First-Timers Guide to the Big Island of Hawaii – Top Things To Do

Planning a trip to the Big Island of Hawai’i?  Here is our First-Timers Guide to the Big Island of Hawaii. Within this post, Kevin and I have included must-see locations, recommendations on what to do and where to eat!

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If you’re traveling to Hawaii and not sure which Island to go to, consider checking out our other Hawaii posts.

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Using the strategies taught in the course, we paid less than $100 to get to Hawaii from New Jersey!

Alright back to the post!

Top Things To See and Do on the Big Island of Hawai’i!

If you want to jump down to the summary to see our favorite items on this list, click here.

Also before we do a deep dive on the top things to see and do on the Big Island, consider checking out the book, Hawaii The Big Island Revealed: The Ultimate Guidebook

What to Bring to the Big Island

If you’re traveling to the Big Island your going to want to bring your gear for activities (unless you plan on relaxing at the resort the entire time)!

Here are some of the items we brought to the Big Island.

Snorkeling at Two Step

Aloha Two Step Snorkeling Big Island of Hawaii
Aloha – Two Step Snorkeling

Two Step, in our opinion, is home to the best snorkeling on the Big Island of Hawai’i.  It is located on the west side of the island next to Pu’uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park. Two Step is named after the two natural lava steps used to access the water.  The water at Two Step is usually calm and clear so you are sure to see some beautiful sea life here! However, when the swell is big do not go snorkeling.  Waves crash into the lava rocks making it dangerous to enter and exit the ocean.

Unfortunately, there is no beach at Two Step. Those uninterested in snorkeling will have to enjoy the sites from the lava rocks surrounding the small bay.

Swimming With Wild Spinner Dolphins!

When Kevin and I snorkeled here, in May of 2018, we had the pleasure of swimming with hundreds of Hawaiian Spinner Dolphins.  It was truly unbelievable to see these animals in their own habitat and it is something we hope all of you get to enjoy as well.

Check out the video below to watch a wild Spinner Dolphin jump right out of the water!  You’ll quickly realize how they got their name “Spinner Dolphin”.  If you look closely you may see a Dolphin pooping in the water too (GROSS!)!

Ka Lea, also known as South Point

I cannot say enough about South Point.  This is one of our favorite spots of all of the Hawai’ian Islands.  South Point’s claim to fame is that it is the southernmost point of land in the US.  You may be thinking, no that’s Key West, but Key West is the southernmost point of the contiguous 48 states, not the southernmost point of all 50!

Here you will find a wind farm, an old Air Force Station, the Green Sand Beach, ruins of temples, and the infamous South Point Cliff Jump.

The South Point Cliff Jump is a must if you like cliff jumping!  However, make sure to only jump when conditions are safe and always err on the side of caution!  This cliff jump is about 40-feet high with some of the bluest and deepest waters we have ever seen below.  After making the leap, jumpers can swim or snorkel in the water below.  To get back to the top of the cliff, jumpers must climb one of the two ladders.

South Point Jump Big Island of Hawaii
The jumping spot.
South Point ladder Big Island of Hawaii
The ladder used to access South Point Cliff after jumping into the water.

If cliff jumping is not for you we still recommend checking out this spot.

 
The other side of South Point Big Island of Hawaii
The other side of South Point.

Green Sand Beach

The Green Sand Beach is about 1.5 miles from the South Point Cliff Jump.  From here you will need to either pay for a local to take you to the Green Sand Beach, ensure your car has 4-wheel drive, or walk.  The road to the beach is not for the faint of heart. It is extremely bumpy and consists of a dirt road with a lot of potholes.  Kevin and I got about a quarter of the way before turning around since we were afraid of getting a flat tire (even though we had 4×4).

If you choose to walk it is about a 3-mile walk one way and 6-mile walk in all.  Kevin and I were also told by a few people who made it to the beach that it was not as green as they thought it would be.

Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park

Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park is a must-do if you plan to visit the Big Island of Hawai’i!  Volcanoes National Park is made up of 330,000 acres of parklands and two of the world’s most active volcanoes, so needless to say there is a lot to see and do here.  There are numerous hikes including Thurston Lava Tube and Kau Desert Trail.

