Each island in the Hawaiian islands has their own distinct flavor and reason for visiting. The largest island of the Hawaiian archipelago is the Big Island, which attracts thousands of visitors wanting to see its active volcanoes.
But the volcanoes are not the only reason to visit the Big Island of Hawaii. You’ll discover it’s the place for big adventures and wow moments!
Being the largest of the Hawaiian Islands there is certainly a lot of ground to cover and places to visit, so we recommend spending five full days on the Big Island, even longer if you can!
The proper name for Big Island is Hawaii, which causes some confusion over what is considered Hawaii.
To clear things up, all 137 islands in the Hawaiian archipelago are considered Hawaii, which is why people often refer to Big Island by its nickname to avoid any confusion.
In this 5 day Big Island itinerary, we’ll be showing you all the best attractions, places to eat, where to stay, and show you how to get from A to B with ease.
- Getting Around Big Island
- Day 1: Hilo, Big Island
- Day 2: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Big Island
- Day 3: Swim with the Manta Rays, Kona
- Day 4: Snorkel at Kealakekua Bay and Explore Kona Town
- Day 5. Explore Kona Town or Scuba Diving Kua Bay
- Places to eat in Kona, Big Island
- More than 5 days?
- Before You Go
Getting Around Big Island
Before we get into each spot on this 5 day itinerary for the Big Island of Hawaii, let’s quickly cover how to get around the island. You’re going to need to fly into Hilo airport from Oahu, and from there you can plan your journey.
Because Big Island is so vast and a lot of the attractions are far away and difficult to get to, we recommend you pick up a rental car when you arrive in Hilo.
Public transport in the Big Island is not as efficient as Oahu, so while you can get around a lot of places with the public (Hele-on) bus service, it takes a long time and the bus schedule is all over the place.
It is a cheaper option than renting a car, so if you have time to spend and you want to save money, it’s possible to use buses to get around both sides of the island.
There are no trains on the island. You can also use Uber, Lyft or Taxis, but this will be more expensive than renting a car.
Day 1: Hilo, Big Island
The Big Island for me is about volcanoes and incredible adventures.
We had five nights, six days on the Big Island of Hawaii, which was just enough time to see all the best things to do on the island.
We’ll be starting this Big Island Hawaii itinerary covering some of the most beautiful nature spots on the Hilo side.
Thinking about visiting the beaches? Although one of the top things to do in Hawaii is visit the beaches, I don’t feel the Big Island of Hawaii is the place for a beach vacation.
If you want to see some fantastic beaches, then I recommend you add a stop to the neighboring islands of Maui and Oahu which have more stunning beaches, such as the iconic Kaanapali beach.
The beaches on these islands are better for swimming and relaxing.
Stop 1. Visit the Jaw-Dropping Akaka Falls
Let’s begin our Big Island itinerary visiting one of my favorite spots.
Plunging 442 feet into a stream-eroded gorge, Akaka Falls is Hawaii Island’s most famous waterfall and one of the most popular things to do on the Big Island of Hawaii within the Akaka Falls State Park.
The waterfall is so big and monumental that it deserves a spot on our list of the best waterfalls in the US.
You can also see the 100-foot Kahuna Falls on a paved looped trail. Make sure to check the weather before visiting. The loop walk was closed for us, I believe due to storm damage so we missed the falls.
Craig returned the next day early in the morning and the sun was shining on the falls. He saw a much prettier and more vibrant waterfall than the one we saw the day before.
The trail is easy for most travelers, even those with small children, but it does take approximately 25-30 minutes to reach the falls from the trailhead.
You can park up the road just outside the car park to nab the cheaper price!
- Hours: 8.30AM – 5.30PM
- Address: 875 Akaka Falls Rd, Honomu, HI 96728
Hot tip! Don’t visit during the afternoon like we initially did. The sun is in the worst position behind the falls making it hard to see with your eyes, let alone get a photo.
Stop 2. Witness the Breathtaking Rainbow Falls
Near the center of Hilo town is Rainbow Falls, a smaller, yet pretty and misty waterfall.
