The Ultimate Guide to the Big Island of Hawai'i
The largest island in the Hawaiian archipelago offers a stunning array of beaches and activities, not to mention food, drink, and resorts. Get your bearings in paradise with this list of bests.
Larger than all of the other islands combined, Hawai’i Island has earned the fitting nickname of “Big Island.” Its diverse geography and history means you can stargaze at Maunakea, explore historic Kona coffee country, and encounter endangered sea creatures at Kaloko-Honokohau National Park in a single vacation.
The Best Beaches
Kaloko-Honokohau National Park: Animal lovers should head to the black rock coast of Kaloko-Honokohau National Park, a haven for sun-basking sea turtles. (The endangered Hawaiian Monk seal is also a frequent visitor.) If you stray from the water, expect numerous hiking trails rife with sacred temples, petroglyphs, and mesmerizing fishponds constructed by early Hawaiians.
Related: The Best Beaches in Hawai'i
Kahalu'u Beach Park: In the town of Kailua-Kona, you’ll find a small sheltered cove known as Kahalu'u Beach Park. Its sunny, shallow waters make it a prime spot for snorkeling. (You can rent gear on the beach.) For the most abundant display of colorful fish, aim to arrive before ten o’clock in the morning.
Manini'owali Beach: Manini'owali Beach in Kua Bay offers a triple-whammy of soft white sand, vivid blue waters, and undeveloped shoreline. Though a local favorite, the pristine beach rarely feels crowded. What’s more, in winter it's not uncommon to see humpback whales on the horizon.
The Best Things to Do
Visit Maunakea: Maunakea, the highest point in the state (13,796 feet above sea level) is an epic journey to an astronomically important and environmentally sensitive site that literally takes the breath out of breathtaking (in both aesthetic and physical terms). Be mindful of the potentially serious effects of high altitude, and check with the folks at the Visitor Information Station (VIS) on the way up for the mountain’s changeable weather conditions. Stargazing is available at the VIS four nights a week.
Catch a Buzz in Coffee Country: The quaint village of Hōlualoa is at the base of Hualālai and is in the heart of coffee country. (There are six hundred Kona bean farms in the vicinity!) In addition to a burgeoning artists’ enclave, Hōlualoa is also home to dozens of historic structures, all denoted by handsome informational placards.
The Best Restaurants and Bars
Pink Mocha Cafe, Kailua-Kona: The Big Island’s best-kept breakfast secret is an unassuming joint called Pink Mocha Cafe. The family-owned bakery serves up melt-in-your-mouth muffins, to-die-for acai bowls, and a bevy of frothy morning beverages.
Sushi U, Kailua-Kona: At Sushi U, owner Samuel Sapp makes custom rolls from the freshest imaginable seafood. Pick your protein, filling, and topping, and Sapp will whip it up on the spot. The compact eatery, located in Kailua-Kona, only has three picnic bench-style tables, but locals agree the delicious creations are worth the wait.
Lava Lava Beach Club, Kailua-Kona: Lava Lava Beach Club provides unforgettable dining (and drinking) under swaying coconut trees. Every Sunday you can enjoy a variety of tomato-infused cocktails at their Bloody Mary Brunch. (Michelava Lava Mary, anyone?) Bikinis encouraged.
Big Island Brewhaus, Waimea: Get your craft beer fix at Waimea’s Big Island Brewhaus, where award-winning brews (Overboard IPA, Golden Sabbath, and White Mountain Porter) and live music make an intoxicating combination. Founded in 2013, the brewery works closely with area farmers, fishermen, bakers, and bee keepers to source a fresh food menu.
Foster's Kitchen, Kailua-Kona: Order the Big Island’s ultimate cocktails at Foster’s Kitchen. The smart drink menu lines up inventive combinations, including the Ginger Meets Mary Ann (lemongrass ginger shochu, Hawaiian-made kombucha, and elderflower) and the Starry Night (kai lemongrass vodka, handcrafted lemongrass syrup, star fruit puree, and limoncello).
Related: The Best Seafood Dives in Hawai'i
Best Places to Shop
Queens’ MarketPlace, Waikoloa: Queens’ MarketPlace in Waikoloa features open-air shopping in a resort-like setting. Skip the flagship chains for local retailers including Blue Ginger, Island Pearls, and Hawaiian Quilt Collection.
Pueo Boutique, Kailua-Kona: The shelves at Pueo Boutique are stocked with handbags and home décor accents—almost all made by Hawaiian artisans or designed in Hawai’i. Just off Ali'i Drive, Pueo also has a smart assortment of handmade island jewelry.
Ginger & Koi, Kailua-Kona: Head to Ginger & Koi in Kailua-Kona for fashion-forward apparel for women, including on-trend brands such One Teaspoon denim and Acacia Swimwear.
Best Beach Hotels and Resorts
Mauna Kea Beach Hotel:, Kohala Coast: In 1965, Mauna Kea Beach Hotel opened as the Big Island’s first resort. Fifty years later it’s still among Hawaii’s premier accommodations. The meticulously maintained 60-acre property includes a championship golf course, scenic shoreline, and beautifully appointed guest rooms. (While there be sure to order the Frederico cocktail from the beach bar—those in the know swear by it.)
King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel, Kailua-Kona: For affordable rates and a can’t-beat-location, check in to King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel. The handsome hotel in Kailua-Kona has a spacious beachfront pool and is within walking distance of the shops and eateries on bustling Ali'i Drive.