Talk to many travelers who have been to the islands of Hawaii and a majority of them will have spent most of their time soaking up the sun on the beaches of Maui or Oahu. While those are both beautiful islands, the Big Island is where all the action is. The island is so massive you could fit several other Hawaiian islands in it.
While it’s a huge tourist hub, it has a charm that I love. Stop at one of the cafes here for breakfast in the morning, and take a casual stroll as the sleepy shops start to open up for the day. Load up on flowing maxi dresses, or get leis made of real flowers. You can even send a real coconut home in the mail – they just put postage on it and off it goes!
The farmer’s market is my favorite part of the town. It’s open Wednesday through Sunday from 7 AM to 4 PM, and has a wide variety of vendors selling their items. You can buy beautiful handmade jewelry, wood-carved Hawaiian statues, and colorful flowers to name a few. I recommend buying some fresh fruit for your trip here. Hawaiian fruit tastes so much better and sweeter than anywhere else I’ve ever had it. I’d also grab a sandwich at a nearby shop for lunch later.
Green Sand Beach
Hopefully. you’re wearing your tennis shoes and comfortable clothing, as this is the part of your day where you finally get your steps in. A few minutes drive from South Point, follow the sign for Green Sand Beach and park in the small lot. Grab your lunch and a water bottle, and start to walk straight towards the water. The trail isn’t marked well at all, but you’ll see a road once you get close to the water which you’ll take a left on.
This isn’t the easiest hike, so be in somewhat good physical condition. The two ways to get there are either follow the very dusty road (but you have to move for cars constantly) or follow the shoreline along the water (look where you’re walking, as it gets pretty jagged in parts). One tip – do NOT try to drive your rental car on this road because you’ll ruin it. This is strictly for off-road vehicles due to the harsh conditions of the road. Parts of it get extremely narrow and there’s many huge dips in the road, so there’s no way a normal car can get over them.
The hike is about three miles one way, after which a tiny beach will appear over the hill. Head to the back of the hill to go down the combination of ladders and rocks and then pick a spot to relax and enjoy your lunch. The sand doesn’t look green from far away, but when you pick it up you can definitely see the green color shine through. I couldn’t quite capture the color in my pictures, but trust me – it’s worth seeing in person!
Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park
You’ll probably be tired from your six-mile hike, so enjoy the rest you’ll get on the 45-minute drive to the Volcanoes National Park. You just continue up the main highway going north on the east side of the island, and the signs for the park are pretty obvious. The entrance fee to get in is $15 per motorcycle and $20 per car, but it covers everything in the park and you can use it for up to seven days if you choose to come back later.
This National Park has so much to do, so you can decide how long you want to spend here based on when you want to get back home. Lava vents are all over the park, which are just small vents the volcanoes let steam off through. There are several overlooks with small visitor centers that are great ways to learn more about the area, and you can even see live cameras from the lava flow far below. There’s also viewing platforms to see the steam coming up from the volcanoes. I went during the day, but heard at night you can see the lava’s glow in the crater.
This city is the other major town on the island. You could spend a whole day here exploring the boutique stores, so consider coming back if you have more time in your trip. They have a huge variety of restaurants to choose from for dinner, which is perfect since you’ll likely be starving by now. I like going downtown by the water to choose from the line of restaurants and bars that line the street across from the water.
Hilo is right on the water on the northeastern side of the island, so pick a spot in one of the many parks to watch the sunset. There’s a farmer’s market full of local goodies for those who haven’t done enough shopping yet. If you go on the first Friday of the month, they also have a night market which I’ve heard is a fun experience.
Just a note – Hilo is about a little less than a 2 hour drive from Kona, so if you’re getting tired at this point, it’s probably best to take Saddle Road and start to head back. It cuts through the island so you don’t have to go all the way up and around, saving you a ton of time. However, if you’re still up for another adventure, check out the recommendation below.
Mauna Kea Observatory
Have you ever watched the stars from the top of a volcano? Now you can! This observatory is about 45 minutes from downtown Hilo, and is on the way home if you’re staying in Kona. Go here when it’s starting to get dark out and wait for the sky to darken to see the stars really pop. One part of what I couldn’t get over in Hawaii was how dark it gets due to the lack of light population found in other cities. I’ve never been able to see the stars so easily every single night.
How to Prepare
I loved exploring the Big Island in one day, but there are a few tips I have to make sure you’re as comfortable as possible. If you’re going by motorcycle, make sure you’re wearing layers. The west side of Hawaii is dry, while the east side is wet, plus there are multiple elevation changes as you’re going around the island. I also can’t stress enough to bring a waterproof jacket and change of clothes. I was driving around in beautiful weather when out of nowhere came a complete downpour that drenched me.
If going by car, it can be easy to get bored. Make sure you have a good playlist downloaded on your phone before starting. Hawaii has radio stations, but the selection was usually public radio or older traditional music, which can both get boring after a few hours. Purchase an auxiliary cord before you leave to connect it to your car’s stereo (good for any road trip you do in the future, really).
Also, make sure you pack a cooler full of snacks and water. There’s plenty of small towns along the way to stop at, but it makes it easier when you have sustenance at your fingertips instead of searching desperately for a shop when your blood sugar’s gotten a little too low.