Hawai'i Road Trip: Around the Big Island in 3 Days
From the author: During the 3-month (May-August 2018) eruption from Kilauea volcano, many iconic landmarks in lower Puna, including Kapoho Tide Pools (featured in this article), have been destroyed by the massive lava flow. Only a portion of the scenic Red Road is now accessible to the public. (Updated as of September 8, 2018)
Hawai'i—commonly referred to as the Big Island—is one of eight major islands in the State of Hawai'i. It is the largest island in the Hawaiian archipelago, with an area of 4,028 square miles (10,430 km2), so it's no surprise that there are a ton of things to see. To visit the Big Island, you will need more than one day!
The three-day itinerary proposed in this article wraps around Hawai'i in a huge loop and features the best the island has to offer. You may start the road trip in any order or direction; it just depends which side of the island you arrive on from the mainland. Read on to discover my guide to the top attractions along the Hawaiian Belt Road that encircles the Big Island.
Here's the itinerary in a nutshell:
- Day One: Hilo to Kīlauea
- Day Two: Kīlauea to Kailua-Kona
- Day Three: Kailua-Kona to Hilo
Continue scrolling for a detailed description of each day and all the places you shouldn't miss along the way. I also offer a few extra activities if you have more than three days to spend in this island paradise. Enjoy!
Day One: Drive From Hilo to Kīlauea
Start your road trip off with a leisurely drive south on Hwy 130 to Puna. Notoriously known as the “hippie capital” of the state, this area is mostly agricultural and still retains the charming look of the Hawai'i of yesteryear. After spending some time in town, take a drive along the enchanted Red Road Scenic Byway. Your first stop is Kalapana, where a short hike takes you to Kaimu Black Sand Beach for a sweeping vista of ocean and lava sand as far as the eye can see.
Next up is MacKenzie State Park, where you can listen to the wind whooshing through the ironwood forest and the thunderous crashing of waves on the sea cliffs. Continue on to Isaac Hale Beach Park, a popular surfing spot where you may catch some exciting wave-riding action—with your camera, that is.
After leaving the park, make your way to Kapoho Tide Pools, a marine conservation area where you can snorkel the reef and discover a magical world under the calm, clear water. Be careful not to touch or step on the beautiful, but fragile, corals.
After frolicking with the colorful critters, head back to Pāhoa Village for lunch. This quaint little town is one of the last places in the state left untouched by time and progress. Take a stroll through the historic downtown quarter, and admire the old wooden homes and shops built at the turn of the century. Kaleo’s Bar & Grill is a good choice for delectable island-style dishes, and Nings offers healthy, authentic Thai cuisine.
Leaving Pāhoa, head north on Hwy 130 and then southwest on Hwy 11 toward Volcano Village. Your next stop is Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park. Established in 1916, this massive park is home to Kīlauea and Mauna Loa—two of the most active volcanoes in the world. Hike across a moonscape crater floor at Kīlauea Iki Trail or through a lush rainforest at Thurston Lava Tube. Don’t miss the fascinating Jaggar Museum where you can learn more about volcanic activities.
If possible, arrange to stay the night at Volcano House, a cozy, historic lodge located inside the park right on the edge of Kīlauea caldera! At their restaurant (aptly named The Rim), enjoy your dinner with a stunning view of the glowing plume from Halema’uma’u Crater under the starry sky.
Things to Do If You Have an Extra Day in Kīlauea:
Check out the Volcano Golf & Country Club (when was the last time you got to play golf next to an active volcano?) and the Volcano Winery, which offers tours and wine tasting.
Day Two: Drive From Kīlauea to Kailua-Kona
Follow Hwy 11 to the south end of the island. This area, called Ka’u District, feels somewhat isolated but astonishingly scenic with rain shrouded mountains, windswept hills, and serene pastures. Macadamia nut and coffee plantations abound. Keep an eye out for the rare nene (or Hawaiian goose)—an endangered native species—along the roadside.
Your first stop is Punaluu County Beach Park where you get to see the honu (or green sea turtles)—another endangered species—basking on the beach. These animals are protected by law; do not get close as you may disturb them.
Your next stop is the famous Punaluu Bakery in Naalehu, which is known as the “Southernmost Bakery in the USA.” There, you can satisfy your sweet tooth (and caffeine craving!) with Hawaiian delicacies like malasadas, sweetbreads, and aromatic cups of Hawaiian coffee.
Moving on, you'll pass what was to become the world’s largest housing subdivision, Hawaiian Ocean View Estates, with over 10,000 one-acre lots. However, less than 1,500 houses have been built, and the rest is still vacant land. The highway gradually turns north and you head straight into Kailua-Kona. This picturesque seaside town hosts the famed Ironman World Championship triathlon every October.
