Home to tropical rainforests, molten lava fields, and miles of white, black, and even green beaches, it’s no wonder that Hawai’i is the most geologically diverse of all the Hawaiian islands. Also known as the Big Island, it’s twice as big as all the other islands combined. It’s hard to run out of things to do here, the landscape and offerings are so varied, be it seeing a real-live active volcano up close, exploring the wasabi-green sand at Papakōlea beach, or hiking the trails for breathtaking views in the Waipi’o Valley. But with so much to do, where should you start? Check out these top 15 Big Island things to do that you just can’t miss.
#1 – See active lava flows in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
The Big Island is the only spot in Hawaii where you can get up close and personal with a live volcano. Hike into Hawaii Volcanoes National Park with EpicLava on their Active Lava and Sunrise Tour and see the black-lava fields for yourself. While lava is not accessible every day—the hottest spot to see lava yesterday may only be cooled rocks today—EpicLava will pick the best route to get you as close as possible to current lava flows. This hike ranges from 8 to 10 miles, so make sure you wear comfortable walking shoes. Fair warning—this tour starts at 4am. That’s the best time to catch the sun rising over the lava!
Departs from: Volcano, south of Hilo
#2 – Go on a moonlight manta ray dive
Kahaluu-Keauhou, south of Kailua-Kona
Nothing beats the other-worldly experience of a moonlight snorkel with manta rays. These massive creatures with their ghost-white underbellies and graceful aquatic acrobatics are truly something to behold. Get in the water with them on this sunset snorkel just south of Kailua-Kona. They’ll take you out to the world-famous Manta Ray Village where mantas are known to feed at night and set you up with a manta floatation device, which will keep you afloat while also lighting up the water beneath you as you gape in awe at the creatures below.
Some of the best things to see on this tropical island are under the sea. Meet brightly colored tropical fish, swim with beloved Hawaiian sea turtles, and watch spinner dolphins playing in the distance. This South Kona snorkeling tour will take you to the two best Big Island snorkeling spots so you can get the most out of your experience. Visit Kealakekua Bay, home to the Captain Cook monument and lots of spinner dolphins, and Pu’uhonua O Honaunau, also known at the “Place of Refuge,” which is dotted with historic temples, teeth-baring idols, as well as plenty of sea turtles. This tour includes tropical snacks and water between snorkels.
#4 – See the Big Island from the sky
With so many diverse landscapes to explore on the Big Island, it might seem impossible to see it all in just one vacation. See everything on this two-hour Full Island Adventure helicopter tour. They fly three times daily, except on Sunday, giving you a chance to catch the island when it’s got that morning sparkle or afternoon glow. You’ll see Kilauea, Hawaii’s active volcano, and watch as real lava flows creep across the landscape; you’ll travel over the Waipi’o and Waimanu Valleys and watch the mist rise off their thundering waterfalls; and you’ll soar over the coastline, taking in the breathtaking cliff-faces and luxury resorts and villas that overlook the ocean. Make sure you bring your camera so you can capture every moment!
Departs from: Kona International Airport
#5 – Go ziplining on the Big Island’s most epic zipline course
HAKALAU, NORTH OF HILO
Pack your selfie stick, a little courage, and your sense of adventure and get ready for the longest zipline on Hawai’i! Botanical World Adventures, located north of Hilo, is home not only to an impressive array of tropical flora and fauna but also to a totally awesome zipline course. This ziplining tour includes 8 ziplines, covers almost 2 miles, and is the longest ziplining course in all of Hawai’i Island. Zip through the tropical canopy and see stunning waterfalls from 160 feet. Great for the whole family, this experience can be paired with many of the park’s other offerings.
Departs from: Kona and Hilo
#6 – Explore the magical Waipio Valley
Waipio Valley, Honokaa
This lush green valley on the shores of Hawai’i’s northwest coast is a must-see Big Island destination. This stunning valley meets the Pacific Ocean in one of the Big Island’s noteworthy black-sand beaches and is home to breathtaking waterfalls and wild horses. While the views from the top are not to be missed, so too is the experience of scaling the steep cliffs to explore the lush landscape at the base. Traveling down into the valley is possible on horseback, through the hiking trails, or even on mule-drawn wagon. Check out this tour which will pick you up from the hotel in Kona (or from their headquarters in Hilo if you’re on the island’s east side) and escort you directly to the valley. It includes stops at Rainbow Falls, the Botanical Gardens, and ‘Akaka Falls–home to one of the island’s most popular waterfalls.
Departs from: Kona
#7 – Go to a traditional Hawaiian luau
Luaus are an important part of Hawaiian culture—and they’re a must-do while on your Hawaiian vacation. Royal Kona Luau hosts evening luaus throughout the week on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday. Set against the backdrop of the beautiful Kailua Bay in Kona, you’ll enjoy a delicious dinner of traditional island fare and local specialties all the while enjoying demonstrations of Hawaiian arts and culture, including hula dancing, Polynesian music performances, and the traditional imu ceremony. There’s even a chance to learn how to hula yourself—maybe something you’ll be more receptive to after having a few of the complimentary Mai Tais…
#8 – Taste real Hawaiian vanilla from a real Hawaiian vanilla farm
The three words you’ll use the most on this vacation are aloha, mahalo, and ono—delicious. That’s because traditional Hawaiian cuisine is full of tasty dishes, tropical fruit, and mouthwatering desserts. And it’s all thanks to the temperate climate and hard-working Hawaiians who take good care of the land. Get an authentic sense of Hawaiian agriculture with a visit to the real Hawaiian vanilla farm. You’ll be surprised to see how much careful planning and good old-fashioned hard work it takes to grow vanilla organically. This special farm tour starts with lunch made up of signature dishes from the vanilla kitchen—from their vanilla citrus bourbon chicken sandwich to their famous vanilla lemonade.
#9 – Enjoy an epic waterfall hike
Rainbow Falls, Hilo
The Big Island’s wild side is the main reason adventurers are so drawn to this place, and it’s true there’s no better way to explore all the island has to offer than on foot through its many parks and hiking trails. Check out the Ultimate Waterfall and Volcano Experience offered by Epic! Tours, a family owned and operated tour company specializing in creating amazing and unique adventures for small groups. This tour will take you hiking through the Big Island’s highlights, including the rainforests of Hilo and Rainbow Falls, the Big Island’s most iconic waterfall. But this tour isn’t called ultimate for nothing. After the rainforest hike they’ll take you to Volcanoes National Park where you can roast some chocolate macadamia nuts over a natural volcanic steam vent.
Departs from: Kona and Waikoloa
#10 – Explore the green-sand beaches of Papakōlea
While being the largest, Hawai’i is also the youngest of all the Hawaiian islands. This means it doesn’t have quite so many white-sand beaches as do Maui and Oahu. What it has instead is nothing to sneeze at. On the Big Island you sink your toes into a bonafide green-sand beach. Located in a bay inside of a cinder cone that erupted over 50,000 years ago, this beach is wasabi-green, due to a common deposit called olivine. This beach is notoriously hard to get to, so consider getting there on this 4×4 tour. It includes pick up in Kona and a trip to the South Point cliffs, the southern-most point in all the United States.
Departs from: Kailua-Kona
#11 – Go on a luxury snorkeling cruise
Treat yourself to a luxury sail on Kona Style, a beautiful catamaran sailing out of Kailua Bay Pier. This four-hour snorkel cruise includes an hour and a half snorkel adventure as well as tropical fruit snacks, a full bar, and a make-your-own sandwich station making this absolutely the best way to see Kona from the water. Explore the Kona Coast in style, suspended above white-peaked waves on the catamaran’s netted trampolines with a drink in hand. All the equipment is provided for snorkeling, giving you a chance to focus on exploring the lush and colorful world under the sea and all the tropical fish, dolphins, and turtles that live there.
Departs from: Kailua Bay Pier
#12 – Take a surfing lesson
Kahaluu Beach Park, Kailua-Kona
What Hawaiian vacation is complete without the requisite surf lesson? Just south of Kailua-Kona at the beautiful white-sand beaches of Kahalu’u Beach Park you’ll find Kona Mike’s Surf Adventures where you can learn how to surf in a group lesson, semi-private lesson, or fully-private lesson. Kahalu’u Beach Park is known for its gentle waves and easy access. Lessons last 3 hours by which time you’ll be standing on the board like a pro.
#13 – Watch the sun set in style
There’s nothing like a Hawaiian sunset, especially those glimpsed from the Kona Coast. Enjoy this evening cruise from Kailua-Kona, cocktail in hand, as the calming sound of the Hawaiian surf lulls you into a state of blissful tranquility. This cruise includes a buffet dinner and live entertainment as well as a complimentary cocktail (more available for purchase, of course) as you travel down the coast to the Captain Cook monument. You’ll learn about local Hawaiian history as well as see several points of interest along the way. On the journey home, watch the sky burn bright before you as the sun descends into the sea.
Departs from: Kailua-Kona
#14 – Visit Kealakekua Bay
This historic location on the Big Island is the best place to go snorkeling. This tour takes you right to the bay without a bunch of other stops along the way, making it one of the more affordable options on the island. Home to the Captain Cook Monument, Kealakekua Bay is the place where Cook died, over 200 years ago. A snorkeling cruise is actually the best way to see the bay since the best snorkeling is on the opposite side from the car access. Snacks are includes, as well as all the gear.
Departs from: Sea Paradise Store, Kailua Kona
#15 – Start with an airport greeting
Start your journey right with a traditional lei airport greeting. Leis are garlands worn loosely around the neck usually made of tropical flowers. Locals wear leis made of feathers, shells, and seeds, but we suggest the beautiful orchid leis just like you see in the movies. Leis symbolize affection and welcome—what better way to start your Hawaiian vacation?
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