In 2016 I was fortunate to get the chance to spend five weeks exploring the Island of Hawai’i (aka the Big Island).
Below is a brief guide to some of the places that I visited during my time. I’ve tried my best to list the items in the order that you’d find them if you were driving South on the island starting at one of two northern points – North Kohala on the West side or Waipi’o Lookout on the East side.
Kapaau Gulch (North Kohala)
This area of the Big Island is known for having giant cliffs that meet the ocean. Access is via the Hawaii Island Retreat and there’s a path that leads down to the shoreline. Personally I wouldn’t swim in the area as the currents appear very strong.
Mahukona (North Kohala)
Mahukona was a great snorkeling spot thanks to the proximity to the reef. All you can see from the car park is an old boat ramp and plenty of rocks, but look into the water and you’ll see plenty of bright fish.
If you go with a tour group on a night snorkeling adventure you’ll get a chance to see different fish, sea urchins, and maybe even a manta ray or two.
Lapakahi State Historical Park (North Kohala)
If you want to learn about the history of the early Hawaiian people then a visit to Lapakahi is recommended. There’s a short trail which leads you around the ancient houses to allow you to get an understanding of how the people used to live. If you’re lucky you may get to see a monk seal sleeping on the shore.
Pu’ukoholā Heiau National Historic Site – Kawaihae
This was the place where Kamehameha I built a stone temple to try and help fulfill a prophecy that would mean he could unite all the Hawaiian islands. The trail around the area is only 1km and includes information signs so you can learn about the historical and cultural significance of the area.
Hāpuna is often voted one of the best beaches in the world, and after visiting I could see why. There was plenty of shade under the trees and the water was cool but quite clear. It’s one of the first sandy beaches that I have found on the Big Island and it was nice to not have to scramble over rocks to get to the water.
There are two areas of Hāpuna Beach – one is small and quite secluded (above) whilst the other has a long stretch of pristine white sand and hundreds of metres of uninterrupted beachfront.
Kīholo Bay (Kalaoa)
There wasn’t a beach or swimming section that I could see, but it was a great photography spot.
Mahai’ula Bay (Kalaoa)
Access to this bay was down something they call a ‘road’, but others would call ‘pothole heaven’. I wouldn’t be driving down there in a rental car that’s for sure. The bay itself was stunning but there’s a lot of rocks on the shoreline making it harder to get to the water. The sand was course and full of shells and crushed up rocks but the water was calm. It was a nice and quiet spot and there are hiking trails nearby.
Kona town (Kona)
The Kona strip along Ali’i Drive reminded me of a small and communal version of Waikiki, without all the tourists. There were restaurants, shops, and plenty of places to take amazing sunset photos.
If you’re after a beach in town then look no further than the beach at Kailua Pier. It may be small but the water is calm and there’s plenty of food nearby when you start to get peckish.
Magic Sands Beach
A few minutes drive south of Kona town is Magic Sands Beach. This is one of the most popular beaches on the island so get in early if you’d like a good spot.
It”s named ‘magic sands’ as the tide brings the sand in and out from the beach. Sometimes there may be an abundance of sand, whilst at other times the sand has washed away leaving a number of rocks visible.
There’s decent waves which makes it a popular spot for body boarders. There’s also snorkeling spots close by and every now and then a sea turtle may swim by you in the search for food.
The End Of The World
If you’re an adrenaline seeker then look no further than The End Of The World. Tucked away down a rocky path is a popular cliff jumping spot.
Be wary of the tides and only jump if there are locals around to point out the best spots. Getting back up can be tricky and will be rough on the feet, but the adrenaline rush is apparently worth it!
Captain Cook Monument in Kealakekua Bay (Captain Cook)
Take a hike down to the Captain Cook Monument and see the spot where Cook was sacrificed by the Hawaiians on 14 Feb 1779.
The trail is 1.8 miles long (almost 3km) and the top of the trailhead is 1000 feet above sea level. It takes about 40 minutes to walk down (if taking your time) and about an hour to meander back up. Just be prepared for your lungs to burn!
The path is a mix of dirt and old lava rocks so watching your footing is a must. The trail gets very hot as the sun reflects off the black lava rocks and there’s hardly any breeze so be sure to take plenty of water go early in the morning or later in the afternoon.
There are some rocks to the right of the jetty that is in front of the monument that double as steps.If the tide is high you can get in by doing a shallow dive as the reef is lower than it looks.
