The Big Island Hawaii Guide
It’s true that every Hawaiian island has something different to offer—but it’s also true that there a lot of different experiences to be had even on a single island. And despite all the arguments to be made for the superiority of any given destination—visitors tend to be overwhelmingly loyal to either the place they went on family vacations growing up or their honeymoon spots—“the best island” is, like most things, a matter of opinion. The Big Island is cool because it’s home to the majority of the world’s climate zones; you can see snowcapped mountains, black and white sand beaches, jungles, and active volcanoes. It’s also great for families and easily accessible by direct flight from Los Angeles. Not your cup of tea? We also have a guide to the more luxurious Maui, a guide to the more urban Oahu (which is home to Honolulu), and a guide to the lovely and low-key Kauai.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park1 Crater Rim Dr., Hawaii National Park | 808.985.6000
Two of the world’s most active volcanoes sit on the Big Island: Kīlauea and Mauna Loa. And they are both encompassed in the national park in the southern half of the island, which you can visit by car. Check before you go to see what the latest is, but recently, Kīlauea has been erupting in two places. One of the vents (within Halema'uma'u Crater) can be seen from an overlook at Jaggar Museum—best view is in the evening, on a clear night, when the fire from the crater lights up the sky. If you want to spend more time in the park, there are a number of trails that you can explore on foot; the park has a pretty cool landscape in part because it spans from the summit of Mauna Loa at 13,677 feet down to sea level, and therefore a diverse range of ecosystems.
Kua BayHwy. 19, North of Mile Marker #88, Kailua-Kona
There are a lot of awesome beaches on the Big Island; those on the Kona side can be tougher, as they tend to be rocky. That said, if you're willing to walk a bit of rocky stretch to get down to Manini'owali Beach—locally known as Kua Bay—the beach itself is spectacular. The sand here is soft and white, and the water is the clear, aquamarine color that you want to find in Hawaii. The tide is generally calmest at Kua Bay in the summer, when it's perfect for swimming and snorkeling. The waves are stronger in the winter—better suited for surfing. Kua Bay is no longer a secret, but it’s still somewhat remote—on that note, remember to pack a picnic lunch.
Waipi’o ValleyHamakua Heritage Corridor Dr., Waipi'o Valley
What’s cool about the Big Island is that you can be driving past black volcanic rock one mile and then looking at an insanely lush, green valley—like Waipi’o—the next. Beyond its breathtaking looks, Waipi’o is a culturally significant region: also called the Valley of Kings, this is where King Kamehameha I lived, along with other Hawaiian rulers; and, at one point, thousands of Hawaiians. Today (after more than one devastating deluge), it’s all but deserted, save for a small community supporting the taro fields. You can get an expansive view of the valley and the river that threads it from Waipi’o Valley Lookout, which may be worth the drive itself. From here, if you’re up for some adventure, you can hike down to a black sand beach and better explore the valley on foot. (The water is known to be rough, so it’s not necessarily a spot for everyone to swim.) Along the cliffs in Waipi’o, which climb nearly 2,000 feet, you'll see hundreds of rushing waterfalls. (Depending on where you’re coming from or driving to after Waipi’o, you might pass through the town of Hawi—there's an adorable collection of shops and art galleries, as well as Tropical Dreams ice cream.)
Manta Ray Night DiveHonokohau Marina, Kailua-Kona | 808.325.1687
Hawaii might be the only place where it’s cool to do a manta ray night dive—and this outfit is a good choice, as they do a variety of public tours as well as private charters. The best option is taking a boat out at sunset and then snorkeling (or scuba diving, if you’re certified). Even if you know how big manta rays are (average wingspan here is five feet eight inches, and up to to a whopping 20 feet), it’s wild to see them swimming right alongside you.
Kona StoriesKeauhou Shopping Center, 78-6831 Alii Dr., Kailua-Kona | 808.324.0350
This local shop is everything you would want to find in an independent bookstore: Beach reads, literary heavyweights, a robust kids selection, plus tons on local culture. Opened by two friends who met at a bookclub in California, they keep the shop heavily programmed with everything from kids reading hours, to various book clubs, to author lectures and an in-house psychic who offers readings every Friday afternoon.