Ultimate Guide to Exploring the Island of Hawai'i: Travel Guide
Updated: Sep 4
So, you’re interested in visiting the Big Island of Hawai’i? Good choice! The Big Island has SO much to do and see and you’re definitely not going to be bored. Typically, if you’re flying from the mainland (US), you’ll find better flight options into Kona, so that’s where my recommendations are focused in this post. But, know that flying into Hilo is also an option, it may just cost you more and be a little less convenient as far as schedules go.
Kona is known as the drier side of the island and Hilo tends to be more tropical. No matter which side of the island you choose, you’ll find beaches, activities, restaurants, and views that aren’t to be missed!
When you visit the Hawaiian Islands, you want to make sure you’re being a good steward of the ecosystem and the wildlife who make Hawai’i their home. Make sure you have reef-friendly sunscreen. It can be difficult to find on the mainland, but it's widely available in stores in the islands. It is illegal to enter the water with the chemical-laden sunscreens that are popular on the mainland, so please don’t miss acquiring appropriate reef-safe sunscreen before you get in the water.
While enjoying the wonders of Hawai'i, it's essential to respect the rich culture of the Hawaiian people. Please be mindful of areas marked as off-limits to non-locals, as these hold special significance to the local communities. Showing reverence for their traditions and heritage is an integral part of being a responsible and respectful traveler in Hawai'i.
But, you’re here to learn about where you should stay, eat, and visit on the Big Island, so let’s dive right in. . .
Where should you stay on the Island of Hawai'i ?
Kona has a couple of different options for lodging. Many folks (ourselves included) choose to find a condo or vacation rental in the town of Kona for their stay. We rented this condo through VRBO and it was perfect. This whole condo community (Casa De Emdeko) is incredible. They have two pools (salt water and fresh water) and every night they all gather in the courtyard to watch the sunset. It was quiet and the sunsets here were out of this world. The location was a bit away from the hustle and bustle of the heart of Kona, but still a 10-min drive to anywhere on the Kona-side of the island.
Alternatively, Kona is known for an area of resorts north of the airport. This area is about a 40-minute drive from the heart of Kona and pretty secluded from the rest of the island activities. For most of the water tours and activities you’d want to do on the Kona side of the island, it’s going to be quite a drive for you to get to the starting points if you stay in the resort area.
What Should You Eat on the Island of Hawai'i?
Sushi Shiono - Sushi Shiono on Kona is a top-notch sushi restaurant in the heart of Kailua-Kona. With its elegant ambiance and expertly-crafted sushi, it's the perfect spot for a romantic dinner or a special night out with friends and family. Their menu features a wide variety of sushi options, as well as other delicious Japanese dishes.
Jackie Rey's Ohana Grill - Jackie Rey's Ohana Grill in Kona is a must-visit restaurant for those looking for delicious, high-quality food in a casual atmosphere. This family-owned establishment is known for its creative dishes that blend flavors from around the world with fresh, locally-sourced ingredients. From seafood to steak to vegetarian options, there's something for everyone on the menu. Don't forget to try one of their signature cocktails or a glass of wine from their extensive list. With its friendly service and inviting atmosphere, Jackie Rey's Ohana Grill is the perfect spot for a laid-back dinner with friends or family.
The Fish Hopper - The Fish Hopper on Kona is a seafood lover's dream come true. Located right on the waterfront, this restaurant offers stunning views of the ocean while you enjoy your meal. Their menu features a wide variety of fresh seafood options, from classic fish and chips to more unique dishes like lobster mac and cheese. They also offer non-seafood options like steak and pasta, ensuring there's something for everyone. The Fish Hopper's commitment to sustainability means you can feel good about what you're eating. And with their friendly service and casual atmosphere, it's the perfect spot for a relaxed lunch or dinner by the sea.
Papa Kona - Papa Kona in Kona is a hidden gem that combines great food, specialty coffee, and a laid-back atmosphere. This local favorite is housed in a charming, historic building and serves up a menu of delicious Hawaiian-inspired dishes, like poke bowls and kalua pork sandwiches. They also offer a selection of coffee drinks made with beans from local roasters. With outdoor seating and live music, Papa Kona is the perfect spot to unwind and soak up the Kona vibe. Don't miss out on this gem next time you're in town.
