Big Island of Hawaii Visitor Guide
Welcome to the Big Island
The Big Island or, Hawai’i (Hawaii), truly has it all and the diversity here is like none other in the world. The Big Island beaches are world-class, the island also boasts lava deserts, beautiful rain forests, an active volcano, and believe it or not, even snow-covered mountains.
The island of Hawaii is about the size of Connecticut and can fit all of the other Hawaiian Islands within its perimeter. This is the biggest island in the state, so it is commonly referred to as the Big Island. However, its Hawaiian name is Hawai’i. The state was named after this Hawaiian Island because this is where King Kamehameha the Great was from. In short, he’s the guy who brought all the islands under one rule for the first time. Generally speaking, most people refer to Hawaii as the Big Island and we will too.
The Big Island is the youngest of the Hawaiian Islands and features one of the world’s most beautiful active volcanos, Kilauea. As the hot lava meets the Pacific Ocean, this unique island grows larger every day. The volcanic activity is concentrated to the far south east point of the island, about 100 miles away from the popular resort areas on the Kohala coast. Although we have all seen dramatic pictures of lava flowing, keep in mind that the resort areas are quite far away.
Visitors are sometimes unprepared for the vast size and geological diversity of the Big Island. With over 4000 mi.² the island has so much to offer! In fact, this island is so big that it’s almost impossible to see all of our favorite sites in only a few days.
Exotic Estates offers beautiful and inspected villas on the Big Island’s most desired resort areas from Hualalai to Mauna Kea. Many of our Big Island Vacation Villas are located on championship golf courses, featuring an incredible ocean and fairway views.
Big Island Weather
The weather on the Big Island is more diverse than any other island or other similarly sized mass of land in the world! According to the Köppen Climate Classification System, The Big Island has 10 of the 15 types of climatic zones in the world. No matter what type of weather is your favorite, you will most likely find it on the Big Island.
Traditionally, Kailua-Kona is warm all year round. In February, the average high temperature is 80°F with a low of 64°F. This is considered to be the coldest month. In August, the warmest month has an average high of 87°F And low of 69°F. The humidity on the Big Island is usually between 50 and 80%. Interestingly, the temperature change between daylight and night time is greater than the temperature change between summertime and wintertime. This is why we suggest a light rain jacket and warm clothes on our packing list!
Normal conditions along the Kona-Kohala coast often make for clear mornings, with clouds from thermal heating rolling through in the afternoon. Morning time is usually best for outdoor activities such as helicopter tours, hikes, and snorkeling. During the summertime, evening rain showers sometimes occur.
Most of the rainfall occurs on the Hilo side, which is one of the wettest cities in the United States. Annual rainfall here is rarely less than 100 inches but doesn’t fall year-round. For this reason, the Kailua– Kona side is much more popular as most visitors to Hawaii are seeking sunny weather and warm beaches. However, Hilo is not to be missed and you can get an up close and personal view of the Hilo side from our friends at Paradise Helicopters! Learn about the various areas of the Big Island in greater detail.
Getting to the Big Island
Nonstop Flights from the U.S. Mainland
When planning your trip to the Big Island, it will be helpful to speak with someone who has either traveled to or lives on the island. That's why many vacation renters choose to work with Exotic Estates, our Villa Specialists have collectively toured most of our Big Island villas. They can help you decide which part of the Island is ideal for your Hawaiian holiday and help you find the best vacation rental for your group.
Most major airlines provide direct service to the Big Island into Kona (KOA). Alaska airlines flies nonstop to Kailua-Kona from Seattle, Portland, Oakland, San Jose, San Diego and Los Angeles. If you’re traveling from another major city, American, Delta, Hawaiian, United, Alaska, and Air Canada provide options
Local’s Tip: if you are not flying direct, you will most likely change planes in Oahu. On the short, inter-island flight, friendly flight attendants will serve you juice and if you’re lucky enough to sit on the left side you will have the best views!
Packing for Your Big Island Vacation
Depending on where you choose to stay on the Big Island, we have put together a basic list of packing items we suggest that you bring.
Climate Zones on the Big Island
Think generally about the Big Island areas as follows:
- West Low Elevations: Dry/Sunny
- South Low Elevations: Wetter/Warm
- East Low Elevations: Wet/Tropical
- Upper Elevations: Cool
Because you may want to explore the different zones and experience various micro-climates. Here are some basic packing ideas:
- At least two bathing suits, so you can alternate every other day.
