Big Island (Hawaii)

Our favorite island is the Big Island of Hawaii. Active volcanoes, great hotels, marvelous golf courses, and white sand beaches. We tend to spend at least a week on the Big Island, splitting our time between a couple days in Hilo/Volcano, and the rest of the time on the Kohala Coast.

We'll often fly into Kona, drive to Hilo or Volcano around the south end of the island (staying there a few nights), drive to the Kohala Coast via the northern route or the Saddle Road (staying there a few nights), and fly out of Kona. We've also flown into Hilo and flown out of Kona, but watch out for a drop-off fee for the rental car.

Top things we like to do

  • Volcano National Park. This is probably our favorite destination in Hawaii. Web site.

Spend at least a full day at the Volcano National Park. We'll try to spend 2-3 nights in Volcano village, Volcano National Park, or Hilo (about 30 miles away). How to decide?

  • Hilo is probably least expensive overall, in terms of hotels and B&Bs, and restaurant choices of all types and price ranges, but you've got a lengthy commute to/from the park. However, there are currently flows that may be accessible from the Puna district, for which Hilo is comparatively convenient.
  • Both Volcano village and park are very convenient to the park, especially if you want to visit very early or at night. Its fun to stay in the park, but there are limited options for hotels and food (though you can go into the village for the latter). Staying in Volcano village is limited to B&Bs, and has a limited choice of restaurants.

Get to the park early in the day, and spend the morning checking out the sites on Crater Rim Drive. This way you avoid the tour buses, most of which will be making the trip from Kailua Kona and thus won't appear until late morning. Our favorite locations include hiking across Kilauea Iki crater, Devastation Trail, Thurston Lava Tube, and Halemaumau crater. (Note: due to the current activity in Halemaumau, its overlook is closed, as is parts of Crater Rim Drive.)

Have lunch in Volcano village (don't bother eating at the hotel in the park), and then spend the afternoon traveling down the Chain of Craters Road to the coast (the buses don't take this trip, since they'd have to turn around and come back up). If you have the opportunity to hike out to visible lava flows - do it! Listen to the advice of Park Service people, and don't do anything stupid. But if the flows are accessible, they'll tell you. (Note: with the current eruption, lava is also flowing outside park boundaries, with access available from the Puna district. Bring water - it's hot walking on black lava fields, and wear good shoes (flip-flops aren't going to hack it!).

  • Helicopter Ride. Helicopters can get you close to inland portions of lava flows. Even if there is no surface flow, the view of this big island and the massive lava flows is awesome from the air.
  • Waipi'o Valley. A stereotypical deep Hawaiian valley. Even if you don't go into the valley (typically done through a special tour by 4WD or mule-drawn wagon; we've never done it), the outlook itself is worth a trip.
  • Saddle Road. Driving the Saddle Road is spectacular. Technically, driving this route across the island violates your rental car agreement, but the risk is mostly the excess charges you'd face getting your car down the mountain if you suffer a breakdown, have an accident, or run out of gas. The roads are good (a little curvy on either end), but the scenery is amazing.
  • Place of Refuge. The politically correct name is Pu'uhonua o Honaunau, but everyone will know what you mean if you use the other name. A well restored site with a lot of history. Web site.
  • Hilo. Downtown Hilo doesn't look like its changed much in the last 40-50 years, and has a number of neat shops and restaurants. Drive up along the Wailuku River, checking out Rainbow Falls and the Boiling Pots.

Notable Restaurants:

  • The Canoe House (Mauna Lani Bay Hotel) - upscale dining near the beach
  • Cafe Pesto (Hilo and Kawaihae) - good pizza and fish; both next to our favorite art galleries
  • Cafe 100 (Hilo) - inexpensive drive-inn, known for its many varieties of loco mocos (the standard version has hamburger patties on rice, with fried egg and gravy on top)
  • luau at Mauna Kea Beach Hotel - Sundays; expensive but lots of great food (we haven't been since the hotel reopened, but I assume they have maintained this)
  • Tex Drive-In (Honokaa) - another drive-inn; this one known for its malasadas (deep fried dough, often with a filling, covered in sugar); conveniently located midway between Hilo and the Kohala Coast
  • Daniel Thiebaut (Waimea) - good dining up in Waimea
  • Roy's Waikoloa (Waikoloa resort King's Shops) - upscale dining (same chain now has many restaurants on the mainland)

Art Galleries

  • The Dreams of Paradise Gallery is located in downtown Hilo, and we've purchased a number of items there over the years. Check out the paper mache lava and turtles by Terry Taube.
  • The Harbor Gallery is located in Kawaihae; combine a visit there with dinner at Cafe Pesto or one of the other nearby restaurants.


  • Big Island calendar at Includes a good mix of tourist-oriented events and ones targeted more at local residents (but are also open to visitors).
Recommended guidebook (now in its 5th edition)