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Hawaii for Beginners: A Guide to the Big Island of Hawai’i

Before I touched down, my Big Island knowledge was pretty much limited to the occasional volcano eruption and the stellar coffee reputation. Now, after having explored the Big Island for 10 days – I’m excited to share with you what we did, what we learned, and what I think are those “must-dos” experiences for your first trip to the Big Island! 

Hey there, I'm Faith, your adventure guide. Let's unveil hidden gems, introduce you to places you never knew existed, and equip you with the ultimate travel tools to redefine your journey like never before.

As many of you may already know, I’m a fan of making trip maps (they’re like my adventure blueprints), so of course before our trip, I went into full-on research mode. I scoured the web for intel on the best hikes, jaw-dropping viewpoints, and beaches that were perfect for a bit of snorkeling and bodyboarding. Oh, and the ones that looked like they belong on postcards – you know, gotta rack up those insta-worthy moments when in Hawaii. 

Not just that, I also tapped into the wisdom of my amazing Instagram community. Getting first-hand recommendations is a big part of how I like to travel – real folks sharing real experiences – no ads or no generic lists, just solid recommendations from people who genuinely enjoyed a place. 

Which is exactly what you are going to get on my beginners guide to the Big Island. While I take you through all of the corners of Hawai’i, I’m going to share the spots I hit, the grub I chowed down on, and the sandy spots where I wiggled my toes. We’re taking a laid-back tour of every nook and cranny on this rad island – from the chill north with the Kohala Mountain Road Scenic Drive and the Waimea coastline to the most southern tip at South Point, where cliff jumps and one of the world’s rarest beaches await.

Understand The Big Island

Maximinizing your adventure by choosing where to stay...

Let’s get down to the basics before we delve into the details of our Big Island adventure. Choosing the right place to stay on this vast island can be a challenge, given that it’s twice the size of all the other Hawaiian islands combined.

First, jot down the adventures you’re itching to experience. Look to my Google Map of the Big Island for some ideas.

Given the island’s size, your accommodations should allow enough time to explore all the must-see spots. While a week might suffice for smaller islands (like Kauai and Maui), the Big Island deserves more attention. I’d recommend at least one week, but ideally, shoot for two if your schedule allows. 

Here’s the plan: divide your stay between the West Side (Kailua-Kona) and the East Side (Hilo). It avoids unnecessary driving and lets you savor the distinct vibes of both halves. If you’ve got just a week, go for four in Kailua-Kona and three nights in Hilo — it strikes the right balance.

Accommodations on the Kailua-Kona Coast

When it comes to picking the right accommodations for you –  it pretty much comes down to budget and location. 

🛏️ If you are working with a low budget – you might want to consider a beach hostel in Kailua-Kona.  From what I found, the hostels in Kona are exactly what you’d hope – clean, chill vibes, big windows, and lots of outdoor space to soak in that fresh sea air. They’ve got a mix of dorms to fit any vibe, whether you’re into the girl gang, mixed company, or your own private chill zone. Plus, they’re cool enough to hook you up with beach gear, so no need to drag your own stuff around. And every Kona hostel is just a hop, skip, and jump away from the beach and other cool outdoor spots.

🏨 Now, if the hostel scene isn’t your jam but you still want to keep it real close to town, Kona’s got you covered with a bunch of budget-friendly beach hotels. Staying close means you’re minutes from the beach and all those outdoor chill spots. Hang closer to Kailua Kona’s downtown, and you’ve got easy access to restaurants, bars, and some after-dark fun. As you venture a bit out, the hostel vibe gets even more laid-back, but trust me, you can still let loose!

🏖️ Feeling a bit fancier? Ready for the resort life? Well, you might need to cruise up the coast about 30 minutes, where a whole lineup of resorts awaits – from the swanky Four Seasons to Waikoloa Village and some cool boutique joints. 

