The Ultimate Guide to Big Island (Island of Hawaii)

Big Island

Hawaii is made up of six major islands, the largest being “The Big Island” or The Island of Hawaii. Get the most out of your trip to the Big Island with this ultimate travel guide. 

The Big Island is a tropical paradise and iconic vacation destination home to volcanoes, beautiful resorts, snorkeling, rich and vibrant culture, and some of the best surfing in the world. 

We’ll go over all you need to know to make your stay on the Big Island the best it can be.

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2023 Big Island Visitor Guides

If you're visiting the Big Island of Hawaii soon, be sure to download your copy of one of our updated 2023 Big Island Visitor Guides. We've updated both travel guides with a lot of new great information for potential visitors (and those who've been a time or two as well).

Select a 2023 Travel Guide
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Highlights

- 40+ Pages -

Essential

~ Trusted by Millions of Hawaii Visitors Annually ~

The Best Places to Stay on The Big Island

Few aspects of your trip are as important as the accommodation. Hawaii has a wonderfully welcoming tourism culture, and The Big Island is home to some of the most renowned hotels and resorts in the world.

The Volcano Rainforest Retreat 

This secluded, boutique bed and breakfast is a unique and relaxing way to get in touch with the natural beauty of the Big Island’s eastern half, the lush and rainforest filled part of the island. The experience includes:

  • A collection of distinct, private guest cottages
  • A Seamless connection between indoors and nature
  • Luxury massage services
  • Access to Kilauea Overlook to view the glow of Halemaumau Crater after dark
  • Proximity to Volcano Village, where you can find many shops, restaurants, and cafes

Four Seasons Hualalai

If you’re looking to splurge on an intimate getaway or romantic honeymoon, the Four Seasons Hualalai is the resort for you. Located in Kona on the western side of the island, the Four Seasons Hualalai is by far the most luxurious resort on the Big Island. A stay there includes:

  • Oceanfront views of white sand beaches
  • King’s Pond, a swimmable aquarium with educational activities including snorkeling lessons with marine biologists
  • Full-service spa
  • Several top-notch dining experiences
  • Massive bungalow-style villas and suites

Hilton Waikoloa Village

Located on the sunny Kohala Coast, the Hilton Waikoloa Village offers a sprawling, oceanfront experience. It's a wonderful option if you're looking for the classic, luxury resort feels without the Four Seasons price tag.

  • 62 acres of oceanfront property
  • A swimming and snorkeling lagoon
  • Several luxury swimming pools
  • An interactive dolphin experience
  • 2 championship golf courses and tennis courts
  • A museum walkway featuring artwork from the Pacific
  • Mahogany boats to shuttle guests through the resort on salt-water canals

The Lotus Garden of Hilo

Located in downtown Hilo, The Lotus Garden is a boutique hotel offering relaxing, tropical accommodation in the heart of one of the Big Island’s most charming towns.

  • Eco-lodgings
  • An eclectic mix of cottages and apartments
  • Vibrantly colored rooms and decor
  • Convenient access to Kona’s bars, restaurants, and farmer’s markets
  • A zen-like atmosphere and relaxation gardens

The Best Beaches on The Big Island

The beaches of the Big Island offer something for everyone. Whether you’re hoping to get a nice tan, catch some waves on a surfboard, snorkel, or add to your seashell collection- here are the best beaches on the Big Island.

Hapuna Beach

Hapuna Beach, located just north of Kona, is one of the most popular beach destinations for tourists and locals because it features:

  • Long stretches of soft white sand
  • Crystal clear, bright blue water
  • Safe swimming conditions
  • Lush greenery surrounding the beach
  • Easy access to Wailea Bay for snorkelers

Maniniowali Beach

Sometimes called "The Caribbean of Hawaii," Maniniowali Beach is also located just a short drive away from Kona. Beach lovers seek it out for its:

  • Fine white sand and gentle slope
  • Crystal clear water
  • Gentle swimming conditions (mostly during the morning hours, inexperienced swimmers should be cautious as the day goes on)
  • Great waves for bodyboarding 
  • Sea turtles and a vast array of tropical fish for snorkelers

Waialea Bay 

One of the island’s most beautiful beaches, however, its secluded location keeps it from being overcrowded. Waialea Bay is known for its excellent surfing conditions in the wintertime. If visiting in the summer, you can expect:

  • Silky white sand 
  • Tide pools and shady trees
  • Easy and gentle swimming conditions, perfect for families and inexperienced swimmers
  • Diverse marine life for snorkelers and scuba divers

Punalu’u Black Sand Beach

The most famous of black sand beaches in Hawaii, Punalu’u offers incredible sight-seeing and a memorable beach experience with:

  • Gorgeous black volcanic sand
  • Endangered Hawksbill and green sea turtles
  • Coastal hiking trails
  • Great water conditions for snorkeling when the surf is low
  • Lush coconut palms offering shade and relief from the black sand, which can grow hot in the sun
  • Excellent sites for camping with a permit

When the surf is high, swimming conditions at Punalu’u can be dangerous. Avoid swimming when the surf is high, as strong currents are common in this area.

The Best Luau Experiences on The Big Island

The tradition of Luau is a richly cultural event of thrilling music, tribal dancing, and fantastic food. Here are the best Luau experiences on the Big Island.

Legends of Hawaii Luau, Hilton Waikoloa Village

Taking place at the previously mentioned Hilton Waikoloa Village, Legends of Hawaii Luau takes place Tuesdays, Fridays, and Sundays and offers:

  • A local artisan market
  • Interactive cultural education stations
  • A live show with hula and fire performers
  • Unlimited walk-up bar
  • Decadent dinner buffet

The Legends of Hawaii Luau is open to hotel guests and visitors alike, with pricing at $140 per adult.

The Mauna Kea Luau, Mauna Kea Beach Hotel

Also available to hotel guests and visitors alike, the Mauna Kea Luau at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel takes place on Tuesdays and Fridays and is a delightful mix of:

  • Hula performances
  • Fire dancers
  • Traditional Hawaiian food and drinks
  • An extensive dessert list

Tickets start at $117 per adult, and local Hawaiian residents receive a 20 percent discount when purchasing food-only tickets.

Sunset Luau, Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort & Spa

Visitors and guests of the Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort & Spa can enjoy the Sunset Luau, a sunset event taking place on Mondays and Wednesdays, including:

  • Traditional and locally sourced feast prepared by executive chef, Jayson Kanekoa
  • Hula performances and fire dancers
  • Traditional dances and music from Hawaii, Samoa, Tahiti, and New Zealand 

Tickets begin at $117 per adult.

The Best Volcano Tours on The Big Island

Hawaii is made up of a string of volcanic islands and has many active and inactive sites open to visitors. Here are the best volcano tours on the Big Island.

KapohoKine’s All-Day Volcano Explorer

Perhaps the most popular volcano tour of the Big Island due to its comfortable access to all of the major volcano sites. On this seven-hour tour, you’ll see:

  • The Volcano National Park including a tour of Kilauea’s steam vents and crater
  • The Jagger Museum of Volcanoes
  • Kalapana, a fishing town completely destroyed by a river of lava 

This tour is for small groups and requires minimal walking and hiking. It departs from Kona, Hilo, and Kohala. Tickets range from $214/child to $219/adult.

Mauna Loa’s Full Island Helicopter Tour

This tour was made for thrill-seekers and adrenaline junkies. The two-hour helicopter ride includes a full island tour and aerial views of:

  • Kilauea 
  • Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa
  • The Rainforests of the North Shore
  • Kilauea’s lava flows as they enter the ocean

This tour is not for the faint of heart; it’s the most up close and personal way to see active craters, steam vents and lava flows on the Big Island.

Mauna Loa has a variety of other helicopter tours, each ranging in length and price. Check out the website for more information. 

Roberts Hawaii’s Full Island Tour

This bus tour is one of the most comfortable ways to see all of the Big Islands volcanic sites and other must-see attractions. Roberts Hawaii’s Full Island Tour will take you to:

  • Volcanoes National Park
  • Kilauea Iki Crater
  • The Thurston Lava Tube
  • Jagger Museum
  • Rainbow Falls
  • Richardson’s black sand beach
  • Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Factory

This tour is best for those who want a comfortable, low-effort way to see some of the Big Island’s most famous volcano sites and other noteworthy spots.

The tour lasts a full day, and tickets start at $144/person.

