bit to see.
Tours of the Volcanoes
Want to take a helicopter tour of the volcanoes and waterfalls, or a bike tour? Check out these tours by Viator, a Trip Advisor owned company:
- 45-minute helicopter tour of volcanoes
- Bike tour in Volcano National Park
- Twilight tour
Where to stay at Volcanoes National Park
We stayed at Hale Ohai Cottages just outside the National Park.
You can also stay at Volcano House within the Park. We recommend having dinner at the lodge (at least a drink from the bar) because you can see the red glow from the crater from the dining room windows.
Entrance Cost & Details:
It costs $25 per car, or $12 per person without a car to enter the park.
You can combine this with a Tri-Park Pass for $25 which includes entry to Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park and Haleakalā National Park on Maui. Visit the official website.
DAY 3: SWIM WITH THE MANTA RAYS, KONA
Leave early in the morning so you have plenty of time to explore some of the sights on the drive from Volcanoes National Park to Kona.
Punalu’u, Black Sand Beach
Another top recommendation from our community on things to do on the Big Island of Hawaii was Black Sand Beach.
Not only is Punalu’u Black Sand Beach so interesting to look at and walk on, it’s also a place where Hawaiian Green Turtles like to visit.
We were lucky to see one chilling on the sand at the water’s edge.
Please remember to respect the turtle’s space. No selfie is worth distressing an animal over. There are plenty of reminder signs around. And even lifeguards politely reminding you. Blew my mind to see people still continuing to stick their camera inches from their face.
Use a zoom lens. That’s what we used to get this photo above so although it looks close we were a respectful distance away.
We continued our lessons on how volcanoes shape the land with a visit to this beach, the jet-black sand formed when molten lava from two nearby active volcanoes (Mauna Loa and Kilauea) flowed into the water, cooled, and broke into fragments that washed ashore.
Papakolea Beach, Green Sand Beach
We had to make a judgment call on Green Beach, otherwise known as Papakolea Beach.
We had plenty of people recommend it as one of Hawaii’s best, but as it was about a 12 mile (one way) detour from the main road, we were running short on time and it had just started raining, we feared it would be just a quick I was here photo. Was it worth the mad race and stress of being late?
So we decided no.
I’ve since learned that you need to hike 2.5 miles (one way) from the parking lot to reach the beach. I’m so glad we listened to our gut! This would have been too challenging time wise with the girls and really put us out. Apparently, the hike is beautiful, and as the beach is remote you will have it to yourself.
A visit to Papakolea Beach is a full-day trip, so plan ahead.
The hike to and from the beach alone takes about 2-3 hours, depending on how fast you can walk, and then you still need to calculate for some time on the beach and the drive time it takes to get to South Point.
In hindsight, I would have traded the Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park (see below) with this, arriving early in the morning after a quick stop at Punalu’u Black Sand Beach.
This is why we write these posts – to help you learn from our mistakes to have a better experience.
Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park
What fun we had trying to pronounce Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park. Even after the park ranger gave us a lesson on it, we still couldn’t say it.
Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park is an 180-acre national historic park that was once the site of royal grounds and was a place of refuge for Hawaiian lawbreakers.
I found it fascinating that if a lawbreaker was able to make it here alive they were absolved of their sins.
It kind of reminded me of my ex-boyfriend from South Africa who was told by a lawyer if he managed to stay illegal in the UK for 14 years without getting caught he would be granted permanent resident status. He was eight years in and on track when I left him!!
The Pu’uhonua is still considered a sacred site. You can still feel the spirit of peace and forgiveness that continues to surround and bless this special place.
The park is in a beautiful location on Honaunau Bay. It’s where the Kings once resided so of course, it would be! the Hale o Keawe temple houses the bones of the chiefs that infuse the area with their power or mana.
This area is also known as the second best snorkeling spot on the Big Island. So you can combine that into your trip. You can’t snorkel off the historical park though, the area is slightly north. You can see it from the shores of the City of Refuge.
It costs $5 per car, but if you combine it with the parks pass from the Volcanoes then it’s essentially free.
If you are short on time, I recommend skipping this park.
Swim with manta rays
WOW…I’m not sure there is anything else to say. This was definitely our favorite things to do on the Big Island of Hawaii.
It didn’t hit me until our traditional Hawaiian 40-foot double-hulled Hawaiian sailing canoe pointed towards the setting sun that it hit me what we were about to do.
Swim in the ocean, in the dark, with manta rays and my five-year-old child!
Were we crazy? I was nervous, and I was letting the girls do it?
