Big Island itinerary for Cruise Ship Visitors

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Cruise ship passengers face a unique challenge among all visitors to Hawaii: They see much of the beautiful coastlines but get to spend precious little time on the Hawaiian islands. How would you choose from the many unique things to do on-shore with so little time?

This itinerary is written for those people that want to explore the Big Island independently instead of with the pre-arranged cruise excursions. We want to help you experience as much of the Big Island as possible.

Because many cruise ships stop at both Hilo (city guide) and Kona (city guide),  we split this itinerary between these two destinations. We also discuss [1] how to best rent a car for the day and [2] whether it will be possible to spend one night on the island, for example in the enchanting rainforests of Volcano Village. In short:

Regardless of your choices *on* the Big Island, you should know the following: Winter is not only the most popular time to visit Hawaii for humans, but also for whales! When visiting in the months between the months  November and May, get ready for onboard whale watching!

Spend the night on the Big Island

Cruise ships often make consecutive stops on the Big Island: One in Hilo and one in Kona. Depending on how adventurous you are you should consider spending the night on the Big Island and rejoining the cruise in the next port.

This is the perfect opportunity to enjoy one of the two great bucket list activities that usually demand a full holiday to check off: the manta ray night dive or seeing the lava at night. Our favorite is the second option: spending your night in Volcano Village and seeing the glow of the Halema’uma’u crater at night:

The glow from the Halema’uma’u crater
The glow from the Halema’uma’u crater at night in the Volcanoes National Park, seen from the Jaggar Museum overlook

If you are passionate about stargazing and have lots of energy, you might consider visiting the famous telescopes on the summit of Maunakea for sunset and stargazing before settling in at Volcano Village.

The short version of “how to spend the night on the Big Island” goes as follows:

  1. Make sure the crew knows you won’t be spending the night on the ship.
  2. Rent a car that you can pick up in your first port and then drop off in the second port.
  3. Have a great time!

Important things to consider when trying to spend the night on shore

Depending on the specifics of your cruise, the regulations on board and the willingness of the crew, step 1 (above) could be a deal breaker.

There are many conflicting reports about the possibilities of an overnight stay. The unifying theme of these is that with some research and preparation it should be possible to pull off. Basically, you have to inform the ship you will be “missing” the ship when it leaves port later that day, and that you will be joining it at the other port on the Big Island. There might be a fine associated with this.

Mandatory reading for everyone planning to spend a night onshore is the “Somewhat definitive guide to skipping a port on the POA” on the cruisecritic website.

If your second day (boarding) is in Kona, you should keep in mind that some car rental companies are located at the Kona Airport. Note also that if Kona is your second port there is the possibility waters are too rough to tender. If this is the case you will have to book an inter-island flight to your next port in Hawaii.

Most importantly: check with your cruise company to see if it is possible to rejoin the cruise in a different port before actually doing it.

Renting a car for one day on the Big Island

A rental car is by far the most efficient way to explore the Big Island. Below you can find information on getting from the cruise ship to the rental car agency for both Hilo and Kona. Also see our guide to renting a car on the Big Island.

Hilo: The rental car agencies are at the Hilo Airport, a 10-minute drive from the harbor. Shuttle buses will be waiting at the harbor to bring you to the airport.

Kona: Rental car agencies in Kona are split between two locations:

  • Thrifty, Dollar, and Hertz, all have an office in the King Kamehameha hotel, a few 100 yards walking from your landing spot in Kona at the Kailua pier.
  • The other rental car agencies are at the Kona Airport. Driving to and from the airport takes ~20 minutes without traffic. During early morning and afternoon rush hour it can take far longer. Few, if any, shuttles are available for transport to and from the airport, and taxis can be expensive. Please consider renting your car at one of the agencies at the King Kamehameha hotel.

Activities near Hilo | Itinerary for one day

By almost every conceivable metric, the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park should be your top priority during your ‘Hilo day’. However, there are more ways to enjoy the tropical and lush side of the Big Island.

We split the sightseeing in and around Hilo into three categories:

  1. Waterfalls and tropical gardens
  2. Flowing lava and the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
  3. Black sand beaches, hot ponds, and a scenic drive

Each of these is in a different area, and you are making the best of your stay by picking just one. Driving distances between the categories take away valuable time.

