If you’re planning a trip to Hawaii, there’s a good chance that swimming with manta rays is at the top of your vacation bucket list (and if it’s not yet, take a look at this video that might change your mind!)
But what are the other must-do activities for your time here?
The Hawaiian archipelago consists of 132 islands, islets, and atolls, stretching roughly 1,500 miles (2,400 km) from northernmost Kure Atoll to the still-growing Big Island of Hawaii at the southeastern end of the chain.
Only 7 of those islands are inhabited: Hawaii (the Big Island), Maui, Molokai, Lanai, Oahu, Kauai, and Niihau.
I’ve been lucky enough to call the Big Island my home for over 20 years now, and I never tire of the beauty and diversity the landscape has to offer. With spectacular beaches, crystal clear waters, dramatic volcanic terrain, and of course, the varied tapestry of marine life, it’s the perfect natural playground for anyone who loves outdoor life.
Here are my top five recommendations for experiences not to miss during a visit to the Big Island of Hawaii.
Take to the water: Snorkeling & Diving
The Big Island is the youngest of the Hawaiian islands, which means it has the youngest and most vibrant reef and access to almost every type of ocean recreation you can think of.
We live in Kailua-Kona, on the west side of the island. Our location means we’re protected from winds by the volcano mountain, Hualalai, so snorkeling and diving in the sheltered waters during the day is one of the top recommended activities in the area.
If you take to the water, you’ll have the chance to see some of the most beautiful and rare marine life on the planet, including many protected and endangered species. But remember – this is their home, and you’re just visiting. Always keep your distance. Look, but don’t touch and follow relevant guidelines.
Snorkeling and diving is most impressive when you get to swim with manta rays at one of the three main viewing points on this side of the Big Island. Download our free PDF guide to learn how to prepare for the activity, check out greenlisted tour operators, and learn more about the majestic Gentle Giants of the ocean.
Visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
A visit to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is one of the most mind-blowing experiences you will encounter on The Big Island. The rugged volcanic landscape of the park is a geographical treasure and is designated as both a UNESCO World Biosphere Site and a World Heritage Site.
Our island has five mountains which are all volcanoes. Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa (the largest volcano on the planet), and Hualalai are all dormant, while Kohala is extinct. But Kilauea has been one of the world’s most active volcanoes for over 30 years.
It’s a sight to behold, especially when the lava is flowing – remember the 2018 eruption? WOW! And if you time it right, you can even see the glow from the visitor center.
Check the National Park’s page here for eruption updates, and for a sneak peek at what’s going on in real-time, you can view the webcam feed, powered by the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.
Hawaii Experience Tip #3: Sunset and stargazing on Mauna Kea
One of those volcanoes, Mauna Kea, is (technically) the highest mountain on Earth. When measured from ocean floor to peak, it’s 0.7 miles higher than Mount Everest.
So how about a visit to the summit for sunset over the clouds and then some stargazing – I highly recommend a guided tour. Magical!
Make sure you check the weather forecast in advance (conditions can shift rapidly) and be prepared for the dramatic change in altitude, as it can make some people feel sick.
We highly recommend a check-in at the visitors’ center on the way up for the most up-to-date info on the day of your visit.
Hawaii Experience Tip #4: Rainbows and waterfalls on the east coast
Take a drive over to the eastern side of the island for spectacular scenery that’ll take your breath away. Tropical rainforest, waterfalls, and even black sand beaches – and plenty of activities to engage in! Some of our favorite spots include:
Waipio Valley Lookout
Named after the river that winds through the valley, the view from the lookout point here across the cliffs to the Pacific is simply stunning. Bring a picnic, a blanket, and take your time to drink in the landscape. There’s hiking available in the area too, but it’s NOT for the novice. You also need to respect the locals and resist driving into the valley.
For more awesome views (and some easier hiking trails!), head over to Pololu Valley – check out this drone footage for a taster. While you’re there, you might also get the opportunity to chat with one of the local Pololu Trail Stewards, who’ll share their knowledge on the history, geography, and culture of this amazing area.
Akaka Falls and Rainbow Falls
Surrounded by lush greenery and dense forest, the stunning Akaka Falls drops 442ft into the gorge below. It’s easily reached by a short, family-friendly hike, and the trailhead is just beside the parking lot.
Neighboring Rainbow Falls (a 30-minute drive away) is significantly smaller but definitely well worth a visit. Legend has it that the cave below the falls is home to Hina, Hawaiian goddess of the moon. For the best chance at rainbow-spotting, plan to visit early in the morning. Take care during rainy season though, as this (and all other) waterfalls can change their “lovely” appearance to raging water pretty fast.
Hawaii Experience Tip #5: Spend the Evening at a Luau
To round off a perfect day of Hawaiian adventures, why not take the chance to enjoy some authentic culture at a traditional luau?
The Luau at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel has been voted the Big Island’s number one luau, so it’s a great place to try out this once-in-a-lifetime traditional Hawaiian experience.
Feast on native dishes like Laulau or Kalua pork at the dinner buffet, have a go at some hula dancing, and soak up the full festive atmosphere.
More useful resources to plan your Hawaiian trip
Before you visit, we highly recommend you consider taking the “Pono Pledge.” “Pono” translates as “righteous,” and the Pledge encourages visitors to be respectful, mindful, and safe – and to “tread lightly” as they take in the wonders that Hawaii has to offer.
For safely planning your Hawaiian watersports adventures, our Box Jellyfish calendar highlights the dates that the jellies are expected close to shore throughout the year (and has some pretty cool marine photography, too.)
If you’re looking for a place to stay that’s peaceful, safe and the perfect starting point for your Big Island adventures, take a look at our Kona vacation rental options – just 10 minutes from Kona airport!
And if a trip to swim with mantas is part of your itinerary, then be sure to download our free guide to swimming with manta rays, with everything you need to know to prepare for your experience of a lifetime with these stunningly beautiful creatures.
What’s on your Hawaiian bucket list?
A trip to Hawaii will go on your never-to-be-forgotten list of memories. Bring your phone charger (you’re going to be taking an awful lot of pictures), your “reef-safe” sunscreen, and most importantly, your sense of adventure.
We can’t wait to see you!