The youngest and biggest of the Hawaiian islands, Hawaii (AKA the Big Island) has such a wide variety of things to do, see, and experience. As you’ll find in this 5 day Big Island Itinerary, it’s easy to want to spend 10 days in Hawaii or more just to take it all in!
Home to five volcanoes, the Big Island of Hawaii can easily grow at a rate of 10 acres or more per day when lava is flowing. Over the centuries, all that new earth has created other-worldly landscapes, dense volcanic rainforests, multi-colored beaches, and geothermal steam vents you can explore during your visit to the Big Island.
I consider the Big Island to be one of the best islands for nature, adventure, and geology lovers!
This 5 day Big Island itinerary is perfect for adventurous explorers and those looking to leave the resort and see everything Hawaii has to offer. You’ll have the opportunity to do some road tripping, see waterfalls, visit a black sand beach, sample Kona coffee, and swim with marine life (if you’re feeling brave!).
Let’s get into it!
P.S. Already have your Big Island itinerary, and just looking for some more things to do? Queue up my Things to Do on the Big Island guide next!
P.P.S. Have more time to spend, and looking for a 7 day Big Island itinerary (or longer) instead? Keep scrolling and you’ll find my top suggestions for extending your trip. This 5 day Hawaiian itinerary has just a quick detour in Hilo. But, I recommend spending at least a night or two here if you have more time!
The Ultimate Full-Circle 5 Day Big Island Itinerary
DAY ONE: Big Island West Coast Exploration
Your Big Island adventure starts before you even get off the plane. As you descend into the Big Island Airport located in Kailua-Kona (Kona for short), look out your window and you’ll see miles and miles of hardened black lava. The Kona coast is mostly made up of newly formed earth. In fact, the Kona International Airport (KOA) was built directly on top of a large hardened lava flow.
There are five major volcanoes on the Big Island – Kohala, Mauna Kea, Hualalai, Mauna Loa, and Kilauea. Kona is ‘guarded’ by the active Hualalai volcano, which is largely responsible for the rich soil that makes Kona coffee!
For the first few nights of your Big Island itinerary, I recommend staying in Kona or the Kohala coast. The Big Island is generally very chill and laidback compared to Oahu and Maui, but the west side will no doubt give you the highest concentration of restaurants and bars.
Lava Field Viewing in Kona
These other-worldly landscapes are a key feature of the Kona coast.
In Hawaiian culture, it’s said that the goddess of fire, Pele, settled here on the Big Island after creating the rest of the Hawaiian island chain. Her spiritual presence is meant to explain why the Big Island is home to some of the most consistently active volcanic activity in the world!
The legend goes that if you take lava rock (or black sand) from Hawaii as a souvenir, Pele will bring you years of bad luck. Whether or not you agree in Hawaiian beliefs, know that Hawaii actually receives hundreds of returned lava rocks in the mail each year from past visitors who’ve experienced horrible luck. You’ve been warned!
Once you pick up your rental car in Kona, you’ll begin to see old lava fields unfold for miles and miles. There are some turnouts along the road that allow you to stop and get a closer look.
Admire + Hike Pololu Valley Vistas
I recommend starting your 5 day Big Island itinerary by driving to Pololu Valley (1.5 hours from Kona). Carved by now-extinct Kohala volcano eruptions, the Pololu Valley is one of seven lush valleys that were once home to a large ancient Hawaiian population.
Start by visiting the Pololu Valley Lookout for stunning views of the region. Then, hike down Pololu Trail, a rocky 0.9 trail leading to a spectacular black sand beach – your first black sand beach on this Big Island adventure!
Visit Historic Hawi Town
Just 20 minutes from Pololu Valley, you’ll find historic Hawi Town. This region is where King Kamehameha I, the Hawaiian monarch that unified the Hawaiian islands, was born.
From thriving ancient Hawaiian civilization, to sugar cane plantation, to present-day artsy, hipster town, Hawi is a popular place for both locals and visitors to explore.
