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A national park filled with volcanoes. Where do we sign?
Photograph: Shutterstock/Alexey Kamenskiy

The 22 best things to do on the Big Island

Compiling a list of the best things to do on the Big Island is basically making a list of things to do in paradise.

Written by
Lori A May
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Welcome to paradise. Hawaii is as close as you can get to that fabled place, the perfect place to bust out the hammock and let the world do its thing. The best things to do on the Big Island include plenty of relaxation, but there is more to paradise than dozing in the shade of eternity.

Hawaii is beloved for its lava field trails, rainforests, and shimmering waterfalls. Nature is king here, but humans have left their mark, and the local produce is worth celebrating and then some. Throw in fascinating museums, celebrations, and some of the best hotels going, and you’ve got a famous destination that lives up to its billing. The beaches? Yeah, you’re going to want to stay there forever. Don’t forget the hammock.

Best things to do in Big Island, Hawaii

Punaluu Black Sand Beach
Photograph: Steve Bruckmann / Shutterstock.com

1. Punaluu Black Sand Beach

Take a stroll along Punaluu Beach and its black basalt sand, a stunner created by volcanic lava flowing into the ocean. This is a popular destination for tourists and wildlife; be aware and respectful of the green sea turtles resting along the beach. Punaluu Beach is also fantastic for snorkeling, but be mindful of strong currents.

Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden
Photograph: MNStudio / Shutterstock.com

2. Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden

For an easy hike or leisurely stroll, visit the trails at Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden. Paths wind through rainforests and towering palms from around the world, offering up-close encounters with more than two thousand species of plants. You’ll also pass several waterfalls and get a nice view of the Pacific from this Onomea Bay sanctuary. Self-guided tours take about 90 minutes.

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The Big Island isn’t just about coffee. Take a drive along the Hāmākua Coast to Honokaa, a historic village on the northeast side of the island. Make an appointment to visit the family-owned Mauna Kea Tea farm, where you’ll sample organic pan-fired Hawaiian teas full of local flavors like cacao, coconut, ginger, and turmeric.

Visit two active volcanoes, Kīlauea and Mauna Loa, at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Watch mist rise from the vents of Halemaʻumaʻu Crater, then follow the narrow path into Thurston Lava Tube for an underworld volcanic experience. The cave has some lighting to guide you along the trail, but bring a flashlight if you’re claustrophobic.

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The macadamia nut is not only a popular Hawaiian treat, but it’s also a staple in local recipes. Take a self-guided tour of the Mauna Loa macadamia nut orchards and processing plant, where you’ll see husking and roasting in action, then visit the on-site shop to sample flavored nuts you won’t find in stores.

Sunset Luau at Waikoloa Beach
Photograph: Kuma / Shutterstock.com

6. Sunset Luau at Waikoloa Beach

The sunset luau at Waikoloa Beach includes a huge buffet of local entrees and an open bar. Watch the ceremonial unveiling of the kālua pig, then enjoy a night of Polynesian song and dance. You’ll snap great selfies as the colorful sky changes along ‘Anaeho’omalu Bay.

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7. Punalu’u Bake Shop

A favorite among locals, malasadas are a decadent Portuguese donut made from egg-heavy dough and are the go-to treat for Fat Tuesday, though you’ll find these sweet treats all over the island, year-round. Punalu’u Bake Shop has an amazing lilikoi glazed malasada combining sweet and tart island flavors. Be sure to sample the Hawaiian sweetbread while visiting the cafe.

Manta Ray Moonlight Swim
Photograph: Sean Steininger / Shutterstock.com

8. Manta Ray Moonlight Swim

For a unique marine experience on the Kohala Coast, book a snorkel excursion to swim with manta rays under the moonlight. Zooplankton is drawn to the cove lighting along Kauna‘oa Bay, and manta rays show up for nightly feedings. Reservations are required, as groups are limited to six snorkelers.

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Visit a Kona coffee plantation tucked along the slopes of Hualālai, an active volcano. From the farm’s 3,200-foot elevation, you’ll get a panoramic view of the Kona coastline before sampling freshly roasted coffee—be sure to say hello to resident cat Hubert. Free daily tours take place on the hour between 10am and 4pm.