Now, there are perks and quirks to this move. On the upside, everything you need is right there – beautiful beaches, well-kept spaces, sweet walking spots, pools, restaurants, and even grocery stores. But, and there’s always a but, you’re kinda in your own bubble. That could be cool or not so cool, depending on your vibe. Everything in the resort towns might hit your wallet a bit harder, and you might miss out on the full local scene. To dive into where the locals hang, you’ll need to venture off the resort turf, and that’ll be about a 30-minute drive. So, pick your spot – beach hostel vibes, budget-friendly hotels, or the full resort treatment. Kona’s got it all!

Views of the Hilton Waikoloa Village from ʻAnaehoʻomalu Beach – Drone Photo by Ara Moses, @decapture on Instagram

Acoomodations on the Hilo / Hamakua Coast

Experience a slice of Hawaii’s past in Hilo – a laid-back, serene vibe not often found today. Despite being the largest town on the island, Hilo maintains its authentic Hawaiian charm, boasting small eateries, beautiful city parks, and lively local events.

Now, when it comes to finding a place to crash, it can be a bit tricky. The hotels on this side of the island don’t flaunt the posh luxury you’ll find on the west (Kona) coast; they might be a tad run-down. We opted for the Grand Naniloa, and while we’re usually huge Hilton fans, this spot didn’t quite hit the mark – cleanliness, customer service, and standards all fell short. 

For a more intimate (though less luxurious) experience, bed and breakfasts offer a charming way to connect with the town. 

If you’re keen on hostels, Arnott’s Lodge & Hiking Adventures and Hilo Bay Hostel are popular choices. Don’t forget to scope out Airbnb and VRBO for room rentals and beach cabins – they might just be the cozy haven you’re looking for.

How to get around...

When it comes to navigating the vast expanse of the Big Island, let’s cut to the chase – you’re gonna need wheels. As soon as you touch down at the airport, a shuttle whisks you on a quick 2-minute ride to the rental companies. While the Big Island is a breeze to traverse, certain gems like Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa demand a high-clearance 4-wheel drive. Beware, major rental companies like Hertz and Dollar won’t green-light your off-road ambitions and might hit you with a hefty fee if their trackers catch you sneaking into these areas. My advice? Look into local outfits or give Turo a spin for these rugged rides. 

Uber and Lyft are in the mix, but keep in mind their coverage thins out beyond Hilo and Kailua-Kona. We tried summoning an Uber in Hilo post-midnight post-bar-closing; it was a no-go. 

If you’re feeling frugal, there’s the Hele-on bus, but brace yourself for lengthy transit times and sparse connections. Designed for Big Island commuters, this bus gets you around, but it’s not exactly a speed demon. 

Now, guided tours are a solid bet if you plan to park yourself in one spot and only break out the wheels for sightseeing. Sure, you sacrifice a bit of spontaneity, but the comfort and lack of planning can be a sweet deal. From bus tours to taxis and private limos, these tours come in all shapes. Just be sure to check if they pick up from your hotel, especially along the Kona coast. 

The Kona Coast Down to South Point

Alright, let’s dive into the good stuff! So, when it comes to the Big Island, Kailua-Kona is like the kickoff point for many – not just because it’s got the biggest airport. This 60-mile district on the west side of the Big Island of Hawaii is a jackpot of sunny weather, pristine beaches, and family-friendly vibes that draw in travelers from all corners. 

We were on the hunt for good beaches for snorkeling, coffee, and a ton of tasty eats. So, here’s the lowdown – my firsthand experiences and top picks based on what we managed to try. Let’s get into it!

Beaches

Keep in mind that we were staying 30 minutes up the road from the main town of Kona at The Bay Club, in the Waikoloa Village. Therefore, while we were there we had to check out some beaches up that way. So let’s start at the top and work our way down. 

Giada’s Beach – Located in Waikoloa Village, Giada’s Beach is a hidden gem just a short stroll from the parking area from the edge of the Hilton Grand Vacation. On to the beach, you’ll encounter a marsh with small fish and shrimp pools. Giada’s Beach is a chill spot for catching an easy sunset, although it’s worth noting that the terrain is rocky. If you plan on staying for a while, consider bringing a chair, and I’d recommend footwear with decent soles for added comfort. Giada’s Beach probably isn’t high on my recommendation list unless you are staying in the Village and are looking for a less-crowded beach spot. 