Waterfalls and tropical gardens

Four out of our five favorite waterfalls on the Big Island are located in or just north of Hilo. You can combine a few of these with the Onomea scenic drive.

Driving further north takes you to the scenic Hamakua coast and ultimately to the dramatic cliffs of Waipi’o valley.

rainbow falls going off big island
The volume of the rainbow falls (or Waianuenue) changes on a daily basis. This is what the falls look like after a good rain upstream

Flowing Lava and the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Whether or not the lava flow is active (visible), a visit the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is a must. You can easily spend a full day in the park, so pick up your rental car and drive up the volcano!

If lava is flowing and entering the ocean, you need to make a tough choice. When the flow is accessible from within the park you can combine this with your visit to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. If it isn’t, you may have to choose between the two.

Of course, this problem disappears if you manage to spend one night on the Big Island. If you do, please consider spending it in Volcano Village, on the doorstep of the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

How to see the lava yourself

When visiting the lava we recommend to take a guided lava tour from a reputable company.  Depending on local circumstances you can choose between a lava hike and a lava boat tour:

lava boat tour sees lava flowing into the ocean at the Big Island of Hawaii
Lava enters the ocean at the Big Island. You can see this yourself either from land by a moderate (5+ mile) hike or bike ride, or from the ocean, by going on a lava boat tour

See the lava with a helicopter tour

Because your time is precious you may want to consider splurging on a helicopter tour to see the lava. These tours take a few hours and can show you a combination of highlights, such as lava and waterfalls.

Black sand beaches, hot ponds, and a scenic drive

The Puna district is famous for its scenic roads and volcanically heated hot ponds.

The stark contrasts between the tropical green, the deep black from the lava, and the deep blue from the ocean make this part of the island home to our all-time favorite scenic drive.

You can combine your road trip with a visit to one of the black sand beaches in Hilo, or with a hike to the lava.

The Kalapana - Kapoho road (also known as red road) is one of the most scenic drives on the Big Island
The Kalapana – Kapoho road (also known as red road) is one of the most scenic drives on the Big Island

Activities near Kona | Itinerary for one day

The harbor at Kona is not suited for cruise ships. This means that you need to take a tender to the Kailua Pier in downtown Kona get to shore. When planning your activities keep in mind that tendering typically takes between 30 and 90 minutes.

You can probably fit more than one of the activities below in one day. For example, a beach and a snorkel road trip form an excellent combination, and a helicopter tour only takes half a day.

We split the sightseeing in and around Kona into the following activities

  1. Go beach hopping
  2. Go snorkeling
  3. A road trip with coffee and culture
  4. Seeing the sights with a helicopter
  5. The manta ray night dive

Visit one of the  paradise-like beaches

All the beaches in Hawaii are free and open to the public. The many beaches on the Kona side are white sand beaches. Some of our favorite beaches are Kua Bay, Hapuna Beach, and Waialea Bay.

Pick up some food and set off in your rental car for a mini road trip to the beaches in north or south Kona.

Map with all Big Island beaches.

Kua Bay
Kua Bay is a small beach with good surf in the winter and snorkeling in the summer

Snorkeling on the Kona coast

The Kona coast has the best places on the Big Island to go snorkeling.  All 3 of our favorite snorkeling spots are south of Kona, at less than a 1-hour drive from central Kona. By the way, there is also OK snorkeling at the Kailua Pier, your landing spot in Kona.

Furthermore, you can find Hawaiian history and culture in the Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Park. This park, also known as the City of Refuge, is steps away from one of the snorkeling spots.

If you didn’t bring your own snorkeling gear on the cruise, it’s easy to rent some in Kona. For more snorkeling beaches, see our list of all snorkeling spots close to Kona.

Captain Cook monument on the Big Island
The best snorkeling in Kealakekua bay is around the Captain Cook monument, but getting there is difficult. The easiest option is to book a snorkeling cruise.

Culture, coffee, and a great scenic drive

Lush and tropical south Kona is also known as coffee country after the many coffee farms one can find up-slope of the volcanoes. This part of the Big Island is where the world-famous Kona Coffee comes from.

