We loved the black sand beaches, amazing sunsets, watching turtles, learning to hula dance and all the fun activities in the Big Island of Hawaii. The Kona (west) side of the island is known for its sunny weather, world-class golf courses, manta ray night dives, and whale watching. The Hilo (east) side that boasts lush rain-forest hikes, cascading waterfalls as the Rainbow falls and the ‘Akaka falls, hot springs and easily accessible red-hot flowing lava. We did two road trips while we were in the Big Island of Hawaii – one to Akaka Falls State Park to see the Akaka Falls, a spectacular 420 ft waterfall which is certainly one of the most attractive of the accessible waterfalls on the Big Island and to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. A visit to the Big Island won’t be complete without a trip to Puʻuhonua o Honaunau, which gives a glimpse into Hawaiʻi’s ancient culture. Here are some details about the best things to do in the Big Island of Hawaii and you will see why it is our favorite Hawaiian island.
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Best places to visit and learn about Volcano at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
The Hawaii Volcanoes National Park offers stunning and ever-changing landscapes for stargazers, hikers, and children. Located 30 miles southwest of Hilo, this is the home of Kilauea volcano, one of the most active volcanoes on earth also called “the world’s only drive-in volcano.” This active volcano currently produces 250,000-650,000 cubic yards of lava per day, enough to resurface a 20-mile-long, two-lane road daily. As of January 1994, 491 acres of new land have been created on Hawaii Island. The current eruption may last another 100 years or stop tomorrow. Pele, the volcano goddess who lives here, is very unpredictable. But the chance to watch Kilauea’s blistering lava flows meet the sea is one of a kind experience, you can see the lava flowing, either by a boat tour or a helicopter ride.
Here are a few sites we stopped, the kids enjoyed learning about the Volcano driving through the changing landscape of Hawaii.
Kilauea Crater Rim Drive
Crater Rim Drive is the 10.6-mile drive that circles Kilauea Caldera. Driving around this loop will take you to the park’s main attractions: the Kilauea overlook, Jaggar Museum, Halemaumau Crater, Devastation Trail, Kilauea Iki Crater Overlook and the Thurston Lava Tube.
Thomas A. Jaggar Museum
Thomas A. Jaggar pioneered the study of volcanology here at Kilauea. Here you can find geologic displays, maps and videos about the study of volcanoes.
Steam vents plume from this massive crater, known as the home of Pele, the volcano goddess. In 1967, this crater was filled with a lake of lava that eventually drained away. It is considered a sacred site, it is believed that the gasses and steam bear witness that Pelehonuamea, Pele of the sacred land still resides here.
Kilauea Crater Rim and the steam vents
Thurston Lava Tube
You can walk through a 500-year old lava cave formed when an underground channel of molten lava drained from its cooled walls forming a massive, hollow chamber. The best part is that a tropical rainforest awaits at the end of the tube, totally unexpected!
Chain of Craters Road
Veering south of Crater Rim Drive is Chain of Craters Road. This 3,700-foot drive eventually ends where lava flow has literally overtaken the road. You can walk on the lava to get a closer look as long as you are comfortable shoes.
Puu Oo Vent
When we visited Kilauea’s lava activity wasn’t centered in its caldera (the large depression at the top of the volcano) but at the Puu Oo vent in the East Rift Zone. Puu Oo’s lava flood underground tubes that empty dramatically into the sea. You can watch this spectacle at the end of Chain of Craters Road or get a closer look from the new Kalapana viewing site outside the park. We walked a couple of miles to get a little closer look of lava, which was pretty dramatic to see when the sun set it was dark.
Because of the massive eruption that happened in May 2018, the lava lake that existed inside Halema‘uma‘u crater has disappeared and lava flows from Puʻu ʻŌʻō crater have ceased. There is no molten lava or lava glow to see anywhere in or out of the park, check the Park Website for details and information about the closures.
The road trip to the Volcano National park was a long day, but we got to walk in a lava tube, see geysers, walk on lava rock, see the lava flow into the sea and learn about Volcanoes at the Thomas A. Jaggar Museum. We loved the verdant and varied landscape of the Big Island.