Window shop through Hawi’s boutiques and be sure to grab a quick bite, because you’ve got one more epic Big Island adventure in store. You’re going to need your energy! For food, I recommend Kohala Coffee Mill, Bamboo Restaurant, or Roots Alchemy.
Just plan to leave Hawi no later than 5 pm so you can make it back to Kona by 6:30!
Night Swim with Manta Rays in Kona
You’ll want to arrive in Keauhou Bay just before sunset. And, I promise, this is the only real “structured” evening of this 5 day Big Island itinerary.
Why? Tonight, you’re swimming with manta rays!
Manta rays were not previously endemic to the Kona coast. But in a weird evolutionary shift, they adopted Keauhou Bay as their home within the last 50ish years. Today, more than 100 manta rays live in the area.
How did this happen? Well, back in the 70s, the former Sheraton Kona Resort (now an Outrigger property) began illuminating the waves so guests could admire the ocean at night. These lights attracted higher levels of plankton, drawing manta rays closer to shore. Today, these gentle giants continue to associate light with food.
There are several Big Island manta ray tours you can take, but I recommend Anelakai Adventures. The company is locally owned by Big Island couple Holly and Iko (Anelakai is their daughter’s name!), who founded Anelakai Adventures to share their love of the ocean and Hawaiian culture with the world.
Instead of hopping on a motorized catamaran, you’ll board a double-hull canoe for a leisurely 10-minute paddle out to the manta ray viewing site.
Thanks to using manpower instead of motors, and taking small groups of roughly 6 passengers (instead of the 20+ you’ll see on other tours), Anelakai Adventures offers a truly eco-friendly way of witnessing these incredible creatures up close.
If the idea of swimming with manta rays makes you anxious, rest assured these beauties have no barbs or stingers! You’ll even be provided special ankle floaties so you can float easily at the surface of the ocean, with no risk of accidentally kicking the mantas as they swim up to you. Like with all Hawaiian marine life, it’s not allowed to intentionally reach out and touch them yourself.
DAY TWO: Kona Water Adventures
On day two of your 5 day Big Island itinerary, you might find yourself still reeling from last night’s magical manta ray encounter.
So, we’ll get back out on the water for a morning filled with more ocean exploration!
Afterwards, take it easy and explore Kona’s coffee culture and the downtown Kona nightlife scene. This will be your only full day in Kona, so enjoy!
Best Water Activities in Kona
For my active adventurers, I recommend taking an ocean tour of Kona so you can snorkel, paddle, or swim through some of Kona’s best reefs and historic sites with a local guide.
For those looking for a more relaxing day, head to one of Kona’s beaches to spend the day soaking up the sun. I’ve listed recommendations for both active and laidback days below!
Snorkeling South Kona – Pu’uhonua O Honaunau (Two Step) and Kealakekua Bay
Kona is home to phenomenal snorkeling sites that are easily some of the best in the Hawaiian islands.
Pu’uhonua O Honaunau / Honaunau Bay, which translates to Place of Refuge, is a fantastic place to visit both in and out of the ocean. In ancient Hawaii, if you broke kapu (the law), you could come to places of refuge like this to escape persecution and seek safety.
Kealakekua Bay is another historically significant spot with a beautiful coral reef. Here, you’ll find the controversial Captain Cook Monument (marking the spot where Cook was killed for trying to overtake the king). Next to the monument lies the ancient ruins of Ka’awaloa, a symbol of pre-outside-contact Hawaii.
PRO TIP: I do not recommend renting kayaks to reach Kealakekua Bay on your own. While it isn’t illegal to do so, there are strict rules in place to help protect the shallow reef. Too many kayakers unfortunately arrive uninformed and cause accidental damage to the natural environment.
Go with a guided, sustainable tourism-certified tour, like this one, or the one below.
Kayaking and Canoe Rides at Kamakahonu Bay
Kamakahonu is the historic residence of King Kamehameha I. Here, in Kamakahonu Bay, you’ll find beautiful blue water, great snorkeling opportunities, and a perfect view of the Kailua-Kona area from out at sea.
