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Hawaii Travel Guide

Best Places to Visit - Big Island

     Overview    Where to stay   When to go  Best Places to Visit







The Island of Hawai'i, known popularly as “the Big Island”, is also called  “the Orchid Isle”, a name  that is no less appropriate.  This is the youngest and largest island in the Hawaiian chain and it is still growing thanks to Kilauea, which has been continuously erupting since 1983. The Big Island is almost twice the size of the other Hawaiian  islands combined. Offering over 4,000 square miles to explore Hawai'i has over 260 miles of coastline.  The Big Island is an island of superlatives. Due to its size, height and position it has all but two of the world's climate zones.  When measured from its base on the ocean floor to its highest peak, it is the tallest mountain on earth.

On its western and southern edges, which are dry (leeward), you will see dark lava or dark brown lava rocks just about everywhere. On the northeast coast (windward), which is wet, there is significant vegetation with rain forest predominating.  The southeastern area of the island is covered with relatively recent lava flows.

From the geologist’s point of view, the Big Island is a composite island comprised of five major volcanoes - Kilauea, Mauna Loa, Mauna Kea, Hualalai and Kohala. Mauna Loa is the largest active volcano on Earth. Kilauea is  the most regular, and currently in the throes of a volcanic episode that started in 1983.  The leading attraction on the Big Island is the Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, although there are a total of five National Parks on the Big Island.

The Big Island appears massive from the air, with significant heights toward its center and high cliffs in the north and east. More than any other of the islands, the Big Island gives you the feeling of permanence and solidity, even though it is the most active of the islands in volcanic terms. Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea , the two big volcanic bruisers standing sentinel, seem to dominate the island.  Mauna Loa’s last eruption was in 1984.  Mauna Kea, which is 13,796 feet tall, has not erupted in thousands of years.   

Mauna Kea can be snow capped in any season. Due to its height, the darkness of the Hawai'ian islands and the relatively clean, clear and stable air surrounding it, Mauna Kea is an area favored by  astronomers and observatories.  Its peak is populated with thirteen astronomical observatories, including the W. M. Keck Observatory that hosts the famous twin 10 meter Keck telescopes. If you have the time and a warm jacket,  the upper elevations of Mauna Kea are a great  for stargazing.

The island of Hawai'i has a rich culture and a long and storied history. Settled by the Polynesians in 150 AD this was the island ruled by King Kamehameha the Great who conquered the other islands and gave them the name of the Kingdom of Hawai'i in the 19th century,

The Big Island is a great destination for those interested in  rest, relaxation, getting some sun and cavorting on the beach. In addition, it offers one of the best volcano shows in the world. We cover it all in the travel guide  that follows.

We have created a detailed map of the Big Island   Click on the map symbol in the text to see a detailed map showing the location of the attraction on the Big Island. The base map is provided by Google and we have used it to show the location of important towns and attractions across the island.  Our map of the Big Island can be used to create routes, although these are most useful for determining distances and driving time.  Local road conditions may vary, so always ask local advice before you leave for your outing.








































































Mauna Kea Summit and Stars Small Group Adventure Tour

From Viator Tours








Oahu Day Trip: Pearl Harbor, Honolulu and Punchbowl from the Big Island

From Viator Tours




Hawai'i Birdwatching Small Group Adventure Tour

From Viator Tours








Kealakekua Bay Snorkel Cruise
From Viator Tours





Kona Submarine Adventure and Royal Kona Resort Luau

From Viator Tours





Kona Submarine Adventure and Island Breeze Luau

From Viator Tours

Best Places to Visit - the Big Island  Top of Page




















































































Where should we stay

If you are an explorer determined to see every inch of the Big Island, we recommend starting your visit by spending a few nights on the Kohala Coast . From there you might want to spend a night in Hawi  on the northern tip of the Big Island to get the flavor of Hawai'i in the 1950s . Next, plan to stop in Hilo  after touring down the   Hamakua Coast.  Some travelers use Hilo as  a base for touring the Volcanoes National Park , although you might want to make a reservation for the extremely limited lodging available nearer the Park. Return to the west coast (presuming you are departing Kona) and stay near Kona to explore the southwest coast .

