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  • Hawaii-Big-Island-lava-flow-2 - Blue and orange converge as lava enters the sea at dusk at Pahoa on the Big Island of Hawaii.
  • Anaehoomalu-Bay - Aerial view of Anaehoomalu Bay, a popular gold-sand beach fronting the Outrigger Waikoloa Beach Resort on the Big Island's Kona-Kohala Coast.
  • Waikoloa-lava-golf-course - A golf course etched around lava in Waikoloa on the Big Island of Hawaii.
  • Liliuokalani-Gardens-Hilo - Liliuokalani Gardens in Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii.
  • Pololu-Valley - Scenic Pololu Valley in Kohala on the Big Island of Hawaii.
  • magma-flow-Pacific-Hawaii - Hot magma flows into the Pacific from a volcanic eruption on the Big Island of Hawaii.
  • Hawaii-horseback-riding - A young horseback rider in Waimea, Hawaii. Mexican cowboys, called paniolo, first came to Hawaii 170 years ago.
  • Black-Sand-Beach-Hawaii - Woman walking on Black Sand Beach, West Kohala Coast, on the Big Island of Hawaii.
  • Maunakea-Observatories - Maunakea Observatories on the summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii. Its 8-meter Gemini optical/IR telescope, operated by a consortium of seven countries, is one of the most important land-based astronomy sites in the world.
  • Halemaumau-Crater-volcano - A couple overlooks Halemaumau Crater on the the Big Island of Hawaii.
  • Rainbow-Falls-Hilo - Bottom of Rainbow Falls in Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii.
  • Hilo-waterfall - A waterfall in Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii.
  • Hawaii-paniolo - Gaucho? Close. A demonstration of skillful roping by a paniolo on horseback at Waimea on the Big Island of Hawaii.
  • magma-stream-Hawaii - A couple watches a volcano's magma stream into the ocean on the Big Island of Hawaii.
  • Hawaii-Big-Island-lava-flow - Lava enters the sea at dusk at Pahoa on the Big Island of Hawaii.
  • tropical-fish-Kahaluu-Bay - Underwater view of tropical fish and coral garden in Kahaluu Bay on the Big Island's Kailua-Kona coast.
  • Halemaumau-Crater - Vapor rises along the trail at Halemaumau Crater, an active volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii.
  • Golden-Princess-Hilo-Hawaii - The Golden Princess in Hilo Bay, Hawaii.

Big Island of Hawaii travel guide & photo tour

our guide

The vibe

At 4,028 square miles, the island of Hawaii, commonly referred to as the Big Island, is by far the largest in the archipelago. And it’s still growing, with active volcanoes Mauna Loa and Kilauea, which recently sent lava flowing through the town of Pahoa, adding constantly to the island's mass.

Kilauea, a youthful shield volcano and the centerpiece of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, is the most active volcano in Hawaii — and in the world. Hilo, with about 45,000 residents, is the largest city on the island and home to natural wonders including Rainbow Falls on the Wailuku River and Kaumana Caves, a system of lava tubes just outside town.

 

The island of Hawaii is the not just the largest of the Hawaiian Islands; it's also the most geographically diverse, making it a top choice for visitors captivated by natural history and wide-open spaces as well as miles of coastline for swimming, snorkeling and beach activities. Terrain ranges from dry and moon-like on the leeward (Kona) side to incredibly lush on the much more rainy windward (Hilo) side. Mauna Loa, extending 13,678 feet into the sky, is often capped with snow. Visitors have a choice of white sand, green sand and black sand beaches, some crowded, others that have more shore birds than people.

Ships calling the Big Island often visit two ports: Kailua-Kona, a resort area on the island’s dry leeward side; and Hilo (HEE-lo), a historic settlement on its moist eastern shore.

Cruise ships that call on the Big Island

Top reasons to go

  • Kona coffee; try a cup of hand-picked, sun-dried, custom-roasted Kona coffee while you're there.
  • Akaka Falls is an awesome sight, with water tumbling 440 feet to its base.
  • Kaleakekua Bay is one of the best snorkeling spots in the state.
  • The lush Waipi'o Valley is pure magic.
  • The Merrie Monarch Festival, held in April, is a showcase for Hawaiian dance that draws spectators and participants from around the globe.
A young horseback rider in Waimea, Hawaii. Mexican cowboys, called paniolo, first came to Hawaii 170 years ago.
Courtesy of Hawaii Tourism JapanA young horseback rider in Waimea, Hawaii. Mexican cowboys, called paniolo, first came to Hawaii 170 years ago.

