April 2, 2023

The Best of the Big Island: My 7-Day Hawaiian Itinerary

By Paul William

April 2, 2023

Disclosure: Some of the links below may be affiliate links which means I receive a commission, at no extra cost to you, if you make a purchase through them.

Aloha, fellow travelers!

I’ve recently returned from an unforgettable 7-day adventure on the Big Island of Hawaii with my wife, and I can’t wait to share my experiences with you.

With its green and black sand beaches, volcanoes, and uniquely chill vibe, the Big Island is a destination like no other. If you’re planning a visit to this diverse paradise, check out my detailed itinerary to make the most of your time and find activities that you might love too!

Day 1: Touchdown in Hilo and Chilling at the Oceanfront Hotel

Hilo airport hawaii big island from above

Our journey began with a smooth flight from Honolulu to Hilo, one of the island’s two largest cities (the other is Kona). The flight was less than an hour and fairly smooth.

If you’re not sure which airport to fly in and out of, read Choosing the Right Airport on Hawaii’s Big Island: Hilo vs. Kona

Upon arrival at Hilo International Airport, we picked up our Jeep rental.

With its removable hardtop and 4-wheel drive, it was the perfect choice for us, since we knew we’d be driving a dirt road to the top of a 14,000 foot volcano (more on that later).

Arriving at the Grand Naniloa Hotel, we were pleased to find it boasted a stunning lawn that led to a black volcanic rock shoreline, setting the perfect chill relaxed vibe for our trip.

Day 2: Exploring Hilo with a Helicopter Tour and Local Market Experience

We kicked off day two with a thrilling helicopter tour courtesy of Safari Helicopter Tours.

Our experienced pilot guided us over steam-venting volcanoes and breathtaking waterfalls, offering a unique perspective on the island’s landscape.

It was an awesome experience!

The pilot, Micah, was extremely knowledgeable and even played some chill Hawaiian beach music through our communication headsets which made it feel like you we’re in a movie, soaring above paradise.

I was originally worried about getting motion sick from the helicopter. But then remembered I had some left over Dramamine from my Road to Hana trip on Maui, which made the whole experience feel fine.

After the helicopter ride, we headed to downtown Hilo and immersed ourselves in local culture at a bustling outdoor market, where we tried fresh sugar cane for the first time.

It was surprisingly sweet and satisfying, though I couldn’t even eat half of the whole thing.

Downtown Hilo is fairly small and you can walk pretty much all of it within 20-30 minutes. There are a bunch of small takeout and sit-down restaurants around, and an outdoor market selling product and local goods.

Day 3: Volcanoes National Park and a Night Under the Stars

On our third day, we ventured into the heart of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

We hiked through a dormant volcano, taking in the surreal sights realizing that years ago we would have been standing on liquid lava.

As night fell, we had dinner at a restaurant called The Rim at Volcano House, which is the hotel located within the national park.

After that, we drove to a deserted parking lot further into the park and marveled at the stars above us, practicing astrophotography and capturing the most spectacular star-filled sky we’d ever seen.

Day 4: Conquering Mauna Kea’s Summit and Embracing the Altitude

Our most memorable adventure was driving up to the top of Mauna Kea in our Jeep.

At 13,796 feet, Mauna Kea (a dormant volcano) is home to the world-famous Big Island Observatory.

We stopped (required) at the visitor’s station to acclimate to the altitude and chatted with park rangers, who provided useful tips about using 4-wheel drive and descending before dark.

You see, when you go from sea level to nearly 14,000 feet within a half hour it can really mess up your body, so you have to plan to stop for a bit as a stepping-stone so your body can get used to the change.

Hint: If you don’t feel comfortable driving up Mauna Kea yourself, there are a number of Mauna Kea tours you can prebook ahead of time that leave from Hilo.

Driving up Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii in our Jeep Wrangler rental car

After we drove up the slow winding road to the summit, we enjoyed breathtaking views, fascinating photo opportunities.

Once at the top, the dramatic landscape plus the futuristic observatories that dot the summit made me feel like I was in a Star Wars world. This might have been the best photo spot of the whole trip.

Unexpected: hopefully this isn’t too much information but…most people in our group experienced unique sensation of needing to pee more frequently at the mountain’s summit due to the high altitude. Apparently this is a known effect. Don’t worry – there are porta-potties at the top!

Heading down: after 45 minutes, we were cold and decided to head back down and drive home to Hilo. Be sure to dress warmly for this chilly adventure! There is sometime’s snow up there, and it is not typical Hawaii weather at all.

Day 5: Black Sand Beach and a Scenic Drive to Kona

Our fifth day began with us leaving Hilo and heading around the island toward Kona, the other well known town on the Big Island.

