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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Bates

First-time guide to Big Hawaii

Updated: Feb 18

The biggest island of the Hawaiian Islands is Big Hawaii (otherwise known as Big Island) and is a great place to start when exploring the islands. Instead of hitting up touristy O’ahu (as that’s the island where visitors hit up first as there is a lot of things to do and see there, it has city life and of course stunning scenery like the other islands) or the amazing landscapes of Maui, Big Hawaii is the island where there is quite a lot of things to do and see, but is a much more slower pace of life. As it is the biggest island, there is much more diversity here, from lava fields, mountains, great food, beautiful gardens, this island has it all. I call this the ‘sample island’ because once Big Hawaii is explored, the rest of Hawaii awaits you.

Sunset photo taken from Waikoloa Beach on Big Hawaii island, Hawaii, USA
Sunset in Big Hawaii

Getting there

Big Hawaii is very easy to reach by air and has two airports, the main one on the west coast, Kona, and on the east coast is Hilo. Kona serves the west coast of USA and Japan whilst Hilo does inter-island connections with Hawaiian Airlines and has some international flights. Other airlines flying into the islands are Japan Airlines, Alaska, Delta, American and Southwest to name a few. When I flew here, I arrived (and departed) from Kona, coming in from Seattle (via Honolulu). I really like the layout of the airport as it has an open-air pavilion design. This also means there are no jetways or loading bridges which means passengers have to board and disembark from the aircraft via portable stairs (however those with disabilities can use a boarding lift service which should be pre-arranged with the airlines). I just love waiting in the centre of the terminal with the warm wind off the ocean on my face. This is one of my favourite airports in the world to go through. Whilst here if passengers have extra time on them at the airport, take a trip to Ellison S. Onizuka Space Center. Its near baggage claim and is dedicated to the memory of the first Asian-American in Space who also came from the Kona area of the island. Onizuka unfortunately lost his life on the Space Shuttle Challenger mission on 28th January 1986. Here one can find films, several personal items of Onizuka and interactive exhibits.

Kona Airport - Hawaiian Airlines arrives from Mainland USA
Hawaiian Airlines at Kona Airport

At the airport is the car rental lot which is a short walk away from the terminal building. My recommendation is that a car is needed to get around the island as public transportation is limited or non-existence and if booking excursions bia tour companies, this will add a lot of dollars onto your bank account. Save time and money with a car rental (I can hear the environmentalists screaming at me for this recommendation right now but compared to mainland USA or Europe, a car is very much needed unless staying in a resort and doing nothing). Cheaper option is to use the company Turo which is like the Air BNB of car rental. Customers will hire locals car and has the full insurance perks which main car rental firms have. I have used Turo in Maui and did not have a problem at all.


On Big Hawaii, I stayed at two resorts because I didn’t want to be in one base all the time and I wanted to sample and compare the two resorts I stayed at so I can recommend them to my readers. The first one was the Sheraton Kona Resort and Spa at Keauhou Bay which is located south of Kona Airport. Since I stayed at the resort, new owners now own the resort and it is now known as the Outrigger Kona Resort and Spa. I am going to be honest to my readers, I can’t compare the two resorts or give you a mini review due to the change of management but I hope if I ever get back to Big Hawaii, I will find out for sure what the resort is like as I did enjoy my stay here when it was a Sheraton. If anyone wants to know what the Outrigger Kona Resort and Spa is like or want to book a stay with them, their official website can be found here.

Basic hotel room at Outrigger Kona Resort and Spa

The other resort I stayed at was on the Northwestern side of the island in Waikoloa, the Hilton Waikoloa Village. This village is a long road full of the top resorts like Hilton, Sheraton, Marriott, Fairmont as well as luxury condos but I decided to go for the Hilton, full name, Hilton Waikoloa Village. For a full review on the resort and why I recommend this for young families, check out my post here.

Hilton Waikoloa Village, ideal place to stay on Big Island
One of the pools at the Hilton Waikoloa Village

What to do on Big Hawaii

Now for the fun part, what to do and see. I will tell you now that I only did the west and northern and southern side of the island (plus the center) but didn’t touch anything on the east coast around Hilo as I just ran out of time (hopefully on my next visit). So I can’t recommend any places east of Mauna Kea (more on that place later on). Here are my favourite places to hit up (in no particular order).

Beaches of the island: I am going to have to admit, if anyone is looking for golden smooth sandy beaches, then this is probably one of the last islands to find them (there are some but they are not big or impressive). I would recommend Maui or O’ahu for golden white sandy beaches. However Big Hawaii does have two great black sand beaches and a green sand beach. The black sand beaches were made because of volcanic eruptions many centuries ago. One of them is located in the Waipi’o Valley on the east coast but the other one is Punalu’u Beach located on the southeastern coast, about several miles south of Kona.

The green sand beach is located right near the southern tip of the island. Papakōlea Green Sand Beach is a bit of a bitch to get to but is worth visiting. Head to Ka Lae (the southernmost point of the USA) and park the car there (don’t leave any valuables in the car).

