Hawaii Bucket List: Things To Do On The Big Island Of Hawaii – Discover the top attractions, tours, and free activities!
So you’re planning a trip to Hawaii. Whoot!
Of the major islands, I’m sure you’ve considered visiting Oahu to see Pearl Harbor, Honolulu, and the famous North Shore. Or maybe the lush garden isle of Kauai. Then there’s the luxurious island of Maui, with tons of shopping and activities.
However today we are discussing the Island of Hawaii… Also called The Big Island.
The namesake for the entire chain of islands, and state.
Although Hawaii (The Big Island) receives less annual visitors than Oahu and Maui, that doesn’t means it has less to offer.
It has a completely different look and feel from the older, more tropical islands. Hawaii’s terrain is rugged, volcanic, and almost other-worldly in some places.
You don’t necessarily visit The Big Island to lay on the beach under palm trees, like you might on one of the other Hawaiian islands. Afterall, most of the The Big Island’s coastline is black volcanic rock.
Instead, to go to the Island of Hawaii to experience raw nature in action and plentiful ocean life.
Yes, the other islands have natural beauty in surplus. Yet on the Island of Hawaii, you get to personally witness forces of nature as land is created daily from constant lava flow.
Yes, there are whales, sea turtles, dolphins, and monk seals around the other islands.
Yet the porous rocky coastline of The Big Island seems to draw marine animales in bounty like no other island.
Visiting the Island of Hawaii is an entirely unique experience. There are landmarks and adventures you simply cannot find anywhere else.
Today’s we will share our top picks of the best of The Big Island. We hope our thoughts will help you plan a truly amazing Hawaiian vacation!
Hawaii Bucket List: Things To Do On The Big Island Of Hawaii
Free Activities and Points of Interest in the Island of Hawaii
Snorkel – The Big Island is the best place to snorkel and scuba dive in Hawaii, in my opinion. Although you can (and we did) pay to go on snorkeling excursions, there are many places around the island you can just hop in the water and take in awe-inspiring ocean life.
If you love to snorkel there are shops in all tourist areas where you can rent snorkel equipment for as long as you need it. They will also give you a map with marked place that have a lot to offer… And are safe.
Two of our favorite snorkel spots are Kahaluu Beach Park, also known as “Turtle Beach” and “Two Steps” by Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park.
Just south of Kona, the popular Kahaluu Beach is a shallow haven for adolescent sea turtles. Many turtles live in this partially enclosed area because they are safe from predators. Plus, the algae they love to eat plentifully grows on the rocks.
You can simply walk into the water, lay out flat and wait for sea turtles to pass by. You are guaranteed to see them every time you visit!
It’s important to mention that although you will get close enough to the turtles to interact with them, it is against the law to touch the turtles. To keep them safe and healthy, look but don’t touch.
“Two Steps” just outside of Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park, is another marvelous place to hang with sea turtles, and to swim with all sorts of colorful fish!
Simply climb down to rocks into the water and paddle out a few yards. An underwater wonderland awaits.
Explore Roadside Lava Fields – Many of the major roads along the western and southern coast are surrounded by lava fields. You can pull over and get out of your car pretty much anywhere you want to explore. There are even a few large lava tubes you can walk into, right off the side of the road.
Be sure to wear proper footwear when walking on the lava rock. Watch for weak spots in the surface, to make sure you don’t get hurt.
You’ll feel like you’ve stepped out on the surface of the moon!
Discover Sandy Beaches – Although most of the coastline is framed in black lava rock, there are some stunning sandy beaches on The Big Island. Find black sand, white sugar sand, and even a green sand beach on the southern tip of Hawaii.
Your hotel concierge can point them all out on a beach map.
Kailua-Kona – Kona is the most popular tourist spot on the island for lodging, dining, and shopping. Window shop, visit art galleries, and watch fishermen pull in some impressive fish in the bay. Better yet, watch tanned and toned swimmers and runners as they train for the annual Iron Man competition held in Kona! *wink*
Waikoloa Village – North of Kona, you’ll find the luxurious village of Waikoloa. Shop in high-end boutiques and experience fine dining with impressive views!
Waimea – Did you know there are cowboys and ranches on the Island of Hawaii!? Drive north to the lush rolling ranch land that actually pre-dates the mainland American cowboy era.
Waipi’o Valley Lookout – From Waimea drive 30 minutes further to one of the most stunning places on the Island of Hawaii. It’s not all lava rock on The Big Island. Here you’ll experience lush tropical mountains and coastline.
Hilo – The main city on the east side of Hawaii is less touristy than most towns around the island. It’s where the majority of locals make their homes. In Hilo you will experience a down-home feel and budget-friendly dining and activities.
Mauna Kea Visitors Center – The highest point on the Island of Hawaii is the dormant volcano Mauna Kea. Although the international observatory facilities are closed to the public, you can drive to the visitor center and experience massive views. This is a great place to watch the sunset, and to stargaze after dark!
Rainbow Falls – The Big Island is home to several impressive waterfalls, however most of them require a park fee for viewing.
Rainbow Falls on the eastern coast is the exception. Gaze at the falls that shine in rainbow colors certain times of day. Climb the enormous ancient Banyan trees on the grounds, and swim in the pools above the falls.
Just be careful to stay far away from the edge of the waterfall. Most waterfall accidents happen when visitors climb near the edge, trying to get a better view. (Unfortunately, it happen all the time where we live in the Blue Ridge Mountains.)
South Point – Visit the most southern point in the entire United States. This is a good stop on the way to or from Volcanoes National Park. For the brave, there is a popular cliff diving area nearby!
Best Guided Tours and Attractions
Kailani Tours Deluxe Volcano Experience – You can visit Volcanoes National Park on your own (and we’ve done that in the past.) However, it can be difficult to know where to spend your time, and what exactly you are looking for.
