Big Island

The island of Hawai'i comprises over half of the area of the state of Hawaii in the United States of America. To avoid confusion with the state, it is almost universally called the Big Island. It is home to the most active volcano in the world, located in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, as well as the largest mountain in the world in volume (Mauna Loa) and the tallest mountain in the world as measured from its base on the sea floor to its peak (Mauna Kea).


The Big Island has incredibly varied terrain, such that as you travel across the island from the Leeward (dry) side to the Windward (wet) side, the landscape goes from black with dry brown patches to open fields grazed by horses and donkeys to planted eucalyptus forest to lush tropical vegetation and rainforest.

Regions of the Big Island
Hilo Region
The Windward side of the island surrounding the city of Hilo, where you can see many waterfalls, walk through rainforest and enjoy the lush landscape.
Kona Region
The Leeward side of the island, famed for its highland coffee farms and sunny weather, with splendidly calm beaches good for beginner surfing, snorkelling, paddling, swimming, and scuba diving, as well as whale and dolphin watching.
The northwestern corner of the island, partially a vast green area artificially landscaped with gorgeous golf clubs and resorts and, where not altered by humans, black volcanic surface that makes up some of the driest land on the Big Island.
The east side of the island north of Hilo is rich in scenery, covered with gently rolling hills and spotted with old volcano tops, ending rather majestically in gallant seacliffs over which spill dozens of tall thin waterfalls. Within the region is the awe-inspiring Waipi'o Valley, which is very worthy of a hike or horseback ride.
The eastern side of the island between Hilo and the active lava flows of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, where the landscape varies from lush rainforest to the black crust of newly volcano-formed earth and molten lava pouring into the sea.
The southern portion of the island is much less visited, but has seen rapid development in recent years following the demise of the local sugar and coffee industries, with tourism becoming the biggest economic generator.


Other Destinations

Get in

By plane

Green turtle basking on Punalu'u Beach in Ka'u

There are two major airports if you are flying into the Big Island, Kona International Airport and Hilo International Airport. There are a few direct flights from the mainland, mostly from California, Denver, Phoenix and Seattle, but it is more common to arrive via Honolulu or Kahului. You should try to get a flight direct from the mainland to Kona to save time waiting (and walking) around the Honolulu Airport.

If you can't find a direct flight, consider that Kona's airport is by far busier and requires a lot of time to pass all checkpoints. Hilo's airport has fewer flights, is smaller, so the time between rental drop-off and boarding is much shorter. United Airlines services Hilo from Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Inter-island "hoppers" arrive from all the other islands several times a day. Local flights are available through three main airlines, Hawaiian, Island Air, and go! to the two major airports. These airlines provide frequent service between the islands, largely connecting through Honolulu, although there are some direct flights from Kona and Hilo to Kahului Maui. Daily round-trip service is also available between Hilo and Kona. Pacific Wings provides fun flights in small prop planes between Hilo, Kona and Kamuela. Keep in mind that an inter-island flight could use up almost an entire day, due to the fact that you must pack, check out of hotel, get to the airport, return rental car, go through all the airport procedures, fly, wait for luggage, get rental car, check in, unpack. It's tempting to try and see as many of the islands as you can on one trip, but it's best to spend no less than three nights on an island. In the case of the Big Island, think of the two sides of the island as separate. It takes about 2 hours 15 minutes to drive from Kailua-Kona to Hilo, and about six hours to circle the island.

By boat

Although several cruise ship lines operate in Hawaii, there is currently no dedicated inter-island boat service. Hawaii Superferry used to run high-capacity catamaran ferry services between O‘ahu and Maui, with intention to open a route between Maui and the Big Island, but the company has since declared bankruptcy.

Get around

On Big Island, you need a car in order to get to most of the interesting beaches, parks or other attractions, or to travel from the Kona coast to the Hilo coast. Places like the green or black sand beaches, or the Mauna Kea summit and astronomical observatories are only accessible by four-wheel drive. Note that car rentals tend to book months in advance, depending on the season. If the major rental companies in Kona or Hilo are fully booked, you can still hope to find a used car to rent via Craigslist. These are older cars, most with dings or other cosmetic blemishes, but they don't make you look like a tourist.