Savannah was doing that pretending to be brave thing she does so well but I could tell she was shaking on the inside. I promised her that Mummy and the lovely crew from Eka Canoes would definitely look after her and she didn’t to do it.
But, in my motherly way to also ensure my girls learn not to run from their fear, I encouraged her to give it a go.
She did. I was so proud of her. Over the edge of the boat, we went, myself and Jono carefully lifting her down and guiding her to the floating surfboard. The board had handle grips on the side which we held onto and laid on our belly with feet up so we did not disturb, or kick the manta rays.
That was enough for Savannah though, she refused to put her snorkeled face into the water and see the manta rays, but she definitely saw them swimming below illuminated by the lights. The lights attract the plankton which attracts the manta.
I wasn’t expecting anything like we experienced.
Here came these gentle butterflies of the sea, flapping over to our board and barrel rolling over and over again so close that we could peer into their stomachs.
They glided by so close to our faces that we could have easily planted a sloppy kiss on their horned fins. Their eyes looked into mine, “I see you. Stay still and let me show you how beautiful we are. “
It’s difficult to get great photos due to it being night time and the illuminated lights, but if you watch our video below at the 8mins, 30 secs mark you will 2 minutes of footage:
No gleeful cries or exclaims could convince Savannah to look under though. Kalyra did it and was blown away. It wasn’t long though until the cold seeped through their skinny bones and I took them back to the boat to warm up with hot chocolate.
You get about an hour in the water with the manta rays. I only got about 15 minutes with the girls, but it was so worth it. It was one of the best wildlife encounters I’ve ever had. It was by far the best thing I did in Hawaii.
You’ll be buzzing after this experience and probably hungry.
Instead of driving into town I recommended eating at Rays on the Bay at the Sheraton. It’s right next door to where you will alight from your swim with the manta rays experience.
Dinner at Rays on the Bay
I found the prices at Rays on the Bay reasonable for a resort, the atmosphere is fun with live music, and the black lava pudding was out of this world. It’s definitely worth eating there for that.
Where to stay in Kona, Big Island of Hawaii
We stayed at the Sheraton Kona. If you wanted to add a few more days to your Big Island itinerary we’d recommend staying extra nights at Kona and relaxing.
The Sheraton Kona is great for families. They have several pools, one with great views of the ocean, especially at sunset. Our only disappointment was that we didn’t have enough time to enjoy the views from our balcony!
Our girls loved the waterslide. Kalyra thinks it was the best one out of the Hawaiian hotels we stayed at. There was also a smaller one for the little tots in the inner pool which is opened 24 hours.
The rooms here were spacious and comfortable and the service great – it’s a Sheraton!
DAY 4: SNORKEL AT KEALAKEKUA BAY AND EXPLORE KONA TOWN
You can either switch this day around – go snorkeling at Kealakekua Bay and explore Kona town either in the morning or in the afternoon. Whatever works best for you.
If you only have two nights in Kona, and you do the swim with manta rays on the first night, you might want to do the morning tour at Kealakekua Bay so you can catch the sunset at Hugo’s (see below).
We did the afternoon Kealakekua Tour, which is cheaper as the morning includes a BBQ lunch.
Kealakekua Bay Snorkel Tour
How does zipping down a slide into a pristine marine bay filled with colorful fish and coral sound? Or perhaps, making your entry off a high diving tower?
This ticks the box of fun things to do on the Big Island of Hawaii.
Our snorkeling tour with Fair Wind Cruises to Kealakekua Bay was a blast. Kalyra and I loved racing each other down the slides. You can see all of that in this video:
Kealakekua Bay is an underwater marine sanctuary 17 miles south of Kona.
The bay is not just famous for its pristine beauty and underwater world, but also as the place where Captain Cook lost his life.
Given our deep historical connection to Captain Cook, Australians will get a thrill out of seeing the place where he was murdered due to tense relations with the locals. You learn all about the fascinating story when you arrive.
The next 90 minutes is spent snorkeling, swimming and playing the water.
They had plenty of flotation devices for children and unconfident swimmers. Savannah loved holding onto the rubber tube and snorkeling. She put her head under for this one and saw lots of colorful fish.
The best place for snorkeling is the area near Captain Cook monument which the cruise boats take you.
Your other options are a little more restricted due to the rising popularity if this area and the need to restrict the negative impact upon the reef system.
Your choices to get there from the car park, which is on the opposite side of the bay.
