How to do the Big Island of Hawaii right


The first time I visited the Big Island of Hawaii many years ago, I was struck by how different its scenery was compared with the other Islands. The Kona Airport, where I first touched down, made that stark difference perfectly clear, as it’s built right in the middle of a lava field.

This is the youngest island in the chain, and so it should look different. It’s covered in hardened lava flows that have yet to erode and be replaced by forests, as is the case on the second-oldest island, Kauai. But what I’ve learned through the years is that the Big Island offers a far more diverse landscape than what I first thought — one filled with dramatic scenery, waterfalls, green valleys, snowy mountaintops and fiery volcanoes.

The island is, well, big

First thing you should understand is that the Big Island is much bigger than the other Islands. While it is possible to drive a complete circle around the island in one day that will take about 8 hours, I don’t recommend it. There’s far too much to see, and you’ll be wishing you had planned an overnight stay along the way.

Choose a side

The best way to visualize the Big Island is in two halves. These can be called the west side and the east side, or the leeward side and windward side, or the Kona side and Hilo side. It all means the same thing.

Once you understand the geography, there are a couple ways you can plan a trip to the Big Island. Pick a side and stay only on that side. Or you can do both sides over a span of a couple of days by starting on one side and then spending a night or two on the other side.

Pick the right airport

The island is so big it has two international airports. You’ll want to pick the airport where your trip plans begin. Ellison Onizuka Kona Airport is on the west side and the Hilo Airport is on the east side. It’s important enough that I’m going to mention it twice: Be sure to choose the airport that’s on the side of the island where your trip begins.

Where to stay

Many of the big resorts are on the Kona side of the island. These include the Hilton Waikoloa Village, the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai, the Fairmont Orchid, the Mauna Kea Resort and the Mauna Lani, Auberge Resorts Collection. It won’t be that difficult to find a hotel in Kona that meets your needs and budget.

On the east side, there are a handful of smaller hotels in Hilo to choose from, such as the Grand Naniloa and the Hilo Hawaiian, but it’s worthwhile to do a search for alternative accommodations. I’ve had luck finding unique places to stay through Airbnb. I also recommend The Inn at Kulaniapia Falls and Volcano House. There’s also the Namakanipaio Campground, near Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, that offers cabins and campgrounds.

The right rental car makes a difference

Though a compact car is fine, this is the only island where I would suggest you splurge on a higher class of vehicle, specifically if you’re traveling from one side to the other. I say this only because you may encounter some elevation changes and steep roads along the way as you cross the island.

Don’t drive to the top of Mauna Kea

Speaking of driving, don’t plan on driving yourself to the summit of Mauna Kea volcano. Most rental car companies won’t allow this. There are many instances that cars have broken down on the way up the mountain — and it will cost an arm and a leg to get it back down.

Mauna Kea tours, such as those by Hawaii Forest & Trail, are the better way to go.

Popular attractions you shouldn’t miss

When you plan your itinerary, know that you won’t be able to fit in everything there is to do on this island in one trip. You may only fit in a third of what you want to do, and that’s okay. Here are my favorites:

On the Kona side, snorkeling with manta rays is one of my most memorable activities. I’m not the best swimmer, but I still managed to do it without an issue, and I recommend you try it, too. Stargazing at the top of Mauna Kea is also a favorite that I could do again and again. Watching the sunset and then seeing the stars and constellations appear, while satellites and the International Space Station pass overhead, is extraordinary.

This island has many Native Hawaiian historical sites, and I suggest you add at least one to your schedule. On the Kona side, look into Puukohola Heiau, Puuhonua O Honaunau historical park and the Koloko-Honokohau historical park.

On the east side, it’s possible to stay one or two nights to see a great number of sights at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Visit Hilo town, filled with restaurants, old shops and restaurants. While there, stop by the Pacific Tsunami Museum and the Mokupapapa Discovery Center. Also, don’t forget to pick up a treat at Two Ladies Mochi (call ahead to order). The breathtaking Akaka and Rainbow waterfalls are nearby. The Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden is also worth a visit for its gorgeous scenery.

This isn’t a comprehensive list of things to do and see, but it’s enough to keep you busy for a handful of days.

Courtesy of Travel Weekly

woman standing on top of a volcano in Hawaii