The water is clear that you can see all the fish and the coral without even needing a snorkel.
If you’ve ever wanted to swim with wild dolphins then be sure to head to Kealakekua Bay early in the morning.
The local spinner dolphins love swimming by and showing off to tourists as they have their breakfast in the bay.
You can hire a kayak or just swim out to meet the beautiful creatures. Just don’t wear too much sunscreen because it can affect the water and make the dolphins and local fish sick. This section of the bay is accessible by car and you can park at the Kealakekua Bay State Historical Park.
Napo’opo’o Park (Keokea)
If you want a great photo spot then head a little further South to Napo’opo’o Park. Sit for a minute and watch the waves crashing over the huge black rocks with the tall green trees in the background. The park has a community garden where the locals grow vegetables and green grass which would be a perfect picnic spot. You can even see the Captain Cook Monument in the distance as the park is the south point of Kealakekua Bay.
Pae’a (aka Two Step)
The second best snorkelling spot on the west side of the island is at Pae’a, aka Two Step.
Stay nice and close to see fish and turtles, or swim out a bit further to see dolphins. The water can be a bit choppy when compared to Kealakekua Bay so be prepared to bob up and down a fair bit.
Get in early as parking is tight. There are toilets available and plenty of shady spots on the rocks.
There’s a black sand beach located between the snorkelling spot and the national park (below). Like most beaches on the Big Island it was quite rocky but the sand was quite smooth which feels great on sore feet.
Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park (Keokea)
Next to Two Step you’ll find an archaeological park featuring burial grounds and reconstructed villages.Learn about the history of the island as you wander around the park.
See turtles sleeping on the sand and stare at the idols protecting the land. Just don’t couch anything as this is very sacred land.
Paradise Orchard (Ocean View)
Paradise Orchard is a great pit stop on the road to South Point as they have samples of cookies, macadamias and honey. All their food was incredible, but the pineapple coconut macadamia cookies were my favourite. There’s also a few parrots that are residents and some of them can even speak to people. They are all rescued and now live a happy life at the orchard.
South Point is the southernmost point of the USA and possibly the windiest. I highly recommend wrap-around sunnies as the sand was flying in everyone’s face.
South point is a popular cliff-jumping spot when the waves are non-existent. Local fishermen watch as locals and tourists jump off the 15m high cliffs into the crystal clear water below. There’s a ladder to climb back up (or down if you’re chicken like me) so you don’t have to worry about getting stuck at the bottom.
I think this spot is officially the windiest place on earth. The wind was unbelievable! Just down the road from South point lies Kaulana Bay which is another great photo spot. There’s nowhere to swim, but there is a car park if you’re planning on heading out to the Green Sand Beach and don’t have a suitable vehicle.
Papakōlea Green Sand Beach
Accessible only by foot or 4WD, the Green Sand Beach is about 5km from Kaulana Bay. Thanks to the olivine crystals in the sand, the beach has a green tinge and its one of only four green sand beaches in the world.
The drive there is certainly a wild one as you go over pot holes and giant rocks. Hang on tight and enjoy the beach!
Punalu’u Black Sand Beach Park (Pahala)
The island has a wide variety of beaches, with one of the most famous being the black sand beach.
The sand itself is quite coarse as its made up of pebbles and sand. While it’s far too cold to swim, the sea turtles think it’s an ideal place to chill.
Waipi’o lookout (Honokaa)
When I went to Waipi’o in March 2016 the valley was closed due to the dengue fever outbreak. The valley is only accessible by 4WD or on foot and is on my list of places to return to next time I’m on the island.
‘Akaka Falls (Hilo)
‘Akaka Falls is a huge waterfall and it’s only a short walk to get there from the car park. It’s in a rainforest so there were so many beautiful plants around and the birds were chirping like crazy. The lookout point is quite far away from the actual falls but it makes you appreciate the height of the waterfall. Just make sure to wear insect repellent as the mosquitoes were out in force.
Kulaniapia Falls (Hilo)
This is one of the only waterfalls on the Big Island that you can swim at meaning it’s a place that is often sought out by tourists.Unfortunately nobody told us that it’s actually a private waterfall and is only accessible by people staying at the nearby inn.
Rainbow Falls (Hilo)
As the name would suggest, Rainbow Falls is well known for producing some of the most spectacular rainbows on the island. The falls are located just outside of Hilo making it a popular tourist spot.
