Hawaii’s Big Island is spectacular in every conceivable natural way. Both on land and below the Pacific Ocean, nature thrives. The chaos of tectonic activity juxtaposes the gentle pace of life in the towns and villages. When it comes to unique experiences, Big Island has more than its fair share.
Fringed with long sandy beaches, picture perfect bays, verdant waterfall-filled rainforests, and exotic flowers and birds, Hawaii’s Big Island must have caught mother nature on a good day. Big Island, the largest in the United States’ Hawaiian archipelago, is simply stunning and a major draw for visitors from across the globe.
There’s more to the Big Island than natural beauty though. It is also full of interesting landmarks and bastions of scientific discovery. Small but vibrant local trade outlets are often happy to open their doors to curious tourists, while local culture is frequently on show for the benefit of visitors. We’ve compiled 13 of the most unique things to see and do on Hawaii’s Big Island.
Explore the magnificent Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Offering a fascinating insight into the world of active volcanism and biological diversity, this is one of the Big Island’s best natural attractions. The park can be traversed by car in just a few hours or explored in greater depth over several days. There are incredible hiking trails, taking in landscapes of solidified lava and lush tropical rainforest. More intrepid visitors can even reach the summit of Kīlauea volcano via Crater Rim Drive, a gruelling 11-mile (18-km) stretch of road. However, it’s advisable to check the status of the volcanoes in advance, as they are unwieldy beasts. For the guidance of a local expert, you could also book at tour. A great example of an evening volcano tour can be found here.
Observe the final frontier at Mauna Kea Observatories
There’s no shortage of human-made delights to enjoy on Big Island either. A great example are the highly distinguished Mauna Kea Observatories where astronomers from around the world come to peer out far, far beyond the palm trees at the skies above Hawaii. The W.M. Keck Observatory boasts the world’s largest and most scientifically productive optical and infrared telescopes and with so few city lights polluting the night skies, the view through these industrial scale contraptions is simply sensational. The collection of astronomical research facilities sits atop Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano reaching the lofty height of 4,207 metres (13,803 ft). Individual summit visits are not permitted, but if you’re on the Big Island as part of an organised group tour with an educational slant, it’s worth visiting the Observatory Headquarters in Waimea and you and your group are likely to be granted a look around.
Book a nature tour with a local guide
Snorkelling or diving with squadrons of feeding manta rays, hiking through dense rainforest, spotting brightly coloured birds and wildlife; these are all highlights of any trip for many visitors to Big Island. Water lovers can head out onto the open ocean to look for dolphins, either in a tour boat or a kayak. Alternatively it is possible to take a sailboat tour to renowned snorkelling sites to spot turtles, tropical fish and other sub-aquatic marvels. There are many options out there to interact with Big Island nature, and hiring local guides is the best way to go. For some of the many nature tours available on Hawaii’s Big Island, take a look at GetYourGuide.
Perk up at Kona Coffee Living History Farm
The Big Island district of Kona is intrinsically linked with the coffee trade and this long-standing relationship is celebrated at the Kona Coffee Living History Farm. Visitors can come and explore this fascinating 5.5-acre working coffee and macadamia nut farm through its ‘Hands On History’ program, featuring a variety of activities focused on cultural traditions and practices that have been vital to Kona’s coffee industry down the years. There’s artefact exhibitions, coffee bean harvesting demonstrations, animal husbandry, gardening, lauhala weaving and even Japanese calligraphy – a nod to the large number of Japanese immigrants who came to work in Hawaii’s coffee trade during the early to mid-19th century.
Get marked at Kona Henna Studio
The word tattoo comes from the Polynesian language, with this form of body art originally hailing from the region. However, for those that don’t like the idea of growing old with a marking that also starts to look its age, what better souvenir from your Big Island adventure than a temporary Henna tattoo? The staff at Kona Henna Studio, in historic downtown Kailua Kona, are masters of the art, using only natural ingredients to embellish your body with striking art-work. The studio has thousands of designs to choose from, so you’re guaranteed to find something that suits your tastes, and the tattoos are guaranteed to last up to four weeks, depending on the body part. Walk-ins and appointments are both accepted.