EpicLava’s Private Photographer Tour 

This night-time tour was made for photographers to explore and capture the landscape of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park by night. This five-hour tour includes:

  • Unlimited access to the park 
  • A private, small-group experience 
  • Breathtaking views of lava and craters beneath the night-sky

This tour will cost you $300/person and takes place from 1 am-6 am, making it ideal for night-owls and serious photographers. The tour offers hands-on assistance to beginner photographers as well.

The Best Whale Watching Tours on The Big Island

A variety of whales, most notably Humpback whales, migrate from the cool arctic waters to the warmer waters of the Pacific during the winter months. The Big Island is renowned for its quality of whale watching experiences. Here are the best whale watching tours on the Big Island.

Body Glove’s Whale Watching Tour from Kona

This pontoon/catamaran style boat tour departs from Kona, lasts around 2.5 hours, and tickets start at $98/person. It includes:

  • Full service bar onboard
  • Comfortable bathroom facilities
  • Hydrophones (a device used to record whale sounds)
  • Whale cam (underwater camera to record whales and stream the footage onboard)
  • Professional, experienced crew members and tour guides

Tours on larger boats such as this one from Body Glove offer a smooth ride, minimal chance of getting wet and comfortable conveniences like bathrooms, bars and other amenities.

Kona Snorkel Tours’ Whale Watch and Reef Snorkel Tour

If you’re looking for a more rugged, adventurous approach to whale watching, this tour from Kona Snorkel Tours is for you. The smaller, zodiac-style boat tour starts at $112 per ticket and offers:

  • 2-4 hours of combined whale watching and snorkeling
  • An up close and personal experience with the whales
  • Highly experienced crew and captain

The smaller, faster boat means you can follow the whales more easily to catch their every move. Smaller boats are also lower to water level than larger ones, so you’ll get a closer look at the whales.

However, it should be noted that smaller boats like the one used in this tour tend to be bumpier, windier and put you at greater risk getting wet. 

Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site

Although technically not a tour, Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site is a great place to do a little DIY whale watching. Puukohola Heiau translates to "Hill of the Whales," and rightfully so, it’s an ideal spot to watch whales offshore.

  • Offers elevated views of a hotspot for Humpbacks
  • Located next to Spencer Beach Park, where there are plenty of campsites, showers and picnic tables

Bring a pair of binoculars and your best hiking shoes for an unforgettable whale watching experience, free of charge.

The Best Museums on The Big Island

Visiting a museum is always a unique experience, but the museums of the Big Island offer truly one of a kind experiences. Here are the best museums on the Big Island.

Ellison S. Onizuka Space Center

This unique museum experience is located just a few miles north of Kona, at the Keahole-Kona International Airport. With its manageable size and quality of exhibits, it's a great place to kill some time before or after a flight. It features:

  • Model rockets
  • Moon orbitals
  • Space shuttles
  • Moon rocks
  • A working gravity well

Interesting fact; the museum is named after Big Island native and astronaut Ellison Onizuka. He died tragically in the 1986 Challenger Shuttle disaster.

Jaggar Museum at Volcanoes National Park

This museum is, unsurprisingly, all about volcanology and the volcanoes of Hawaii. Here you can see:

  • Equipment used by scientists to study volcanoes
  • Working seismographs
  • The burnt clothing and gear of a scientist who got a tad too close to a stream of lava
  • Large windows with views of the caldera and main crater of Kilauea

At the heart of Volcanoes National Park are Kilauea and Mauna Loa, some of the most active volcanoes in the world. Jaggar Museum is the best place to learn all there is to know about these two natural wonders.

Kona Historical Society Museum and Greenwell Store

Henry Nicholas Greenwell, an Englishman, arrived on the Big Island in 1850 and purchased land in Kalukalu. His farm of cattle, coffee and tobacco, reached fame with its size and success. It has since been turned into a museum where you can see:

  • The original stone-walled general store
  • Historic photos and artifacts
  • Walking tours of the historic coffee farm of Uchida and the village of Kailua

The Greenwell general store was a pillar of local society and a gathering place for the community. Today, it holds centuries' worth of historical photos, artifacts and information.

The museum is small, so make sure to call ahead for reservations.

