This is our sample five day itinerary (four nights) for the Big Island of Hawaii. With five days, you are able to get a feel for the two most interesting places on the Big Island: Kailua Kona and Volcano Village.
This itinerary describes two nights in Kona and two nights in Volcano village, and a return “circle island drive” to the airport.
Day 1: Kona and the Beach
Start your trip by picking up your rental car from one of the car rental offices at the Kona Airport. Kona is the sunny outdoor capital of the Big Island and you will spend your first two days and nights here enjoying the beach.
Drive into town and drop off your bags at your place of accommodation (if you have not yet booked, have a look here for accommodations in Kona). If you arrive during whale season (between December and March/April) sign up directly for a whale-watching cruise or, if you feel even more adventurous, we recommend that you find out more about the Manta Ray night dive/snorkel. These tours are very popular and you should try to book them in advance.
Afterward, drive north up Highway 11 to explore some of the beautiful west coast beaches such as Kua bay or Hapuna. If you arrived on the Big Island later in the day and are now short on time, stop at the pier fronting the King Kamehameha Hotel in the center of Kona (King Kam beach) for a quick dip or a bit of snorkeling.
End your day with watching the sunset and drinking a mai tai at the Kona Inn, or any of the other beachfront restaurants on Ali’i drive. Tomorrow will be a busy day, so don’t go to bed too late and be prepared for an early start.
Day 2: Ocean Views and Adventures.
Get up early the following day. This should be easy since you still will be on mainland time. Have a relaxed breakfast in town with a view of the ocean or drive south toward Captain Cook and stop in at the Coffee Shack for breakfast. Don’t forget to order yourself some fresh Kona coffee.
After breakfast continue south to the Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park (also known as the city of refuge or Honaunau Bay) to learn about the ancient practices and rituals of the native Hawaiians and finish up with some snorkeling at one of the best snorkeling spots on the island: Two Step (at 300 ft. from the park entrance). This is a favorite snorkeling spot for many locals and a culturally significant place for the Hawaiian people. Please remember to be respectful to both the animals and the surroundings.
Make sure to combine your activities of the day with the tours you possibly booked. If snorkeling is not your thing you can replace it with one of the many outdoor activities near Kona to spend this day.
Day 3: Volcano Village and the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Day 3 is another early day so try packing your bags before you go out for breakfast in order to start your 2+ hour drive to Volcano Village directly after.
Make sure to stop on the way to make the drive more enjoyable, for example at South Point (the most southern point in the United States) or Punalu’u black sand beach, which is famous for its status as a turtle nesting area. Once you reach Volcano Village drop your bags in a cozy vacation rental close to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (we recommend Hawaiivolcanovacations.com, or have a look at the vacation rentals in Volcano Village), then head into the park for a few hours of hiking and sightseeing.
Start your visit at the visitor center and plan your day in the park from there. Watch the 30-minute educational video in the auditorium and talk to the park rangers about the current situation in the park, ranger-led (free) hikes, and tailor-made advice. Also, ask the rangers about the current viewing conditions for the active lava flows that are entering the ocean.
Some “must sees” in the park are the Jaggar Museum, the Thurston Lava Tube and the Chain of Craters Road. If you feel like hiking, we suggest the Kilauea Iki trail, which descends from the beautiful Volcano rainforest into the caldera where you can see firsthand the effects of millions of years of volcanic activity.
Afterward, head back to Volcano Village to have dinner in one of the local restaurants and then return to the Jaggar Museum overlook after dark to see the incredible glow of the Kilauea Volcano under the stars.
End your day relaxing in front of the fireplace or in the hot-tub at your vacation rental of choice.
Day 4 (Option 1): Kalapana and Hot Ponds
Today you can either choose to return to the Hawaii Volcanoes National park if you are a volcanoes enthusiast, or make a road trip to Hilo (option 2: scroll down for details) or Puna/Kalapana to the southeast of Volcano Village.
Kalapana is a serene and simply breathtaking spot that is home to what was once one of the most beautiful beaches of the world, before it was overtaken by lava in the 1990s. Currently, a new black sand beach is forming close to the old beach, allowing a glance into the constant processes of creation and destruction which reign supreme on the island. If you choose to head to Kalapana, we recommend you make an entire day of it to enjoy the other gems the Puna District has to offer along the coast.
