If you haven’t been to Hawaii before, it’s probably helpful to know that Hawaii is made up of five islands:
- The Big Island: Just as the name suggests, this is Hawaii’s biggest island known for active volcanoes and unique black and grey sand beaches. Keep reading for recommendations on what to do in Big Island
- Oahu: The most popular tourist destination and most bustling island in Hawaii filled with resorts, beaches, eateries and a boisterous nightlife. See our recommendations for things to do in Oahu here.
- Kauai: The oldest island island in Hawaii, a mostly rural island with plenty of white sand beaches and not a skyscraper in sight.
- Maui: As the second largest island in Hawaii, depending on where you stay it will be a different experience. Enjoy a quiet getaway in the secluded rural towns or a busier atmosphere in the resort district.
- Molokai and Lanai: Two of the smallest and most rural islands of Hawaii with a much more relaxed ambience than the other islands.
So with that done, let’s get into it!
THINGS TO DO IN BIG ISLAND, HAWAII:
Note: If you’re trying to plan your itinerary, you might want to stay in Hilo and start with the Manta Ray Night Snorkel (closer to the airport) and then fit in the volcano activities later when you’re staying around the Volcanoes National Park. However, we’ve ordered this in order of what we enjoyed the most.
Lava Ocean Boat Tour
This was by far, the best thing we’ve experienced – not just in Hawaii…but in everything that we’ve done! Based on reviews, we booked ourselves for the Sunrise Tour for optimal viewing of the Kilauea Volcano erupting into the Kalapana ocean lava flow during its most active hours. We boarded the boat at 4:30am and it was a rough and choppy ride to the lava ocean entry but once you catch a glimpse of it, you’ll be utterly mesmerised. Our boat hovered around the site for about 40 minutes and we watched in awe as lava spewed from the Kamokuna Ocean Cliff then sizzle as it hit the water. It was truly remarkable and unlike anything we’ve seen before, this is something EVERYONE has to add to their bucket list!
- Book a Lava Ocean Boat Tour: Lava Ocean ($230 USD – I know, it’s not cheap, but I assure you it is well worth it!)
Image by Hang Loose Boat Tours (unfortunately we didn’t get a good shot on the GoPro!)
Manta Ray Night Snorkel Cruise
Upon a recommendation from a friend that used to reside in Hawaii, we booked ourselves into a Manta Ray Snorkel Night Cruise during sunset to enjoy the beautiful fiery sky before searching for the gentle giants of the sea, the majestic Manta Rays. After the sunset, the friendly crew will assist you into the water where you’ll be holding a special light to attract plankton which lures the Manta Rays to the area. During our 45 minutes in the water we spotted around 4 – 5 Manta Rays and we couldn’t believe their size and just how close they will swim to you! This is the only place in the world where you can view this many Manta Rays in one area, an opportunity not to be missed if you’re visiting The Big Island.
- Book a Manta Ray Night Snorkel Cruise: Manta Ray Dives Hawaii ($125.42 USD)
Hike/Bike to Kalapana Lava Viewing Area
This is a different way to get up close and personal to Kilauea lava which involves a fairly far walk/bike ride and some searching. We chose to walk instead of hiring a bike, thinking that a 14km return wouldn’t be a challenge as it was a well paved gravel walk… but once we arrived to the lava viewing area, we hopped from rock to rock for hours before finding active red lava spots then stayed back to watch the lava ocean flow at sunset and we were exhausted walking back. It was an incredible day filled with unique experience but we were definitely envious of the bike riders whizzing past us. Our advice would be to hire a bike at one of the bike rentals at the start of the walk, bring a headlamp to assist you back after sunset and start your journey in the late afternoon so you’re not bothered by the blistering sun!
The Volcanoes National Park
The Volcanoes National Park is home to two active volcanoes, Kīlauea and Mauna Loa. You’ll need a car to explore the park as there are 9 stops in total offering different sights from steaming vents to volcano overlooks. Some stops may involve a walk/hike which ranges from easy to medium and we recommend getting here early and taking a full day to explore the park. If you don’t want to do every pit stop, the Information Centre Staff will be more than happy to assist you in planning your day, but there are three things you should definitely include in your itinerary:
- Thurston Lava Tube: The Thurston Lava Tube is nestled inside the beautiful lush forest which makes it unique to the barren landscape of the other day walks around the national park. Since a river of molten created this cave, it is now blossoming in minerals and reminiscent of the Jenolan Caves of the Blue Mountains back home in Australia.
- The Rim Restaurant: Once you step foot into this restaurant you’ll be overwhelmed by the view of the Kilauea Caldera and the Halemaumau Crater – I mean, how often is it that you’re able to enjoy dinner next to a volcano crater? The best time to have dinner is right before sunset so you can watch the volcano crater change colour as the day turns to night. The food is also great and if you’re lucky there will be live music too. Make sure you book dinner in advance and request a window seat for the best view.
- Jaggar Museum Overlook: After dinner at The Rim Restaurant, make your way to the Jaggar Museum to see Kilauea’s summit erupt from the overlook. It is most visible and active at night which makes it the perfect way to end your day at the Volcanoes National Park. The car park here does fill up so make sure you don’t drop by too late. Also, if you have binoculars handy, be sure to bring them to the overlook too.
Don’t forget to pack yourself snacks and plenty of water during your walk/drive!
- Book lunch/dinner at The Rim Restaurant: Volcano House
- Full list of drive stops: Crater Rim Tour
- Full list of walks/hikes: Hawaii National Park Service
This freshwater beach is famous for its jet black sand which exists because of the constant lava flowing into the ocean. If you’re interested in sea turtles, you’ll most likely spot one on Panulu’U as it’s a popular nesting spot for green sea turtles but the sand here is made from lava rocks which makes it quite abrasive, the currents here are known to be strong and there isn’t too much visibility in the water for snorkelling. This beach is better suited as a pit stop during the day, something you just have to see if you’ve never encountered a black sand beach before.
Akaka State Falls Park
Unfortunately when we visited the Akaka State Falls Park, most of the area was closed. We were however, able to do the short walk to Akaka Falls which is Hawaii’s most famous waterfall and it was beautiful but there’s not much else you can do here. This sight is worth a visit if you’re in the area but make sure you check park updates before embarking on a drive to Akaka Falls.
Things that were on our list that we regrettably didn’t get to do:
- Mauna Kea star party: The world’s clearest stargazing sight
- Kealakekua Bay: One of the best snorkelling spots in Big Island
- Waipi’o Valley: Scenic viewpoint of valleys and waterfalls
- Hapuna Beach: Pristine powdery white sand beach