The Best Surfing on The Big Island

Hawaii is a surfer’s paradise. Whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned surfer, the Big Island has beaches, local surf spots, and lessons for every skill level.

Here is a quick “mini-guide” to surfing on the Big Island.

Surfing Classes and Surf Board Rentals on The Big Island

 

Kahalu’u Bay Surf and Sea

Kahalu’u Bay Surf and Sea offers everything you need for a full day of surfing, even if you’ve never been on a board. Located in Kahulu’u Beach Park in Kona, they offer:

  • Professional, certified surf instructors
  • Private surf lessons
  • Small group/semi-private surf lessons
  • Group surf lessons
  • A full surf shop where you can gear up before class
  • Surfboard rentals

Classes start at $99 per person and rentals start at $20 for two hours.

Surf Bear Surf Lessons

Also located in Kahulu’u Beach Park, Surf Bear offers lessons and rentals for every skill level, including:

  • Optional tandem lessons with an instructor on the board with you, a great option for kids
  • Individual, small group, or group lessons
  • Equipment like reef shoes, rash guards and soft surfboards

Prices vary on equipment rented and the type of lesson. All of Surf Bear’s surf instructors are lifeguard, CPR, and first-aid certified.

The Best Surf Shops on The Big Island

 

Pacific Vibrations

A local favorite in Konda, Pacific Vibrations is a small, down to earth surf shop offering:

  • Boards for rent and purchase
  • Accessories and gear
  • Apparel

Alii Adventures

Also located in Kona, Alli Adventures is a surf  shop that offers all of your beach and sporting needs, including:

  • Surf and paddleboard rentals
  • Kayak rentals
  • Snorkel equipment rentals
  • Boogie board rentals
  • Chair and umbrella rentals 
  • A variety of tours, including kayak, snorkel and paddleboard tours 

Hilo Surfboard Company

Located in the charming town of Hilo, Hilo Surfboard Company has an excellent reputation and a 4.7 star rating on Google. It offers:

  • Surfboard rentals
  • Surfboard repair
  • Apparel and gear
  • Surfboards for purchase

One of the most common online reviews for Hilo Surfboard Company is their friendly and helpful staff, making this a great shop for beginners and those who may need assistance in their surfing needs.

The Best Surf Spots on The Big Island

Here are some of the best beaches on the Big Island for beginners and seasoned surfers alike:

Kahalu’u 

A great place in Kona for both surfing and snorkeling, Kahalu’u is a great beach for beginners because:

  • The waves are gentle and easy to navigate
  • It’s a hub for surf lessons and instructors (like Surf Bear and Kahalu’u Bay Surf and Sea)
  • It offers easy access to the beach after renting equipment and boards from places like Surf Bear or Kahalu’u Bay Surf and Sea

Banyans 

Located just a few miles from downtown Kona, Banyans is a surf spot best left to experienced surfers due to its:

  • Tricky currents and rough waves
  • Favorability with the locals- you don’t want to get in the way of these serious surfers if you’re a beginner
  • Low chance of snagging a good wave- it takes a lot of skill and luck to catch the few awesome waves here, but when the good ones come, it’s worth the wait.

Honoli’i

Located near Hilo, this is another surf spot popular among locals and highly experienced surfers. Here you’ll find:

  • This spot is at the mouth of a river, making the currents challenging to beginner surfers and weaker swimmers
  • There are sharp rocks that can be dangerous to even the most seasoned of surfers
  • It’s usually crowded with locals- respect their space and do your best to stay out of the way if you’re visiting

Pine Trees

Located just north of Kona, Pine Trees is a great spot for intermediate and experienced surfers. Here you’ll find:

  • Consistent waves all year round
  • A bit of crowding, but less of the exclusivity of smaller, more challenging surf spots

Pine Trees has a full surfing guide including etiquette, best practices and more information on the surf spot.

The Best Restaurants on The Big Island

Hawaiian cuisine is filled with fresh seafood, tropical flavors, roasted meats, and fruits and vegetables unique to its agriculture. Here are the best places on the big island to sample the cuisine and enjoy Hawaii's one of a kind dining experiences: 

Manta

Set against the beautiful Kauna’oa Bay in Waimea, Manta has long been known for its sprawling breakfast buffets. Its dinner menu is just as fabulous, and a dining experience there includes:

  • A beautiful open air dining room and patio overlooking Kauna’oa Bay
  • Flower gardens with a charming population of resident cats
  • Their most popular dinner item: Macadamia Nut Encrusted Mahi-Mahi

With 4.3 stars on Google Reviews, Manta is a sure way to enjoy a genuinely Hawaiian dining experience.