Learn about nature’s other face at the Pacific Tsunami Museum
Depicting the history of the 1946 Pacific tsunami and the 1960 Chilean tsunami, which devastated much of the east coast of the Big Island, this museum is well worth a look around. While most tectonic activity takes place along the edges of plates as they interact, Hawaii sits right in the middle of the Pacific Plate. However, it is considered on of the world’s rare non plate-boundary hotspots. The infamous Ring of Fire is on all sides of Hawaii, hundreds of miles removed, but that won’t stop a tsunami, which can cross entire oceans. The museum also acts as an important education facility to locals and visitors. For a companion activity, the museum also helps co-ordinate self-guided walking and driving tours of sites hit hardest by the tsunamis.
Take a break at Coconut Island
Sitting just offshore from the island’s Lili’uokalani Gardens sits Mokuola, known popularly today as Coconut Island. This area is home to the Big Island’s most popular beach, offering swimming, a tower from which to jump into the ocean, picnic tables, a grassy area, and excellent sea turtle watching opportunities. Regular community events and barbecues are also held here, so be sure to check the local schedule if you’re in town.
Attend a Hawaiian luau
One of Hawaiian culture’s most popular draws is the luau, which involves a feast of local delicacies like poke and hog roasts, surrounded by traditional entertainment with music and dancing, such as hula. Naturally many people come to Big Island with a luau high on their ‘to do’ lists, so there’s a good number of options to choose from, with many taking place at the big resorts. These are open to all, but advanced booking of tickets is often encouraged. We wrote a separate article detailing the best three luaus on Big Island, which you can check out and make bookings via, by clicking here. To browse a list of other Big Island luau options, head over to Viator.com via this link.
Hike out to Rainbow Falls
Known locally as Waianuenue, Rainbow Falls boasts an awe-inspiring 80-foot drop and is renowned for the stunning rainbows that form amid the surrounding mist. Situated just outside of Hilo city, it’s easily accessible to visitors and a popular excursion point, so to avoid the crowds, head there for early morning or late afternoon. And be sure to take a camera. The special viewing platform is the best spot to get a glimpse of the rainbow, which tends to form only in the mornings. As for the goddess who resides in the falls, there’s no guarantee of a sighting.
Try the local produce at Island Gourmet Markets
Sometimes, even in Hawaii, the weather lets you down and you need “something for a rainy day”. Located in the Queens’ MarketPlace within the beautiful grounds of the Waikoloa Resort, this is without question the Big Island’s premier shopping destination and the ideal solution for when the elements drown out the outdoor activities. Whether its apparel, beach needs, cosmetics, gifts, local foods or souvenirs you’re after, there’s plenty to satisfy most customers here.
Step back a century or two at Lyman House Memorial Museum
As the Big Island’s oldest surviving wood-framed building, this quaint colonial-style house is a popular draw for history and architecture enthusiasts. It was originally built in 1838, but since the 1930s it served as a fascinating natural history and local culture museum. Open to the public from Monday to Saturday, it holds extensive displays on Hawaiian culture and is renowned for its collection of shells and minerals, including a rare specimen of orlymanite.
Try a local tipple at Kona Brewing Company
This traditional, independent microbrewery has become something of a tourist hot-spot, giving visitors the chance to sample local brews and enjoy an informal tour of the building. Perpetually busy, there’s outdoor seating and live music to keep guests entertained. Food is also in ample supply, including some of the best pizza to be found anywhere on the island. But it’s the craft beer that is naturally the biggest reason to visit, with a good variety of beers on tap including lagers, Fire Rock Pale Ale, Hanalei Island and Castaway IPAs, and Koko Brown Ale.
Try the seafood at Huggo’s On the Rocks
Huggo’s on the Rocks is a consistent favourite among locals and visitors seeking to “chillax”. It’s a great spot to enjoy delicious seafood and tropical drinks while taking in the ambience of the Pacific Ocean. For anyone coming to the Big Island, this is a must-try destination for a memorable oceanfront dining experience. The best time to go is a sunset, with its covered, warmly lit main restaurant open on all sides as torches blaze and the Pacific laps the shore.