Hawaii, or the Big Island, is the largest in the Hawaiian archipelago. Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano, dominates the island at 13,803 feet high. The towering peak creates different climatic zones. Hilo to the east experiences lots of rain, and Kona exudes a dry, sunny climate.
Most visitors stay in Kona, which offers excellent snorkeling, watersports, sandy beaches, and patio restaurants. However, exploring outside of Kona provides unique experiences that create lasting memories.
Here are some top things to do and see on the Big Island of Hawaii.
Swim With Manta Rays
While manta rays are commonly found in warm climates, it usually requires a diving excursion to see them. In Kona, you can snorkel with giant mantas on a night tour. Snorkeling with manta rays is safe. Unlike sting rays, the larger species have no stingers on their tails or teeth in their mouths.
In the 1970s, the Sheraton Kona placed spotlights in the water around their hotel to create ambiance. The light attracted plankton, a source of food for manta rays. First came the mantas, then came the tourists.
On a snorkeling tour, you’ll float on the water’s surface and watch the manta rays swim beneath you. The experience is exhilarating and, for some, scary too. The giants have a wingspan of up to 16 feet, so they dwarf humans who come to watch the underwater ballet.
Visit a Kona Coffee Farm
Kona, Hawaii, might best be known for its fantastic coffee. Once you’ve tried it, you could be hooked for life. Hawaii has numerous coffee farms where you can sample their blends and taste some macadamia nuts.
The coffee doesn’t just come in light, medium, and dark roast varieties. Instead, they have tempting flavors such as toasted coconut, caramel, vanilla macadamia nut, hazelnut, and white chocolate strawberry. Kona coffee makes one of the best Hawaiian souvenirs. The hardest decision is deciding on flavors.
If you visit the Royal Kona Coffee Center, you can tour the working coffee mill, sample their java and walk through a lava tube.
See Rainbow Falls
All that rain on the eastern side creates a lush landscape and magnificent waterfalls. If you arrive in Hilo by cruise ship, Waiānuenue Falls or Rainbow Falls is a popular stop on an island tour.
The 80-foot waterfall gets its name from the numerous rainbows seen as the water cascades from the Wailuku River. Visiting early in the day increases your chances of seeing a kaleidoscopic rainbow.
Visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
While the Hawaiian Islands have numerous dormant volcanoes, the Big Island has a very active one. Located on the southeastern side of the Big Island, visiting the national park allows visitors to see a living volcano.
Depending on its current activity, you should stop by the visitor center to see which zones are open to the public. Plan to spend at least half a day to a full day exploring the park.
If you drive to the end of Chain of Craters Road, you can see the 90-foot Hōlei Sea Arch created by lava. Around the park, you can walk through a lava tube, hike into Kilauea Iki crater, and see old lava fields created by previous eruptions. It’s a humbling experience through a barren land and shows us the power of mother nature.
Snorkel In Kealakekua Bay
Snorkeling in Kealakekua Bay accomplishes many things. You’ll swim amongst tropical fish, admire the Captain Cook Monument, see sea caves, and Spinner Dolphins may accompany you.
The boat ride to Kealakekua Bay is picturesque and a chance to see the coastline from the water. Since Hawaii’s waters are rich with marine wildlife, you could spot turtles, dolphins, or even whales (in the winter).
Kealakekua Bay offers calm waters for snorkeling. Near the shore, the healthy coral teams with colorful fish. On land, the Captain Cook monument marks where the British explorer lost his life in 1779.
Visit An Octopus or Seahorse Farm
While Hawaii has many farms producing fruit, nuts, and coffee, it also has two unique farms which visitors can tour. The Kanaloa Octopus Farm is a research facility, and during a tour, you’ll learn about their personalities and how they live.
The interactive experience allows you to feed and touch octopuses. If you’re not into touching, be warned; if you put your hands in the water, they may grab you.
Alternatively, a trip to the Ocean Rider Seahorse Farm allows you to see a family-run business that breeds seahorses. It has over 25 breeding species, which helps to cut down on harvesting wild seahorses.
Hike To Akaka Falls
At less than ½ mile, the hike to Akaka Falls is easy, with a paved path through a lush forest. The treat for making the hike is seeing Akaka Falls, which cascades 442 feet into a gorge.
The looping trail offers two waterfall sightings, Akaka and Kahuna Falls. However, the latter is mainly shielded by trees. On the trek, you’ll see bamboo thickets, sugar cane, and dense vegetation.
To enjoy the falls without shadows, plan to visit in the morning. By going early, you’ll also enjoy the hike before the temperatures spike.
See The St. Benedict’s Painted Church
Gracing the hillside of the south Kona district, the St. Benedict Painted Church may not seem that special on the outside. Moved to its current location in 1880, the white exterior contrasts significantly with what you find inside.
Father John Berchmans Velghe painted its colorful muraled interior walls. The bright images depicted scenes from the bible and were used as a teaching tool.
The Roman Catholic Church holds five services a week, but it’s open daily to the public.
Visit Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park
If you want to learn about the history and culture of the land, you must visit Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park. The Puʻuhonua o Honaunau is a ceremonial site contained within a great wall.
In ancient times, if someone broke the law, they would seek refuge at the site to escape punishment. On a self-guided walking tour, you’ll see giant Ki’i or wooden images, symbolizing the gods who protect the deceased chiefs buried in a temple.
Adjacent to the park, Honaunau Bay provides a great place to snorkel and see Hawaiian green sea turtles.
Tour Hulihe‘e Palace
Did you know that Hawaii once had a royal family? Hulihe‘e Palace, in Kailua-Kona, was used as a summer home by the royal family. While the palace is small for a royal residence, it overlooks the Pacific Ocean.
Once built from lava rock, the building has been stuccoed, giving it a fresh look. Visitors can tour the interior rooms and admire the Koa wood furnishings and period pieces. Should you visit Oahu, you can tour two other palaces, Iolani Palace and Queen Emma Palace.
By visiting these historical places, you’ll learn about the events that ended the Hawaiian royal family’s reign. It’s a humbling story.
While Oahu and Maui see the lion’s share of visitors to Hawaii, consider a trip to the Big Island instead. This larger island offers a tropical playground with many unique experiences, and how often can you say you saw an active volcano?