To best explore this area, rent snorkeling gear, take a guided kayaking tour, or paddle out on a canoe (wa’a) ride with Kona Boys. You’ll find their Kamakahonu Bay beach shack located just steps from the water.
The boys at Kona Boys are all about the Hawaiian tradition of “talk story.” To ‘talk story’ means to story-tell, which was long how Hawaiians passed down their history and traditions. Today, the Kona Boys use the idea of talk story to be good hosts and help guests gain a deeper appreciation of Kona while doing something active and healthy. What I love about Kona Boys is that, though the owners are Hawaii transplants, they have such a deep understanding and respect for Hawaii and its culture and strive to honor that in every tour they offer.
Best Kona Beaches
If you prefer a more relaxing day, Kona is home to some amazing beaches. Here are some of the best Kona beaches for a day of chill.
- Kuki’o Beach
- Kekaha Kai State Park (4wd / jeep rental recommended) – includes Mahai’ula Beach, Makalawena Beach, and Manini’owali Beach
- Kamakahonu Beach
- Kahalu’u Beach Park
- Ho’okena Beach Park
- Magic Sands
Visit Holualoa for Kona Coffee
Located smack in the middle of Kona’s Coffee Belt, Holualoa is a hub for Hawaiian coffee and art appreciation.
Wander Around Downtown Kona
While Hilo is the Big Island’s capital city, downtown Kona is a popular hotspot for visitors and locals. In fact, this area has attracted people to it for centuries. Hawaiian ali’i like King Kalakaua and Queen Kapiolani built their summer house here in the 1800s because they loved it so much! Today, Hulihe’e Palace (their summer home) is a museum you can visit.
Kona may feel like a little town, but it packs a punch in terms of things to do.
Some Things to Do in Downtown Kona:
- Sample more Kona coffee at Kona Coffee & Tea, or HiCO
- Cruise along Ali’i Drive for shops, restaurants, and ocean views
- Grab a pint and a bite at the famous Kona Brewing Co
- Grab a seltzer (or hard tea) and a bite at Ola Brew. I love this company because they are on a mission to boost Hawaii’s agricultural economy and create a local product by the people, for the people. While they have beer too, their seltzers are my go-to whenever I am in Hawaii!
- Go shopping at Kona Banyan Court
- Check out the Kona Farmers Market
DAY THREE: Chasing Waterfalls Through Hilo
Now that you’ve spent a couple days exploring the Kona coast, it’s time to hit the road and see the rest of the Big Island!
The capital of the Big Island, Hilo, is a major contrast to Kona’s vast, lava bed expanse. Located just an hour and a half from Kona on the island’s wetter windward coast, you’ll get to see the island’s landscapes change before you from black to vibrant green.
Stop at a couple waterfalls along the way before arriving in Hilo for a late breakfast!
Best Waterfalls Near Hilo
The natural beauty near Hilo is one of the many draws of making the drive. Outside of Hilo, you’ll drive past acres of farmland, tropical rainforest, and coastline. Be sure to stop by these easy-access waterfalls on your drive to Hilo:
- Akaka Falls: A 442-foot waterfall, Akaka Falls can be found in Akaka Falls State Park. Here, you’ll take the stunningly scenic 0.4-mile Akaka Falls Loop (takes about 30 minutes) to a viewpoint for the waterfall. Parking costs $10 and entrance costs $5 per person for non-resident visitors.
- Kahuna Falls: Best visible after heavy rain, you might be able to catch a glimpse of Kahuna Falls from a lookout point on the Akaka Falls Loop.
- Waianuenue (Rainbow) Falls: This massive 80-foot waterfall can be found within Hilo town itself. If you come in the morning there’s a chance you’ll catch a rainbow refracting from the mighty falls’ mist.
- Pe’epe’e Falls: 1.5 miles upstream from Rainbow Falls, this often uncrowded waterfall is smaller but equally impressive.
Morning Exploration in Hilo Town
If you left Kona early, you might make it to Hilo just in time for a late breakfast. Grab a bite at Paul’s Place, The Booch Bar, Sweet Cane Cafe, Hawaiian Style Cafe Hilo, or Short N Sweet Bakery & Cafe.