We drove to Punalu’u Black Sand Beach, where we admired the beautiful (and soft) fine black sand.

Then, we embarked on a remainder of the picturesque drive to Kona along the coast. There are several pullouts where you can park and enjoy the stunning coastal views.

We pulled over and I flew my drone over the coast for about 20 minutes before it started raining.

After settling into Kona, we ventured to a local Hawaiian BBQ joint called Broke Da Mouth Grinds. The highly recommended pork platter didn’t disappoint, and it was the perfect way to fuel up for our next adventure.

Day 6: Southernmost Bakery, Green Sand Beach, and the Ultimate Sunset

We began day six at Punalu’u Bake Shop, the southernmost bakery in the USA.

With its delicious Hawaiian BBQ dishes and sweet bread, it was a delightful way to start the day.

Then, with a full stomach, we set off toward Papakōlea Green Sand Beach, which is one of only 4 green sand beaches in the world.

The drive toward the green sand beach is incredibly beautiful with hardly any traffic. You’re surrounded by lush green fields on either side, leading down to the ocean. We even stopped beside the road and I fly my drone for a bit with amazing views.

The Google Maps directions eventually led us to a parking area where all the other tourists in Jeeps were parked! I guess we aren’t that unique after all!

From there we had to make a choice to either hike 1.5 hours to the beach or pay some locals with huge Jumbo sized 4X4 trucks to drive us through the muddy and difficult terrain.

There are so many Jeeps on the Big Island. This was a total coincidence that we happened to pull into a parking lot next to 4 other ones at the same time!

We paid the ~$20 per person like all the other tourists and hitched a ride with the guys who navigate this challenging terrain every day.

It was well worth the price, especially since they told us some cool history about the island.

Here’s what the drive from the parking area to the green sand beach looked like:

The green sand beach is really more of a dark olive color, not bright green. Still a very cool location though.

On the way back, we saw some tourists who tried to drive themselves who were stuck in the mud and had to get towed out by an even bigger truck as it was getting dark out. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Visiting The Southernmost point in the USA

Our day ended at the close by southernmost point in the United States, where we watched locals fishing as the sun dipped below the horizon. It was a magical moment and the perfect way to wrap up our day.

**I’ve had a few readers ask me about this southern most point vs the one in Key West, Florida which also claims to be the most south location in the US. To see my answer and learn more check out my article comparing the two southernmost points.**

Fishermen at the Southern-most point in the USA on the Big Island of Hawaii

Day 7: Snorkeling at Two Steps Beach and Saying Goodbye to the Big Island

On our final day, we visited Two Steps Beach.

Don’t expect any sand here — it’s black volcanic rock that leads directly into the water.

This well known spot is named for the two natural rock steps that make entering and exiting the water from the black volcanic shoreline a breeze.

Be sure to use the steps, as I accidentally tried to get in elsewhere and ended up with a coral scrape that bruised my ego and made me bleed.

If you’re not sure how to get in, just look around and you’ll probably see most people hanging out around the same location. The locals were happy to help.

The snorkeling was phenomenal, with crystal-clear waters and an abundance of marine life. So. Many. Fish.

I heard the water is clearest in the morning, so plan accordingly and beat the crowds for the best underwater views.

Just be sure to wear reef safe sunscreen or sun shirt so you don’t damage the marine life with any chemical-filled sunscreens. This is a big deal in Hawaii and locals take it seriously and will call you out if you’re using the wrong stuff.

Time to say goodbye:

Kona airport hawaii big island
Kona airport on the Big Island

After our underwater adventure, we drove back to Kona, returned our Jeep at the airport and began to say our bittersweet goodbyes to the magical Big Island.

One fun fact is that the Kona airport is open air (there’s no roof or walls around most of it) which is really cool, since I’ve never experienced another airport like that.

If you’re curious about how I managed to fly into Honolulu on Oahu, but ultimately flew home from Kona on the Big Island, check out my other post on Open Jaw flight booking to learn how this works.

Thoughts Heading Home

Overall, a week on the Big Island was a fantastic experience, and I’d recommend it to anyone looking to explore this diverse paradise.

As long as you’re an outdoors and nature lover, you could easily spend a week or more discovering all the island has to offer, including swimming with manta rays, visiting coffee farms, or exploring the lava tubes.

And if you’re deciding between Kona and Hilo for your Big Island adventure, my suggestion would be to experience both! Each side of the island offers unique attractions and scenery, and it’s only a two hour drive between the two.

We rented our car at Hilo and returned it at the Kona airport without issue.

Big Island Bottom Line: From helicopter tours to snorkeling, to black and green sand beaches and volcanoes, the island offers something for everyone.

I hope this itinerary helps you make the most of your Big Island adventure, and I wish you the trip of a lifetime!

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