A short trail from the parking lot offers views from the waterfall’s summit. If you time it right you may see the reason for the fall’s name.
From the lookout area, take a few slippery steps up and through the exquisite forest (ah those trees!) to the river and waterfall views from above.
Warning: Swimming is not advised anywhere on the island of Hawaii (apart from the beaches). This is due to unseen lava tubes that can be anywhere. Lives have been lost.
Stop 3: Lunch at The Booch Bar
When we asked our online community for advice on where to eat on the Big Island of Hawaii, we loved all the tips on places to eat and drink!
The Conscious Culture Cafe in Hilo, Big Island of Hawaii was everything I loved in a square building on the side of the road: ginger and turmeric kombucha, healthy smoothie with bee pollen, and organic, vegetarian meals. (UPDATE: IT’s now called THE BOOCH BAR)
And music. From the 60’s Vietnam era from White Shades of Grey to If you’re going to San Francisco.
This place was one of our favorite finds in Hawaii. It had our vibe and was a tip from a couple of locals. Make sure you always ask them for hidden secrets about places to visit!
If you want an unhealthy milkshake or breakfast on the go, head to Just Cruisin Coffee. Again, locals recommended to us that this was the best place in town for coffee as it was a local business.
I won’t say it was the best coffee I had – I am a little coffee fussy – but it was better than Starbucks. And our kids loved their milkshakes.
Stop 4: Boiling Pots of Wailuku (Lava Pools)
Since Big Island is so famous for its volcanoes, you can’t visit Hilo without taking a trip out to see the Boiling Pots, which are bubbling basalt-lava rock pools.
At first, the pools just look like any other river, except on closer (but not too close) inspection, these pools on the Wailuku River look like little witches’ cauldrons!
The formation was made by lava flows from Mauna Kea many years ago, and they also made these underground tunnels that push water up and make the cylinder-like rock that you see today.
The lava flows that created the river are said to be the same flow that formed Rainbow Falls. Apparently, the river gets its name from the way the water looks during a storm.
If you have more time to spend before dinner, you could make a stop by the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden which is a nice, relaxing quick stop to see some native plants and fauna of the island.
Stop 6: Dinner – Hilo Bay Cafe
The food at Hilo Bay Cafe is innovative and fresh following contemporary American, French and Asian styles.
The ambiance was peaceful with views overlooking beautiful Hilo Bay, old Hilo Town, and the slopes of Mauna Kea.
We shared a few delicious starters:
- Mushroom poke – a chilled pan-roasted mushroom twist is a Hawaiian favorite dish.
- Grilled cauliflower.
- Mushroom lettuce cups – sautéed mushrooms, house-made garlic shoyu, basil, cilantro, shaved heart of plan and roasted macadamia nuts.
I also loved the ginger and turmeric kombucha made by the local Big Island Booch.
Where to Stay in Hilo, Big Island
Hilo is a great place to stay for one night before heading off to the next destination on our Big Island itinerary.
We stayed at the Grand Naniloa Hotel, a DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel – the rooms were pretty small, but the views that overlook beautiful Hilo Bay, old Hilo Town, and the slopes of Mauna Keau to the ocean were great as was the location.
Or, you can head to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park for the evening. It depends on your time frame.
Day 2: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Big Island
On the second day we will have one stop on our Big Island itinerary. We highly recommend you spend the whole day (and evening) exploring the Volcanoes National Park.
It’s one of our favorite things to do on the Big Island of Hawaii.
Stop 1. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
What an amazing experience to be immersed in the art of creation.
Visiting Volcano National Park has been my favorite homeschooling lesson so far. I didn’t have to do anything, I let Mother Nature take over to teach the girls about fire, land growth, and rainforests.
Where else in the world can you get so close to an active volcano? Put this on your list of educational things to do on the Big Island of Hawaii.
Our only disappointment was that we could not walk close to the lava flow or see where the lava flows into the ocean.
You can get closer with an 8-mile return hike, or on a boat tour, but apparently, visibility at the time wasn’t good.
We didn’t have time for either, but we were also warned that it’s not a good idea with young children. The high sulfur content can damage their developing lungs. Not worth the risk.
It goes on our bucket list of things to do on the Big Island of Hawaii for when we return!
Hot tip: Beware of the Kapu!
It is kapu (taboo) to take the rocks from the lava fields. Every year, dozens of packages are sent to post offices on the Big Island returning rocks or black sand that brought the thief bad luck!
Hawaiian tradition is strong and guarded by Pele, the Goddess of Hawaii’s volcanoes.
If you didn’t stay here the day before, definitely do so tonight. I’d recommend staying again so you can have a full day getting to Kona tomorrow as there is a fair bit to see.
We drove along the crater chain link road, spending time pulling off the road to view the craters, seeing giant fields of lava rock, and marveling at their texture and shape imagining the red hot lava seeping down and cooling down to the preserve its last movement into rock.
The girls were fascinated. Especially Savannah who grabbed a pen and piece of paper to write a story of all she learned about volcanoes and lava.
We sat down together by a sprouting baby fern and talked about rainforests and how volcanoes help create them.
We also visited the Jaggar Museum & Overlook to learn more about earthquakes and volcanoes and to see the bubbling lava in the crater.
Pele, the Hawaiian Fire Goddess, and creator of the Hawaiian Islands lives inside the Halema’um’a Crater at the summit of Kilauea and continues to send forth lava and grow the island chain. She destroys everything in her path, yet creates.
We could see the tips of Pele’s spurting up during the day, but later we returned after dinner to see a fiery glow in the sky above and the volcano really on fire.
It was amazing to see it moving around. There is a lava lake in the crater and when it fills up it bubbles over. We arrived on the lucky bubbling-over day.
You might even be able to find strands of Pele’s hair within the National Park. These glistening golden threads are actually fragile volcanic fiberglass and are formed when lava is ejected into the air and small droplets are caught by the wind, which then cools and stretches them into very thin strands.
Some other notable stops in Volcanoes National Park is the Thurston Lava Tube and the Chain of Craters Road.
Entrance Cost & Details:
It costs $30 per car, or $12 per person without a car to enter the park. (NOTE: Prices change so please check for accurate admission costs)
You can combine this with a Tri-Park Pass, which includes entry to Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park and Haleakalā National Park on Maui.
Tours of the Volcanoes
Want to take a helicopter tour of the volcanoes and waterfalls, or a bike tour? Check out these tours:
Where to Stay at Volcanoes National Park
If you’re looking for great places to stay near Volcanoes National Park, we stayed at Hale Ohai Cottages just outside the National Park.
You can also stay at Volcano House within the Park. We recommend having dinner at the lodge (at least a drink from the bar) because you can see the red glow from the crater from the dining room windows.
Day 3: Swim with the Manta Rays, Kona
On the third day of this Big Island itinerary, we will need to leave early in the morning so you have plenty of time to explore some of the sights on the drive from Volcanoes National Park to Kona.
You could even drive over the summit of Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano, if you’re not tired of volcanoes by now.
Stop 1. See Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles at Punalu’u, Black Sand Beach
Another top recommendation from our community on things to do on the Big Island of Hawaii was Black Sand Beach.
Not only is Punalu’u Black Sand Beach so interesting to look at and walk on, it’s also a place where Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles like to visit.
We were lucky to see one chilling on the sand at the water’s edge.
Please remember to respect the turtle’s space. No selfie is worth distressing an animal over. There are plenty of reminder signs around. And even lifeguards politely remind you. Blew my mind to see people still continuing to stick their cameras inches from their faces.
Use a zoom lens. That’s what we used to get this photo above so although it looks close we were a respectful distance away.
We continued our lessons on how volcanoes shape the land with a visit to this beach, the jet-black sand formed when molten lava from two nearby active volcanoes (Mauna Loa and Kilauea) flowed into the water, cooled, and broke into fragments that washed ashore.
Stop 2. Papakolea Beach, Green Sand Beach
We had to make a judgment call on Green Beach, otherwise known as Papakolea Beach.
We had plenty of people recommend it as one of Hawaii’s best, but as it was about a 12 mile (one way) detour from the main road, we were running short on time and it had just started raining, we feared it would be just a quick I was here photo. Was it worth the mad race and stress of being late?
So we decided no.
I’ve since learned that you need to hike 2.5 miles (one way) from the parking lot to reach the beach. I’m so glad we listened to our gut! This would have been too challenging time wise with the girls and really put us out. Apparently, the hike is beautiful, and as the beach is remote you will have it to yourself.
A visit to Papakolea Beach is a full-day trip, so plan ahead.
The hike to and from the beach alone takes about 2-3 hours, depending on how fast you can walk, and then you still need to calculate for some time on the beach and the drive time it takes to get to South Point.
In hindsight, I would have traded the Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park (see below) with this, arriving early in the morning after a quick stop at Punalu’u Black Sand Beach.
This is why we write these posts – to help you learn from our mistakes to have a better experience.
Stop 3. Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park
What fun we had trying to pronounce Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park. Even after the park ranger gave us a lesson on it, we still couldn’t say it.
Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park is an 180-acre national historic park that was once the site of royal grounds and was a place of refuge for Hawaiian lawbreakers.
I found it fascinating that if a lawbreaker was able to make it here alive they were absolved of their sins.
It kind of reminded me of my ex-boyfriend from South Africa who was told by a lawyer if he managed to stay illegal in the UK for 14 years without getting caught he would be granted permanent resident status. He was eight years in and on track when I left him!!
The Pu’uhonua is still considered a sacred site. You can still feel the spirit of peace and forgiveness that continues to surround and bless this special place.
The park is in a beautiful location on Honaunau Bay. It’s where the Kings once resided so of course, it would be! the Hale o Keawe temple houses the bones of the chiefs that infuse the area with their power or mana.
This area is also known as the second best snorkeling spot on the Big Island. So you can combine that into your trip. You can’t snorkel off the historical park though, the area is slightly north. You can see it from the shores of the City of Refuge.
It costs $5 per car, but if you combine it with the parks pass from the Volcanoes then it’s essentially free.
If you are short on time, I recommend skipping this park.
Stop 4. Swim with Manta Rays
WOW…I’m not sure there is anything else to say. This was definitely our favorite stop on our 5 day Big Island itinerary.
It didn’t hit me until our traditional Hawaiian 40-foot double-hulled Hawaiian sailing canoe pointed towards the setting sun that it hit me what we were about to do.
Swim in the ocean, in the dark, with manta rays and my five-year-old child!
Were we crazy? I was nervous, and I was letting the girls do it?
Savannah was doing that pretending to be brave thing she does so well but I could tell she was shaking on the inside. I promised her that Mummy and the lovely crew from Eka Canoes would definitely look after her and she didn’t to do it.
But, in my motherly way to also ensure my girls learn not to run from their fear, I encouraged her to give it a go.
She did. I was so proud of her.
Over the edge of the boat, we went, myself and Jono carefully lifting her down and guiding her to the floating surfboard. The board had handle grips on the side which we held onto and laid on our belly with feet up so we did not disturb, or kick the manta rays.
That was enough for Savannah though, she refused to put her snorkeled face into the water and see the manta rays, but she definitely saw them swimming below illuminated by the lights.
The lights attract the plankton which attracts the manta.
I wasn’t expecting anything like we experienced.
Here came these gentle butterflies of the sea, flapping over to our board and barrel rolling over and over again so close that we could peer into their stomachs.
They glided by so close to our faces that we could have easily planted a sloppy kiss on their horned fins. Their eyes looked into mine, “I see you. Stay still and let me show you how beautiful we are. “
It’s difficult to get great photos due to it being nighttime and the illuminated lights.
No gleeful cries or exclaims could convince Savannah to look under though. Kalyra did it and was blown away. It wasn’t long though until the cold seeped through their skinny bones and I took them back to the boat to warm up with hot chocolate.
You get about an hour in the water with the manta rays. I only got about 15 minutes with the girls, but it was so worth it. It was one of the best wildlife encounters I’ve ever had.
You’ll be buzzing after this experience and probably hungry. Instead of driving into town, I recommended eating at Rays on the Bay at the Sheraton. It’s right next door to where you will alight from your swim with the manta rays experience.
It was by far the best activity in Hawaii for kids.
Where to Stay in Kona, Big Island of Hawaii
We stayed at the Sheraton Kona. If you wanted to add a few more days to your Big Island itinerary we’d recommend staying extra nights at Kona and just relaxing.
The Sheraton Kona is great for families.
They have several pools, one with great views of the ocean, especially at sunset. Our only disappointment was that we didn’t have enough time to enjoy the views from our balcony!
Our girls loved the waterslide. Kalyra thinks it was the best one out of the Hawaiian hotels we stayed at.
There was also a smaller one for the little tots in the inner pool which is opened 24 hours.
The rooms here were spacious and comfortable and the service was great – it’s a Sheraton!
Day 4: Snorkel at Kealakekua Bay and Explore Kona Town
You can either switch this day around – go snorkeling at Kealakekua Bay and explore Kona town either in the morning or in the afternoon. Whatever works best for you.
If you only have two nights in Kona, and you do the swim with manta rays on the first night, you might want to do the morning tour at Kealakekua Bay so you can catch the sunset at Hugo’s (see below).
We did the afternoon Kealakekua Tour, which is cheaper as the morning includes a BBQ lunch.
Stop 1. Kealakekua Bay Snorkel Tour
How does zipping down a slide into a pristine marine bay filled with colorful fish and coral sound? Or perhaps, making your entry off a high diving tower? Well, this isn’t like the reefs in Western Australia, but it’s the next best thing to it!
Our snorkeling tour with Fair Wind Cruises to Kealakekua Bay was a blast. Kalyra and I loved racing each other down the slides.
Kealakekua Bay is an underwater marine sanctuary 17 miles south of Kona.
The bay is not just famous for its pristine beauty and underwater world, but also as the place where Captain Cook lost his life.
Given our deep historical connection to Captain Cook, Australians will get a thrill out of seeing the place where he was murdered due to tense relations with the locals.
You learn all about the fascinating story when you arrive.
The next 90 minutes are spent snorkeling, swimming, and playing in the water.
They had plenty of flotation devices for children and unconfident swimmers. Savannah loved holding onto the rubber tube and snorkeling. She put her head under for this one and saw lots of colorful fish.
The best place for snorkeling is the area near Captain Cook monument where the cruise boats take you.
Your other options are a little more restricted due to the rising popularity if this area and the need to restrict the negative impact on the reef system.
Your choices to get there from the car park, which is on the opposite side of the bay.
- Swim from the car park area (1.5) miles
- Hike to the opposite end of the bay
- Rent a kayak and paddle. It is illegal to land vessels along the Ka‘awaloa shoreline or moor at the wharf adjacent to the Captain Cook Monument. Make sure you ask to see the permit from whoever you rent the kayak from to avoid getting in trouble. Big Island Kayak, Kona Boys are two rental companies we recommend. We originally wanted to visit this way, but thought it might be too much for the girls.
Day 5. Explore Kona Town or Scuba Diving Kua Bay
Since day five is the last day on this Big Island itinerary, the chances are you have a flight to catch and won’t have too much time for exploring. The last day will be determined by how much time you have.
One of the relaxing things to do on the Big Island of Hawaii is to explore Kona town. If you don’t have a lot of time, we recommend exploring Kona Town some more and even spending some time out on the water.
It’s only really one street that runs along the water’s edge, but it has a vibrant feel to it. There are plenty of cafes and restaurants to choose from and a few shopping places.
It’s quite a historical town as it once was the retreat for Hawaiian royalty and you can see some of the history reflected in the Hulihee Palace and the Mokuaikaua Church.
If you’re crazy, you might be interested in the Ironman World Championship that starts and finishes here each October. I only wish I could!
It looks like a fun place to be of an evening with live music and Hawaiian chill spilling out from the bars and restaurants onto the Bay.
Kona is also a good place for stand-up paddle boarding.
You can hire a SUP from Kona Boys. Paddle out to the bay here and you just might be joined by dolphins.
If you have a full day before your flight, then you might want to take a trip out to Kua Bay to do some scuba diving.
Places to eat in Kona, Big Island
Since you’ll be spending a couple of days in the Kona side, it’s a good idea to save some great places to eat. Here are some restaurants that we really enjoyed.
Sunset at Huggo’s
Huggo’s on the Rocks came recommended to us as the place to go for sunset views. Check it out for yourself. They also serve food here if you want to hang around for dinner or check it out for lunch. We didn’t eat here so can’t comment on that but I did like the views.
Island Lava Java
We ate at their sister restaurant near Waikoloa and had a yummy breakfast. Island Lava Java on the Kona coast has views of the ocean but is popular so get there early! It’s a great place to try some Kona coffee and relax.
Kona Canoe Club
We found this right before our flight to Maui. It was fantastic and so cheap.
We made Happy Hour 2-5pm – $3.95 frozen margaritas and $5 meals– hello! We had ocean views and a colorful gecko hanging out with us. This seems like a local’s favorite which is where we love to hang out most.
If you don’t choose to stay in Kona, you can head a little further north to Waikoloa Village. As we had moved so quickly before this, we decided to spend the day relaxing at the Hilton Waikoloa Village Resort.
This goes on the list of relaxing things to do on the Big Island of Hawaii – our kids loved the pools and waterslides!
More than 5 days?
Do you have more than 5 days to spend in your Big Island itinerary? Then we recommend you extend your trip by spending a couple days in Waikoloa.
Places to visit near Waikoloa
Here are some attractions in the Waikoloa area we recommend adding to your Big Island itinerary.
- Slightly north are the beaches of Hapuna Beach State Recreation Area
- Kauna’oa Bay has one of the few white sand beaches on the Kohala Coast
- Waimea is Known as paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy) country and is home to rolling, green pastures, cattle, cowboys, and ranches. Take the scenic drive north to the charming town of Hawi and the Pololu Valley Lookout, which showcases breathtaking coastal views of the Hamakua Coast.
Where to Eat in Waikoloa: Lava Lava Beach Club
What made our stay at Waikoloa worthwhile was the amazing Lava Lava Beach Club.
I didn’t find the food at the Hilton Waikoloa particularly exciting and it was overpriced. I’d definitely drive the short five minutes to the Lava Lava Beach Club if only for a sunset drink!
Get there early to grab a beach chair and enjoy the vibe and views. It does get busy so consider reserving a table in the restaurant in advance. Otherwise it’s first come first serve to grab a beach chair.
We were lucky that someone left as soon as we walked by. We had the best seat in the house. The sunset didn’t show off too much initially due to clouds, but then it shone this pretty pink color whilst we had a little fun dancing to the band.
Before You Go
So there you have it, this is how you can spend 5 days on the Big Island in Hawaii. As you can see, this Big Island itinerary is packed full of adventure and will leave lasting memories for a lifetime.
Before you go, we do recommend you book your hire car in advance since it’s a popular destination and prices soar when booking last minute.
If you’re arriving in Hilo, you can drop off your rental car in Kona for a small fee. It will probably work out better than driving back to Hilo.
There is an airport at Kona so you can fly to your next Hawaiian Island. You can also get a ferry from Kona-Kailua and Kailua-Kona but there’s only one per day so flying is the most convenient way to travel.
There are no ferries between Kona and Kauai.
We flew to Hawaii from Australia with Hawaiian Airlines and loved them. There are always regular flights from the United States, too.
We hope this Big Island itinerary helped you plan your trip and we wish you the best time in Big Island!
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Did we miss anything? Do you have any tips for things to do on the Big Island of Hawaii? Let us know in the comments.