Big Island of Hawaii Best Areas to Stay
Finding a Place - Big Island Region Pros & Cons
Knowing where to stay on the Big Island is important. The island is large (twice the size of all the other islands combined) and diverse, and many visitors are often unsure which side of the island to stay on. And because there are such a wide variety of accommodations available, the lodging selection process can be challenging. So let's talk about strategies and the best locations to stay on the island.
If you're visiting the Big Island, you'll want to make sure you allocate enough time to actually see the entire island. A week might cut it on smaller islands like Kauai, Maui, or Oahu, but the Big Island is, well, Big! It's going to take considerably more time to see all of the attractions here. We suggest one week as a minimum, but two or three weeks are ideal. Plan to divide your time between the two major halves of the island: the West Side and the East Side.
On this page, we'll cover each of the major Big Island regions you can find accommodations within. Here are this page's highlights...
- General overview of staying West side vs. East side
- Explore the Kohala Coast Region including its pros and cons
- Discover the Kailua-Kona Region and surrounding areas
- Explore the Hilo Town Region
- Discover places to stay in the Volcano Town Region
- Explore accommodation options in the north Hamakua Coast region
- Discover options in other regions including Puna, North Kohala, South (Kau), and Waimea Town
- Search for Big Island of Hawaii Hotels and find the Best Rates
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From West to East of the Big Island
You'll likely want to split your stay between Kailua-Kona on the west side and Hilo (or Volcano) on the east side during your trip. This will alleviate a lot of extra driving and allow you to experience both sides of the island. If you have only allocated a week to visit the island, then four nights in Hilo and three in Kailua-Kona will suffice; use that same ratio for longer visits. A lot of visitors spend longer periods in Kailua-Kona since that's where the bulk of hotels and upscale resorts are located (especially north of Kailua-Kona on the Kohala 'Gold' Coast), but we believe since the majority of the Big Island's best attractions & sights are closer to Hilo, visitors should attempt to book accommodations in Hilo for at least half of their stay on the island.
Reasons for Staying Hilo Side
The main reason for staying on the Hilo side, whether in Downtown Hilo or in the beautiful Volcano area, is because of the close proximity to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The park is so large that it takes about two days to explore, especially if there is any lava activity you want to see. The rangers at the visitor center can tell you all about what's happening in the park (you may even want to call ahead so you'll know in advance). If you plan to drive up to the summit of Mauna Kea, then Hilo is the best side to start your journey along Saddle Road. Additionally, many of the north (Hamakua) sites and Puna attractions are best visited from Hilo.
Reasons for Staying Kona Side
On the Kailua-Kona side, you'll have more time to explore the sights, beaches, historic and cultural locations, and attractions that exist on that side of the island, including day trips up to Pololu and Waipio Valleys. Depending on your interests, you may want to give yourself more time in Kailua-Kona or Hilo- it's really up to you. Along with knowing where to stay, knowing when to visit the Big Island of Hawaii is equally important.
Visiting the Hilo (East) Side
Hilo side is what we refer to the East side of the island, including downtown Hilo (the second largest town in Hawaii) and the Volcano area. This side of the island is considerably wetter than the west side, but the extra rain also create a lush and verdant paradise, unlike the barren lava fields of the Kona side. You'll find an abundance of waterfalls here right outside of Hilo. The Hilo airport is located here and, as noted above, can serve as a good place to either fly into or out of the island. One real downside to the east side is the lack of good beaches; they are few and far between here unfortunately. Ultimately, it's the east side's proximity to all of the great Big Island attractions that make staying here worth it though.
When visiting the Hilo side, we recommend staying either in a small hotel in town or preferably in one of the lodges/inns near Volcano. We love the Volcano area not only because of its proximity to the park but also because of the lush scenery.
Both Hilo and the Volcano area are lush and green for a reason- as noted above, it rains a good bit in these areas. Be sure to read our Big Island of Hawaii Weather article for more information.
The contrast between this side of the island and the Kailua-Kona side is incredible. Stark and barren lava fields on one side and lush and verdant rainforest on the other.
Visiting the Kona (West) Side
Kona side is the term used to refer to the entirety of the western side of the Big Island, including Kailua-Kona town. This side of the island is dry and barren, with lava fields stretching as far as you can see in some places. But the weather is considerably drier here than on the east side and the beaches are far superior on this side of the island too (even if some of them take a little work to access). The main airport on the island is also located here and combined with the variety of accommodations, can make this side of the island an excellent base by which to explore from.
When staying on the Kailua-Kona side, again, for those who are budget conscience, we recommend staying in a small inn or B&B. If budget isn't as much of a concern, there are an incredible assortment of accommodations available on this side of the island- including upscale luxury resorts.
Stretching from the Gold Kohala Coast north of Kailua-Kona town to the areas south of Kailua-Kona town you'll find everything from multimillion-dollar resorts to economical condominium rentals.
Here are some tips on making this division work in your best interest... plus, they'll save you some driving time.
- Fly into one of the major airports at either Kailua-Kona (KOA) or Hilo (ITO) and depart from the other. This may mean a slight fee for turning in your car on the opposite side of the island from where you rented it, but it's negligible considering gas prices on the island. If the volcano in Hilo is doing something special (another reason to call the Park in advance), then it's worth staying on the Hilo side first so you can explore the park during the first or second day/night of your visit. Be sure to check out Hawaiian Airlines for great rates.
- Visit everything you want to see on that side of the island, and then drive to the other side. The volcano is very unpredictable, so if it's doing something spectacular at the start of your trip, make sure you see it because that activity could end the next day.