ʻAnaehoʻomalu Beach ʻAnaehoʻomalu Beach, or A-Bay for the locals, is a chill public beach sitting pretty on the Kohala Coast of the Big Island. Tucked in front of the Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort and hanging out next to the Lava Lava Beach Club, this crescent-shaped bay boasts golden sands and swaying palm trees. Considered one of the most scenic and laid-back spots on the Kohala Coast, A-Bay is perfect for family-friendly fun like safe swimming, snorkeling, and even scuba diving. The ocean currents play nice here, making it ideal for various water activities. You’ll find a spacious public parking lot and beach entrance just south of the resort, and snagging a beach chair is a first-come, first-serve kind of deal. 

Kiholo Bay – This magical spot stands out as one of the Big Island’s uniquely scenic hikes, providing a serene and rarely crowded escape into nature. Kiholo Bay, a hidden gem on the Big Island, is a protected sanctuary featuring serene turquoise tidepools that are perfect for a leisurely swim or some fantastic snorkeling. The bay’s enchanting blue waters are embraced by black lava rock, creating a stunning contrast that’s just waiting to be captured, perhaps with a sweet drone shot. Reaching this secluded spot involves a 2.8-mile round-trip hike. Make sure to pack plenty of water, snacks, and sun protection for a comfortable exploration of Kiholo Bay.

Manini’owali Beach, Kua Bay – Manini’owali Beach, or Kua Bay, is a hidden gem on the west coast of the Big Island. With its crystal-clear waters and calm waves, it’s perfect for sunbathing, swimming, snorkeling, or kayaking. We actually found this to be the best snorkeling on the side of the island. The three-quarter-mile white-sand beach, framed by lava rock and a turquoise reef, offers stunning ocean views. Catch the warm pink hues of a tropical sunset and take a refreshing dip in the pristine waters of Kua Bay.

Makalawena Beach – Makalawena Beach is a little more difficult to get to and is a bit of a bumpy ride. I would suggest researching this one before you go because from the articles I found, it recommends 4-wheel drive and high clearance. If you don’t want to do the drive, you can also park at the entrance, off the highway before the road gets rough. Makalawena Beach Trail Details 

Makalawena Beach is perfect for swimming in calm waters, snorkeling around lava rock outcroppings, and bodyboarding. This beach is a picturesque haven, especially for drone shots. The small coves and turquoise water surrounded by black lava rock create a dreamy landscape. Though we missed it on our Big Island trip, it came highly recommended by our adventure-travel friends.

Kohanaiki Beach Park, Pine Trees Surfing Beach – Kohanaiki Beach Park, or Pine Trees Beach, sits 7 miles north of Kona and is a favorite among local surfers due to its consistent waves. The beach features a mix of rocks and sand, with no reef protection, making the nearshore waves rough. Swimming and snorkeling aren’t ideal here. Nevertheless, the parking area often fills with surfers and bodyboarders. Even if you’re not hitting the waves, like me, you can enjoy the unique sight of planes flying overhead.

Magic Sands Beach Park – Magic Sands Beach Park is a gem for a chill beach day. The white sand offers a cozy spot to relax and take in the ocean vibes. You’ll find a convenient, free, and sizable parking lot just across the street, making access a breeze. With nearby food options and a vigilant lifeguard on duty, you’re all set for a worry-free beach outing. While Magic Sands Beach is on the smaller side and tends to draw a crowd, it’s a neat spot for some beginner-friendly bodyboarding.

Kealakekau Bay (Captain James Cook Monument) – Kealakekua Bay, near the town of Captain Cook along the Kona coast, is often hailed as the ultimate snorkeling spot in all of the Hawaiian Islands. This marine haven boasts vibrant reefs teeming with over 400 species of fish, all under the protective umbrella of Hawaii’s largest Marine Life Conservation District.

To experience the most extraordinary snorkeling, brace yourself for a bit of effort. The reef’s dazzling heart is accessible either through a steep hike or a boat ride. The conservation measures in place ensure a serene environment, making the marine life here surprisingly relaxed around human visitors. So, whether you’re into snorkeling or scuba diving, Kealakekua Bay promises an unforgettable underwater adventure!

