The Big Island's Black Sand Beaches
The Big Island of Hawaii is home to many natural wonders, from snow-capped mountains in the winter to towering waterfalls. But it is the island's volcanic activity that is perhaps its most famous quality and biggest draw. Most people who research Hawaii have seen images of the Big Island's famed black-sand beaches, which are a direct product of volcanic eruptions.
We'll introduce you to two of the most famous black sand beaches on the island and show you the benefits of helicopter touring.
Big Island - Lay of the Land
A reminder that the Big Island covers nearly 4,000 square miles, measuring more than 100 miles from north to south. The map below helps to give you some perspective on distances between the beaches covered in this article and the resort areas of Hualalai, Waikoloa, Mauna Lani and Mauna Kea on the Kohala Coast.
Big Island Map - Resorts & Black Sand Beaches
The Big Island of Hawaii is famous for Kilauea volcano and Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park. The park is a true geologic wonder for visitors. Sometimes, the lava flows generated the Big Island's volcanos have met the blue Pacific, creating luxurious black sand beaches.
One of the most famous and popular black sand beaches is Punalu’u Black Sand Beach. The beach is, per its name, composed of exotic jet-black sand. The sand is somewhat coarse, but feels wonderful under the foot. Here is a close-up of the sand, you can see it's more grainy than the fine sand found on most beaches.
With coconut palms ringing the beach and a gorgeous pond with lily pads fringed by lush tropical vegetation, this beach has a remote, stark and uniquely Hawaiian beauty.
Getting to Punalu’u
Punalu’u Black Sand Beach is located on the southeastern coast of the Hawaii Island, aka the Big Island (See map above). The beach is remote, at around 67 miles south of Kailua-Kona. If you are staying in a vacation home in Hualalai, Waikoloa, Mauna Lani or Mauna Kea resorts on the Kohala Coast north of Kailua-Kona, the beach is about a two-and-a-half-hour drive. Punalu’u is around an hour south of Hilo.
Driving from Kailua-Kona, you will pass through the Kona coffee farms, Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park and landscapes of staggering beauty.
The coffee farms are located high up on the slopes of Mauna Loa, and you may even smell coffee roasting as you drive through the area. Some farms operate stands on the side of the road where you can stop and purchase coffee directly from the producers.
Tip: if you really want to visit coffee farms and purchase coffee from them, do not go on a Sunday. We drove through the area on a Sunday and most of the stands were closed!
Still, the ride is scenic and traveling on Hawaii Highway 11 (Mamalahoa), you will climb quite high on the slopes of Mauna Loa and be able to enjoy scenic views of the coastline below.
An Eerie Beauty
Passing though Volcanoes National Park, the landscape is defined unique vegetation and high peaks, which mingled with the clouds as we passed. In contrast to the arid lava fields of the Kohala Coast, these lava fields are full of life. This side of the Big Island is wet and green, with big trees and the type vegetation found on the other Hawaiian islands.
Because of the Big Island's size and the amount of time that it takes to get to Punalu’u Black Sand Beach, you get the feeling that you are driving to one of the most remote places on the planet.
Fun Fact: Driving to Punalu’u you will pass the southernmost tip of Hawaii at spot called Ka Lae, which is also the southernmost point in the United States. This not to be confused with Key West, which is the southernmost point in the Continental US.
Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles
At Punalu’u, you will see signs posted asking people to give the Hawaiian sea turtles their space. The beach is a haven for them, and there were five large turtles lounging on the sand when we visited in December. They seem oblivious to onlookers and are a treat for visitors.
Swimming at Punalu’u
The water was brisk when we visited in December, but also very refreshing. There were waves at the shoreline, which is rocky at the water’s edge. For this reason, we would recommend bringing reef walkers or other shoes to ensure you don’t hurt your feet. Once in, the sight of the black sand beach and the palms from the water is quite special.
Beyond the shore, several visitors were snorkeling, apparently taken by the tropical marine life that dwells just offshore.
This beach is not to be missed for anyone looking for a one-of-a-kind Hawaiian experience. Black sand beaches are famous but relatively rare in Hawaii, so do your best to take a road trip down to this beautiful and remote shoreline the next time you are on the Big Island of Hawaii.
Located in the northeastern portion of the island, just over 100 miles north of Punulu'u, is the gorgeous Waipio Valley (See map above). Visiting the Waipio Valley is like taking a step back in time. Of historic importance to ancient Hawaiians, the valley is lush, with waterfalls streaming down its valley walls and tumbling into the ocean along a gorgeous black-sand. The sand is not as dark as at Punulu'u (Perhaps more a slate gray).
