12 Must-Do Experiences on the Big Island

The Big Island of Hawaii is full of must-do experiences. You can catch a hula competition during Merrie Monarch Festival, walk the Kapoho tide pools, experience Kona “snow,” and see the lava fields of Volcanoes National Park. The Big Island is home to timeless resorts, cozy corner cafes, and grand adventure trips. The main thing you must do is experience the outstanding natural beauty of the Big Island’s volcanic mountaintops, verdant forested slopes, and sandy seashores.

74-5467 Kaiwi St, Kailua-Kona, HI 96740, USA
For an extraordinary experience that amazes both tourists and locals, take a trip out to dive (or snorkel) at night with the manta rays near Kailua-Kona on the Big Island. Guides take tours out from Honokohau Harbor in the evening before sunset, and most allow guests to get in the water in a couple places before the nighttime swim with the manta rays. Divers sit on the bottom (with rocks on their laps if they are too buoyant) while snorkelers float above watching the manta rays feed on plankton. Several outfitters provide this experience, including Kona Honu Divers, Big Island Divers, and Jack’s Diving Locker. As swimming with the manta rays becomes more popular, so does the endangerment of these creatures. If you choose to take the plunge, make sure you book an outfitter that emphasizes the care of the rays and do not touch them when you are in the water. This depletes the protective mucus on their bodies and exposes them to injury.
865 Piilani Street
An annual event that you won’t want to miss on Hawaii Island is the Merrie Monarch Festival. The best hula halau (groups or schools of hula) in Hawaii gather for an internationally acclaimed competition for a week of remarkable performances honoring King David Kalakaua. Dancers are costumed in outfits that reflect Hawaii’s distinct culture, contemporary island designs, and a deep rooted South Pacific Island heritage. Traditional arts and crafts are showcased and the town of Hilo hosts a Merrie Monarch parade as well. The event is televised throughout the state of Hawaii, so no matter where you are in the Islands during the festival, you will want to catch some of the beautiful hula performances. Wednesday night is a great time to squeeze into the crowd and experience hula for a free night of entertainment (no tickets required).
Kapoho Tide Pools, Hawaii 96778, USA
The Kapoho Tide Pools are a distinct and different seaside phenomena. The pools stretch nearly a mile down the beach and reach into the sea. The pools are spring fed with fresh water and filled by the rising tide. The interesting geography of the area allows for fascinating photos. It’s a great place to search for sea life under the water and in the rocks.
Ninole Loop Rd, Naalehu, HI 96772, USA
Punaluu Beach attracts visitors and locals to its black sandy volcanic shore. The beach is out of the way (between Volcanoes National Park and South Point), but worth a stop. Punaluu is not overly crowded, but the green sea turtles and uncommon black sand attract a number of tourists off the Mamalahoa Highway. Tables and restrooms are available, making this a fantastic spot to take a picnic for an afternoon.
Waipio Valley, Hawaii 96727, USA
Seeing the Big Island by air will have you sitting on the edge your seat anticipating what will turn up around the next mountain or valley. Waipio Valley, one of the most beautiful areas on the Island, is best seen from the air to really get a perspective of the area’s vast beauty. If staying on the ground is more your style, hit the trail and do some hiking through the Waipio area or make your way to the ocean and enjoy the sound of the surf.
Hilo is a typical small American town with a local Hawaiian twist. On the “quieter” side of the Big Island, tourists might miss this little town on their way to Volcanoes National Park. Hilo has a lively art scene, including galleries and boutiques behind the wooden storefronts that were built centuries ago. Besides art, Hilo’s Farmers’ Market is one of the best in the United States. The historic downtown offers several cafes, restaurants, a natural and organic store, and small surf shops to peruse on a visit to the windward side of Hawaii Island.
The ire of Mount Kilauea reforges the world before visitors’ eyes. Nicknamed “the World’s Only Drive-In Volcano,” it’s produced serious lava every day since 1983 with no signs of stopping. Pele—the fire goddess who lives here, according to Hawaiian lore—is on a roll. Occasionally the lava flows spill into the sea, releasing stunning plumes of steam. Don’t miss the petroglyphs, lava tube, lush rain forest, and more than 150 miles of trail, including the four-mile Kilauea Iki loop. The drive here from Kona or Kohala can take two and a half hours, a bit of a long day, so consider reserving accommodations in the town of Volcano. You’ll have plenty of time to explore this otherworldly landscape, and even see the lava glowing in the dark!
78-6772 Makenawai St, Kailua-Kona, HI 96740, USA
For a rare and wonderfully crafted chocolate experience on the Big Island, visitors who book a tour of the Original Hawaiian Chocolate Farm will learn about the chocolate making process from growing and harvesting to packaging. Only offered on Wednesday and Friday mornings, the tours must be booked in advance and sell out quickly. On the Kona side of the island, the tour includes tastings and a view into how the chocolate is harvested from the cacao pod as a white gelatinous mess, dried, ground, and made into the sweet treat most people love. The shop is open Tuesday through Friday from 10:00 am until 3:00 pm and visitors can reserve a tour in advance on Wednesday mornings at 9:00am and Friday mornings at 9:00am and 11:00am. Tours book up fast so reserve your spot early!
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