The Island of Hawai’i in 72 Hours

Hawai’i’s magical Big Island has it all: impressive waterfalls, incredible aquatic life, striking volcanoes, pristine beaches, lush jungles and yes, even snow. But how to see it all in just a few days? Grab a car, a pair of good shoes and an appetite for adventure!

 DAY 1, 4:30 p.m.

Time left: 72 hours

Kona Manta Ray Night Dive

This is the #1 night snorkel and one of the top 10 scuba dives you can do… In. The. World. Book with Big Island Divers for the best experience. My first trip with them we saw at least 13 manta rays in a stunning, otherworldly show and my latest trip the quality of experience was still top-notch.

After watching the sunset (ours was interrupted by humpback whales breaching around our boat!) you’ll shuttle over to one of three spots along the coast where the manta rays are known to feed on krill attracted to the dive lights. The rays didn’t make an appearance my second trip (which is rare but they are wild animals, after all, which makes the experience all the more incredible) so our divemaster took us on a night dive around the reef instead, finding neat nocturnal creatures like slipper lobster, undulated and yellow moray eels, octopus and scorpion fish. Snorkelers on the surface were also treated to frenzied flurries of silvery a’hole’hole fish.

Stay the night in Kailua-Kona so you can get an early start. (The King Kamehameha Marriott Beach Hotel is a great place to stay in a central location.)

DAY 2, 8 a.m.

Time left: 56 hours

Today, drive south along the coast from Kona toward Volcanoes National Park. You’ll pass the turnoff for the southernmost point in the United States, appropriately named South Point.

Punalu’u Black Sand Beach 

After about an hour, you’ll arrive at one of Hawai’i’s most popular beaches, Punalu’u Black Sand Beach. It’s an idyllic pitstop for those making the coastal drive between Kailua-Kona and Volcano. There’s plenty of picnic tables (grab sandwiches and taro sweetbread at nearby Punalu’u Sweetbread Company or fixings from Hana Hou bakery) and a smattering of shady palm trees along the edge of the basalt lava sand that are perfect for hammocks. Though swimming isn’t ideal here, this beach abounds with honu, or Hawaiian green sea turtles (keep your distance; touching is illegal!) taking naps in the warm black sand or feeding just offshore.

Volcanoes National Park

There’s so much to do in this park that it could be an entire trip of its own! I’ve been to Big Island three times, and each visit made it a point to come here. After a brief stop at the Visitor’s Center, stroll through Thurston Lava Tube. Across the street is the trailhead for the 1.2-mile (each way) trek down the switchback trail into Kilauea ‘Iki’s still-steaming solidified lava lake below (the crater erupted in a fiery explosion in 1959, but has been quiet ever since). Then, continue down the Chain of Craters road to the Holei Sea Arch.

End your day at Volcanoes National Park with dinner and a view at Volcano House followed by a stop at the Halema’uma’u Crater overlook, where you can see the fiery lava casting a steamy orange glow as the sun dips below the horizon. 

From Volcano, continue east on Mamalahoa Highway into the town of Hilo to post up for the night. 

DAY 3, 10 a.m.

Time left: 30 hours

Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden

Head north from Hilo on Old Mamalahoa Highway for nine miles to reach this oasis, where you can surround yourself with 40 acres of botanical bliss in a lush valley garden. Explore over 2,000 species of plants along with waterfalls and incredible ocean vista views as you meander along the garden’s easy-to-follow trails.

Then, hop back on Old Mamalahoa Highway and head north past the town of Pepeekeo until you reach Highway 19/Hawaii Belt Road. Get on the 220 in Honomu, which will take you west toward Akaka Falls State Park.

Akaka Falls & Kahuna Falls

It only takes a .4-mile hike to reach the overlook where this 442- foot waterfall carves a path in the steep gorge wall as it plunges into the pool below. On the way back, stop to enjoy the view of much-smaller, but equally beautiful Kahuna Falls, which is about 100-feet tall. 

Once you’ve had your fill of the falls, head south again toward Hilo. Nearby, you can also visit the 80-foot Rainbow Falls, which has a nice picnic area and earns its moniker from the almost ritual mid-morning band of colors that stretches across the waterfall. 

DAY 3, 8 p.m.

Time left: 21 hours 


To get here, take Saddle Road from Hilo until you reach the Mauna Kea Access Road.

At 14,000 feet, this now-dormant shield volcano is the highest peak in all of Hawai’i. It’s also the only place in the state where you might find snowboarders and skiers in the winter. World-renowned astronomers have been studying the night skies at the observatories on the summit here for decades, but Maunakea was also an important cultural, spiritual and archaeological site for native Hawaiians long before telescopes were built here.

Only one observatory at the top is open to public visitors, the Keck Telescopes. Please DON’T attempt to take your 2WD rental car all the way to the top. It’s a dangerous, unpaved road that doesn’t pair well with altitude sickness. You can, however, book a sunset summit tour with Mauna Kea Summit Adventures or drive up to the visitor’s center at 9,000 feet after sunset, where guides set up telescopes and resident astronomers share insight into the dark, starry skies above the island. It’ll be a chilly departure from the usual island weather, so bundle up and bring a few extra dollars to purchase hot cocoa and tea at the visitor’s center.

At the end of the night, drive back down Mauna Kea Access Road and continue west on Saddle Road to Kailua-Kona. 

DAY 4, 8 a.m.

Time left: 8 hours

Kealakekua Bay

There are plenty of great swimming and snorkeling spots up and down the Kona coast, but the easiest and arguably most beautiful is at this bay 12 miles south of Kailua-Kona where James Cook, the first European to reach the Hawaiian islands, was killed. There’s a monument there now. These days, expect to find crystal clear waters, honu, reef fish, eels and pods of spinner dolphins while snorkeling here. 

Greenwell Coffee Farms

Nearby to the bay, you can take a free walking farm tour at Greenwell Farms, where you’ll see the coffee fields and learn how Kona’s famous coffee is produced while sampling a few of Greenwell’s coffee products.

End the trip with refreshments on tap and tasty pizza at Kona Brewing Company before heading to the airport with full bellies and a few hours to spare! 

-The Wandering Alligator

Not ready to leave paradise? Hop over to Mo’orea, another Polynesian treasure with striking features and sparkling seas that will leave you breathless.

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