If you're staying in one of the resorts on the Kohala Coast, the Waipio Valley is a an easy and rewarding day trip. Taking Route 19, you climb up the slopes of Mauna Loa to the historic ranching community of Waimea.
Waimea (not to be confused with with Waimea Bay on Oahua) is a charming old town with a brewery and cute restaurants, as well as chains common to most U.S. Mainland towns, such as Starbucs and CVS. Waimea is a great spot for lunch or dinner. From Waimea, you will drive down the other side of the "saddle" through cloud-filled pastures, and eventially land on the eastern shore's Hamakua Coast, where the Waipio Valley is located. This part of the Big Island is wetter than the sunny and dry Kohala Coast, so expect some cloud cover.
Getting down to the valley floor requires planning. You can either hike in or take a tour with a four-wheel drive vehicle. This beach is more remote than others and waters can be rough, so please exercise caution if you choose to hike down.
Waipio Valley Black Sand Beach, Big Island of Hawaii
The Big Island was in the news in 2018 year for the destructive volcanic activity that added land to the island’s southern corner.
Fact: As of November 2019, Kilauea Volcano is not erupting and the air quality on the Big Island is excellent. The volcano had erupted constantly since 1983, which came to an end with the well-publicized destructive eruptions of 2018.
Though the area impacted by the eruption is remote, about 100 miles from the the villas on the Kohala Coast, the eruption created some beautiful and interesting new things to see from the sky. Our friends at Paradise Helicopters shared some photos of new black-sand beaches formed in the wake of the most recent eruption.
Photo Courtesy of Paradise Helicopters
Helicopter tours of the Big Island have always been a great way to take in the island's varied and expansive terrain. Visitors don’t realize the vast distances associated with this island. To put it into context, the Big Island of Hawaii covers over 4,000 square miles (over 10,000 sq. kms.). At its widest, Hawaii island is nearly 100 miles across.
Photo Courtesy of Paradise Helicopters
Flying above the Big Island you will be able to see the stunning activity around Kilauea Volcano, which is home to the goddess Pele in the Hawaiian culture. Kilauea’s fascinating geographic features and cultural significance make it a must-see attraction. Helicopter tours allow you to take it all in from a bird's perspective.
Photo Courtesy of Paradise Helicopters
Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park
Guests to the Big Island of Hawaii should know that Volcanoes National Park is open folowing the eruptions on 2018. There are even some new tours to be enjoyed, and you can speak with the Exotic Estates’ Concierge about how to take advantage of them.
Our favorite helicopter operator is Paradise Helicopters. We're happy to give them a plug, as they have been in the business of safe helicopter tourism for over 20 years, employing the highest quality pilots and offering the most fascinating tour content. Many of our guests have rated their Paradise Helicopters tour as a highlight of their trip.
They even offer an exciting "doors-off" tour, recently attended by Exotic Estates superstar Concierge, Sarah Mater.
With a Paradise Helicopters tour, you will get to see more than just madam Pele’s handiwork and black sand beaches. You will see waterfalls that cascade from impossible heights down lush green mountains to the Blue Pacific. You will also see what is one of the largest cattle ranches in the United States, Parker Ranch, home to the paniolo or Hawaiian cowboy. Flying north, up towards the Kohala Coast you will see the world-famous Keck Observatory telescopes sitting atop Mauna Kea, skies permitting.
During whale season, which is roughly from November through March, you may even be lucky enough to see one or more of these majestic giants from your helicopter window!
This island, because of the varied, alien terrain and its geologic activity, has incredible energy that makes it a favorite for many. It’s big, as it's common name refers, and doesn’t feel overcrowded like some of the others islands can feel. The villas that sit astride the island's amazing golf courses are some of the finest in Hawaii.
Fun Fact: In addition to black sand beaches, the Big Island also has a green sand beach!
What we love about the Big Island, beyond its obvious natural beauty, is its convenience. The resorts that dot that Kohala Coast contain a great variety of vacation rentals, from affordable condos to ultra-luxury villas. Some villas, like Honu Pani at Mauna Lani, offer private ocean-front access.
Moreover, there are major hotel properties in each of the resort areas, affording villa renters access to resort amenities, such as world-class golf and spas. The resorts also offer supermarkets, restaurants and shopping. You can spend a day exploring the wilder points on the island and then return home to your comfortable, well-serviced vacation rental - or finish off your day with a massage! If you are thinking about renting a home or condo on the Big Island, be sure to check out the many resorts on the Kohala Coast.
Check out our other Exotic Estates Big Island villas and plan your escape to this fascinating, ever-changing island that gives the State of Hawaii is name. If you're dring to figure which part of this island to call home, epsecially because the weather can vary dramatically, a Big Island Guide can be quite handy.