Take a stroll through downtown and browse the myriad of souvenir shops. Visit interesting landmarks like Hulihee Palace (former residence of Hawaiian royalty) and Mokuaikaua Church (Hawai'i’s oldest Christian church) on the bayfront. For lunch, walk over to Huggo’s on the Rocks on Alii Drive, relax at a table on the sunny deck, and enjoy the sparkling view of Kona Bay. Try the seafood pupu platter (fresh catch tuna sashimi, grilled Big Island abalone, etc.) and wash it all down with a cold golden pale ale from the popular local brewery—Kona Brewing Co.
Now it’s time to hit some of the best beaches on the planet! Head north on Hwy 19 toward Waikoloa Resort area. There are several great white sand beaches along this stretch of Kohala Coast. Your choices are Kua Bay Beach, Makalawena Beach, Hapuna Beach, Beach 69, and more. Each beach has its own charm, and all are spectacular! Lounge lazily at a favorite beach or zip from one beach to another (i.e. beach hopping) just for the fun of it! Whatever you do, look offshore for humpback whales (during whale season from December to March) and spinner dolphins, as they love to show off their breaching skills to beachgoers. Also, do not miss the glorious sunset from the beach!
Spend the night at the classy and elegant Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, which was built by a Rockefeller heir and first opened in 1965. For equally luxurious dining, make your reservation at Roy’s Waikoloa Bar & Grill, an upscale eatery owned by celebrity chef Roy Yamaguchi that features gorgeous Euro-Pacific fusion cuisine. Or skip out of the resort area and drive to nearby Kawaihae Harbor for casual dining at the hugely popular Café Pesto (pizza, pasta, etc.) and then dance the night away at the fun and festive Blue Dragon Restaurant.
Things to Do If You Have an Extra Day in Kailua-Kona:
Visit Papakolea Green Sand Beach (located near the South Point) and hike the dramatic shoreline. Yes, the sand on this beach really is green! Don't miss the Captain Cook Monument and Kealakekua Bay, where you can take a guided kayak tour across the bay to an incredible snorkeling spot.
Day Three: Drive From Kailua-Kona to Hilo
After a morning jog on the beach (and maybe one last dip in the ocean!), leave the resort area behind and follow Hwy 19 to the north end of the island. The first stop of the day is Waimea, a former plantation town with a unique country-western vibe. This is home of the pianolo, or Hawaiian cowboys and cowgirls. It’s also home to one of the largest cattle ranches in the United States—Parker Ranch—where the celebrated July 4th Rodeo is held every year.
Continue on the road, and take a short detour over to Waipio Valley Lookout for an unforgettable birds-eye view of this legendary valley and the rocky beach below. The next stretch of highway is called Hamakua Coast, which curves south with the blue Pacific on one side and lush rainforest, cascading waterfalls, and deep gorges on the other.
Your next stop is the iconic Akaka Falls State Park. A little trail from the parking lot leads you to two spectacular waterfalls. The larger one plunges 425 feet from a cliff down into a stream below.
Next, take a four-mile scenic drive just off Hwy 19 to the magnificent Onomea Bay for more selfie ops, then stop for lunch at What’s Shakin’ Shack. This funky roadside stand offers delicious picnic-style food—such as salads, burgers, and wraps—all made with fresh ingredients from the owner’s farm. Try their tropical fruit smoothies; they're simply divine!
After lunch, follow Hwy 19 back to Hilo where you started your road trip two days ago. It’s still early in the afternoon, and you have several options: go to Hilo Farmers' Market for more souvenir bargains; take a walk in Liliuokalani Park (Japanese garden and ponds) and cross the footbridge to Coconut Island in Hilo Bay; or explore yet another splendid waterfall—Rainbow Falls—located just a few miles uphill from the downtown area. You can also visit the Imiloa Astronomy Center at the University of Hawai'i-Hilo for a spellbinding 3-D planetarium show and Polynesian seafarers (“The First Astronomers”) exhibit.
Stay the night at Hilo Hawaiian Hotel on historic Banyan Drive. The giant banyan trees along this street were planted decades ago by celebrities like President Franklin Roosevelt, explorer Amelia Earhart, baseball legend Babe Ruth and more. Dinner is just a short stroll from the hotel at the eclectic Hilo Bay Café. Out on the open-air terrace, lean back in your chair with a glass of wine, take in the dramatic view of Mauna Kea volcano across the bay, and enjoy feeling the balmy evening breeze on your face. What a perfect way to end your three-day road trip adventure around the Big Island of Hawai'i.
Things to Do If You Have an Extra Day in Hilo:
Hike through an extraordinary native rainforest at Kalopa State Park, and visit the Tropical Botanical Garden (located on the four-mile scenic drive), which is home to amazing collections of tropical flora and more waterfalls.
All photos were taken by the author with an Olympus Stylus TG-630 iHS digital camera and an iPhone6.
A Few Stops on Your Tour of the Big Island
© 2016 Viet Doan