- Summer dress clothes (for some of the nicer hotel restaurants)
- Rain jacket (especially if you are coming during winter or staying upcountry or on the eastern coast north/south of Hilo).
- Hat or other cap for sun protection (all seasons, but essential during summer)
- Reef-friendly sun block (Be sure to check)
- Hiking shoes (very important if you are going to explore some parks and forests)
- Flashlight (if you plan on hiking around caves or lava)
- Charged iPhone or DSLR camera
- Mosquito repellent for some hikes
- Small backpack for easy movement
- Reusable water bottle (please, no plastics on the Islands)!
What Not to Pack
Items Readily Available at Your Vacation Rental (Don’t Pack)
Kona International Airport
Serving the West side of the Island of Hawaii, Kona international airport (KOA) is one of the island’s two major airports. There are only two small restaurants, so if you are hungry upon arrival you may want to relax and eat before starting the drive to your vacation rental. The Big Island Airport is exactly as you might imagine, decorated with tropical green foliage and free of walls allowing you to take in the gorgeous scenery of this incredible paradise.
Spoiler alert: Some travelers are shocked when they fly and to Kona Airport for the first time as part of the airport sits on top of lava flow dating as far back as 1801. Although the scenery may seem barren and desolate, don’t worry, it gets so much better!
Big Island Car Rental
Rental car prices in Hawaii can be cheaper than almost anywhere else on the island’s and the competition is fierce. Nearly every visitor to the Big Island uses a rental car as their main transportation, and for good reason, it’s a Big Island!
At the Kona Airport, you will take a short shuttle bus ride to the rental car area. We highly suggest reserving your rental car in advance, since companies can run out during peak times.
Locals Tip: for the adventurous travelers who are looking to travel outside of the resort areas of the Big Island, we highly suggest renting a four-wheel drive vehicle. They are more expensive, but there are several roads, beaches, and other sites that you will not be able to visit without 4WD.
Getting to Your Big Island Vacation Rental & Resort
Once you have your rental car, you will notice the gas is most likely much more expensive than your home town. Kona is said to have among the highest gas prices in the US, so be prepared to drop some dough at the pump. You will find various stations between the airport and your vacation rental.
If you have a Costco card, be sure to make the most of it and stock up on gas and other items! See below.
Big Island Vacation Rental and Villa Renters - Stocking Up
We highly suggest making a stop at the Kona Costco before making your way to your vacation home. This is a great way to stock up on local meats, fruits, and even some wine and beer. Don’t forget your membership card!
If you’re not a Costco member or do not need bulk food for your group, there are plenty of local grocery stores. The Kings Shops and Queens Marketplace at the Waikoloa Resort are a great option for stocking up on grocery items for your vacation rental. You will also find shopping, restaurants, and various diving and snorkeling shops. Consult with your Exotic Estates Villa Specialist on which grocery store is closest to your vacation rental.
Big Island Scenic Drives
The long and scenic road to your vacation rental it Is truly diverse and offers towering volcanic mountains, rolling hills of volcanic rock, and a sparkling blue ocean hugging the rugged coastline.
Hualalai is the first resort north of KOA and takes about 15 minutes’ drive to arrive. From here, Waikoloa is the next stop and is about 20 minutes further North. About 20 minutes’ further is Mauna Kea Resort and vacation homes. In short, be prepared for a long and scenic drive before arriving at your Exotic Estates Big Island rental, which tend to be located in the Kohala Coast resort areas.
How Big is the Big Island of Hawaii
A circular trip around the island would be around 222 miles! If you spent time driving around, you would pass through multiple different climates and terrains. If you have the week on the Big Island, we suggest that you spend a majority of your time on the Kona side but set aside two or three days to experience the Hilo side. The volcano itself can take up to two days, which is easier to explore from Hilo then from Kona.
Kona and the Kohala Coast
The Kona side of the Big Island is the most well-known, as it has most of the sunshine. With a perfect climate and plenty of shops and restaurants, most vacationers will spend their time here. The Kona side is also where you will find most of the island activities, excluding the best access to volcanoes. The Kohala coast is also the Leeward side of the island, providing the calmest and clearest water in the state. This makes for incredible swimming, snorkeling, scuba diving and deep sea fishing. Most importantly, the Kona side is also where you will find the best beaches!