- Swim from the car park area (1.5) miles
- Hike to the opposite end of the bay
- Rent a kayak and paddle. It is illegal to land vessels along the Ka‘awaloa shoreline or moor at the wharf adjacent to the Captain Cook Monument. Make sure you ask to see the permit from whoever you rent the kayak from to avoid getting in trouble. These companies have been issued permits for guided kayak tours Aloha Kayak, Big Island Kayak, Kona Boys We originally wanted to visit this way, but thought it might be too much for the girls.
Explore Kona Town
One of the relaxing things to do on the Big Island of Hawaii is explore Kona town.
It’s only really one street that runs along the water’s edge, but it has a vibrant feel to it. There are plenty of cafes and restaurants to choose from and a few shopping places.
It’s quite a historical town as it once was the retreat for Hawaiian royalty and you can see some of the history reflected in the Hulihee Palace and the Mokuaikaua Church.
If you’re crazy, you might be interested in the Ironman World Championship that starts and finishes here each October. I only wish I could!
It looks like a fun place to be of an evening with live music and Hawaiian chill spilling out from the bars and restaurants onto the Bay.
Kona is also a good place for stand up paddle boarding. Hire a SUP from King Kamehameha Hotel. Paddle out to the bay here and you just might be joined by dolphins.
Or do a stand-up paddle board lesson with Viator.
Places to eat in Kona, Big Island
Sunset at Huggo’s
Huggo’s on the Rocks came recommended to us as the place to go for sunset views. Check it out for yourself. They also serve food here if you want to hang around for dinner or check it out for lunch. We didn’t eat here so can’t comment on that but I did like the views.
Island Lava Java
We ate at their sister restaurant near Waikoloa and had a yummy breakfast. Island Lava Java in Kona has views of the ocean but is popular so get there early!
Daylight Mind Cafe
When we asked our online community for tips on things to do on the Big Island of Hawaii, we had many recommendations for Daylight Mind Cafe having the best coffee in Hawaii.
My expectations were high so it fell a little short, but was still good and they use pure Kona coffee.
It’s always good to go local. Craig ordered a boutique coffee, which I did find exceptional. I think that’s what you want to order over an espresso.
The outdoor seating right on the water is great, and they had a little toy section to keep the kids occupied.
Kona Canoe Club
We found this right before our flight to Maui. It was fantastic and so cheap.
We made Happy Hour 2-5pm – $3.95 frozen margaritas and $5 meals– hello! We had ocean views and a colorful gecko hanging out with us. This seems like a local’s favorite which is where we love to hang out most.
DAY 5: WAIKOLOA ON THE KOHALA COAST
If you don’t choose to stay in Kona, you can head a little further north to Waikoloa Village. As we had moved so quickly before this, we decided to spend the day relaxing at the Hilton Waikoloa Village Resort.
This goes on the list of relaxing things to do on the Big Island of Hawaii – our kids loved the pools and waterslides!
Check out the video below of the fun you can have here:
Places you can visit nearby to Waikoloa
- Slightly north are the beaches of Hupana Beach State Recreation Area
- Kaunaoa Bay has one of the few white sand beaches on the Kohala Coast
- Waimea is Known as paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy) country and is home to rolling, green pastures, cattle, cowboys, and ranches. Take the scenic drive north to the charming town of Hawi and the Pololu Valley Lookout, which showcases breathtaking coastal views of the Hamakua Coast.
Sunset and dinner at Lava Lava Beach Club
What made our stay at Waikoloa worthwhile was the amazing Lava Lava Beach Club.
I didn’t find the food at the Hilton Waikoloa particularly exciting and it was overpriced. I’d definitely drive the short five minutes to the Lava Lava Beach Club if only for a sunset drink!
Get there early to grab a beach chair and enjoy the vibe and views. It does get busy so consider reserving a table in the restaurant in advance. Otherwise it’s first come first serve to grab a beach chair.
We were lucky that someone left as soon as we walked by. We had the best seat in the house. The sunset didn’t show off too much initially due to clouds, but then it shone this pretty pink color whilst we had a little fun dancing to the band.
There is an airport at Kona so you can fly to your next Hawaiian Island. We flew to Hawaii from Australia with Hawaiian Airlines and loved them.
You can drop off your rental car in Kona for a small fee. It will probably work out better than driving back to Hilo.
We have more posts from Hawaii coming soon, including Maui. Subscribe to our VIP email travel tribe so you don’t miss it.
And check out our Things to do in Waikiki with kids post for more tips for your Hawaii vacation!
More tips for things to do on the Big Island of Hawaii
As mentioned we loved getting tips from our online community on the best things to do on the Big Island of Hawaii.
Check out these tips from this Facebook thread and from this update on our Instagram.
And be sure to check out all our Hawaii videos on our YouTube Channel.