Whether you miss your pooch back home or are looking to fill a pet void in your life, you can share some animal love on the island with a shelter dog. The local humane society lets qualified visitors sign out a dog for the day to accompany them on an island adventure. The dogs benefit from social interaction and exercise, while you might be tempted by a possible adoption!

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Visit Akaka Falls State Park for seven zip line courses that soar above waterfalls, ravines, and a lush forest; you’ll get an incredible view flying over the 250-foot tall KoleKole waterfall. You’ll need to be comfortable hiking half a mile up uneven surfaces, but the view and adrenaline rush is worth the effort.

Sunshine Helicopters
Photograph: Shutterstock/Benny Marty

12. Sunshine Helicopters

Make the most of a short visit by flying over waterfalls, ocean cliffs, and volcanic mountains on a helicopter tour. You’ll soar above lava vents and through lush valleys and get an unbelievable view of Kīlauea. For the most stunning vistas, board an early morning flight when the sun is fresh, and ocean mist rolls off the landscape.

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Did you know Hawaii once had a thriving railroad system? Hawaii’s sugar production relied on the railway for mill delivery, but there was also a popular passenger service carrying visitors across the island. This museum details the height of Hawaii’s Consolidated Railway until it closed following irreparable damage caused by the 1946 tsunami.  

If you’ve ever dreamed about opening your own coffee shop, sign up for the roastmaster experience at UCC in Holualoa. You’ll tour a working coffee farm and then learn about the roasting process, from green beans to perfect cups. Earn bragging rights by taking home a bag of your own private-label Kona coffee.

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Mauna Kea Art Collection
Photograph: Courtesy Booking.com

15. Mauna Kea Art Collection

Visit Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, developed by art enthusiast Laurance S. Rockefeller, to explore a one-of-a-kind gallery. The Mauna Kea Art Collection is free to the public and includes unique works from the Pacific Rim, Oceana, and Asia—free guided art tours are available on Saturday mornings. Leave a lei offering for the pink granite Buddha sculpted in twelfth-century India.  

16. Star Gaze Hawaii

You could trek up Mauna Kea for a stargazing session, but you don’t have to do so to get an incredible stargazing experience. Easily accessible for the whole family, sea-level stargazing is possible—and magnificent. Join local astronomers on the Kohala Coast for a seaside look at the stars without hiking in the dark.

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Kapoho Tide Pools
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Wikimedia Commons/Bob Linsdell

17. Kapoho Tide Pools

It’s a bit of a mission to get to Kapoho Tide Pools, but so worth it if you like the idea of wading in fresh water warmed by volcanic rock. You’ll park in a residential neighborhood and walk a path to the water; wear water shoes and keep an eye out for sharp lava rock underfoot. You’ll see plenty of marine life and colorful coral while you soak.

Satisfy your sweet tooth during a chocolate tasting at Kahi Ola Mau Farm. Located in the town of Honokaa on the Hamakua Coast, the farm is home to more than three hundred cacao trees, along with pineapple and vanilla orchards. Learn about the bean-to-bar production process while sampling fresh treats made on-site. Reservations are required for weekend-only tastings.

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Every Hawaiian island has its unique take on shortbread cookies, and you’ll find Big Island flavor in Hilo. Watch candy makers at work through a viewing area, hand-dipping this signature island treat. Sample fresh coffee and sweets like a milk chocolate dipped macadamia nut shortbread cookie. Try to visit early in the day to avoid tour bus crowds.

If you have ever been mesmerized watching surfers at play, why not try it out for yourself? Hawaii Lifeguard Surf Instructors are Red Cross-certified instructors who will ensure you have a fun time in a safe environment. They provide you with a board and everything else you need as you learn to surf the waves at Kahalu'u Beach.

 

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Temporarily closed, slated to reopen in early 2023

Explore exhibits detailing Hawaii’s tsunami history and learn about local disaster preparedness. You’ll see models comparing Hilo before and after the 1946 tsunami and absorb stories from disaster recovery throughout the Pacific. Through interactive displays and exhibits, visitors learn more about the science of this natural phenomenon.

Visit the town of Volcano, HI, for a unique wine-tasting experience. Volcano Winery produces a range of local flavors, from pure grape to fruit blends and macadamia nut honey wine. Enjoy the view of Mauna Loa from the vineyard, then pull up a chair for tastings 364 days of the year.

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