Llili’uokalani Gardens (Hilo)
This 100-year-old garden is one of the quietest places in Hilo. Step back into early 20th century Japan as you wander around the beautifully manicured gardens and admire the
plants and architecture.
Onekahakaha Beach Park (Hilo)
The first time I visited this beach park was after a heavy rainfall and the car park was flooded. There’s a rock wall that’s been built to create a shallow swimming pool that is popular with families. When the ocean is rough the waves will come crashing over the rock wall and into the pool but it’s still safe to swim at.
Carlsmith Beach Park (Hilo)
Carlsmith Beach Park is a favourite for those who want to swim with turtles. They love coming close to the shore to eat the algae on the rocks. The ones I saw were huge and very comfortable with the amount of people around.
There’s also a huge grassed area that was popular for picnics and barbecues, with some people even setting up hammocks to relax in. The water was shallow in some parts but the current can get quite strong so weak swimmers should definitely stick to the shallows.
Waiuli Beack Park (Hilo)
After accidentally stumbling across the park it became my favourite photo spot on the Hilo side. There’s a few places to snorkel but I just stayed to appreciate the scenery.
Lava Tree Park (Pāhoa)
The park is just outside of Pāhoa. There’s an abundance of trees that were destroyed by lava flows in the past. It’s fascinating to see what lava does to trees and how the new trees have since flourished in the nutrient rich soil. The park is free and there’s a short loop for you to walk around and admire the trees.
Ahalanui Park (Pāhoa)
This is the only geothermal pool on the Big Island and it was awesome to be swimming in the warm water. Like every other swimming spots there were plenty of fish around and I had one nip at my knee as I had a small scratch at the time. Some of the rock walls have cracks where hot water leaks out so if you find one, stick with it.
Kapoho Tide Pools (Pāhoa)
If there’s one spot I could spend hours at – it’s here. It proved a bit difficult to get into the water due to the rocks but once you’re in there’s plenty of fish to see. The water was calm, clear, and cool which made it perfect.
MID-ISLAND (Volcano National Park)
Mauna Kea Visitor Centre
One of the best times to visit the Mauna Kea Visitor Centre is just before sunset. It’s a short hike to the best vantage point, but remember to take a jacket as it can get quite windy and cold. To the left stands Mauna Loa, and to the right is the summit of Mauna Kea. The summit is only accessible by foot or by 4WD.
After sunset the volunteers at the Visitor Centre set up telescopes and allow the public to star gaze. The drive up is winding and although it doesn’t feel steep, you do gain quite a bit in elevation.
Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park
Nahuku (Thurston Lava Tube)
Near the entrance to the national park is the Thurston Lava Tube. A path leads you through a rainforest before taking you through a 500-year-old cave that was formed after a strong lava flow stopped. It is lit inside so there’s no need to bring a torch, but I can recommend bringing a tripod for your camera if you want to take some great photos.
If you want to see what the crater of an active volcano looks like, then this is the best place to go. A short drive from the lava tube, the crater is constantly emitting steam and is the only crater on the island that you can see fully.
Kilauea / Jagger Museum
During the day all you see from Halemaumau crater is steam rising pout of the volcano, but at night you see an awesome reddish-orange glow. The view at night is far more breathtaking than the view during the day. If you’re making the trip out to the crater I can recommend heading out before sunset to see the steam coming from the crater, then wait until after sunset to see the glow.
If you’re lucky enough to be on the island when the lava is flowing into the ocean, you have two options to see it – the first is by boat (on a tour), the second is by hiking out to it.
There are two ways to get to the point where the lava meets the sea. The first is by following Highway 130 to its end, and then walking or hiring a bike to get to the lava flow point.
The other option is to go via the Volcanoes National Park and following the Chain of Craters Road to its end and then walking to the lava flow point. This option has a significantly longer walk time (around 1.5 hours each way) and involves walking over hardened lava. The volunteers at the entry to the national park can let you know which roads are open as the wind can determine whether the roads are opened or closed.
If you decide to trek out be sure to take plenty of water, food, a jacket and a torch. Also be sure to wear sturdy footwear as the lava can be slippery. When I headed out there was a full moon so we made our way to the lava flow by the glow of the moonlight. There was acid rain near the lava point meaning the time spent watching the lava was minimal.
One last note…
My number one tip for exploring the island is to take a mask and snorkel everywhere. Almost every beach or ‘pool’ has plenty of fish and coral to see so be sure to make the most of it and see it all from under the water.