If you only plan to stay around one town, you can also rent a moped or bike. See Hawaii for moped/scooter regulations.

Getting around by local bus, bikes, or on foot work well if you're staying in one area. Many budget travelers are unpleasantly surprised by the extremely limited public transport on the Big Island. The county's Hele-On bus is inexpensive ($2 fare as of 2013), but the schedules are mainly intended for commuting. There are some bus companies offering excursions from Hilo to destinations like Volcano, but they require reservations.

Hitchhiking is extremely easy and convenient on the Big Island. As most places are near the Mamalahoa Highway, you're never too far from a good hitching spot. As traffic generally flows from the Hilo side to resorts of Waikoloa Resorts in the morning, you can easily make it to the beaches without waking up at by 5:45 to catch the Hele-On bus. As a large number of locals take the spirit of Aloha seriously, hitching is the best way to travel for free throughout the Island. It's not just the usual crowd of young people picking up hitchers either: One visitor has reportedly been picked up by families, grandmas, and even the mayor of Honoka'a! As a note, the district of Kau in the south of the island is very sparsely populated with low traffic levels, so hitching isn't near as good there as it is on the northern half of island.

If you're thinking about renting a Jeep, Alamo doesn't disable the four wheel drive option in their Jeeps as some other rental agencies do. However, keep in mind that you are violating the rental contract by driving on "unpaved roads" (let alone some of the four wheel drive only roads). As long as you are careful and sensible about it, though, you'll be fine. Just keep in mind that you are "on your own" if you get in trouble while violating the rental agreement. If you're going to violate the rental contract by driving on unpaved roads, you have less of a chance of getting stuck if you have the ability to shift to four wheel drive.

Harper Rentals has four wheel drive vehicles that are allowed by contract to drive on unpaved roads. You will pay more for that right.


Locals refer to elders as "Auntie" or "Uncle" instead of "sir" or "ma'am," and flip-flops are called "slippers." People in Hawai'i are very friendly and always looking forward to talking about their island, their history and its culture.


The Big Island has the usual array of sub-tropical island activities. While the Kona side has a number of white sand beaches, the coastline on the Hilo side tends to be rocky. This is due to the relative age of the coastline.


Due to its altitude, latitude, and the lack of interference from city lights, Mauna Kea provides among the best sites on earth for telescopes. You may notice the strange orange and pink hues put out by street lights on the Big Island. They are sodium lights used to ensure that the views from Mauna Kea are unpolluted.

Stop at the Visitor Information Station of the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy. They set up several telescopes nightly for the public to enjoy. Volunteers provide programs daily at 6PM, and will answer any questions you have as you look at the unbelievable number of visible stars. Remember to bring your jacket, as the elevation is over 9200 feet at the Visitor Center.


The beaches of the Big Island, especially on the Kona side, have been consistently voted amongst the best beaches in the world. Some (like Mauna Kea Beach) front hotel resorts, while others (like Makalawena) remained unencumbered by modern tourism. Hapuna Beach is reputed to be one of the best, consistent with the picture many outsiders have in their head of what a Hawaiian beach should be.

The island has one of the few green sand beaches in the world (see above), and several black sand beaches.


The Big Island has some fantastic snorkeling. The Kona side has most of the best snorkeling, but Puna also has some excellent sites. Go in the morning on the Kona side, and in the afternoon in Puna, for clear and calm conditions.

No matter where you are enjoying wildlife, remember it's often illegal and always immoral and detrimental to feed, touch or harass wildlife, both marine and land.


Hilo Surfboard Company: Is the Big Island's most 'authentic' surf shop. People travel all the way from Kona to check out boards as they REALLY DO have the largest selection of boards. And unless you want a Hilo Surfboard Company T-shirt or shirts from a couple 'locals. Like Moku Nui or KRU, better go to the mall. This is a real core surf shop! Owner Scott Murray will be stoked to see you and talk story! 84 Ponahawai St. Hilo. +1 808-934-0925

