Are you looking for a Big Island itinerary to visit Hawai’i? Well, you’re in luck. I spent a week in a yurt on a macadamia nut farm in Kealakekua, 25 minutes outside of Kona. My friends and I rented a car (which is necessary) and drove around the island eating, hiking, beach hopping, and more.
Exploring the island is a must even if you decide to stay at a resort. Due to renting a car and making Kona our home base, we took in the most beautiful views of Big Island. With a week to explore, we might as well see as much as possible, right?
Whether you are looking for things to do in Kona or things to do in Hilo, this blog post can help you. There is so much to see, learn, and eat. Here is a 7-day Big Island itinerary divided by areas on the island such as Kona, Hilo, and Captain Cook. Stay tuned until the end to find bonus activities to do too.
Table of Contents
Before you go
Before we get to sightseeing and some of the best restaurants on Big Island, y’all know I had to include some responsible travel tips. Of course! Teach Hawaiian history is not common in schools on the mainland U.S. (at least not true history). Thus, there are some critical facts and history we should understand before we go.
Understand the history of Hawai’i
Reading about a destination’s history is the bare minimum we can do before visiting more responsible tourists. Before Hawai’i became illegally occupied by the United States, it was known as the Kingdom of Hawai’i. To many Native Hawaiians, it still is, and they recognize it as such. Most of this history was new to me before my trip.
But of course there are resources to help us learn what school should have taught us! We are never too old to learn. The resources I found were free and can help to contextualize your Hawai’i experience outside of waterfalls and beaches.
You can watch this documentary called Act of War to understand the U.S. coup that took place to overthrow Hawai’i’s Queen Lili’uokalani. Another visual resource to understand the historical timeline is by Weird History called “Here’s How America Destroyed Hawaiian Culture.” For the Hawaiian names and meanings of places check out Ulukau which is a Hawaiian electronic library. Do some general Google searches to find more resources to learn.
Research responsible hiking and outdoor practices
A Big Island itinerary needs to include outdoor adventures. The allure of Hawai’i is its natural beauty, and you will observe it all. From beaches to volcanoes, there is so much to take in everywhere you look. However, it is the endangered species capital of the world. Therefore we have to take extra precautions while hiking.
Kanaka Climbers is a resource I found while researching responsible travel tips outdoors in Hawai’i. Kanaka is a native Hawaiian-led nonprofit that encourages a more responsible and ethical outdoor recreational community in Hawaiʻi. Read through their resources and blog posts about hiking and climbing in Hawai’i.
Skip the resort and stay in a yurt
My Airbnb was on a macadamia nut farm! Technically the yurt I stayed in was in Kealakekua in the Kona coffee region. However, it is super close to downtown Kona with a 20-25 minute drive. It has a jungle feel to it when you enter, and it feels very secluded with a glamping vibe. The link to the yurt Airbnb is here.
The yurt costs $175/night and is called the Maluhia Macadamia Nut Kona Farm Yurt. This Airbnb has three bedrooms, a kitchen, a full bathroom, and a lanai for you to relax in between adventures. Nature, chickens, and goats surround the yurt. On my final night, a giant spider crawled on my wall, so you’ve been warned. The yurt was so relaxing, and I would recommend it.
Things to do in Kona
Kona is a bigger town on Big Island. You can catch flights into the Kona International Airport and stay in resorts in the area as well. Kona is the most famous town of choice for tourists on Big Island. You will see many hotels, restaurants, shops, and activities in this area. While this is not an exhaustive list, here are a few things to do in Kona and Kealakekua nearby.
Stroll around the shops
In downtown Kona, there are a bunch of touristy shops and restaurants. For those who like to buy souvenirs, this area is one place to do it. And even if you do not want to shop, you can sit or stroll and watch the strong waves brush along the shore. Despite the hustle and bustle, hanging out by the water was relatively peaceful.
Kona Farmers Market
As you are strolling downtown Kona, you will stumble upon the Kona Farmers Market. You cannot come to an island and not try the fresh fruits and vegetables from the market. Coming from the Midwest, where tropical fruits are not always the newest, the Kona Farmers Market was a breath of fresh air. Markets are also a great alternative to eating out every meal.
However, just know that the market can be a little pricier than others since it is in the heart of touristy downtown Kona. If you are staying in Hilo, you may find cheaper options. Regardless, the fruits and vegetables were worth it! They were juicy and delicious.