Hike in the Akaka falls State Park
The Akaka Falls State Park is about 11 miles north of Hilo on the end of Akaka Falls Road (Highway 220). The Akaka falls is a massive 422 ft tall waterfall and one of the highlights of our drive to the Akaka Falls State Park. This park is located close to Hilo, you can get to see the falls after a short 0.4-mile hike from the parking lot. This trail is called the Akaka Falls Loop Trail which takes you through a lush rainforest filled with wild orchids, bamboo groves, and beautiful draping ferns.
There are more waterfalls in the state park and can be found at the northern seaside cliffs and valleys of the Kohala coast but these falls are more difficult to get to. The Rainbow Falls in Hilo is another waterfall that is pretty easy to visit on the Big Island. This big and broad waterfall in the Wailuku River is conveniently located within Hilo town. It is a short trail from the parking lot and offers views from the waterfall’s summit – you have to see it in person to understand the reason behind the fall’s name.
We stopped at a field to sample some juicy sugarcane
Experience the Puʻuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park
Puʻuhonua is one of the best places in the islands to get in touch with Hawaiʻi’s ancient culture, you might want to practice saying the name a few times though 🙂 A major feature of the complex is a reconstructed temple that is often photographed. The temple called Hale o Keawe, is guarded by fierce wood-carved statutes called kiʻi. The original temple, built around 1650 and long ago destroyed, housed the bones of at least 23 chiefs. It was believed that the mana (spiritual power) in the bones of the dead chiefs gave additional protection to those who came to the place of refuge. Refuges like Puʻuhonua o Honaunau ceased functioning in the early 19th century when the kapu system was abolished, but this 182-acre site remains sufficiently intact to provide a glimpse into a time when people could be sentenced to death merely for eating with their husband or wife or walking in the shadow of a chief.
Now a National Historical Park, Puʻuhonua, has been reconstructed by local artisans using traditional tools. If you are visiting the Park from Sunday through Thursday, you may have an opportunity to witness the hana nō’eau (traditional skills) of nā kanaka maoli (native Hawaiians) or listen to the fascinating tales of the wā kahiko (times past). This ancient place of refuge was the destination of people running for their lives, seeking asylum from severe penalties imposed on all who broke the imposing kapu (sacred) laws. Once inside the compound’s 10-foot walls, sanctuary was guaranteed as long as they made it inside. The resident kahuna, or priests, were obligated, under the pain of death, to offer absolution to all fugitives no matter how great or small the infraction.
While exploring the Royal Grounds we found a stone playing surface called the papamū and challenged the kids to kōnane. This game was enjoyed in ancient Hawaii by both the Ali`i (royalty) and the commoners. It was said that King Kamehameha the Great was an excellent player, sometimes beating his opponent in one move. You can ask for the rules at the visitor center.
Drive to the Waipi’o Valley
Located along the northeast shore of the Big Island of Hawaii on the Hamakua Coast is the Waipi’o Valley. Lush green with steep cliffs it is the largest and most southern of the seven valleys on the windward side of the Kohala Mountains. The Waipi’o Valley is a mile wide at the coastline and almost six miles deep and the beautiful black sand beach often appears in motion pictures.
On both sides of the valley, there are cliffs reaching almost 2000 feet with hundreds of cascading waterfalls, including one of Hawaii’s most famous waterfalls – Hi’ilawe. We drove up to the valley had a picnic nearby and enjoyed seeing the celebrated falls from the road. Waipi’o Valley is one of the most beautiful places we have seen. On the way to the valley, we saw tropical fields, orange and lime trees. You can arrange to go on hikes or ride horses here.
A little picnic in Waipi’o Valley
See Green Sea turtles and pink sunsets
We loved the black sand beaches in the Big Island of Hawaii, playing in the sand and watching the beautiful sunsets in shades of pink and purple was an everyday affair. The kids enjoyed looking for the Hawaii Green Sea turtles. The green turtle is listed as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. In 1978. Green turtles were a source of food, tools, and ornamentation for early Hawaiians but fortunately not anymore. We were lucky that one afternoon we saw a couple of them sunning on the beach.
