Visiting the Big Island, Hawaii: Overview

Trevor and I first visited Hawaii (Oahu) in 2019, and like most people, I fell head over heels in love. There was something so magical, healing, and mystical about the island, its people, culture, origins, and of course, indescribable natural beauty that made me feel as though I left my heart behind when we went home. So when I found myself in need of a soul-searching, therapeutic/healing solo trip about two years later, I chose Hawaii as my destination again. After some quick preliminary research, I decided to visit the Big Island.

While not quite the underdog that perhaps Molokai, Lanai, Niihau, or Kaho’olawe are, the Big Island is still less-visited than Oahu and Maui (it ranks third behind these two, respectively.) As the youngest of all the Hawaiian islands (geographically speaking), the Big Island is overflowing with natural diversity: green jungles, black lava fields, and green and black sand beaches all compete for attention, while young, active Mt. Kilauea continuously changes the shape of the island itself.

And it turns out, the Big Island is just that – BIG. It has its name for a reason! If you wanted to truly give the island the attention and love it deserves, you’d need 3-4 weeks to really appreciate all it has to offer. If you’re the kind of person who likes to pack a ton of sightseeing and attraction-hopping into one day, visiting the Big Island will force you to slow down and reassess that travel style. The Big Island is all about ola lohi – the “slow life.” (Really, true Hawaiian culture is all about that lifestyle, though that is often forgotten in busy Honolulu and Oahu.) This is evident in the sparsely populated state (fewer than 250,000 people inhabit the entire island – that’s less than the 350,000 who live in Honolulu alone!) and the abundance of rural wildland and wide open spaces. It’s a “small town” place, with no real big cities like you find on the mainland.

Best time(s) to visit the Big Island

Personally, I think every season has its own appeal and charm in Hawaii, and the Big Island is no exception. The winter months are going to be rainier/wetter, but the temperatures will be overall cooler, most prices will be lower, and the crowds will be far thinner (except for the weeks around Christmas and New Year’s.)

Spring and fall are considered “shoulder season” in the travel world, so they’re moderate in terms of both weather and crowds. Rainfall is lower from April through September, although hurricane season is from about June through November. It’s pretty much guaranteed that the summer months will be brutally hot, humid, and crowded in most cases. Luckily, however, the Big Island manages to escape the extreme crowds because most people opt for Honolulu/Oahu or Maui for their spring and summer vacations.

If you want to surf, know that the waves are generally bigger in the winter months – so it’s not a great time for beginners. In general, the surf is pretty rough on the north and east side of the Big Island, so they’re not ideal for swimming either. You can find protected inlets where the waters are calmer, but in general, the west coast is your best bet for relaxing beaches and family-friendly surf/swim spots.

Looking for whales? Humpback whales migrate past the Big Island from November through April, and are best spotted from the northern shores.

As you can see, there is a lot of overlap with various visiting concerns, and there really is no perfect time to visit the Big Island. My best advice is to not overthink it, especially if you don’t have much control over your vacation time. That said, I would personally choose rainy weather and fewer crowds over more sunshine and heavier crowds. Even if it pours rain every day, which it did for most of my time visiting the Big Island, you’re going to have a great time. It’s Hawaii, after all!

Getting there/flight advice for visiting the Big Island

Interestingly, according to flight booking engine Skyscanner, flights to Hawaii are generally at their most expensive from mid-December through mid-April — with the caveat that they tend to be the cheapest (of all 12 months) in January. September is usually the second cheapest month for flights, and the most expensive are consistently June and December. (Hotel rooms are cheapest from September through early December, then they skyrocket for the holiday season.)

My best advice is to set up a flight watch on Skyscanner, and keep a sharp eye out for Southwest Airlines deals. If you’re located on the west coast, flights are going to be much cheaper than if you’re on the east coast, but it’s not uncommon to score a sweet deal from NYC or Boston! Also, do a little digging to see if booking two separate flights would work in your favor: sometimes, getting from a major east coast city to a major west coast city is so cheap that it ends up saving you a ton over your primary origin and destination cities.

For example, a quick search with JetBlue shows a nonstop midweek April flight from JFK to LAX starts at $169. Then, you could book LAX to Kona, HI that same day for $119, making your total flight cost from NYC to Kona only $288!

Where to stay when you visit the Big Island

Sunset in “downtown” Kona

It’s the classic question when visiting the Big Island: do you stay in Kona on the west side, or Hilo on the east side? After much research and compare/contrast analysis, I have to agree with the majority of the advice on the internet and say that Kona will be your best bet in most cases – especially if you’re only visiting for a week or less. If you have more time on the island, you could (and should) absolutely spend time in both regions.