Kona: Top options for cruise visitors 

Kailua-Kona is the center of commerce and of the tourism industry in western Hawaii. Most people refer to Kailua-Kona simply as Kona. It's not related to the town of Kailua on Oahu's north shore.

First-time visitors to Kona are often shocked by the dry and rugged appearance of the volcanic landscape. Underwater, though, sea life flourishes, making this one of the best destination in the islands for scuba diving and snorkeling close to shore. Stand-up paddle-boarding and kayaking are popular too, as are sailing excursions and visits to coffee plantations. 

Dolphin Quest at the Kahala Hotel offers swim-with-dolphin experiences that are as much fun to watch as to participate in. Down the coast, Puuhonua O Honaunau National Historic Park, a place of refuge for ancient Hawaiians, is one of the most beautiful and haunting places of cultural interest in the islands.

The region south of Kona is home to coffee farms producing what some call the best coffee beans in the world. Lush plantations and amazing views offer a taste of what Hawaii was like before the resorts took over. 

Kona’s main road is Ali'i Drive, where you’ll find a variety of shops and restaurants. The shore surrounding Kona is covered in black lava rock interspersed with sandy beaches. Bring your camera!

Driving north along the Big Island's west shore on Highway 270, you'll pass a string of top-notch resorts and come to beautiful Hapuna Beach, one of the state's most iconic white-sand strands. A bit farther up, in Kawaihae, is the Blue Dragon, a popular restaurant and outdoor music venue.

Fun facts

  • The community was established by King Kamehameha the Great at the end of the 1700s when he was chief of Kona.
  • Kona once served as a retreat for Hawaiian royalty
  • Kona means “leeward side” in Hawaiian.
  • Only coffee grown in the Kona district on the Big Island's West coast can be called Kona coffee.
  • The Courtyard King Kamehameha’s Beach Hotel in Kona is the starting and finishing points of the Ironman World Championship Triathlon.
  • Paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy) culture came to the Big Island with the arrival of five longhorn cattle in 1798. Horses followed in 1803, and Mexican vaqueros soon after. Cattle ranching is still big business on the upcountry ranch lands around Waimea, north of Kona. Several ranches are open for horseback riding or tours.

Free wi-fi

  • Island Lava Java, 75-5799 Alii Drive
  • Kona De Pele Cafe, 75-5805 Alii Drive
  • McDonalds, 75-1015 Henry St., in Walmart
  • Safeway, 75-1027 Henry St., between Palani and Hwy. 11
  • Starbucks, 75-1022 Henry St., across the street from Safeway
  • Starbucks, 74-5588 Palani Road, in Kona Coast Shopping Center

When you arrive

Docking information

Cruise ships anchor offshore and local boats ferry passengers to the Kailua Pier.

Getting around

Kona Town is fairly small and walkable, with the bulk of commerce to your right as you come off the pier. If you want to explore areas further out you will have to take a taxi.

Need to know

Tipping: A 10% to 15% tip in restaurants and for taxis is customary. Sometimes (most often for groups) a tip is automatically added to the bill; check your credit-card slip before adding more.

Safety: Kona is considered to be a safe place. But as always, don’t flash cash around and stay in well-lit areas at night if you're not back on your ship. 

A waterfall in Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii.
Courtesy of Hawaii's Big Island Visitor BureauA waterfall in Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Hilo: Top options for cruise visitors 

This city on the eastern side of the Big Island is Kona’s scenic opposite. With a population of 45,000, it's the largest city on the island and the second largest in the state after Honolulu. It's also the oldest city in the archipelago, evolving from fishing and farming to sugar cane, which ruled the economy for more than a century.

In 1960, a tsunami with waves reaching 35 feet high washed over the town, causing much damage and loss of life. Fifty-odd years later, the historic downtown is a flower-filled city of charmingly restored Victorian buildings overlooking a half-moon bay. The nearby mountainous countryside, flowing with waterfalls after a rain, is staggeringly lush.