Once you work up an appetite, head to Rebel Kitchen just 20 minutes north of Kona in Kealakekua! It is the only Black-owned restaurant on the island! You can have burgers, local beer flights, desserts, curry dishes, pepperoni French fries, and more. The food was satisfying, and the restaurant gave off a relaxed vibe. I tried the spicy shrimp curry dish with some sangria, and it was full of flavor. Rebel Kitchen is one of the best restaurants on Big Island.
Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park
An outdoor cultural and archaeological center in south Kona, this national historical park is great to learn about Hawaiian history. They have self-guided tours where you can listen to the early history of the Kingdom of Hawai’i or read the transcript. There is the art that visualizes the story as well.
Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park is partly inside and outside. I would recommend bringing sunscreen and bug spray as it is adjacent to Hōnaunau Beach. The entire experience costs $20 per vehicle or $10 per person if you walk up individually. And keep your receipt as it is usable for seven days if you choose to return to visit.
Things to do in Captain Cook
Captain Cook is not too far from downtown Kona and Kealakekua. It is smaller than them as well, so it blends in with their roads. In this area, you can find more food and beaches, similar to other sites. Check out a few things to do in Captain Cook. They also have some of Big Island’s best restaurants!
Ho’okena Beach Park
If you are looking for a more laid-back beach experience, head to Ho’okena Beach Park on your Big Island itinerary. A mix of locals and tourists frequent Ho’okena. It is a light, black sand beach that is fantastic to hang out for an afternoon or the whole day. You can swim, snorkel, and layout on the beach. We even saw a sea turtle here! Just bring your snacks and water.
Ho’okena is also a stunning location to watch the sunset. There were hardly any people around during that time. Wear your water shoes or sandals as there are rocks you have to walk on to get a good view. And remember the beach does close around 6/6:30 pm, so you have to be gone by then. The good news is that the beach is free!
Ka’aloa’s Super J’s
Super J’s is one of the local favorites, and no Big Island itinerary is complete without a visit here. They are known for their laulau which is a Hawaiian dish. Laulau is a tea leaf wrapped around pork or chicken cooked for 12 hours prior.
You get the laulau with a side of rice, Hawaiian mac, and a tomato and salmon dish to pour over the rice. These are the main and only dishes they offer. The desserts are local, with the sweet potato haupia pie and ube pie being my favorites. All the food was delicious, and we spent roughly $16 per person, including dessert.
Every encounter was terrific during our trip. But the owners of Super J’s were some of the nicest we met on Big Island. They made us feel at home instantly. It is truly a family-friendly and family-run restaurant. It is no wonder they are one of the best restaurants on Big Island. Julie and J were hilarious, and, fun fact, most of their family member’s names start with J. If you visit, tell me Sojo said hey!
The tastiest tacos on the Big Island come from Shaka Tacoz. We happened to go on Thursday and got their Taco Thursday deal. For meat-eaters, they have chicken, and for seafood lovers, there is a fish taco. I got the three tacos for $11.
You can find this food truck and sit-in restaurant in Captain Cook! It is a short 10-minute drive from Kealakekua. When it is not raining, they have outdoor dining available too. This restaurant is the only Mexican spot going on my Big Island itinerary, Shaka Tacoz would be one of my top decisions. They have some of the best food on Big Island, so eat here!
Black Rock Pizza
Are tacos not the meal you seek? Not too far from Shaka Tacoz is Black Rock Pizza, and they have the most incredible dough and fresh toppings. Black Rock also makes sure there is a pizza for everyone’s dietary needs. From pizzas to salads to beers, you will be satisfied.
Choose from their meat-heavy pizzas such as Kanak Attack or Hoi Boi. If you want veggie pizzas, consider the Mauna Veggie or Da Greek. Top it all off with a local drink such as Ola, their hard seltzer. Check out their website and menu here to learn more. Plan on spending about $15-$30 here per person, depending on the size of your pizza.
Things to do in Hilo
A Big Island itinerary would not be complete without Hilo. Located on the other side of the island across from Kona, Hilo is about 2 hours away. If you do not stay in Hilo, renting a car is vital to sightsee more of Big Island.
Some people opt to split their time between Kona and Hilo. Or they use one as their home base and travel to the other for day trips. Hilo, in my opinion, had some of the best food during my week on Big Island. So here are some things to do in Hilo!
