Day 1 of Your Big Island Road Trip:

Arrive in Kona

You can fly into Kona or Hilo and get around the rest of the Island from there driving around Big Island. We chose to start and end our adventure in Kona, where the island’s best beaches can be found. 

The best way to get around the island is by car, which would be necessary for a Big Island Road Trip, so once you arrive it’s best to pick up your rental car or use Turo to rent a car from a local resident; a program much like Airbnb but for cars! 

Many people opt to be greeted at the airport with a traditional Hawaiian lei. While this is exciting and special, you can find fresh leis at a local grocer for roughly 1/4 of the price, so opt for that if you’re on a budget but still want to celebrate with this Hawaiian tradition. 

Head to your Airbnb and settle in for the night – you have a big weekend ahead of you. We ended up staying in 3 different locations as we hopped around the island so we could road trip and see everything Hawai’i has to offer. 

Get a good night’s sleep, because tomorrow starts a day packed with adventures. Welcome to your Hawaiian vacation

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DAY 2 -Hiking, Snorkeling, and Swimming with Manta Rays:

Step 1: Wake up, and realize you are in Hawai’i. Aloha, and welcome to paradise!

Visit the City of Refuge

Start off your day with a quick breakfast wherever you are staying, or grab something on the way, then spread on your sunscreen and head out to spend the morning at Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park, also known as the City of Refuge.

Entrance to the park is $20 per vehicle and is good for 7 days from the time of purchase, so you can come back multiple times throughout your stay if you like.

Other options are to purchase the Hawaiʻi Tri-Park Pass for $55 if you are wanting to visit the other parks on the islands: including Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park (also on the Big Island) and Haleakalā National Park (on Maui island) within one year of purchase, or check out the America The Beautiful Pass for $80 which grants entrance into over 2,000 federal sites including national parks all over the USA for a full year. The latter is the best deal if you plan to travel to any other national parks or hike in national forests in the coming year.

We lived near 3 national parks so we get this pass every year, but somehow slipped our mind when visiting Hawai’i, so learn from our mistakes hehe.

This historic park is incredibly beautiful but also rich with the history of Native Hawaiians, known as the Kānaka Maoli. The Kanaka are still very much alive and present to this day, and it is important to respect and honor their land which you are visiting when you come to the Hawaiian Islands.

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One way to educate yourself on Kanaka Maoli culture is to visit Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park (The City Of Refuge) and speak to the native Hawaiians working as park rangers as well as reading signs throughout the park. The rangers are stationed throughout the park as well as at the visitor’s center, and can tell you in their own words about this historic place. 

If you are active on social media, you can also follow native Hawaiians to learn more first hand about these beautiful strong people who have lived here on these islands and taken care of them. 

We learned that the name and significance of The City Of Refuge comes from this place acting as a refuge for lawbreakers outrunning their punishers. In Kanaka culture, the sacred law called out certain things as forbidden, called kapu. If anyone broke kapu, the punishment was death.

The only chance these lawbreakers had of survival was to outrun trained professionals, often frantically swimming and running across these jagged volcanic rocks to reach safety behind the great wall surrounding the city of refuge. It was hard to imagine such a tumultuous scene overlooking the peaceful serenity on the beaches.

Plan for at least a few hours of meandering around the park, taking in the sites and imagining the life of the community here. There are several buildings and landmarks to see, from the chief’s favorite stone to relax on, to a performance example of the traditional dress and basket weaving, and beautiful tropical views along the way.

Don’t forget you are in the hot sun though, and be sure to bring a water bottle to stay hydrated and a hat and some sunscreen to protect your skin. Bring a packed lunch or some snacks to keep you fueled for the next activity on the list: snorkeling!

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Head Next Door to Snorkel at Honaunau Bay

Walk over to Honaunau Bay right beside the park to go snorkeling at Two Step. Bring your own snorkel gear – most hotels/house rentals let you borrow their equipment, and we made sure our Airbnb host would have these before booking because we knew we wanted to do this and did not have our own.

