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Rainbow Falls in Hilo, Big Island, Hawaii

The best of Hawaii’s Big Island: 7-day itinerary

Rob and I had received mixed reviews about Hawaii from our fellow Australians.

Some people really liked it, and gave us recommendations for things to do on various islands. Others said they thought Hawaii was overrated and said we should skip it altogether. We tried to figure out if there were any patterns in the people who didn’t really enjoy Hawaii, and it became obvious to us that those people are the ones who didn’t leave Honolulu.

This is the reason that we choose the Big Island for our Hawaii trip. Even though it takes an inter-island flight to get there, venturing out of Honolulu to explore the epic island landscapes with waterfalls, volcanoes, and beaches with black, green, or white sand is absolutely 100% worth it.

We spent a little over a week on the Big Island, which left Rob and I both feeling as though we had really experienced the most awesome parts of this US state! It may not be the quintessential tropical destination that some people have in mind when they think of Hawaii, but it does have everything you could want in a vacation, plus more.

Here’s my suggestions for the best way to spend a week on Hawaii’s Big Island in a 7 day/8 night itinerary!

Views out to the ocean from Chain of Craters Road, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Big Island
Views of lava flows and ocean from Chain of Craters Road, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

How to get to the Big Island Hawaii?

There are two airports for commercial flights that travel in and out of the Big Island – Kona and Hilo. Although Hilo has a bigger population, Kona also has frequent flights as it’s a more popular tourist destination.

We flew from Honolulu into Kona and out of Hilo back to Honolulu with Hawaiian Airlines, and I didn’t really see any difference between the two airports. The flights were approximately the same price and we didn’t have any trouble getting flights at our preferred time. It’s really up to you which airport you choose.

What’s the weather like on the Big Island Hawaii?

Hawaii’s Big Island has what feels like thousands of micro-climates. It’s not the same as Honolulu, where you might be treated to more constant sunshine and hotter weather. It also depends of the activity of the volcano, as the eruption phases actually change the local weather (crazy, right!?). When we visited in early April while the volcano was erupting, we experienced fairly frequent drizzle, reasonably mild but humid days, and cool evenings. If the volcano isn’t erupting, it’s more likely to be drier and sunnier.

Driving through lava flow on Chain of Craters Road, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Driving through lava flow on Chain of Craters Road, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

How to get around the Big Island Hawaii?

We chose to rent a car from the airport and drive around Hawaii, which is definitely the superior way to get around the island. With American-style highways and major roads that circle the mountains and follow the coastal border, it’s easy to navigate by car. This allowed us to stay in various locations while travelling around the Big Island and we were able to take our time on scenic drives such as Chain of Craters Road in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

You could also choose to stay in the city centre of Kona and Hilo, and do day trips out of each. I’m not sure whether the price would be any different thank it would for renting a car, but if you’re not comfortable driving around Hawaii then this might be a good alternative.

Hawaii Big Island itinerary map

Big Island Hawaii itinerary map:

  1. Kona
  2. Captain Cook
  3. Papakōlea Green Sand Beach
  4. Punaluʻu Black Sand Beach
  5. Volcano
  6. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
  7. Hilo
  8. Akaka Falls

7 day itinerary for the Big Island, Hawaii

Magic Sands Beach, Big Island, Hawaii
Snorkelling at Captain Cook, Big Island, Hawaii
Top: Magic Sands Beach in Kona / Bottom: Snorkelling at the Captain Cook Monument

Days 1-2: Kona + Captain Cook

Kona is the Big Island’s most popular tourist destination. I found the town centre to be a little underwhelming as it was designed mostly to appease cruise ship visitors, but I definitely enjoyed stopping in at Kona Brewing Co for a local beer and veggie pizza.

Captain Cook is about a 25 minute drive south of Kona and it has a ton of great activities. You can do snorkelling at Two Step, hike or kayak to the Captain Cook Monument, visit coffee and macadamia farms, eat some tasty Hawaiian-Asian fusion food, and more! For a comprehensive rundown on the best things to do in this area, take a look at my Kona + Captain Cook travel guide.

Papakōlea Green Sand Beach, Big Island, Hawaii
Punaluʻu Black Sand Beach, Big Island, Hawaii
Top: Papakōlea Green Sand Beach / Bottom: Punaluʻu Black Sand Beach

Day 3: Drive to Volcano

The drive from Kona to Volcano isn’t too long at about 2–2.5 hours, but it’s best to put aside an entire day for this journey as there are great spots to stop along the way offering some of the best Hawaii experiences.

First up is Papakōlea Green Sand Beach, which is located near the southernmost point on the island (which is also the southernmost point of the US!). The hike to Green Sand Beach from the parking lot takes about an hour each way, but as this is one of only four green sand beaches in the world, the difficulty in accessing it makes it even more worthwhile. On arrival you’ll find unique green-tinted sand in a compact cove. Be sure to take drinking water, sun protection, and a windbreaker as the elements can be brutal if the sun is beating down or wind is blowing in from the ocean.

Next stop is Punaluʻu Black Sand Beach, which was one of my favourite spots on the trip! The tiny volcanic pebbles that made up the sand were surprisingly nice to relax on with a towel under the palm trees. I didn’t go for a swim (just enjoyed the uniqueness of the beach and explored the rock pools!) but there were plenty of other people here enjoying the ocean as the waves weren’t too intense.

In the late afternoon, drive on to the town of Volcano which is located only minutes from the entrance to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. We stayed in an Airbnb cabin which was absolutely delightful and a great place to relax after a few big days of exploring. Alternatively, you can drive through to Hilo instead, though this means you’ll have to make the 45 minute drive back to the national park later.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Big Island
Early morning lava viewing at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Big Island
Top: Steaming Bluff near Kilauea Overlook | Bottom: Early morning lava viewing

Day 4: Hawaii Volcanoes NP

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park was by far the part of this trip that I was most excited for, and it did not disappoint! Even though the weather was average with drizzly rain much of the time, the epic lava flows, rainforest hikes, and volcano crater were just so utterly awesome. It was like no other place I’ve ever visited, and it felt thrilling to be standing so close to an active volcano.

You’ll definitely need a full day (and possibly an early morning/late evening if the volcano is in an eruption phase) to explore the area if possible. Check out my recommendations for the best activities in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Green Sea Turtle at Hilo, Big Island, Hawaii
Akaka Falls near Hilo, Big Island, Hawaii
Top: Green Sea Turtle at Carlsmith Beach Park | Bottom: Akaka Falls

Days 5-6: Hilo

We only stayed 2 nights in Hilo, but I kind of wish we’d stayed one extra day to do a few more activities. There’s some neat places to visit around the downtown area, like the Pacific Tsunami Museum, Rainbow Falls, or Coconut Island. One activity that I really enjoyed in Hilo was swimming at Carlsmith Beach Park because it was the only location that I got to see green sea turtles in Hawaii!

Hilo also has some great food and drink options. We loved having dinner and beer samples at Ola Brew and grabbing a drink at Pineapples which had a range of fruity tropical cocktails.

Akaka Falls is also worth a half-day excursion out of the city. This is a Hawaiian-run attraction and it does have an entry fee of $5 USD per person, but the rainforest walk is quite lovely and the falls are impressive. If you have even more time, you can continue the drive up the coast to Waipi’o Valley Lookout to see some of the most impressive landscapes on the Big Island.

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