Top 10 Places You Can NOT Miss on the Big Island

Who needs a guide book when you have seasoned explorers who live here! I have been on fire in taking visiting family members and friends around the island while they have been staying nearby. For the past three weeks, my husband and I have played tour guide and taken the knowledge we have gained from living here for the past year exploring the nooks and crannies of this island and shared it with our friends. Why just let them enjoy our favorite places when I can also share this information with you, my readers!? So, let’s start with #10 and end up at the BEST place you HAVE to experience while you are here. Ready?

#10-Volcanoes National Park-Most people would put this closer to the top as we have the only live volcano you can visit safely on the islands. It’s a VERY long drive from Kona and basically takes 11 hours to fully enjoy the trip down and back. I suggest this trip if you can spend the night in Hilo..or have some very patient friends who don’t mind desperately trying to stay awake while they drive the long dark road home back while you snooze peacefully in the back seat.  (Update on Dec 2016-the lava is flowing into the ocean now, but it’s a hike to see it. Boat or helicopter would work!)

#9-Makelewena Beach. This is further down the list simply because it is so hard to get here. The beach is BEAUTIFUL and since hardly anyone is there, you may only see 10 people on the entire beach. The swimming is perfect, with some reefs for snorkeling and my kids just love the little bays they have to play in. You need a 4WD to get there from either of the two access roads, but we made it with our van on the easier road that leads to the State Beach. You can park your car and walk about 20 minutes to the beach across the lava. Like I said,,it ain’t easy, but it sure is worth the effort.

#8- Two Step-This is the bay right next to the Place of Refuge at Honaunau. (The picture shows Kealekekua Bay, which is right nearby) We take our friends who have at least SOME experience with snorkeling. The entry and exit from the water is a bit of a challenge, but the swimming, snorkeling and fish are EXCEPTIONAL. The coral is 20 feet down, so tourists can not ruin it by stepping on it, so the reefs are AMAZING and pristine. That means you can not stand up and readjust your mask or get a lay of the land like you can do at Snorkel Beach in Kona. You can see vast arrays of tropical fish here and if you come in the morning, the dolphins are usually in the bay, as well. We have had friends FREAK OUT when the 20 foot water gradually descends to 50 feet and all you see is deep blue. If you are scared of deep water, just don’t go out to the middle, stay around the edges and you will be entertained for as long as you can swim.

#7 Cheap Pupus and Drinks at Huggo’s On the Rocks. At least for one night of everyone’s trip, we have to hit Huggo’s on the Rocks. The happy hour menu which goes from 3-5 lets you enjoy some specials and sets you up  to watch the sun set with your feet in the sand. Great for that picture with your friends that you post to Facebook and make people jealous.

#6-Pololulu Look Out and Valley hike-Another GORGEOUS view and fun hike down to see the island’s stunning beauty. Located about 15 minutes out of Hawi, the trip down to the valley should be given most of the day to fully enjoy. If you can get here in the later part of the day and stay until sunset, you will not be disappointed. A photographer’s dream. (Also there is a sense of “sacred” there. Go to meditate!) 

#5-Waipio Valley-Another all day adventure, and a place only accessible by 4WD. The beauty of the taro fields with the mountains as the backdrop will be etched in your memory for a very long time. We take our friends through the back end of the valley and drive through rivers to see the taro fields. We usually see the wild horses on the beach or on the road and the wildness and serenity of this valley are unmatched anywhere else on the island. The waves can be unpredictable and the terrain UNDER the waves is especially unpredictable. The river that feeds into the ocean has a way of changing the landscape around the entry point into the ocean, so go in carefully. I had the time of my life one time here body surfing and wish it was like that every time.

#4-Green Sand Beach-We just love this place. It takes a 4WD to get here and the road is an adventure unto itself. However, for the adventurous traveler, the climb down, the feeling of being on the only green sand beach in the islands and the waves crashing against the walls of the small bay is fantastic. We are experienced swimmers and body surfers and have quite a time here sometimes. Don’t go in if the waves are up and you feel unsafe. We have entertained a few friends who decided to sit it out and just watch us enjoy ourselves in the waves.

#3-The Four Seasons Resort at Hualalai. My guests were VERY impressed with the elegance, landscaping, pools and views from this resort. I love this place because the beach is NEVER crowded, so even if you are hanging at this swanky property, everyone is in the pool, not at the white sand beach or the little protected bay in front of the hotel. You can grab a beer here for $7 and just lounge and people watch and enjoy the sun and view. (You can also easily order a $20 glass of chard here, as well!) I would suggest checking out the fresh/salt water lagoon which has all kinds of tropical fish. Dining here is exceptional and this is where celebrities often come to get away from it all. Sunset from the chairs on the beach..amazing.

#2-Mauna Kea Resort beach view. The bay is gorgeous and the view from the lobby and terrace are stunning. I could lounge here all day enjoying the view. You can get tasty cocktails at the beach bar and go swimming here as a non-guest. You have to tell the guard at the gate you want to visit the beach and they will give you a guest pass if there are any left. If not, pay for valet, walk through the property and go swimming anyway. Great place to lounge and if you like to hike a bit, follow the trail on the far south of the beach and it takes you to Hapuna Beach!

#1-Kua Bay. Since I wrote this post originally, TripAdvisor has named it one of the most beautiful beaches in America.  I would have to agree. LOTS of fine white sand, BLUE water, plenty of room to put your towel down, sets of waves that challenge body surfers, but kids can play in the surf, too. Bathrooms and showers are available, but no lifeguard.  Easy access from the highway, parking without a guard scrutinizing you, and best of all, the whales are coming back for the season and this is a great place of on shore whale watching. (Last March I was diving under the waves and hovering at about five feet under the water and I could hear the whales singing. HEAVEN!)