For a week or less, Kona will give you more to do by way of shopping, nightlife, and dining, as well as easier access to the majority of the best beaches and attractions. It’s a convenient takeoff point for exploring the west coast, as well as the southwest and northwest regions, which are chockablock with waterfalls, hiking trails, and stunning lookout points.

And while I found the general advice consensus to be that you need to be based in Hilo to visit Volcanoes National Park (and the surrounding town of Volcano), I visited the park in a day trip from Kona and found it perfectly enjoyable. If you have more time, I do recommend staying overnight in the town of Volcano and spreading your visit to the park out to two days, but I didn’t feel like I majorly sacrificed anything by seeing it in a day.

Hilo, on the other hand, will provide a slightly more convenient launchpad for Volcanoes National Park, as well as the famous Saddle Road, Rainbow Falls State Park, and Wailuku River State Park (featuring Boiling Pots and Pe’epe’e Falls.) Hilo is more of a locals’ town, and as such is sleepier, slower-paced, and considered more “authentic” Big Island. The town sits on a picturesque bay, and is often cooler and rainier than Kona. Indeed, Hilo is the wettest city in the entire United States in terms of annual inches of rainfall.

Accommodations

For accommodations, I almost always prefer AirBnBs over hotels, personally, because I prefer the homey nature and tailored advice you get from staying in a local’s home. That said, in my particular case, I had a lot of Marriott rewards to redeem from a cancelled 2020 trip, so I stayed at the beachfront Courtyard by Marriott King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel for most of my trip. I did end up extending my trip and moving to a local AirBnB for a few extra days, though. There is no shortage of great places to stay in the Kona area, so you won’t want for options. Hilo, on the other hand, can be a bit harder to find accommodations and generally offers more by way of boutique stays.

Renting a car when visiting the Big Island

To be frank, you need to rent a car when visiting the Big Island. While you could book transportation as part of a tour for most of the bigger A-list attractions, you’re going to want your own wheels to get to the many incredible, off-the-beaten-path “secrets” the Big Island holds. But the beauty of it is that the drive is part of the adventure! There are no skyscrapers or ugly cinderblock industrial cities; it’s all breathtaking lush tropical jungle, winding mountain and cliffside roads, quaint little villages, lava fields, and a blue-green ocean as far as the eye can see. It’s also a much more remote island, so driving is far less hectic and “traffic” is minimal, making the whole experience very low-anxiety and low-stress.

I was lucky to visit the Big Island before the massive uptick in car rental prices last spring, so until just recently, this road trip itinerary would have cost a significant amount more than what I spent. However, at the time of this posting (March 2022), it appears rental prices have come back down — only to be replaced by astronomical fuel prices instead. 🙂 A quick search shows a total of $250-300 for a 5-day rental in a 4-door compact car, and $550-700 for a 5-day rental in a luxury SUV in April. Current fuel prices in Kona are an average of $5.30/gallon, though you can get it for $4.80/gallon at Costco. (There’s a Costco in Kona, so if you have a membership, fuel up there! That’s what I did even when fuel was far cheaper than it is now.)

Key highlights when visiting the Big Island

As I said before, you really need anywhere from 2-4 weeks to fully explore and appreciate all that the Big Island has to offer. (Even then, as with most regions in the world, you could spend a month here and still not have seen everything!) However, you can definitely see the top highlights in a full week:

  • Kona Coast beaches: here is where you’ll find calm, white sand beaches like Makalawena Beach and Mahai’ula Beach located at Kekaha Kai / Kona Coast State Park
  • A coffee plantation tour in Kona
  • Kohala (the “Gold Coast”) on the northwest tip of the island, which includes the towns of Waimea and Hawi, and the famous Parker Ranch
  • Hapuna Beach (along the Gold Coast)
  • Pololū Valley Overlook and Waipio Valley hikes, which offer stunning views along the North Hamakua region’s beautiful, rugged coastline
  • Whale watching off the North Hamakua coast
  • Akaka Falls and State Park
  • Rainbow Falls State Park and Volcanoes National Park
  • Mauna Kea (in particular, sunset and stargazing from the summit)
  • Driving on Chain of Craters Road
  • Snorkeling in Kealakekua Bay (if you’re adventurous, book a night snorkel tour with manta rays!)
  • Papakolea green sand beach on the south coast

There are so many more things to see when you visit the Big Island, and it’s hard to summarize this diverse, beautiful, rich island in one blog post. It’s even harder to narrow down the top places to see, because there are hundreds! I personally recommend making Kona your home base, then exploring the west, northwest, and southwest regions from there – with a day trip over to Volcanoes National Park. That’s how I spent my week visiting the Big Island, and I thought it was perfect. But I can’t wait to return some day to explore all those places I left unseen!

Related: Read my 7-day Big Island West Coast Itinerary (coming soon!)