Resort Areas of the Big Island
Hawaii Vacation Villas in Resort Communities
Hualalai is just north of the Kona airport and offers for those looking for ultimate luxury during their Big Islands stay. The Kona-Kohala coast was once home to a fishing village and has been transformed into the coastal community it is today setting the new standard in hospitality. Hualalai is just a small part of this, offering a quiet and luxurious ambience coupled with the anxious culture and spirit of Hawaii.
The south Kohala coast is where you will find Waikoloa Beach and the surrounding vacation rentals and Waikoloa Village which feature shops and restaurants. This area also features the Anchialine ponds, which host a wide variety of sea life. Nearby you will also find Anaeho'omalu Bay, which is home to Ku'uali'i and Kahapapa Fishponds. One of our favorite places to watch the sunset along and have a few drinks is the Lava Lava Beach Club.
Mauna Lani Resort
Nestled along the sunny Kohala coast is the gorgeous Mauna Lani Resort. Mauna Lani means, “Mountain Reaching Heaven,” and as the perfect place to relax and enjoy the gorgeous scenery of the Big Island. This area is the perfect blend of nature, culture, and quiet Hawaiian living!
Puako - Big Island
Puako is a small oceanfront community along the Kohala coast and it is nearby Hapuna Beach. This is one of the driest areas on the Big Island and offers some of our most exclusive vacation rentals. Puako’s most exciting attraction is a large collection of petroglyphs that are carved into the volcanic rocks. Here it you can see over 3000 of these ancient rock drawings, an incredible glimpse into Hawaiian history! Puako is perfect for couples or those who are looking for a quiet an exclusive escape. Our favorite activity here is to stroll along the shore and explore the tide pools which are home to a variety of marine life.
Mauna Kea Resort
Mauna Kea is one of the most popular areas of the Big Island and offers Oceanview luxury villas, and condo rentals. This area was built around the white sandy beaches of Hapuna and Kauna’oa and get this namesake from the world’s tallest mountain, Mauna Kea. Maunakea is only 30 minutes north of the airport and it is 2 ½ hours from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
Must See on Big Island
Waimea and The Saddle
East and inland from the more volcanic looking Kohala coast is where you will find Waimea, which is truly different than any other place on the Big Island. Also known as “Paniolo,” which means cowboy in Hawaiian, this country town is home cattle-filled ranches, local food, breweries, and Hawaiian cowboys. Waimea sits at an elevation of 3000 feet near some of the most spectacular hikes in and around the Waipi’o Valley.
As you make your way to this small town, you will notice the rolling green hills, home to cows and other pasture animals. Several ranches around Waimea offer an opportunity to explore the pastures which offer incredible views of the coastline and surrounding peaks and volcanoes!
Local’s tip: take a drive through Waimea on a Saturday morning so you can enjoy the farmers market. For lunch, stop at the big Island brewhouse for a local homemade beer!
What you might find missing on the Kona that we will certainly find an abundance on the Hilo side, is greenery. Because Hilo receives around 140 inches of rain per year, it provides a paradise for all tropical foliage. Hilo also features breathtaking waterfalls that tower over vast green valleys, some of the most beautiful sights you’ve ever seen!
Gorgeous Rainbow Falls is located near Hilo.
Volcanos & The Twin Sisters
The Big Island is made up of five volcanos, Kohala is the oldest and is located on the north side. Next came Mauna Kea, followed by Hualalai, Mauna Loa, and last but most certainly not least, Kilauea.
The two largest mountains, known as the Twin Sisters, dramatically rise over 13,000 feet above sea level, as you will be sure to see on clear days. Mauna Kea is 13,976 feet and is the tallest mountain in the world when measured from the base. Mauna Loa is just slightly shorter but is much wider.
Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park
The Volcano area can be grouped into the South of Kau region.
This incredible national park is one of the biggest draws to the Big Island. This area is the place where Madame Pele calls home, in the heart of Kilauea Volcano. The Park reopened to great fanfare after the destructive eruptions of 2018. Visitors who take time to visit this spiritual places are rewarded with an incredible landscape unlike anyplace else on earth. Standing in the vast lava fields, one feels as if they are standing on the surface of a primordial earth.