The snorkeling area is a very short walk from the National Historic Park, so after eating some snacks in the shade we simply grabbed our gear and walked on over. We found it was safe to leave our clothes and essentials in a small pile on the rocks, as everyone was there to snorkel as well.

The name Two Step comes from the two smooth stones shaped like a step that make it fairly easy to slide down into the water (though I had a panicky time getting out after on the slippery smooth steps – thankfully some kind strangers helped me out)

Remember once you jump in to keep your feet/flippers (and hands) off of the reefs – it can cause damage to the coral and we want to protect them for everyone to continue to enjoy.

On that note, make sure you are wearing Reef Safe sunscreen! Sunbum and Alba are my favorite brands, but as long as it says reef safe its a great choice.

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 We spent all afternoon swimming in the bay, snorkeling above the reefs. We even saw some people swimming further away from shore and found out it was for a chance to glimpse a pod of dolphins so we went out and got to see them too!

I didn’t get extremely close to them, but it was such a surreal experience to swim in the ocean next to so many dolphins

These creatures are meant to be wild, and not kept in a tank at an aquarium. It was a beautiful moment (I may have cried! what a beautiful birthday experience!) and more than made up for the long swim back to shore, but we had worked up quite an appetite so we headed back and drove towards Kona to have our first local meal on the island.

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For lunch we grabbed some fresh poke at a local recommendation Kona Grill House. It was nearly 4 pm when we finally ate, so we were absolutely starving. I wanted to be authentic so I went with the Hawaiian style tuna poke, while Diego got the salmon. 

We both got warm lobster cakes with our poke and split a lilikoi cheesecake – the whole thing was absolutely divine. Highly recommend!

After the late lunch, we wanted to check out Kona town for a bit and kill some time, so we drove in to try the famous Scandinavian Shaved Ice, then walked along the beach during the golden hour of sunset before rushing off to our next activity.

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End the Day Swimming with Manta Rays

Because this was a budget trip, we decided to only splurge on one main activity during our visit to the Big Island. We were choosing between two things which were about the same price: swimming with Manta Rays in Keauhau Bay or stargazing on Mauna Kea. Since it was my birthday and I love wildlife, I decided to go with the manta rays, since it was a unique experience you can only do in a handful of places in the world.

There are several companies you can go snorkeling to see the rays with, but there are a few criteria you will want to look for when booking your trip. Make sure that the company is local Hawaiian owned, and that they ensure the rays can not be touched by the tourists. We found that most companies charged around the same, and we decided to go with My Kona Adventures.

Budget tip: be sure to check Groupon for deals on experiences like this!

We also read that going at sunset would be a good idea because you could watch the sun set as you rode out in the boat, but it turned out to not be what we expected, because it was really hard to see the rays in the dark.

They are attracted by their food, which is attracted by the flashlights, but if it is possible to go during the day I would imagine that is a more enjoyable experience to see them when the water is lit by the sunlight. Regardless, it was a magical experience. Below is a video from my Go Pro:

Swimming with manta rays in Hawai’i on my birthday was the experience of a lifetime, and I definitely squealed as the rays swam and dipped under us, getting so close! It was surreal, and a memory I will always carry with me.

I highly recommend adding this experience to your itinerary while visiting Hawai’i!

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Grab Dinner and Local Beer at Kona Brewing Co

We decided to celebrate with my birthday dinner at the brewery back in Kona. You can build your own beer tasting flight from the menu and I definitely enjoyed a break from all the PNW IPAs. We sat on the patio outside and the warm island air was so nice. It was a great end to a day full of adventures.

DAY 3 – Hiking at South Point, Volcanos National Park, & Turtles at Black Sand Beach

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Start with Breakfast by the Sea

After all, you are on an island! Head to the Coffee Shack for a yummy island breakfast overlooking a gorgeous mountainside, covered in tropical flora and the bluest sea. We loved the lattes with macadamia nut milk and brunch offerings. Be sure to watch for some colorful visitors.

