Hawai’i is a landscape of epic proportions, a product of otherworldly forces of nature. With its unique ecosystems, culture, and history, it’s easy to see why the Hawai’ian islands are a popular destination for many travellers, from adventure-seekers to families to newlyweds.
There are eight main islands that make up the state of Hawai’i, but there are numerous smaller ones strewn along the archipelago, gradually being reclaimed by the Pacific Ocean. The Island of Hawai’i, one of the main islands, is better know as “The Big Island” so as not to confuse it with the state of Hawai’i itself. The Big Island is Hawai’i’s biggest and youngest island, home to five volcanoes (one extinct, two dormant, two active) and two cities, Kona and Hilo, on opposite sides of the island, west and east, respectively.
The Big Island is often overlooked in favour of the more popular islands of Oahu and Maui, but there is a wealth of activities and awe-inspiring sights on the Big Island. It embraces a quieter, more rugged, down-to-earth vibe, perfect for the traveller looking to get out in nature. There is more than enough to dazzle visitors here. This list is just the beginning and is by no means comprehensive- but here are the 10 things you must do on the Big Island.
1. Visit Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park
Nowhere on the island do you feel quite so small as at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. It is easy to see why the ancient Hawai’ians thought their land was shaped by gods: looking out over a volcanic crater or walking across a hardened lava lake makes you feel as though you are in the presence of superhuman powers. There are plenty of hiking trails suitable for both half- and full-day adventures, as well as easier lookout points. Weather is unpredictable and changeable; pack rain gear and wear sturdy hiking boots. (There will be a more detailed blog post on this breathtaking place soon- stay tuned!)
2. Tour a coffee plantation
The western side of the Big Island is known as the “gold coast” for its precious commodity- Kona coffee. Grown only on the Big Island, the rare Kona coffee is renowned for its intense flavours and steep price tag. (One coffee tree produces approximately 1.5 pounds of coffee.) A good way to sample different varieties of Kona coffee is by visiting the coffee plantations in the area. Many of them offer free or low-cost tours, and it’s fascinating to learn all the steps necessary for coffee production. Heavenly Hawai’ian and Mountain Thunder are just two of the farms that offer tours- all of which come with free samples, of course.
3. Snorkel at Kealakekua Bay
Snorkeling is a great way to experience Hawai’i’s rich biodiversity up close. Several companies offer trips to Kealakekua Bay, a pristine and sheltered stretch of coast on the island’s western side. No prior experience is necessary (although you have to know how to swim), and the outfitters provide all the gear and instruction you need ahead of time. It is important to respect that the reef is delicate, and strict rules about who can and can’t set foot on shore are in place to protect this fragile ecosystem. Kealakekua Bay also carries historical significance as the site of a great battle in Hawai’ian history; the guides are knowledgeable and passionate about the area and will happily provide more information. And be sure to bring sunscreen designated as “reef-safe”! (Check the bottle’s labelling or pick up one while you’re on the Big Island.)
4. Cool down with shave ice
After a morning at the beach or an afternoon on a hike, nothing beats the frozen Hawai’ian treat known as “shave ice”. It’s like a snow-cone but so much smoother, and on the Big Island they’ve elevated it beyond just ice chips and sugary syrups. At One Aloha Shave Ice Co., they use real organic fruit and natural colouring for their flavours, which include guava, passionfruit, and local lemon, among others. Scandi’s (aka Scandinavian Shave Ice) is another Kona favourite. Whichever venue you choose, the cooling, refreshing feeling of the smooth shave ice hitting your tongue like fresh-fallen snow is a revelation; slushies will never cut it again.
5. Appreciate cultural sites sacred to the Hawai’ian people
The native people of Hawai’i lived in tandem with their natural world. Two national historic parks, Kaloko-Honokōhau and Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau, offer visitors a glimpse into their way of life, showcasing structures and sites that were deeply meaningful to them. They also demonstrate facets of everyday life and the ingenious ways the native Hawai’ians were able to thrive in their environment. Explore these places respectfully, understanding that they are still due reverence for their special place in the Hawai’ian consciousness.
6. Hike in a cloud forest
The Big Island contains 8 of 13 climate zones, resulting in an incredibly rich geography. The Kona Cloud Forest showcases the extensive biodiversity possible in such a lush setting, and a half-day walking tour in this nature sanctuary is a fascinating peek into this world. Tours are by appointment-only, and the fee goes directly to the preservation of this unique area, which is dedicated to the protection of both native and non-native plants that grow only in the world’s cloud forests. If you’ve ever wanted to walk through a primordial jungle, this is your chance, but don’t worry- while it looks like a scene right out of Jurassic Park, there are no dangerous critters here (just a very noisy flock of cockatoos.)
7. Savour some poke
Poke is one of Hawai’i’s many gifts to the world. This dish is made of raw fish finely diced (poke is the Hawaiian word for the way it’s cut) and served with a variety of seasonings, sides (such as seaweed), and rice. The absolute best poke on the island can be found at Da Poke Shack in Kona, an unassuming take-out shop with fresh poke offered daily. Their selections depend on the chef’s whim and catch of the day; most importantly- they sell out fast, and once they do, you’re out of luck. But it’s worth standing in line for this place, potentially several times over the course of your visit.
8. Hit the beach
While Hawai’i often conjures up images of pristine, tropical beaches, visitors to the Big Island are sometimes surprised that much of the shoreline is jagged and rocky. The island was formed over thousands of years by volcanic eruptions as lava flows gradually cooled and hardened into the land mass we know today. There are, however, a number of beaches ideal for swimming, sunning, and/or turtle spotting (don’t disturb them!); these include white-sand beaches such as White Sands Beach Park (Kona), Makalawena Beach (Kona) and Hapuna Beach State Park (Kohala), the black-sand beach of Punalu’u (Puna), and the green-sand beach of Papakōlea (Puna). Many beaches on the Big Island have rules regarding what activities are permissible, so it’s best to ascertain those beforehand, and as always it is paramount that the wildlife remain undisturbed no matter what beach you visit!
9. Marvel at the eastern waterfalls
Hilo, Hawai’i’s largest city, is the perfect location from which to do some serious waterfall chasing. The mighty Wailuku River runs between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, down the lush, verdant eastern side of the Big Island, and finally empties into the Pacific Ocean in Hilo. A series of waterfalls, including the Rainbow Falls (Waiānuenue), home of the goddess Hina, and the mythical Pe’epe’e Falls and the Boiling Pots gives visitors a healthy respect for the force of the water, but it is ‘Akaka Falls State Park that really showcases the beauty of the Wailuku River. For a glimpse of even more waterfalls tucked away in the jungle, visitors can walk the Eden-like grounds of the Hawai’i Tropical Bioreserve and Garden.
10. Shake hands with an octopus
For an exceptionally unique experience, visit Kanaloa Octopus Farm on the western side of the island, right by the Kona airport in the Hawai’i Ocean Science and Technology Park. This humble marine research centre is dedicated to “developing green bio-technologies that increase ornamental and aquatic food production, while decreasing our demand for ocean resources.” The staff are passionate about the work they do, and the one-hour tour is both educational and entertaining. It is literally “hands on” – at the instruction of the tour guide, visitors are able to interact with and feed the octopuses, all while hearing about the aquaculture industry and the octopuses themselves. The feeling of a tentacle delicately reaching out to your hand really is unlike any other!
Have you been to the Big Island of Hawai’i before? What would you recommend? I’d love to hear!