Stroll the local shops and visit the Liliuokalani Gardens before continuing on to the town of Volcano!
Spend the Night in Volcano Village
One of my favorite areas on the Big Island, Volcano Village is located just outside of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Here, you’ll be spending the night before a full day of national park exploration.
Volcano is a small town with just over 3,500 residents. It’s often referred to as a hub for artists, scientists, geologists, and nature enthusiasts. Look around and you might notice native Ohia, Hapu’u, and gorgeous (but invasive) Kahili ginger. The way the rainforest hugs the mostly-dirt roads here makes you feel as if you’ve discovered something truly special.
If you’ve arrived in the late afternoon, swing by Volcano Winery – the southernmost winery in the United States. A small winery with affordable tastings, this winery makes local wines infused with volcanic soil and tropical fruits. A bit sweet for my liking, personally, but well worth the stop nonetheless.
DAY FOUR: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Wake up early today if you can. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park offers so much to see, you’re not gonna want to miss out!
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is home to two active volcanoes – Kilauea and Mauna Loa. Spanning 523 square miles, this national park is just about the size of the entire island of Oahu! To enter this national park, you’ll need to pay $30 per vehicle.
Better yet, I recommend getting an America the Beautiful Pass which gets you access to all US national parks for a year. Get your America the Beautiful National Parks Pass here.
I remember being lucky enough to see the warm glow of lava steaming in the distance when I visited as a child. On my most recent visit in 2021, I wasn’t as lucky. Little did I know, Kilauea would erupt again just three short weeks after I left. Crazy!
While you might be lucky enough to see fresh lava on your visit, know that this isn’t a guarantee. Nevertheless, you’ll have tons to do regardless!
Itinerary for One Day in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
If you only have one day in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, here’s the itinerary I suggest:
- Grab a morning coffee at the Volcano House, and enjoy unrivaled views of the Halema’uma’u Crater
- Hike the 3-mi (moderate) Kilauea Iki Trail
- Walk through the Nahuku – Thurston Lava Tube
- Drive down to the the Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs (a bit out of the way, but well worth the 30-min drive and 1.2-mi out-and-back walk. Some of the best-preserved petroglyphs I’ve ever seen in Hawaii!)
- If you have time, swing by the Steam Vents on your way out of the park. Like seeing a fire without flames, this unique geological phenomenon is super cool to witness right around sunset if you can time it right!
A Quick Note on Visiting Hawaii’s National Parks Responsibly
The volcanoes area of the Big Island has long been a culturally significant space for Hawaiians.
In fact, the park is filled with many well-preserved archeological sites that Hawaiian people consider wahi kapu (sacred place) to this day. One of those places is the Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs, which is a sacred site where families with genealogical ties to the land may come to bury the umbilical cords of their children. The belief is that the mana (spiritual energy) of this place will give their children a long and successful life. When you go, look out for small circular petroglyphs of this ceremony performed over generations!
Like with any national park, but especially in Hawaii, tread lightly, follow posted signage, and leave no trace.
Also, drive carefully on roads in, and around, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park! Many native and endangered species call this area home, and tourists have occasionally been blasted on the news for accidentally running over these animals – namely, the nene (Hawaii’s state bird).
DAY FIVE: Black Sand Beach and Captain Cook
On your last day of this 5 day Big Island itinerary, wake up to one more calm, beautiful morning in Volcano. Today, I recommend driving down towards the sea-level region of Volcanoes National Park on your way back to Kona.
Along the way, you’ll visit a famous black sand beach and grab some Hawaii-style tacos before saying aloha to this Big Island adventure.
Punalu’u Black Sand Beach
Thanks to the sands’ ultra-dark hue, Punalu’u Black Sand Beach is one of the most famous black sand beaches in the entire Hawaiian island chain. I gotta say, after seeing this beach in person, I can see why it’s a must-visit!
While I do not recommend swimming here (it’s very rocky and the conditions are a bit rough) it’s a beautiful volcanic beach to stop at. Bring a book and a breakfast picnic and lay out underneath the coconut palms! Oh – and try to come early if you can. That black sand can get very hot.
