The Big Island comes by its name honestly—it’s almost 100 miles across at its widest. So if you’re only there for 48 hours, here’s what you need to do in Kona to make the most of your stay.

By Kimberly Holland
November 02, 2019
James Keith
James Keith/Getty Images

Oahu may be the most populous island. Maui is adored for its romantic destinations. Kauai is appreciated for its staggering cliffs along pristine coastline and lush, tropical milieu. But the Big Island (also called Hawaii) has a bit of everything there is to do, see, and love about the Aloha State, from volcano gazing to manta ray spotting.

If you find yourself on Hawaii for a short stay, we’ve put together an itinerary that will help you make the most of a two-day respite. So, whether you’re island hopping and hoping to catch the highlights of the state’s largest island, or just basking in a bit of R&R between an around-the-globe flight, you’ll hit the highlights of Kona and the Big Island with this guide. / Getty Images

Day 1: Swim with the Rays

Look below you as your plane readies for touch down at the Kona International Airport. You’re landing on what is left behind of a 19th century lava flow. Broad fields of black igneous rock stretch all around you, a reminder that this island is very much alive and growing. You can feel the energy when you step off the plane into the open-air terminal. Welcome to Hawaii!

The Kona Airport is perfectly situated just north of the city center and only a few miles away from some of the coast’s most picturesque resorts and beach towns. Grab a rental car (it’s the easiest way to get around the island), and make your way to your hotel.

Stay Here: If you’re seeking restoration and relaxation, don’t miss the 32-acre Fairmont Orchid. The resort rests right on Pauoa Bay, which affords you serene waters for snorkeling or outrigger canoeing. You’ll also have access to an 18-hole golf course, tennis courts, and half a dozen restaurants if you decide to blow off your itinerary and just stay put with your feet in the sand. Kona sits on the desert side of the Big Island, but you’ll never know it with the plush landscaping and lavish waterfalls all around you at this destination hotel.

Stretch and Swim: Once you get to your hotel, unpack, grab a Mai Tai, and hit the beach. Stretch those legs by heading into the water for a bit of snorkeling or paddle boarding. Most on-the-beach hotels, like Fairmont Orchid, offer equipment rental as part of your resort fee, or you can pay an additional fee for unlimited rentals during your stay. You’ll see paddle boarders and canoers dot the horizon from your spot on the beach. Don’t be afraid to go out and join them.

Grab a late lunch or early dinner at the hotel, then jump in your car. (Leave your swimsuit on.) We’re headed to another Hawaii experience like no other.

Attend an Underwater Ballet: A night snorkel with manta rays consistently ranks atop lists of the coolest vacation experiences—underwater, on land, or anywhere. The good news is, you’re just a few miles from perhaps the best spot on the planet to observe these majestic creatures feeding on plankton. Claim your reservation with Sea Quest Hawaii before you leave the mainland; these boats fill up fast. When you arrive, you’ll be treated to a quick boat ride out to the feeding area, and you’ll float (a trained professional is with you, guiding your experience at all times) and wait. Manta rays come into the off-shore area along the western coast to feed. If you’re lucky, they’ll want to feed really, really close to your board. Prepare for squeals of delight! (Just don’t reach out to touch them.)

Grab a Late-Night Bite: If all that floating and manta-spotting excitement worked up your appetite, stop by Huggo’s on the Rocks before you head back to the resort. This late-night spot (open until 10 p.m.) serves up burgers and sandwiches, but you’ll also find local favorites like Furikake Crusted Fish and Potato-Mac Salad.

Pololu Valley
Feng Wei Photography / Getty Images

Day 2: Hiking, Waterfalls, and Historic Hawaii

Your internal alarm clock is likely to ring early, so embrace the post-dawn hours by getting a jump on a day of majestic hikes and breathtaking vistas. Grab a cup of Kona coffee (you’re in the right place for the freshest brew) and breakfast at Orchid Court or Kimo Bean Coffee Co.

Peek the Petroglyphs: Just north of Pauoa Bay sits the Puakō Petroglyph field, one of two petroglyph fields north of Kona. Here, you can see about 1,200 petroglyphs (or carvings on rock surfaces made by native islanders centuries ago). The park opens early, at 6:30 a.m., so get out and explore while the sun isn’t so hot. The park’s rocky surfaces turn sizzling during the heat of the day.

While you’re there, walk over to the Holoholokai Beach Park. This isn’t a swimming beach—you don’t have to stay long—but it feels quite prehistoric with its rocky shore and nearby petroglyphs.  Don’t expect much sand to walk on; this beach is made mostly of black lava rocks and pieces of white coral. For a state famous for its varied hues of shoreline, this is unique even among those.