Magic Pineapple Shack (Hilo) - Magic Pineapple Shack in Hilo is a must-visit for anyone with a sweet tooth. This family-owned and operated food truck specializes in delectable desserts made with fresh, locally-sourced ingredients. From shave ice with homemade syrups to creamy pineapple Dole Whip and soft serve, there's something for everyone to enjoy. Magic Pineapple Shack's commitment to sustainability means they use compostable materials and strive to reduce waste wherever possible. With their friendly service and vibrant atmosphere, Magic Pineapple Shack is the perfect spot for a sweet treat after a day exploring Hilo. This was one of our favorite stops. We went here twice because we loved the ice cream that much. I highly recommend the "Unicone" - it's Ube and Dragonfruit swirl soft-serve and it was one of the best things we had on the trip. I felt a little silly ordering it as an adult, but I didn't regret it at all.
Punalu'u Bake Shop - Punalu'u Bake Shop on Hawaii Island is a must-stop for anyone with a love of baked goods. This charming bakery is famous for its sweet bread, made using a secret recipe that's been passed down for generations. They also offer a wide variety of other freshly baked treats, from malasadas to butter rolls. Punalu'u Bake Shop is committed to using local ingredients whenever possible, so you can feel good about what you're eating. And with their friendly service and quaint atmosphere, it's the perfect place to stop for a snack on your way to explore the island. Don't miss out on this bakery gem on your next trip to Hawaii. P.S. Get the lilikoi glazed malasadas. The BEST!!
What Should I Do on the Island of Hawai'i?
Guide Along Tour - Spend a day doing the full circle tour through Guide Along Tour. I recommend doing this your first full day so you can acclimate yourself to the island. Start by 7am (or earlier) to get back to your lodging before dark.
Book a night snorkel with manta rays - I was SO not into this idea when we booked it. Being in the open ocean in the dark terrifies me, but I put this toward the top of the Big Island recommendations for a reason. It was incredible. I don't have any photos because we were in the water the whole time, but it was amazing. Here's a video that shows what it's like.
Go to Pu'uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park - This won't be a long activity, but it's really cool to see and is relatively close to Kona.
Stop at the Royal Kona Coffee Center - The views and coffee are great here.
Go Whale Watching - Winter in Hawaii is prime humpback season. There's almost no way you won't see some when you're there. We booked our tour through Body Glove and they did a great job.
Do a Summit & Stars tour at Mauna Kea - This is the one we canceled because of COVID safety, but it would have been absolutely incredible!
Do a dolphin snorkel tour - This takes you to the Captain Cook Monument for snorkeling and you get to search for dolphins and other marine animals while you're on the way there and back. We saw bottle-nose dolphins, spinner dolphins, humpback whales, sea turtles, and hammerhead sharks on this tour, in addition to the awesome snorkeling.
Visit Volcanoes National Park - If it's a reasonable distance, make sure you do the hike to see any active lava flows. It was only a 2-mile hike for us, but sometimes, it's as much as 6 or 7, depending on where things are happening at the time, and that's not really feasible unless you're really, really into hiking on old lava.
The Big Island of Hawaii has so much to offer, and whether you're interested in beaches, activities, or restaurants, you won't be disappointed. If you're flying from the mainland US, Kona is your best bet for flights, and while Hilo is also an option, it may be less convenient. Regardless of which side of the island you choose, you should rent a car, and if you want to do more than lay on the beach, you should plan to spend a little time exploring. Some great options for lodging include vacation rentals in Kona or resorts north of the airport, depending on your preferences. And when it comes to food, there are plenty of great options, from sushi to malasadas. Don't miss out on some of the island's top attractions, like the Guide Along Tour, a night snorkel with manta rays, and a visit to Pu'uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park. No matter what you choose to do, be sure to be a responsible tourist and use reef-friendly sunscreen. I hope this Big Island of Hawai'i travel guide has helped you narrow down your to-do list. Enjoy your trip to the Big Island of Hawaii!