You may occasionally see a honu (Hawaiian sea turtle) sleeping on the sand. If you do, please admire from a distance as these little guys are fiercely protected by the state.
When you’re done with the beach, hop back in your car and make the 2-hour drive to Kona. For a quick bite along the way, be sure to stop in at Shaka Tacoz in Captain Cook. Killer views of the south Kona coastline and fresh fish tacos and burritos? Need I say more?
Other Things to Do in Captain Cook:
- Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park: If you didn’t visit for snorkeling on day two, now might be a good time to pay this national historical park a visit!
- Kona Coffee Farms: If you didn’t satisfy your coffee fix throughout this 5 day Big Island itinerary, Captain Cook has a host of Kona coffee farms you can visit. Take a tour, sample some brews, or buy some beans to take back home with you at Kuaiwi Farm, Rooster Farm, Sacred Grounds, or Kona Coffee Living Historic Farm.
Other Things to Do if You Have More Time
Have more time to spend on the Big Island? These suggestions might not fit in a 5 day Big Island itinerary, but they’re great add-ons for those planning a week or more!
- Head to the Waipi’o Valley Overlook: About an hour east of the Pololu Valley you visited on day one, Waipi’o Valley was once home to King Kamehameha I (therefore, it’s also known as The Valley of Kings). You can view the breathtaking Waipi’o Valley from the Waipi’o Valley Overlook. Or, take a guided tour to head down into the valley for deeper exploration.
- Take a Stargazing Tour of Mauna Kea: One of five Big Island volcanoes, Mauna Kea happens to be the tallest point in the state of Hawaii. This dormant volcano is one of the most popular places in the world for stargazing. Consider booking a tour to see this impressive sight for yourself. Be sure to bring lots of water to help reduce the likelihood of altitude sickness – you’ll be going from sea level to 14,000 feet.
- Try a Surfing Class: What’s a trip to Hawaii without trying your hand at hanging ten? While this 5 day Big Island itinerary didn’t include surfing, I recommend taking a lesson if you have time. Try Kahalu’u Surf and Sea or Kona Mike’s Surf Adventures.
- Go to a Luau: In Hawaiian culture, luau are big gatherings to commemorate special occasions and to welcome visitors. Though pricey, attending a luau is considered as a ‘must’ for first-time Hawaii visitors, and generally comes with an evening of entertainment, tons of local Hawaiian food, and drinks. Check out the Voyagers of the Pacific Luau, the Island Breeze Luau, or the Sunset Luau, and be sure to book in advance.
- Take a Helicopter Tour: One of the best perspectives of any Hawaiian island is from up high. While helicopter tours in the Big Island are pretty expensive, they’re well worth the experience if you can swing it. And, they’re especially worth it if you happen to be on the island during an eruption. I like Mauna Loa Helicopters, and while I haven’t taken a Big Island Tour yet, I have on both Maui and Oahu.
- Volunteer and Give Back to the Big Island: Spending the morning volunteering on the Big Island is a great way to give back to your favorite vacation destination. Some suggestions to malama (‘care for’) the Big Island include planting native trees with the Hawaii Legacy Forest Initiative, learning about conservation with the Waikoloa Dry Forest Initiative, or doing a self-initiated beach clean-up. Some hotels will even provide you with clean-up kits so you can DIY!
Where to Stay During your Big Island Itinerary
Wondering which side of the Big Island is best to stay? Unlike other Hawaiian islands, where you stay on the Big Island matters a bit more… because it’s pretty massive!
You’ll find the highest concentration of hotels and resorts on the Kona and Kohala coasts. But, you’ll find more scenic adventures and attractions near Hilo and Volcano. Because of this, I suggest dividing your trip between the west side and the east side, like you’ll do if you follow this itinerary.
- Hilton Waikoloa Village (Waikoloa): This massive property reminds me so much of my childhood because it’s where my parents and I liked to stay when we came to visit. You’ll find tons of shopping, dining options, and golf here.
