The landscapes of the Big Island are incredibly varied. From one side of the island to the other, you’ll find the local cultures and even the overall vibe of an area is influenced by the lands surrounding it. To help you plan where to go on the Big Island, here’s what to expect in all the major locales, including cultural and natural highlights.
Kona is dry, sunny, and brilliant—most visitors’ introduction to the island. When watered, the rich soil blossoms, as in the small artists’ enclave of Holualoa and South Kona, renowned for its diminutive coffee plantations. As the center of this region, Kailua-Kona boasts an array of art and designer shops, economical accommodations, great restaurants, and historical and cultural sites like Moku‘aikaua Church, a legacy of the first missionaries to arrive in the islands, and Hulihe‘e Palace, vacation home of the Hawaiian royalty. Kealakekua Bay is one of the best snorkel sites in the islands. Nearby is Pu‘uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park, the location of a traditional Hawaiian safe refuge.
North of Kailua-Kona, otherworldly black lava bleeds north into Kohala. Up the coast is Hapuna Beach, one of the best on the island. Expansive resorts make this the island’s luxury resort area, barren lava turned into oases of green. Peppered among these resorts are petroglyph fields left by ancient Hawaiians. As you travel north on Highway 19, it becomes Highway 270 and you’ll find yourself in the hilly peninsular thumb at the northern extremity of the island. The Kohala Mountains sweep down to the west to a warm and largely uninhabited coast, and to the east tumble into deep valleys cut by wind and rain. Several isolated beach parks dot the coast. The main town up this way is sleepy Hawi, and at road’s end is the overlook of stunning Pololu Valley.
Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park
Lava fields that have spewed from Kilauea dominate the heart of Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. While miles of hiking trails crisscross the park, most see it by car (but some by bike) along the rim drive that brings you up close to sights like the impressive Halema‘uma‘u Crater, the mythical home of Madame Pele, the fire goddess. Chain of Craters Road spills off the pali through a forbidding yet vibrant wasteland of old and new lava. Nights in Volcano Village can be cold, but you’ll be so distracted by watching the lava glow from the Thomas A. Jaggar Museum you’ll hardly notice the drop in temperature at all.
The oldest port and the only major city on the island’s east coast, Hilo feels like old Hawaii. Filled with exotic flowers and tropical plants, the city is like a tremendous greenhouse. The town boasts Japanese gardens, Honoli‘i Beach (the best place to watch surfing), the Lyman Museum and Mission House, the Pacific Tsunami Museum, and a profusion of natural phenomena, including Rainbow Falls and Boiling Pots as well as black-sand beaches. Drive 20 minutes west of town to the mesmerizing ‘Akaka Falls. As tourism has shifted to the Kona side, Hilo is a place where deals can be found.
Hamakua Coast, Waimea, and the Saddle Road
Hamakua refers to the northeast coast above Hilo, where streams, wind, and pounding surf have chiseled the lava into cliffs and precipitous valleys. The road north from one-street Honoka‘a dead-ends at the lookout at Waipi‘o Valley, the most spectacular and enchanted valley on the island. Upcountry is Waimea, the heart of Hawaiian cowboy country and home to the Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement. From Waimea one can traverse the island via the Saddle Road separating the mountains of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. At the top of Mauna Kea, at 13,796 feet, observatories peer into the heavens through the clearest air on earth. A hiking trail for the hale and hearty heads to the top of Mauna Loa.