- When driving from one side of the island to the other, always try to take the Northern (Hamakua) Coast route; it's safer and the speed limit is higher. There are also more attractions on that stretch of the island than if you were to take the Southern Coast route. We are not suggesting to never make the southern route drive, as it's also quite scenic, but only do so when the weather is good and preferably early in the day since fog and other weather conditions can make the drive hazardous later. The drive from Kailua-Kona to Hilo is more scenic via the northern route than driving from Hilo to Kailua-Kona when taking the southern route.
- Avoid Waimea town and Kailua-Kona (especially north of town) during rush hour. Traffic will slow to a crawl and can be very frustrating when trying to reach your destination.
Big Island Accommodations by Region
Let's take a look at the pros and cons of each of the areas we've briefly discussed above. These are in order of popularity, by our account.
Staying on the Kohala (Gold) Coast
Including Waikaloa and Kohala
Stretching north of Kailua-Kona town toward Kohala you'll discover a part of the Kona coast known as the 'Gold Coast' - and it's home to the island's top resorts and some of the best beaches found anywhere on the island. This includes the Waikaloa area. There are also a variety of shops and restaurants here; this area is all about luxury. That said, it lacks any real budget accommodations, is mostly situated in barren lava fields, and is further away from many of the great attractions on the north (Hamakua) coast and east side of the island (like Hawaii Volcanoes National Park).
A few of the most popular properties in this area are the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai, the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows, the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, the Fairmont Orchid, the Hilton Waikoloa Village, and the Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort & Spa.
- Wide variety of upscale resorts
- Great beaches available over much of the coastline
- An abundance of shopping and restaurants
- No real budget accommodations
- Much of the area is in a lava field and not especially scenic
Staying in Kailua-Kona
Including Kailua-Kona and Nearby Areas
The Kailua-Kona area offers a variety of budget accommodations, making it ideal for those looking to stay on the West side but not splurge as much as is required by staying on the 'Gold Coast.' Kailua-Kona does feel a lot more 'touristy' than other areas on the island, and it will feel a bit crowded at times too - especially if a cruise ship has docked (this is where the ships dock on the island).
South of Kailua-Kona you'll discover the resort area of Keauhou. Here you'll find a nice selection of beaches and a variety of resorts that offer more affordable pricing than Kohala or Waikaloa. Plus, another bonus is less traffic than you'd experience north of Kailua-Kona.
- A wide variety of accommodations available, including budget accommodations
- Great assortment of beaches available just north of Kailua-Kona
- Several historic sites in the area for history buffs
- Great location to base from for West Side attractions
- An abundance of shopping and restaurants available
- Can be quite touristy in most places
- Can be very crowded in parts of Kailua-Kona town
- Traffic can be horrible from 3pm-6pm north of town
- May experience VOG (volcanic smog) at times
One of our absolute favorite places to stay on the Big Island is just south of Kailua-Kona. Holualoa Inn is a luxury Big Island Bed and Breakfast that features spectacular Pacific Ocean views on 30 lush acres of well-tended tropical fruit and flower gardens. Holualoa Inn provides the perfect blend of casual elegance and Polynesian luxury. A stunning custom-tiled mosaic pool, hot tub, six exquisite guest rooms, a private honeymoon cottage, rooftop pool, and garden gazebos have delighted guests for years. Plus, there are over 5,000 Kona Coffee trees on the property!
Staying in Hilo Town
Including Hilo and Nearby Areas
Hilo is considerably less touristy than the west side of the island and offers a variety of good budget options for accommodations. Its proximity to a variety of sights and attractions, especially Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, make this area an excellent base by which to see this side of the island. It's considerably wetter on this side of the island than other locations, but as we've noted, that means more waterfalls, more lush vegetation, and generally just more of all things green and verdant. You won't find a lot of great swimming beaches in Hilo, but there is a good variety of shops and small restaurants here.
- Great proximity to Hamakua and Hilo attractions
- A good place to base from for Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
- Decent selection of shops and/or markets available
- Very good access to Saddle Road and Mauna Kea attractions
- Lack of swimmable beaches
- Limited accommodations are available
- General area not as hospitable to visitors
- Can be quite wet in this area, especially at night
Staying in Volcano Town
Located just outside of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, surrounded by ferns and other lush vegetation, this area makes for an excellent place to set up camp to explore Hawaii Volcanoes National Park or other sights along the south (Kau) shoreline of the Big Island. Expect to spend about two full days exploring the park, especially if you're fortunate enough to find it's geologically active during your visit.
- Great proximity to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
- Very lush jungle scenery
- Can be quite wet in this area
- Geographically isolated from most other attractions
Staying on the Hamakua Coast
Including all places on North Shore
- Good proximity to many sights on the island (except Kailua-Kona)
- Can be very wet over much of the north coast
- Lack of major accommodations
Staying in Puna
Including Keaau and Pahoa
- Good proximity to Hilo and HVNP
- Very lush scenery
- Not very hospitable to visitors
- Lack of major accommodations
- Very wet area
Staying in North Kohala
Including Hawi and Kapaau
- Good proximity to many sights on the island (except HVNP and South attractions)
- Good variety of shops and art stores
- Can be fairly wet in places
- Lack of major accommodations
Staying in South (Kau)
- Proximity to South Point and Punaluu Beach
- Poor proximity to many of the island's attractions
- Lack of major accommodations
Staying in Waimea Town
- Great proximity to many sights on the island (except HVNP)
- Decent selection of shops
- Traffic can be very bad at times, especially during rush hour
- Lack of major accommodations
Hopefully, you now have a good idea of what's available on the Big Island of Hawaii and can plan your vacation or trip accordingly. There are a lot of choices, but now that you know how to spend your time and which routes to take you can begin narrowing down your options.
Best of luck as you finalize your plans to visit the place of incredible diversity that is the Big Island of Hawaii.