Island fever may happen elsewhere, but it’s almost unheard of on Hawaii. The aptly named Big Island is fantastically diverse, with miles of highways and – better yet – byways to explore.

From age-old fishing villages to modern mega resorts, from snow-capped peaks to sandy beaches, you’ll experience tropical splendor backed by an epic history. Hawai‘i's Big Island is twice as big as the other Hawaiian islands combined, and its dramatic terrain will surprise you and take you to extremes. Where to start? Try these 10 can’t miss Big Island experiences. 

A woman goes snorkeling in a clear bay with coral, in a shot taken half in and half out of the water; Big Island experiences
Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island of Hawai‘i might have the best snorkeling in the state © James R.D. Scott / Getty Images

1. Snorkeling in Kealakekua Bay

It’s all true – from the teeming, technicolor fish in knee-deep water, to the spinner dolphins lazily circling your kayak or catamaran. Tourist brochures hype Kealakekua Bay as the best snorkeling in the state and, in this case, you can believe it. Even new rules regulating kayak use can’t tarnish the luster of this must-see spot. If kayaking doesn’t float your boat, hike down to this historically significant and naturally brilliant bay. Hard-core environmentalists might consider other less-trafficked bays – this one is almost too popular for its own good.

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Brilliant stars shine above an observatory on Mauna Kea in Hawaii; Big Island Experiences
The sacred mountain of Mauna Kea is one of the best dark sky places in the world © Michele Falzone / Getty Images

2. Mauna Kea star party

It is breathless and breath-taking in the rarefied air of Mauna Kea, Hawai’i’s most sacred location. Once the sun goes down, the stars come out, and with them telescopes for your viewing pleasure. The world’s clearest stargazing is here – what you see through those telescopes, you won’t soon forget. For a real trophy experience, head here for both the sun and moonrise.

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Hawaii, Big Island, Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, tourists standing on lava field
Visitors standing on a glowing lava field in Hawai

3. Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park

The eerie gray expanse of a formerly glowing lava lake, secluded palm-fringed beaches, ancient petroglyphs pecked into hardened lava and miles of hiking trails through craters, rainforest and desert – what’s not to love about Hawai‘i's No.1 site? This is one of the island’s top places to experience Hawaiian culture, including hula on the crater rim, annual festivals and a lecture series. All this and more are found in Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park.

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A verdant valley that meets a brilliant blue ocean is seen from one of the cliff edges that border the crevice
The view from the lookout on the edge of the Waipi‘o Valley is not to be missed © Png-studio / Getty Images

4. Waipi’o Valley

Legends begin here, where the road ends overlooking this magical valley. You can linger at the scenic viewpoint, however the waterfalls, wild horses and wilder black-sand beaches tend to beckon explorers. Choose from hiking, horseback or even a mule-drawn wagon to get you there. The very experienced can kayak in when conditions are just right. The most spectacular views, of course, are from the most grueling switchbacks of the Muliwai Trail – head up, up and up some more for the perfect shot.

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The wooden idols of ancient Hawaiians bare their teeth for the camera
Get a taste of Hawaiian culture at Pu'uhonua O Honaunau National Historic Park © tropicalpixsingapore / Getty Images

5. Puʻuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park

Dotted with ancient temples, and hangouts watched by menacing teeth-baring idols, a visit to this Puʻuhonua o Honaunau known as the Place of Refuge, makes a memorable introduction to traditional Hawaiian culture. In fact, there’s no better place to gain an understanding of the kapu system that governed ancient Hawai‘i. Look for heads of honu (sea turtles) bobbing in the bay; foreshadowing the underwater wonders to come at the nearby snorkeling haven of Two-Step.

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A burlap bag of Kona coffee beans in cherry form
When coffee was introduced to the Big Island, no one knew how important it would become © Karen Massier / Getty Images

6. Kona (& Ka‘u) coffee farms

When Christian missionaries planted Kona's first coffee trees, they were only a floral fad. Eventually, thanks to ideal conditions along South Kona's rain-kissed ‘coffee belt', Kona coffee became a successful gourmet crop. Today rural byways wind past small, often family-owned plantations, some of which let visitors drop by. Since the late 2000s, Ka‘u coffee growers have won awards in major contests, becoming the Cinderella story of Hawai‘i coffee. Look for 100 percent locally grown labeling on bags of beans and menus.

 

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Looking down on a white sand beach dotted with sunbathers at the edge of a beautiful blue ocean
In a state with beaches everywhere you look, Hapuna Beach might just be the crown jewel © Kris S / Getty Images

7. Hapuna Beach

Rock up to this half-mile of powdery white-sand beach with a rented umbrella and boogie board, and one of Hawai‘i's most iconic beaches becomes your playground. Whether you are armed with a surfboard, lounge chair or water wings – this beach has something for the whole family. While the basic A-frame cabins here are not for the finicky, the island’s best beach is your front yard – pretty hallucinatory.

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Leis, or necklaces, made of purple and white flowers are displayed for sale
Flower leis are sold for the Merrie Monarch festival, a Hawai‘i hula tradition © Alvis Upitis / Getty Images

8. Merrie Monarch Festival

If you really want to see how a hula, halau (school) invokes the gods and legends through chant and dance you need to make time visit this state-wide hula competition. Book early; people fly in from all over the globe for this one. Unless you’re an intense hula fan, you are likely to enjoy the inaugural invitational more than the structured head-to-head competitions of subsequent days.

A gray and white manta ray is illuminated with lights in the inky black water during a night dive
The manta ray night swim on the Big Island is known as one of the top dives in the world © Russell C. Gilbert / RCG Maru Photography / Getty Images

9. Manta ray night dive

Diving at night is a thrill in itself, but once you turn on your lights and attract a corps de ballet of Pacific manta rays, with wing spans of 10ft or more and tails like javelins, your life becomes segmented: before diving with mantas and after. Snorkeling with them can be even better because you’re closer, but it’s so popular don’t be surprised when you get head-whacked by someone’s fins. Bring your own dive light and swim into center stage with these graceful animals.

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A tall and slender waterfall tumbles forever into a large sinkhole in the middle of a jungle
Akaka Falls State Park has one of the most breathtaking and iconic waterfalls in the world © Janice Wei / Getty Images

10. ʻAkaka Falls State Park

This 420ft waterfall crashing through the rainforest, emanating fragrant ginger and giant philodendrons, is no less spectacular for its easy access. Drive up, stroll a half-mile through what feels like Hollywood Hawai‘i and there you are. Like all waterfalls on this part of the coast, ʻAkaka Falls are most impressive during seasonal rains, when they spill violently over the verdant cliffs. Don’t miss poking around the little town of Honomu once you’re done ogling these towering falls.

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This article was first published August 2019 and updated December 2021

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