My Favorite Things to Do on the Big Island of Hawaii

The Big Island of Hawaii is truly a unique spot. Not your typical tropical getaway, the largest island in the US has such interesting terrain that reminds you that you are vacationing on an active volcano! The island has something for every visitor to see, from ocean activities, lush forest hiking, and photographing incredible coastal vistas to indulging in Hawaiian-inspired cuisine!

Here are some things I think everybody should experience when planning a trip to the Big Island:

 

Manta Night Dive/Snorkel

Since seeing a manta ray underwater has always been on my bucket list, one of the top things that drew me to the Big Island was the world famous manta night dive. Some even go as far as calling it the ‘best night dive in the world’. If you’re a certified diver, you’ll sit on the bottom of the ocean around bright lights set on the floor, and these gentle giants will swoop inches above your head. Multiple tour companies run this trip in the same location, and everyone's lights combined together create a bright area that attract plankton, which is the manta’s main food source. 

 Encountering a manta on the first dive

Encountering a manta on the first dive

During this dive we had about 10 mantas come up to our lights and swoop over our heads. At one point, we even had four mantas in the same area circling over the lights. Watching these giants gracefully swooping in circles was the highlight of the entire trip for me.

Instead of the normal single night dive, we signed up for the two tank manta dive through Big Island Divers ($149 per person), since it was only about $24 to add on the dive beforehand. In this first dive, we actually happened across several mantas hanging out over the reef! We felt super lucky to see mantas in the day time and feeding naturally without being drawn into the lights.

Book the two tank manta dive we signed up for here.

 

What If I’m Not Scuba Certified?

Snorkelers can participate as well! There are tours at night that have snorkelers hold onto floaties, and mantas will come right up to you from below. If you are up for snorkeling in the ocean at night, this is a must do on the Big Island, as you'll still experience close encounters with these gentle giants. Big Island Divers offers a night snorkel tour for $105 per person.

Click here for more information on snorkeling with mantas with Big Island Divers

 

Sunset at Mauna Kea

Visiting Mauna Kea was also at the top of things I wanted to do during my visit. Where else can you watch the sunset from a readily-accessible 13,000 foot volcano?

We rented an SUV for the week just so we could make the journey up to the summit of Mauna Kea, and we got an early start to make sure to have plenty of time to acclimate on the way up, take photos, and snag a parking spot.

 

Things to Consider:

Altitude - Since you are driving from sea level straight to 13,000 ft, you’ll want to stop at the visitor center at 9,000 ft for at least 30 minutes to acclimate to the low oxygen levels. 13,000 ft is no joke, and you’ll definitely feel out of breath and light headed if you start to exert yourself too hard at the top.

 

Temperature - We packed down jackets, gloves, beanies, and thick pants just for this excursion. It felt a little weird packing these warm clothes for a tropical Hawaii vacation, but we were thankful to have them at the summit. As the sun went down, the air was 39 degrees, but the worst part was the icy wind. I had to take several breaks warming up in the car!

 

4WD - 4WD is recommended, although we made it fine in our AWD vehicle. Be sure to know how to switch to lower gears, as you’ll want to drive in second gear on the way up and first on the way down to avoid overheating your breaks. An alternative to renting the appropriate vehicle is signing up for a shuttle or tour that will drive you to the summit.

 

Stargazing - We wanted to photograph the stars from the summit, but the ranger kicked everyone off the summit about 20 minutes after sunset. However, you can stay at the visitor center past sunset, and they even run stargazing tours on certain nights.

Click here for more stargazing info on their website

 

Rainbow Falls

Located in Hilo, this easily accessible waterfall is quite popular, but don’t forget to also explore the epic banyan grove nearby. The weather wasn’t the best when we went, but supposedly a rainbow will appear in front of the falls on a sunny morning. It can be quite muddy and slippery in the grove, so wear appropriate footwear.

Visit early as the parking lot will fill up (tour buses stop here), and you’ll get to enjoy the forest and falls in a quieter setting.

Click here for the location on Google Maps

 

Akaka Falls

 Our first glimpse of Akaka Falls

Our first glimpse of Akaka Falls

This state park is quite the lush, serene, jungle escape near Hilo. The 0.4 mile loop has plenty of photo opportunities as the paved trail brings you past green fern walls, bamboo groves, hanging vines, mini waterfalls, and the impressive Akaka Falls. You can also hear the sound of thundering water as it plunges over the cliff 442 feet down. 

Click here for more photos and my trip report of hiking the Akaka Falls State Park loop

 

Volcanoes National Park

Volcanoes National Park is truly a unique gem in the national park system. Where else can you see active volcanoes and lava flowing near you? It can be a drive to get to this corner of the island, but here you have the chance to learn about the powerful natural features that shape our world.

Click here for my list of recommendations for Volcanoes National Park

 

Dayhike Waipio Valley

 Admiring the coastal views from the bottom of Waipio Valley

Admiring the coastal views from the bottom of Waipio Valley

For the adventure-seeker, the trek down to Waipio Valley is most likely on your list. Known as the steepest road in the US of its length, the road has an average grade of 25%, with some portions as steep as 40%! You’ll either want a 4x4 or fit legs with some strong willpower to make the journey down to the bottom of the lush valley.

Click here for my trip report to Waipio Valley

 

Dayhike Pololu Valley

 The beautiful lush valleyscape of Pololu

The beautiful lush valleyscape of Pololu

A great alternative to the popular and sometimes crowded Waipio Valley is to hike the shorter Pololu Valley. We actually liked this one better, as the coastal cliff views are more impressive, and the valley at the bottom was more picturesque. 

Click here for my trip report to Pololu Valley

 

Eat Delicious Food!

Hawaii is known for it’s incredible food, and one could visit and spend a week on a trip solely dedicated as a foodcation. With its Japanese and seafood influence, Hawaii offers so many options. Here are some of our favorites during our week there:

 Incredible poke -  Umeke’s Poke Bowls

Incredible poke - Umeke’s Poke Bowls

 Unique Hawaiian-themed diner -  Ken's House of Pancakes

Unique Hawaiian-themed diner - Ken's House of Pancakes

 The BEST shaved ice -  One Aloha Shaved Ice

The BEST shaved ice - One Aloha Shaved Ice

 Enjoy a flight (make sure to try the Koko Brown!) -  Kona Brewing

Enjoy a flight (make sure to try the Koko Brown!) - Kona Brewing

 A close second for best malasadas - Tex Drive In

A close second for best malasadas - Tex Drive In

 Our favorite malasadas on the island -  Manuela Malasada Co

Our favorite malasadas on the island - Manuela Malasada Co

 Chicken Macadamia Nut Sandwich from  Just Cruisin Coffee

Chicken Macadamia Nut Sandwich from Just Cruisin Coffee

Some more places we had on our list:

Hawaiian/Filipino restaurant - Broke Da Mouth Grindz & Catering

Hawaiian food - Kaaloa's Super J's

Mochi - Two Ladies Kitchen

More shaved ice from a truck - Original Big Island Shave Co

Poke - Da Poke Shack

Cafe with great to go before flying out of Kona Airport - Pine Tree Cafe

Whatever you end up doing, I'm sure you'll enjoy the coastal views and laidback island vibes. Happy travels!