Best things to do on Big Island Hawaii for your first visit
Updated: Dec 2, 2020
Is it your first time visiting Hawaii? Check out our comprehensive guide to the best things to do on the Big Island of Hawaii, together with some quick facts about the island and tips on when to go. Having spent over a month on the island, we know all the hidden gems, tourist attractions, and top things to do! You will find secret waterfalls, snorkel on remote beaches, have the highest viewpoint in the state of Hawaii, and see fewer people at the main attractions than all of the other main islands. Hawaii is by far the largest island in terms of landmass and has many hidden gems that you won't find on the other islands such as Maui, Oahu, or Kauai.
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Quick Facts About Hawaii's Big Island
The island of Hawaii is a magical place. We can honestly say that we have never been to a place in the world that has given me a better feeling of wholeness and peace of mind than Hawaii. Maybe it's that perfect temperature in the air, or the warm colorful waters, or the laid back nature of the locals... whatever it is, the feeling is something to cherish when you arrive. Here are some quick facts that separate Hawaii's Big Island from the rest and make it perfect for your first visit:
Best things to do on the Big Island of Hawaii
With so many activities and beautiful spots to choose from on the Big Island, it can be overwhelming to choose which ones to focus on for your first time there. That's why I've put together these top spots on Hawaii so you won't miss any prime things to do while you are there.
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Sunbathe at Kona's best beaches
Many of Hawaii’s nicest beaches are just around the corner. Drive north up Highway 11 to explore some of the beautiful west coast beaches. including:
Kua bay: one of the prettiest white-sand beaches on the island with fine white sand and crystal clear waters, located in Kekaha Kai State Park. The best body surfing can be done here in the evening as well. Be careful as the waves can get big!
Hapuna: good for swimming and snorkeling, but can also get crowded at times
Kiholo Bay: best bay for swimming!
Kuki’o Beach: long, white sand, beach with many green sea turtles
Old Kona Airport Beach Park: best spot to watch the sunset from with a snack
Kahalu’u Beach Park: grey-sand beach with a reef just offshore and a good snorkeling spot
Ke’alakeku’a Bay Park: best spot to see dolphins (however the beach is not sandy)
Other notable beaches on the island: The Four Mile Beach (Hilo), Richardson's Beach (Hilo), Papakōlea beach / Green Sand Beach (south end of the island), Lone Palm (north of Kona).
Taste the Best Kona Coffee
Taste some of the best coffee in the world right here on the Big Island! The coffee in Kona can only be called “Kona Coffee” if it grows on the slopes of the Hualalai and Mauna Loa volcanoes. There are over 600 coffee farms scattered along the volcanic slopes. Many tours are available which take you through the processes that are needed to go from a growing coffee bean to a cup of coffee. Most tours start on the farm, which means they are only accessible via private vehicle. Make sure to schedule a tour ahead of time if you can. Recommended coffee farms:
Kona Coffee Living History Farm (fee applies)
Rooster Farms (by appointment, visit website)
Mountain Thunder Kona Coffee (no reservation needed, every hour 7 days/week)
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Visit Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park
Pu’uhonua means “place of refuge”: this is the site where Hawaiians that broke the law went to avoid punishment. Warriors that were defeated during battle also sought refuge here. The park contains numerous archaeological sites, including a reconstructed Hawaiian temple. The opening times are from 8-5 daily and the entrance fee is $15 for each vehicle.
Snorkel at Hōnaunau Bay
Right next to Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau is Hōnaunau Bay, one of the best snorkeling spots on the Big Island! The bay has many tropical sea turtles and dolphins. We saw about 40 sea turtles myself when we were swimming there! The water is generally clear and a magnificent light blue color. There is a very easy place to enter the water called Pae’a or “Two Step”. You can't miss it as that's where the majority of the people get in.
Stargaze at Mauna Kea
Drive up Saddle Road to go stargazing at one of the best locations in the world: Mauna Kea. We recommend stopping in at the visitor center where there are free stargazing programs. You can also drive up to the summit which is definitely worth it as you'll be away from the light at night and be able to see all the way down to the ocean on a clear day. There are also professional tours organized from Hilo that will take you up the mountain. Read more on Mauna Kea below under "Best Viewpoint". The Mauna Kea website also offers pre-bookings.
Visit the top 3 Waterfalls
There are many waterfalls on the Big Island to enjoy. Rather than listing them all here, we've narrowed them down to our top 3 favorites. These waterfalls can all be enjoyed as a day trip from wherever you are staying on the big island.
1. 'Akaka Falls
The fact that these falls are so tall and stand-alone from anything else is what makes them spectacular. They are over 420 feet (128 meters) tall and there is a spectacular viewpoint from the walkway only 10 minutes from the parking lot which makes them accessible for everyone. The falls are only about a 25-minute drive from Hilo and the cost is $5 for parking and $1 for anyone who enters the trail. The roundtrip hike is only about half a mile long. Enjoy the views of this giant waterfall! Click here for more details on the falls.
2. Rainbow Falls
The Rainbow Falls are pure magic. The unique thing about this waterfall is that from the viewpoint above the falls, you can see a rainbow! It is a unique view when the sun is shining through, the water is rushing to your left, and a perfect rainbow forms to your right. The fact that it happens so often is extremely rare for waterfalls around the world. I recommend going to the falls in the morning so you can have the best chance of seeing the rainbow in effect. The nice thing is that this waterfall is only a 5-minute drive from Hilo itself, so if it's sunny in the morning you can easily access it when the weather is good.
3. Pe'epe'e Falls
These falls are located a bit further upstream past Rainbow Falls (1.5 miles walk). Since they are further away, they are less crowded by tourists. There is a swimming hole here, but it can be dangerous as the falls are nearby. Don't risk it! You can always swim at the nice beaches in Hilo nearby after you see these spectacular waterfalls up close.
Visit the Green Sand Beach - Papakolea Beach
Exploring Green Sand Beach is one of the most unique and top things to do on the Big Island of Hawaii. The official name is “Papakolea beach” and it is one of two green sand beaches in the US. Olive green minerals and black lava mix to make the green beach. You can swim in the bay, however, be careful as there is not a lifeguard on duty and some lave rocks are to the right when facing out towards the open ocean. Enjoy this spectacular and rare green sand beach! It is definitely an insta-worthy moment and a memory that will last a lifetime.
Hike on the Mauna Kea volcano
This is by far the best aerial viewpoint on all of the Hawaiian islands! Located in the heart of the island, we like to think of Mauna Kea as the epicenter of Hawaii as a whole. It is the 4th oldest (out of 5) of all major volcanoes. From the top, you can gaze over the entire island and take in the beauty of how vast the ocean is that surrounds the island chain. When we visited, it was a cloudy day but we still felt on top of the world here. There is a chance that you will catch it on a clear day and if you can schedule your visit to align with the visibility we would recommend it!
Mauna Kea's summit is 4,207.3 m (13,803 ft) above sea level, which makes it the highest point in all of Hawaii. It is about a 3-hour drive from Hilo or a 4.5-hour drive from Kona to reach the summit of Mauna Kea, so make sure to pack for the occasion. You will also likely reach snow at the top of the mountain, which is a surreal experience if you were just at a warm beach earlier that morning! Make sure to stop at the visitor center halfway up the mountain to get information on the road conditions as well as stargazing options for the evening. Mauna Kea is one of the premier stargazing locations in the entire world due to the low level of light pollution and the height of the observatory.
When Is The Best Time To Visit Hawaii?
In our opinion, every day of the year is good to visit Hawaii due to its year-round tropical climate. The average high temperature never drops below 25 degrees Celsius (77 degrees F). Even on rainy days, the rain usually pours for an hour or two and then the sun comes out again. However, there are rainy seasons and sunny seasons on the Big Island. To avoid rain, try to go in April, May, September, or October. These four months are generally the driest and you can enjoy the sun all day! If you don't want rain at all, then avoid the "wet months" of November-March. If you are looking for the best time to surf in Hawaii, then the December and January are your best bet as the waves get biggest in the winter. However, Hawaii surfing can be enjoyed all-year-round and is a great holiday destination no matter when you can make it. Just go! Here is more information on the best time to visit.
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Conclusion: The Best Island To Visit In Hawaii for first-time visitors?
As you can see, there is much to enjoy on the Big Island of Hawaii. Its size along with the number of outdoor attractions that are relatively tourist-free makes it the best island to visit in Hawaii in our opinion. It can be overcrowded on other islands such as Maui, Oahu, and Kauai, which can water down your true Hawaiian experience for your first time. If you want to be surrounded by the rich Hawaiian culture and enjoy the pure nature of this magical spot in the world, then book your ticket to the Big Island of Hawaii for your first trip!
Need more travel inspiration? Check out our other destinations and articles about the US:
Now that you know some of the best spots on the island, which one are you looking forward to seeing most? Comment below!