Thurston Lava Tube Entrance Big Island of Hawaii
Thurston Lava Tube Entrance
Thurston Lava Tube Big Island of Hawaii
Inside the Thurston Lava Tube

The Thurston Lava Tube is a short hike through an old tunnel that lava ran through hundreds of years ago.  The lava tube is said to be anywhere from 350-500 years old and is one of the parks main attractions.  Since the 2018 eruption of Kilauea Volcano, we are unsure if the Thurston Lava Tube still exists but if so this is definitely something you’ll want to check out.

The Kau Desert Trail wraps around the summit of Kilauea Volcano and Hale Ma’uma’u Volcano Crater.  Here in front of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory visitors can view the lava lake sitting in the crater opening.  Unfortunately, since the recent eruption, the lava lake no longer exists and the crater has grown from 280 feet to 1,600 feet and has almost doubled in diameter.

Hawaii Lava Volcanoes National Park Big Island of Hawaii
Lava Lake at Volcanoes National Park.

In addition to exploring Volcanoes National Park on your own, almost every resort offers tours of the park and the surrounding area if this is something that may interest you!

Lastly, like all national parks, there is a fee to enter which is $25 per vehicle.  If you plan to visit just two other national parks within 12 months of visiting Volcanoes National Park we recommend buying the National Park Annual Pass.  The annual pass costs $80 but it will save you money if you visit 3 parks or more!

Akaka Falls State Park

Akaka Falls State Park Big Island of Hawaii
‘Akaka Falls Entrance

Located roughly 11 miles north of Hilo is Akaka Falls State Park.  Akaka Falls State Park is made up of a 0.4-mile hike through lush rainforest surrounding two beautiful waterfalls.  This park contains both Akaka Falls and Kahuna Falls.  Akaka Falls, the 442-foot waterfall that Akaka Falls State Park is well known for. It is truly breathtaking and a must-do in our opinion.  If you decide to check out only one of the falls at Akaka Falls State Park make sure it is this one!

Kahuna Falls is located further down the trail and is more difficult to see from the lookout point than Akaka Falls.  Still, if you have time to complete the full trail and check out both Akaka Falls and Kahuna Falls you won’t be disappointed.

Path to 'Akaka Falls Big Island of Hawaii
The path to ‘Akaka Falls
 
'Akaka Falls Big Island of Hawaii
‘Akaka Falls

Mauna Kea Stargazing

Mauna Kea is one of the most ideal locations for stargazing on the island of Hawai’i.  Stargazing tours range from 7.5 to 8.5 hours and are all-inclusive.  Each tour includes a ride to and from Mauna Kea’s summit, professional tour guides, sunset at the summit, stargazing, and educational information about the island and its geology.  The tour costs about $203 per person with a meal and is $194 if you choose the no meal option.  We definitely recommend checking this out if you like stargazing, it’s beautiful up there!

If tours aren’t your thing you can still head up to Mauna Kea to stargaze or watch a sunset on your own!

Waipio Valley

Waipio Valley Big Island of Hawaii
Waipio Valley Viewpoint. If you look closely, you can see a waterfall flowing into the ocean.

Waipio Valley Lookout is located on the northern tip of the island. This lookout offers an incredible view of the valley from above and overlooks a black sand beach.  This valley is an important center for both political and religious life in Hawai’i.  It was home to King Kamehameha I and is now nicknamed “Valley of the Kings.”  Waipio Valley is home to a beautiful black sand beach, taro fields, and rivers connecting to the ocean.  There are also numerous hiking trails found here, though some of the trails are on private property so be careful.

Punalu’u Beach

Punalu'u Beach Park Big Island of Hawaii

Punalu’u Beach is arguably the most famous black sand beach in Hawai’i.  Its sand is made up of basalt and lava that previously flowed into the ocean here.  Not only is this a common place for tourists as well as locals but you will also find both hawksbill and green turtles here laying on the black sand and basking in the sun.  Swimming here can be very dangerous due to the rocky bottom. Luckily the beach is large enough to put down a towel and enjoy the sites.  In addition to the beautiful black sand and blue water, Punalu’u has a large palm tree “forest” that creates a beautiful beach surrounding and some shade from the hot Hawaii sun.

