From age-old fishing villages to modern mega resorts, from snow-capped peaks to sandy beaches, you’ll experience tropical splendor backed by an epic history. Hawai‘i's Big Island is twice as big as the other Hawaiian islands combined, and its dramatic terrain will surprise you and take you to extremes. Where to start? Try these 10 can’t miss Big Island experiences.
1. Snorkeling in Kealakekua Bay
It’s all true – from the teeming, technicolor fish in knee-deep water, to the spinner dolphins lazily circling your kayak or catamaran. Tourist brochures hype Kealakekua Bay as the best snorkeling in the state and, in this case, you can believe it. Even new rules regulating kayak use can’t tarnish the luster of this must-see spot. If kayaking doesn’t float your boat, hike down to this historically significant and naturally brilliant bay. Hard-core environmentalists might consider other less-trafficked bays – this one is almost too popular for its own good.
It is breathless and breath-taking in the rarefied air of Mauna Kea, Hawai’i’s most sacred location. Once the sun goes down, the stars come out, and with them telescopes for your viewing pleasure. The world’s clearest stargazing is here – what you see through those telescopes, you won’t soon forget. For a real trophy experience, head here for both the sun and moonrise.
The eerie gray expanse of a formerly glowing lava lake, secluded palm-fringed beaches, ancient petroglyphs pecked into hardened lava and miles of hiking trails through craters, rainforest and desert – what’s not to love about Hawai‘i's No.1 site? This is one of the island’s top places to experience Hawaiian culture, including hula on the crater rim, annual festivals and a lecture series. All this and more are found in Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park.
4. Waipi’o Valley
Legends begin here, where the road ends overlooking this magical valley. You can linger at the scenic viewpoint, however the waterfalls, wild horses and wilder black-sand beaches tend to beckon explorers. Choose from hiking, horseback or even a mule-drawn wagon to get you there. The very experienced can kayak in when conditions are just right. The most spectacular views, of course, are from the most grueling switchbacks of the Muliwai Trail – head up, up and up some more for the perfect shot.
5. Puʻuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park
Dotted with ancient temples, and hangouts watched by menacing teeth-baring idols, a visit to this Puʻuhonua o Honaunau known as the Place of Refuge, makes a memorable introduction to traditional Hawaiian culture. In fact, there’s no better place to gain an understanding of the kapu system that governed ancient Hawai‘i. Look for heads of honu (sea turtles) bobbing in the bay; foreshadowing the underwater wonders to come at the nearby snorkeling haven of Two-Step.
6. Kona (& Ka‘u) coffee farms
When Christian missionaries planted Kona's first coffee trees, they were only a floral fad. Eventually, thanks to ideal conditions along South Kona's rain-kissed ‘coffee belt', Kona coffee became a successful gourmet crop. Today rural byways wind past small, often family-owned plantations, some of which let visitors drop by. Since the late 2000s, Ka‘u coffee growers have won awards in major contests, becoming the Cinderella story of Hawai‘i coffee. Look for 100 percent locally grown labeling on bags of beans and menus.
7. Hapuna Beach
Rock up to this half-mile of powdery white-sand beach with a rented umbrella and boogie board, and one of Hawai‘i's most iconic beaches becomes your playground. Whether you are armed with a surfboard, lounge chair or water wings – this beach has something for the whole family. While the basic A-frame cabins here are not for the finicky, the island’s best beach is your front yard – pretty hallucinatory.
8. Merrie Monarch Festival
If you really want to see how a hula, halau (school) invokes the gods and legends through chant and dance you need to make time visit this state-wide hula competition. Book early; people fly in from all over the globe for this one. Unless you’re an intense hula fan, you are likely to enjoy the inaugural invitational more than the structured head-to-head competitions of subsequent days.
9. Manta ray night dive
Diving at night is a thrill in itself, but once you turn on your lights and attract a corps de ballet of Pacific manta rays, with wing spans of 10ft or more and tails like javelins, your life becomes segmented: before diving with mantas and after. Snorkeling with them can be even better because you’re closer, but it’s so popular don’t be surprised when you get head-whacked by someone’s fins. Bring your own dive light and swim into center stage with these graceful animals.
10. ʻAkaka Falls State Park
This 420ft waterfall crashing through the rainforest, emanating fragrant ginger and giant philodendrons, is no less spectacular for its easy access. Drive up, stroll a half-mile through what feels like Hollywood Hawai‘i and there you are. Like all waterfalls on this part of the coast, ʻAkaka Falls are most impressive during seasonal rains, when they spill violently over the verdant cliffs. Don’t miss poking around the little town of Honomu once you’re done ogling these towering falls.