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The Best Things to Do on the Big Island of Hawaii
Heading to the Big Island? I’m so jealous! The Big Island is the Hawaiian Island that seems to overwhelm most travelers (who may instead opt for Oahu or Maui) but there are sooooo many unique and truly spectacular things to experience here that it’s definitely worth a visit!
You could stay busy for weeks exploring every part of this island so this is by no means a comprehensive list of everything to do on the Big Island, but it’s a pretty good overview of some “don’t miss” experiences! Also, I know different people like to vacation different ways so while a lot of things on this list you can do on your own (nothing is more fun than renting a car and taking off exploring!), I’ve also included options for people who gravitate more towards organized tours and excursions (there’s a lot you miss when you’re just driving around on your own : ) especially since there are quite a few experiences on the Big Island that I think doing as part of an organized tour are necessary.
So without further adieu…here are 15 things to do on the Big Island of Hawaii that you definitely shouldn’t miss:
1.Visit the Seahorse Farm in Kona. It’s not everyday that you get to hold a seahorse! The Ocean Rider Seahorse Farm in Kona breeds seahorses and is making great strides in their conservation efforts. The fee you pay to tour their facilities goes towards research and conservation and not only do you get to see lots of species of seahorses, but at the end of the tour you submerge your hands into a tank and let one of the seahorses wrap around your finger. I’ve done this tour twice and it’s seriously always a trip highlight Find more info here.
2. See the green and black sand beaches. The Big Island has two of the most famous colored sand beaches in Hawaii! First up, the green sand: the trip isn’t easy but the journey to get to the famous green sand beach is well worth the adventure! Located near the southernmost point (of the island and entire US), the spectacular green sand beach (it gets its color from peridot deposits) is only accessible by a two-hour hike (WARNING WARNING: do not drive your rental car across the lava beds even if the gate is open!!!). If you get lucky, there may be locals hanging out in the parking lot offering to shuttle tourists across the rocky terrain in their ATVs and trucks (for a small fee of course). Take them up on their offer-it’s well worth the cost! Confession: I’ve never actually hiked to the beach haha. If you do hike, take PLENTY of water because it is long and there is no shade. Read more about the beach here. Next up, the black sand beach (Punalu’u): Hawaii’s most famous black sand beach is a sight that you shouldn’t miss. This rare phenomenon is created when molten lava meets the cool ocean water. The lava shatters on impact creating the black sand. Sea turtles can often be found here. Read more about the black sand beach here.
3. Take a helicopter tour over an active volcano. Update: There’s currently no active lava flow on the Big Island, but there’s still a lot of geothermal activity to see! This is one of the only places in the world where you can see an active volcano up close and it’s a sight not to miss! The lava can be seen by boat and occasionally on foot but it’s by far most impressive from the air. It’s expensive, but you can’t come to the Big Island without taking a helicopter over Volcano National Park. I usually fly with Blue Hawaiian. You can book a flight with them out of Hilo here.
4. Star gaze atop Mauna Kea. At 14,000 ft., Mauna Kea is home to some of the best observatories in the world for a reason. Plan a trip up for sunset and be sure to pack plenty of warm clothes! If you want to go all the way to the summit for sunset (as opposed to the visitor’s center at 10,000ft), you’ll probably want to book a tour (the road requires 4WD) which also includes dinner and star gazing. Read all about my experience at Mauna Kea summit here. I recommend booking this Mauna Kea tour. I promise it will be the highlight of your trip. It’s something my family still talks about years later.
5. Tour a coffee plantation in Kona. Kona coffee is famous so of course touring a coffee plantation is a must do. There’s plenty to choose from on the Kona side of the island and the best ones will have tasting rooms where you can purchase coffee to take back as souvenirs. Because the climate on the Big Island is so diverse, it’s home to a lot of different types of farms. I really want to take this tour which combines some historic, cultural, and agricultural sites around the Kona part of the island (bees! I really want to see the bees!!).
RELATED: Not very familiar with the Big Island? Read up on the lay of the (is)land and my favorite budget hotels, condos (under $100/night!!), honeymoon resorts, family friendly resorts, luxury resorts, and boutique hotels.
6. Visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. This is easily the #1 MUST DO on the Big Island. There is a LOT to see and do at the national park (don’t miss the Crater Rim Drive Tour and the Chain of Craters Road Tour). The National Park has self guided driving tours available here and here, but if you’re a National Park enthusiast, I strongly recommend taking this private eco tour for an in depth, customized exploration of the park. They’ll be able to best make sure you’re able to see what you’re interested in depending on daily conditions in the park.
7. Explore Hilo town. Hilo is one of Hawaii’s prettiest towns and if it weren’t for all the rain it gets it might have rivaled Honolulu for the state’s capital. This sizeable town is perfect for exploring with plenty of shops and restaurants to easily occupy a day. Check out my list of 25 things to do in Hilo. If you’re short on time (maybe even coming from a cruise ship), this tour combines some stops around Hilo (Rainbow Falls, Mauna Loa, Richardson Beach Park, and an orchid garden) with a side trip over to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
8. Kayak & Snorkel at Kealakekua Bay. One of the Big Island’s best snorkel spots also happens to be where Captain Cook first landed when he came to Hawaii in the 1700s. Dozens of large snorkel boats take tourists to the bay to snorkel, but the best way to see it is by kayak. Only a couple of companies have permits to land vessels at the monument and snorkel from land (everyone else just drops anchor or floats around) and the best ones leave early to beat the afternoon crowds. Read about my experience kayaking to and snorkeling at Kealakekua Bay here and then you can book the same tour here.
Side Note: If you’re looking for a rental car for your trip, I LOVE Discount Hawaii Car Rentals. They’re seriously the only company I ever use. They’ll give you the very best prices, you don’t have to reserve with a credit card or pay until you show up, you can cancel and re-book anytime if you find a better rate, and they usually have a special that adds additional drivers for no fee. It’s a no brainer. Click here to check rates for your trip.
9. Night dive or snorkel with manta rays. Diving with manta rays is an experience that’s unique to the Big Island (none of the other Hawaiian Islands have this phenomenon). I’ll admit…I haven’t quite worked up the nerve to do this yet (being in the ocean at night seems a little scary haha), but everyone who does this absolutely RAVES about it and it’s at the very tip top of my list next time I’m on the Big Island. Book your tour here.
10. Explore Waipi’o Valley. The Waipi’o Valley is one of the most beautiful places on the Big Island but to experience it you’ll probably need to take a guided tour (steep four wheel drive roads keep most tourists from visiting). The tallest waterfall on the island can be found here and the lush and tropical setting will keep you oohing and aahing. I recommend this tour which doesn’t just include Waipi’o, but the entire Hamakua Coast (north shore). You will see pretty much every impressive waterfall on the Big Island (including Akaka Falls).
11. Attend the Island Breeze Luau. For most people, attending a luau is a must do Hawaiian experience and the Island Breeze Luau at the Courtyard Marriott King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel is definitely a favorite on the island. It’s location right on Kona Bay makes it not only picturesque but also super convenient. Buy tickets here.
12. Zipline over a waterfall. If there’s one bucket list activity people have when in the jungle/rainforest, it’s usually ziplining, and the Big Island has some of the best ziplining courses in Hawaii. If ziplining over a waterfall is the stuff of your dreams, you’ll definitely want to check out this tour.
RELATED: 25 Things to Do in Kona, Big Island
13. Go whale watching. Humpback whales migrate to the warm waters of Hawaii to mate and give birth every winter (season is usually December 15-April 15) and they’re really something to see! If you’ll be in Hawaii during the season, you’ll for sure want to go out on a whale watching expedition for the best chance of seeing them. Take a look at this tour.
14. Swim underneath a waterfall. The Big Island seems to have more than its fair share of jaw dropping waterfalls, but not all of them are swimmable (in fact, few are). This tour takes you to a special spot on the Kohala Coast accessed by ATV and then a hike where you’ll see a chain of waterfalls including one that you can actually SWIM UNDER. Book this tour for an adventure filled day.
15. Take a Circle Island Tour. I realized that many (maybe most?) people come to Hawaii to rest, relax, and soak up rays on the beach (or at the resort pool) so if that’s your priority and you’re not looking to be out exploring everyday, at least do yourself a favor and spend one day on a circle island tour. Sure, it’ll be a whirlwind, but there’s so much on the Big Island to see and do that it will at least give you a taste (and you’ve got to at least see that famous black sand beach!!)
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