- Holualoa Inn (Holualoa): This romantic bed and breakfast is ideal for couples, and combines Old Hawaii charm with modern amenities and service. I haven’t stayed here yet, but it’s at the top of my list when I return to the Big Island!
- Mauna Lani (Waimea): This recently renovated property on the Kohala coast has modern rooms (most with ocean views), multiple pools, and reportedly great service that people rave about.
- Mauna Kea Beach Hotel (Waimea): I’m partial to Autograph Collection hotels and the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel is one of them! While I haven’t stayed here personally, I’ve heard good things and do know that this hotel has a sustainability commitment that includes reef conservation. Win-win.
- Volcano House (Volcano): Some may say that the Volcano House’s rooms are quaint or outdated, but to stay in this hotel is to stay in a place with rich history. Also, if you love volcanoes, you can’t get much closer than the Volcano House. This hotel is located inside the national park.
- Volcano Village Lodge (Volcano): A highly rated bed and breakfast located in the beautiful Volcano Village.
- Grand Naniloa Hotel (Hilo): A Hilton DoubleTree property in Hilo, this waterfront hotel is popular for both couples and families with kids.
- Other Hotel Options in the Big Island (Click Here)
- Big Island Airbnbs (Click Here)
PRO TIP: Some Big Island hotels will give you a discount or a free night’s stay just for volunteering! It’s part of Hawaii’s Malama Hawaii initiative, which you can get involved with during your 5 day Big Island itinerary.
Where to Eat and Drink on the Big Island
This 5 day Big Island itinerary wouldn’t be complete without talking about where to eat and drink on the Big Island. Here are places that I’ve either tried, or that are on my list for my next visit.
- Captain Cook
Other Tips to Know Before You Go
- Currency: The Hawaiian islands use the US Dollar (USD). Credit cards are widely accepted, but carry spare cash for food trucks, tipping at hotels, etc.
- Language: Hawaii is the only state with two official languages: English and Hawaiian. However, English is the language you’ll use to chat, get around, and read on street signs. You’ll also hear a third ‘language,’ called Pidgin, which is a sort of English creole formed over the past two centuries as various generations of immigrants began coexisting here. Today, it all blends together into a unique version of colloquial English you won’t hear anywhere else
- Transportation: If you’re staying in Kona or Waikoloa and plan to spend all your time at the beach during your 5 day Big Island itinerary, you might be able to get by without a car. However, renting a car is going to be the best way to explore this massive island.
- Renting a Car on the Big Island: Use Kayak to compare rental car rates or Turo to find peer-to-peer car rentals. At the time of writing this post, Hui, a locally owned peer car rental company, is only available in Oahu, unfortunately.
- Renting a Camper or RV: Use RVshare to look up Hawaii RVs, camper vans, and the occasional rooftop tent. This option is perfect if you plan on spending a night camping on the beach or at Volcanoes National Park.
- Rideshare on the Big Island: Uber and Lyft are both easily accessible on the Big Island. Another contender is locally-owned Holoholo, which functions the same way as the other rideshare apps you’re already used to.
- Public Transportation on the Big Island: The public bus system, called Hele-On Bus, is a generally reliable and inexpensive way to explore the island. The Hele-On Bus services East, West, and North Big Island.
- Bike: There are lots of bike rental providers on the Big Island, whether you’re looking for a leisurely ride or to cruise around Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Check out Bike Works Kona, Big Island Bike Tours, or Bike Works Beach and Sports.
- When is the Best Time to Visit the Big Island? Because of the Big Island’s ideal climate, there is no “bad” time to visit the Big Island. In general, peak season for Big Island travel is from June to November. So, if you want to avoid the crowds during your 5 day Big Island itinerary, go in the winter or spring. For whale watching, you’ll want to plan your trip between late November and April.
- Etiquette for First-Time Visitors: To avoid any unfortunate travel bloops, be sure to check out my Hawaii trip planning guide next. This breaks down everything you’ll want to know before you go to Hawaii! Safe travels!
Ready to Go to Big Island?
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