Honaunau Bay – Honaunau Bay, fondly known as “Two Step” is a turquoise haven against rugged lava rock that boasts one of Hawaii’s most impressive coral reefs. See diverse fish, from playful triggerfish to charming pufferfish. As a prime spot for snorkeling and SCUBA diving, Honaunau Bay’s Two Step entry, a smooth pahoehoe lava rock shelf, offers easy ocean access. 

Food

Let’s talk food in Hawai’i – it’s a culinary adventure! Keep it classic with poke, savor traditional Hawaiian delights like Kalua pork, and delicious Malasadas,  and don’t forget the Spam musubi. During our Kona coast escapade, we hit up some gems based on personal recommendations, and each stop was incredible.

For a full feast, check out my Google Map of the Big Island loaded with more fantastic spots – restaurants, food trucks, shaved ice, and more! 

The Kona Coffee Belt

Have you heard of the of the Kona Coffee Belt? Nestled along Kona’s renowned “gold” coast, this strip of land, stretching about 30 miles long and 2 to 3 miles wide, has garnered acclaim for hosting some of the world’s finest coffee-growing conditions.

Spanning elevations between approximately 700 ft and 2500 ft, the Kona Coffee Belt covers the lower humid zone, gracing the west slopes of both Hualalai and Mauna Loa mountains. It’s no exaggeration to call this zone a coffee paradise – many argue it boasts some of the best coffee in the world. 

A stop to at least one of the Kona Coffee Farms in this belt is an absolute must. While you’re there, why not dive deeper into the art of coffee-making with a tour? Even if you’re not a coffee connoisseur (like myself), the process is fascinating to learn about, and the energy boost from the aromatic surroundings is undeniable. Many of these tours are open to the public, and some are even free. For a comprehensive list of the most popular coffee farms and their tour times, check out my Google Map of the Big Island

Exploring South Point - The Southernmost Point of the United States

South Point Cliff Jumping and Trail

Want the ultimate Big Island adventure? Then you have to make the drive down to South Point, the southernmost point in the United States. As you stand on the cliff’s edge, where nothing but a vast ocean separates you from Antarctica. Known as Ka Lea, this site is believed to be the first landing place of Polynesians in the Hawaiian Islands around 750 A.D. The rocks are adorned with old canoe mooring holes, showcasing a connection to the island’s rich history, still utilized by local fishermen today.

Beyond being a bucket list checkmark, South Point is famed for more than its geographical significance. Thrill-seekers frequent the area for its renowned cliff jumping and cave jumping. With jumping platforms atop 40-foot cliffs, the experience is both exhilarating and picturesque. A sketchy ladder secured to the cliffside provides the sole route for swimmers to ascend after the plunge.

A word of caution, though: South Point’s allure comes with risks. The ocean currents can be robust and unpredictable, leading to tragic incidents. Before attempting any cliff jumps, carefully assess the ocean and wind conditions. Your safety is paramount, so if conditions are adverse, it’s best to postpone the adventure. South Point beckons with its beauty, history, and adrenaline-pumping activities, but always prioritize safety when answering the call.

The Rare Papakōlea Green Sand Beach

The super rare Papakolea Beach, also known as Green Sands Beach, in my opinion, is a must-do on the Big Island. Nestled within Mahana Bay near South Point, it’s a true phenomenon, with only four green sand beaches in the entire world. So – not only will you be chilling at the southernmost point in the U.S., but you’ll also witness sparkling green sands, unlike anything you’ve ever seen.

Fair warning, getting there is a bit difficult.  There are three ways to get here: hike the 3-mile trail (6 miles roundtrip), drive in a 4×4 high-clearance vehicle (but beware of tricky sand roads), or catch a ride with a local. Yep, locals in trucks at the trailhead offer rides for around $20-$50 per person. It might seem a bit unconventional, standing in the back of a pick-up truck on bumpy 4×4 roads, but hey, it’s all part of the adventure. The hike is easy, but long. It’s a beautiful trek down the coast, weaving through sand dunes. At the end, you’ll descend down the cinder cone, a bit tricky but totally doable. Pro tip: wear those trusty hiking shoes until you hit the beach. I would highly recommend downloading this trail before you go. There is zero service and the trail is difficult to navigate, especially in the dark. I suggest using AllTrials to help you navigate the trail. 

