If you’re planning a trip to the Big Island of Hawaii, you’re in for a great time. It’s not the island that most first time visitors to Hawaii choose to visit (most favor Oahu or Maui) and it’s usually because they’re intimidated by its size (you really can’t see the entire island from one central location). Actually, all of the other Hawaiian Islands could fit inside the Big Island TWO TIMES. This is of course why they call it the Big Island. So yes, it can be overwhelming but the Big Island is home to some of the most spectacular sites in the world (the world-not just Hawaii) so it’s a shame to skip it just because the logistics are tougher to figure out. So here’s what you need to know to figure out where to stay in Hawaii:
- The island is divided into two sides: Kona side and Hilo side.
- The vast majority of visitors stay on the Kona side even though the island’s best attractions are on the Hilo side.
- It’s a Big Island so it’s not really possible to stay on one side and drive back and forth to the other, which means if you want to see the whole island, you’ll need to stay in at least two places.
Side note: After you read up on the lay of the is(land) and know which part you want to stay on, check out these posts for recommendations:
Here’s an overview of the island broken down by area:
Kona side refers to roughly the entire West side of the island, including the town of Kailua-Kona (often referred to just as “Kona.” This is the dryer side of the island (no lush jungles or rainforests here) and it’s mostly barren lava fields as far as the eye can see. But no rain also means the best beaches (the vast majority on the Big Island are found on the Kona side) and therefore all of the resorts and condos. This side of the island is mostly made up of:
Kailua-Kona: This is where the main airport is and it’s a good home base for exploring this side of the island. There aren’t many beaches in Kona but you will find a lot of budget accommodation options. You can easily drive to beaches located north and south of town and you’ll be close to most of the island’s cultural and historic sites. You can also easily daytrip to the Pololu and Waipo valleys from here. One of the downsides of staying in Kona is how touristy it is. This is where the cruise ships dock so you can imagine what that entails but on the upside there are a lot of shopping and dining options.
Photo Via Kona Beach Hotel
Kohala Coast: This stretch of coast (often called the Gold Coast) stretches out north of Kona and is home to all of the island’s resorts. This is where you’ll find the best beaches on the Big Island. Because it’s one long stretch of resorts, you’ll also find a lot of shops and restaurants. What you won’t find a lot of are budget accommodations. Kohala is all about luxury. It has the same type of landscape you’ll find all across the Kona side of the island (lava fields) but you’ll be a little bit closer to spots on the north shore including the Kohala Forest, Waipo Valley, and Hamakua.
Photo via Four Seasons.
Keauhou: Just south of Kailua-Kona, you’ll find the resort area of Keauhou. There are some decent beaches here and you’ll find a few resorts at better prices than in Kohala. You’ll have the convenience of being close to Kona town without all of the traffic. This could be a good spot if you want to stay at a beach resort without breaking the bank and still take advantage of Kona as a home base to explore the west side of the island.
Waimea: Waimea is technically upcountry but I’m going to include it on the Kona side since that’s what it’s closest to. This charming paniolo (cowboy) town is in Parker Ranch country and offers a completely different experience than either Kona or Hilo. Unless you’ve been to the Big Island numerous times and you’re looking for something unique, I wouldn’t recommend staying here (it’s a little remote and not a good home base) but it’s definitely worth a day trip.
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Hilo side refers to roughly the eastern half of the Big Island and it’s as lush a place as you’ll find anywhere in Hawaii. This inside is all jungles and rainforests and it’s green, green, green. And it’s that way because it rains a lot. Like, all the time. Which is why you’ll find some of Hawaii’s most spectacular waterfalls right outside of Hilo. But the rain situation is why most visitors forgo staying Hilo side and opt for sunnier Kona instead. Also, there are practically no swimmable beaches on Hilo side. But, Hilo has some of the Big Island’s absolutely must see spots so you HAVE to spend some time here. Hilo will be your base for exploring Hawaii Volcano National Park, driving Saddle Road to the summit of Mauna Kea, and seeing the north shore sites. Hilo side is made up mostly of:
Hilo Town: Hilo town is one of the most charming towns in Hawaii. It was originally built to be the capital but because it rains all the time here, that honor went to Honolulu. Hilo is not near as touristy as Kona and you won’t find any big resorts here but you will find plenty of budget options that make a great home base from which to explore this part of the island. You’ll have excellent access to Hawaii Volcano National Park, Mauna Kea via Saddle Road, and all of the gorgeous sites of Hilo and the north shore. There’s also decent shopping in Hilo There aren’t any swimmable beaches near Hilo so this leg of the trip is really more about site seeing. Hilo also has an airport, which you can access via flights from Maui and Oahu so it’s always an option to fly into one side of the island and out the other.
Photo Via Castle Hilo Hawaiian Hotel.
RELATED: 15 Things to Do on the Big Island
Volcano: The little town of Volcano is nestled right outside the gates of Hawaii Volcano National Park and is basically basecamp for park explorations. This area is very lush and jungly (is that a word??) but pretty remote and not too convenient for anything other than exploring the par, which is a pretty major thing to do and can easily take 2-3 days.
The Hamakua Coast, Puna, and Punalu’u are also all remarkable regions of the Hilo side that are absolutely worth being explored but I would recommend hitting them as day trips from Hilo instead of trying to stay there are they’re all pretty remote and lack many accommodation options.
How to Split Your Stay
After reading my recommendations on where to stay on the Big Island (and probably doing research on all of the things to do on the Big Island) you’re starting to realize that you’re going to need to split your stay up and do part of your trip Hilo side and part Kona side. Wise move. So how should you break it up? For a one week trip (really too short to do the Big Island!!) I would do 4 nights in Hilo and 3 nights in Kona. Keep the same ratio for a two-week trip. If you’re a major beach bum and you want some time just lying on the beaches on the Kona side, flip those numbers and do 4 nights in Kona and 3 in Hilo.
My 2 Cents about the Big Island
While it’s possible to stay in Kona and do a day trip to Hilo side to see the volcano and black sand beach, you’ll be spending most of your day in the car and probably leave with a lack luster impression of Hawaii Volcano National Park.
I suggest splitting your time between both sides of the island to really feel like you’ve seen it all while still having a vacation. Spend at least two nights either in Volcano or in Hilo and then the rest of your time in Kona or Kohala.
I think the Volcano House is the best place to stay on the east side, but if it’s out of your budget, there are soooo many adorable Airbnbs in that area.
On Kona side, the Four Seasons is the granddaddy of all places to stay (the best Four Seasons resort in all of Hawaii), but it comes with a hefty price tag. The Sheraton Kona is probably the best bang for your buck beach resort, but there are some nice options farther north in Kohala such as the Hapuna Beach Prince Resort (on the best beach on the Big Island).
If you’re set on staying in Kona the entire time, I suggest doing TWO daytrips to the east side of the island (drive the south road once and the north road once, returning by Saddle Road each time) to make sure you get to spend plenty of time exploring.
And don’t forget to check out these posts for recommendations:
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