Once you are filled up on blissful views and delicious coffee, you can head to the south part of the island to access Volcanoes National Park, Papakolea Green Sand Beach, the Southernmost tip of the US, and Punalu’u Black Sand beach.

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Hiking Around South Point – Ka Lae

After road-tripping down to the South, stop to grab coffee at Ka Lae Coffee, named after the southernmost tip of both the island and the entire United States, on your way to the next destination. 

This open-air coffee house is spacious and charming, with amazing coffee grown right there on the island. In fact, this photo I took on the right is of coffee berries on a plant growing in the gardens at the coffee shop. 

I had yet another macadamia nut latte – wish I could find it on the mainland!

You can keep heading towards Ka Lae (South Point), or stop first at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park whose entrance is on the way.

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 Be sure to check the park website for current conditions and the status of trails – most of the key highlights we would have wanted to see were closed when we were on the island due to volcanic activity so we opted to skip but I have heard so many good things about the park and would love to come back to explore. 

Some highlights we had been looking forward to were: Chain of Craters, Crater Rim & Keanakāko’i Crater, Nāhuku (Thurston Lava Tube) and if we were lucky, seeing an active lava flow.

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From South Point, you can either head further along to end your day on Punaluʻu Beach – the black sand beach with a high chance of spotting turtles, or hike to Papakōlea – the green sand beach near South Point (please do not hire a shuttle truck to Papakōlea – these are illegal!). 

We chose to hike to the green sand beach, since I have seen black sand beaches in Costa Rica, and the views all along the hike and at the crater were insane and aw-inspiring. 

If you are short on time or not up for a hike in the hot sun, the black sand beach is a great choice – this is what I think would have preferred now that I have gone to the green beach.

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The green sand is from olivine crystals and the beach is carved into a 49,000 year old volcanic cinder cone, so they geology of the area is incredibly interesting in its own right.

The hike from the parking lot to the top is long, but if you stay on the path along the water it seems to be shorter than some of the others that meander into the grass fields that line the private pasture.

Once at the top you can hike down to the beach but the path is fairly precarious.

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After the sun set we headed to our second Airbnb – a cute tiny house with an outdoor shower! Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see it in the daylight until the next day, and my biggest regret was not spending more time there to get the escape feeling and relax.

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Day 4 – Hilo & Waimea:

Maku’u Farmer’s Market

Start the day off with breakfast and a taste of the local flavor as you eat and shop your way through the local farmers market on the morning of day 4.

Be sure to bring a few dollars in cash to pay to park if you are driving. Here is a great guide to the farmer’s markets on the Big Island.

As we were staying near Volcano, we visited Maku’u Farmer’s Market which we heard was one of the best on the island and I have to say I can’t disagree!

Some of our favorite snacks we tasted were an acai bowl with loads of fresh fruit toppings and yummy hazelnut chocolate, melon boba, freshly cooked coconut shrimp, and Poke in fried egg roll wrappers, kind of like sushi? (can’t remember what it was called).

It was also fun to walk around and see all the beautiful plants and artisan goods for sale. Such a bummer we couldn’t take it back on the plane with us, but it was still lovely to browse!

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The drive from here to Hilo is a few hours so by the time we got into town we were starting to get a bit hungry. We stopped by to observe the well-known statue of King Kamehameha on our way to lunch.

If you are not familiar with King Kamehameha, I recommend reading about him. He is a very respected figure in Hawaiian history, and well known for uniting the islands.

If you arrive early enough, spend some time exploring Hilo and walking along the waterfront. 

After a quick side trip to Target to replace my bikini bottoms that I lost while snorkeling (haha whoops). We had lunch at the Pineapple Restaurant. 

Overall we were not knocked out of our chairs but it was okay, they had fun tropical drinks and local craft beers, and sometimes they will have live music!