Swimming? You can, but be cautious – the southern shore’s surf is notorious for its strength, and no lifeguards are on duty. Now, Papakolea Beach is as off-the-grid as it gets – no services at the trailhead or the beach. So, plan ahead, pack it in, pack it out, and let’s Leave No Trace.

Kohala Mountain Scenic Drive and Waimea Coastline

Embark on an unforgettable drive from Kona to Hilo, a journey that unfolds the diverse beauty of the Big Island. The trip takes approximately 1.5 to 2 hours, depending on the route you choose. To get the full Big Island experience, I recommend taking the northern route on your way to Hilo and the middle route past Mauna Kea on your return to Kona. This ensures you witness the island’s varied landscapes and environments.

Begin your day early, as this drive offers a full day of adventures. If you’re leaving from Kona to Hilo, make your way up to Pololu Lookout. En route, you’ll encounter the charming town of Hawi, known for its artistic vibe and a few cozy spots for coffee and dining. At Pololu Lookout, take in the panoramic views or venture down the trail to the black sands beach—one of the few public hikes offering a glimpse of the stunning Kohala Forest Reserve.

Exploring the northern coastline is a must on the Big Island. The Pololu Trail showcases the Kona side, while the Waipi’o Valley Lookout, accessible from the Hilo side, provides another perspective. Although recent seismic activity has closed the Waipi’o Valley access road, locals offer tours for an insider’s view. Alternatively, a helicopter tour offers a breathtaking aerial perspective.

Continue your journey on the Kohala Mountain Road Scenic, meandering through farmlands until you reach Waimea. Indulge in delightful culinary stops like the Waimea Butcher Shop and the local farmer’s market. A bit further along, Tex’s Drive-In awaits, offering the island’s best malasadas. Try the Bavarian cream flavor while they’re hot! Tex’s is renowned for its classic Hawaiian fare and burgers, serving as your gateway to the Waipi’o Valley Lookout.

Tex's Drive In
Polololu Trail
Fruit Stands

The Waipio Valley

The Waipio Valley, often referred to as the “Valley of the Kings”, is located on the Hamakua Coast. The overlook features a long mortared black lava rock wall running parallel to the cliff, with a weathered sidewalk sloping down to meet the narrow one-lane road that winds steeply down to the valley floor. Standing by the rock wall and peering through the mist rolling down from towering cliffs, you’re treated to a panoramic view of Waipio. The cliffside, adorned with lush green shrubs, descends to reveal the valley floor and its expansive black sand beach, bordered by striking green and gold cliffs. The Waipio Valley Overlook has rightfully earned its place as an essential stop on every traveler’s itinerary.

Akaka Falls State Park

And make sure you leave time for ‘Akaka Falls State Park. The star of the show is the magnificent ʻAkaka Falls, a stunning 442-foot (135 m) waterfall nestled in the heart of the park. Situated approximately 11 miles north of Hilo, west of Honomū, the park is a serene oasis located off the Hawaii Belt Road (Route 19).

To see the falls, take the ʻAkaka Falls Loop Trail for a short 0.4-mile hike from the parking lot. As you explore the park, you’ll encounter not only the breathtaking ʻAkaka Falls but also the 100-foot-tall Kahūnā Falls. The lush rainforest surrounding the falls is a treasure trove of natural beauty, boasting wild orchids, bamboo groves, and cascading ferns.

To access ‘Akaka Falls State Park, there’s an entrance fee of $5 per person or $10 per vehicle. In case the parking lot reaches capacity, additional parking spaces are available on the road leading to Akaka Falls. 

Hilo Coast & Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park

Exploring Hilo - The Eastern Coast

Hilo, on the east side of the Big Island, might not boast the same buzz as its western counterpart, but it’s a gem that deserves a leisurely exploration. The city offers a mix of charming shops, enticing restaurants, intriguing museums, and inviting beaches and parks. It’s the perfect spot to unwind, taking in the relaxed pace and soaking up the local vibes.

