Big Island Hawaii Travel Guide

Each of the Hawaiian Islands has a distinct personality — and the Big Island’s is very much that of the baby of the family, which, as the youngest island, it actually is. 

Officially known as Hawaii Island (and nicknamed the Big Island because at 4,028 square miles it’s also the largest), this tropical playground can be unpredictable and explosive—literally, as Kilauea volcano continues to add to the dramatic black-lava landscape—but also sweet and gentle, with tranquil green pastures and cascading waterfalls revealing its complacent side. 

The view from the Waipio Valley Lookout on the Hamakua Coast
The view from the Waipio Valley Valley Lookout on the Hamakua Coast Shutterstock

At the center of it all is Hawaii’s tallest peak, 13,796-foot Mauna Kea, offering unexpected adventure with below-freezing summit temperatures (and snow!) and incredible star gazing.

Lava defines much of the Big Island’s landscape and landing at Kona International Airport can be surreal for first-timers. Stark and rugged, the entire region is topped with brownish-gray lava, some areas chunky and spiky and others smooth and swirled like the top of a freshly baked brownie. 

Hilo, on the other hand, is lush and green and known for its cascading waterfalls, including Rainbow and Akaka, and captivating orchid gardens. Despite the island’s volcanic nature, beaches are also plentiful—and feature not only white but also black, green and red sand. Natural diversity is actually the Big Island’s calling card and eight of the world’s 13 ecosystems are found here.

Witnessing volcanic activity is the reason many people visit the Big Island. In the wake of Kilauea’s 2018 eruption, you may not see active lava flow but there are still plenty of things to do within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Drive the Chain of Craters Road, which weaves through the park’s otherworldly landscapes and ends where the lava rock meets the ocean.

Sunrise along the Big Island’s lava rock coastline
Sunrise along the Big Island's lava rock coastline Shutterstock

Just don’t take home a lava rock as a souvenir­. Doing so is said to anger the volcano goddess Pele and bring bad luck—and thousands of rocks have been mailed back to the island.

Three other things you’re likely to encounter on the Big Island: paniolos, the Hawaiian cowboys patrolling the cattle ranches on the rolling hillside of Waimea; malasadas, the cream-filled Portuguese doughnuts that are a must-try; and giant manta rays, which frequent the bays near Kailua-Kona. 

The Big Island also boasts some of Hawaii’s most luxurious beach resorts, world-class golf courses, exhilarating zip-lines and fascinating lore and traditions. After all, the baby of the family loves seeking attention—and this one is no exception.

Big Island Rainbow Falls
Rainbow Falls, located near Hilo Shutterstock

Where to Stay on Hawaii’s Big Island

The Big Island’s calling card is its untamed nature, so naturally the resorts and hotels are set amid some pretty wild and unpredictable terrain. Most are scattered along scenic black-lava-fringed bays on the Kona and Kohala coastlines.  

They offer low-key relaxation with access to the adrenaline-fueled adventure activities for which the Big Island is known.

The Big Island might not be the first Hawaiian Island that springs to mind when it comes to romance, but you’d be mistaken to dismiss this multi-dimensional destination when planning a getaway for two. Opt for one of these romantic hotels on the Big Island.

Planning a family vacation? From beachfront resorts with massive pools to condo-style hotels, these family-friendly hotels let you choose just the right fit for your crew.

And if you think a Big Island vacation is out of reach, we have good news. The destination faces such a large year-round demand for rooms that rates here are more competitive than on the other islands. 

Whether you’re looking to stay in the main town of Kailua-Kona, or out east in Hilo or anywhere in between, deals at these affordable Big Island hotels can be had for less than $200 a night.

Things to Do on Hawaii’s Big Island

There are so many things to do on the Big Island — zip-lining, hiking and volcano tours, to name a few. The largest of the Hawaiian Islands packs more than enough outdoor adventures to fill a week, a month or a lifetime. 

Underwater adventures abound, and snorkeling on the Big Island offers a wealth of diversity, perfect for first-time snorkelers or those with decades of experience. The Hawaiian island is known for green sea turtles, plus more exotic finds such as octopus and eels.

With such a diverse landscape, it’s no surprise that Hawaii’s Big Island delivers a variety of beaches, from white-sand postcard-perfect beaches loaded with amenities to black-sand hangouts popular among locals. Kona even has a remote green beach, if you’re feeling adventurous enough to find it.