Disclaimer: This post is in collaboration with Southwest Airlines. As always, all opinions are my own.
Anyone who knows me know how much I love the Big Island of Hawaii. I grew up going there yearly, camping out on the beach with my dad near Kona and exploring all that the island had to offer. I never really did a luxury resort stay there until I became a travel blogger. Recently, I’ve been able to return to Hawaii several times for work. I’m so excited that Southwest Airlines will be launching flights to Kona soon (service start date subject to government approvals), allowing even more access to the Big Island. Two free checked bags (first and second checked bags, weight and size limits apply) means being able to pack ALL of my resort wear and bring home plenty of souvenirs too. And since I’m a hoarder of Southwest points, I’m hoping to make a yearly trip of it by using my points! For more information on Southwest Airlines flights to Hawaii visit, southwest.com/hawaii.
There are so many fun things to do when you’re in Hawaii. The Big Island has a lot to explore, from the rainforest and Volcanoes National Park to one of the only green sand beaches in the world. While the Big Island is the biggest of the Hawaiian Islands (and the newest - it’s still being formed!), it’s still quite easy to drive around and make day trips once you’ve flown into Kona. If you’re aggressive, it is possible to even loop the whole island in a day, though I recommend taking 2-3 days to really drive it and make a lot of stops. Here’s my picks for 10 excursions you have to do when visiting the Big Island of Hawaii!
Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park
A trip to the Big Island is not complete without a visit to Kilauea, the ever-flowing active volcano and Mauna Loa, the largest volcano on Earth. What makes Kilauea so special? Well, it has been actively flowing since 1983! In fact, oftentimes you can see the lava flowing, either by a boat tour or a helicopter ride (I’ve done the latter and it was great!). With the massive eruption that happened in 2018, a lot of park services are currently interrupted, so make sure to check their website to plan your visit accordingly.
When driving around the north side of the island on the way to Hilo from Kona, you’ll find the glorious ‘Akaka Falls. This waterfall is a huge payoff for just a short walk down a trail from the parking lot, so don’t miss out on this one. ‘Akaka Falls is a whopping 442 feet tall! The full hike around the loop is 0.4 miles, so it’s appropriate for most skill levels, though some of it is stairs and uphill. On the hike, you’ll also see the 100 foot tall Kahuna Falls and lots of lush rainforest.
Papakolea, The Green Sand Beach
Did you know there are only four other green sand beaches in the world? Papakolea Beach is a bit of a trek, but still arguably the easiest of the green sand beaches to get to for most people (the others are in the Galapagos, Guam, and Norway). From the parking area, the beach is a 5.5 mile roundtrip, mostly flat trail. There are also 4WD roads out to the beach. You won’t be able to take your rental car out there, but oftentimes locals wait around with 4WD trucks in the parking lot and you can pay them for a ride to the beach. It’ll save you the hike!
Punaluʻu Beach, The Black Sand Beach
If you want to see honu, aka sea turtles, sitting on the beach, this one is a good bet. You’ll get to see one of the famous volcanic black sand beaches of Hawaii and turtles in one go, if you’re lucky enough. While I wouldn’t call it a great swimming beach, there is a lifeguard on duty, and you might spot the turtles if you take a snorkel out. Just make sure to keep a fair distance away from them for their sake. Also, please note that you cannot take any black sand home with you. This applies to the green sand beach as well!
Back in the north of the island, Waipio Valley is filled with lush greenery and a secluded black sand beach. There are multiple ways to see Waipio. 1) There is an overlook in the parking lot. If you’re content with a viewpoint overlooking it all, this is a great quick road trip stop as you make your way between Kona and Hilo via the north. 2) You can take a 4WD vehicle down the path into the valley. You can also book a tour that will take you to the bottom and back. 3) You can hike the 3 mile round trip trail. While it isn’t a very long hike, it is pretty steep, so be prepared for the hike back up. 4) Try exploring Waipio Valley by horseback! Multiple tour companies offer this as a unique way to see the valley and beach.
See the Island from Above
One of the coolest experience you can have in Hawaii is a helicopter flight. I recommend checking out either Paradise Helicopters or Maverick Helicopters for the best flight - I’ve flown with both! Departing from Kona, I recommend this flight for the best adventure, a 2 hour Circle Island Experience exploring the entire Big Island. You’ll see everything from the lava flow where it hits the ocean to waterfalls and dramatic coastlines. It’s a great way to see the whole island from above!
Night Dive or Snorkel with the Manta Rays
The famous Kona night dive or snorkel with the manta rays is one of the most adventurous and unique things you can do on the Big Island. It’s truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Whether you’re scuba certified or not, there’s always the option of snorkeling as well, so everyone can try this. The divers set up bright dive lights to attract plankton, which in turn attracts the manta rays. Then, the gentle giants come for their meal and you get to watch. Some even call it the best night dive in the world! If you dive, you’ll watch from the ocean floor as they glide above you. Snorkelers will watching them from the top and see them swimming below. Either way, it’s an awesome and unique experience!
Fun fact: Mauna Kea is actually the tallest mountain in the world - most of it is just under the ocean! For the part above land, its peak is still 13,803 ft above sea level, making it the tallest point in Hawaii. That’s why it’s home to several telescopes, and what makes it the perfect spot for stargazing tours. When you’re up top, you can spend your time at the visitor center, see the observatories, and watch the sunset. The summit of Mauna Kea is one of the best spots in the world to watch the sunset.
Rivi’s Saltwater Pool
This “secret” spot is a man-made saltwater tide pool you can find in Kona. You can find it on Ali’i Drive - just put “75-6106 Ali’i Dr Kailua Kona, HI 96740, USA” into your preferring mapping tool and find the footpath that gives public access to the beach. There, you’ll find this hidden treasure. It’s free to use and open to the public, and you’ll probably spot locals hanging out there. It’s also a fantastic spot to watch both the surfers and the sunset from. This is definitely a unique swimming hole on the Big Island.
Whale watching season in Hawaii is from November to April, so if you’re there the right time of year, this is a must-do. While oftentimes you can see the humpback whales right from the beach, the best way to see them up close is to book a whale watching tour. From the Kona coast, you can book anything from a private boat to a catamaran tour. Most will run from $50-$100 and will take you out for a few hours. If you’re lucky, you’ll get some big whale action, like tail slapping and breaching. They sometimes even come right up to your boat!
There’s so much to do on the Big Island of Hawaii, and these are just a few of my favorite picks for activities. Did I miss an exciting activity that you loved on the Big Island? Let me know in the comments below!
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