Then there’s the long drive both directions… You’ll want to see the crater at night, but trust me, you do not want to drive back to town, late at night, after a long day.
This trip to The Big Island, we decided to take an all-day guided volcano tour with Kailani Tours. Our guide Misty picked us up at our hotel, in a luxury sprinter van.
We then drove up “Saddle Road” that runs in between the volcanic peeks of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. Misty spent the drive educating us on the history of the volcanoes, the science behind volcanic reactions, and how they effect the geography of the island. It was remarkably interesting!
We hit some highlights in Hilo before heading south to Kilauea, the most active volcano in the world! In Volcanoes National Park, Misty taught us about the lava flow, steam vents, and crater history.
She made sure we had the best possible views of all the highlights, told stories, and answered every last question my kids threw at her… With a welcoming smile.
Our trip to Volcanoes National Park was so much better with a guide. After a long day of learning and exploring, our guided tour included a lovely dinner at a local restaurant, before heading back to the crater for one last firey peek.
I highly recommend Kailani Tours Deluxe Volcano Experience! It is at the top of my list of where to spend your activity dollars.
Looking into the crater through binoculars.
Manta Ray Night Snorkel – My second pick for your “fun budget” is the Night Manta Ray Snorkel. After much deliberation, my daughter Ava and I decided we couldn’t leave the Island of Hawaii without going on the popular Manta Ray Snorkel.
Went with a newer tour company recommended by a local waitress, called Kona Ocean Adventures. This was such a treat because our group was small and we felt like it was personalized for us!
Images taken of moving creatures, at night, with my iphone, in a water proof bag.
So what exactly happens on this tour? You take a boat ride out to well established Manta Ray feeding grounds after dark. You get in the water and the group holds onto a large floatation board with a special lighting system in the middle.
Once the light is turned on, it attracts clouds of plankton. The swarming plankton below you, then attracts massive Manta Rays looking for an easy meal.
These gentle giants swim below, making enormous backflips to capture the plankton in their mouths. They come so close to the surface, they often bump you with their rough under bellies.
Is it safe? Absolutely. Although the Manta Rays can be anywhere from 10 – 20 feet across and weigh up to a ton, they have no teeth, barbs, stingers, or poison. They simple want to inhale plankton. Our guide told us she had been leading this tour for years and has never once seen a shark near the Manta Rays. Apparently, shark don’t light plankton, Manta Rays, the lights, or the people involved in this activity. *wink*
This was such an epic experience. I felt like Jacques Cousteau coming so close to these peaceful, yet enormous, animals. I would do this again and again!
Island Breeze Luau – When in Hawaii you have to go to a luau. It’s a must! The traditional Hawaiian feast, Mai Tais, music, and stage show are truly something to look forward to.
Of all the luaus we’ve attended over the years, the Island Breeze Luau at Marriott King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel is my absolute favorite.
The show is not the grandest I’ve ever seen with flocks of dancers. Yet everything from the pre-show events, to the hosts, dinner, dancing quality and performance storyline were so well done. In fact, this was the best classic luau meal I’ve ever experienced!
It’s worth it to splurge and spend the few extra dollars to have VIP entrance. You get to sit up front for a fabulous view of the stage show.
Fair Wind Kealakekua Bay Snorkel – Although there are fantastic places to snorkel that you can access on your own, there are also some very special places that are hard to reach. Kealakekua Bay offers an amazing reef and underwater snorkel experience. It is also where you will find Captain Cook’s Monument, where the explorer Captain James Cook died in a tussle with the local natives.
You can only a reach Kealakekua Bay by boat or a long strenuous hike down (and up) a mountain side. Since we were traveling with my parents and our kids, and all the websites I found stated that the hike to Captain Cook’s Monument was treacherous, we decided to visit it on a snorkel trip with Fair Wind Cruises.
Best decision ever! Fair Wind hosts a variety family-friendly snorkel cruises to Kealakekua Bay. We enjoyed a relaxing ride down the coast. Ample time for snorkeling. A friendly helpful crew. Snacks, drinks… All on a boat with slides and diving platforms. The kids thought this was the coolest boat ever!
Our snorkel experience with Fair Wind was a fun afternoon of discovery at a great price. Definitely add this experience to your itinerary!
Ocean Rider Seahorse Farm – If you want to experience something truly unique, check out Hawaii’s Seahorse Farm with the first domesticate breed of seahorse. Too many seahorses are taken from the local waters each year. These seahorses are harvested specifically for home aquarium. Yet all too often, they can’t make the transition from the wild to a tank, and die unnecessarily.
Ocean Rider is breeding hearty seahorses in an effort to keep the natural balance of Hawaii’s ocean life intact. This tour is extremely educational, and quite fun. At the end of the tour, everyone gets a turn holding a seahorse!
Our Favorite Hot Spots on The Big Island (That Aren’t Free)
Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park “City of Refuge” – We mentioned this location as a fantastic free snorkel spot. Yet for just a few dollars you can enter the national park and explore a sacred Hawaiian village, known as a safe place for those looking for redemption. This is a very cool experience for those wanting to understand old Hawaiian traditions and history.
The Coffee Shack – Best breakfast on the island with a breath-taking view. We always hit the coffee shack several times on our visits to The Big Island. Make sure to try their homemade breads and pie.
Kona Brewing Company – Refreshing island brews, fabulous Hawaiian-inspired pub food, outdoor seating, and cool t-shirts. What more could you ask for?
Frenchman’s Cafe – Would you believe one of the best meals we had on the Island of Hawaii was at a tiny french crepery? Offering luxurious french pastries and unique savory crepes, this hidden gem was a lovely surprise!