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17 Responses to Top 10 Places You Can NOT Miss on the Big Island

  1. Art February 18, 2017 at 11:28 pm #

    Aside from the beach cove of Mauna Kea Hotel for Manta Ray snorkeling, any other beach location at the Big Island to snorkel and see these creatures?

    • Julie Ziemelis February 19, 2017 at 5:04 am #

      Aloha Art:
      There are three ways to see the Mantas. Go on a charter boat to the airport at Keahole Bay (where they are and you can NOT jump in from the shore there), see them either by charter or some big cajones to swim out in front of the Kona Sheraton where they show up most nights if the waves are not too crazy, and the Mauna Kea. That is about it!

  2. Teri December 16, 2016 at 12:41 am #

    Waipio Valley was the highlight of our trip in July. We took the shuttle and had the greatest guide…Hili was his name. The plants there are mindboggling, and loved seeing the horses wandering around. We, too, crossed the river several times to see the whole area. Just loved it…and the 10 days we were on the Big Island, although wonderful, never quite came up to the surprise and amazement we felt for Waipio…oooh! Ginger flowers would be wonderful in a salad!

    • Julie Ziemelis December 16, 2016 at 5:30 am #

      It IS gorgeous and such an amazing place to visit! LOVE LOVE LOVE IT!

  3. Chuck August 19, 2014 at 7:38 pm #

    I recently had a request for a “Waterfall Tour” (by land). From Kona, we drove through Waimea (stopped for pictures at the anatomically correct bull … 🙂 ) then down to the Waipio overlook to view the large fall on the other side of the valley. Through Honokaa town and then back up to the highway to Umuama Falls (we took the back way in, down the Old Government Road – Old Hawaii evident everywhere!). Then to Akaka, the short loop is still closed but the longer was a nice hike. Lunch in Hilo (Cafe Pesto) and then Rainbow Falls. At that point it’s of course too late for the Volcano, but the timing was perfect to ride up to the Mauna Kea Visitor Center for sunset and stargazing. All in all, a pretty great day!

  4. Jonathan Mietzner February 9, 2012 at 9:16 pm #

    You mentioned taking pictures at Pololu during sunset, were you on the beach or up by the parking area? We will be in Kona tomorrow!

    • Julie Z February 9, 2012 at 9:52 pm #

      Jonathon- the best sunset pics I have taken were taken almost half way down on the trail. There is a ledge area that offers the most spectacular view of the beach and valley have to go! It is astonishingly beautiful!

      • Saef April 14, 2012 at 4:20 pm #

        I had a friend who lived in Hawaii for many years. She was a dance eecahtr and many forms of dance including Hula. I’m presently grieving my loss as she was a close friend who passed over just 3 weeks ago. I spent many hours with my friend who recounted the Pele legends to me and shared her photos of Pele the crater of Kilauea. The sight you saw must have been spectacular. I hope one day by some miracle I will be able to see it too.

  5. Jenny January 9, 2012 at 6:06 am #

    Yes, good to read your list – local knowledge is so helpful. We’re arriving from Australia on the 16th Jan – we have beautiful beaches here too, but not the volcanic rock headlands – should be very interesting.

    • Alex April 14, 2012 at 4:11 am #

      The lava is flowing into the ocean quite riuomnctabusly once again here on the other side (of the Big Island) and it’s also flowing into the Visitor Viewing area parking lot. There’s no longer an official Visitor Viewing area. I haven’t seen it myself since I need to be cautious of being around the fumes, but friends have found it spectacular. I love the power of the elements on this gorgeous island. I live with my husband not too far from Kalapana, recent immigrants too.

  6. Jonathan Mietzner December 24, 2011 at 5:39 pm #

    When you took your sunset pictures at Pololu were you on the beach or at the end of road? You have some great pictures!

    • Kleiton April 13, 2012 at 11:07 pm #

      the parking lot was vlautrliy gone and the barricades were down as well. When they asked about going down to the sea, the ranger just said, be very careful, carry a stick and do a lot of poking to make sure you aren’t stepping into molten lava, and wear sturdy shoes. I guess it was incredibly hot, and of course the fumes were pretty bad, but where else could you get the chance to be 10 or 20 feet from a lava flow? And you are certainly right about the power of the elements here. This island is soooo alive.A week ago we went swimming with the Manta Rays. I’ll be posting about that perhaps this weekend.

  7. Jonathan and Jennifer Mietzner December 23, 2011 at 9:13 pm #

    Thank you so much for your blog and FB posts. We will be returning to Kona in February and love Mauna Kea Beach and Pololu Valley. We will have to check out the Mauna Kea visitor’s center and Kua Bay along with our favorites when we return.

  8. Jonathan and Jennifer Mietzner December 23, 2011 at 9:13 pm #

    Thank you so much for your blog and FB posts. We will be returning to Kona in February and love Mauna Kea Beach and Pololu Valley. We will have to check out the Mauna Kea visitor’s center and Kua Bay along with our favorites when we return.

    • Julie Z December 23, 2011 at 9:21 pm #

      Thank YOU for reading the posts! 😉 Yes, you have to go to Kua Bay, it truly is a favorite among all of our visitors. The moon scape and other worldly scenes from the Mauna Kea visitors center is a must see, as well. Happy holidays!

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