From Kalapana, head back toward Kapoho, stopping for photo ops at Isaac Hale Beach Park (Pohoiki to the locals) and to soak at the volcanically heated pools of Ahalanui. The nearby tide pools in Kapoho also offer good snorkeling opportunities. Afterward, enjoy a well-deserved dinner in the quaint, colorful old town of Pahoa. We recommend the Mexican restaurant Luquins, which is a local landmark (Luquins burned down in 2017, and now has reopened as Luquins Mexican Food Truck on the same property). Try one of their margaritas “local style”, with lilikoi (passion fruit) juice and a li hing mui salt rim.
Afterward, drive back up to Volcano Village to enjoy your last night in the peace and quiet of the rainforest. Don’t forget to return to the Jaggar museum overlook in the Hawaii Volcanoes National park at night if your first visit was frustrated by clouds and/or rain.
Day 4 (Option 2): Hilo and the Wailuku River
Today you can either choose to return to the Hawaii Volcanoes National park if you are a volcanoes enthusiast, or make a road trip to Hilo or Puna/Kalapana (option 1: scroll up for details) southeast of Volcano Village.
Start your day driving south one hour to the beautiful coastal town of Hilo for breakfast at Ken’s Pancake House, an old American-style diner complete with window booths and smiling local waitresses that respond best when being called “auntie” according to local customs of respect.
Afterward, head downtown to take a stroll along the many shops, galleries and boutiques and/or visit the Tsunami Museum. If it’s market day (Wednesday or Saturday) stop at the Farmers Market to see how shopping is done local style. Pick up some souvenirs or some fresh fruit and bento’s for lunch later in the day. Got a sweet tooth? You can also head over to Two Ladies kitchen (274 Kilauea Ave) for some fresh mochi, a Japanese delicacy in the islands which will leave you craving for more (the strawberry mochi are our favorite).
After you’ve had your fill of exploring downtown, head out to eat the lunch you’ve picked up on Coconut Island or at one the beaches in the majestic Keaukaha area. We recommend 4-mile or Richardsons, both for the views of Hilo Bay and the good swimming (all beaches in Hilo).
When you’re finished with lunch head up to Rainbow Falls for a couple of photos and then continue up Kaumana Drive past Hilo Hospital to the Boiling Pots.
Now it is time to drive up Saddle Road to go stargazing at one of the best locations of the world: Mauna Kea. You can reach the visitor center where there are free stargazing programs offered just after sunset with any rental car but you’ll need a 4WD if you want to visit the summit. There are also professional tours organized from Hilo that will take you up the mountain. More information and safety tips on stargazing on Mauna Kea.
Afterward, drive back up to Volcano Village to enjoy your last night in the peace and quiet of the rainforest. Again, don’t forget to return to the Jaggar museum overlook in the Hawaii Volcanoes National park at night if your first visit was frustrated by clouds and/or rain.
Day 5: Road trip to Waipi’o Valley
Today is your last day on the Big Island. You will return to the airport driving counter-clockwise around the island over Hilo and the north shore of the Big Island. This is a 120-mile drive so make sure to plan your time properly and don’t miss your flight!
Start your day with packing your bags and then drive to Hilo for breakfast while watching the sunrise over the bay. Afterward, head out to Highway 19 onto the Hamakua Coast and get ready for some breathtaking scenery!
Start by turning off onto the 4-mile Scenic Route just a few minutes outside Hilo and enjoy the winding, magical drive along the coast. You can also stop at the World Botanical Gardens for a short hike through lush fern forests. Once back on Highway 19, make sure you stop at the ‘Akaka Falls State Park to see the most famous waterfall in the state of Hawaii.
Continue north to the historic town of Honoka’a. This former cane sugar stronghold has an interesting collection of shops and galleries and is a great place to grab some lunch or a fresh, hot malasada at Tex Drive In. From here, it’s just a short drive to the Waipi’o Valley overlook at the end of Highway 240. Which will allow you a stunning view of the “Valley of Kings”, one of the most culturally significant spots for the native Hawaiians and a hotspot for the traditional cultivation of the locally prized “kalo” or taro crops.
Then continue via Waimea and start preparing yourself to go to the airport. While driving south along the coastal Highway 270 you can either stop at the Waikoloa Village for some local grindz and/or visit one of the many stunning white sand beaches (e.g. Kua Bay) on your way back to the Kona Airport.