Top options for cruisers? Try these:

  • The Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden offers an educational look at exotic plants, while the Pana´Ewa Rainforest Zoo & Gardens (free), only tropical rainforest zoo in the United States, is a great option for families with young children and a rental car.
  • Volcanoes and more: By far the top excursion out of Hilo is to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the slopes of active volcanoes Mauna Loa and Kilauea. The park is huge, but a guided tour or self-guided trip along a signed driving route will provide lots of photo opportunities and geological insights. If you go on your own, try to catch at least one interpretive walk or talk with park rangers.
  • Akaka Falls, 11 miles north of Hilo, is easily accessible to families. The trip from the parking lot to see Akaka and the smaller Kahuna Falls takes about 20 minutes and is suitable for children and anyone who can navigate steps. Akaka is the most spectacular of several waterfalls along the northeast coast of the island on the highway from Waimea to Hilo.
  • To visit Rainbow Falls, take a short drive west on Waianuene Avenue to Wailuku River State Park.
  • Kaumana Caves is located up the hill from downtown Hilo on Kaumana Drive (Saddle Road). Stretching for almost two miles, the laval tube passes underneath the highway. While only a small portion of it can be visited, it's nevertheless worth a stop.

Weather & what to wear

Be prepared: It rains a lot in Hilo, and when it rains, it pours. This is one of the rainiest places in the Americas, with precipitation averaging 126 inches a year and rain falling 275 days out of 365.

Fun facts

  • Shops and restaurants in downtown Hilo are concentrated on Bayfront or Kamehameha Avenue and its side streets.
  • Hilo is home to the Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Corporation, one of the world’s leading producers of macadamia nuts.
  • British explorer Capt. James Cook made the first recorded European contact with the Hawaiian Islands, precipitating an end to Hawaiian royalty. He was killed in a skirmish with Hawaiian warriors in 1779 at Kealakekua Bay, where a monument to him now stands.

Free wi-fi

  • Bayfront Coffee, Kava & Tea, 116 Kamehameha Ave.
  • Bueno Burrito, 190 Keawe St.
  • Hilo Sharks Coffee, 41 Waianuenue Ave.
  • Just Cruisin Coffee, 835 Kilauea Ave.
  • Ma'ona Restaurant and Grill, 1235 Kilauea Ave. in Hilo Shopping Centre
  • Mau Loa Coffee & Deli, 400 Hualani St.
  • Naung Mai Thai Kitchen, 86 Kilauea Ave.
  • Surf Break Cafe, 201 Kinoole St. 

When you arrive

Docking information

Cruise ships dock at a pier on Kuhio Street, close to the airport and about two miles east of downtown.

Need to know

Tipping: A 10% to 15% tip in restaurants and for taxis is customary. Sometimes a tip is automatically added to your bill; check your credit-card slip before adding an additional amount. 

Safety: Kona and Hilo are considered to be safe places. But as always, don’t flash cash around and stay in well-lit areas at night if you're not back on your ship.

ShoreFox contributed to this guide.

Your take

Have you been to the Big Island? Did you stay on the Kona side or Hilo? Please share a story, tip or discovery. What was the highlight for you?

Help improve this article! See anything wrong? What did we overlook? Be a co-creator!

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Janet Fullwood
Janet Fullwood is an editor, writer and photographer-at-large specializing in travel and hospitality topics.

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Overheard

“Last week, a frogfish as big as a volleyball and the color of wintergreen gum was spotted on this ledge, 100 yards off the Kona coast. The Kona Aggressor II dive boat (aggressor.com) has brought me out to where these fish, when spotted, change into strange colors.  A dot blinks.  There it is: a fish with downturned mouth and dressed in traffic-cone orange. I could stare at this all day.”

Islands magazine

“First-time visitors should feel no shame hitting places like Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and sunset at Mauna Kea summit — wow  and wow. They're famous for a reason. ...The drive down to the village of Milolii is breathtaking. And the salt-and-pepper beach on nearby Honomalino Bay is worth the short hike. These spots aren't for van loads of tourists, but they're perfect on your own.”

Islands magazine

“Walk the Beaches of Kona and it's like the rocks have eyes. That's because those coffee-table slabs atop black sand are actually honu — green sea turtles. To see them elsewhere requires snorkeling or waiting till the wee hours when they nest, but here, when the sun shines, they're everywhere.”

Islands magazine

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