Here are some quick takeaways:
- The park is massive with more than 330,000 acres
- It runs from sea-level to the top of Mauna Loa, at 13,667 ft.
- Cars pay $25 to enter the Park
- The Park is open 24-hours daily
- The volcano is not erupting as of November 2019, but that does not take away from the wonder of it all
Kilauea, arguably the most popular, is quiet after one of the longest-running eruptions in history. The volcano, home to the Hawaiian Goddess of Pele, has added land and increased the size of the Big Island dramatically. This incredible geological wonder is best seen by a Big Island helicopter tour. The scenery here is constantly changing, as trails are absorbed, and new black sand beaches arrive.
Big Island Activities
The Big Island has so much to see and do that it’s almost impossible to do everything during your vacation. Among the most popular activities are snorkeling, golfing, hiking, deep sea fishing, and scuba diving. Of course, two of the most unforgettable activities would be visiting the volcano and touring the island by air from inside a helicopter. Other fun and common activities include kayaking, horseback riding, boat trips, whale watching, and even snow-skiing and snowboarding! If you only have time to experience one incredible part, we would highly suggest a tour of the volcano whether it be by foot or air!
Although it is sometimes less expensive to book an activity directly with the individual provider, this is not always the case. You are not likely to see opportunities for booking while out and about, so it’s best to prearrange prior to your arrival.
Our dedicated Concierge can help you book any activity on the Big Island. Contact your Villa Specialist today, who can put you in touch with your private Concierge for assistance with helping you craft the Big Island vacation of your dreams.
Beautiful Beaches & Sights
Although the Big Island has the reputation of being an island without beaches, this is definitely not the case! In the past the Big Island lacked access to some of the most glorious beaches, but this is no longer the case. Although this Island does have fewer city beaches then the other islands, there are certainly plenty of options along the Kohala Coast.
In fact, the big Island features white sand, golden sand, black sand, mixed-sand, and even green sand beaches! The photo above was taken at amazing Punalu'u Beach on the southern part of the island. Hapuna Beach is generally named one of the best beaches, and Mauna Kea is another fabulous beach that is located on the Kohala Coast near the Mauna Kea resort.
The most important thing to be aware of when visiting any Hawaiian beach is the surf. Although it’s generally calmer on the west side of the island, some visitors are unprepared for the strength of the Pacific and should approach any beach with caution and consult with local lifeguards on conditions.
Golf on the Big Island of Hawaii
If you are looking to golf exclusively while in Hawaii, the Big Island is the number one spot to be. Some of the most beautiful course in the world, the greens tend to break to the ocean even when they look uphill. Conditions are usually perfect in the morning, with low winds and warm air. Some courses offer discounts afternoon or 3 PM, so check around to see if this might be an option for you and your group.
The best courses are located on the Kohala coast. Two are located in Mauna Kea, both the Mauna Kea Golf Couse and the Hapuna Golf Course. There are two more courses at the Mauna Lani resort, the North Course and the South Course. Down south in Waikoloa, you will find Waikoloa Kings’ or the Waikoloa Beach Kings’. Waikoloa Beach is another option in this area.
Snorkeling & Scuba Diving on the Big Island
Whether you have come to the Big Island as a certified scuba diver or you are just interested in trying it out, then you have landed in scuba paradise! The Kona waters are mostly shielded from winds and the oceans swell, so calm waters are the norm. Here you will experience warm water, averaging 75°F at the coldest (February) and 82°F at the warmest (October). It is not uncommon to have 100 foot plus visibility!
You can choose between a boat dive or a short drive, and boats usually leave from Kailua Pier or Honokohau Harbor. A typical dive will include two tanks and two different dive sites, and the price range varies depending on the amount of gear rentals that you need. The Big Island does not have a decompression chamber, so don’t forget the golden rule of not flying after a dive. You also want to be careful of where you are visiting or driving within 24 hours after dive, as some of the mountains Tower 13,000 feet +. Keep this in mind when scheduling your scuba diving and mountain adventures.
To ensure you’re receiving the best experience and service, connect with our Concierge who can schedule your dive with the best and most experienced dive outfitters on the Island.