We have an article in our travel planning section titled “Are you a Hopper or a Plopper”, indicating that some vacationers prefer to nest, while other live to explore.   Most visitors to the Big Island are ploppers, who prefer to spend most of their vacation time relaxing at their resort, interrupted by an occasional tour of some other location. Many travelers arrive in Hawai'i with dive gear, sports equipment and golf clubs and choose to operate from one base, exploring the island when they are not soaking up the sun during other pursuits.

The Hilton Waikoloa Village

Of the Big Island's visitors, approximately 2/3 stay on the Kona or west side of the island, while 1/3 lodge in Hilo or somewhere on the east coast. Those are the official statistics, but if you are a plopper, we recommend you consider the Kohala Coast and its resorts as the place to stay . You will most likely land in Kailua-Kona  and although there are a number of  places to stay in this area, we urge you to examine the fantastic resorts to the north, in the Waikoloa  and Kohala areas of the west coast.

When should we go?

The “rainy” season is December to March. Although storms are more common in winter, it does not seem to change anybody’s travel plans since this period is also the peak tourist season.  There is a secondary peak tourist season in summer, when it is both drier and warmer than in winter, but this one reflects school being out and is when most families can stay on the Big Island long enough to make it worth the flight. The lowest prices for rooms are usually found during the “shoulder seasons” of April/May and September/October.  In our opinion, the Big Island is a great place to visit whenever you can get there.


What should we do?

Sun, surf, swim.

If you are not looking for rest and relaxation, the Big Island may not be the place for you.  The Big Island is filled with resorts that can take care of most every need.  Hawai'i will supply the great weather, spectacular beaches and the tropical climate that seems to lull everyone into a slower, more relaxed pace.  All that laying around can be tiring, though, so what else is there to do?

What are the Best Places to Visit?

Volcanoes National Park

Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park is the leading attraction on the Big Island.  There is a lot to see and do there and we cover this fantastic attraction in this separate section.  Follow this link to explore  Volcanoes National Park .

Hilo and Hamakua  

The northeastern edge of the Island receives much more rain than the western side and the copious precipitation produces lush rainforests and amazing waterfalls. There is a fair amount to see and we provide ideas for exploring this area in our separate section on touring the Northeast Coast of the Big Island.


If great golfing is a prerequisite for someone in your party, they will find many of Hawai'i’s best courses on the Big Island and of these, the majority are located in the Kona-Kohala area. For the best advice on courses and their availability, ask your concierge..

Atlantis submarine

Ready for a descent  to the ocean depths offshore the Big Island?  If so, consider taking a ride on the Atlantis submarine. 

The 115 foot long submarine carries 48 passengers to depths of 100 feet. The ride lasts approximately 75 minutes total, about half on the submarine and the remainder on a shuttle boat from the Kona Pier to and from the submarine. The dive provides panoramic undersea views of reefs along the Kona Coast  and a local underwater shelf that is strewn with volcanic boulders.  Of course, tropical fish are in abundance.

You can find details at  http://www.atlantissubmarines.com/ .  Atlantis and variety of providers sell tickets online and you may find a discount available online.


Atlantis Kona Submarine Adventure
From Viator Tours

Kid must be at least 36 inches tall to ride the submarine. All voyagers must be able to descend a near vertical ladder to ride the submarine.

The ticket office for the ride is located across from the Kailua-Kona Pier at 75-5669 Alii Drive in Kailua-Kona.  The shuttle to the Atlantis is boarded at the Pier.


Helicopter Rides

The Big Island  is an extraordinary sight from the air.  Due to its size and the lack of roads in many areas, helicopter rides are considered by many to be the best way to explore some of the island's "hidden" beauty.  The waterfalls on the North Coast and Volcanoes National Park are favorite areas for touring by  helicopter.