On any Big Island itinerary you will find Mauna Kea. It is a dormant volcano at the peak of Big Island and where most tourists go stargazing. You can only go to the top if you have a 4-wheeler. But you will also see it from afar if you drive north from Kona or Kealakekua to Hilo. The views are breathtaking because you are above the clouds. It is a drive I recommend, preferably at sunset!
Mauna Kea is sacred to native Hawaiians. Though it is open now, Mauna Kea was closed in 2019 due to protests of another telescope. Be respectful of that as you visit. They continue fighting the U.S for their own land. To learn more about this, check out a video by LifeStraw. It is directed by Dr. Kiona of How Not To Travel Like a Basic Bitch.
Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park
Located 45 miles south of Hilo, you have to visit the only national park with volcanoes. It is an active volcano you can hike around and on (literally). The cost is $30 per car, and expect to spend 3-4 hours here if you plan on hiking and taking photos along the way. If not, you can probably shave off an hour or so as a faster hiker. A visit to the lava tubes right after adds additional time as well.
Visiting the volcanoes is also where those responsible tourist traits and practices kick in. Stay on the trails, do not take the lava or rocks with you, and pick the plants and flowers. Also, do not forget to spray your shoes before and after your visit. Read up on Madame Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes, and fire a bit too before you go too!
Everyone loves rainbows, right? Rainbow Falls is located in northwest Hilo and relatively easy (and free) to visit. Be cautious of the signs with instructions on where to stand to be safe. All you have to do is roll up with your car and walk maybe 3 minutes to see the 80 ft falls. Rainbow Falls is a quick and easy sightseeing activity with little hiking required. Expect to spend about 30 minutes here.
Visiting at least one waterfall has to be on your Big Island itinerary. Akaka Falls is 11 miles north of Hilo and the most popular waterfall amassing 422 ft. Arrive early to avoid the crowds! Preferably you should arrive when it opens if you want to relish its beauty with fewer people. Akaka’s trail is on a half-mile loop and has stairs leading you toward it. Parking in the lot is $10 per vehicle, and the entrance fee is $5 per person. The entire visit can take about 30-45 minutes.
Bite the Eye and Roots Time Vegan Wagon
Best Big Island food trucks are coming in hot and mouthwatering. Bite The Eye and Roots Time Vegan Wagon were the two I indulged in during the trip. Bite the Eye has local cuisine such as Hawaiian style poke, spicy poke, furikake poke, Korean ahi, and more.
Roots Time Vegan Wagon is vegan Jamaican food. They have the traditional plantains and a slaw on the side. Their main entrees were a jackfruit curry and BBQ carribean style tofu. Roots Time also offers various patties too such as a lentil mushroom or one with greens. Both of the food trucks are located right next to each other in a Sears parking lot.
You can find Bite the Eye on Instagram to see the menu and photos of their food ahead of time. Though these were the only Big Island food trucks I tried, it made me want to find more. Expect to spend $10-$20 on a meal at either spot or more if you try multiple foods as we did.
Hawaiian Style Café
Speaking of local cuisine, another favorite is Hawaiian Style Café. On their menu, you can order ahi poke nachos, poke bowls with spam and fried chicken, enormous pancakes you have ever seen, and more. They have breakfast, lunch, and dinner options that will surely fill you up.
Plan to arrive at least 15-20 minutes before they open for any of their meals. There was a line, yes a line, full of locals and tourists alike. An average meal will be about $20 minimum, but well worth it. You do not want to miss out on this meal. Hawaiian Style Café is one of Big Island’s best restaurants.
Other things to do on Big Island
Big Island has smaller places to visit that do not fit directly in Kona, Hilo, and Captain Cook. Yet, they can be sprinkled in between other attractions mentioned. Their locations make them easy to blend into other parts of this itinerary mentioned above.
Pololū Valley and Lookout
For all my hikers, this one’s for you! Pololū Valley has a half a mile hike down to a black sand beach. We hiked down early to catch the sunrise, and it was nearly empty. There is a more intense hike up to the Honokane Nui Lookout on the other side of the beach. Both are along the Hamakua coast which is a drive you need to do when you visit.
Hiking Pololū Valley was rugged at times, going from the Pololu Valley Lookout to the Honokane Nui Lookout. Our struggles largely came from the rain and the route being a bit muddy and slippery. However, the views made it all better, but I recommend wearing solid shoes. If you drive north from Kona and Kealakekua first, you can add Pololū Valley to the same day you visit the waterfalls.
