Big Island Guide

Big Island Guide
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Traveling to Hawaii's Big Island? Then start here with our Big Island Guide.

• General: Educational

Guide Series: Guide To Hawaii
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Hawaii's largest island is technically known as Hawaii or Hawaii Island, but everyone seems to know it as the Big Island. The reason is pretty simple, it's the largest of all islands in the Hawaiian Island chain. In fact, it's so large that you could combine all of the other major islands together and they would still be smaller than the Big Island.

It's also the only island with an active volcano so if it's lava you're after then this is the island for you. This is also the newest island in the chain and the only one with an active flow of lava. There are five volcanoes that make up the island: Hualalai, Kilauea Volcano, Kohala, Mauna Kea, and Mauna Loa. Mauna Loa last erupted in 1984 and isn't as active today but Kilauea has been dumping lava pretty much non-stop since 1983.

Getting Around

Most visitors who come to Hawaii Island will do so via Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole (KOA) on the Kona (west) side, or Hilo International Airport (ITO) on the Hilo (east) side. If you're on the west side, many areas look like the surface of another planet. Black lava rock dominates this area of the island while the east side tends to be more lush in areas.

Like most of the islands, the Big Island has roads that run around much of the perimeter of the island. Along the northern half of the island this will be Queen Ka'ahumanu Highway, or Highway 19. On the southern half it will be the Mamalahoa Highway, or Highway 11.

The big thing to know about getting around on the Big Island is that it takes a lot of time. Unlike other islands where traffic is usually the delay, here it's simply distance that takes time to cover. Getting from Kailua-Kona to Hilo is an 80-100 mile trip and will take 1.5 to 2 hours depending on the route you take.

Do I Need A Rental Car In Hawaii? Yes, a rental car is a must here, it's really the only way to get out and see the island efficiently.


What is Vog you ask? Volcanic fog. It's a combination of carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide. A couple of thousand tons of this nasty stuff spews out of Kilauea every day.

Vog makes the air foggy or cloudy and on a bad day, or if you're in a heavily concentrated area, it can negatively impact your breathing. Those who have asthma, allergies, or other breathing related issue might see a bigger impact than others.

On most days, the vog isn't a big deal unless you're near the source. In fact, you're probably worse off in a big city like Los Angeles or Phoenix on any given day. But when the winds change direction and start blowing towards the northwest, the vog might spread across more of the island. On really bad days we'll see the Vog coming all the way over to Maui, Molokai, Lanai, and even the island of Oahu.

Big Island Regions

Let's break down Hawaii Island into it's regions and cover what each part offers.

North Big Island

The north side of the island is home to places like Hawi, Honokaa, and Laupahoehoe. It's often a bit on the sleepy and quiet side up here and less touristy than other areas.

Places to check out along the north shore include Mahukona Beach, Kapa'a Beach Park, and Laupahoehoe Point Beach Park. When you get to Honokaa, you'll enjoy some amazing views at the Waipio Valley Lookout in the Waipi'o Valley.

East Big Island

The east side is home to Hilo which is the county seat of Hawaii Island as well as Hilo International Airport (ITO). This is the wetter side of the island so things tend to be more lush over here.

Some of the more well known places here would be the University of Hawaii at Hilo, Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii, Lyman Museum, Pacific Tsunami Museum, Queen Liliuokalani Gardens, and the annual Merrie Monarch Festival.

If it's beaches you're after, try Richardson's Ocean Park, Carlsmith Beach Park, or Ahalanui Beach Park / Maunakea Pond / The Hot Ponds. If you want to see black sand beaches try Kehena Beach and Kaimu New Black Sand Beach.

If you want to explore a lava tube then be sure to visit Kaumana Caves. Nature lovers should check out Akaka Falls State Park and Rainbow Falls.

South Big Island

The south side of Hawaii Island is mostly occupied by Kilauea Volcano and crater which are inside of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. This is the big one you've heard about. It last erupted in 1983 and has been spewing out lava ever since. Kilauea is responsible for actually making the island grow larger. That's right, the Big Island is actually getting bigger. Of course, it's not land you can really do much with. It's about as raw as nature gets here.

Although Kilauea is constantly erupting, it's nothing like you'd see in a movie. It doesn't explode out but rather oozes out and flows towards the ocean. Of course, it can still cause massive damage. In 1990, lava flows destroyed Royal Gardens, a nearby housing complex.

For visitors, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is a major tourist destination and often the biggest reason many come to the island.

West Big Island

The west side of Hawaii Island is known as the Kona side. The main town here is Kailua-Kona, which used to just be called Kailua. Unfortunately, Kailua is also a city on Oahu and the US Post Office can't handle having two cities with the same name in the same state. So it's Kailua-Kona now but often just called Kona or Kailua Town. If you're flying to the big island then you might be flying into nearby Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole (KOA).

This side of the island is the dryer and sunnier side. Because of that, the weather is often excellent over here and why so many resorts have setup shop here. Some of the big resorts can be found in the Waikoloa area, including the massive Hilton Waikoloa Village. Other great lodging options include the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai at Historic Ka'upulehu and the The Fairmont Orchid, Hawaii.

If you're looking for a beach over here check out Kuki'o Beach, Makalawena Beach, Kua Bay / Manini'owali Beach, Anaeho'omalu Bay Beach, Makaiwa Bay Beach, and Hapuna Beach State Park.

Central Big Island

This is essentially the middle area of the island. This area is dominated by Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, which includes the Mauna Kea Observatories. This is where you'll find all of The Big Islands Telescopes, including The Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea and all of the controversy that surrounds it.

If you're traveling by car from the Kona side to the Hilo side, you can drive right through this area on Route 200 which is know as the Saddle Road.

Explore Big Island

For more information try one of these links:

Big Island Home Page

Big Island Beaches

Big Island Activities / Things To Do

Big Island Hotels / Resorts

Big Island Restaurants / Bars

Big Island Shops / Services

Big Island Information

Or head over to our Guide To Hawaii for an overview on the Hawaiian Islands.

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