Explore Big Island by Region
There is much debate about how to split up an island like the Big Island of Hawaii by region so we can describe it on a website such as this. Why the controversy you ask? Well, Hawaii (the 'Big Island'), like all the Hawaiian islands, is part of a county politically divided into several districts, clockwise: South Kohala, North Kohala, Hamakua, North Hilo, South Hilo, Puna, Kau, South Kona, and North Kona. Quite honestly, to the modern-day traveler, these districts serve no purpose.
The remedy then is to find a way to divide the island into segments that are easy to recognize, describe, and access via the major roads of the island. This is where much of the debate comes from. Every "expert" has their way of dissecting the island into pieces.
Our way is pretty simple, and the method we've followed online mirrors the format we've utilized in our physical guidebooks and eBooks too. Ultimately we've divided the island in a manner that helps us group attractions together so that they are easily accessible along the major routes of the island. This allows us to use our mile by mile directions to quickly and accurately describe each spot here on our website.
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Kailua-Kona Region Guide
If you're heading to the Big Island there's certainly one area you cannot miss... the Kona (West) Coast. This warm and sunny leeward area has become the resort hotspot of the island.
You'll find a vast array of ocean-side restaurants, grocery stores, shops, and activity huts promoting various water activities in the nearby Kailua Bay. Accommodations in Kailua-Kona are generally less expensive than along the Kohala gold coast (Waikoloa), and many resorts/condos are located along Ali'i Drive.
In total, the Kona Coast stretches some 40 miles along the rugged west coast of the Big Island.
Many historical sites, beautiful beaches (some well-hidden), pristine bays, and lava fields (with prominent petroglyphs) criss-cross and line the coast of this area. North Kona has some of the most gorgeous white sand beaches on the island, like Makalawena Beach and Mahai'ula Beach located at Kekaha Kai / Kona Coast State Park.
Hilo Region Guide
The most notable location on the East side of the Big Island of Hawai'i is undoubtedly Hilo town.
Hilo is the island's largest city (second largest in the state - population-wise) and also takes the title for the wettest city in the United States (70+ inches yearly). Hilo is an especially lush city with several gorgeous orchid gardens, interesting parks (the most prominent being Liliu'okalani Garden), museums, and other various attractions. Hilo borders a beautiful bay and is often cooled by sea breezes and tradewind showers.
Hilo town remains the 'back door' of sorts for access to the central part of the island and its famous Saddle Road. Rainbow Falls State Park and Wailuku River State Park, featuring the Boiling Pots area and Pe'epe'e Falls, are some of the larger natural attractions in town. Both parks are located on the same river just a few miles separate from one another.
Kohala Region Guide
On the far northwest tip of the Big Island is Kohala, one of the most diverse areas on the island. This part of the Big Island started forming around 460,000 years ago and today includes the Kohala Mountains and the Kohala Ridge Road which straddles the mountain as it makes its way northwestward.
The distinction between the windward (wet) side of the island and the leeward (dry) side couldn't be more clear here. Northeast Kohala is green and lush, while the southwest side of the peninsula is dry and sometimes even barren. At one time this part of the Kohala Coast, fittingly called 'North Kohala,' was a area of flourishing sugar cane plantations. Today it has become dominated by one of North America's largest privately owned ranches - the Parker Ranch.
The Kohala Coast region also includes an area called Waikoloa in 'South Kohala.' Some call this area the gold coast because of the many luxury resorts that have been engraved into ancient lava flows in this area. One of the most beautiful beaches on the island, Hapuna Beach, is also located along this stretch.
North Hamakua Region Guide
On the North Coast of the Big Island lies the Hamakua coast, one of the most beautiful stretches on the entire island.
Rainwater from the northern flanks of Mauna Kea along with snow from the summit of the great mountain flows down in countless streams along this part of the Big Island. The result is a mecca of stunning waterfalls and valleys. One such amazing falls are Akaka Falls and its surrounding State Park.
The main belt Highway (Highway 19) runs along the coast as the fastest route between Hilo and Kailua-Kona. Highway 19 often flirts with its predecessor, the Old Mamalahoa Highway, on which some amazing places and views can be found. The popular Four Mile Scenic Route is one such route off the main highway.
Today the North (Hamakua) Coast begins at the entrance to Waipio Valley, at the end of the Kohala region, a once flourishing indigenous Hawaiian community, and ends at the outskirts of the Hilo region on the east side of the island.
Puna Region Guide
East and south of Hilo is the Puna district and the funky little town of Pahoa (often called Hawai'i's outlaw town).
This region is a diverse area of rain forests, lava fields, and rugged coastline.
One of the major attractions in Puna is the Lava Tree State Park. In 1790 a lava flow passed through a forest of ohia trees, and today the molds of these trees are all that remain; it's a unique attraction to visit.
South Kau Region Guide
South Hawai'i is one of the quietest areas of the Big Island. Here you'll find no large hotels or resorts, no major golf courses, and no real push for tourism.
It's wild country out here. So what makes it worth exploring? How about some unique beaches for starters.
The southern portion of the Big Island is home to two of the most unique beaches in the state, Papakolea (Green Sand) Beach to the northeast of South Point, and Punalu'u (Black Sand) Beach Park off the Hawai'i Belt Road (Highway 11).
Volcano Region Guide
If there's one single hot-spot on the island (no pun intended) for visitors then it's definitely the Volcano area. The area, is of course, most famous for Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park (HVNP).
The most commonly asked question is always... "Will I get to see lava?" You might and you might not, it's really just the luck of the draw. Most of the lava traverses from Kilauea into the ocean via underground lava tubes (see Nahuku Thurston Lava tube for a look into an ancient tube). When surface flows do break out, you can usually get pretty close to them, safety permitting.
We honestly believe one of the biggest mistakes visitors make is that they do not devote enough time to the HVNP area. We highly encourage you to allow at least two whole days to this area, preferably starting from Hilo or another nearby town (like Volcano Village) each day.
Saddle Road Region Guide
A visit from the Hilo region to the Kona region (or Kona to Hilo) of the Big Island is a must on your visit. To do so you must drive the Saddle, a road that connects the east and west sides of the island passing between the island's two largest mountains, Mauna Loa (13,680 feet) and Mauna Kea (13,796 feet). The past few years there have been tremendous improvements to this entire area.
Today Saddle Road provides the only access to the Army Base, residential areas of Waikiki Ranch, Mauna Kea State Recreation Area, portions of Parker Ranch (mostly located in the Kohala Region), Kilohana Girl Scout Camp, Kaumana City, and Kaumana Caves County Park.