Papakōlea Green Sand Beach
No Big Island itinerary is complete without multiple beaches. The Green Sand Beach is one of four green beaches in the world. Carve out a day for this adventure! Sturdy shoes and sunscreen are necessary. You can hike across the dirt road to get here or hop in one of the shuttles. I walked the way there and took the shuttle on the way back since it was so hot.
And by shuttles, I mean a pickup truck where you may have to stand in the back to ride back to the parking lot. It costs $10 per person, and the drivers take cash or Venmo. Just remember that if you take the shuttle to the beach, you have to take it back with the exact driver. They have an internal driver code out of respect for each other. After this beach, you can head to the Punalu’u Black Sand Beach if you are up to more. Your choice!
If you do not want to add Pololū Valley to your Big Island itinerary, consider Waipip’o Valley! Both are around the same area too. According to a local tattoo artist my friend met, this is a hike that locals do in the 5th grade. Depending on your physical fitness, expect to take two to three hours to hike it all. And similar to Pololū, it is recommended you get here early to beat the heat.
My friends and I opted for the Pololū Valley instead of Waipip’o due to time and rainy weather. Past hikers on All Trails mentioned in was more difficult than Pololū Valley. While it would have been nice to do both, we were very happy with Pololū! Both views are stunning. But if you have the time, clothes, and strength add this one to your list too. If I return to Big Island one day I will do it then.
Hawai’i Tropical Bioreserve & Garden
Considering the Big Island is full of lush green floral and fauna, a botanical garden may not be high on your list. But, if you want to experience more beautiful scenery, add the Hawai’i Tropical Bioreserve & Garden to your Big Island Itinerary. This stop was initially on my list as we rode down the Hamakua Coast. However with time winding down on my trip I opted out for more time hiking and eating instead. The price is $25 per person and it includes parking nearby.
Q: Is Hawai’i expensive?
Money and “budget travel” is subjective and based on so many other factors. Did I spend more money here than I have on past trips? Yes. For example I spent about $600 on my trip to Tulum and Playa del Carmen. Did I spend less than I thought? Also yes. Everyone said I would have to spend $40 per meal and that was not the case.
However gas and other things were more expensive. It is not a “budget” destination but that does not mean it is as expensive as islands like the Maldives or Seychelles. The total expenses for my trip was just under $1500. For example my flight was $454 roundtrip and housing (split with three people) was $545 for the week. Our rental car was $215 for the week and the rest of our food and activities was under $300. If you stay at a resort you will probably pay more. It truly depends on how you travel and when you book! Remember, money is relative.
Q: What is the flight process getting to Big Island?
One flight? You are so cute. Flying from the Midwest required three flights! For the price we pretty much traveled the entire day to get there and an entire day to get back. The total airport time was roughly 12 hours each way including layovers. Most people have their last leg from Los Angeles to Kona. However, you can also fly into Hilo as they have an airport too.
When you are creating your Big Island itinerary, account for the flights you have to take as well as returning the rental car. If the island is experiencing a rental care shortage at the airport you may have to drive out to a resort to get one. This situation occurred with us and the rental care from a resort was 45 minutes to an hour from the Kona airport. We flew Delta both ways.
Q: What are your top experiences from your trip?
As far as activities I loved the Pololū Valley, volcano park, and Green Sand Beach. For the best restaurants on Big Island I would say Hawaiian Style Cafe and the two Hilo food trucks. Bite the Eye and Roots Time Vegan Wagon are two of the best food trucks on Big Island.
Q: When is the best time to visit?
April, May, and June are touted as the best times to visit Big Island. However, it seems that flights are cheaper in the fall since it is the off season. When in doubt, let your bank account decide when is the best time to visit Big Island for you.
Q: How did you get around?
A car is necessary. It is the only way to get around unless you are with a tour on a bus or van. There’s no way around it.
Q: How many days do you need on Big Island?
Considering we stayed a week, I would say at least that! Seven days is the best to get the bang for your buck if you have a long flight like my friends and I. We had an 11-hour flight one-way. At the bare minimum five days could work based on what you prioritize. Know your travel style and plan accordingly.
Now experience remarkable Big Island
And that’s it for this Big Island itinerary! Big Island was a much-needed restful yet active adventure. White sand beaches, green beaches, Black beaches, and delicious food. I could have quickly done a few extra days or another week! With the right people and this itinerary, you can find many things to do in Kona and even more things to do in Hilo. I hope you have the best experience, and this was helpful to plan your Hawai’i travels.