There are a number of helicopter services available. Evaluate the providers of helicopter rides based on their safety records and other factors that may be important to you.   Also, consider asking your concierge to recommend a company that meets your criteria, as well as to arrange your flight.

We list  two providers of helicopter rides below. (Please note that we have listed them for you only as a convenience.  The listings should not be considered as a recommendation on their safety or suitability.)

Stargazing and Mauna Kea  

If you have an interest in astronomy and have a day to spare,  you might want to consider visiting the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station (Onizuka Visitor Information Station) at 9200 feet above sea level.  There are a number of consideration related to undertaking this trip.  Visit this site for detailed information that should be read before planning an outing to the Onizuka Visitor Center: http://www.ifa.Hawai'i.edu/info/vis/.   

The Center offers a stargazing program  every night from 6 to 10pm using a variety of telescopes. Check with your rental car company to determine whether they allow their vehicles to make this ascent.

If you are really adventurous, you can ascend to the top of Mauna Kea  for a dramatic vista, as well as to see the buildings housing the Kecks, the "Big Boys" of the telescope world. Please note that you cannot ascend to the top of  Mauna Kea without a four wheel drive vehicle. Most rental car contracts prohibit taking a rental vehicle up Mauna Kea due to the hazardous nature of the drive.  There is a human toll, as well. The height of Mauna Kea requires acclimatization stops and very warm clothes, as protection against the 20ÍŠtemperature at the summit.  If you are interested in making the ascent,  you should visit this site for detailed information http://www.keckobservatory.org/index.php/education/visiting  

Parker Ranch   

Hawai'ian cowboys (paniolos) evolved just outside Waimea, at the 150,000 acre Parker Ranch, which was established  in 1847.  It remains one of the largest cattle ranches in the U.S., but  is now run by a trust as the last of the Parker clan died in 1992.  The Visitor Center has a number of exhibits explaining the history of the ranch and you can tour several of the historic homes in the compound.  Horseback riding, ATV riding, and hunting are some of the activities available, including shopping at the Parker Ranch store (check out the t-shirts if you are looking for something unique for the folks at home). Details on visiting can be found at the Parker Ranch website.


Oh so touristy, but so much fun in the right setting! Although a variety of food is offered, look for luaus with an Imu ceremony - where a pig that has been roasting all day in an underground oven is uncovered to start the feast. Be prepared to spend from $60 to $100 per adult (depending on the package) and, thankfully, less for kids.

Before you make your reservation, do a little homework and find out what types of food are served and the type of entertainment presented. The quality of staff and their enthusiasm  for the event will have a lot to do with your enjoyment of the Luau.  We think the luaus mentioned below are the best offered on the Big Island. Rating luaus is a tricky things and often a person's memory of the event is influenced by the factors unrelated to the food or entertainment.  The three we present below are  considered by many to the be the best on the Big Island, but we urge you to take a look at the websites we reference and decide for yourself.

Royal Kona Luau -on beach at the Royal Kona Resort overlooking Kailua Bay . and held in the resort's oceanfront theater.   The Royal Kona Luau website   includes several other luaus that might be of interest or nearer  to your hotel.

Island Breeze Lu'au - at the Marriott King Kamehameha' Kona Beach Hotel

Many of the larger resorts have their own luaus, so if you don't feel like traveling, ask about their luau and what it includes.


While you may choose to attend a luau near Kailua-Kona or to take the Atlantis submarine from the city's pier, there is little here that is of interest to most vacationers, although there are a couple of excellent coffee shops for breakfast.

If you need information about another travel destination, try our Destination Guide Index or Googling ThereArePlaces.

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Kohala Coast


Click to see temperature and rainfall by month for Hilo






Explore the Big Island

Volcanoes National Park
Hilo and Hamakua














































Explore the Big Island

Volcanoes National Park
Hilo and Hamakua












































Explore the Big Island

Volcanoes National Park
Hilo and Hamakua









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