A visit to a Kona Coffee farm is very easy to combine with a visit to for example the Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Park, as well as with snorkeling at the fantastic Honaunua snorkeling spot.  The best thing about this combination? It can all be combined within one of our favorite scenic drives!

Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii
Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii is a good place to take in Hawaiian History. Next door (300 feet from the park entrance) is one of the best places of the island to go snorkeling

Helicopter tours for the bird’s-eye view

Most helicopter tours taken from Kona are more expensive than those from Hilo because the main attractions are further away. However, a helicopter tour is still one of the most efficient and memorable ways to see the Big Island.

Helicopter tours can combine many activities into one. For example seeing waterfalls, visiting the lava, crossing the impressive cliffs of the Kohala volcano, or going ziplining.

Read more about booking a helicopter tour.

Manta Ray night Dive (only with an overnight stay)

Diving or snorkeling with the Manta Rays is one of the most impressive and unique things you can do on the Big Island. However, there are two possible downsides to doing this activity as a passenger of a cruise ship:

  • This activity is only possible if you spend the night on shore. It is also very difficult (exhausting) to combine it with seeing the lava glow at night. (the other “unmissable” overnight activity).
  • Stormy weather and/or rough water conditions can cause the dive to be canceled. Given that you only have one night this is a valid concern.
Two Manta Rays Feeding At Night off Kona, Hawaii. Image credit: wikipedia.
Two Manta Rays Feeding At Night off Kona, Hawaii. Image credit: Wikipedia.

Specific cruise questions and personal experiences

Our expertise is the Big Island of Hawaii, and this itinerary is meant to guide people that visit either Hilo or Kona with a cruise ship through the possible activities on the island.

If you have more specific cruise-related questions on visiting the Big Island while on a cruise, you should have a look at the Hawai’i section (all islands) message board forums of the cruise critic website.

Cruise ships that visit Hilo

The following list gives you an idea of the total number of visits of cruise ships and smaller cruise boats to Hilo. We have compiled this list using all ships that stop in the Hilo port during the year 2017 from the website: hawaii.portcall.com. For that year, 29 different cruise ships stop a total of 108 times at Hilo port:

  • Pride of America [website]: 52
  • Star Princess [website]: 10
  • Grand Princess [website]: 8
  • Carnival Miracle [website]: 4
  • Emerald Princess: 2
  • Golden Princess: 2
  • Radiance of the Seas: 2
  • Celebrity Solstice: 2
  • MS Sirena: 2
  • MS Westerdam: 2
  • Noordam: 2
  • Seven Seas Navigator: 2
  • Norwegian Jewel: 2
  • MS Amsterdam: 1
  • Insignia: 1
  • Pacific Venus: 1
  • Queen Victoria: 1
  • MS Maasdam: 1
  • Europa: 1
  • MS Sea Princess: 1
  • MS Zaandam: 1
  • Silver Whisper: 1
  • Crystal Serenity: 1
  • The World: 1
  • Carnival Legend: 1
  • Le Boreal: 1
  • Eurodam: 1
  • Ocean Dream: 1
  • Oosterdam: 1

Cruise ships that visit Kona

The following list gives you an idea of the number of visits of cruise ships and smaller cruise boats to Kona. We compiled this list using all ships that stop at Kona harbor during the year 2017 from the website: hawaii.portcall.com. For that year, 19 different cruise ships stop a total of 90 times at Kailua Kona:

  • Pride of America [website]: 53
  • Safari Explorer [website]: 14
  • Carnival Miracle [website]: 2
  • Radiance of the Seas: 2
  • Celebrity Solstice: 2
  • MS Westerdam: 2
  • Crystal Serenity: 2
  • Carnival Legend: 2
  • Carnival Splendor: 1
  • Seabourn Sojourn: 1
  • Golden Princess: 1
  • Explorer of the Seas: 1
  • Norwegian Jewel: 1
  • MS Maasdam: 1
  • Europa: 1
  • MS Sea Princess: 1
  • MS Zaandam: 1
  • The World: 1
  • Oosterdam: 1

Cruise ships that visit Kawaihae

Kawaihae is a small harbor on the Kohala coast on the Big Island. The ship “Safari Explorer” [website] stops at this harbor 7 times in 2017.