In 2011 my then-boyfriend (now husband) and I took our first real vacation together, to the Big Island of Hawaii. It was a budget trip – we scored round-trip tickets from the bay area for less than $300 – and we were only there for four days, but we managed to do a lot in the short time we had and it was a really great vacation. Here are six things I highly recommend you do on the Big Island:
1. Snorkel with Tropical Fish and Sea Turtles at Kahalu’u Beach Park
Though I snorkeled plenty growing up I never thought of it as something I particularly enjoyed until I snorkeled here. The marine life was so diverse and so close to your face that I totally fell in love and have made snorkeling a central part of every tropical vacation we’ve taken since. It didn’t hurt that our hotel (the now-shuttered Outrigger Keauhou) was about 100 feet from this beach, so we’d walk over every day for an early morning snorkel after waking up at 6 am thanks to jetlag. We also saw tons of sea turtles here, both in and out of the water.
2. Visit the Picture Perfect Kua Bay (Manini’owali) Beach Park
Kua Bay is everything I think of when I think of a classic Hawaiian beach: white sand, turquoise water, and waves that are perfect for body-surfing. The combination of this beach for swimming and Kahalu’u Beach Park for snorkeling is all you really need, but if you’re inclined to check out other beaches, Hawaii the Big Island Revealed has a write-up of pretty much every beach on the island, and I’ve found their recommendations to be spot-on.
3. Take in a Hawaiian Sunset
I’ve seen the sun set in a lot of beautiful places, but it’s hard to top Hawaii for consistently gorgeous sunsets, and the Big Island gave us some absolutely spectacular ones, especially on the perpetually sunny Kona side of the island.
4. Explore the Other-Worldly Landscapes of Volcanoes National Park
What you can do in this park will depend on what the very active volcano Kilauea is doing, so it’s hard to plan too far in advance. When we were there, a good chunk of Crater Rim Drive (the 11 mile road that circles the volcano) was closed. Still, we were able to drive a portion of the road that had steam vents, sulfur banks, lava tubes, and the Mars-like Devastation Trail.
We also stopped at overlooks to observe the volcano and the lava-covered Kilauea Iki crater, which you can actually hike into if you’re feeling adventurous (sadly, we didn’t have time).
5. Drive the Kohala Mountain Road
This road cuts inland across the northwest tip of the Big Island from Waimea to Hawi. The lush green farmland is very pleasant to drive though and there are a couple of scenic overlooks where you have great views of the Kohala Coast (which my 2011 point & shoot camera did not do justice to). Supposedly, on clear days you can see all the way to Maui. From Hawi, head east on Highway 270 (the Pule Highway) to the Pololu Valley Lookout, where you’ll be treated to beautiful coastal views that are well worth the winding drive it takes to get there.
6. Eat at You Make the Roll
Yelp led us to this hole-in-the-wall, build your own sushi gem in the village of Kailua-Kona. We didn’t have raw fish so I can’t really speak to the authenticity, but their Americanized rolls were absolutely incredible. The Island Chicken roll, with chicken teriyaki and avocado, is something I still dream about, and my husband raved about his shrimp tempura rolls. And although “Hawaii” and “sushi” aren’t two words that typically suggest affordability, this place was surprisingly cheap.
2019 update: I stand by this list (You Make the Roll is even still there!) but I’d add one more item, and I’d put it at the very top: go on a night snorkel with manta rays! This is a can’t-miss experience for anyone who loves wildlife.
Have you been to the Big Island? What would you add to my list?