The Big Island is the largest and most volcanically active of all Hawaiian islands. The island still grows every day because of its #1 tourist attraction (which also happens to be one of the most active volcanoes in the world): the Kilauea volcano.
Our island is know for its beautiful nature and many cool activities and it is almost impossible to fit everything in your vacation – even if you stay more than a month! That is why we give you our personal highlights for the Big Island: as an efficient way to get to know our favorites of Hawaiʻi.
Table of Contents
- A short introduction to the Big Island
- 4 coolest beaches
- 4 popular activities
- Delicious and local Hawaiian food
- Favorite local activities for Kona, Hilo, Volcano Village and Waimea.
- How does the Big Island compare to O’ahu and Maui?
The Big Island in a nutshell:
The Big Island is officially known as the island of Hawaiʻi and received this nickname for a good reason: it is the largest island of the United States with a total surface of 4,029 square miles (10,433 square kilometers)! Its surface area is also greater than that of all other Hawaiian island combined.
The 200,381 inhabitants of the Big Island (which is only 14% of the total population of the state of Hawaiʻi, 2017 census) mostly live in and around the two large population centers in the island: Hilo (the capital) on the east coast, and Kona on the west coast.
Despite these impressive figures the state of Hawaiʻi actually is pretty small: there are only 3 states (Connecticut, Delaware, and Rhode Island ) with less land surface than the aloha state. Yet, our “small” Big Island is home to 8 / 13 of the climate zones in the world, and there are many fun, exciting and accessible activities possible for you to explore it.
The following video is a great introduction to many of our favorite spots, and includes footage of: Waipi’o valley, Akaka falls, Rainbow falls, the Kona coast, Mauna Kea, Pololu valley, dolphins, a manta ray, and much more. Video credits go to Tyler Fairbank from Light Owl Productions.
If you are interested in reading more about Hawaiʻi we recommend the following two pages: One with 3 reasons why we think the Big Island is so incredible impressive, and the other with 40+ facts about Hawaiʻi.
Our favorite beaches on the Big Island
If you like beaches you are in luck. The Big Island is a true paradise, and has quite some amazing white, black, and green sand beaches!
Our hands-down favorite beaches on the Big Island are Hapuna and Mauna Kea beach (white sand), Punaluʻu beach (black sand + turtles!), and Papakōlea (green sand). Read more about these beaches in the following guides:
Do you want to know where black and green sand come from? Easy: lava and crystals! Read more about why the sand is white/green/black on these favorite Big Island beaches.
Popular activities on the Big Island
The Big Island spans 8 out of the world’s 13 climate zones and the activities you can enjoy here are almost as distinct. Our personal favorite things to do for the Big Island are the following:
First of all, there is of course the lava. You can also snorkel over tropical reefs and enjoy a sunset snowball fight on the summit of Mauna Kea a few hours later. And then there is, of course, the unforgettable Manta Ray night dive. Read more about these 4 fantastic activities in our guides linked below:
You can also find an overview of all activities on the Big Island on our website. These guides are styled in a DIY fashion and explain how you can best plan everything you want to do, yourself.
If you are more interested in other people doing the planning you should definitely have a look at our new curated tour section, where we list a small amount of tours that we know and love, that receive consistent high praise and good reviews, and that give back to the community and try to minimize their impact on the environment.
Local food and snacks
Many people tend to forget about the culinary side of their vacation, which is a real shame! The Big Island is one destination where you should do anything to avoid that trap because food here can be so different from what you can find on the mainland.
It is easy (and tasty!) to find local food in restaurants, farmers markets, supermarkets or, at the source, the farm/orchard.
Malasadas (Portuguese sugared fried dough snacks) are a tasty snack for when you are on the road. The combination of Kalua pig with one of the many locally produced micro brews never gets old, and don’t leave the Big Island without a taste of one of the world’s most famous coffees: Kona coffee.
“Must Do” activities in Kona, Hilo, Volcano and Waimea
These are our “local flavor” unmissable activities for each of the four largest cities on the Big Island: Hilo, Kailua Kona, Volcano Village and Waimea.
Kailua Kona highlights
If you are sending more time in Kona you can try out some of our 5 favorite things to do in Kona.
Read more about our favorite things to do in Waimea.
Volcano Village highlights
If there is only one thing you can do in Volcano Village the choice is simple. The Hawaii Volcanoes national park is for us without question the only “must visit” attraction on the Big Island!
If have have more time to spend in our favorite town on the Big Island you should have a look at our list of things to do in Volcano Village.
A visit to Hilo isn’t complete without a stop at the Hilo farmers market for souvenirs and tasty food. Pick up some lunch for on the road, when you are taking one of the incredibly scenic drives close by.
Hilo is a great city to use as base for a few days. If you spend more time in the area you should have a look at more of our Hilo favorites.
Hawaiian islands compared: the Big Island vs. Oʻahu vs. Maui
The three most popular of the Hawaiian Islands are Oʻahu, Maui and the Big Island. Every one of our islands is an amazing tropical island well worth your visit, but they do each have their own unique selling points that distinguish them from the rest. We try to summarize how the islands compare to each other in 1 paragraph, below.
The Big Island: should be your #1 choice for outdoor adventures, volcanology interests, and diversity. While we also have beautiful and multi-colored beaches that often make it into the “top xx beaches of the world” lists, those on Maui and Oʻahu are even more spectacular. Nightlife and shopping malls are almost non-existent on the Big Island.
Maui: represents everything that people think of when they picture Hawaiʻi: A beautiful blend of beaches, volcanoes, palm trees, and tropical agriculture. Its appeal comes from its beaches (which are on par with those of Oʻahu) natural landscape and biodiversity, including its two massive volcanoes, whale watching and marine ecosystems, and remote, undeveloped parts of its island, like Hana.
Summarizing, Maui combines aspects of Oʻahu and the Big Island to find a happy medium between its cultural, culinary, hotel, and outdoor options.
Oʻahu: is the most diverse of the Hawaiian islands, offering a wide variety of people, landscapes, and lifestyles. From the buzz of Honolulu to the laid back beaches and big waves of the north shore, it’s possible to experience almost everything Hawaiʻi has to offer here. If your main goal is beach hopping and immersing yourself in culture, food, drinks, and nightlife, Oʻahu is the place to be. It is worth noting that as the most densely populated and visited of all Hawaiian islands, it can be harder to escape inconveniences like traffic and crowds.
For more nuance please see our comparison articles: