Up until a recent trip, my only clear memory of the Island of Hawaii was of my three-year-old self falling and cutting my knee on the lava rock outside of a family friend’s home.
While some of the other islands’ sandy beaches might be more forgiving, the Big Island has a charm all its own. In six days, I fell in love with the slowed-down pace, the nearby adventure opportunities, and yes—even the lava rock.
To really explore the whole island, you’ll need more than a week. In my limited time, I got a peak at the west side—known colloquially as the Kona side of the island. It’s warm, dry, and covered in African fountain grass, an invasive species brought over in the 1700’s by a Frenchwoman who liked it as a garden plant, if you believe one rumor. The east—Hilo—side is greener, wetter, and home to Hawaii’s famous agriculture: coffee, pineapples, macadamia nuts (mac nuts for short). That’s also where you’ll find Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and the Big Island’s only currently erupting volcano, Kilauea.
The great thing about the Big Island is that it’s diverse. Yes, there are golf courses, beaches, and spas. Any creature comfort you might want on the ultimate relaxation vacation will be at your fingertips. But there’s also snorkeling, paddle boarding, surfing, swimming, hiking, ziplining, sailing, and stargazing. And that’s just the Kona side. Here, five ways to get the most out of western Hawaii—while still getting in some grade-A Hawaiian relaxation.
1. Start in Kona.
If you’re spending your trip on the west side, chances are you’ll fly into the small, all-outdoor Kona International Airport. Drive 15 minutes south on the main road, Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway, and you’ll reach the Kona port (Port YWAM Kona). The few blocks surrounding are filled with locals selling handmade wooden sculptures, jewelry, clothing, food, and other goods. Another 10 minutes south and you’ll be by Magic Sands Beach, which is famous for its “disappearing” sand. Be careful of diving in, though: That magic sand is covering some seriously sharp lava rock. Keep an eye out for Kona Coffee, the island’s (much more delicious) answer to the mainland’s Starbucks. Stay in an Airbnb in one of the adorable neighborhoods near the beach, and make sure to drive down La’aloa Avenue at least once: the view of the homes and ocean below from the junction of La’aola and the Queen’s highway is unbeatable.
2. Spend a few days by Waikoloa Beach
If you’re looking to unwind completely, spend a few days by Waikoloa Beach, a 25-minute drive north from the airport. The Hilton Waikoloa Village is especially enchanting, with its towers of rooms wrapping around a lagoon that connects straight to the ocean. That makes snorkeling and paddle boarding a whole lot easier: the lagoon is still, so you won’t have to deal with waves or tidal pull, but you’ll still de able to see fish and even sea turtles that swim in from the open water.
If you’re eager to really get up close and personal with the marine life, book a meeting with the dolphins at the Hilton’s Dolphin Quest office. The program was started by marine biologists who wanted a humane place to study dolphin behavior and now has outposts in Oahu and Bermuda as well as the Big Island. Your dolphin guide will answer all your questions about the clever marine mammals while you swim alongside them.
3. Visit Hapuna Beach State Recreation Area
From Waikoloa Village, you’ll have easy access to Hapuna Beach State Recreation Area. A quick 15-minute drive north, Hapuna is one of the only beaches on the Big Island that is (almost) all sand. Overshoot the entrance road and stop to grab a cone of mango sorbet or Kona mud pie at Anuenue Ice Cream in nearby Kamuela, the perfect prelude to a swim in the ocean.
4. Go stargazing at the Mauna Kea volcano
The Mauna Kea volcano—famous for its unbelievable views of the night sky—is just a straight one-hour shot east from Waikoloa Village. The Visitor Information Station at 9,200 feet hosts free stargazing tours starting at 6 p.m. nightly. They’ll break out NASA-level telescopes and train them on Jupiter and its moons, or the Omega Centauri globular star cluster, as well as point out all the constellations within view. You’ll even be able to see the Milky Way. Aside from the astronomy, their volunteer guides will walk you through ancient Hawaiian star mythology. Make sure to bundle up: the temperature is quite a bit colder at that altitude than it is at the base of the volcano.
5. Go on a guided hike with Hawaii Forest and Trail
To scratch your adventure itch, turn to Hawaii Forest and Trail, which has won all sorts of awards for their small-capacity tours of Kohala and Hilo. Check out their offerings online and set up your tour (or tours) of choice through your hotel or by calling their offices in Kona or Hilo. Options range from a 12-hour Mauna Kea hiking tour to shorter, four-hour waterfall experiences.
In Kohala, Forest and Trail partners with Kohala Zipline for their “Zip and Dip” experience, which sets you up with a small group for a traipse through private land in the Kohala Forest Reserve to learn about Hawaii’s native (and non-native) plants, see a traditional agriculture site, swim under a waterfall, and do a combination of hiking and driving in a military-grade, six-wheel drive Pinzgauer vehicle to some of the most beautiful vista points in Pololu Valley. Then strap in for the aerial portion of the tour, where you’ll zipline through the forest with local zip experts.
If you plan your adventure on a Saturday, you’ll have a chance to stop at the Hawi farmers market before you depart. We recommend tracking down the freshly made egg rolls (at $1 a pop they are both delicious and absurdly affordable) and washing them down with a mason jar full of papaya-lime juice from the vendor next door.
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Sarah Purkrabek Sarah Purkrabek is a Los Angeles-based travel writer.