Related: Perfect Weekend on Hawaii's Big Island

Bask in the Kohala Coast: Take a look around; you’re on the Kohala Coast, one of the most famed shores in all of America. In fact, we named Hapuna Beach one of the best beaches in Hawaii, and these are the shores you envision when you daydream about a Hawaiian vacation: tawny sands, azure water, and lapping waters (at least in the summer). Spend your morning here basking in the sun and suds. You can rent beach chairs and umbrellas; you’ll pay a $5 entrance fee. Snorkel, nap, repeat.

On your way to Hapuna Beach State Park, go off the main road for a minute to grab a malasada, or Portugese doughnuts that are now synonymous with Hawaiian bakeries. These light, fluffy fried dough balls can be eaten plain (usually with a cinnamon-sugar dusting), but look for filled options like lilikoi and guava. The Manuel Malasada Food Truck sits at the corner of Highway 19 and Puako Beach Drive.

Mosey Over to Merriman’s: Merriman’s Hawaii restaurant group is renowned for their commitment to local ingredient sourcing and regional cuisine. Good news is you’re not far from their Big Island spot in Waimea. You’ll want to slip on a sun dress or khaki shorts and a polo for this restaurant. It’s casual, but not straight-from-the-water casual. Lunch features include the Island Fish Sandwich and Kalua Pig & Sweet Onion Quesadillas.

Hike Off Lunch: You’re sitting in the middle of the island, between the leeward and windward sides, so keep driving to see an entirely different landscape, Hawaii’s lush rainforest, and stop for a hike. This northern Kohala coast has waterfalls, dense natural reserves, and lush coastal forests. You could pick a marked spot, pull over, and begin hiking, but if you’re looking for a promised vista, head for the Kilauea’iki trail, which is a four-mile hike round trip. You’ll begin in a lush tropical forest, hike down to the Kilauea’iki crater, and walk past steaming fissures in the earth’s surface.

If it’s scenic views for Instagram stories you seek, however, head for Polulu Valley. This shorter hike (2.5 miles round trip) is easier and rewards you with rugged black sand beaches and verdant tropical cliffs. Be sure to catch your breath at the end of the hike when you reach the Polulu Valley Lookout.

Head Home for Dinner: You’re likely tired and perhaps a bit sweaty, so retrace your drive to get back to your resort. Shower and refresh, and then head for dinner either at your hotel or in a nearby spot. At Fairmont Orchid, the Hale Kai Restaurant is laidback and overlooking the shore. Executive Chef David Viviano works up seasonal menus that spotlight locally grown (some of it on the restor’s property) produce and fresh-caught seafood. You may arrive in time to spot the sunset. Snap plenty of pictures.

Staying closer to Kona? Make your way to Harbor House at Honokahau Harbor, an open-air dining room with a killer burger and fresh poke. It’s the right place to relax, imbibe in a few cocktails, and pat yourself on the back for a productive day.

Day 3: Food Highlights or Hawaiian History

When you rise and shine on your last day in Kona, you have several options to fill out your final hours. Most of these are in the same walkable area of Kailua-Kona, so go ahead and pack your suitcase, check out of the hotel, and head south for this island hub.

Visit a Coffee Farm: If coffee runs in your veins, you’ll be happy as a clam to see where it’s grown, harvested, roasted, and packaged for you. Tours on the Kona Coffee Living History Farm begin at 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Adults cost $15. You’ll learn about the pioneering coffee farmers, and you can walk among the coffee trees, see the original 1920s farmhouse, and spot costumed workers demonstrating tasks of the working farm. Don’t leave without loading up on coffee for home.

Tour a Palace: Hulihe‘e Palace once housed royalty. Now, the 19th century home sits in the heart of Historic Kailua Village and showcases Victorian artifacts from the reign of King Kalākaua and Queen Kapiʻolani. The palace is a popular spot for outdoor concerts and other events, so check the calendar to see if anything special is happening while you’re there.

Eat Like a Local: Just across the street from Hulihe’e Palace is Umeke’s Poke Bowls and Local Style Lunch Plates. There’s nothing more classic Hawaii than this menu, complete with Lau Lau, Kauai Shrimp, and Poke. You can grab a few bags of local chips and snacks before you head for the airport.

You’re also only a block away from the Kona Farmers’ Market, which is open Wednesday through Sunday, 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. There you’ll find locally-grown produce (buy only what you can eat; you can take anything on the plane), handmade goods, and purveyors of soaps, shirts, salts, and more. If you haven’t grabbed souvenirs, this might be the place to stock up.

What’s more, across the street is One Aloha Shave Ice Co., a popular spot for the sky-high bowls of delicate ice shavings flavored with fruit juices. Try strawberry shave ice with azuki beans or The POG, a combination of passion fruit (lilikoi), orange, and guava juices. POG juice is a big local favorite.