Hiking and camping

If you would like to hike on the Big Island you have abundant choices for the novice to the expert. Some of the most popular hikes are the Waipio Valley hike, the Pololu Valley hike, the Greens Sands Beach hike, the Volcano National Park Kilauea Iki hike, and Akaka Falls paved trail hike, however there are too many trails to count. See below for a list of some of the guided tours you can do, which take you to these destinations as well as more remote or less known hikes. Though there are guided tours, most hiking on the Big Island is free or located within a State or National Park. State Parks are free for hiking and only some National Parks require an entry fee. Backcountry and backpacking hikes like the Muliwai Trail to Waimanu Valley require a permit and are at cost, though it's low. These permits not only feed money into the natural lands of Hawai'i, but also provide safety for yourself; there have been many times rescue during a dangerous time has been given solely on the fact a permit was issued legally. When you have no permit and camp illegally, no money enters the system even though you are using the land and there is no way to tell you are in a remove valley or unstable area in order to help you if there is a problem.

The Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources advises that "you must purchase and print a copy of your permit in advance and have it in your possession while camping or lodging within any park. It is not possible to purchase a permit at any park. All permits require a fee – there is no free camping in Hawaii State Parks or Forest Reserves." There are many camping options to choose from and the cost is amazingly low compared to the mainland. Once you pay entry fee for Volcanoes National Park, camping is free and on a first-come, first-served basis at some of their beautiful campsites with full facilities.

Hiking Destinations

Guided Tours

The Big Island has a tour company for every possible tourist endeavor. If you don't see it covered here, search for it. Chances are there will be a tour guide for what you want to do. A good place to read non-biased reviews of tours is Hawaii The Big Island Revealed: The Ultimate Guidebook by Andrew Doughty. It does not feature any adds or endorsements the way many guidebooks do.


Dance, culture, and traditional crafts classes are available for long or short term students. Many resorts offer 1-3 day classes in hula or lei making. To learn about history, culture and the environment, visit the State and National Parks and speak with Rangers and other guides that reside there. Parks have many programs ranging from participation based programs, games, festivals, classes and more for visitors to learn about Hawai'i. The only state or national parks that charge an entry fee are Pu'u o Honaunau and Volcanoes National Park.


Hawaii's unemployment rates are among the lowest in the nation, and thus it is impressive that the Big Island boasts one of the lowest unemployment rates in the state. While tourism, military, and agriculture have typically been the largest employers, recent new job growth has resulted primarily from a residential building boom. The astronomical observatories are another important group of employers.


The Big Island is the only county in Hawaii that has no restrictions on the operation of vacation rentals. Before making reservations, it's best to review a map of the island and plan ahead, thinking about the activities and sightseeing you'll want to do. For those that don't have the budget for large hotels and resorts, there are many less expensive options that are still enjoyable, such as local bed and breakfasts, small hotels, and hostels where you can stay for as little as $35 a night. Camping is also readily available all over the island.

Stay safe

Lava flows from the Kīlauea volcano into the ocean

Note that even solidified lava flows can still be very dangerous, as there are hidden flows of molten lava with only an overlying thin crust of rock in many places between Pu'u O'o and the shoreline. And of course there's the threat of methane explosions and lava bench collapses, so do not walk to the edge of the lava bench unless the rangers say it is safe to do so.

The usual disclaimers about the more active things to do apply. If you have a tour guide, they often have insurance premiums to be beholden to and as such make them more aware of safety issues. But otherwise the island is mostly remote and help can be far away. Know your physical limits.

Prepare for the area you are visiting. The Big Island contains 8 out of 13 of the Earth's climate zones within its boundary, so you will visit many different areas. For instance, you may wear flip flops and bikinis in Kona, however you would want a full coat, boots, long pants and a hat while visiting Mauna Kea.

Hawai'i is an ever changing, adapting island chain. It is constantly eroding, creating and changing. Beware of drop offs, sharp edges, water safety and the land and ocean around you in general.

Remember that as much as you need to keep yourself safe, you need to keep Hawai'i safe as well. Please practice the Leave No Trace principles to make sure everyone can enjoy the islands. It's not only illegal to do things like feed or hassle wildlife, take rocks, sand or plants, but it's also immoral and detrimental to the Hawaiian Islands. They are the most isolated land mass on the globe and have many species and landscapes that are struggling to survive under the pressures of tourism. Respect the 'aina the best you can. Do not cut trails, litter, or desecrate natural or man made sites.

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Saturday, March 19, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.