Snorkeling is also a great option for families were traveling with kids, and the Big Island offers the chance to see some of the most amazing sea life up close and personal. The Big Island features an impressive variety of fish with over 600 species. If you didn’t travel with your own snorkel and mask, there will be plenty of places to rent these items.
Please do not feed the fish as this introduces unnatural behavior and isn’t the way to attract fish. Be sure to swim as calmly as possible so that you don’t spook the fish and be patient as fish are naturally curious and will eventually come around to check you out as well!
Local’s Tip: Be sure to check out the Manta Ray night-dive, one of the most incredible experiences the Big Island has to offer!
Fishing on the Big Island of Hawaii
Kona is famous for big game and deep-sea fishing, as the waters off of Kona coast Drop off to great depths providing a haven for large fish. The most talked about fish are Marlin, some weighing in over 1000 pounds. Another popular fish is called ono, also known as wahoo, which is a large and very delicious catch. Also in abundance are mahi-mahi and ahi (Yellowfin Tuna).
Although fish can be found year-round on the Big Island, they are more prevalent in the summertime. Most boats leave out of Honokohau Harbor, which is just north of Kona. If you are looking for a particular fish, keep in mind the most boats don’t target anything particular, instead trolling for whatever they can get. Be sure to check with your captain regarding whether or not you should bring aboard your own food and beverages
Helicopter Tours on the Big Island
The Big Island has so many fantastic areas that are breathtaking when discovered by air. If you are looking for a knowledgeable pilot who can take you on an exciting tour with accurate information, book a tour with our friends at Paradise helicopters. You will be blown away with the massive volcanic activity, coupled with the tropical foliage and sparkling Pacific Ocean. Early morning tours are the best option, however, there are trips available all day long.
For more details on what you can experience on this unbelievable helicopter tour, visit our blog post!
Hiking on the Big Island of Hawaii
The Big Island features a variety of hikes offering something for any experience level. Whether you want to wander through the rain forest, walk across a volcano, or even stroll along an empty tropical beach, there’s something for you and the diversities are endless.
Depending on where you plan to hike, hiking sandals or light trail shoes will work fine for most of the trails. If you do plan on visiting the volcanoes, we suggest tougher shoes that can stand the sometimes-jagged lava rock and muddy conditions. If you forgot to pack these essentials, you can find temporary options and most of the shops and possibly even Costco.
The best hiking on the Big Island is found in and around Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Here you will find hikes for all abilities, including a Birdpark, Devastation Trail (to see how the lava effects the foliage) and the Pu’u Loa Petroglyph Trail.
For a detailed list of current hikes on the Big Island, check out Big Island Hikes, which includes the most up to date hiking trails and an interactive map. You can also consult with your Exotic Estates Villa Specialist to ensure you are properly prepared for your adventure.
Big Island Vacation Rentals
Exotic Estates Big Island vacation rentals are varied. They run from family-friendly budget conscious condos to stellar oceanfront villas. The majority are located in the resort areas of the well-serviced Kohala Coast. We think this area is ideal, as it offers the very best of all worlds, with resort-style amenities and private home living.
Whether you’re looking for a large, open-design with plenty of outdoor living space to spend quality time with the family or for a private and secluded couples’ getaway for a honeymoon or anniversary trip, the Big Island will offer options.
Exotic Estates offers beautiful and inspected Big Island luxury vacation rentals along the Kohala coast of the Big Island. Our villas vary in size, ranging from 2 to 7 bedrooms with the nightly rate ranging from $495-$14,000 per night. When you book a villa with Exotic Estates, you will benefit from knowledgeable Hawaii-based Villa Specialists who can help advise you on the ideal villa and plan for your Hawaiian escape.
Many of our villas are located on championship golf courses and feature incredible Ocean and Fairway views. Our guests enjoy ultimate privacy, private pools and hot tubs, and the ability to cook group meals in fully equipped kitchens.
Each year, our Villa Specialists travel to this incredible destination to inspect the majority of our Big Island villas to ensure that they are in pristine condition prior to your arrival. Not only have we toured and inspected our villas, but we have also experienced some of the best activities and traveled to the most popular sites. We strive to provide our guests with a luxuriously local experience and can’t wait to help you plan your trip!