See the stars from the top of the Mauna Kea
Another fun adventure is seeing a sunset from the top of the Mauna Kea summit. It is a dormant volcano, with a peak at 4,207 m (13,796 feet) above sea level, it is the highest point in the state of Hawaii. In fact, it is the tallest mountain in the world, just that most of it is under the ocean. It is one of the best places for stargazing, The Mauna Kea Observatories (MKO) feature some of the world’s largest telescopes, including equipment from Canada, France, and the University of Hawaii. You can go on a tour, see the sunset, stay to for a private stargazing show through 11” Celestron telescopes on and enjoy a picnic dinner at a historic ranch. The kids have to be at least 16 years old for this one so we had to skip but plan on doing it next time.
Visit farms and farmers markets and do some Souvenirs Shopping
We stopped a farmers market for some shopping mainly to get some papayas, pineapple and other goodies for breakfast. Since we had a suite and a small kitchen we ate breakfast at the hotel out on our balcony before heading out to the beach or our road trip. The pineapple and papaya were divine. We didn’t get to visit a pineapple plantation but heard they make Popsicle out of an entire pineapple. D would have loved it since he is a big pineapple fan! Another fun place to visit is a Cacao farm – Sharkey’s, or Hilo Shark’s Chocolate, which is one of the more established Hawaiian chocolate brands on the Big Island. You can find their chocolates in shops across the island and can go on a farm tour. Their farm tour takes you all around their cacao, coffee, and vanilla farm located in a beautiful area.
As far as souvenirs we brought home a few tiki statues that we bought in the market. Each tiki represents a beloved and reverent God. According to Hawaiian history, there was a time when Gods walked the earth as men and tiki images reminded people just how close the realm of the gods was! There was Ku – Ancient Tiki God of War, Lono – Ancient Tiki God of Fertility and Peace. We found some Tikis marked God of Money, God of Love, God of Luck, etc – not sure if they were authentic or not we fell in love with the stocky headed Gods of Hawaii and let the kids pick their favorite to bring home!
Where to stay in the Big Island of Hawaii
We stayed at the Hilton Waikoloa Village, which was set among lush palm trees and tropical gardens on the Kohala Coast of Hawaii of Big Island. It was a quick 20 minutes drive from Kona International Airport (KOA). The resort was a peaceful sanctuary shrouded in natural splendor with a variety of tropical fish, exotic birds, and wildlife. Kids loved taking the trams and cruising the canals of the resort in their mahogany canal boats. There were always activities planned like hula dancing lessons and a nightly luau with hula and fire dancers and a lavish island-style buffet. Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows, Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, and Fairmont Orchid are three other beautiful family-friendly properties in Hawaii.
There is a new gorgeous Four Seasons property set on Hawaii Island’s exclusive Kona-Kohala Coast, this oceanfront luxury resort in Hualalai is said to capture the essence of Hawaiian design, culture, and tradition. We have this on our wishlist to check out on the next trip.
Plan to visit the other islands of Hawaii – You probably going to fly into Honalulu, here is a great 7 Oahu day itinerary. Kauai, known as The Garden Isle is dramatically beautiful, a helicopter ride is a must-do here. See here for other things to do in Kauai that most people miss. From green sand beaches to black sand beaches, Maui beaches are amazing. You can visit Haleakala National Park and go on a road trip and drive along the jaw-droppingly scenic Road to Hana. We have Don’t miss luaus here, see this list of the best Luaus in Maui.
On the way to a luau
How to get to the Big Island of Hawaii
We flew from Dallas to Los Angeles (DFW to LAX) and from there we flew on Hawaiian Airlines to Big Island. You can either fly into Kona International Airport (KOA) or Hilo International Airport (ITO) depending on where you are staying.
Hawaiian Airlines offers nonstop service to Hawaii from many U.S. gateway cities, along with service from Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, American Samoa, Tahiti, and Beijing, China. Hawaiian also provides approximately 160 inter-island flights daily between all the major Hawaiian Islands. For flights between the U.S. mainland and Hawaii, they offer complimentary meals and a complimentary glass of red or white wine during meal time in coach class.
Don’t forget to make time for picnics on the beach, watching sunsets and learning to hula dance!
All set for a picnic by the beach
Sharing popcorn with the birds
Hula dance lessons at the resort
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Have you been to Hawaii? Which is you favorite island??
Updated March 2019