Across the street was a grocery store with beautiful murals depicting life and history of the island and we enjoyed snapping some pics of those as we digested a rich lunch and geared up for the next stop on our road trip tour of the Big Island.

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Go Chasing Waterfalls

Both Rainbow Falls and Akaka falls are within a 15 min driving distance of Hilo, and if you are lucky or ambitious you could easily visit both in one day. 

We decided on Akaka falls because it involved a short hike and we were short on time as it was closing soon and about to rain. 

The trail is a loop, and the left is much shorter and steeper than the right, so we walked clockwise taking the left side first. 

Don’t forget to turn back after you pass the falls so you get both vantage points though! Either way, definitely don’t miss at least one of these stunning waterfalls on your visit, this is Hawai’i after all!

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Head towards the town of Waimea for the last night on your tour of the island. If you are driving from Hilo make sure you stop for malasadas (fried and filled donuts) or loco moco (pulled beef on rice with egg and gravy) at the Tex Drive-in

We made the mistake of passing right by it and later, while googling the famous Hawaiian donuts I was now craving, we found out Tex Drive-in was actually locally famous and the most highly recommended spot to taste them on the island, so we had to backtrack the next morning and grab both malasadas and loco moco for breakfast on our way out. Highly worth it!

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Back at our Airbnb, we headed into town on our last night to grab some dinner.

Waimea seemed to us like a small town, with a few options and everywhere closed fairly early for us – we are night owls more than early birds.

We had dinner at Big Island Brewhaus on recommendation from many other sources, and it turned out to be alright.

The menu was pretty eclectic, with vegan options, curries, and seafood among other things.

I’m always a fan of a brew house though, and liked the beer options.

Day 5: Sightseeing at Waimea Canyon + Beach Hopping in Kona

This is your last day in Hawai’i, and if you’ve timed it right you’ll spend the whole day soaking up sights around the Big Island before your evening flight back home. 

Start off the day by stopping by Waimea Canyon on your loop back around towards Kona.

The canyon view is beautiful and you can hike down to the bottom as well, time permitting. However, be advised: parking is a little precarious along the neighborhood roads, and the road down into the canyon from the top is much too steep for regular rental cars. 

We heard of many tourists getting stuck trying to drive their rented vehicles down the sharp incline; please do not attempt this.

Instead, plan time to hike down, or admire the view from above which is well worth seeing in its own right.

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Complete your road trip around the island by heading back toward Kona and hop around a few of the famous beaches on the island on your way back to return your rental and head to the airport.

We hit up Waialea beach (Beach 69) hearing there might be whale sightings (but had no luck) and Manini’owali Beach (Kua Bay) which we read is one of the closest beaches to airport.

The tide is fairly rough around the time of year we visited in early spring so we did not get to enjoy the water much for fear of getting swept away, but the trade off was we got to see whales on the horizon as the sun set.

I would say it was a beautiful ending to a trip around this amazing island paradise.

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Final Dinner

Have your last Hawaiian Dinner around Kona before flying out – we returned our Turo car in Holualoa so stopped in the only open place we could find at Holuakoa Gardens and Cafe.

It was absolutely delicious but expensive and a bit haughty for our first impression – they barely let us dine without a reservation despite ample empty tables all throughout the gardens, but thankfully they did and we ordered a swordfish plate ($) to split which was quality and we loved it, though not in our normal travel budget range.

After dropping off our rental car back to the owner, we ordered an uber and head back to the airport.

Hawai’i, you were beautiful, and I will miss you!

Final Thoughts on Big Island, Hawai’i

Overall, it was an honor to visit the Big Island of Hawai’i. We loved getting a glimpse into the culture and beauty of this island, and were truly humbled to be guests there. We hope to come back soon, because there is still so much to experience on this tropical paradise.

What are you looking forward to on your trip to Hawai’i? Was the guide helpful? If you have already been, what would you add? Leave a comment and let me know!

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