Punalu'u Black Sand Beach, Hawaii
Forest of palms next to Punalu’u Black Sand Beach.
Aerial view of Punalu'u Black Sand Beach.
Aerial view of Punalu’u Black Sand Beach.

Rainbow Falls

Rainbow Falls, located in Hilo, is an 80-foot waterfall that gets its name from the rainbow that is created in the mist.  This waterfall is located in a state park and it’s completely free to visit.  We recommend going to Rainbow Falls on a sunny morning, the best time to see the rainbow in the mist.

Rainbow Falls Big Island Hawaii

Rainbow Falls can be viewed from afar or from atop, for those willing to hike up some rock steps.  This view is less dramatic and both Kevin and I believe the views are better from the lower viewpoint, further away.

Pe’epe’e Falls, also known as Boiling Pots

Also located in Hilo, about 1.5-miles up the road from Rainbow Falls is Pe’epe’e Falls.  Pe’epe’e Falls is also known as Boiling Pots.  It is known as Boiling Pots because when filled with stormwater, the water rises and becomes turbulent looking like boiling pots.  Since the “pots” were formed from lava they do conceal both lava tubes and caves so swimming is not advised here.  There is no lifeguard and there have been incidences when swimmers have been sucked into and trapped inside the lava caves and tubes.

Next to Pe’epe’e Falls there is a large concrete viewing area where you can see the pots as well as the lava island that hides the largest waterfall at the beginning of the pots.

 
Boiling Pots in Hilo Pololu Valley Big Island of Hawaii
Boiling Pots in Hilo.
 
Boiling Pots Big Island of Hawaii
Boiling Pots

Kealakekua Bay

Kealakekua Bay is located on the Kona side of the island and is a great place for kayaking, snorkeling, surfing, and if your lucky swimming with dolphins.  This bay is very important to Hawaiians because it is here where they had their first interaction with westerners when Captain Cook arrived in the 1700s.  In addition to water activities, Kealakekua Bay has pavilions and viewpoints as well we the Captain Cook Monument.

Pololu Valley Lookout and Trail

Along the northern shore not far from Waipio Valley you will find Pololu Valley Lookout.  This is another cliffside overlooking a beautiful black sand beach.  Pololu Lookout is about 490-feet from the valley floor and has great views of the surrounding cliffs and ocean.  If you are visiting between December and March you may even be lucky enough to see humpback whales in the water!

The trailhead for Pololu Valley is located at the end of the parking lot for those who want to hike down to the black sand beach.  The hike itself is about 0.6 miles but relatively steep.  Once on the valley floor is it a short walk through trees to the beach.  The beach here is truly beautiful.  Surrounding the beach are 500-foot cliffs, lush forest, and usually rather rough waters.  Simply a sight to be seen and enjoyed by anyone willing to take the hike.

Pololu Valley Big Island of Hawaii
Pololu Lookout
Pololu Valley Big Island of Hawaii
Pololu Valley Big Island of Hawaii
Pololu Valley Big Island of Hawaii
The trail heading down to the valley

Umauma Falls

The best way to see Umauma Falls is through Umauma Falls Zipline and Rappel Experience.  Through this company you can either zip line over the waterfalls, take a river tour and rappel down the waterfalls, or both!  This is a great way to experience the falls up close and personal which is hard to do otherwise since you can no longer view the falls through the World Botanical Garden.

Umauma Falls, Big Island Hawaii
Aerial view of Umauma Falls.

Umauma Falls is a three-tiered waterfall that has an overall height of about 300 feet from the top of the first waterfall to the bottom of the last.  A lush forest surrounds Umauma Falls making it a beautiful site to see.

Old Kona Airport State Recreation Area overlooking Keahuolu Point

Old Kona Airport State Recreation Area Big Island of Hawaii
Our new friend posing in front of the sunset! – Sunset at Old Kona Airport State Recreation Area

This is a great place for sunset.  On our last night on the island, Kevin and I stopped here before heading to the airport and were pleasantly surprised at how perfect this sunset spot was.  Old Kona Airport State Recreation Area located just off Kuakini Highway is a beautiful beach overlooking Keahuolu Point on the western side of the island.  Though there is not much to do in the state park it does offer picnic tables, bathrooms, and awesome views.