Island Fish and Chips

For a more casual dining experience, check out Waikaloa’s walk-up seafood joint, Island Fish and Chips for a delicious menu featuring:

  • Flaky fish tacos
  • Coconut shrimp
  • Ultra crispy fish and chips
  • Sweet pineapple slaw

Island Fish and Chips is tucked away next to a koi pond and has a down to earth, laid back atmosphere and outdoor seating with lake views.

Hula Hulas

Located in Hilo, Hula Hula’s is a creative, casual restaurant featuring some of the best passionfruit cocktails, known locally as lilikoi, on the Big Island. Their menu also features:

  • Pineapple chilli glazed pork belly
  • Coconut rice with stuffed kabocha squash

Hula Hulas can get quite busy, so quality and speed of service may vary, but the atmosphere and menu are worth the wait.

Merriman’s

The staple restaurant of chef Peter Merriman in Waimea, Merriman’s is an upscale yet casual eatery offering some of the best food on the Big Island, served by one of the top names in the culinary world. Here you’ll find:

  • An open, airy dining room
  • Ingredients focused on regional and local flavors
  • The most popular entree: Lobster Pot Pie

Merriman’s will cost you a bit more than the other restaurants on this list, but the excellence of the food and overall experience is worth the price point.

The Best Clubs and Bars on The Big Island

If partying all night long in a tropical paradise, relaxing on an oceanfront patio with a refreshing cocktail, or kicking back and tuning in to a unique comedy or magic show is your Hawaiian to-do list, the Big Island certainly delivers. Here are the best night clubs, bars and lounges on the Big Island.

MY BAR

This LGBTQ+ friendly nightclub is a welcoming, inclusive and popular party spot for locals and tourists alike. Here you’ll find:

  • Pool tables open during all operating hours
  • A spacious dancefloor
  • Pizza and other bar bites
  • A rotation of DJ's, drag shows, and other events
  • A rotating selection of specialty shots

MY BAR is a warm and friendly place, open to any and all for a night of pool, dancing, pizza and entertainment.

Kozy’s Tiki Palace

Located in Waikoloa, Kozy’s Tiki Palace is a unique blend of magic and comedy shows. Here you’ll find:

  • Award winning comedy and magic shows
  • An art gallery of paintings, sculptures, furniture and more
  • A menu of specialty cocktails
  • Some of the best mac n’ cheese around
  • A rum shack serving up rum-based cocktails and tropical favorites

You can conveniently purchase tickets online- general admission is 18+ and starts at $59.99.

On The Rocks

Located in Kona, this waterfront bar is an elegant, relaxing way to enjoy a few cocktails after a long day on the beach or exploring the Big Island. On The Rocks features:

  • Seafood and light island fare
  • A rotating calendar of live music and shows
  • Daily happy hour from 3 PM to 5 PM
  • A sprawling oceanfront patio
  • A top-notch dessert menu

On The Rocks is popular among tourists and locals alike; you should call ahead to check availability or inquire about reservations.

Takeaway

Hawaii is a magical place, and whether it's your first visit or you’ve been there dozens of times, it always has a way of surprising you with its beauty, welcoming culture and natural wonder. The Big Island is no exception; it’s a wonderful place to start your Hawaiian experience or to return time and again.

From its world-class resorts, white and black sand beaches, rich and diverse history, volcanoes and national parks, unique cuisine, surf culture, and a plethora of dining and entertainment experiences, the Big Island should be at the top of any traveler's list.

2023 Big Island Visitor Guides

If you're visiting the Big Island of Hawaii soon, be sure to download your copy of one of our updated 2023 Big Island Visitor Guides. We've updated both travel guides with a lot of new great information for potential visitors (and those who've been a time or two as well).

Select a 2023 Travel Guide
- 20 Pages -

Highlights

- 40+ Pages -

Essential

~ Trusted by Millions of Hawaii Visitors Annually ~

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