The Big Island earned its nickname because it is, you guessed it – big. This is the largest of the Hawaiian islands by a longshot, with a total landmass of just over 4,000 square miles. That’s enough to fit all of the other major islands in the chain inside of its shores. When you visit Hawaii (the proper name for the Big Island), this makes for plenty of places to explore and experience. 

So, where do you start? And how should you get around? 

Mapping out your adventures before arriving can help you make the most out of your trip. If you don’t plan ahead, you’re likely to miss out on some of the top Big Island attractions, both well-known and off the beaten path. 

Below is a mapped-out approach to give you some ideas and suggestions during your stay. Whether you have a few days or a few weeks in paradise, you’ll want to be sure to see as much as you can.

Short Stay Maps

Frozen lava in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii.

There are two major airports on the Big Island. You will more than likely fly into either Kona or Hilo. These are the largest cities on the island, and both make for good starting points for your island experience. Kona is on the west side. It has some great beaches nearby and is more tourist-focused. Hilo is on the windward east side. It is the major commercial center of the island and also gets more rain.

If your trip is short, sticking to the side of the island you are staying on can be a better approach. There are amazing sites to see all over, but you’ll be hard-pressed to see them all in only a few days. You can technically drive around the entire island in 3-4 hours, but spending an entire vacation inside your vehicle is never ideal.  

East Side Itinerary – Kona to Kilauea 

Green belt of coffee plantations on hills over Kona, Big Island, Hawaii

Most visitors arrive in Kona and start their Big Island adventures here. One suggested route to take advantage of a short trip are the sites between Kona and Kilauea. This will take you around the southern tip of Hawaii and into the heart of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which is a must-see destination on the Big Island.  

Here are some top stops on the Kona to Kilauea route: 

  • Manini’Owali Beach (Kua Bay) – Beautiful, picturesque beach with great swimming when the waves are calm. 
  • White Sands Beach Park (Magic Sands) – Another great beach near Kona that sometimes has sand and sometimes rock, hence the Magic Sands moniker. 

West Side Itinerary – Hilo, Mauna Kea, and Beyond

Akaka Falls on the Big Island of Hawaii

For your western Big Island travels, be sure to bring a raincoat or umbrella as it rains around 127 inches every year in Hilo. While that may seem soggy, this makes the island’s windward side lush, green, and very much alive. Despite the rain, there is still plenty of fun to be had and excellent sites to see. 

Here are some stops around Hilo and the western side of the Big Island:

  • Mauna KeaThis is technically the highest mountain in the world (from sea-floor to summit), and you can drive up to its 13,803-foot summit. This is a sacred spot for Hawaiians so be respectful of the land when you visit. 
  • Saddle Road (Hawaii Route 200) – One of the best sightseeing drives on the island, Saddle Road brings you right between the two major volcanic peaks on Hawaii. You’ll see rainforest and desert, alongside great views of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. 
  • Akaka Falls (Rainbow Falls) – This is a stunning rainforest waterfall that will surely leave you breathless and in wonder. It’s a great spot for a picnic and is easily accessible for young and old alike. 
  • Kaumana Caves – If you’re feeling adventurous, exploring a stretch of this 25-mile lava tube is sure to satisfy. Only 2 miles of the tubes are open to the public, but that’s still more than enough spelunking for the average visitor. 
  • Lili’uokalani Gardens – These magical gardens are right in the middle of downtown Hilo, making for a great way to start or end your trip. Many amazing trees, plants, and other flora thrive gracefully within the manicured park. 

Long Stays Map

Papakolea (Green Sand Beach)

If you are lucky enough to have a longer stay on the Big Island, I would suggest visiting any and all of the sites mentioned above. You can take your time exploring each of these recommended options, taking them in at your own pace. Mixing up where you stay can also give you a feel for the differences between the Kona-side and Hilo-side attractions. 

But since no map of Hawaii would be complete without a look at some surf, sand, and sun, be sure to check out as many beaches as you can while you’re here as well. Here’s a look at some of the best beaches on the Big Island to add to your itinerary for an afternoon or a few days. 

  • Mauna Kea Beach – This is a stunning beach that conjures up all things Hawaii and is not to be missed. It’s a crescent-shaped, white sand treasure with crystal clear water that stretches for nearly a quarter-mile. 
  • Waialea Bay – Another very popular Big Island beach, Waialea Bay is easy to get to and a great place to see marine wildlife. Snorkeling and scuba diving are popular here for this reason, and the sandy bay offers safe family swimming in the summer months. 
  • Hapuna Beach – This a large beach, so there is always room to spread out and set up, even on a crowded day. Another good spot for swimming and any other sort of beach activity you can think of. Hapuna is surrounded by abundant plant life, making it another picture-worthy Big Island destination.  
  • Punalu’u (Black Sand Beach) – While this isn’t your typical enticing soft sand style beach, Punalu’u is still a wonder to behold. Turtles can often be found sunbathing with visitors, and there are a lot of hikes nearby. It’s not a great place to swim or snorkel because of strong currents and low visibility. 
  • Papakolea (Green Sand Beach) – This is a recommended destination for the adventurous at heart. It is a remote beach that involves a 5-mile hike, but if you’re up for it, you’ll be surely rewarded. A good spot for snorkeling and the green sand is impressive on its own!

There is an almost endless amount of exciting sights to see and adventures to be had on the Big Island. No matter if you have two days or two months here, you can make the most out of your stay by visiting any of the recommended spots mapped out above. The islands are full of beauty and wonder and are sure to deliver a magical experience for all those who visit.  

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