A Beginners Guide to Visiting the Big Island

Officially, this island is known as Hawaii; which as you can guess, gets quite confusing. Hence the colloquial name of the Big Island.

The Big Island is the biggest island in the Hawaiian islands (surprise, surprise) and can take a long time to explore. I’ve visited the Big Island twice; a four day long weekend in 2012 and a 48 hour whirlwind trip to see the lava (more on that later) in 2017.

I would say that the Big Island is my least favorite island (apologies to anyone that loves it!) and also the one I’ve got the least to write about… but here goes…

Hilo and Kona

The Big Island has two main “cities” on opposite sides of the island – Kona on the west side and Hilo on the east side. Kona is by far the more touristy one – think large hotels and resorts, famous restaurants and lots of people. Hilo is less populated, a small ‘locals’ town rather than a larger city and nature focused.

In 2012, we spent the long weekend mainly being based in Hilo, which I later regretted. I didn’t enjoy it that much as there wasn’t much to see and do, or so I thought. I have now done more research on Hilo and seen friends’ photos from the area and there are a number of hikes, waterfalls and beaches that we could’ve explored but didn’t know about at the time. Sigh.

One thing I did like about the Hilo side was a 24-hour pancake place we went to (I do love my food…). Kens House of Pancakes has the biggest menu I’ve ever seen, serves everything under the sun (not just pancakes) and is open any time you have cravings. Amazing.

Kona, on the other hand, is a seaside town with a fun, and cute personality. Walking the streets in Kona was one of my favorite things, stopping along the shoreline to look out at the ocean. I wish I had spent more time in Kona and long to go back.

Kona Brewing Company

On my most recent trip to the Big Island, we decided to do a tour of the Kona Brewing Company. The Kona company is well known throughout Hawaii and has my favorite beer, Big Wave. They started on the Big Island of Hawaii and now supply their beer internationally. You can do a tour of their brewery which includes sampling at the end for only $10. Tip: stay after the tour for lunch/dinner at their restaurant – they do an amazing $10 pizza and a salad combo!

Captain Cook Monument and snorkeling

Back in the day (2012), I wasn’t a very adventurous person. My friends wanted to kayak to the Captain Cook Monument and I personally couldn’t think of anything worse (it seemed REALLY far away and was rough seas that day), but I am so glad they made me do it. The monument in Kealakekua Bay is where Cook first set foot on the island of Hawaii and is now one of the most prime snorkeling spots in all of Hawaii. I’ve since found out there is a way to walk to the snorkeling spot but it is difficult and populated – if you are not a keen kayaker or explorer then I’d suggest that way is best but be careful!

Green Sand Beach (Papakolea)

Another very cool natural attraction on the Big Island is the green sand beach at Papakolea. This beach is only accessible by foot, 4WD car or by paying one of the locals to take you down in their cars. The hike takes around 2 hours round trip, is hot (no shade at all along the way), but is almost flat the entire way. We were short on time so we hitch hiked on the way there and one of the local kids (couldn’t have been more than 15 years old) picked us up and took us half of the way there. From memory, I think catching a ride costs $20 one way. If you’ve got the time, pack lots of water and walk it. It’s a really nice hike along the southern coastline and also doesn’t encourage the locals illegally getting money out of tourists.

Most Southern Point in the U.S.A.

On my trip in 2012, I remember having a drink at the most southern bar in the USA while on the Big Island; however I couldn’t find this bar on my return trip in 2017! Over the years, a number of my friends who visited the Big Island have done an staggering cliff jump which is supposedly at the most southern point in the USA. You couldn’t even pay me to jump off a cliff that high (think 40 feet) but I think it’s an amazing thing to do if you’ve got the nerves!

Mauna Kea

The Big Island has one of the only places in the world where you can drive from sea level to 14,000 feet in about two hours. Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano, is actually the tallest mountain the world (yes, taller then Everest), when measured from the base which is under water. This is another mountain in Hawaii that is the perfect spot above the clouds to watch the sunrise or sunset (see my Maui blog post on the other one!).


Sunset above the clouds on top of Mauna Kea

The observatory on Mauna Kea is one of the most fascinating places I’ve been – you NEED to try their astronaut food, especially the icecream! Also the stars in the sky from this observatory at night time are the best I’ve ever seen.


I’ve saved the best for last. Active lava flows flowing into the ocean. Yes, I am being serious. The main reason I headed to the Big Island in 2017 for a 48 hour whirlwind trip was to see this phenomenon before it stopped.

The Kilauea volcano has been non-stop erupting since 1983, making it one of the most active volcanoes in the world. There are two ways to see the lava: from the crater of the Kilauea Volcano and flowing into the ocean near Kalapana. In 2012, we visited the crater and saw it from afar. To be completely honest, all you can see is a giant hole with steam coming out. Not that impressive. We did get to walk through a lava tube in this area though, which was pretty cool.

Walking through a cave that was formed from flowing lava

Instead, I would recommend going to see the actual lava flowing down the mountain. There’s two ways to see this: a lava viewing boat tour or walking/biking from Kalapana to the flow. I did both on my trip in 2017 so I’ll explain both.

The boat tour was expensive ($220 USD for a 2-3 hour trip), but seriously the most incredible, breath taking and downright astonishing thing I’ve ever seen and done in my life. It takes about 45 mins to get from the boat harbor to where you see the lava and can be quite rough (so if you’re seasick, take some pills to help!). The boat then does quite a few loops around and around so everyone on the boat gets a chance to take the best photos. At the time I went, the lava was flowing like a faucet into the ocean but it has now changed a little and is flowing down in multiple hoses. The boat got VERY close to the lava (was actually scary how close they got), but I understand the rules have changed and they don’t go as close as they used to. If you can get a tour at sunset or sunrise time, I’ve heard the views are second to none.


Just me with some lava flowing behind me, no big deal

The following day, myself and two friends decided to bike to the cliff side that I had visited on the boats. The Kalapana area has a number of companies that have bikes to rent so no reservations are needed. From there, it’s about a one-hour bike ride to the lookout. The road is up and down, unshaded and most definitely gets the heart rate going. If you have a beginners’ level of fitness, I would suggest walking (it takes a lot longer but is easier); just make sure you pack lots of water.

From the lookout, you can see where the lava is flowing off the edge of the land into the ocean. If you are luckily enough like some of my friends, you can hike into the cooled lava flows further up the mountain and find some active lava flowing down!

Whatever you decide to do on the Big Island of Hawaii, make sure you prioritize the lava over anything else. I still can’t really believe what I saw in those two days and I will remember it forever.

Please let me know if you have seen or done anything I mentioned in this post, and if you think I missed something super important!




38 thoughts on “A Beginners Guide to Visiting the Big Island

  1. Hawaii…the name itself is mesmerizing. I so want to go there. Active lava flows flowing into the ocean must have been so adventurous. I can imagine the adrenaline rush while looking at your pic! I hope I’ll be able to tick Hawaii off my bucket list soon. Great Post!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Heather

        I have! It’s been a while since I was last there though. I’ve only been to Maui, I hope to visit other islands in the future. 🙂


  2. Adventuring The Great Wide Somewhere

    I have not been to Hawaii just yet, but would love to go. There is something very primal and otherworldly about it that I would love to explore. It’s cool to think that there is actually a mountain taller than Everest, but partially hidden beneath the sea!

    Liked by 1 person

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