From here there is a hiking trail but it is quite hilly along the cliff face. However sometimes there are locals willing to take visitors in their pickup trucks to drive them to the beach. This is a very bumpy experience and a memorable one at that. I came away with a numb ass afterwards. At the beach we had about twenty-thirty minutes there and then drove back. The walk from the top of the cliff down to the beach is not an easy one either so have good shoes on for this. Also take water and a snack with you as there is nothing around here to buy these.

One of the four green sand beaches in the world, Papakōlea Green Sand Beach, located on Big Hawaii, Hawaii
Papakōlea Green Sand Beach

And the southernmost point of the USA, at Ka Lae (which means ‘the point’ in Hawaiian). However if visitors are expecting a sign with distances on to take a selfie in, or a bar nearby, then nope. Its black rocks, crashing waves and a car park which one can expect here.

Ka Lae, Big Hawaii - southernmost point of USA and Hawaiian Islands
Southernmost point of the USA is at Ka Lae

Mauna Kea: this is a must! This is one of the best memories that I take with me from the island to my grave. These few hours here are special and I would love to share my experience. A trip up to the summit of the highest volcano (or mountain) in the state. This is one of the best places to watch the sunset or catch the stars at night. My trip to Mauna Kea started with a ninety-minute/two hour drive from the resort I was starting at. Take food, drink and a jacket (as at the summit it will be breezy and cold most of the time). The drive from the main road (which goes from Waikoloa to Hilo) is a steep and bendy affair but an easy one to manage. Three-quarters of the way up the mountain is the car park where most visitors stop because of their vehicles. People with bigger vehicles and the right wheels go all the way to the top of the summit as the track is stony and dusty. But from this spot, the experience is still amazing.

Mauna Kea in the distance, taken from the main road near Waikoloa, Big Hawaii
A view of Mauna Kea from the main road between Waikoloa and Hilo

Here, there is a toilet, a small shop where a coffee can be brought from the machine and an information centre. This area is known as the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy Visitor Information Station. I walked to the nearby viewing point just west of the car park and several minutes walk. I sat here, just watching, waiting for the sun to go down over the ocean to the west. The landscape down below is mind-blowing, it felt like I was on another planet. It was so peaceful. Then the sun went down. I just can’t express my feelings up here. There was a tear in my eye for sure. It was just so beautiful. I know there was one thought going through my head and that was, I was so far away from home right now, there is a lot of trouble around the world, but all that was forgotten and that we are blessed with beautiful places here which make us forget things. After the sun went down beyond the horizon, the stars came out. This is one of the best places on Earth to have such a clear sky for sky gazing. There is no light pollution here either.

Amazing views from Mauna Kea, Big Hawaii
Above the clouds and it looks like I am on another planet. The view is amazing!

Mauna Kea last erupted over 4000 years ago so it is now a dormant volcano. It stands 13,796 feet above sea level (4207 meters) but if counting from the bottom of the ocean floor to the summit, Mauna Kea is the tallest sea mountain in the world. The mountain’s summit is home to the world’s largest observatory for optical, infrared and submillimeter astronomy (Again, I didn’t go right to the summit because of the car but could just about see these observatories from the parking lot down below). Research teams from eleven different countries operate thirteen telescopes atop Mauna Kea and found out that the United Kingdom is amongst them. The only other bit of advice is to be respectful to the locals and to the mountain. This is because Mauna Kea is the home to the snow goddess Poli’ahu in Hawaiian mythology. The summit was considered the realm of the gods and was forbidden to everyone except priests and the highest chiefs of the land.

Sunset over Mauna Kea, Big Hawaii
One of the best sunsets I have ever seen.

Helicopter tour: On all Hawaiian islands, I would say a helicopter tour is a must because of the stunning scenery which is flown over. Big Hawaii was the first time ever I have done a helicopter tour in the world and my my, it was such an amazing experience. The company I used was Blue Hawaiian Helicopters and flew from the Waikoloa helipad base and did the Big Island Spectacular Tour. This tour lasted around one hour and forty-five minutes and took in the valleys of the Kohala Mountains, rainforests of the Hamakua coastline and flying over the Kilauea volcano which famously erupted in 2018. I did this tour just two weeks after Kilauea became alive and was on one of the first helicopter tours over the area. Looking into the heart of the volcano to see bright red lava spewing out and slowly making its way across land and into the ocean, which resulted in a mass of steam going upwards into the air. Seeing this is devastating as it was destroying land and people’s homes but at the same time I was seeing nature (or another word, ‘land’) being created.

Blue Hawaiian Helicopter Tours over Big Hawaii
Totally love the comfort of the ride on these helicopters. Highly recommended

Towards the end of the tour, there was an additional stop where the helicopter landed at Laupahoehoe Nui on the Kohala Coast. Here I got to see the amazing 1200 ft waterfall and the amazing scenery around this area which is untouched. Just simply stunning.