Check out the majestic Rainbow Falls, a 24-meter cascade surrounded by lush rainforest – if you’re lucky, catch a glimpse of the rainbow in the morning mist.

For a delightful culinary experience, head to Ola Brew, where Asian-American fusion dishes and a fantastic selection of beers await.

Pineapples is another must-visit, known for its open-air bar and fabulous cocktail menu. Try the ‘pow’ served in a whole pineapple for an extra kick.

Don’t miss the chance to spot sea turtles at Carlsmith Beach Park or take a stroll around Coconut Island in Hilo Bay.

And since Hilo is the gateway to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, embark on a day trip to witness the awe-inspiring landscapes shaped by active volcanoes.

Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, nestled on the Big Island, stands as a testament to the awe-inspiring forces that shape our planet. This remote haven boasts towering fiery volcanoes, a rugged volcanic coastline, intricate lava tubes, and lush tropical greenery.

While the Kīlauea Caldera draws much attention, the park’s less-visited areas, such as the Kahuku District and Mauna Loa, harbor some of its most enchanting adventures.

If you are interested in really seeing the crater, and doing a little hiking while at the park, my suggestion is the Kīlauea Iki and Crater Rim Trail, offering a 3.4-mile journey through diverse landscapes, from wet rainforests down to the depths of the volcanic craters. Add the Nāhuku (Thurston Lava Tube)  for an easy yet captivating 0.4-mile trail addition. 

For a unique perspective, a Hawaiʻi Volcanoes helicopter tour provides a bird’s-eye view of the dynamic terrain, especially during active eruptions.

Chain of Craters Road

Chain of Craters Road serves as the gateway from Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park to the island’s rugged shoreline. Beyond being a scenic drive, the road unveils a trove of natural wonders within the park, featuring craters, lava tubes, and magnificent rock arches. 

The trailhead, positioned 22 miles from the park’s visitor center, marks the starting point for exploration. Embarking on a 3/4-mile walk along the old section of the road reveals the remnants of a lava flow from Pu’u O’o vent, which ceased abruptly in 2018. For those seeking a shorter stroll, a mere 1000 feet leads to the striking Holei Sea Arch, a captivating rock formation connecting the cliff top to the ocean below—a must-see photo opportunity. The road offers four additional stops, inviting people to walk to cliff edges for panoramic ocean views. 

Downloadable Google Maps of The Hawaiian Islands

Let’s face it, nobody has time to sift through endless blogs and Instagram posts to discover these hidden gems. Skip the scrolling and start living.

🌺 Oahu: Access the best hikes, including the legal Stairway to Heaven, chill at pristine beaches, savor shrimp delights at top North Shore food trucks, and explore my preferred photography spots.

🏞️ Kauai: Enjoy the best hikes like Awa’awapuhi Trail, snorkel at breathtaking beaches, discover secret waterfalls, explore photography hotspots, and venture into places you never knew existed – all at your fingertips.

🌋 Big Island: Immerse yourself in the mesmerizing blend of natural wonders and cultural richness. From the fiery spectacle of active volcanoes in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park to lush rainforests, PrettylilBigIsland has it all. The Big Island beckons adventure with snorkeling, hiking, stargazing, and more, making it a captivating destination for nature enthusiasts and cultural explorers.

🌴 Maui: Known as the ‘Valley Isle,’ Maui is a tropical paradise offering natural beauty and outdoor adventures. From the famed Road to Hana with cascading waterfalls to the sun-drenched beaches of Wailea and Ka’anapali, Maui boasts diverse landscapes. Dive into crystal-clear waters for snorkeling and whale-watching, hike bamboo forests and dormant volcanoes, and savor local cuisine. 

Or grab all my Hawaii Google Maps in my Hawaiian Island bundle.

I’ve dedicated countless hours researching and tracking all my stops around Hawaii during our last trip. These are the maps I use for all my trip planning, vetting the best destinations and most Instagrammable photo ops. Take them with you on your travels and let the islands enchant you!

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