Ahalanui Hot Pond

If you are looking for a hot spring look no further than Ahalanui Hot Pond.  Ahalanui Hot Pond, also known as “Millionaires Pond,” is located on the Puna Coast of Hawai’i.  This hot pond is a popular destination for tourists and locals alike.  The water in Ahalanui Hot Pond is on average 90 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit.  The partly man-made hot pool is walled off and overlooking the ocean; however, it is connected to an inlet that allows sea life to enter the pool!

This is definitely a cool place to check out!  If you are able, we recommend visiting Ahalanui Hot Pond early in the morning on a weekday. It is known to get very crowded on the weekends and in the afternoons.

Kua Bay

Kua Beach Big Island Hawaii
Beautiful white sand at Kua Beach.

WHITE SAND BEACH!  I’m sure you’re all thinking…I’ve been to a white sand beach, but this beach is something special.  Kua Bay is arguably the prettiest white sand beach on the island.  Kua Bay is known for its white sand, clear waters, and great snorkeling.  The beach is rather small though so if you plan on spending the day we recommend getting there early to claim your spot.  Also, don’t forget to bring drinks and food as nothing is sold on this beach!

It is best to go to Kua Bay during the week when it is not as crowded.  Kua Bay is also an awesome place to go to enjoy the sunset over some wine and cheese!

Night Snorkeling with Manta Rays

This is a must-do experience while on Hawai’i!  Kevin and I booked our tour with Hawaii Island and Ocean Tours and were not disappointed.  Hawaii Island and Ocean Tours provided us with wetsuits, snorkel/masks, warm beverages and snacks after the tour was over, oh and unlimited views of manta rays!  Our tour cost us roughly $129 (through Groupon) for two people and was totally worth it.  The tour lasted about 30 minutes which in our opinion was more than enough since you will see mantas the moment you get into the water!

Tip:  If this is a tour you are looking forward to going on check Groupon first, they usually have discounts!

Where To Stay On the Big Island of Hawaii?

We stayed in Kings’ Land by Hilton Grand Vacations on the Big Island of Hawaii which is on the northwest side of the island near Waikoloa Village. We really loved this location since it is close to the Saddle Road (Rt 200) which cuts through the island (instead of having to drive all the way around.

We recommend a location near Waikoloa, Kailua-Kona, or Hilo if you want to be close to town!

Booking.com

Where to Eat On the Big Island, Hawaii?

Kona Brewing

Kona Brewing Company, Big Island Hawaii
The original Kona Brewing Company in Kailua Kona, Hawaii.

Staying in Kailua Kona and tired of the typical resort restaurants?  Head to Kona Brewing!  Kona Brewing has been spreading Aloha since 1994 and is always worth the wait!  Kona Brewing offers great beers and delicious food year-round.  In addition to delicious food and drinks, Kona Brewing also offers tours daily for anyone interested in learning about the process of brewing beer.

Unsure what to get?  Kevin and I recommend Kanaha Blonde Ale and Hula Hefeweizen as well as Pahoehoe Spicy Chicken and the Strawberry Spinach Salad.

Volcano Winery

Volcano Winery Big Island of Hawaii
Volcano Winery

Looking to wind down after a day of hiking at Volcanoes National Park?  Head over to Volcano Winery!  Volcano Winery offers an array of wines for every palette and is open 364 days a year, excluding Christmas Day.  Volcano Winery offers two tasting flights, the Standard Flight and the Premium Flight.

The Standard Flight includes Symphony Mele, Pinot Noir, Volcano Red, Symphony Dry, Volcano Blush, Hawaiian Guava-Grape, Macadamia Nut Honey Wine, and Volcano Winery Estate Teas.  While the Premium Flight includes Symphony Mele, Pinot Noir, Volcano Red, Symphony Dry, Volcano Blush, Hawaiian Guava-Grape, Macadamia Nut Honey Wine, Infusion Tea Wine, and Volcano Winery Estate Teas.  Both the Standard and Premium Flights are well priced at $5 and $8 dollars per person.  After your tasting flight, feel free to purchase a bottle and enjoy it at the winery, on the beach, or at your hotel, etc.

Volcano Winery Big Island of Hawaii Menu
Volcano Winery menu.

Kevin and I recommend the Volcano Red and the Hawaiian Guava- Grape!

Pineapples Restaurant

Pineapples is a MUST.  Located in Hilo, Pineapples is a family-owned and operated restaurant with the perfect amount of ahola charm.  Pineapples Restaurant is always bustling with people due to its good food, delicious drinks, and fun atmosphere.  Additionally, from Tuesday to Sunday, Pineapples provides live entertainment for patrons.

Pineapples restaurant offers everything from burgers, wraps, soups, sandwiches, salads, and entrees.  You name it, they have it!  Truly everything at Pineapples is delicious but Kevin and I recommend the lemon macadamia chicken and the fresh catch sandwich.  As for drinks we shared their margarita flight, so delicious!

Kevin's fresh catch sandwich.
Kevin’s fresh catch sandwich.
My lemon macadamia chicken. It was to die for!
My lemon macadamia chicken, it was to die for!
Must have margarita flight.
Must have margarita flight!

Punalu’u Bake Shop

Punalu'u Bake Shop, Big Island Hawaii
Punalu’u Bake Shop is the “Southern Most Bakery in the USA.”

After checking out South Point or Punalu’u Black Sand Beach head over to Punalu’u Bake Shop.  Punalu’u Bake Shop is located midway between Kailua Kona and Volcanoes National Park.  This shop has become a popular destination for both tourists and locals.  Punalu’u is known for its sweetbread; however, almost everything made in Punalu’u Bake Shop should be raved about.

The best part of the bake shop is the free samples!  Punalu’u offers an array of free samples daily for anyone unsure of what to get.

Kevin and I enjoyed a malasada as well as homemade ice cream and would recommend both especially the malasada!

Lava Lava Beach Club

Located in Waikoloa Village, Lava Lava Beach Club is a delicious beachfront restaurant offering both food and drinks from 11:00 am to 9:00 pm every day.  Though Lava Lava Beach Club does not allow for reservations it does allow call ahead seating so diners can wait at the beach, their hotel, etc.

Lava Lava Beach Club offers Happy Hour as well as the delicious Bloody Mary Beach Brunch.  Happy Hour is every day from 3:00 pm to 6:00 pm and the menu includes both food and drink items!  Bloody Mary Beach Brunch is held on Sundays from 10:00 am until 2:00 pm.  Both are a great way to spend some time in Waikoloa!

Kevin and I went to Lava Lava Beach Club for dinner and got the coconut shrimp and the hook line and sinker.  We definitely recommend the seafood choices here!

Summary

Overall the Big Island of Hawai’i doesn’t disappoint, if we had to rank our favorite activities it would be the following…

  1. Snorkeling at Two Step
  2. Ka Lea, also known as South Point
  3. Beach day at Kua Bay
  4. Night Snorkeling with Manta Rays
  5. Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park
  6. Akaka Falls State Park
  7. Punalu’u Beach
  8. Waipio Valley
  9. Pololu Valley Lookout and Trail
  10. Mauna Kea Stargazing
  11. Ahalanui Hot Pond
  12. Rainbow Falls
  13. Pe’epe’e Falls, also known as Boiling Pots
  14. Umauma Falls
  15. Kealakekua Bay
  16. Old Kona Airport State Recreation Area overlooking Keahuolu Point
  17. Green Sand Beach

We hope this itinerary is helpful and that you find some of our favorite places just as enjoyable as we did!  If you have any questions or comments please feel free to leave them below!  Thanks for reading and we’ll see ya soon!

Enjoy your adventure!

About The Author

Taylor Mathers

2 COMMENTS

  1. Nancy | 26th Jan 20

    Enjoyed your review of the Big Island. It sounds like what we would like to do, but just wondering the time length. How many days does it cover?

    • Kevin Mathers | 30th Jan 20

      Hi Nancy! Glad to hear you enjoyed our review, we think you could do everything on our list in 5 full days but it’s going to be very very busy. If you have 7 days you can take your time, explore and spread things out a bit more allowing you to relax! If you look at the size of the island, you can fit all of the other Hawaiian islands in the Big Island of Hawaii, so depending on what you plan to do (like South Point) you will be in the car a lot! Either way, the big island is AMAZING and there’s so much to do!

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