This was a spectacular way of seeing the island from above and took home some amazing memories. The company is very professional, the level of service is excellent and the knowledge of the island from the pilot was, of course, very knowledgeable. I learnt more about the nature of the island from the pilot than I did on my research before coming to Big Hawaii.

Take in a Luau: these are very enjoyable fun evenings, watch a hulu experience whilst eating and drinking and these can be found mostly in resorts. Here you get to see local customy dancing whilst hearing about the story of the Hawaiian islands. If visitors are lucky, there maybe a fire show as well. I saw one at the Sheraton (now the Outrigger) in Kona and had a wonderful time there. It maybe a little expensive, however this is something which should not be missed if visitors have never seen a Luau before.

Check out some lava at the coast or in the nearby fields of Kona: I just love walking on solid lava. There is something about it but I can't put my finger on it. Also spotting crabs on solid lava on the coastline was awesome. The only other place I came across something like this has to be the lava fields of Iceland. Now there is something else which goes with these lava fields. In Hawaiian mythology, the goddess of fire, Pele, settled on Big Hawaii after creating the other Hawaiian islands. Locals say her spiritual presence explains why Big Hawaii has some of the most active volcanic activity on Earth. Locals also told me never take home a lava rock (or black sand) from the islands as a souvenir. This will bring back luck. Pele cursed the rocks and sand of the islands. Someone told me that Hawaii gets a lot of parcels from people who had visited the islands containing rocks taken away. They received horrible luck. So sending them back will hopefully give the people good luck again. I was warned and I took notice! Respect the rocks and sand guys.

Lava Rocks near Kona, Big Hawaii
Walking on rocks formed by lava

Hawi: Located on the northern side of the island is the historic and hipster town of Hawi. The town is worth visiting but it is nearby in what I was interested in. The village of Kapa’au in front of the North Kohala Civic Center stands the original King Kamehameha I statue. Very close to the statue is the place where King Kamehameha I was born and is known as the king that unified the Hawiaiian islands. Everyone seems to think the original statue stands near to the Iolani Palace in O’ahu (the only Royal Palace in North America). However it isn’t the original. The original one is here in Hawi.

Why is this? Well, the statue came from Florence, Italy in 1880, however the ship carrying the statue sank off the coast of the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic Ocean. The statue was deemed lost at sea, so a replacement statue was ordered and erected in Honolulu as mentioned above. However, the original statue was found and recovered in 1912. So it was decided the statue should be placed near Kamehameha’s birthplace at Kapa’au.

Statue of King Kamehameha I in Hawi, Big Hawaii
King Kamehameha I statue

Other things to do and see on Big Hawaii: Ok, so as mentioned I didn’t get to the Eastern side of the island, so can’t recommend anything there. However whilst researching I also learnt that visitors can swim with Manta Rays and Kayak to the Captain Cook monument (or snorkel in that area) these are not my sort of thing to do so I didn't do these. In the winter months (if there is ever winter in Hawaii), whale watching tours are an option. Trekking and exploring the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park should be done. How I wish I did this however I did a helicopter tour over the park and the landscape looks amazing (see above).

Torches on Hawaii
Traditional torches are common place at condos & resorts on the Hawaiian Islands

Travel tips for Big Hawaii (and the other Hawaiian islands):

Hawaii has two official languages and is the only U.S. state to do so (one for the pub quiz, the USA overall does not have any official languages, due to the many languages spoken by its citizens, like English, Spanish, Hawaiian, maybe a bit of French is spoken somewhere etc). Hawaii’s official languages are English and Hawaiian (which is a Polynesian language and very similar to languages spoken across the Pacific islands).

Hawaii accepts the US Dollar like the rest of America. Credit cards are widely used now but it's handy to have cash in places in the middle of nowhere just in case.

The climate is mostly warm and dry as the islands are located near the Equator. However if a rainstorm comes, it won’t be too long before it's over and everything will be dry again.

Always have a light jacket for evenings when taking a stroll along the shoreline (or going up mountains) as it can be quite breezy here. Another tip with the rainfall is that the Western side of the island is drier and warmer and the Eastern side is more wetter (and this is where some of the rainforests are on the island). But temperatures are always the same, all year round, between 80 and 90 F.

When using suncream, make sure it's reef friendly. Any sunscreen which contains the chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate are banned as they are harmful to the reef. Hawaii was the first US state to bring this law in.

Oerlooking the Pacific Ocean & Waikoloa from the Kohala Mountain Road on Big Hawaii
A view of the ocean overlooking Waikoloa from the Kohala Mountain Road


As I stated earlier, Big Hawaii is the island to ease into the Hawaiian lifestyle, culture, an island where things can be done at a slower pace (well, they are all slower but I feel Big Hawaii has an even slower pace of life). The island has it all from stunning landscapes, fantastic locals and great food. There are plenty of things to do and see here and I would recommend at least two weeks here (which includes a few days to chill out and unwind). I had a week here and it wasn’t enough. I hope to be back again soon with the family and show them this island paradise.

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