Hawaii Island (aka the Big Island) is as fascinating an island as they come. The size of Connecticut, it is built on the shoulders of five shield volcanoes, three of which are active and continuously morphing the landscape. Its volcanic nature, combined with its location in the beautifully manic waters of the South Pacific, results in an island teeming with a wide range of spectacular environments and microclimates, from green-sand beaches and big blue waves to smoldering lava flows and yearly snowfall at elevations approaching 14,000 feet. Throw in a few upcountry cowboys and a world-class observatory to see why Hawaii Island is the archipelago’s most well-rounded, and most enticing, destination for adventurers.
Where to Stay
Trade the Resorts for Local Flavor
One might be tempted to think of pristine oceanfront resorts as the preferred method of lodging in Hawaii. But Hawaii Island is home to many charming bed and breakfasts and small inns that are sprinkled throughout the tight-knit communities of the coastal towns, volcanic hillsides and upcountry ranches. If you’re still hung up on ocean views, try combining them with local food and flair at the Holualoa Inn. The garden patio, rooftop lounge, hillside jacuzzi and views of the sun setting over the ocean are the first draws, but the property also mirrors, albeit luxuriously, the spirit of the artistic, coffee-growing village of Holualoa. Set in the middle of a working Kona coffee farm, the house is surrounded by avocado, mango, orange and banana trees, while inside eucalyptus floors, woven Lauhala matting, and Polynesian furniture embody a Royal Hawaiian vibe. Yet, guidebooks, maps and local papers still find their way onto the coffee table of the common room, making it a stay that’s fit for honeymooners and adventuring couples alike.
Waimea Gardens Bed and Breakfast | From $160 | Book Now
It’s not all beaches and bikinis in Hawaii. Waimea Gardens in the northern upcountry is immersed in Hawaiian cowboy, or paniolo, tradition.
Hale Moana Bed and Breakfast | From $115 | Book Now
This local inn is in the rainforest of residential Pahoa, a hippy-centric town that was nearly destroyed by lava in 2014.
Palms Cliff House | From $199 | Book Now
Perched on the sea cliffs outside of Hilo, this romantic B&B features Hawaiian ali’i (royal) style with mahogany canopy beds and traditional feather kahilis.
Where to Eat
The Land of Poke
Loco Mocos, Hawaiian barbecue plate lunches, and spam musubi are all major players in the Hawaiian diet. But it’s poke, a simple dish of marinated sashimi, that captures the heart of most Hawaiians. Typically served on top of rice as a “poke bowl,” there is a wide range of fish and flavor combinations that include tuna, salmon, octopus and ono with soy sauce, chili powder, green onions, sesame seeds, seaweed and sea salt. Best to make it your first meal upon arriving on the island because two of the most reputable restaurants are found just north of the airport in downtown Kona: Da Poke Shack and Umekes.
Paul’s Place | $$ | Learn More
This three-table, sole-proprietor café in downtown Hilo redefines what it means to be a “local restaurant.”
Hawaiian Style Cafe | $ | Learn More
Homestyle Hawaiian cooking in upcountry Hawaii featuring loco mocos, Hawaiian BBQ and plate lunches.
Kaleo’s Bar & Grill | $ | Learn More
Live music, local vibes, burgers, and beer in hippy-centric Pahoa.
What to Do
Hikes, Beaches and the World’s Largest Observatory
The island’s two main towns, Kona and Hilo, are more than 90 miles apart and differ greatly in their personalities and climates. You should fly into one and out of the other to ensure you experience the Leeward and Windward ways of life, respectively. Rural upcountry towns like Waimea exude the lifestyle and traditions of the paniolo, or Hawaiian cowboy. For black sand and sea turtles, visit Punaluu Beach in the southeast. For green sand, go to Papakolea. Those looking for good, old-fashioned white sand, however, should make their way to the Kohala coast.
There are many hikes, drives, and lookouts in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park that take you to lava tubes and craters, including the visibly-active Kilauea Crater, which has been erupting continuously since 1983. It’s a good place to start if you’ve never been to the island or seen an active volcano. Be sure to check out Chain of Craters Road to see where previous eruptions have met the sea. Seasoned hikers should take the Keauhou Trail, a pleasant, 2,680-foot descent down to the coast across lava fields to the oceanfront campsites at Halape (permit required).
At the top of Mauna Kea, the highest point in the Hawaiian Islands at 13,796 feet, is the world’s largest astronomical observatory, made up of 13 telescopes operated by 11 countries. Be sure to go on a tour, such as this one from Hawaii Forest and Trails, that is led by someone with celestial knowledge to bring it to life.
Kealakekua Bay | Learn More
One of Hawaii Island’s most historical areas, where Captain James Cook first made contact with native Hawaiians and was later killed.
Waipi’o Valley | Learn More
Arguably the most scenic overlook on the Island, the lush green valley, black-sand beach, and flowing waterfalls are what Hawaiian postcards are made of.
Ka Lea (South Point) | Learn More
The southernmost point in the Hawaiian Islands and the US, known for its extremely windy conditions, cliff jumping and Polynesian ruins.
What to Pack
The Gear You’ll Want