Big Island Highlights: What to Do and See on Hawai‘i Island

Think big for your next beach vacation. Big volcanoes, big sea life, and big stretches of multihued sand. Think Hawai‘i’s Big Island.

A quick aloha-themed refresher: The state of Hawai‘i is a collection of eight main islands, the most popular of which are Maui, O‘ahu, Kaua‘i, and Hawai‘i. Yes, technically speaking, Hawai‘i is the name of the entire state and one of the singular islands. The latter’s namesake landmass is the biggest of the group, and so it has a built-in, easy-to-remember nickname: the Big Island.

It’s the perfect alternate moniker: Encompassing more than 4,000 square miles, Hawai‘i (the island) accounts for nearly two-thirds of Hawai‘i’s (the state) total terrestrial area. But as they say in much colder climes, that sizable factoid is just the tip of the iceberg. The Big Island is home to vast rainforests, colossal volcanoes and expansive beaches, and is best suited to travelers with a large appetite for exploration.

Indeed, a vacation to this Hawaiian behemoth is nothing short of monumental, and so we present nine of the Big Island’s biggest attractions and activities, which are sure to widen your world perspective.

Big Island highlights1. Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park

This is the Big Island’s compulsory attraction and, quite frankly, one of the most amazing places on Earth. Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park is teeming with riveting adventures. Trek across the scorched landscape at the end of Chain of Craters Road, sneak a peek into Halema‘uma‘u Crater, home to Pele, or drive to the coast to see the majestic sea arch.

2. A Sunset Lū‘au

Hawaiian lū‘aus, no matter which island you’re on, have evolved into full-blown (some would say over-the-top) affairs complete with hip-shifting hula routines, and all-you-can-eat buffets typically featuring kalua pork, pineapple, mahi mahi, sweet potatoes, fried rice and poi. From its kitschy cocktails to fire-dancing spectacles, attending a lū‘au is obligatory for first-time visitors, and a source of anticipation for many return travelers. The Waikoloa Beach Marriott® Sunset Lū‘au, for example, features inspired performances celebrating cultures from around the Pacific.

Big Island highlights3. Mauna Kea

The 13,796-foot-high Mauna Kea makes this list for one simple reason: snow. You read that correctly. Snow, as in frozen flakes of precipitation, actually falls on the top of Mauna Kea during the winter months. That’s cool. Literally. No matter what the season, you can journey to the top — either on your own or with a professional guide — for stunning views and some intense nighttime stargazing.

4. Kailua-Kona

Kailua-Kona and its environs are the hub of shopping and dining along the Big Island’s southwestern shore, which is collectively known as the Kona Coast. Start in the historic district on Ali‘i Drive — a road flanked by interesting boutiques, charming eateries and occasional views of the Pacific Ocean — but be sure to explore beyond this eclectic stretch. Hilo Hattie, headquarters for stocking up on tropical motif souvenirs, is a few blocks away, and many of the region’s most popular restaurants — Huggo’s, Jackie Rey’s and Harbor House — are dotted throughout town. While Kailua-Kona is noted for its quaint village atmosphere, it also offers a spectacular sunset view along the Kailua Bay’s seawall.

Big Island Highlights5. Punaluu Beach

The shores of Hapuna, Disappearing Sands and Kahalu‘u all should be on your to-do list. Each location is awesome for a refreshing swim or lazing in a lounge chair, and you might evenspot a green sea turtle at Kahalu‘u. For a sense of pure wonderment, though — like cartoon-style wonderment — step foot on Punalu‘u Black Sand Beach. The name says it all, but doesn’t do the striking scene justice. The flat black sand set against the shimmering green palms seems to capture the essence of Hawai‘i.

6. World Botanical Gardens & Waterfalls

Hawai‘i-bound horticulturists who are intrigued with the beauty of the orchid should pay a visit to World Botanical Gardens’ 262-foot-long kaleidoscopic Orchid Wall. If you’re in the market for a blooming memento, head over to Akatsuka Orchid Gardens (located on Volcano Road). They’ll simply ship one home for you — no sneaking around a rainforest or swamp necessary.

Big Island Highlights7. Hilo Farmers Market

More than 200 farmers, artisans, and enterprising go-getters gather and sell their wares at the Hilo Farmers Market. Stop by Wednesday and Saturday, from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m., to sample local goat cheese or nosh on fresh-rolled sushi; try all kinds of fruits with interesting names (dragon, passion and jack); buy wooden bowls and flower earrings for family members back home; stock up on casual Friday aloha fashions — and then send your travel companions to the car with your bags while you sit down for a relaxing massage.

8. Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation

Just like sipping a glass of bubbly at an outdoor cafe in Champagne, France, or sinking into hot wings at a sports bar in Buffalo, New York, savoring a cup of java on the Kona Coast is an indelible experience. This is certainly not your average joe: Kona coffee is world famous for its smooth, mellow taste, cultivated in its unique microclimate. There are numerous mills in the area, but the Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation is one of the state’s largest. A variety of tours are offered, including a roastmaster for a day private lesson, during which you’ll roast about five pounds of Kona coffee — and have a coveted gift to take home.

Big Island highlights9. ‘Akaka Falls State Park

Waterfalls — fresh water cascading over a rock ledge, plunging into what so often seems to be some long-forgotten mystical lagoon, all surrounded by dense, green rain forest — are part of Hawai‘i’s enchantment. ‘Akaka Falls State Park not only lives up to those tropical expectations, it accesses them all within an easy half-mile walk. First, you’ll arrive at Kahūnā Falls. It’s nice, about 10 stories high, and definitely worth a few pictures. Notice, though, that the path keeps going, and so should you, because just up ahead is the 442-foot-tall ‘Akaka Falls. And this is one place where panoramic mode on your digital camera will definitely come in handy. Ready. Aim. Focus!


Where to Stay:
Marriott’s Waikoloa Ocean Club

This article originally appeared in the spring 2013 issue of the North America edition of Interval World magazine, published by Interval International®, Inc., an indirect subsidiary of Marriott Vacations Worldwide Corporation. Any re-use of this content, or any portion of this content, is strictly prohibited. All rights reserved.